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RVs have been the domain of the retired in the US for many years. Now all generations have embraced van-living, but can a van be converted into a camper?

The global connectivity to the internet and the enforced work-from-home regulations due to the Covid-19 pandemic have turned many into digital nomads, living and working from their campervans. Converting vans into mobile living spaces has become big business, and there are many companies doing such conversion on a full-time basis.

Converting a commercial van into a camper in the US is completely legal as long as the gross vehicle mass (GVM) remains below the stated mass. Popular commercial vans that are most often used for campervan conversions are the Mercedes Benz Sprinter standard and long-wheelbase models.

The Mercedes Benz Sprinter range is available in four different lengths, three different roof heights, two-wheel-drive and four-wheel-drive, gasoline, and diesel powertrains. The pricing for MB Sprinter vans ranges from $27,000 for a used van to $35,000 for a new short-wheelbase version and $50,000 for a new long-wheelbase high roof version.

The legality of conversion is not complicated, but you should have your campervan specified with your insurance company to ensure comprehensive insurance for the vehicle and added features. Let's look at what a van conversion entails.



What Qualifies As A Van Conversion As A Campervan

Commercial vans are purchased devoid of any luxury features or fitments. The van manufacturers are aware that the vans will be used in various applications. Some are set up as package delivery vehicles, mobile workshops, ambulances, and campervans.

The manufacturers of commercial vans offer a range of optional fitments and accessories that assist buyers in having the vans converted by the factory or dealer before delivery. It is best to purchase the van with certain options fitted and covered by the manufacturer's warranty.

Suppose you will be living or camping in your van for extended periods in hot and cold climates. In that case, it is recommended that you specify the Heating, Ventilation, and Air Conditioning (HVAC) systems to be included in the van specifications.

Turning the van into a campervan could be as simple as adding a mattress and some tie-down packing crates to the back of the van. Or you can convert it to a fully-fledged house on wheels by adding a kitchen, toilet, shower, and other amenities that will make full-time van-living a reality.

You have to consider what the GVM (gross vehicle mass) and the GCM (gross carrying mass) are specified for the vehicle. Let's assume we take the MB Sprinter LWB High Roof cargo van at an MSRP of $50,000 as an example.

The vehicle is specified to have the following carrying capacities:

  • Payload Capacity of 3,682 lbs.
  • Seating Capacity for 2 to 3 on the front bench seat
  • Cargo Volume available 533 cubic ft.
  • Max Available GVWR of 9,050 lbs. (Gross Vehicle Weight Rating)
  • Base Curb Weight of 5,368 lbs. with full fuel tank
  • Max Available GCWR of 13,930 lbs. (Gross Carrying Weight Restriction)
  • Max Towing allowance 5,000 lbs. (tow ball download 120lbs.)
  • Fuel Tank Capacity of 24.5 gallons

The base curb mass of 5,368 pounds is added to the payload capacity of 3,682 pounds for a maximum gross vehicle weight rating of 9,050 pounds. A gross combined weight rating of 13,930 pounds allows for 100 pounds of tow ball download and 5,000 pounds of the trailer to be added to the vehicle.

9,050 – 120 + 5000 = 13,930 pounds

It is critically important that you realize that you can only add a maximum payload of 3,681 pounds of weight to the van to remain within the legally specified specifications of the vehicle.

The payload does not include fuel, but it includes the passenger's weight, food, water, bed, bedding, clothes, kitchen, bathroom and toilet fixtures, and holding tanks. At the start of your trip, you and all your passengers plus all luggage, food, and drinks may not exceed the 3,681 pounds.

If you have an accident in an overloaded condition, your insurance may decline to honor your claim for damages. You may also find yourself in hot water with traffic officials if they find your vehicle loaded more than these specified values.

Plan your van conversion with care and set yourself a weight target to remain within. The additional weight of the campervan will restrict your range and cost extra in fuel consumption. The maintenance of brakes, suspension, and engine wear will also be higher due to increased weight and aerodynamic effects.

Campervan Conversions – Think Portable Systems

Commercial vans will lose their resale value if you make permanent changes to the vehicle. The additional toilet and black water tank will not enhance the value of your campervan once you have decided to sell it one day.

The installation of rooftop solar to add a 12V battery bank to the campervan to power kitchen appliances, lighting, and recharging cell phones and laptops is also not a feature that adds value to used campervans.

The solar panels will adversely affect the vehicle aerodynamics and increase fuel consumption—plan to do your conversion only to include the essentials. If you are overnighting in RV parks, you can use their facilities to shower and wash your clothes.

Here are several items that you should consider buying as portable options instead of fixed installations:

  • Portable solar-powered power bank (Bluetti, Jackery, Ecoflow, Anker, Goal Zero Yeti)
  • Portable chemical toilet with disposal cartridge (Alpcour, Separett, Thetford, Porta Potti)
  • Portable composting toilet (Kohree, Nature's Head)
  • Solar thermal shower bag (Solar Camp Shower)
  • Portable fridge/freezer (Dometic, Change Moore, Whynter)
  • Detachable Awning
  • Portable Gas Burner or Induction Cooktop
  • Portable Table with washing and cooking space
  • Foam or Inflatable Mattress and bedding
  • Portable Freshwater Cans

All of these items can be fitted and removed from the campervan without any trace of having been permanently installed. The portability of these systems is that they can be used in other settings and are ready to use without any need for a hardwired installation.

