How to choose your perfect campervan
Words by Nick Harding
There’s so much choice when it comes to campervans, ranging from little micro campers and medium-sized vans that double as a daily runner, right up to large motorhome-like panel van conversions.
First up, it's worth noting that manufacturers like Fiat don't make campervans. Nor does Volkswagen, albeit with one critical exception – the California (including the new Grand California).
Instead, manufacturers take a base vehicle (a van) and convert it into a campervan, ready to enjoy a lifetime of leisure rather than as a commercial vehicle.
So, what you’re looking for is a converter (and/or its dealer representative) who can produce and sell to you the vehicle to suit your needs.
No matter what you go for – campervan or van conversion – you’ll soon find you have a vehicle that’s far greater than just a car.
It’s a lifestyle choice and, although initial cost compared to a car is likely to be higher, just remember leisure vehicles have much stronger long-term residuals.
Meanwhile, here are some typical questions, plus our answers. It’s worth bearing in mind is that there are plenty of grey areas. For example, you can get a small campervan with a plumbed-in toilet and shower, should you wish. However, the general rule holds that a van conversion offers more all-round living space and more on-board facilities than a true campervan, but you're more limited on where you can take it.
Campervan or van conversion
Campervans and van conversions arguably serve two different needs. There’s a subtle difference to consider.
Campervans fulfil more of a basic camping need and those with canvas-sided elevating roofs (pop-tops) are seen as a natural step up from tent camping. Typically based on a Volkswagen Transporter, whose size and drivability make them suited to daily use, these offer minimal camping facilities.
Van conversions, ironically often costing less than campervans, offer more in terms of living space, storage and on-board facilities, typically extending to a washroom with shower and toilet as well as a well-equipped kitchen zone.
Indeed, plenty of folk these days are downsizing from large coachbuilt motorhomes to van conversions – trading a relative lack of storage and living space in favour of a more economical and easier-to-drive package. The typical base vehicle is Fiat’s Ducato or its relatives, the Peugeot Boxer and Citroën Relay.
Our points below show more typical key features of campervans and panel van conversions, but bear in mind they’re generalisations, as it's never always so straightforward and there are variations.
Typical features of a campervan
- Volkswagen Transporter base vehicle (others available)
- Elevating roof
- Side furniture unit housing kitchen, wardrove, etc (other variants available)
- Minimal camping facilities (bed, hob, fridge)
- Rear travel seat for two (at least) converts into double bed
- Other features include single-glazed windows
- Generally for occasional, rather than long-term, camping
- Suitable as a daily driver
- Younger customer profile
- Often sold direct from the converter
Typical features of a van conversion
- Fiat Ducato/Peugeot Boxer base vehicle (others available)
- High-top roof (usually from the van manufacturer)
- Floorplans can include permanent beds or rear lounges
- Full washroom and kitchen facilities
- Various seating layouts, some with only two travel seats (in the cab)
- Other features include extra storage and double-glazed windows
- Suitable for longer-term camping, sometimes including full winter use
- Not always ideal as a daily driver (especially if over 6m long)
- Older customer profile
- Wider choice at motorhome dealers
Base vehicles on a campervan
We’ve already covered the point about Volkswagen’s Transporter being the archetypal campervan base and Fiat’s Ducato (along with its ‘Sevel’ alternatives) as the prime chassis for van conversions, but there are others.
In the campervan sector, Ford’s Transit Custom is starting to make a mark, as is the Toyota Proace/Citroën Dispatch/Peugeot Expert. Then there’s the Renault Trafic, Mercedes Vito and more.
Move up a class size to rivals for the Fiat/Peugeot and there are the likes of the Mercedes Sprinter and Volkswagen Crafter.
Choice of base vehicle is very much a matter of individual preference, however, and possibly budget, but it’s worth remembering that nothing keeps its value like a VW Transporter. And, for larger van conversions, its big brother (the VW Crafter) offers the most car-like driving experience.
VW T6 size versus Fiat Ducato size
Arguably, there’s a step up, not just in size, between a camper and a slightly but significantly larger van conversion. Length, height and width are just that bit more for the latter.
What you want to use your vehicle for will ultimately determine whether you go down the campervan or the van conversion route. Consider aspects such as parking, not forgetting storage at home, car park height barriers, and where you'll use it.
