**** 2015 Update: I bought an Astro van!! Check it out Van to Camper Conversion.
Growing up in the US, we are taught early on to go to college, get a degree, buy a house and start a family. I somewhat followed that path for many years, but I really didn’t like the idea of settling down in a house for the next 20-30 years with a mortgage. Last year, I started planning a change in my life where I’ll be living in a camper van and traveling US state by state.
In order to achieve this travel dream of mine, I need to figure out a few important details: How will I make money? What will I eat? How will I communicate with friends, family and my blog readers? What is the best choice of camper for my needs?
Living in a Camper Van and Choosing Which Type Is Best for You?
Extended travel in small camper vans could be a real test on your sanity or it could be the best experience of your life. Before you take the leap into the full-time camper lifestyle, you should consider asking yourself a few questions before beginning a search for used camper vans.
- Some Questions You Should Think About:
- Are you traveling alone, with a significant other or kids?
- How much sleeping area do you need?
- How many travel spots do you require with seatbelts?
- Is stealth important? Overnight parking without detection.
- Is fuel economy a big concern?
- Are you handy with tools or can you get help?
- Will you want A/C?
- Do you plan to live in RV Parks or on the street or free land?
- What’s your budget? $2,000 – $5,000 – $20,000
- Is Mobility important? Will you be on pavement, dirt roads or deep in a forest?
Those are some of the questions you may want to think about when choosing which Van size is best for you.
The Class B Camper Van (17-21 feet long) – Fully Self-Contained
The Class B camper van gives you everything you would need in an RV but in a very small package. They are build on an extended van chassis and typically include the following features below.
- Class B Camper Van Features:
- Sleeping for 2-4 (sleeper sofa & over-cab bed or dinette area bed)
- Roof Mounted A/C
- Bathroom with toilet, shower and small tub
- Gas stove top
- Patio Awning
- Propane Tank
- Swivel Captain’s Chairs
- Hot water heater
- Water pump – Fresh water storage
- House Battery – To Run lights/gadgets
- Water & Power hookups – when at RV Parks
As you can see, the Class B RV has plenty of features and could be ready to go traveling on the day you purchase it. Of course, you would want to check it over, do some maintenance and make it your own.
After looking at that list of features, the Class B camper van looks like it should be the best. Well, how about we run down the Pro and Cons.
Pro and Cons of Buying a Used Class B Camper Van
|Pros - Class B Camper Van||Cons - Class B Camper Van|
|Loaded with features - Most comfortable option.||Very heavy. Could get stuck easily.|
|Can tow a small trailer.||Difficult to find and they are more expensive.|
|Has water and power hookups.||Learning curve - plumbing, electric..etc.|
|Can run A/C at RV parks or with generator.||Poor-Fair gas mileage|
|Good headroom, most people can stand up straight.|
|Fuel Economy - Average 8 - 14 mpg based on weight.|
|Stealth - stands out but considered vacation vehicle.|
|Ready to roll camping.|
|Easy to drive.|
In a perfect scenario, the Class B camper van would be my choice due to comfort, convenience and the fact that it is ready to travel and camp the day you buy it. Unless it needs some maintenance or cleaning. My issue with the Class B is that the gas mileage is not great, they are hard to find in my area and they tend to be expensive when working properly.
How to Make the Class B Camper Van Better
All three of these camper vans have their pros and cons but to help make this camper van better we can do some of the following:
- Add a Solar System – Batteries – Solar Panels – Solar Charge Controller
- Add Blackout Curtains or Shades – close the curtains or pop up the shades for extra privacy at night. I’ve seen some people use Reflectix Insulation, trimmed to window size, for blackout shades.
- Upgrade the lights to RV LED Lights – When you’re away for shore power and depending on solar, it’s a good idea to have low wattage LED lights to considerably cut battery usage.
You gotta love getting free power from the big burning ball in the sky.
Full-Size Cargo Van – Conversion Van – Standard Passenger Van
When considering a Full-Size Van for your camper living lifestyle, you have three choices (all of which are between 17-20 feet long):
- Cargo Van – Meant to haul items or to be used as a work van and comes with the back empty (unless you get it used with shelves for tool storage) – This option requires very little demolition and allows you to begin building your home right away, but be prepared to spend many hours building and organizing your home.
- Conversion Van – Typically, this van will comes with two bench seats. The furthest back bench seat may also convert into a bed. They will either have an entertainment center above the cab or skylights. For those looking for an easy route, you could pull out the middle bench, use the bench in the back as your bed, get an ice chest or a small refrigerator, buy some cheap shelving from Walmart or IKEA and be ready to go in a weekend.
- Standard Passenger Van – This option could require the most work if you were to build it right. First you would need to remove 2-3 bench seats, then you have the option to leave the stock interior as is, or gut the whole passenger area until it’s empty like a cargo van and build your home from there.
My choice on this list would be the Full-Size Cargo Van. In my opinion, it is best to start with a clean slate and the cargo van gives you a base to build on from day 1. Don’t worry about the seats and interior, sell what you can and make this your home. If you decide to sell one day, you’re now selling a camper van which is very desirable to a small niche of people.
