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What is the best van for a camper conversion?

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What is the best van for a camper conversion?

The best van for a camper conversion will vary depending on your requirements. If you are planning to live in your van full-time, then a Sprinter might be the best choice. In comparison, if you plan on spending weekends away in a hot country, a small VW Transporter might be more suitable. Considering how you will use your campervan will help you decide what make and model of van to pick.

Key considerations

Choosing the best van for a camper conversion can be answered by thinking about a few different questions:

  • What length of trip do you plan on taking in your van?
  • What activities do you plan on doing whilst away (i.e. how much storage do you need)?
  • How many people will be using the van?
  • What are your prerequisites for your camper van?

You will need a very different van for your camper conversion if you’re planning on living in it full-time vs if you’re just using it for the odd weekend away. An activity-mad weekend warrior who needs to fit surf boards, road bikes and climbing gear will need a much bigger van than a more casual hiker and runner. If you have a family or 3 or more, you will need more room than if there’s just 1 or 2 of you. Including certain features such as a shower, toilet and big seating area will also impact the size of van you will need.

Thinking about these influencing factors should help you work out the size of van to pick for your van conversion. If you are struggling to weigh up all of your options and decide on the right size van for your build, we have created an online van layout configurator which can help you decide! After you answer some questions it will suggest a layout based on your requirements.

Once you have decided on the size you need, then you will just need to pick a van! Below we detail some of the best vans for each size of camper van conversion you might be planning.

Best make and model van for each size camper

Large vans

Large vans are the best option for full-time van dwellers. They’re big enough to include features such as a big fixed bed with lots of storage space and a shower and toilet cubicle. 

Our large van of choice is the Mercedes Sprinter. A LWB Mercedes Sprinter has internal dimensions of 1.7m x 4.3m, giving you loads of room for anything you might want to include: a fixed double bed, a shower and toilet, storage for bikes, surf boards and other outdoor gear. Additionally, most people can stand up inside a Sprinter, making them the obvious choice for someone planning to spend a lot of time in their van.

We personally chose a Mercedes Sprinter for our van conversion as Sprinters are very reliable vehicles. Most will see their mileage climbing well into the hundreds of thousands, which is exactly what you want if you’re going to invest a lot of time and money in converting a van into a little home! Most courier vans and ambulances are Sprinters, which shows just how reliable they are. These ex-fleet vehicles are serviced regularly and looked after, so can be a good option for a second hand van.

Our Mercedes Sprinter van conversion @climbingvan

Another good option for a large van is a VW Crafter. These are very similar to Sprinters – they actually have exactly the same body, with a slightly different engine. They are also very reliable vehicles.

The Iveco Daily is one of the biggest vans available, with the LWB having internal load area dimensions of 1.8m x 4.5m. Iveco are a van and truck specialist, so their vans are well made and pretty reliable, with a lot of long haul couriers using them as their go to van.

Other options for large vans are the XLWB Citroen Relay, the XLWB Fiat Ducato and the XLWB Peugeot Boxer which are all slightly smaller than the Sprinter but slightly wider, with internal dimensions of 1.9m x 4m. These also taper in less at the top than the Sprinter and Crafter, so are a good option if you’re planning on sleeping across the van as it gives you a bit more room.

If you’re worried about getting a large van because you’re concerned you won’t be able to park it or will struggle to drive it, don’t worry. We have never had any issues parking at remote climbing areas or getting down tiny country lanes in our LWB Sprinter! Consider installing a rear parking camera, as this along with the side mirrors provides plenty of visibility making it easy to drive and park.

@vandelafemmes‘ Fiat Ducato van conversion

Medium vans

Medium vans are a more practical version of the somewhat barge-like larger vans. They still provide enough room for almost everything other than a bathroom, and usually tend to have enough internal height to allow you to stand up. 