Pop-top campervan versus high-top campervan
This is one of the key distinguishers between campervans and van conversions. Small campervans typically have an elevating roof whereas van conversions usually come with a permanent high roof. This means full standing room inside as well as high-level locker storage.
A relatively new phenomenon is van conversions (with full standing room) that also have a pop-top, simply to provide two extra berths. Without this option there are relatively few van conversions offering four berths. By contrast, most campervans can sleep four (with a roof bed), and many T6-sized vans can be specified with either a pop-top or a high top.
Do you want a washroom in your campervan?
Another key point of difference between a campervan and a van conversion is the latter will have a full washroom, with a plumbed-in toilet. They’re often a compromise in terms of space, but do offer that bit more in terms of self-sufficiency – for example, if you want to overnight away from campsites (wild camping, festivals, etc).
Just note, however, the lines are blurred between campers and van conversions as you can get campervans with a plumbed-in toilet – sometimes even a rudimentary shower arrangement, too, but choice is limited. Most will just have a Porta Potti stored in a cupboard.
What you won’t find in a smaller campervan is a fixed bed, although move up to a Fiat Ducato and most imported models have either a transverse double or twin singles that don’t have to be made up from seats every night.
Where and who to buy a campervan from
There are simply too many van conversions and (especially) campervan manufacturers to list here. But, you need to be aware there are mainstream makers (both UK manufacturers such as Auto-Sleepers, Auto-Trail, Elddis and Swift, and major European brands like Adria, Hobby, Hymer, Rapido) who sell their products via a network of appointed dealers.
Then there are lots of smaller set-ups who retail directly from their own premises. Among these, many will build a vehicle to your specifications and design. Check out firms like Hillside, Bilbo's, Danbury and Leisuredrive, to name but a few.
Should I buy a new campervan or a used campervan?
You can buy new or used, but there’s also a third option of having a brand-new conversion carried out on a pre-owned commercial vehicle (either supplied by you or the dealer/converter).
The latter can be a particularly cost-effective way of getting into campervan/van conversion ownership. But tracking down a suitable base vehicle isn’t always easy, so it may be best to let the converter find the base vehicle for you, as they also have the expertise and know what to look for.
Big-name components for campervans
For campervans especially, there are top of the range components that come together in a finished vehicle. Examples include elevating roofs by German suppliers, SCA and Reimo; rear seats from RIB and Reimo; diesel-fired blown-air heating from Eberspächer or Webasto; hobs and sinks from Dometic and Can; compressor fridges from Dometic/Waeco. In our experience, it is worth paying for quality components.
Top Ten Tips For Choosing The Perfect Campervan
Work out what vehicle type – campervan or van conversion – is best suited to you, based on your activities.
Get the right layout. This goes for any camper, but getting your priorities right in terms of beds, travel seating, on-board equipment and storage is worth devoting a lot of research to.
Get the right base vehicle. You may have a preferred chassis but check out what you’re getting in terms of engine power and interior fittings like cab air-conditioning, cruise control, airbags, etc. Test drive all potential base vehicles before making a final decision.
Look for approvals and pedigree. Converters may have boxes ticked in terms of being VW-registered, Ford QVM (Qualified Vehicle Modifier) or NCC (National Caravan Council) approval. Ask to see physical evidence and do your research. Don’t just take a salesperson’s word that you’re buying the best.
Consider your options. Solar panels, heating systems, reversing cameras... It’s almost limitless and depends on your priorities. It’s a good plan to operate within your budget and consider adding some items at a later date, such as a sat-nav or awning, if you find you need it.
Buy from a specialist. There’s more security if you buy from a dealer, in terms of warranties on the base vehicle and the conversion, etc. And you'll get lots of good advice from an experienced converter.
Kit counts. Just remember, the higher the specification of your leisure vehicle, in terms of cookers, fridges, etc, the less storage and living space you’ll have. Only opt for what you really need.
It’s an investment. A campervan is so much more than its price tag, so be sure to get the right one for you. If you plan on keeping it for a while, will it still work for you in five years' time?
Do your research. The internet is a good place to start but there's no substitute for getting hands-on. Visit shows like the Motorhome & Caravan Show.
Try before you buy. Apart from campervan rental, lots of dealers and converters offer try-before-you-buy schemes. This is a great way of testing different sizes and layouts.