Sprinter vans are the most popular high-top camper conversions on the market. Not only do they dominate the professional camper scene, but they also make up the great majority of DIY builds as well. Many people who embrace the nomadic lifestyle have been able to turn these vans into a comfortable lifestyle!
Are you thinking about making your own Sprinter van conversion?
If so, here are 14 important things to consider before you get started.
Sprinter Vans Are Diesel Only
While the Ford Transit and many other American car companies offer gasoline versions of their vans, Mercedes does not. This means you’ll have to buy a diesel version. While this might not be a bad thing, you should realize that diesel engines do have their advantages and disadvantages.
Diesel Engine Advantages
Diesel engines are rated to last much longer than gas engines. In fact, a diesel engine is rated to last for 300,000 miles while a gas engine is only rated to last for 200,000 miles.
Another advantage of diesel engines is that they get better gas mileage than gas engines. In most cases, you’ll find that a similarly sized diesel engine will get at least 25% further on a tank of fuel than a gas one will.
Diesel Engine Disadvantages
A diesel engine typically requires more maintenance than a gas engine. On top of this, the maintenance of a diesel engine is more expensive to perform than it is on a gas engine.
Also, U.S. travelers should keep in mind that diesel fuel isn’t always available at every gas station. This means you’ll have to be especially careful when planning your route through remote locations or you’ll run the risk of running out of fuel.
Sprinter Vans Can Be Costly
Sprinter vans often come at a premium price point. In fact, a new Sprinter van can easily cost twice as much money as a Ford Transit or a Ram Promaster van. With this higher purchase price also comes higher insurance costs as well.
Of course, Sprinter vans have been around for a while and you can buy used models at a lower price, but these models may require expensive and time-consuming repairs. Also, with the recent popularity of the van life movement, you may find that even a used Sprinter isn’t as inexpensive as you may have hoped.
Not only this, but you’ll also spend more money on maintaining a Sprinter van. Sprinter van parts can be harder to get and it can be harder to find people who know how to install them. Because of this, mechanics often charge a premium when working on Sprinter vans.
As we stated earlier, Sprinter vans will only run on diesel fuel. While diesel fuel may give you more miles per gallon, it will also cost you more money to buy. In most states, a gallon of diesel fuel will cost you about 20% more than a gallon of gasoline.
Dealerships Could Be Difficult to Find
Many Sprinter van owners have found that dealerships may be their only option for getting repairs done on their vehicles. Unfortunately, this can make things quite difficult. Mercedes dealerships aren’t everywhere and companies like AAA will only give you a certain number of towing miles for free.
After you’ve surpassed your emergency towing company’s mile limits, you’ll be on the hook for paying for the additional miles you need it to be towed. This could end in you having to pay out hundreds of dollars before a mechanic even looks at your disabled vehicle.
The lack of available dealerships could also make the purchasing process a bit more difficult. While you’ll find Ford dealerships all over the country, the same can’t be said of Mercedes dealerships. Mercedes is said to have about 368 dealerships in the United States while Ford has over 3,000 dealerships. On top of this, most shade-tree mechanics can work on a Ford, so you may not even have to get your Ford serviced at a dealership.
Sprinters Can Be Branded Differently
Sometimes people can get confused as to what a Sprinter van actually is. There is actually a good reason for this. A Sprinter van is sometimes badged as a Mercedes, sometimes badged as a Dodge, and sometimes as a Freightliner.
The nice part about all of this is that they are all exactly the same under the hood. Between the differently badged vehicles, the main differences will simply come in the form of different decals and possibly a different interior cab area.
In most cases, the Mercedes Sprinter will have a more luxurious interior to it than a Dodge or Freightliner version of the same vehicle. This can be nice for long road trips, but keep in mind, it will drive up the cost of the vehicle. Also, Mercedes’s decals can often be the target of theft, so you may end up having to be careful about what types of neighborhoods you decide to park your camper in.
