It’s more than just gawking at Instagram pictures tagged “van life” and wondering if we have what it takes to customize our own conversion van. Your’s Truly just bought her own van. And I’m going to tell you how we did it — and a few things to consider.
Is a Camper Van a Motorhome?
People use the words “camper van,” but is a camper van a motorhome? Technically speaking, a camper van is a Class B Motorhome. It has stuff inside it that is far more common to a motorhome than a cargo van. It could be as simple as beds and a table, or more upgraded with water and generator or battery-powered refrigerator.
There are three types of motorhomes. “Class A” motorhomes are the size of a bus or larger and built on a commercial bus frame. They have flat fronts and look like a big, luxury bus. A “Class C” motorhome is built with a bed that juts out over the windshield. They are usually not as big as a Class A but much bigger than a Class B.
Why Buy a Camper Van or a Conversion Van?
You know we love to tent camp. There’s just something about sleeping in a tent – big or small – with my family that fills me with joy. I love cuddling into my sleeping bag on a chilly Alaska summer evening, ignoring the midnight sun like a pro and going to sleep. I love everything about the tent. … most of the time.
But for me tent camping season in Alaska is short. I do not want to camp when it’s colder than 50 degrees in the morning. I just don’t love it. In Alaska that means my camping season is over the summer. It starts sometime in May, and it’s over by mid-September. It feels like not enough, but I just don’t want to be cold.
I also hate camping in the rain. When you tent camp in the rain, everything is wet. If you have to set-up or take down your camp in the rain, everything is even wetter. Gross. I mean, I’ll do it — but gross.
Enter: the camper van. A van offers warmer sleeping arrangements for everyone with full size or double beds, the convenience of a car and an easy place to keep dry. It seemed like a great solution to my problems.
And then … and then I went camping in my friend’s camper van. She drives a Voltswagon and it. was. glorious. We pulled into a spot just off road, popped the top up, rolled out the fake lawn and lived the dream. I mean just look at this. If this doesnt make you want to have a camper van, what would? I was sold.
Why Buy a Camper Van Instead of an RV or Trailer?
As people who love tent camping, we felt like a Class A or Class C RV would be too much for us, as would a trailer. We love the convenience of being able to use any tent camping site and not having to hunt for one that’s long enough. We love being able to go anywhere without worrying about whether a pop top trailer or RV would fit.
But more than anything, the times we’ve tried those things, they just seemed like way too much for what we wanted. Even the small R-Pod trailer we rented to visit Denali National Park in the cold part of September a few years ago was great, and kept us warm, but I didn’t love how easy it was to just hole up inside and never really experience the campground.
A camper van seemed like a really good compromise.
How to Decide on the Right Camper Van
First, let’s start by noting that there a million camper van conversion places in the world charging huge piles of money to customize a large van, often a Mercedes Benz Sprinter, into the conversion van of your dreams. People also love to customize their own vans. But most of these conversion jobs share one problem: in an effort to maximize space, they only have two seatbelts.
There are also manufacturers making camper vans new or working with longstanding companies like Coachman to finish them off. Examples of those include the Ford Transit, Mercedes Sprinter and Dodge Ram Promaster vans. Some even offer personalized services.
We’re not really DIY scrappy enough to customize our own or do our own van builds, and we didn’t want to drop the cash to buy new, so we were looking for something used.
But the world of ready-made camper vans or used conversion vans in Alaska is small and old. They also seem to either have two seatbelts, or are really old (pre-2005 and often mid-1980s) Volkswagens, which are internally amazing and perfect for what we wanted from an amenities standpoint, but pricey and known for their mechanical issues.
And so we knew we were looking for: not a Volkswagen; mileage below 125,000 so it would last us a long time; more than two seatbelts. We also wanted four wheel drive, but knew we’d settle for front wheel drive.
Where to Shop for a Camper Van
Since we knew we wanted to buy a used camper van, we were shopping exclusively online. We could have kept our eye on local RV lots, where the kind of thing we wanted sometimes shows up, but we wanted to use a private seller in hopes of keeping costs down.
I kept my eyes on Facebook marketplace, Craigslist and an Alaska-based listing site called Alaska List. I searched every few days to see if anything new had shown up.
And then, there it was!
What Van Did You Buy?
Meet our yet-to-be-named van, a 1997 Coachman Ford E250 5.4L V8 with front wheel drive. It’s a little fancier than what I thought we needed, but it has seat belts for seven people, beds for at least four and wow was the price right.
A young private seller in our area had priced well below what he could’ve gotten for it had he understood its value in this area. We snapped it up as quickly as we possibly could, and now … it’s ours!
It also has a two-burner stove, a refrigerator, a propane generator, an exterior shower (!), a toilet (… we’re going to take that out), storage, a tow hitch, A/C and a heater and a super sweet tape deck. In short, it’s everything we need and more. It needs some very minor age-related mechanical work, a good detailing and we’ll be upgrading the interior (… and definitely telling you all about that).
Here’s to many adventures!