The classic choice for a medium van is the Ford Transit. Transits are well established as a good, dependable van and come without the premium price tag of a Mercedes or a VW. The Ford Transit is the most common van in the UK. So, if anything goes wrong, it should be a fairly quick fix as the parts are commonly available. The MWB (medium wheel base) Transit has internal dimensions of 1.6m x 3m, and the LWB has internal dimensions of 1.6m x 3.4m.

@_fordfahren‘s Ford Transit van conversion

Other common medium size vans are the Renault Master, the Vauxhall Movano, the Citroen Relay, the Fiat Ducato, and the Peugeot BoxerThese are all available in both the MWB and LWB versions. These all have an internal load area length of around 3m for the MWB and 3.7m for the LWB, with a width of 1.8-1.9m depending on. the make and model.

If you want to go for something a bit different and like the idea of having lots of natural light from big, clear windows, the LDV Convoy minibus is a great unique choice for a medium size van. They have internal dimensions of approximately 1.7m x 3.2m. It’s worth noting that lots of big windows in ex-minibuses do mean it’s much harder to keep heat in your van during the winter, and as the Convoy’s are all quite old, they may have a higher chance of breaking down and being expensive to fix with less common parts.

If you’re based in the US, the RAM Promaster is a popular vehicle for a medium size build.

@jordanbentley__‘s Vauxhall Movano van conversion

Small vans

The essential tool of a weekend warrior, small vans are big enough for a surfboard, a bike and a bed. There’s usually enough room to squeeze in a compact kitchen, providing hot drinks after chilly adventures.

The VW Transporter is a very popular small van, however they do come with a premium ‘VW’ price tag. You have a choice from the T1, T2 and T3 (the different generations of retro style Transporters), and the newer T4, T5 and T6.

Whilst the look of the retro style Transporters is very desirable, it’s worth remembering that these vehicles are much older and so are more prone to breaking down, and may be expensive to repair. Transporters have internal dimensions of 1.7m x 2.7m.

If you’d like a little more room in your smaller van, you can choose to install a pop-top for some valuable extra room. Many Transporters come with a pop top as standard.

@avancalledfred‘s VW Transporter T5 van conversion

If you want to avoid the premium of buying a VW, the Renault Trafic, the Peugeot Expert and the Ford Transit Custom are good options for smaller vans. The Renault Trafic and the Peugeot Expert have internal dimensions of 1.6m x 2.5m and the Ford Transit Custom is slightly wider at 1.8m x 2.5m.

You can maximise space in a smaller van by making the most of features such as slide out kitchens to cook outside, roof racks to store extra gear that won’t fit inside the van, and awnings to give you some extra cover and space outside of the van.

@funwagen‘s VW Transporter T3 van conversion

Extra small vans

If you’re looking for a van to fuel microadventures on a budget (or want to leave the kids at home!) then an extra small van such as a VW Caddy or a Citroen Berlingo might be the right van for you.

A van this small will allow you enough room for a bed and maybe a very small kitchen and storage area, but you will need to mainly rely on expandable storage and utilising space outside your van. These vans are really only for people looking to use a van as somewhere to sleep, but not spend much time in as they really are very small. They are not much bigger than a car, so are very easy to park and drive. Both the Caddy and the Berlingo have internal dimensions of 1.5m x 1.8m.

@vanvistas‘ VW Caddy van conversion

What mileage and age van should you buy for your camper conversion?

Once you’ve decided which van you’d like to base your conversion on, you will need to decide how much to spend. If you have a high budget, you can purchase a newer vehicle with a lower mileage. Some van makes you will pay a premium for, and so for these vans you will have to purchase something older with a higher mileage for the same budget.

At the time of writing (Sep 2022), a 2017 LWB Sprinter with 105k miles on the clock is £17,000. In comparison, an XLWB Ford Transit of the same age and mileage is £14,500. So, there’s a 17% premium for the Sprinter. This is because Sprinters typically have a very high lifetime mileage, so although you’ll pay more upfront, you will likely find that the Sprinter outlasts the Transit.

