Although vans have always been an integral part of life for outdoor enthusiasts, the dawn of social media has led to a soar in the number of vanners out there, many of which want nothing more than those Instagram-perfect #vanlife shots. This has led to a rise in the number of aesthetic custom builds on the market as well as some incredibly artistic conversions.
Whether you’re embracing vanlife on a full-time basis or just for weekend adventures, vans sure are a great way to get off the beaten track and explore hidden spots you’d never find otherwise – but choosing the right van for you can be a daunting task.
To help you find the van that suits you best, we’ve weighed up the pros and cons of custom-made vans versus conversions and brought you a few of our favorites of each. Hopefully, this will help you in your journey to embracing vanlife and getting out into the great outdoors – enjoy!
‘To build or not to build?’ – this is a crucial question you need to think long and hard about before investing in any kind of van with which to begin your vanlife adventures. Both options are great in their own way, and there really is no right or wrong way of doing things, but it’s important that you fully understand each option so that you can make the decision that’s right for you.
Custom builds are awesome because they require hardly any (well, technically none) DIY skills. As long as you can drive, you can wake up one day, decide you feel like a bit of van time, make a purchase, and drive off into the distance all in the same day – easy peasy! As well as avoiding getting your hands dirty, this simplicity also means that you can head off on a spontaneous trip with fairly short notice because you won’t have to wait months until you’ve converted a van yourself.
On top of that, depending on your living situation, it might be far more practical to purchase a van straight up – after all, we don’t all have a garage, driveway, or even parking spot to leave a half-converted van in for weeks on end. Finally, if something were to go wrong with your van, odds are you’ll be able to find a mechanic who’s seen the issue before and can fix it up for you relatively painlessly.
On the flip side, custom builts will generally cost you a lot more than buying a van and converting it yourself. Plus, lots of people actually enjoy the process of converting a van and picking up new skills along the way. You also lose the chance to customize your van exactly how you like it if you buy a ready-made van, so you’ll lose a personal touch.
Conversions are popular among budget-conscious and DIY-keen vanners alike. Generally, you’ll save a tonne of money by picking up a van and converting it yourself. Plus, you can slowly upgrade your van over the years, spreading out the financial burden so that it doesn’t hit you all at once.
On top of that, many people actually enjoy the process of converting a van because it gives them a chance to apply their DIY skills or learn new ones. Plus, if you’re building your van yourself, you can make it exactly how you want it. For instance, I once met a couple who lined the interior of their van with a mosaic they built from tiles they picked up from a flea market in a small Asian town on their honeymoon – how’s that for a personal touch?
Despite these perks, converting a van isn’t a task for the fainthearted and it will take a considerable amount of time – you definitely can’t convert one overnight ready for an impromptu trip. You may have to squeeze in your conversion work alongside a full-time job, and you’ll likely run into a few surprise hiccups along the way.
Once you’ve decided whether you’re going for a custom-built van or you’re going to take on the challenge of converting a van yourself, you’ll have to decide which van you’re going to buy or convert. To help you decide, we’ve hand-picked a few of our favorite vans belonging to each category.
Decided you don’t want the stress of converting your own van? We don’t blame you! Here are a few of our favorites custom builds to give you some inspiration.
The previous three models discussed are absolute tanks – they’re great for traveling in large groups, for lugging around loads of gear, and for people that will be living in their van on a permanent basis. But what if you want something you can use for weekend trips in the great outdoors but that you can also use to pick the kids up from school? That’s where smaller vans like the VW California come into play – they’re far easier to navigate urban roads (and parking lots!) in.
What’s more, the VW California is also the first custom-made van we’ve explored, so it’s a super-easy way to get going on your vanning adventures. There are three VW California models available to purchase first-hand (the California 6.1, the California 6.1 Beach, and the Gran California), and the prices begin at $54,000 to $74,000 (plus they’ll increase after configuration) – so they aren’t exactly cheap.
