Crash course in 4x4 & camper vans
This section is a brief tour on the full size van and a good exercise for first time buyers/builders. If you're pretty set on building a 4x4 Ford or GM van, you can brush up here and head on to our FAQ for coverage on How-to build details.
The full size van is a great platform for overland travel and can be built in stages and layers starting with the most basic platform. There are different brands that have varying personalities and pros/cons. Vehicles are available in many stages of completion and for varying budgets.
For this site, we're going to assume most of our audience is familiar with a level of DIY or at the very least interested in overseeing how their 4x4 conversion is configured.
Building a van and honing it for your needs is a fun and often expensive hobby that takes time. It can be very rewarding just like building a home or a business. Starting with the correct platform is important, but just like a home, often the first go-around isn't the perfect solution so treat each project like an iteration and enjoy the time you have with it. There will always be more.
Built not bought theory
There's a wide spectrum of investment options between building a van from scratch and buying a fully kitted overlander. On one end, you can start with the basic 2wd shell and gradually upfit it. Alternatively, you can purchase a completed all-road monster that someone else has made the investment in. Not everyone has a full build facility and not everyone can buy a turn-key unit so the middle ground is a common way for people to get started.
We advocate for the "build it" approach when possible. Though it's more time-consuming and potentially more expensive if outsourcing the labor, it provides a valuable learning experience and ensures you're only spending money and energy where your van needs it. The benefit of using your van while you build it often promotes a better overall build and having the capacity to fix it when it breaks is invaluable. Even very high end vans are prone to frequent issues.
Budget & Investment
Simply put, most vehicles (including vans) are not sound economic investments. If you treat your van adventures/misadventures as just that and understand there is a monetary cost to most hobbies, you'll just be happier about everything. People have been known to build vans and sell them for a profit or to benefit from economic timing but don't count on it.
One cool side-effect of the rise in van popularity is the deluge of online documentation. There have been so many people detail their van builds and expenses it would be foolish for us to build a detailed budget outline for you, but we have a really basic fillable PDF that can be helpful to set some boundaries around your expenditures(coming soon.) We do offer some highly tuned budgeting materials on 4x4 van conversions when you get to that point.
4x4 & Suspension
We love our 4x4 vans and everyone should have one. It's more affordable to build a nice 2 wheel drive camper van with some all-terrain tires on it, weight in the back and perhaps a traction device like a locker. A good driver can go a long ways with little else, but if you want 4x4 and have the budget, it sure is nice to have.
There are two common designs to 4x4 van suspensions: Independent front axle design known as IFS, or solid axle design. These are the most common types of suspension found on modern pickup trucks which our vans are based around, and just like the trucks, the 2 designs behave differently.
IFS vans are generally better suited for daily driving, long over-the-road trips, and situations where absolute abuse and capacity to articulate aren't front of mind. The "independent" function of the front axle design allows each wheel to pivot without significant bearing on what the other one is doing. This reduces feedback in the chassis and ultimately leads to a softer driving experience both on and off-road. Our GM/Chevy kits utilize this suspension design.
Solid axle 4x4 conversion vans are far more common and utilize a heavy-duty truck axle like those found on the Ford Superduty. This mono-beam suspension design is simple and extremely durable, more forgiving for DIY builders and performs great offroad. When handled correctly, Ford 4x4 conversions with a solid axle can be very drivable for daily use. We like both styles of suspension in their own right and can't say with conviction that one is better than the other.
There are generally 2 common ways to set up a solid front axle under a van. Leaf spring conversions have been popularized by Sportsmobile, U-Joint Offroad and Advance Offroad. It is a perfectly viable way to complete the conversion. We have only nice things to say about all 3 of these companies. They build good products.
Our Ford 4x4 conversion parts are based around a coil-spring 4x4 axle design. Quigley is the largest and one of the most regarded of the 4x4 conversion companies who also employs the coil-spring 4x4 conversion design. There are many people on both sides of the argument about which is best and we have our reasons outlined in the FAQ section of our site.
