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 choice 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 you will discover the best van for camper conversion.
I'm Shane, I've been teaching people to convert campervans for many years, I'm the van conversion instructor at Udemy, author of The Van Conversion Newsletter, and the proud owner of a beautiful self-build campervan called Beans. So let's jump in and have a look at the best van for camper conversion!
Note: Did you know that you can get a free electrical wiring diagram by signing up to The Van Conversion Newsletter 🙂
Legal & Insurance Requirements
Before launching into your van research, there are a few admin things to think about first. Notably, it's important that you check the legal and insurance requirements in your country.
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 school bus, 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
Imagine the heartbreak if you bought a van only to find that you weren't able to convert it...
So before doing anything, do this:
Look up the legal regulations / conversion standards for your country (a quick Google search should sort you out!)
Research the requirements of the campervan insurers in your area, ring them up if there is any doubt as to their requirements.
Here's a horror story…
In Ireland, the campervan insurers require 'bodily access' between the cab and back of the van. Well, naively, I had finished my van conversion without consulting a single insurer! During the build, I had installed the kitchen unit across the front of the van, blocking access to the cab. So, I got declined insurance by EVERY insurer... I ended up having to approach 'Insurance Ireland', a government body to help me get insurance. I ended up paying nearly three times the price for my insurance! Learn from my mistakes, and do your research first.
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.
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.
I would suggest writing out a list of all the high-level requirements you have for your 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 / type of van you will need.
Here is a checklist of everything you could ever want in a van conversion. Which of these do you want, and which can you live without? Think about how much room each item will take up.
☐ Spare wheel carrier
☐ Exterior ladder
☐ Roof rack
☐ Roof vent
☐ Bike rack
☐ Solar panels
☐ Leisure batteries
☐ Split charger
☐ Shore power
☐ LED lights
☐ Switch panel
☐ Movie projector
☐ Air conditioning
☐ Swivel cab seats
☐ Sound deadening material
☐ Water heater
☐ Indoor / outdoor shower
☐ Fresh water tank
☐ Waste water tank
☐ LPG tank
☐ Heater (LPG / Diesel)
☐ Kitchen unit
☐ Storage (eg. wardrobe, overhead, bulkhead)
☐ Art on the wall
☐ Space to walk around
And there's probably a lot more that could be added.
Having a clear idea in your head about what you want in your campervan will give you an indication of the type of van you need to buy.
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 want to spend half the cost of the van on the conversion itself. So, if you spend €10,000 on your van, you should strive to cap your conversion spend to around €5000. This is due to the depreciation of the value of the van as you clock up the miles.
Determining your build cost:
To determine the estimated build cost make a list of all the things you require in the campervan and price them. Then, whatever the total amount comes to, add on 30% wiggle room. That is the spend on your van conversion. Here is my supplies list.
Building your 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. This can easily add another couple thousand to the total cost.
Buying your van
There are three options of where to purchase your van from:
Used car 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 long time. No inheriting other people's problems.
If instead you chose to buy your van online or from a used car dealership, make sure to do your due diligence!
I'm going to let you in on a secret…
It is better to spend a bit more money up front buying a van that is in good condition rather than one of questionable quality. I spent €7000 on a 2012 Ford Transit with a fair bit of wear and tear and a lot of miles on the clock. In the four years since, I have spent over €10,000 in maintenance. In contrast I have three separate friends who bought vans around the same time, they each spent around €11,000 and they have spent practically nothing on repairs.
On the flip-side, my Glaswegian friend (who was broken into twice) spent a meagre £3,000 on his van. Within a year it was in such disrepair that he gave up on his vanlife dreams and ditched the van. The poor lad had a tough time of it…
So don't cheap out at the beginning. Spend a bit more money on your base van and enjoy it for years to come!
Due diligence checklist:
Check the VIN number on AutoCheck
Check if there is any finance on the vehicle
Be sure to get a mechanic / engineer to check it out before you head out.
Ask if the logbook and service history is available - check that the van has been looked after.
How many previous owners were there?
What was the van used for?
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)
Make sure you check out this article on the 13 Questions to Ask Before You Buy a Used Van.