Van mileage

It’s important to remember a van will typically reach a much higher mileage over its lifespan than a car, so where a car with over 100K miles on the clock may be considered old, a van with the same mileage is likely to keep going for quite some time. A diesel van will typically have a 30% longer lifetime mileage than a petrol car.

Whilst the average mileage a van will reach in its lifetime is 140K miles, the data is heavily skewed by scrappage schemes encouraging van owners to trade in older vehicles to purchase new ones. However, over 50% of vans have a lifetime mileage between 140-250K, and a quick search on Autotrader brings up second-hand vans with over 300K miles on the clock!

Ultimately, most people will retire their vehicle once it becomes more expensive to mend it than the value of the vehicle, but for your home on wheels, the value of the vehicle will be much higher than an empty panel van. That means you should be able to keep it on the road for much longer than the average, it may just become more expensive as the mileage increases and faults occur more frequently.

Consider carrying out a mileage history check prior to purchasing a new van. This can highlight discrepancies between the information you see online and reality. By using a vehicle registration number, you can find out:

  • Confirmed vehicle mileage
  • Outstanding finance
  • Theft & write off history

Car Veto are a reliable vehicle history provider, who partner with well-known automotive brands such as the Retail Motor Industry (RMI), British Vehicle Rental Leasing Association (BVRLA), and the DVLA to provide this information.

Van age

The older a van is, the higher the chance of complications. Additionally, a newer vehicle will typically have a longer lifetime mileage than an older model of the same van. A van manufactured in 2012 will typically have a 45% longer lifetime mileage than a van manufactured in 2007. Older vehicles also tend to be more prone to rust issues due to lack of galvanisation and other protective measures, whereas some newer vehicles are galvanised to prevent rusting (such as the VW T5 and the 2013 Mercedes Sprinter).

lifetime mileage of diesel vans european commission data 2015

Data from the Improvements to the definition of lifetime mileage of light duty vehicles – European Commission 2015 report

In our 2020/21 Van Conversion Survey, 49% of self-build van converters had purchased a vehicle with over 100K miles on the clock. The data shows that people typically buy a van with a mileage between 50K and 125K, and a van between six and 13 years old.

climbingvan van conversion survey mileage of van age of van

Euro 6 vans

The other aspect to consider when looking at the age of a vehicle to use for your camper conversion is whether or not it’s Euro 6. Euro 6 is a standard introduced by the European Commission to regulate the level of pollutants released by vehicles engines. The emission standards specify the level of nitrogen oxide emitted from a diesel engine has a limit of 80mg/km and a limit of 60mg/km for petrol engines.

Euro 6 engines use new technologies to lower the emissions of the vehicle. If your van uses the Selective Catalytic Reduction (SCR) method, you will need to top up a solution called AdBlue every couple of thousand miles. Euro 6 vehicles have an increased fuel economy, so you will also achieve a higher mpg from your vehicle. They are also exempt from any low emission zones and diesel taxes due to the reduced amount of carbon dioxide they produce. It’s worth considering looking for a Euro 6 van if you live in a city where a diesel tax may be introduced in the future.

All vans manufacturered after September 2016 will be Euro 6 compliant. Additionally, some older vans may also be Euro 6, so it’s worth checking on a case by case basis before you purchase a van. It’s important to note Euro 6 vans have a smart alternator and regenerative braking, which means if you want to charge your leisure batteries as you drive, you will need to use a battery to battery charger rather than a standard voltage sensing relay.

Electric vehicles

Electric vehicles are becoming much more popular, and with many people looking to live a more sustainable lifestyle and reduce their carbon footprint, the idea of an electric van may seem appealing. However, electric vans are a relatively new concept, and it’s only very small vans such as the Nissan eNV200 that have been available in electric models for the past few years.

A couple of larger electric vans have become available recently such as the Renault Master ZE. However, the battery is only capable of driving 75 miles before recharging, and it takes six hours to fully recharge the battery. This makes the feasibility of using this type of vehicle pretty unrealistic.