Chassis & Fuel
There are 2 basic chassis designs for vans: body-on-frame, and unibody. The Chevy Express and Ford Econoline are a body-on-frame design, similar to heavy duty trucks. This design is both the heaviest and most durable, and plays well with the 4x4. Twisting and torquing on the vehicle through the bumps is isolated from the body which provides the best suspension articulation and traction. The more fragile body is separated from the frame in this design. The down-side is reduced fuel economy from increased weight.
Uni-body design vans such as the full-size transit, pro-master, and sprinter integrate the frame and body together in one form. This design looks and feels more car-like when driving. This design is lighter weight, stiffer, and improves economy. As the E-series and G-series vans are phased out, it's likely all US vans will be made in this uni-body design.
Fuel choice is an easy one for us. If it's not a Sprinter, most people are happier with gasoline. Gas engines cost less to fix when they break. They are comparatively quiet, leak and smell less, and they perform better in cold weather. Diesel 7.3 E-series vans are lovely but they are all over 20 years old at this point, many are worn out. We love the 6.0 vans which is an unpopular opinion, but boy are they noisy and a pain to work on. The 2.8 GM vans are delightful but underpowered and repairs (when needed) to the 6.6 Duramax can rival the cost of a complete van. Yes, diesel vans get better fuel economy and have more power. The cool factor is high, but so is the mental expense of ownership.
Brand / Models
There are die-hard fans of every popular brand and our opinion isn't the final decision. In previous businesses we bought and sold all of these vans and worked on them daily, so the following isn't hearsay. In our practice: Chevy Express vans and the Ford Econoline are both extremely reliable both when abused, and when well kept which is why we have chosen to offer them as our conversion platforms. The body-on-frame design is ideal for 4x4 conversion and off-roading, and they are by far the most affordable to keep on the road over time.
In a non-4x4 application, the modern Chevy van will put up with flat-out abuse better than just about anything else on the road. They are one of the unsung gems of American Iron. In 4x4 form, they hold up great as well. A solid axle 2-valve Ford V8 E-series will put up with offroad abuse as well as most any run-of-the-mill Jeep.
Ford E-Series - The conventional van was last available in 2014 so availability will continue to decline over time but the RV E-series still produced today has remained popular. Parts are easy to source. Most variants are easy to work on. The vans are affordable and ubiquitous and there's surprisingly few changes across the 50 years span of vans we offer parts for. There are several companies that complete 4x4 conversions on these vans and we are one of two that produce DIY 4x4 conversion kits for them, U-Joint is the other kit producer. Conversions generally require a minimum of 4" of lift and the friendly design lends itself well to larger lifts and bigger tires. The 138" wheelbase on most models is ideal for maneuvering tight spaces and the platform is popular among the general aftermarket so it's just an easy go-to platform for camper vans.
Chevrolet Express/GMC Savana - This platform is also a body-on-frame design, widely available and still produced today. There are a handful of upfitters that have built solid-axle versions of this van, but it cooperates very well with IFS design and can even be converted to 4x4 with nearly zero additional suspension lift.
The IFS design provides comfort akin to a factory 2-wheel drive van or Suburban. They are inexpensive to work on, extremely durable and parts are still in standard production. There are more motor and transmission options in the GM than the Ford. The LS engine architecture is unrivaled for it's cost/performance/reliability ratios and we haven't driven one yet, but the new 400hp gas 6.6 with the 8L90 transmission is difficult for a van-nerd to not gush over.
The long wheelbase (extended version) GM van is a full 20 inches longer than the Ford, so it can be challenging to park. The IFS suspension is significantly more challenging to design parts for, so if you're trying to piecemeal a bargain conversion kit for one of these vans, the learning curve is going to be steeper without most of our kit. Just like anything, these different models have their pros & cons. We delve into the vehicle differences more in our FAQ.
Ford Transit - The T series is very rigid and a really nicely put-together van with some really enticing motor options. It features a unibody design that is lighter weight than body-on-frame. Quigley and a few other companies offer 4x4ish conversions for this platform, and Ford released the AWD model for the 2020 year model which has been offered in Europe for ages. These vans come with a host of size and height options as well and parts are widely available. 4x4 conversion options are limited, and the base price of the van is going to be higher than some other options. You should expect to spend $20-$35k for a used Transit. AWD models are trickling through, but just generally these vans have held their value really well. There are some engine quirks and things that break on these like any model so do your research on the motors before purchase. Transit AWD vans and Quigley conversions aren't designed to be wheeled. If you are prowling for a ski-van then by all means, but if you're planning on really thrashing a Transit, get out the checkbook.