The Cargo van doesn’t have all the cool features we see in the list above for the Class B Camper, but with this base we can build whatever we want in there.
You may want to take measurements of the interior and sit down with pencil and paper and start mapping out ideas. Will you place the bed along the length of the van on the drivers side or will you use the entire back of the van? Will you build cabinets or just use storage bins? Maybe your handy with tools and want to build a couch that folds out to a bed to conserve space during the daytime. Will you have a sink with running water? What about a portable toilet or will you use public restrooms or the forest?
There are many questions to figure out when setting up for living in a camper full time, but the cool thing is you can start with a bed and add-on a kitchen w/cabinets, solar, a TV and whatever you want as you have time and money.
Pro and Cons of Buying a Used Cargo/Conv/Stand Van
|Pros - Cargo/Conv/Stand Van||Cons - Cargo/Conv/Stand Van|
|Fair gas mileage - depends on engine size and weight.||Not many features. You need to build in your own.|
|Can tow a small trailer.||Headroom - not much for average height to tall people.|
|Stealth - Great. Blends in well in cities.||Heavy, so could get stuck.|
|Lots of room for one person, tight for two.|
|Easy to find vans for sale.|
|Some vans come in 4X4 - increased adventure!|
|12-20 MPG - varies.|
|Low cost - Many available, lots of competition.|
|Easy to drive.|
The Full-Size Van is very flexible. It allows you to move in almost immediately with very few luxuries or you could gut the van and spend some time making it your own. For those willing to get their hands a little dirty, this could be a very inexpensive but comfortable option with decent gas mileage.
How to Make the Full-Size Van Better
- Adding a Solar System would be a huge benefit – Batteries – Solar Panels – Solar Charge Controller
- Find room for a Portable Toilet and forget about emergency trips to the gas station.
- A Mr. Heater (Space Heater) will keep you warm in cold weather.
The Minivan Camper Conversion
Could you imagine living in a minivan? I didn’t even have minivans on my radar until I saw Glenn over at ToSimply.net convert his VW Vanagon into a great small camper van. My problem with his setup is that most Vanagons and Westfalias come with very low horsepower engines and would struggle in mountainous areas.
After looking around a bit, I found that the Chevy Astro and GMC Safari minivans would make great candidates for a minivan camper conversion for a cheap price.
Like the Full-Size Van, the Astro and Safari minivans come in 3 types:
- Cargo Van (Empty – good to go)
- Conversion Van (Could have bench bed in the back with overhead TV)
- Passenger Van (2 rows of seating)
Once again, the cargo van would be the best option to make it your own, but leaving the interior intact would be easier with the conversion and passenger vans.
I’ve actually really been looking into these vans as an option to consider for my upcoming road trip. Sure they’re small, but they get better gas mileage and have enough room for a 6 foot person to sleep from driver’s seat to the back doors.
If I go with this option, I would lean more towards the cargo van as I would want to build it up with my own floor plan. It would allow me to insulate the walls, put down my desired floor and anchor my furniture to the frame.
Astro Van Interior Dimensions:
Pros and Cons of Buying a Used Astro or Safari Minivan
|Pros - Astro or Safari Minivan||Cons - Astro or Safari Minivan|
|Good on Gas: 16-22 mpg or more.||Not many features. You need to build in your own.|
|Stealth - Excellent! Blends in easily.||No headroom, or much room at all.|
|Good dependable 4.3 L V6 engine.||This is a 1 person option or 2 very close people.|
|Some minivans come in 4X4 - increased adventure!||Low clearance - pavement travel mainly unless 4X4|
|Easy to find lots of minivans for sale.|
|Priced low: Commonly $2,000-$5,000|
|The easiest of this group to drive.|
Although I focused on the Astro van and GMC Safari, there are many makes and models to choose from when selecting a minivan. As a matter of fact, the newer minivans are probably better suited for a camper conversion, but I am planning to keep the initial expenses as low as possible for my van purchase.
- Other viable Minivan Choices:
- Toyota Sienna
- Honda Odyssey
- Ford Transit
- Dodge Caravan
- How about a Prius at 40 mpg (not a minivan but an option) 🙂
The minivan really intrigues me. I actually like the smaller area compared to the Van and Class B since I really just want a place to sleep and a place to chill when the weather is bad. I hope to be out of the van exploring during the afternoons and working at coffee shops, libraries and fast food stops in the mornings.
How to Make Living in a Minivan a Better Experience
- Buy over-the-ear headphones – minivans are small, so while watching a DVD on your laptop be aware that people may hear your movie from the outside.
- Get a Portable Fan – It would be smart to at least get a small solar panel kit so you can power a fan like this while you sleep and charge the battery during the day.
What Are Your Thoughts?
When I think of traveling the country, there are two things that come to mind. Travel frugally and travel light. I don’t want some big monstrosity of an RV guzzling a gallon of gas every time I start the engine and I surely don’t need much storage. I have cut way back on all my belonging to make moving about the country easy, so my mode of transportation should be just as lightweight.
Which van would you prefer? For me, they are all about equal. I would love to have a Class B in good condition since they have everything you need and I can stand up inside, but converting a Cargo van or Minivan to my exact specs would be sweet.
What do you think? Let me know in the comments below: