If you’re considering van life but can’t afford a new, already-built-out adventure van, there are cheaper alternatives available. You can convert used, smaller vans into campers.
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When I chose my own rig, I chose an old van because it was inexpensive and I wasn’t sure how hard I wanted to commit to van life. My 1999 Ford E250 was $6,000 and worst case scenario if I disliked living in a van, I would still have some savings to return to “normal” life.
My Top 3 Used Van to Camper Picks
Ford Econoline (Ford E-Series) Van
The Ford E-series (E150, E250 & E350) has been around since 1961. It was a top-selling van since the 1960’s and came in four different generations. This means it’s had a lot of time to work out kinks and make revisions for a higher-performance vehicle. This also means there are loads of them on the market, with variations including raised roof, extended wheelbase, etc. that are much more affordable than newer vans with raised roofs.
Of course, older vehicles may come with mechanical issues (check out the most common ones found in the E-series). But because the E-series has been on the market for so long, parts are readily available and easy to find, which makes for the cheapest mechanical fixes.
In 2015, Ford discontinued the full production of the E-series and now only offers the stripped chassis and cutaway cab. If you’re interested in this van style, be prepared to have a van that’s from 2015 or earlier. Of course, the benefit of getting an older van means a lower price tag–you can expect to find options ranging from $4,000-$15,000, depending on the year, mileage, added renovations, and overall condition.
Chevrolet (Chevy) Express / GMC Savana Van
I’ve combined the Chevy Express and GMC Savana because they’re identical in terms of mechanical and structural build (structural build refers to the absolute critical parts of your van, like the chassis). This “combo” van replaced the Chevrolet van and the GMC Vandura in 1995 and even has an AWD version–but it’s hard to come by! Mainly because it’s a quality vehicle that people are reluctant to sell until they’ve completely run theirs into the ground.
Curious about one van lifer’s research and experience deciding on the Chevy Express? Read about it here.
A slight con of this van is that it’s hard to find with a raised roof. But this con presents some benefits, such as better gas mileage and extreme stealth. What’s more, the Chevy Express/GMC Savana offers a smoother ride and better handling thanks to its GMT400-derived chassis. According to GM Authority, General Motors has plans to continue the Chevy Express until at least 2023, and potentially through 2025, depending on demand. Similar to the Econoline, you can expect a wide range of prices depending on year, added features and overall condition–averaging $4,000 – $11,000.
Chevy Astro / GMC Safari Van
Ah, the Chevy Astro van–a staple #vanlife van. While not as talked about, the GMC Safari was its twin and between 1985 and 2005, about 3.2 million of these bad boys were sold. Safe to say, they’re still available but they will be at least fifteen years old. Buying a van that old will very likely also require mechanical fixes and added costs, but if you’re only paying $2,000 for the van, you could save lots of money in the long-run.
This van is a more compact version of the Chevy Express, which comes with obvious pros and cons. Pros include easier drivability, even better gas mileage, and the ultimate in stealth. The con is simply less space to live. But for any van life enthusiast looking to dip their toes in the water without spending a lot, you could easily build a fixed-frame bed inside a $5,000 Astro van and be on your merry way!
Snag the camp spot of your dreams
Many of these vans on the market will most likely have high mileage simply because they’re older. But this doesn’t have to be a deal breaker because replacement parts are also readily available, cheaper, and (depending on the van) may have already been installed from a previous owner. The only deal breaker is rust on structural parts of your van, particularly the chassis–because that is irreversible damage.
I highly recommend only considering purchasing these vans if they’re from warm-weather climates or have been in storage. This way, you know they haven’t been exposed to salted roads over the years (salt being the number one cause of rust and erosion). Also, newer models of these vans are more protected from salt because automotive makers recognized this issue and added blends to help protect. So if a newer model is available within your price range, I would opt for that.
Why & How I Chose My Ford E250
Before picking out this van, I researched and test-drove some of the most popular used vans for conversion first.
My Must -Have Features in a Conversion Van
AWD or 4WD
Good ground clearance
Ran on regular gas (not diesel)
Cost under $8,000
Windows on side walls
Why I Wanted These Features
- AWD or 4WD provides peace of mind when off-roading or driving in the snow. If you want to go off-grid for days or weeks at a time, this is a feature to seriously consider because many backroads aren’t maintained or frequently driven down. On the flip side, there are still plenty of off-the-grid camping options that don’t require AWD to get to.
A raised roof makes a van feel like a home; a living space to relax in. Not being able to sit up in bed, having to crouch while making meals, and just generally feeling cramped, gets old fast. This is technically a personal preference, but I’ve talked with many van lifers that regret not waiting until they found a raised-roof van. It makes coming “home” after being out all day, a little less enjoyable.
Good ground clearance is the next-best thing after AWD because it allows your van to cruise over potholes, rocky dirt roads, or uneven roads with ease. It can also help prevent getting stuck in mud. When you’re exploring, you just can’t know the condition of any off-the-beaten path road.
A van that runs on regular gas versus diesel gas will be cheaper to fill and will have more refill options. Diesel can be harder to come across, especially when you’re driving through small towns that are already scarce on supplies.
Windows on side walls allows more natural light into the van, which means less usage of lights, which means less electricity waste! That being said, this feature is sort of a personal preference. If you want windows, look for passenger-style vans. If you don’t want windows, look for cargo-style vans.
You can easily find any of these models for under $8,000 on Craigslist or Facebook Marketplace. Many of them are available for just a few thousand dollars.
The one feature my van does not have is AWD–it’s RWD–but after further reflection on the lifestyle I wanted on the road, I realized AWD wasn’t critical. I wasn’t planning on staying in cold-temp states during the winter months, so I would already avoid snow. I also wasn’t planning on doing any hardcore off-roading–I’ve had plenty of wonderful camp spots just a few miles down public lands roads!
The vans I’ve listed in this article can all be found for under $8,000, have decent ground clearance, run on regular gas, and can be found with raised roofs or AWD. So without further ado, read on for the best vans for converting to campers!
Used Campervans for Sale
Ready to do some shopping around? Check out this pre-filtered link to RVT.com that will show you used campervans for sale across North America.
Recommended Van Build Guides from Sources I Trust
Van Life Academy by Project Van Life: Read my review of the online courses that take you through every step of the DIY van build process, taught by van life experts with 6+ different van makes and models. Highly recommend for van life beginners.
Choose Your Van by The WayWard Home: This guide covers all sorts of vans–big small, old, new, compact, full-size–and even goes into build detail for each one. Highly recommend.
Build Your Van by Gnomad Home: This guide provides a nice overview for conversion vans as well as other (budget-friendly) options.
The Vanual: This guide provides pointers on how to choose which van is right for you, and also offers step-by-step overviews for the conversion process.
Simple Van Conversion Idea for Chevy Express: Although specific to just a Chevy Express, this is a super straight-forward guide to help you get on the road ASAP.
At the end of the day, only you can know what your van build needs will be, but knowing where to start on your research can be half the battle! Good luck on your #vanlife adventures.