In the last 5 years, van life has seen a massive boom in popularity. Worldwide, people have been throwing beds in the back of anything they can get their hands on – and the prettier, it is generally considered, the better.
For those of us that perhaps spend a little too much on our hobbies (Big shout out to my new bike I definitely didn’t need), it can be hard to pick a blank canvas. The classic shapes we see in mountaintop laybys are those of Mercedes Sprinters and Ford Transporters; totally unaffordable if you are used to living on a budget. That isn’t to say we shouldn’t also be able to experience van life, and it has some massive benefits if you are into adventurous living, but where do we begin? What are some of the options for cheaper vans that still provide enough space for a comfy nights sleep?
My experience of van-life has been in the back of a converted VW Caddy and lets just say, that awesome little vehicle had an awful lot of personality.
In the back was a single bed, that pulled out into a rather modest double. Raised off the floor, this also provided excellent storage. If you were short, like myself, then there was plenty of headroom – If you were tall, possibly not so much.
A gas stove fit under the old seat foot-well, and there was space for clothes, books and the like, above the driver and passenger seats. Despite being modest, that van did everything we needed it to. It was perfectly cosy, quite fantastic, and provided many a wonderful and romantic night in the Scottish highlands.
My love for Carlos, as the first converted van I had stayed in, was one of excitement and adventure. He offered the opportunity for spontaneous nights away, and camping under the stars in even the coldest months. The doors didn’t always open, the air-con didn’t work and he had winding-down windows, but he was a quirky little dream.
What Carlos the Caddy proved is that van-life was never about the budget spent, or the spare space for amenities, or the paint job.
It is about having fun, and the places that you visit, and having a roof over your head enough that you can still get a good nights sleep.
With this in mind, I thought it was worth making a list of some smaller, and often more affordable vans, that would be a fantastic starting point for anyone looking to explore their van-life experiences without breaking the bank.
Ford Transit Connect
Not only is the Transit Connect often a more affordable up-front cost, but it also has fantastic mileage ratings and has now been around for over 10 years old – So you should be able to find some at a fantastic price second hand.
This van comes in a choice of either a short or long wheelbase. The long wheelbase gives you a loading space of 2.2m, whereas the short is only 1.8m. That being said, if you are wanting to put a length-ways bed in the back then both are comfortable size for most people.
I have to say, I adore these vans. They would be my first choice in the future, with their squat looks and reliable nature. I am a big believer in choosing vehicles that have personality, and these have it oozing from every inch. The Ford Transit Connect is also billed by a lot of people as being one of the best options for a small van conversion; it will fit vast array of interior arrangements, it tends to be more stealthy than more ostentatious models, and repairs are typically quite cheap.
I love the Citreon Berlingo. For looks value alone, they really are very cute. If you are going to splash out on a van, then liking its style (Both inside and out) is important – otherwise, you’ll end up selling it before its time.
The Berlingo is a modest sized van, although more recent models have been slightly bigger than their predecessors. Again, like the Transit Connect, The Berlingo comes in both a short and long wheelbase – however, there are no options for roof height. The short wheelbase has a loading space of 1.8m long, a height of 1.2m internally and a width of 1.5m. They’re really not huge, but definitely manageable if you are smart about your living space.
The long wheelbase, despite technically not being a high-top, does offer a little more height in the head department. The loading space is 2.1m long, and has a height of 1.3m high.
Little things, like having a lower bed, will give you more head room when sitting and can make quite a significant difference to comfort. Ultimately, comfort and practicality have to be your primary thought with these vans – but you can still have lots of fun fitting them out.
As I said earlier, my personal experiences have been with a quirky (But well loved) VW Caddy. They are an awesome weekend van, and a fantastic buy for anyone looking for shorter trips away. Small and discrete, not only do they work as a camper but also as a reliable everyday vehicle and run on pretty low mileage.
I am not sure a Caddy would be my first choice, but they are definitely up there as one of the best minivans you can buy to convert. Like other small vans, they push you to get creative with your interior – to find space in places you wouldn’t normally look.
The loading area is a little smaller than in previously mentioned vans, with a length of 1.7m and a height of 1.2m. This could result in the bed being little short for the tallest among us, that being said if you make a pull-out double then you shouldn’t have any problem fitting in a good nights sleep.
Before starting this list, I had never even heard of the Toyota Sienna (Perhaps because they look more like a family car, or perhaps because they are not as popular in the UK) but wow. Reading up on these has really blown me away, their capability and adaptability seems endless.
Believe it or not, the Sienna is longer than any of the vans mentioned above, although that shouldn’t be too much of a surprise- as a car, it can seat seven. Because of the shape, the roof is not quite as high (But taking that into account during the conversion process should solve that problem). If you are looking for space to make your conversion more interesting, with maybe a bathroom or living area, then this is the vehicle for you.
I recently saw a fabulous conversion of one of these, with pull out tables from the back – utilising both indoor and outdoor space. Thinking and designing smart means that even on a limited budget, you can still live full or part time in a van in comfort and ease.
The Fiat Doblo definitely deserves more credit than it gets, in the camper world. It is certainly not pretty looking, but anyone could grow to love that odd face. And where the bizarre design loses points, the Doblo gains them in fuel economy and affordability.
With a 1.4 litre petrol engine, it is not guaranteed to be the quickest off the mark – but is cheap and efficient to run, keeping it below budget for many people and making it an easy day to day vehicle too.
Unlike the vans above, the Doblo also comes two roof heights. This makes it one of the most adaptable on this list. The largest model, the XL, comes with an internal height of 1.9m, and a length of 2.1m, making it quite big for a micro-van and giving it more than enough space to take a single or double bed. It’s affordable, packs plenty of personality and for a small van, is surprisingly roomy.
The reality is, there are a multitude of micro vans out there that are just begging to be converted. My favourite will always be the Ford Transit Connect, as a best cheap van to convert into a camper, but the choice has to be down to you and your budget. Whatever your reason for wanting one, be it for weekends or to live in full time, a small van can be just as well thought out and designed as a big name (The Sprinter comes to mind). With a little planning, you can easily and affordably have a cosy home on the road.