These Are The Best Vans For Campervan Conversions in 2021

The first step in any campervan build is choosing which van to buy! Finding the right van is an exciting and fun process, though it can be a little daunting - this guide is here to help you out! Converting a van costs time and money, so you want to make sure that you make the right choices from the outset. Indeed, there are lots of different options to choose from. Like people, vans come in all shapes and sizes: Tall, small, wide, thin, flamboyant, stealthy, utilitarian, rickety, tough cheap, or expensive. In this article we will look at how to choose the right van for your campervan conversion. I'm Shane, van conversion instructor at Udemy, digital nomad, and proud owner of a beautiful self-build campervan called Beans. So let's jump in and have a look at the best vans to convert into campervans!

Index

Things to consider

 

Before launching into van research, there are a few things you absolutely must think about first.  I cover many of these in depth in The Van Conversion Course. Checking the following will narrow down our choices and make our selection much easier.

 
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Have you checked the legal & insurance requirements in your country?

  • Requirements: Some countries require a standing height of 6ft, some campervan insurance companies will not insure a converted schoolbus, and some regions won't tax your van if it weighs over 3.5 tonne. CHECK YOUR COUNTRY'S REQUIREMENTS FIRST. The last thing you want is to buy a vehicle only to find that you won't be able to convert it.

  • I wrote this guide on the requirements for converting a campervan in Ireland.

  • UK requirements here

  • Australian requirements here

  • Canadian requirements here

  • US requirements differ from state to state

 

What will you be using the van for?

  • Stealth: Are you a city slicker or country bumpkin? If you spend a lot of time in cities - perhaps you even work in an office (I hear lots of the Google crowd live in vans), a stealth build may be high on your priority list. I have a friend who was living in his campervan full-time in Glasgow and was broken into while sleeping - he had to make a quick getaway! If your van looks like a builder's van, you will be less likely to have a break-in or be annoyed by cops.

  • Full-time: Are you planning on living in your van full-time? You will certainly want to think about roof height! Being able to stand up tall in your van will give you better posture, and make the experience a little more comfortable. Try go for a high-roof van if you can.

  • Got a partner: Are you a solo traveller or have you got a partner? An important thing to consider is bed width and length! The last thing you want is to be stuck sleeping in fetal position having gotten lucky on a night out. Depending on which direction you will be building the bed in the van, you may want to source a wide van.

  • List your requirements: I would suggest writing out a list of all the high-level requirements you have for you van. Do you want a double bed? Do you want an oven or a shower? Do you want a bike or roof rack? Do you want an awning? Do you want a wardrobe? Answering these questions will help you figure out what size van you will need - big, or small.

  • Weather: If you're going to be travelling to cold or wet places you will likely be spending a bunch of time inside you van. Your van will need to be pretty comfortable if this is the case with room to move around and stand up inside. Indeed, if you are travelling to very cold locations you will need to insulate your van very well on the floor and roof which will detract from the standing height. Make sure to consider this - you will need to get a van with an extra-high roof.

 

What's your budget?

  • The depreciation rule: I'm not going to beat around the bush, converting a van into a campervan can cost quite a bit of money. As a rough rule of thumb, you should spend half the cost of the van on the conversion itself. So, if you spend €6000 on your van, you should strive to cap your conversion spend around €3000 on the conversion itself. This is due to the depreciation of the van as you clock up the miles.

  • Determining your budget: A handy way to determine your budget can be to make a list of all the things you require in the van and cost them. Here is my supplies list. Then, whatever that total amount comes to, add on some wiggle room and that is the spend on your van. I go through the planning and preparation process in this course.

  • Non-build costs: Building the van is one thing, but getting it on the road is another. Don't forget about the cost of road-tax, insurance, or vehicle inspection.

Buying your van

There are three primary options on where to purchase your van from: Online, used car dealerships, or van dealerships.

If you have the cash lying around, it can be nice knowing that you have a brand new van which will last you a while. No inheriting other people's problems. However, if you have chosen to buy your van online or from a used car dealership, make sure to do your due diligence.

 
 
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Due diligence checklist:

  1. Check the VIN number on AutoCheck

  2. Check if there is any finance on the vehicle

  3. Be sure to get a mechanic / engineer to check it out before you head out.

  4. Ask if the logbook and service history is available - check that the van has been looked after.

  5. How many previous owners were there?

  6. What was the van used for?

  7. What is the age and mileage like? Rough rule of thumb: go for <100,000km (Though it matters far more that the van has been well-maintained)

 

Choosing your van

There are many different types of vehicles which can be converted into a campervan. Let's have a look at the different types, makes, and models from the perspective of building a campervan and demystify the selection process!

 

The Classic

A throwback to 50's and 60's, the volkswagen westfalia is probably the best known of the classic-style campervans. This style of van is iconic and intrinsically linked to the vagabonding, hippy van-traveller. Known for their vivid colours, the vanlifer will surely stick out driving one.

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Pros: Many of these vans have pop-tops which give lots of extra room for sleeping and often the campervan is already built on the inside, meaning you can set off right away. There's also a huge community around them for support and even social gatherings.

Cons: Classic vans are old by definition and therefore more likely to breakdown. You will want to enjoying tinkering and repair work if you go for one. These vans can also be very costly to obtain - especially if they're in good nick. Similarly, due to the repair work that might be needed along the way and the fact that speciality parts may need to be imported, the cost of upkeep can also be quite high. Finally, these vans are pretty much anti-stealth; everyone will know you're a camper.

 

The Commercial Panel Van

Panel vans are mostly used by tradesman, labourers, or delivery drivers and ideal for this type of work due to the enormous amount of space in the back. They are the most popular type of vehicle for DIY campervan conversions for this reason. The first step with a panel van is usually to rip out the interior and start from scratch.