Despite the high initial price tags, you don’t have to shell out thousands on a conversation, and these vans are filled with features that make them extremely popular. For instance, the California 6.1 offers some incredibly cool sleeping options (the lift-up roof offers an awesome panoramic view of your surroundings… and you can even recline the bed for ultimate comfort); a fully equipped kitchen (including a stove, sink, cooler, and even a bench); and tonnes of other homey touches, such as dimmed lighting, thermal windows, and blackout curtains.
It might not be as large as the other models, but with everything perfectly fitted and built-for-purpose, the lack of clutter makes it feel larger than it is – this really is vanning made easy!
You might not have heard of the KNAUS Boxdrive CUV before – it certainly isn’t as well-known as other vans on our list manufactured by some of the biggest names in the industry – but the Knaus Boxdrive CUV is somewhat of a hidden gem. First up, it’s more economical than many other vans offering similar features, which makes it a massive winner in our eyes. But that’s not the only reason we love it so much – we just can’t resist its sleek modern interior. There really is a spot for everything and everything slots into place in a surprisingly satisfying way.
Unlike many vans, this one features an-built bathroom area, featuring a washbasin as well as a shower cubicle – and you can even choose the color of the ambient lighting you want to bathe in thanks to the RGB lighting system (slightly SciFi but hey, don’t knock it until you’ve tried it). The smart control board lets you monitor lighting, heating, and battery levels all from the same place, and even the refrigerator has a sleep mode (that keeps the noise down), making this a super high-tech choice. We love that it has seen windows to let the daylight come beaming in too. Actually driving this van is a dream as well, thanks to the front assist, trailer assist, and park assist – you really will feel… assisted?
The Citroen WildCamp is an awesome camper that perfectly blends old with new – it has the classic vintage van appearance yet the inside is fitted with all the mod cons you need for life on the trail. It’s actually a Citroen Jumper van that’s been converted to form this trendy-looking van that we see today, and it’s now fitted with swiveling seats, a kitchen, a sleeping area, and various storage compartments. It’s not as tall as some of the larger models we’ve looked at, particularly the ones for DIY conversion, but the great thing about custom builds is that everything slots in so neatly that you don’t actually need as much space. We also love the huge rack on the roof where you can stash excess gear.
In terms of driving, it has anti-brake steering, brake assist, and various other ‘smart’ features that you wouldn’t guess from its iconic old-school appearance. It drives smoothly too, and you can order it with a fancy traction system for those slippy offroad journeys, and we know it’s super reliable because the Citroen Jumper could be depended on through thick and thin.
Decided to take the plunge and convert a van yourself? Awesome! Below you’ll find some of the most popular van models among the vanlife community.
Without a doubt, the most popular choice for van conversions is the Mercedes Sprinter. This tried-and-tested van is known for its reliability on the road, and most mechanics will know exactly what they’re dealing with if you have any mechanical issues (although the parts don’t come cheap).
It comes in a range of dimensions, including models with either a standard, high, or extra-high roof – we recommend the elevated roof if you like your space or planning to construct a sleeping platform up top. You can also choose from one of four lengths (compact, standard, long, and extra-long), giving you the freedom to find your perfect dimensions overall.
The longest and tallest model features a whopping 17 m3 of cargo space, which is more than enough to make a van feel like home, even with multiple travelers and lots of gear. Plus, if you’re thinking of living in your van on a permanent basis, you might even find room to install a shower or toilet system. On top of that, if you’ll be spending a lot of time in your van exploring the back and beyond, you’ll love the 4×4 version that can forge a path through uneven terrain.
Unfortunately, it’s not only the parts that are expensive, the vans themselves cost a bomb too (not to mention how much you’ll spend on doing it up afterward). Prices will vary depending on the model you go for, but even the most economical options will cost you upwards of $30,000.
Another model that’s extremely widespread among the van community is the Ford Transit Van. This model is incredibly versatile, as Ford’s tagline ‘One model, countless variations’ states, so you can find the perfect fit for you.
