For 15 years I wanted a camper van. When I finally decided to take the plunge, I really had no idea what I was looking for. To say my camping knowledge was lacking may be an understatement. So I did what everyone does…googled it!
Unfortunately, I found it extremely difficult to get the information I was looking for. Purchasing a camper van is a huge decision. After all, it will be your home on wheels, your gateway to adventure, and your trusty steed on the road. When you’re shelling out the big bucks, you want to make sure you’re making the right choice.
This is the list I wish I found when I first started the hunt for my camper van. Maybe you have fond childhood memories of your family packing up their van for a weekend trip. Or perhaps you were inspired by a setup you saw on Instagram. No matter your motivation, there are a few things you should consider before you go all-in on buying a camper van for the first time.
1. Can you keep it simple?
Experienced camper van owners will tell you that when it comes to buying your first camper van, the simpler the better. There are endless options when it comes to upgrading a van, from solar panels to drop-down beds to fancy countertops. But whether you’re planning to live out of your camper van full-time or just use it for the occasional camping trip, it’s hard to know what extras you’ll actually need until you’ve actually used your van quite a bit.
Rather than waste money (and time, if you’re converting the van yourself) on features that you might not like or need, try starting with the simplest, least expensive option you can. You can save your pennies for your dream van in the future while figuring out exactly what that looks like. If that won’t work for you right now, try renting a camper van with the features you think you’d like before fully committing to the purchase.
After all, the whole purpose of camping is to lead a more simplified life than you would in a house. It is a time to get down with nature, not whole up inside and enjoy your luxurious camper!
2. Are you actually able to drive it?
Camper vans may be smaller than RVs and motorhomes, but they’re still big vehicles and can be more challenging to drive than a car. While some of us may be familiar with cruising around in an SUV, others may be more used to zipping around in a small car. It’s important to know your own driving capabilities and what you will be comfortable with when driving! I recommend that you spend a fair amount of time test driving the van to make sure you’re used to the size and turning radius before you sign the paperwork and drive it off the lot. If you think you will be towing something, this is also important to factor in during your test drive. Also, be sure you know if the van has a manual or automatic transmission. If you’re not comfortable driving a manual, a camper van is definitely not the vehicle you want to learn on!
3. Do you want to DIY, get a custom van, or buy a manufactured camper van?
Camper vans (also known as Class B vehicles) come in three different kinds:
- DIY masters: vans that people convert into campers themselves, taking the DIY route.
- Cargo kings: cargo vans that outfitters customize into camper vans for buyers.
- Ready to cruise: specifically manufactured camper vans by companies like Airstream and Winnebago.
All three types are great options and the one you choose will have a lot to do with your time and skillset, as well as the level of customization you want. For some people, converting a van themselves is a huge part of the appeal. For others, purchasing a van from a trusted company makes them feel the most comfortable.
4. Should you get a new or used van?
The pros and cons of new versus used are the same for camper vans as any other vehicle. A used camper will be less expensive, but it will have more mileage and may not be as good of shape with wear and tear. It’s also important that you are fully aware of the RV’s history before you make any purchase. And while you get to start from scratch with a new van, it will be more expensive. When it comes down to it, would you like to put in a little extra elbow grease or would you rather purchase and camp that very weekend? Does your budget allow for brand new RV or for used RV? Think about what is ideal for your situation! For me, budget and customization were important factors in my decision to go with a used model.
5. How many people will sleep in it?
If you’ll use your camper van to travel alone or with one other person, having enough room to sleep shouldn’t be a problem. But once you add in a third adult or a few kids, things can get a little tight. If you know your van will need to sleep more than two, make sure there’s a solution for that. If you’re DIYing your van, build extra sleeping spots into your plan. Or, buy a custom or manufactured van that has options like a pop-top or a bench that converts to an extra bed.
I use my van to primarily host my son and I. When looking for my camper van, I knew I needed at least 2 sleeping spaces. While my son may be fine with cuddling now, as he gets older I know he will want his own space! If you can, try to envision the future as far as your eye can see.
