How to choose a base vehicle for your camper van conversion
Choosing the right base vehicle for your camper van conversion is critical to a successful build. The vehicle needs to suit your living needs, travel style and your budget too.
We’ve built a few overland vehicles over the past 15 years or so. Starting out on camping cars with roof tents, we progressed to camper vans in the last 5 years. Our first real camper van was Mowgli, a Unimog camper. We bought Mowgli ready built and did lots of work to upgrade her during the time we owned her. In readiness for our 2018 South American adventure, we’re now converting Baloo, a 4×4 Mercedes Sprinter van.
We’ve created this guide on how to choose a base vehicle for a camper van conversion to help you start off with the van. You’ll find key information here as well as links to our articles to help you plan and build your perfect camper van.
Choosing the right base vehicle for your camper van conversion
Choosing the right base vehicle for your camper van conversion is more about its size and features than its make and model. You only need to consider the elements of the van you can’t change or would cost a lot of money to change.
Here’s a list of questions to consider when choosing the type of base vehicle you need.
Am I able to drive the vehicle legally?
Since 1997 UK driving licences restrict new drivers to driving vehicles up to 3500 kg. Angela’s driving licence restricted her from driving our 7500 kg Unimog camper so she had to sit her driving test again to upgrade her licence to a C1. And it wasn’t cheap either. Make sure you know in advance if you have to upgrade your licence to avoid surprise costs and delays.
Can you insure the vehicle while you’re converting it?
The base cost of the vehicle is less than the final valuation of the converted camper van. Or at least it should be if you’ve built it well. Make sure you find insurance cover that allows for the increasing value as the conversion progresses.
Essential reading: all you need to know about insuring your camper
Where will you convert your camper van?
Where will you do most of the conversion work and can you park your van near to it? Consider the height, width and length of the base vehicle. Will it fit on your drive or in front of your garage? You’ll have some challenges if you can’t park near your tools.
What capability does your converted camper van need?
Do you intend to drive off road or will your wheels remain on black top roads? Be realistic because in generals, a 4×4 is more expensive to buy, run and maintain than a 2 wheel drive. And we’ve met fellow travellers who have circumnavigated Africa in a 2 wheel drive camper van. You only need to choose the appropriate route.
Are spare parts available for your camper van in the places you will travel?
You could choose a cracking base vehicle for your camper van conversion but you’re stuck if you can’t source spare parts where you’re traveling.
Left hand drive or right hand drive?
In some countries, it’s not possible to drive a right hand drive vehicle and you can’t take drive them across the border. Costa Rica is a good example. On balance, left hand drive is probably the better option because more countries drive on the right than the left.
What fuel type will your camper van run on?
Diesel is widely available across the world, petrol less so. Diesel engines tend to be less susceptible to lower fuel quality and easier to maintain too. It’s worth bearing this in mind before choosing a petrol vehicle.
How many people will the converted camper van sleep?
Sleeping 4 is a challenge in a small vehicle so you need to consider what layout will work for you. Consider the layout of the converted camper van to help you choose the right size vehicle.
How will you use the converted camper van?
Are you planning a long term van life? Or will you only use the camper van in fair weather for a few weekends a year. Perhaps for a few weeks at a time? The more full-time your travels, the more you need to consider what van life is like in inclement weather. For short trips, will a roof tent hit the mark so you don’t need a camper van after all. Living beside the van instead of inside it is a viable option for many.
Where do you plan to park overnight?
Are you going to use the camper van for wild camping? Or are you going to use campsites most of the time? Is stealth camping an option. Or do you want to drive through Europe using the free Aires along the way? Consider this before you decide on the type of base vehicle. A Unimog camper for example is not stealth like in any shape of form.
Do you want to access the driving cab from the living quarters?
Some base vehicles have a bulkhead between the driving cab and the living area. This means you will need to get out of the van to access the living area. Our Unimog camper was like this and we’re happy to say the Sprinter van is different. We’ll fit swivel seats to incorporate the cab into the living space.
How much storage do you need?
You need storage for the usual stuff like your clothes and pots and pans. Do you have a mountain bike,surf boards or even a motorbike? Your storage needs will have a huge impact on the size of the vehicle you need.
Do you need or want a bathroom?
A bathroom in a camper van is unnecessary. But it’s also an absolute luxury and one needing a decent amount of floor space.
Be honest with yourself when you answer these questions. Choosing a base vehicle for your camper van conversion is the first step on a long and expensive road. So getting it right is vital. Making a list of your criteria will help you decide on the right type of van you need. It will help narrow down the search when you’re ready to buy too and save you time looking at unsuitable vans.
Essential reading: Planning your camper van conversion
What types of base vehicle can you convert into a camper?
Armed with your criteria, you’re now ready to choose the type of base vehicle for your camper van conversion. In reality, the list is endless and limited only by imagination and creative use of space. Here we list some of the popular base vehicles available and the criteria they could meet.
Panel van camper conversion
Panels vans are the most popular type of vehicle for a camper conversion and there’s loads to choose from. Most courier firms use panel vans so many have a good service history but high mileage. Don’t let that put you off though. Parts tend to be widely available and are low cost.
Panel vans come in a variety of heights and lengths. A high top is great for a longer trip because you can stand up inside without banging your head. Then you have the choice of a short, medium or long wheel base so you can decide on what’s best for your needs. A short wheel base is perfect for stealth camping and easy to park but pretty small inside. For longer trips, medium to long wheel base vans tend to be best as they provide more living space. If you need more storage space and a bathroom, a long wheel base is ideal.
Minibus camper van conversion
A minibus is the same as a panel van but has windows all around and seats throughout. The extra light is great but unless they’re tinted, can reduce privacy a lot. Our Sprinter van, Baloo was a minibus. The extra windows was one of the main things that attracted us to her. We’ll tint the windows though to give us privacy without losing the benefit of the extra daylight.
Converting a bus to a camper van
Convert an old bus into a camper van and you won’t compromise too much on living space. There’s room for a bedroom or two, a large bathroom and even a kitchen and sitting room. Regardless of how tempting this is, they’re not convenient to park and are not ideal for driving down narrow lanes and high mountain passes.
Camping car conversion
A 4×4 car is a great base vehicle as a stepping stone from roof tents to a camper van. They’re small, manoeuvrable and with the right configuration give a little indoor accommodation. For the majority of the time, you still need to live beside this camper van, rather than inside it.
There are many more vehicles to choose from. From ambulances to flatbed trucks, removal vans to horse boxes. Our advice is to know your criteria before you settle on the vehicle. And once you’ve decided on base vehicle for your camper van conversion, don’t look back.
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