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There’s a Shortage of RVs: Is Now the Perfect Time for a Camper Van Conversion?

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An increase in recreational vehicle (RV) sales is one unexpected result of the COVID-19 pandemic. Due to the current state of affairs, dealers have seen a 170 percent jump in RV turnover since last year. Rentals of such vehicles have also increased 1,600 percent since April, according to the Washington Post

RV sales are skyrocketing because consumers want to get away while still practicing social distancing (a road trip is a great way to avoid air travel). Some buyers are also seeking a way to isolate themselves from family members.

As such, RVs are becoming increasingly difficult to acquire. According to an article from Spectrum News 1, buyers are waiting at least two weeks before they can tow or drive their purchase off the lot.

The RV frenzy has left some people wondering if there’s another way. For many, a camper conversion might fit the bill. Turning passenger vans and minivans into campers is a growing trend—and it’s something to consider if you’re looking to get away this summer.

woman in an rv
Turning passenger vans and minivans into campers is a growing trend as RVs become increasingly difficult to acquire.

What to Consider if You’re Thinking About a Camper Van Conversion

A camper van conversion is just what it sounds like: A passenger or cargo van that has been converted into a camper with a living area. Typically, the cabin will include essentials, such as a bed and storage space.

Some people use their van for weekend getaways, while others live in their van year-round. Those who choose the latter are known as van-lifers, and there’s an entire social media movement, known as van life (#vanlife), built around their adventures.

Although converting a van into a camper sounds like a great idea (and it can be), the undertaking is neither cheap nor easy. There are a few key questions you’ll want to ask yourself before fully committing to such a project.

How are You Going to Use the Camper Van?

A lot of people get swept up in the idea of a camper conversion, so they run out and buy the first van they can find—and they ultimately end up being disappointed with their purchase.

To avoid becoming that person, consider the following

Are You Going to Take Long Road Trips?

If you’re going to be taking a lot of long road trips, you’ll want to invest in a reliable late-model van. Even though vintage vehicles can be charming, they generally aren’t as dependable as newer offerings.

How Much Space Do You Need?

You should also consider the amount of space you’ll need. Is it just going to be you and your dog on the road, or do you plan on taking the entire family? Considering such factors will help you decide what size van you need.

Will You Be Towing Anything with the Van?

Some people like to bring along toys when they go camping. If you plan on towing a boat, ATV, or any other type of recreational vehicle, you’ll want to get a van that has an adequate towing capacity.

camping in an rv
Since most conversions are one-off creations, there’s no blueprint to follow—you just formulate a plan and start building.

What’s Your Budget?

The first thing you want to consider is whether you can afford to build a camper conversion in the first place. If so, before you start shopping for a van, decide exactly how much you want to spend and stick to that number. That way, you won’t get carried away and buy a brand-new, decked out Sprinter van, when all you can afford is a used Toyota Sienna.

How Handy are You?

Building a camper conversion requires extensive fabrication skills. Be honest and ask yourself whether you’re up to the task. If not, there are pre-built camper van conversions you can purchase, though they’re pricey—some cost nearly as much as a new motorhome.

Do You Have the Necessary Storage Space?

Make sure you’ve got ample room for your new toy. You’ll need space to build the van, plus you’ll need somewhere to park it once the work is complete.

What is the Best Van for a Camper Conversion?

No matter what type of van you’re interested in, there’s probably someone out there who has converted it into a camper. There’s a wide range of platforms to choose from.

You’ll find several noteworthy options listed below.

Vans

Mercedes Sprinter

Currently, the Mercedes Sprinter seems to be the most popular choice for a camper conversion. You can get the full-size rig in a variety of configurations, and four-wheel drive is available.

mercedes benz sprinter
The Mercedes Sprinter is currently the most popular choice for a camper conversion.

Ford Transit

The Ford Transit is a spacious, full-size van available in passenger, crew, and cargo van body styles. All-wheel drive is available starting with the 2020 model year.

ford transit
The Ford Transit is available in passenger, crew, and cargo van body styles.

Chevy Express / GMC Savana

The Chevy Express and its twin, the GMC Savana, both have cavernous interiors. Certain model years also offer available all-wheel drive, and most versions have a venerable gas-powered V8 engine under the hood.

chevrolet express
Most Chevrolet Express / GMC Savana versions have a gas-powered V8 engine under the hood.

Minivans

Chevy Astro / GMC Safari

Unlike other vans in their class, the Astro and Safari twins each feature a body-on-frame construction. Both vans come in either a cargo van or passenger van configuration and all-wheel drive is available. General Motors stopped building the duo in 2005.

chevrolet astro
Chevrolet Astro / GMC Safari feature a body-on-frame construction.

Toyota Sienna

The Toyota Sienna is the only minivan that still offers all-wheel drive. Plus, the van is doggedly dependable, as most Toyotas are known to be.

toyota sienna
The Toyota Sienna is the only minivan that still offers all-wheel drive.

Toyota Previa

An available manual transmission, optional all-wheel drive, and Toyota reliability—all of these features are bundled together in the Toyota Previa.

The egg-shaped Previa, which was built between 1990 and 1996, even came with a supercharger under the hood during the later part of its production run.

toyota previa
The Toyota Previa has manual transmission and optional all-wheel drive.

How Much is an RV vs. a Camper Conversion?

Most brand-new and late-model used motorhomes are expensive. Really expensive.

According to Camper Report, the price of a new motorhome usually starts at around $100,000. Camper trailers are generally more affordable, starting at around $20,000, but you need an expensive truck to pull the trailer.

The cost of building a camper conversion, on the other hand, depends primarily on two factors: the type of van you choose and the amount of work you do to the interior.

A quick Google search reveals that many people have spent less than $5,000 retrofitting their vans.

How to Convert a Van Into a Camper Van

When it comes to converting a van into a camper, the possibilities are endless. Since most conversions are one-off creations, there’s no blueprint to follow—you just formulate a plan and start building.

Here are a few videos that will inspire you to build:

Should You Build a Camper Van Conversion?

Because there isn’t a guaranteed end to social distancing, camper vans promise to be one of the best ways to travel for the foreseeable future—especially since the cost of used RVs will likely spike due to the limited supply of new models.

What’s more, since many businesses remain closed and activities are limited, you may have more time to work on converting your van.

Now is the perfect time to build a camper van if you’ve got the space, money, and ambition to make your dream a reality.

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Author

Mia Bevacqua

Chief Mechanic at CarParts.com

Mia Bevacqua is an automotive expert with over 15 years of industry experience. She holds ASE Master, L1, L2, and L3 Advanced Level Specialist certification, as well as a bachelor's degree in Advanced Automotive Systems.

Throughout her career, Mia has applied her skills toward automotive failure analysis inspections, consulting, diagnostic software development, and of course, freelance writing. Today, she writes for companies around the world, with many well-known clients showcasing her work.

Mia has a passion for math, science, and technology that motivates her to stay on top of the latest industry trends, such as electric vehicles and autonomous systems. At the same time, she has a weakness for fixer-upper oddballs, such as her 1987 Chevy Cavalier Z-24 and 1998 Chevy Astro Van AWD.

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