You’ll Have Different Wheelbases and Heights to Choose From
Currently, the Sprinter van comes in two different wheelbases and three different heights. However, this wasn’t always the case. Older Sprinter vans came in four different wheelbases, so if you’re planning on buying used, you’ll want to know about all four of them.
The 118” Wheelbase
The 118” wheelbase Sprinter is the shortest wheelbase they ever made. This vehicle is no longer made but for those of you looking for a Sprinter that they can virtually park anywhere, this is the vehicle for you. The 118” model has a body that is only 16 feet long with almost 10 feet of cargo room in the back. It came in both a normal height and a high top.
The 144” Wheelbase
The 144” wheelbase can be found in both new and used models. It offers 10.5 feet in the rear and has a total body length of about 19 feet. This length is still short enough to easily fit in most parking spaces. The low roof on this vehicle offers an interior height of 5’5” and the high roof offers 6’4”.
The 158” Wheelbase
The 158” wheelbase is no longer offered new, but you can still find it on the used market. This vehicle offers about 13’ to 14’ inside the cargo area. It also offers a few different heights depending on what year you go with and what high-top style you go with.
The 170” Wheelbase
The 170” wheelbase is currently being sold so you can find it on both the new and used market. This vehicle has an interior cargo area of 14’ which makes it extremely roomy for a van conversion. People with the 170” wheelbase can easily fit a bed, a kitchen, and even a bathroom inside of this vehicle.
The drawback to this is that it has an exterior length of almost 23’. This means you won’t be able to park this vehicle in a traditional parking spot and you’ll have a lot of trouble getting around on tight city streets.
Bump Outs Can Make Layouts More Versatile
Sprinter vans make good conversion vans because of their length and height. However, they often fall short when it comes to their width. A Sprinter will usually only have a width of 6’ at its widest point and this width gets smaller as insulation and interior cladding are added. As a result, taller people cannot fit their beds horizontally within a Sprinter van.
Luckily, there is an easy way to counteract this downfall. Many aftermarket companies offer bump-outs that can be added to the sides of Sprinter vans to give the interior a few extra inches on each side.
This might not sound like a lot, but the addition of just an additional 6 inches could mean the difference between having a full-size bed fit horizontally or having to turn the bed vertically. With the bed in the horizontal position, it only takes up 54” of space. Move it to a vertical position and it will take up 75” of space.
The nice thing about these bump-outs is that they won’t make the vehicle any wider than it already is. This is because the side view mirrors will still stick out further than the bump-outs that are added to the sides of the van.
Slideouts Could Be An Option
If you’re looking to add even more room to your Sprinter van, you may want to consider the addition of a slideout or two. These can be added to the rear of the vehicle, the sides of the vehicle, or even both the rear and the sides.
Rear slideouts are nice because you do not have to cut into the body of the van. Also, these slideouts can be quite large so you can often double the amount of space you have in your camper. The downside to the rear slideout is that it will need to be supported. Also, this type of slideout does not make the vehicle any wider.
Slideouts that are built into the sides of the vehicle can add a lot of versatility to a van. They can be used to change the layout from a vertically centered layout to a horizontally centered layout or they can simply be used to add additional sleeping areas.
The major downside to side slideouts is that you’ll have to cut into the sides of your vehicle. On top of this, the slideouts may make it so that your van no longer fits within the width of a standard parking space.
Factory Four-Wheel Drive is Available
A lot of vans can be converted into four-wheel-drive vehicles. Companies like Sportsmobile have been doing this for van owners for many years and it really adds a lot of functionality to a camper van. Unfortunately, this conversion can be quite expensive. People looking to make the conversion could easily end up spending five figures on it.
Luckily, Mercedes now offers a four-wheel-drive option straight from the factory. This version of the Sprinter van will cost you more than a standard rear-wheel-drive model but it should still be cheaper and easier than getting a van converted after the fact.
