What Is a Camper Van? Easy Explanation and Definition

What Is a Camper Van?

There’s a common trope of “living in a van down by the river.”

For many, this may conjure up images of hippies in decked-out vans from the 70s, and these could certainly be considered some earlier campervans.

With the rise of van life, off grid living, and alternative living in general, campervans are becoming more and more popular, for camping and full time living.

Personally, I think a campervan is the best way to start living off grid full time, and in this article, we’ll discuss exactly what a campervan is and why they’re so great.

Definition of a Campervan

Camper vans are the ultimate go-anywhere vehicle for living, traveling, camping, and more.

But, what is a camper van?

A campervan is a van that has been fitted with amenities to make it suitable for camping or living. At minimum, it must have a bed, but many will also have sinks, kitchens, food storage, toilets, workspaces, showers, and more. From the factory, they fall under the category of class B motorhomes, and many modern campervans are essentially tiny homes on wheels. Converted vans that have had amenities added may also be considered campervans.

In the simplest of terms, a campervan is a van that you can camp or live in. You can think of them as smaller RVs that aren’t so cumbersome to drive around town.

The primary defining feature of a campervan is the bed. With a bed inside, any type of van can become a “campervan” since you can clearly camp in it anywhere.

However, if you want to be comfortable, you’ll need some additional amenities, and few people would consider an empty cargo van with a mattress tossed inside as a real campervan.

Campervans today are often loaded with the same luxuries and essentials you’d find in any home, albeit, in a much more cramped fashion. They are considered RVs, so it’s not uncommon to find campervans that are basically just rolling tiny homes. 

Of course, when trying to build living accommodations in such a small space, you must get creative. For this reason, the beds in most campervans transform into couches for lounging or offer extensive storage underneath. Sometimes both.

You won’t find full-size bathrooms or kitchens in a campervan, but that doesn’t mean you must lack either. Many campervans find ingenious ways to include both, despite the tiny amount of space available to work with.

It’s this smaller footprint that also sets campervans apart from other RVs. Campervans are class B motorhomes, denoted by their small size and status as a converted vehicle, though converted campervans will often not be registered as RVs at all.

What Is a Campervan Conversion?

There are two main ways to get a camper van. You can purchase one that’s already converted, or you can convert one yourself.

A few manufacturers produce factory model campervans, such as the classic Volkswagen camper.

However, most campervans are actually conversions that were completed by a third-party company such as Overland Van Project or by an individual who took on the conversion themselves.

In truth, even the Volkswagen camper was produced by a third party: Westfalia.

So, what is a campervan conversion?

A campervan conversion is a van that has been converted into a campervan. This means that certain amenities have been added to make the van more livable. These amenities may include a bed, toilet, kitchen, shower, heating, cooling, and more. Since camper vans are not produced as factory models, factory model vans must be converted into camper vans.

Whether you’re purchasing new or used, purchasing a converted camper van is certainly the most expensive route. For those on a budget, you might consider converting a van into a camper van yourself, which is a much more affordable route, though it will require more work.

Different Kinds of Camper Vans

Campervans come in many varieties. You’ll find some that look like small motorhomes from the outside, and others that you’d never know weren’t just a regular cargo van. But at the end of the day, camper vans are built into existing van bodies, so any type of van can be converted into a camper van.

Sprinter Vans

Sprinter vans tend to be the most common type of vans for conversion these days thanks to their ample space, empty interiors, and spacious headroom that provides plenty of space to stand in. Though some sprinter vans don’t offer enough headroom for standing, the ones used most often for campervan conversions have plenty of height for comfortable standing.

Dodge and Mercedes sprinter vans tend to be the most popular for van conversions. Even used, expect to pay quite a bit for sprinter, converted or not.

Cargo Vans

Of course, standing isn’t a requirement in a campervan, and you’ll find plenty of campers built from standard low-top cargo vans. These are often better suited for weekend camping trips than long-term travel or living accommodations, but they can still make sufficient living accommodations for those who prefer freedom and utility over luxury and space.

