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How to Buy the Best Camper Van for Your Needs: Which Conversion Is Best?

The most popular #vanlife options, from affordable outdoorsiness to glitzy glamping.

The camper van craze is in full swing, and that's great news if you're just starting the sample what #vanlife has to offer. With so many companies offering their take on what camping in a van should look like, ranging from bare-bones basics to DIY projects to full-on pro conversions, there's definitely a vehicle out there that fits your specific needs, budget, and personal taste. Let's break down the most popular camper van options, from affordable ways to semi-rough it to full-on glamping.

Rooftop Tent

Aside from a sleeping bag under the stars, the simplest way to camp has always been in a tent. Add a van to the equation, and you're suddenly on top of the world—or at the very least, on the roof of your van, which can provide killer views of the natural splendor around you, decent protection from being flooded out of your pajamas during an overnight rainstorm, and more than a fighting chance at keeping critters out of your gear.

As appealing as a flat, elevated platform might be, there are a few downsides. For starters, it's not appropriate for every scenario: folks might be quick to call the cops if they saw you pitch your rooftop tent on a less-than-remote road. Then there's the fact that you'll have to climb up and down in the middle of the night if nature calls, which introduces its own perils. Finally, a camping situation that requires a ladder isn't friendly to anyone with mobility issues.

Teardrop Trailer

You don't have to actually camp in your van to camp with your van. A small teardrop trailer towed along behind you can offer a weatherproof sleeping space that barely puts a dent in your fuel mileage or your wallet while leaving the interior of your vehicle free for transporting outdoor gear, food, and other supplies. You can also flip the script and use the trailer for hauling and the inside of your van for sleeping. Either way, it can be a relatively cheap arrangement that expands the footprint of what you can bring along while you're getting away from it all.

Keep in mind, however, that a trailer can make it harder to park in a city setting if you're doing any urban exploration as part of your travels. It's also a target for theft, and can restrict the types of campsites (both paid grounds and on public land) that you have access to. You'll also have to find somewhere to store the trailer itself when you're not out adventuring.

Slide-In Kit

The do-it-yourself spirit is strong in van-dom, which has led to a cottage industry producing 'slide-in' kits designed to transform nearly any vehicle into a ready to go camper. There are as many different designs out there as there are outfitters, but they revolve around common themes: splitting vertical space between sleeping, storage, and lounging, or adding fold-down accommodations to accomplish the same kind of internal division.

Slide-in kits are available for both standard and tall-roof vans (or even SUVs and wagons), and are reasonably configurable. Some even include full kitchen capability, but at that price point you're starting to edge closer to our next category of camper van.

Professional Conversion

Want to go all the way? A professional conversion will provide you with every one of the amenities you are looking for, and none of the ones you aren't, without asking you to get your hands dirty in the process. A pro van conversion also allows you to punch up the roof either permanently or with a liftable panel, giving you headroom for walking around inside your rig. This is a boon to anyone seeking a taller vehicle without the added length of a large commercial cargo van. You can even find modular conversions that are configurable based on how many people you'll be bringing with you, and what activities you plan to enjoy during your time at the campsite.

As might be expected, it's not an inexpensive solution once someone starts taking a Sawzall to the inside of your camper, although there are affordable options out there. On the plus side, the used market is filled with depreciated drivers being sold by van owners ready to move on to something larger, which means bargains are out there as long as you don't mind dealing with someone else's interior design tastes.

4x4 Overland Rig

Speaking of bigger, if your idea of camping is inextricably linked to exploration the great outdoors, then a 4x4 overland rig is for you. Typically constructed out of cargo vans or truck chassis featuring a full frame design, some of these vehicles require the installation of an aftermarket four-wheel-drive system while others make use of the stock drivetrain. Nearly all of them ride on lifted suspensions, and run the gamut from tent-on-roof to full-on conversions.

What's the catch? If you want to bring water and power with you expect to fork over major dollars, and four-wheel-drive vans tend to sell at a premium due to being less common than their two-wheel-drive counterparts. Weight and aero begin to cut into your fuel mileage, too, pushing you close to our next, and ultimate, camper van category.

 

The Full Luxury Experience

For every van lover who wants to rough it, there's another who'd prefer toasting marshmallows from the posh leather-lined confines of an upscale, fully-modernized rig. Enter the super-luxury segment of Class B motorhomes, vehicles that are built on a van chassis but brush up against their larger Class A counterparts in terms of RV accoutrements, if not size. This is where you'll find heavy hitters like Airstream (the Interstate series), Winnebago (with the overland-ready Revel), and Pleasure-Way (the Plateau series), as well as companies that mix overlanding with luxury, like EarthRoamer.

The sky is the limit in terms of pricing these Class B van contenders (you're looking at a six-figure minimum outlay), which will stretch the budgets of all but the most devoted van fans. The upside is exceptional configuration and build quality, along with strong support should something go wrong out on the road. The latter is not always something that's available from the custom conversion crowd.