Car Buyer Labs

Car Buying Advice, Tips, and Reviews

One of many popular used vans for sale, a silver 2021 Nissan NV200, is shown parked next to boxes.

Everything You Need to Know Before Buying a Cargo Van to Convert Into a Camper

Today, there are many ways to enjoy time in the great outdoors, regardless of your requirements in terms of amenities, shelter, and luxury. Hardcore outdoor enthusiasts can take nothing but a sleeping bag and some tools out to the woods, build a fire, and hunt down their own food. On the other end of the spectrum, you have glamping for people who want all of the luxury of a hotel but more proximity to nature.

Then, there’s this newer trend of van life (or, as you might have seen it on social media, #VanLife). People into van life turn vans into mini mobile homes decked out with sleeping quarters, little kitchens, storage compartments, and sometimes even a toilet and shower. Staying at a gorgeous natural landmark in one of these vans gives you extra protection against the elements while sparing you the price of a cabin. Today, van life enthusiasts everywhere look for used vans for sale, hoping to convert these large vehicles into essentially scaled-down RVs.

Some of the most popular models are the Chevy Express, the GMC Savana, and the Ford Transit – to name a few. If you are thinking of trying your hand at van life, there are some things to consider before purchasing your van of choice. You can’t simply toss a mattress and a battery-powered hot plate in the back of a cargo van and call it “converted.” (Well, you can, but you probably won’t be that excited to travel in that thing). Here is everything you need to know to prepare for your van-to-camper conversion, and be sure you buy the right van.

Is This for Long Trips or Just Weekend Getaways?

One of the largest determining factors in the van you purchase should be just how dedicated you are to van life. Are you looking for something for the occasional weekend camping trip? Or do you plan on working remotely (or not working at all) and seeing the whole country in this van, living in it for weeks or months on end? Those are two very different scenarios that call for two very different vans. Maybe you’re looking to give up your apartment and reside inside your camper for a while. Naturally, you’ll have higher demands than someone who just wants to sleep beside a lake once a month.

A silver 2023 Ram ProMaster is shown parked near a city.

If You Have Long Trips (Or Residency) In Mind…

If you plan on traveling for extended periods or even living in your camper, you will want a large van. The Dodge Ram ProMaster and Mercedes Sprinter are popular options. It’s important that you can stand up completely in it because you want to be able to walk inside your camper if it’s your part-time home. Having to either squat down to be inside or go outside if you want to stand up will get old – fast. Pro tip: You’ll lose nearly half a foot to insulation and flooring. Keep that in mind when finding a van that’s tall enough to walk around in.

You’ll also want to ensure the inside is large enough for a bed you could see yourself sleeping in for extended periods. One little twin bed might be fine for occasional camping trips, but if you’ll be sleeping in there for weeks or months on end, you’ll want to be comfortable. You also might want to consider getting a van with space for a small composting toilet and a shower. You will need to consult a plumber and a mechanic on this one – it is not recommended you DIY these elements of your camper unless you’re a certified plumber/mechanic.

Be sure you have enough room for storage, too. You might want to sit down and make a list of all the items you need regularly – think of things that come up daily, weekly, and even monthly. Make sure you have the storage space to fit enough supplies if you’ll be in your camper for weeks on end.

If You’re Just Looking for a Weekend Camper…

If you are just looking for a camper van for the occasional weekend getaway, you can make do with a smaller van. The Nissan NV 200 or the Ram ProMaster City are good choices. You’ll likely be going to a campground where there are toilets and showers. And even if you aren’t, what’s a genuine camping trip without skipping a shower or two? Because you can get a smaller van, this also means you can get one with better mileage than a large van would have. Small vans are great for weekend explorers who want to travel far but don’t plan on staying away long. They combine good fuel efficiency with the easy maneuverability of a car.

A white 2023 Ram ProMaster is shown parked with its rear door open.

Know Your TOTAL Budget Before You Begin

By total, we mean the price of the vehicle itself and then how much it will take to do the conversion. Some people make the mistake of finding the perfect van but leaving almost nothing for the conversion. That mistake can be a big one, seeing as conversion costs can range anywhere from $5,000 for super simple ones to $100,000 for luxury professional ones. Pro tip: most cargo vans don’t have windows, so you’ll likely be adding these (unless you don’t mind a totally dark interior). Adding windows is pricey.

Create a Blueprint Before You Build

Create a detailed blueprint of the interior of your camper in advance. It’s important to know the exact measurements of everything so you don’t find that the bed actually cuts into where the stove was supposed to be, or the toilet is too close to the driver’s seat.

Don’t Forget the Drive-Centric Features

It’s common to get so excited about the camping part of your experience that you forget you do need to drive this thing. So consider the driving experience features you want in your van. Do you want advanced driver assist features? All-wheel drive so you can explore more terrain or drive in extreme weather? Do you want Wi-Fi hotspot compatibility? A large touchscreen? When you spend extended hours behind the wheel, these features will make a difference.

Plan, Plan, and Plan Some More So You Can Fully Enjoy Your #VanLife

Van life can be so much fun. It lets you bring your accommodations with you. Plus, vans are so much easier to drive than RVs, so much cheaper to park overnight, and get much better gas mileage. If you have always wanted to experience the freedom of exploring the country or hitting more national parks without paying for hotels or AirBnbs, a great camper van is the way to do it.

Like many trends, van life has attracted people who have been all about enthusiasm and not about planning. It is important to do your research and planning before buying the van you plan on converting into a camper because the transition is not easy or cheap. Once you’ve figured out what sort of experience you’re looking for out of your van, what your budget is, and what you want inside of it, you can start your DIY process. It will be laborious, but it will also be worth it. Enjoy your slumber out under the stars, and happy #VanLife!