For those looking to build a campervan on a budget, a cargo van is probably your most cost-effective option since used cargo vans are available for relatively cheap. And if you’re really industrious, you can even add a high-top from a junkyard to a cargo van.

Passenger Vans

Passenger vans are often just cargo vans with interiors. If you’re lucky, you might even find a passenger van with a high top.

There are two downsides to converting a passenger van compared to a cargo van. First, you’ll have to strip out a lot more stuff before you can start adding insulation and beginning your build. Second, passenger vans tend to sell for a bit higher price, which can be prohibitive to anyone attempting their campervan build on a budget.

Pop Top Roof Campervans

There are some campervans that offer a mix between low and high-top vans with roofs that can be raised. Sometimes, raising the roof simply exposes a sleeping area that doesn’t interfere with the rest of the van’s floorplan. In other campers, raising the roof will give you enough headroom to stand.

Converted Box Vans

You’ll also find box vans converted into campervans, which can be quite a bit more spacious than a converted cargo van or sprinter van. Not everyone would consider this a campervan, so converted box vans or box trucks fall into the gray area between campervans and converted motorhomes.

Frequently Asked Campervan Questions

Though campervans are quite popular, there are still many misconceptions and misunderstandings about them.

In this section, we’ll answer the most common questions about campervans. Hopefully, your most pertinent questions will be answered!

What Is a Class B Campervan?

A Class B Campervan is a recreational vehicle built into a van chassis. This is the smallest RV classification, with 19-25 feet being the standard length for class B campervans.

What Is the Difference Between a Van and a Campervan?

The main difference between a van and a campervan is the purpose for which the vehicle is intended. A van is meant for transporting people or cargo. Campervans can still transport both, but their primary purpose is to provide mobile sleeping and living accommodations. To that end, campervans have beds and often contain additional amenities while vans just have seats and cargo space.

Any type of van can become a campervan. Cargo vans generally feature just two front seats and leave the rest of the van empty, making them a perfect shell to build a camper in. Passenger vans and conversion vans will require a bit more work to convert into campervans since they’re not empty to start with, but they still make great candidates.

What Is the Difference Between a Camper and a Motorhome?

Camper and motorhome are two different names for the same thing and can be used interchangeably. Both are considered recreational vehicles, though a camper can refer to both self-propelled RVs like motorhomes and trailers while motorhome is a term strictly for a self-propelled mobile dwelling and cannot refer to an RV on a trailer.

What Is the Difference Between camper van and caravan?

Caravans, known as campers in the U.S., must be towed by another vehicle as they don’t have engines. Camper vans are class B motorhomes and are therefore self-propelled. However, both contain many of the same amenities and both would be considered RVs.

Do Campervans Have Toilets?

Most campervans do have toilets, though some self-converted campervans may not. Toilets in campervans range from removable, self-contained cassette toilets to more standard RV-style toilets with a black tank for waste storage mounted on the underside of the campervan. In some rare cases, you might even find campervans that have been fitted with waterless composting toilets.

How Much Does a Campervan Cost?

The cost of campervans varies drastically depending on what you’re looking for and whether you’re purchasing new or used. Older model campervans from the early nineties can often be found for just a few thousand dollars, but you can expect that they may need some upgrading or updating. Newer secondhand campervans can start in the $15,000-$20,000 range with higher miles. Brand new campervans generally start in the $50,000-$60,000 range.   

The Final Word

Camper vans can open up a world of freedom for you, allowing you to freely travel wherever you please with very little restriction. Add a few solar panels and your campervan becomes a self-sufficient rolling home, ready to take you off grid camping for an immersive experience in nature without sacrificing your comfort. Be sure to read my guide to off grid RV camping to prepare yourself for the best camping trip of your life!

Or, if you’re looking to make your campervan a more permanent living situation, read my complete guide to off grid living for beginners to learn about everything you’ll need to start living a life of freedom, disconnected from public utilities and monthly rent!

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