Panel van size: The size of a panel van is denoted by the letters 'L' (length) and 'H' (height). Its wheelbase can be either short (L1), medium (L2), long (L3), or jumbo (L4). Similarly, its height can be low roof (H1), medium roof (H2), or high roof (H3). My van for instance, is a long wheel-base, high-roof Ford Transit (L3H3). I would suggest vanlifers to seek out a high roof with at least a medium wheelbase.

Pros: The primary advantage of the commercial van is the huge space in the back, with the high roof versions, you should be able to stand up straight with a bit of wiggle room. With wider panel vans you should also be able to sleep width-ways. Another huge advantage to this kind of van is the diesel engine; not only is diesel cheaper, but you also get better mileage from it. Panel vans are workhorses known for their reliability. A van with a good service history is capable of hitting 500,000 miles. Finally, panel vans are also the ultimate stealth-camper. No one will suspect a white builder's van to be a tiny home!

There are hundreds of different panel vans, so lets have a look at some of the most popular.

Ford transit campervan
 

Ford Transit

  • 6'8" roof height. Lots of headspace!

  • Normally good value

  • Can be repaired by any mechanic

  • Cheap parts and maintenance

  • Square shape makes conversion easier

  • Most popular van in the world

  • Chassis is prone to rust

Mercedes/Dodge sprinter

  • 6'4" roof height

  • Very popular in vanlife community

  • 4X4 available

  • Excellent handling & powerful

  • More expensive

  • Can be more difficult and expensive to repair

  • Parts may have to come from Germany which could be slow depending where you live.

Dodge/Ram Promaster

  • 6'3" roof height.

  • Wide van, good for sleeping in

  • Best turning radius

  • Not Diesel :(

Fiat ducato

  • Square Shape

  • Fiat lover campers

  • Good handling & turning radius

  • Low fuel consumption

  • 7'1" roof height. Super high roof!

  • Sometimes gearbox can be dodgy

 

The Motorhome

The origins of the motorhome date back to 1910 when Pierce-Arrow introduced the first campervan at the Madison Square Garden auto show. Before the vanlife movement kicked off, motorhome were typically pre-built by professional companies. For many people, buying a pre-built motorhome is the best bet due to the simplicity.

Camping in Wilderness
 

Pros: The campervan is already built, so you can hit the road straight away! Not only does this save you time during the building process, but it can also be a lot cheaper too. You also don't have to deal with the process of re-registering the van as a campervan. In Ireland the process of registering as a campervan is a pain in the butt - read about it here. You can often find used motorhomes for sale with very little mileage too, as their previous owner probably only used them for a few weeks a year. These campers will have lots of space, storage, and facilities and should definately be considered!

Cons: These motorhomes tend to look like your granny's house and are often have upholstered with awful lino and thin ply. You may fancy pulling some of the interior out and doing your own job on it. Similarly, if the motorhome has been around a while it is not uncommon to find mould or wood rot. Maintenance on these vehicles can also be tricky and expensive because they are custom built.

The Alternatives

I have laid out above the most common types of vehicles used as campervans. However, there are other options for the more adventurous van-dwellers. Let's have a look at some of the more daring options.

Image by Shreena Bindra

School bus: Much like Christopher McCandless from Into The Wild, you too could live in Alaska in a school bus. They make just about the coolest van builds going. They are super spacious, come in all sorts of different lengths, and give you unlimited options for your conversion. However, parts and repair can be expensive and they don't make the best stealth builds. They are also tricky to source if you live in Europe. You should also beware that due to the vehicle classification you may need a different type of licence to be able to drive one.

Minivan: A minivan is quite a broad term, but essentially, it is a hatchback high-roofed car. I used to own a 7-seat Ford Freestar van and travelled all around the United States with it, car camping the whole way. You can buy conversion kits for this type of vehicle to get you on the road straight away. You likely won't be able to register it legally as a campervan though.

 

Luton box van: These vans are ginormous and perfectly box-shaped! They make great vans for camper conversions. Though you should beware their height for low bridges / entrances and the vehicle length for ease of parking. You should also beware that due the vehicle classification you may need a different type of licence to be able to drive one.

Coach: The most outrageous of all. RVs are very common in the United States, but you almost never see them in Europe. Buying a pre-built RV is one thing, but building one yourself is another! Some of the best and most luxurious conversions you will ever see are converted coaches. The room inside is pretty unbelievable and they let in lots of light. Needless to say, parking of any kind is a head-wrecker, and you will definitely want to check the legalities in your country for converting this type of vehicle. Similarly, you may also require a different kind of driving licence.

The off-roader: Finally, there are Action Mobils. The campervan of your dreams. This is an honourable mention more than anything.

What do I Have?

No matter which van you choose to purchase, I have no doubt that you will LOVE the process. Building a campervan was one of the best decisions that I ever made. I live in my campervan full-time, working remotely running my startup, and adventuring all along the way. Building a campervan is super fun, you get awesome DIY skills, it can be cheaper than purchasing one, it's totally custom, and you might be able to sell it for a profit. 

Beautiful campervan bed

My Campervan​​

I have a long wheelbase, high roof Ford transit (L3H3) that has stood to me wonderfully. I bought it with 120k miles on the clock (a little more than what I recommend above) and paid €6,500 for it.. It's a power-house diesel machine that I have had no problems with it. 

It has 400W of solar power, a split-charge relay, shore power, running water, an LPG heater, a large fridge and kitchen area, a comfy bed and large wardrobe. It even has a home cinema with a projector and pull-down projector screen! It's turned out beautifully and is a great travel companion.

Let me know in the comments which van you chose and why!

 

You can check out how I built my van in The Van Conversion Course and follow me on instagram for more VanLife tips & tricks.

Happy van converting :)

Shane