Full-Size NV Nissan Van - The NV was offered through 2021 in the US and is a solid van. Conversions are available through Advance and Quigley. The vans are durable and reliable. They consume fuel just like the American counterparts with large displacement. The NV is available in 2 roof heights and various lengths. It remains to be seen whether we'll see the Nissan Interstar (EU) or a US variant in the future.
Dodge/MB Sprinter - The Sprinter is without question the most popular camper van platform in the US. There are endless camper customizations, online DIY support, and you can get a used 4x4 (awd) for what is starting to become more "reasonable money." If you have too much money, there area also a dozen companies that will build you a $300k version.
To be perfectly honest we haven't spent a lot of time wheeling in Sprinters. Reportedly the 4x4 models have reinforcements built into the unibody that increase the durability, but a unibody can only do so much. Modern Sprinters are likely the safest vans on the road and have more safety functions than other brands. They are very friendly to drive and can achieve better fuel economy when running correctly. Early US models were bomb proof but the bodies just haven't held up around the engines, most agree the 06 is the grail. Most of our experience with the drivetrain in these vans were years 2007-2018 and it was just embarrasing how often they went out of service from the innocuous to the catastrophic.
Plan on taking it to MB for any repairs, solid axle versions are reportedly very difficult to build, and if anyone wants to stop by our shop with a Whitefeather or an Iglhaut conversion we'd love to see it.
Dodge Promaster - Here's your budget option. If you want a high-roof camper van that is front-wheel drive and fair in the snow, something that will be easy to get camper van parts for, build your setup in, and not break the bank...the Promaster is an option. We won't tell you they are reliable, well built, or ideal for someone with options, but if you're on a tight budget and need that high roof, this is probably your best bet.
Rivian Delivery, E-transit & Canoo Adventure - We're hoping to fill some content here about electric vans as they become more popular. Obviously there are some barriers to EV adventure vehicle adoption, but it's a discussion that'll have to happen and we're very excited about the future of vanning.
Van size is typically dictated by the use type, number of people traveling, and the time you're going to spend in it. It's very much a give and take. Every inch of space can be used in a van if well executed, but it's not easy to live in a short low-roof van and much less to travel long distances with a partner and a dog in the same.
If you are moving into a van or spending months on end in the vehicle, you're going to want to be able to stand up inside. This means you need to explore high top/pop-top/cab+chassis options (eg, box van). Just keep the parking garages and overhangs in mind. A typical Ford box truck with 5" of lift on 35"s is going to be every bit of 11 feet tall, and a regular GM low-roof 4x4 can be built less than 7 feet tall.
If all you're doing is hauling home depot tools during the week from job to job and snow boarding on the weekend, it's so much easier to get around in a small van. It pains to say, but the upside of the Promaster is it's easy to get around in and does ok in the snow with front-wheel-drive and a high top option right at 6 feet inside, all for pretty cheap money. With the Ford E-series and GM G-series it's not as simple.
Off-roadability should be considered as well. Box vans, school buses, high top extended Transit & Sprinter vans. These things aren't going to be wandering around the boulders and tight forest for most owners. That super long wheelbase and rigid unibody design in the Sprinter is going to be nice when you're doing 75 in a headwind going across I-80, but you'll always be parking on the far side of the lot because lorrys don't fit in a compact spot.
With relation to the 2 models we support parts for. Our personal experience is that daily drivers used for shorter weekend adventuring do much better in the short style. If you're spending more than a few days in the van, the extra 18-20 inches is going to be well worth the hassle of parking, be it a GM or a Ford.
Buying a used van
The last 10 years has been a wild ride for vans. It can be sticky to evaluate a camper van, particularly one that's highly customized, so we'll try to just provide some wisdom on general used van purchases. We've built and sold many 4x4 vans and previous to that sold thousands of used service vans and have learned a few lessons. Take it worth a grain:
Mileage is less important than condition for usability. We find that mileage definitely impacts value because it is the easiest thing to correlate with condition for the average person. If you're going to drive it for a few years and sell it, pay attention to the mileage, if you plan on keeping it forever, just look at the actual condition.