One note of caution, however, is that a factory four-wheel-drive vehicle will usually be less capable than a custom-built off-road Sprinter van. To make your factory four-wheel-drive Sprinter into a true off-road machine, you’ll need to add further upgrades to the suspension as well as the tires, but at least you’ll have a head start over those that need a full conversion done.
You Can Rent Before You Buy
Many people who are new to van life come into the scene without much experience. These people have only driven standard sedans and SUVs and therefore have a hard time deciding what size van they should build. Rather than guess, why not rent before you buy?
To do this right, you’ll want to try and load up the van as if you were making a camper. Place a mattress where you’d put the bed, place a camp kitchen or table where you’d place the kitchen, and get a portapotty or at least a bucket to simulate where the toilet will go. Doing this will ensure that you know exactly how much space you’ll have inside after your build is done. After this, all you’ll have left to do is to try the vehicle out on the road to see if you’re comfortable driving it.
One thought to keep in mind is that you don’t have to rent every single model you’re considering. My advice would be to start off with the smallest van and only rent the next size up after you’ve decided the smaller one will not work for you.
A Dry Camper is Much Easier to Build
Another thought to keep in mind is that you don’t have to build a DIY campervan out the way a professional company would. This means that you can go with a dry build that consists of a dry toilet and portable sink water. You’ll find that this type of buildout offers many benefits.
For starters, you won’t have to worry about installing any plumbing in your camper. This will reduce or possibly even eliminate the number of holes you have to cut into the vehicle. On top of this, going with a dry build makes it so that you never have to go to a dump tank.
Lastly, a dry build is going to save you money. With a dry build, you don’t have to buy piping, holding tanks, or pumps. You also don’t have to worry about buying chemicals for your tanks or paying campsite fees just so you can visit a dump station.
Newer is Often More “Stealth”
When people talk about stealth camping, they typically mean that they want to be able to camp anywhere without being noticed. What most people think this means is that they should make their vehicle look like an old beat-up cargo van that is in town to do work. However, these vans often stand out more than newer ones.
If you plan on parking on the street in a nice neighborhood, you’d be better off getting a new van. People may notice this van, but they are much less likely to get nervous about it. This means they won’t call the police and you’ll be able to stay parked without being bothered or having to move.
Overhead Cabinets Can Make The Vehicle Less Stable
Many DIY vans builds consist of a lot of overhead cabinets. People feel that these cabinets add a lot of additional space and they are usually correct about this.
Unfortunately, many people fail to recognize the fact that adding overhead cabinets can make the van top-heavy. This can affect handling and can make the van harder and more dangerous to drive. If you do decide to put overhead cabinets in your build, my advice is to use the lightest materials available and to avoid placing heavy items within these cabinets.
Wall Sheathing Doesn’t Have to Be Heavy
While we’re on the topic of weight, it’s important to recognize that wall coverings don’t have to be heavy. Many van conversions consist of tongue-in-groove boards or heavy barn sheathing. This might look good, but it’s heavy.
Instead of using heavy materials, consider going with a lightweight vinyl material. This type of material will not take up much space, will not weigh much, and will conform to the sides of your van much easier than wood will. On top of this, vinyl is easy to remove so you can easily convert the van back to a cargo van whenever you’re done camping with it.
Standard RV Parts Can Be Plentiful
The nice part about converting a Sprinter van is that many professional companies have already done it. This means that you can take advantage of a lot of aftermarket campervan parts. Before you decide to make anything on your own, go ahead and check eBay and even your local junkyards as you may find that the part can be bought for much less money than it would cost you to buy it.
Sprinter vans are the most popular vans to convert into campers and for good reason. Just make sure you know exactly what version you want before you start planning out your final build!
Morten is the founder of GoDownsize. He has filmed and interviewed people living in tiny houses and RVs since 2011. He grew up on the coast where his dad took him boating from a young age. He has completely rebuilt two RVs in which he travels with his family for months at the time. Read more about Morten here.