Choosing your van
Now that you've thought through your requirements and budget, let's discover which van is best for your camper conversion!
I have provided a spec sheet below of the most popular vans for camper conversions. This is based on the 2014 L3H3 model of each van. This should help demystify the selection process!
My top pick is the Mercedes Sprinter (despite owning a Ford Transit), which consistently ranks first in the FN50 van reliability survey.
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 / SWB), medium (L2 / MWB), long (L3 / LWB), or jumbo (L4 / XLWB). Similarly, its height can be low roof (H1), medium roof (H2), or high roof (H3). My van is a long wheel-base, high-roof Ford Transit (L3H3). If you plan on spending any length of time in your van, I would suggest you seek out a high roof with at least a medium wheelbase.
Lifespan of a panel van:
Data from a European Commission report indicates that the expected lifetime mileage for a commercial van is 224,000 km. The average age of retirement for a commercial van is 13 years.
Whilst panel vans are the most popular vehicles for van conversions, there are some other vehicles that can be used - so let’s explore those!
A throwback to the 50's and 60's, the Volkswagen T1, T2, and T3 are probably the best known of the classic-style campervans. This style of van is iconic and intrinsically linked to vagabond-hippy-van-travelling. Known for their vivid colours, this van is sure to draw some admiring looks.
Classic vans frequently come with pop tops which give a lot of extra room for sleeping; indeed they often come pre-converted. There's a huge community around them for support and even social gatherings.
However, for all their good looks, there are more than a few downsides…
Classic vans are hard to come by (and expensive to buy when you find one). Upkeep can be very expensive as parts are rare and they break down often. Due to their age, they are very unsafe vehicles to drive (in case of a crash). Finally, these vans are pretty much anti-stealth; everyone will know you're a camper.
Though a little cramped for full-time living, small vans can be a great choice for weekend warriors. They can still fit a bed and stove!
The most popular small vans for conversion are the VW Transport, Renault Traffic, Peugeot Expert, and Ford Transit Custom. Some people even convert extra-small vans like the VW Caddy and Citroen Berlingo!
Motorhome / RV
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, motorhomes were typically pre-built by professional companies. For many people, buying a pre-built motorhome is the best bet due to the simplicity.
Buying a pre-built motorhome can be a great option, and not one to rule out right away. Second hand motorhomes frequently have low mileage on the clock, they come pre-built, and can often be bought at quite a good price. You also don't have to deal with the process of re-registering the van as a campervan.
However older models are frequently upholstered to look like your granny's house; sun-aged decor, awful lino and raw 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.
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.
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.
Bus / Coach
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 unbelievable and they let in lots of light. When I travelled Norway with my van I came across a group of 30 old rockers who were in a convoy of converted coaches. It was one of the coolest things I’ve seen!
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.
Finally, there are Action Mobils. The campervan of your dreams. I’ll take two please.
If you're itching to get stuck into Vanlife but don't have the don't the time or motivation to build out a whole conversion yourself, you could use a camper conversion company like FAB in the UK who build affordable van conversions to your specifications.
No matter which van you choose to purchase, I have no doubt that you will LOVE the conversion process. Building a campervan has been one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. I live in my van full-time, working remotely and adventuring along the way. Building a campervan is super fun, you get awesome DIY skills, and you might even be able to sell it for a profit at the end!
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.
It has 400W of solar power, a split-charge relay, shore power, running water, huge batteries, an LPG heater, a large fridge and kitchen area, a comfy bed and large wardrobe. It has a terrarium full of plants and even has a home cinema with a projector and pull-down projector screen! It has turned out beautifully and has been a great travel companion.
Are there you have it! The 11 Best Vans For Camper Conversion. After buying your van, an essential first step will be setting up a good project management structure. You will also want to plan and design your campervan layout. Don't forget to subscribe to The Van Conversion Newsletter for everything you need to get started with your own van conversion.
If you're converting a van but unsure of how to do it, you could also check out the Van Conversion Course on Udemy. In the course, you'll learn directly from me how to convert a van into your dream home - no prior experience needed!
Until next time,