A vehicle can be decimated in 20k miles, or it can be pampered for 400k and look/feel new. There is some correlation between condition/mileage, but frankly, it's far less important than most people think. Look for a van that's been well kept, then consider the odometer.
Late-model vehicles tend to be nicer, technology improves rapidly with time and time rapidly wears out vehicles. If you put a 40 year old van that's in perfect shape next to a 5 year old van that just has a ton of freeway miles and they both have roughly the same wear, don't get to excited about that ol' pig.
Rust...rust is the most detrimental thing to the value of a 4x4 van. You can put 2 identical vans next to each other, same mileage and condition, and if one is noticeably rusty, it could be worth 10 grand less than the other. This is super important so pay attention to where the vehicle is coming from.
If you aren't mechanically savvy, get the vehicle checked out. Don't expect a perfect result, in fact, expect to have to fix things, it's a used vehicle. Expect a mechanic to tell you it could use $3000 of miscellanous work, but take the time to actually look at what those repairs are and how many are more preventative in nature.
History report, run one. Again, don't expect a perfect result, but it is nice to get some kind of a feel or at least to know whether it was shiny side down at some point. You'll probably see a fender bender on anything more than 10 years old or that it was sold at auction. Don't get too bent out of shape about that, but if you see that it was sold at 7 dealer auctions in the last 2 years and has had 350 miles put on it during that period, just walk away.
A few last little universal mechanical details. Check to make sure it's dry underneath, nothing wet, or has it all been freshly painted and pressure washed?. Look at the oil on the dipstick and check to make sure it's not glittery (indicating engine wear.) Try to get a cold startup, like try to get a viewing of the vehicle before it's started in the morning so you can hear if it's rattly or smokey. You can see sometimes if there's water in the oil by checking the under-side of radiator cap for milky white substance, but it's not always reliable, blown head-gaskets are usually pretty hard to hide in vans.
Drive it, listen for noise, it should "feel good", check that all the warning lights on the dash work but are not illuminated. If you can, check to see how dark the transmission fluid is, black is bad, bright red in most cases is good. This is all pretty-generic stuff but important. The last thing to look at, check for overspray around the rubber and plastic trim, see if the doors all line up square, check that the doors all open and close easily, the accessories work and you can generally get an idea of what kind of driving was done by the edge of the drivers seat and brake corner pedal. If the van has 40k miles and the seat is torn and brake pedal corner to the metal, you know the thing has hard miles.
Ok, last notes here and important. You will likely resell your van at some point, so consider that in your build. I'm sure your taste is excellent, but whoever buys your van next will want something different, possibly completely. Just like houses, white vans with empty interiors sell better than anything. Try to keep any permanent decor to a minimum and when you go to sell it, the van with the fewest apologies needed will bring the most money every time. EVERY inexpensive fix should be handled and it should be clean. Price your van at what you're willing to let it go for and hold firm at that price. The most common mistake I've seen made by the majority of people is trying to list it high just to see if they can get it and then coming down. Sell it to the very first person with good money that's very close to what you're asking and wave goodbye.
The important questions
We've found just asking questions of ourselves and partners is a good way to ferret out what's important in a van, so here's a few to discuss with yourself or copilot before jumping right in.
-Is this going to financially ruin me if I make a mistake? (Well that escalated quickly, but probably best to get that one out of the way.)
-How long am I going to be in my van at a time?
-In the time I plan to own this van, is standing up going to be important and if not now, is it something I can add later?
-How many people will travel with me and how many does it need to sleep?
-Does my van need to be secure either when being parked and left, or parked when I'm in it?
-How far from civilization am I going to be in my van and what impact does that have on the platform?
-Do I care if it's difficult to get into or park?
-What temperature span am I going to experience in my van and do I need to budget heating or cooling equipment?
-How little can I live with and what can I not live without?
-Will this end my marriage, more importantly, do I want to end my marriage?
-Am I going to work on my own van and if so, where?
-Of my wish list, what can I do myself and what do I need help with?
-Am I willing to talk about my vehicle to strangers everywhere I go?
-How long do I want to keep this van?
-Am I concerned about resale value and if so, how will I mitigate any losses?