Options include seats for one, two, or, more passengers, various wheelbase distances, and two roof heights. Furthermore, Ford Transits built since 2020 feature some significant upgrades compared to previous models (although you’re unlikely to be able to pick one up second-hand). A key update has been the integration of an all-wheel-drive system, which raises the amount of traction generated, helping the vehicle navigate muddy and even icy, roads – perfect for those backcountry adventures when the weather is less than ideal.
Another thing that we love about this van is the fact that it’s available as an Ecoblue Hybrid, which increases fuel efficiency while reducing CO2 emissions – good for your wallet and the environment, winning. Although these vans are again quite expensive, the models with the raised rooves are considerably more affordable than the Sprinter models, which cinches the deal for some people trying to decide between the two.
Note: Recently, Ford has also created a competitor to the VW California with their Ford Nugget, which is based on the Transit. This might also be an option worth exploring if you don’t want to custom build.
The RAM Promaster Cargo Van is another excellent option for vanners that want a considerable amount of space in their van.
Note: If you are in Europe, the RAM Promaster is actually the Fiat Ducato, and is one of the most popular base vans for builds. In fact, it is also the basis for many RVs and campers in Europe too.
You can choose an interior ‘cargo’ height of 5 ft 6 inches or upsize to 6 ft 4 inches – the larger of which will mean the vast majority of passengers won’t have to hunch – and there are various wheelbase options too. What’s more, there are actually three Promaster models for you to choose from, with varying towing and payload abilities. Unlike the Sprinter and the Transit, however, the length is limited to just one size.
Plus, for anyone that doesn’t have much experience driving large vehicles (like most van newbies), then you’ll be pleased to know that this van comes with blind-spot monitoring and rear cross-path detection features, yay.
Again, this van doesn’t come cheap if you’ll be buying it first-hand – prices begin at $31,790.
The VW Crafter is more of an option for European readers and is in fact the van we chose for our custom van build. VW, like Mercedes, is synonymous with reliability and great build quality. But without the hefty price tag of Mercedes.
And, in fact, they were based on the same van for many years until VW and Mercedes parted ways in 2018 I believe it was.
Like the Sprinter, the Crafter comes in all manner of sizes and shapes – from a shorter wheel based, to a super long one, and a normal and high roof. They designate such things with L (1-2) for the length and H (1 or 2) for the roof.
Okay, so we’ve been through the pros and cons of buying a ready-made van versus building your own, and we’ve seen some great custom-made vans as well as some of the best vans for converting… but what kind of van should you choose overall?
We’ve already been through the pros and cons of buying a custom-made van versus converting one yourself, but there are other factors to consider later down the line. You’ve probably noticed that the vans we’ve listed for converting are larger than the ready-made and, although this isn’t always the case, it is a common trend. This is mainly because custom-made vans have a slot for everything, and the interior space has been optimized so well that you don’t always need as much of it. When you convert a van yourself, it most likely won’t be as space-efficient, and so you’ll probably appreciate the extra space.
Large vans are awesome if you’ll be traveling in large groups or living in your van permanently. They’re also handy if you have tonnes of gear (as any climbers or surfers out there can attest to). Alternatively, smaller vans are far easier to navigate in urban areas, and you’ll have way more options when it comes to parking. Large vans also tend to burn more fuel, which is tough on your finances as well as the environment, so you probably need to have a good think about how much space you need.
Although choosing the right van for you can be a tricky task, it’s definitely worth taking your time and doing your research – these vans aren’t cheap and you don’t want to have any post-purchase regrets! And speaking of cost – bear in mind that if the price of a van is putting you off starting your vanlife adventures, there are plenty of second-hand models out there. Do your research properly and don’t rush into any decisions, and you’re bound to fall in love with your new van in no time.
With the current pandemic making international travel so uncertain, there really hasn’t been a better time to pack up your stuff and head out to explore the natural world waiting right on your doorstep.
Roger is a little obsessed with travel. He has been to over 40 countries, broken 3 suitcases and owned over 10 backpacks in 12 months. What he doesn't know about travel, ain't worth knowing!