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10 things to ask before buying your first camper van

Maybe you saw a cool rig on Instagram, or maybe you want to relive childhood memories of camping in a vintage Volkswagen bus. After months of browsing and research, you want to buy a camper van. Love campers and trailers? Come join our community group.

You could go to your local RV dealer, but it’s likely that they won’t have many camper vans—also known as Class Bs—in stock. You can start a search online to buy a camper, but how do you know what fits you best? And some of you might be considering buying an empty cargo van and converting it yourself.

In any scenario, there are things to consider before you go all-in on a purchase or build. Camper vans require a significant investment in time and money; we’ve rounded up the 10 most important questions to ask yourself before you buy.

Can you start simple?

If you’re looking to start van life in the near—or far—future, let me give you a piece of advice: Start simple. I know your feed is full of pricey conversion vans, custom roof racks, solar panels, drop-down beds, and bamboo counter tops. With any living space, mobile or rooted in place, it’s easy to covet what we don’t have.

But to anyone that’s never lived in a van, either for a weekend or for years on end, you don’t know what you want your build to look like until you’re living it. The best way to ensure you have the rig of your dreams? Practice on a cheaper, less perfect van first.

I know, this isn’t a fun piece of advice. However, it’s practical. If it works with your timeframe and budget, use a cheaper, simpler van for a year or two before investing a lot of time or money in a more complicated van. Not an option? Try renting a camper van first.

📷The Mystique by Outside Van is a no-frills camper focused on mountain biking. Courtesy of Outside Van

How will you use your camper van?

When some people envision hitting the road, it’s with all their gear in tow. This is how my husband and I approached our van: as a conduit to adventure. We haul gear to bike, climb, SUP, and ski everything that comes in our path.

With our first Sprinter, an empty cargo van we DIY’d, we quickly realized that we didn’t like having our bikes outside on a rack, exposed to Colorado’s harsh weather. A gear garage became a must-have in our second build, and we also know now exactly which gear we need to bring.

For others, a camper van is a peaceful retreat on the road, unencumbered by the clutter and gear of larger homes. Sometimes, a sturdy pair of hiking boots and a bookshelf will suffice. Figuring out how you’ll use your camper van is key to knowing which layout will work best. For examples of gear-focused vans, check out a van built for mountain biking and another built for snowmobiling. To see cozier, home-like builds, check these out.

How many people do you need to sleep?

For anyone traveling by themselves, how you sleep in a van may not be that complicated. But for most couples and families, the sleeping layout is a challenging puzzle. Do you want to sleep sideways or longways? If you use the sideways layout, pay attention to whether or not you’re tall enough to need flared sides to fit comfortably.

Most camper vans can sleep two people without a problem, but add in a child or two and you’ll need to ensure that a (preferably car-seat legal) bench seat can covert into an additional sleeping space for kids. For examples, see a Sportsmobile that sleeps six, clever bunkbeds in this van, and a modular build with a pop-top.

The ultimate debate: Bathroom or no bathroom?

For some people, the idea of hitting the road without a bathroom sounds inconceivable. For others (including myself) bathrooms take up too much space in a camper van and aren’t necessary for my family. You can read my take on not having a bathroom, and for anyone that does love a bathroom, I’ve rounded up several options over here.

But whatever you decide, whether or not you want a bathroom—and what type of bathroom you have—is a key question to consider. You can opt for a fully built out wet bath with a shower and toilet. You could also tuck a portable toilet in a shelf and shower outside. The options are endless, and only you know exactly what will work for your rig. For another creative bathroom, check out this van.

📷Selling for $18,000, a DIY kit from ZenVanz comes with everything you need for the kitchen, storage, and sleeping. Courtesy ofZENVANZ

📷Selling for $18,000, a DIY kit from ZenVanz comes with everything you need for the kitchen, storage, and sleeping. Courtesy ofZENVANZ

What kind of weather will you use it in?

The excitement of a camper van can sometimes hide a key question underneath a conversion: How well insulated is it? If you live in a cold-weather climate or will travel to cold-weather climates, good insulation is key.

I learned the hard way; we purchased our first Sprinter as an empty cargo van and built a bed platform before heading out on a trip. It was May in Colorado, and our first night saw temperatures in the low 30s. With no insulation in the van, we shivered throughout the night. The first thing we added when we got home was insulation and a diesel heater. For people in Florida, California, or the southwest, insulation may not be as big of an issue. In cold-weather climates, it’s key.

Tires are also an important consideration. You may not need four-wheel drive but good tires are essential for any type of rain, mud, or off-road driving. The good news? More four-wheel-drive camper vans are in our future.

Do you want a high-roof or low-roof van?

No matter what type of base vehicle you plan on getting, you’ll likely have the option of a high or low roof. Low roofs are more inconspicuous when you’re driving, and can still fit in some garages. High roofs provide more standing space but are limited on where they can travel—parking garages aren’t an option.

📷California-based ModVans builds a camper with seating for five, a pop-top, and removable RV components. Courtesy of ModVans

Do you want a pop-top roof?

Along with the high/low roof question, the next question to ask is whether you’re going to pop the roof of your camper. For some, the iconic look of a pop-top camper van is an essential part of the adventure vision. Pop-top campers can often sleep a family better than standard roofs, and they create an airy, pleasant atmosphere when popped.

The downsides of a pop-top come when the weather turns cold. Although you can absolutely camp in pop-top campers in cold weather, you’ll likely have to place additional panels over the upper windows to keep the cold out. It’s also harder to stealth camp with the roof popped, as it’s clear that you’re sleeping inside.

Will you buy new or used?

This question applies to DIYers hoping to convert their own van and to anyone looking to buy a manufactured camper. Used vans can be cheaper, but they’ll have more wear-and-tear and miles. New vans are a blank slate, but they come with a higher price tag.

📷The Airstream Interstate provides all the high-end luxury of the Airstream brand in a small Sprinter van. Photo courtesy of Airstream

How will you power your van?

Depending on what type of camping you’ll be doing, you can either plug-in your fully converted van or you can be entirely off the grid. If you often camp in RV or motorhome parks, you can have a van with air conditioning, TVs, etc. But if you plan on boondocking in open spaces with no power, you’ll need to make sure you have a hefty set of batteries, an inverter, and solar power.

Will you DIY? Go the custom route? Or buy a manufactured van?

There are three main types of Class B vans. The first type are vans that people have converted into campers themselves. The second type are vans that custom conversion outfitterstransform into campers for other people. And the third type are Class B vans manufactured by companies big—think Winnebago and Airstream—and small companies—like Maryland-based Off Grid Adventure Vans and California-based ModVans.

You can also do a mix of things. For example, you could convert most of the van yourself, and then have a company like Sportsmobile or Colorado Campervan pop the top. In addition, a new wave of companies sell camper kits that provide all the materials and instructions necessary for you to do the conversion yourself, a blend between the DIY and custom route.

This information is for educational purposes. VIARV shall not be responsible nor retain liability for RVer’s use of the provided information. Prior to making any RV service decision, you are advised to consult with an RV professional.

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