The idea of building a camper van started forming in my head a couple of years ago during a camping road trip we took to Voyageurs National Park in the north woods of Minnesota. Arriving at our campsite at Woodenfrog State Forest near the park in the dead of night, we were exhausted as we started setting up our tents in the chilly night air. Bumbling around in the dark, we quietly did our best to set up camp without waking up anyone sleeping nearby. And while I loved hearing the sounds of wolves howling in the distance as we scurried about, it felt decidedly eerie to not be able to see what was around us in the dark, dense woods. As I was falling asleep that night I started thinking that there had to be a better way for us to be able to quickly and comfortably camp on the long road trips we like to take.
And while I knew we didn’t want a RV based on both our earlier trip in a Cruise America Rental RV and a desire to be able to easily maneuver all kinds of terrain, I did want the convenience of being able to set up our sleeping spaces quickly and easily. What I wanted, was a vehicle that could seat at least 6 for driving while also sleeping 6. I didn’t need a kitchen or bathroom, I just wanted sleeping spaces. And so the idea of building a camping van that fit our needs began to take shape. And later, when Naomi and I were camping in Canada’s MacGregor Point Provincial Park, I saw a family arrive in a large extended van to camp for the weekend. While they were just using the van for storage and driving, I saw that the area behind the seats might work for us for sleeping space. Basically, I wanted a large van with space in the back for beds. Over dinner one night, I sprung my idea on the rest of the family. Honestly, at first, not everyone was impressed with this idea. But eventually, they bought into the vision and we started to brainstorm on how building a camper van could work for us. We thought about wanting everything from a classic camper that you hardly see on the roads anymore (to be honest if we were to have chosen to do this we probably wouldn’t have found one local to us and have to source one from a different state and have it delivered to us using a service such as CarsRelo or another) to purchasing a brand new modern van that we’d get a lot of use out of. We decided to go somewhere in the middle I believe.
Building a Camper Van – My Must Have List
In our family, I am more of the dreamer and as an engineer, Dave is more of the practical realist. So when we decided that building a camper van was definitely a project we wanted to take on, Dave asked for a list of what I wanted in our van and he would find the vehicle make and model that best fit our needs. The following is my initial must have list for what I was looking for when building a camper van –
- Seating & sleeping for at least 6 people
- Dependable and easy to repair
- Short enough in length that we could travel on roads with length restrictions such as the Going to the Sun Road in Glacier National Park
- Short enough in height that we could travel on roads with height restrictions such as the Needles Highway in Custer State Park
- Budget Friendly
Once I gave Dave my list, he got to work researching our best make and model option for building a camper van. But I’ll let him tell you that part of the story…
Building a Camper Van – Dave Picks the Make and Model
So I learned about Tricia’s adventure van dream about 3 months before her 40th birthday. Eventually, I warmed up to the idea of building a camper van as a memorable 40th birthday gift. After getting clear with Tricia on our family requirements, I immediately started researching several options on the internet. Unfortunately I found few choices for vehicles with manageable dimensions that also sleep 6. Here are several choices I looked at seriously that ended up not being the best choice for our family:
- Volkswagen/Winebego Rialta: Rialtas are super cool RVs built from 1995-2005. There’s an active enthusiast group online at Rialtainfo.com and I found several cases of families living in their Rialta for years. Don Niemeyer & family was one of the best stories. The QD model gets 20+ miles to the gallon, seats 8 and sleeps 4. In such a large vehicle, I thought we could find additional spaces for our twins to sleep. But after more research I starting having a few major concerns with the Rialta for us. First, since they stopped production in 2005, replacement parts are not easily available and Volkswagen dealers may not service them. I didn’t want Tricia and the kids stranded with a broken Rialta and no way to fix it. Second, because of their age many Rialtas need significant refurbishing. I would not have time to finish this myself in a month and a half. And while there is a decent supply of already refurbished Rialtas, these often pushed the upper edge of our price range ($35-45K). Other pros and cons for the Rialta can be found on Rialtainfo.com.
- Sprinter Van: Sprinters have many advantages. They have good gas mileage at 21-24. The dimensions work (222″ long, 102″ tall). Custom new luxury Sprinters look awesome but can run $95-120K or more. This was way above our budget, however T1N Sprinters (1994-2006) or early NCV3s (2007-9) fit in our price range. Mr. & Mrs. Adventure had a great video touring their Sprinter. The Sprinter was probably the most serious choice I looked at. Someday, I’d like to cruise around in a newer custom Sprinter. But for now I was concerned about the reliability of the older Sprinters. Several concerns are listed in the Sprinter Source forum and definitely check this out if you want to buy one. And I found a very limited selection of Sprinters near our home in Cincinnati that were not cargo vehicles. In fact, I never found a used Sprinter online that seemed ideal enough for a test drive.
- Travel Trailer: Travel Trailers was another option I looked at. There are a few advantages to them and you can see why they work well for many families. First, depending on the weight, I might not need a second car. You can disconnect and drive around when you arrive at your destination. And there are several travel trailers that get major style points like the Shasta or the Scamp. However Tricia had no desire in dealing with the towing and leveling, she really wanted to have minimal setup when arriving at her destination. And with towing something, it’s not possible to fit in the dimension limits or go on bumpy dirt roads.
- Custom Crazy: There are many interesting stories of folks customizing School Buses or Ambulances into cools RVs. If I had more time this is something I might take on. But I only had a month and a half so this wasn’t an option. Also, when not in use, we planned to park the vehicle in our driveway and this would be pushing the limit as an eyesore in our cul de sac.
- Conversion Van: Roadtek and Explorer make essentially finished versions of what I was looking for. Some, like the 190 Versatile, can be advertised as sleeping 4 or 6. For us, the sleep 6 requirement eliminated most of these conversion vans and the ones that were left just didn’t seem like a great value. They were either over $30K or were too run down when in our price range.
- Ford Transit or Econoline Van: The Transit is the newer version of the Econoline van that Ford started producing in 2014. I know they’re more popular over in the UK and often used for Campervan conversions by a lot of companies over there. It looks very modern, but to be within our price range we needed to purchase the 2014 model which was the first year this model was produced. I was wary of getting the 1st year of a new model when reliability was a primary concern. And the extended Ford 350 has less room to install bunk bends behind the rear seat.
After exploring all of the options above, I finally had the Model Selected: A Chevy Express 3500 Extended Van! This fit in our dimensions, there was ample selection in the Cincinnati area, it was within our budget and there were plenty of parts and service options available. In our price range, we could even get one with <50,000 miles and a warranty. Tricia is very happy with the Chevy Express 3500 Extended Van that we purchased as it is very comfortable to ride in and very easy to drive. And so far (knock on wood), it has been very reliable for us. Made for 15 passengers, we removed the back two bench seats and used this area to build removable large bunk beds. Even with the beds in place, there is space for 8 to drive and if two sleep in each bed and two sleep on the bench seats, 6 people can comfortable sleep. In a pinch we've even fit 3 in each bed so that 8 can sleep inside! It is absolutely perfect for our needs.
Building a camper van as been an amazing family adventure and one we are so happy we took on. It allowed us to comfortably and easily travel on our 13,000 mile National Park Road Trip this summer and we’ve taken numerous smaller trips since then including to Grayson Highlands State Park in Virginia and New Orleans, Louisiana. And I know that it will serve us well in whatever future adventures we plan.
Over the next few weeks, Dave and I will be sharing our plans for building a camper van including building the beds, making curtains and screens, gear storage, and how we quickly set up each night to sleep. In the mean time, let me know your questions about building a camper van. We are always happy to answer questions and help people get outside to explore our beautiful world!