6. How much storage do you need?
People’s storage needs vary greatly depending on how they use their campers. If you’re one person going on a weekend camping trip, you probably won’t need to pack that much stuff. But a family of four on a road trip to the beach for a surf trip will have different needs (after all, we can’t forget the sandcastle building supplies). Make sure the van you choose has enough storage for how you want to use it.
I knew that I needed more storage than the initial design of the camper. With some trips lasting more than a week and my son needing some fun activities to keep him occupied, adding a tent to the back of our camper has been a huge help with storage. Be sure to consider how you will use your space beforehand.
7. Do you want a low-roof, high-roof, or pop-top roof?
Did you know you have options even when it comes to the roof of your van? Low-roof vans give you more parking choices, as they can usually fit in garages. You probably won’t be able to fit a high-roof van in a parking garage, but they do provide more standing space. If you’re 5’2” and occasionally go camping, a low roof van could be more convenient for you. If you’re 6’3” and living out of your camper van, a high-roof is definitely a more feasible option.
You can also buy a pop-top camper or have a company do it for you. If you couldn’t already guess, this is the set-up I have! Pop-tops/pop-ups offer more sleeping room for families, as well as fresh air, natural light, and more standing room (not to mention a gorgeous view of the surrounding trees). However, during chillier times of the year, you may need to cover the upper windows with extra panels to keep your van from getting too cold. My son and I do not camp during the colder months and so this has not been an issue for us.
8. Should you get a built-in bathroom?
One luxury option is to buy a camper with a bathroom. It’s even possible to buy a van with a toilet, shower, and bathroom sink. For some, a bathroom takes up too much space and doesn’t feel necessary. Others appreciate the convenience, especially if they’re traveling long distances with children. Another option is to pack an outdoor shower and a fold-up portable toilet.
I find, for the most part, built-in-bathrooms in campers and travel trailers oftentimes end up as extra storage space. My solution for the bathroom was to have a portable toilet located in the tent attached to the back of my camper. This allows for quick midnight bathroom breaks without taking up valuable room.
9. What type of weather will you experience?
Depending on what weather you’ll face in your camper van, there are certain features you’ll want. For instance, if you plan to travel to colder climates, insulation is a must to keep you from freezing at night. If you think you’ll encounter rain, mud, or go off-roading, make sure you have good tires. And, it’s worth checking out four-wheel-drive if you’re planning on driving your camper van through the mountains.
Living in the Pacific Northwest means I am blessed with warmer weather year-round but I get to experience a ton of rain. This meant I didn’t have to stress as much about finding a warm camper but I did want to make sure it had an awning for rainy days.
10. What’s your total budget?
While the sticker price may seem like the final cost, it’s important to remember there will be more expenses after the initial purchase. For me, I had to factor in repair, alterations, and additional gear as a part of my total budget. As with any vehicle, there will also be taxes and insurance so be sure to consider those costs too.
How do you want to buy your camper van?
There are many ways to purchase a camper van. You can go to an RV dealership and test as many vans as you want before buying one there. You can also buy privately by finding listings online or in the newspaper. I actually found mine on Craigslist this way! Motor auctions are a great way to find a bargain on a camper, but the vehicles there are often need a lot of work so be sure to keep that in mind while bidding. And you can even bid on all types of RVs on eBay! While you might find a good deal on eBay, always set up a test drive with the seller before you bid. You won’t be able to back out of the sale after 24 hours post-auction.
While deciding to buy a camper van is incredibly exciting, there are many things to consider. Be sure to set a realistic mindset when shopping for your camper van and don’t be afraid to ask the seller tons of questions. If you have any kind of doubts, make sure you know exactly what you want and how much you have to spend before you make a commitment. That way, you’ll be happy with your purchase and have years of enjoyment traveling in your camper van. Happy shopping and enjoy your new camper van!