For more information about electric vans, have a read of our article: Electric campervans – should your next camper be an EV?

How much should you spend on a van for your camper conversion?

Looking at the second hand van market can be a bit of a minefield, with so many different factors affecting price. You should decide on your vehicle budget by first considering what your overall budget is. Generally if you’re planning to spend quite a lot on your build, you should probably do so on a van that costs more than £500, so the time and money you are investing isn’t spent on a vehicle with a short lifespan. Equally, if you only have a small budget, you will need to balance the cost of your vehicle with making sure you have enough left over to complete your conversion. On average, people spend around 60% of their total budget on the base vehicle, so this is a useful rule of thumb to keep in mind when calculating your vehicle.

Climbingvan 2020 Van Conversion Survey Effect of age and mileage on the cost of a second hand van graph chart

How to convert a campervan

Want to know exactly how to convert a campervan? Our 331 page bestselling book, The Van Conversion Bible, covers all aspect of a van conversion, from planning your layout to a step-by-step build guide.

The Van Conversion Bible

The Van Conversion Bible

Our 331 page bestseller explains exactly how to convert a campervan

4.9/5 (576 reviews)
4.9/5

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10 Responses

  1. Hi Charlie and Dale, firstly, love the website and learning so much ! Just an assumption but was your conversion an ex DHL ? I ask because ours is. If so, did you do any mods to get around the auto door locking, alarm (and motion/tow sensors) and speed limiter (through ECU?). Gary & Shelley

    1. Hi Gary & Shelley, yes it is! We’ve just learn to live with the auto door locking and treat it as a safety feature (so we don’t forget) haha! Once you’ve locked your keys in the van once, you never will again 😉 sorry that’s not more helpful!

  2. Hi What’s the biggest van that will go under the majority of height restrictions in UK car parks, maybe with some solar on the roof and a fan

    Many thanks

  3. Hi Charlie & Dale, i am embarking on a v.similar journey to you guys. The DHL vans i am looking at have the jump seat in the cabin (not the 2x passenger seatbench). Did you convert yours or did you buy it like that? i am wondering how much of a job it would be to convert the seats. thanks!

    1. Hi James, yes ours started off with the single driver seat and small fold down deeply uncomfortable seat. It was pretty easy to add either a bench or single seat as thankfully the holes required to mount a new seat where already present, they were just covered by small plastic glands. Hopefully, yours is the same!

  4. Hi Charlie & Dale, fantastic website and YouTube videos! Extremely useful resources, we shall buy the book too! Can you recall roughly what the mileage was on your Sprinter at the time you bought it? Were you particular about finding a van that had not exceeded a certain mileage, or was that not a particular concern?
    Also, do you know whether – being a Mercedes – the cost of parts for and servicing of a Sprinter comes at a premium compared with the likes of Peugeot, Ford, Fiat etc?
    Many thanks in advance! Chris & Melissa

    1. Hi Chris & Melissa,
      Glad to hear you’ve found our website helpful! So we bought our sprinter on 110,000 miles and added another 35,000 to it in the past 3 years, and touch wood we haven’t had any problems. We do try to keep on top of services and have replaced some worn parts like the poor handbrake (a common sprinter fault) and the breaks but the cost hasn’t been too bad. Our local mechanic has 8 sprinters of a similar age which are all on 200,000+ miles and they still prove to be reliable. Annotdotaly the Peugeot, Ford, Fiat’s are still reliable but don’t tend to achieve anywhere near the same lifetime mileage, so you need to account for this when deciding between makes. Hope this helps! 🙂

  5. I am new to this and about to buy a van. Minefield as you say. I don’t want a big van, I LOVE the sprinters. I am 5″4 and can stand up in a Merc Sprinter L1H1. I know this is all about what I want to achieve, but thoughts on the SWB Sprinter???

    1. The SWB Sprinters are fantastic as you can still park in small spots in towns/supermarkets! Just make sure you can fit everything you want in the van, plan it out carefully.

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