Commercial Vans Are Already A Legally Registered Class

Planning the conversion of a commercial van to a campervan is the easiest way to convert the van into a mobile camper without needing to go through any registration procedures barring the describing the van as a camper to your insurance company.

The majority of the van to campervan conversion companies in the US use the Mercedes Benz Sprinter, RAM Promaster, Ford Transit, Volkswagen Crafter, Peugeot Boxer/ Citroen Relay/ Fiat Ducato, Iveco Daily, Renault Master, Volkswagen Transporter, Nissan NV, Mercedes Benz Vito, Ford Transit Custom, Peugeot Expert, Chevrolet G20, Ford Transit Connect.

Due to many wheelbase lengths, roof height, and powertrain options, the Mercedes Benz Sprinter is the model range most often used to serve as a basis for conversion to a campervan.

The MB Sprinters are routinely fitted with the following camper options:

  • Kitchen equipped with a gas or electric induction cooktop and oven plus counter space, a kitchen sink with running water, and storage cabinetry;
  • A fully operational bathroom that includes a hot water shower cubicle and a composting or chemical toilet;
  • Bedding options that can fold away to provide additional storage or seating space;
  • Living and seating space for 4 occupants with clothing cabinets;
  • Secure storage or racking options for bicycles, skis/snowboards, surfboards, or other equipment;
  • Solar power generation and energy storage to power all electrical equipment;
  • The plumbing of fresh water and supply of hot water and the storage tanks for fresh, grey, and black water;
  • Maintenance and off-road recovery gear storage solutions.

All passengers seating during travel must comply with the safety regulations regarding seat belt fitment and secure seating anchorage to the vehicle's body.

The added weight of all the conversion hardware must still allow the fully laden vehicle to remain within the specified Gross Vehicle Weight Rating. The conversion design should consider the placement of all heavy items at floor level where possible.

The weight added to the roof level of the vehicle, such as roof racks and rooftop tents, will move the center of gravity of the vehicle higher, making the vehicle more prone to roll-over instability. Stiffening of suspension settings and an upgraded braking system will make the campervan safer and more comfortable.

Camper / RV or Motorhome Classifications In The USA

The terminology Camper, Campervan, RV, and Motor Home is used to describe the same type of vehicle in the USA. These vehicles are classified into three distinct classes:

Class-A is the largest motorized recreational vehicle built on large commercial trucks or bus chassis powered by diesel or gasoline engines. These vehicles range in length from twenty-one to forty-five feet and weigh 13,000 to 30,000 pounds. RVs less than 26,000 pounds can be driven in most states without any special license requirements.

Class B is the smallest of the motorized vehicles and is most commonly referred to as van conversions or campervans. These vehicles vary in length between seventeen and nineteen feet and accommodate as many as four people. Class B recreational vehicles weigh 6,000 to  8,000 pounds and can be driven without any special license.

Class-C is a midsized vehicle with lengths of between twenty and thirty-one feet and accommodation for as many as eight people at a time. Class C vehicles typically weigh between 10,000 and 12,000 pounds. These vehicles also do not require the driver to have a special license.

The Ten-Year Rule Of RV Campsites

The legal barriers to entry into the Van-life fraternity are not very high, with van conversions to campervans being legal as long as the gross vehicle weight rating (GVWR) is not exceeded. There are also very few states that require any special driver's licenses for RVs below 26,000 pounds.

The potential point of resistance may be from camping ground owners facing the challenge of homeless people trying to occupy their campgrounds for extended periods. To limit their risk, campground owners may deny access to vehicles older than ten years or that do not appear to be well maintained.

It would be best to choose wisely when looking for a vehicle to convert into a campervan and bear this unwritten rule in mind. Choosing to convert an old Skoolie or commercial van will give you the added challenge of ensuring that your converted camper looks good and is roadworthy.

Many RV owners discard their old vehicles due to the poor resale value in this market segment. The homeless have seen the opportunity to make old discarded campervans their home causing a huge legal headache for the owners and the authorities.

To avoid this bias against older or DIY campervan conversions, consider buying a new or low-mileage van to serve as the base of your camper conversion. It may also be prudent to rent a campervan for several weekend getaways and see which amenities you would like to have on your conversion.

Buying Vs. Renting A Campervan

Before embarking on a van conversion or buying a campervan, I recommend that you rent a campervan of the size and type you envisage and take it on a couple of excursions. Also, consult with the van-life community online by joining a local club.

Van life is not an easy existence and is certainly not for everyone. With rapidly rising gas prices, the cost of traveling and living in a van is becoming more expensive by the day. Used RVs have a poor resale value and can be bought for really low prices in the market.

Establish whether you plan to live in the van on a full-time basis or how often you will use the camper. If you are only going to use the campervan occasionally, then rental is a good option to consider before committing to buying or converting a van.

By renting a campervan, you can select exactly what kind of vehicle you want and the amenities needed by your family. You will avoid the cost of purchase, conversion, and maintenance of a campervan. You do not have the cost and hassle of parking and long-term storage when the camper is not in use.