Plan your 4x4 van build
Before you buy a van from us or someone else, there are some exercises you can do to determine what might work best for your needs. If you have any input on 4x4 vans you'd like to share, please use the form at the bottom to do so.
Disclaimer: We do not pretend to be the oracle of vanning, overlanding or offroading. The following info is based on our customer experience and solely meant to spark ideas and constructive thinking regarding your future vanning endeavors.
Table of Contents. -- Click the links to jump down
New to the market?
The full size van is a great platform for travel and can be built in layers starting with the most basic van chassis and body. If you're like us, you enjoy building things. Some of you like doing the work, some of you like the art of the design. In our time building vans we've noticed a few trends that we thought we'd point out. We've met all kinds of folks and feel like all that really matters with your rig is that you're happy with it.
For many people, building a van is a sizable investment, so it's really something that should be planned out well ahead of time both for monetary reasons and to achieve the best usage of your rig.
There are many different options out there and your final build investment could be as low as $5k for something super basic, or well into the 100k's for a full-blown overlanding machine. Not everyone has the ability to go spend $150-200k on a Sportsmobile or an Outside Van and not everybody needs that much vehicle.
For that reason, our take on vans is to start with a basic platform or shell, be it 2-wheel drive, 4x4, or AWD and just build from the ground up. You can take your time developing your layout while using the van rather than letting another company make those creative choices for you. Be assured, building a camping van can be consuming of time and energy, but it can be a fun learning experience and ultimately give you something to be proud of.
Generally speaking, vehicles are not a fiscally responsible investment. We've found vans, and particularly 4x4 vans, tend to have a pretty good resale value. If you're careful about how you execute your setup and are careful with what you buy, you can do just fine in the long-run. Keep in mind buying and building a van is a little like building a house. At some point you may want to sell it, so spraying the entire exterior with pink rhino liner and putting a wood burning stove in the middle of the van sounds super rad to us, but it may narrow the resale market slightly.
We've included a couple of worksheets for you to help the budget. The first is a general wishlist budget sheet outlining what are popular items to build and upfit your van with. You may want to do two, one with 'wants' and one with 'needs' to determine your initial investment and your end game figure. The second worksheet is specifically to help budget your expenses in converting a van to 4x4 using our Timberline kit.
One of the most complicated questions to answer when you're planning your build is size. The size of the vehicle you are trying to put together ties into more than most people think. It affects availability, body style, engine options, 4x4-friendly usage, and can really totally upend the budget, so determining how much room you need and how important that room is as it balances priority with everything else. It's very difficult to cover this over a few paragraphs, but here's a list of questions you should be asking and why they're important.
1) Am I living in this vehicle for extended periods of time? - If you are moving into a van or spending months on end in the vehicle, you're going to want to be able to stand up inside. This means you need to explore high top/pop-top/cab+chassis options (eg, box van).
2) Am I doing heavier off-road ventures? - A body on frame vehicle (Eg-Econoline, Express, Cab+Chassis) will put up with offroad abuse over time better than a unibody design. (Eg-Promaster, Transit) The exception to this may be a 4x4 Sprinter, which has reinforcements in the chassis to help with this. We just don't have a ton of personal experience with them, and it's uncommon to see someone out thrashing their $QM rig.
3) Height + Length? - The longer you're going to spend in your van, the larger you're probably going to want, but daily-ing a 25 foot long 10-foot high rig isn't practical for a lot of people. A Timberline 4x4 Econoline with low top and roof rack is about 7'7" tall. The short Econoline is about 18.5' long, and the extended version is 18" longer. Chevy Express vans are similar length, though the height of a standard independent front suspension 4x4 Express can be reduced to 7 feet or less.
The Ford Transit, Sprinter, and Promaster are available in various lengths and heights, The Econoline is the only van that has an unchanging wheelbase which means it'll turn the same radius either way. As you get into larger unibody vans and the GM platform, a longer wheelbase means larger turns and hindered maneuverability.
4) How much does this cost? - A few really basic rules to think about. A 4x4 conversion costs $15-$20k depending on who's doing it. A hard high top install costs $6000-$10000 depending on the size and options. Pop tops cost $12000-$16000 depending on options.
Brand Options-- Pros/Cons
Brand: Yes, there are die-hard fans of each and our opinion isn't the rule by any means. Our experience is likely different than the next guy, but we've sold a lot of everything so it may have some value. In our practice: Chevy Express vans and the Ford Econoline are both extremely reliable both when abused, and when well kept which is why we have chosen to offer them as our conversion platforms. The body-on-frame design is ideal for 4x4 conversion and offroading, and they are by far the most affordable to keep on the road over time.
In a non-4x4 application, the modern Chevy van will likely put up with flat out abuse better than anything else on the road. In a 4x4 version, they both have their own place, so read on for more details. We'll give you a quick crash course on what we've seen good/bad about the various options out there.
Ford E-Series - The conventional van was last available in 2014 so availability will continue to decline over time. Parts are extremely available, the vans are affordable to buy, work on the mechanics of, and easy to upfit. The chassis design makes it ideal for a solid axle front end conversion which means maximum offroad ability and ground clearance. The cab and chassis models are still made today, and Sportsmobile even has their own retrofit body conversion if your checkbook is up to the task. These vans are how we got started and still our most popular conversion. There are various motor options all of which are inherently reliable or can be made so. The E-series is not available with a high top from the factory, so it's expensive to add that after purchase, or pop the top. Cab and chassis models obviously open up box-truck type options.
Chevrolet Express/GMC Savana - This platform is also a body on frame design, widely available and still produced today. The setup is ideal for IFS suspension conversion which gives these vans a comfortable drivability akin to a factory 2WD van. They are inexpensive to work on, extremely durable, and parts are widely available. Achieving high ground clearance for 4x4 applications, or solid axle conversion is very limited. The long-wheelbase version can be a little more challenging to park. The G-series is not available with a high top from the factory, so it's expensive to add that after purchase, or pop the top. Cab and chassis models obviously open up box-truck type options.
Ford Transit - The T series is very rigid and a really nicely put together van with some really enticing motor options. It features a unibody design which is lighter weight than body-on-frame. Quigley does 4x4 conversions for this platform, and Ford has released the AWD model for 2020 which has been offered in Europe for more than a decade. These vans come with a host of size and height options as well and parts are widely available. 4x4 conversion options are limited, and the base price of the van is going to be higher than some other options. You should expect to spend $20-$35k for a used Transit, rumoredly the AWD models will be in the $50-$60k range.
Full Size NV Nissan Van - The NV is a great van if you like how it looks. Conversions are available through Advance and Quigley currently, we may offer a conversion in the future. The vans are durable and reliable. They consume fuel just like the American counterparts with large displacement. The NV is available in 2 roof heights, and various lengths.
Dodge/MB Sprinter - The most popular camper van platform is the most expensive. Aftermarket options are endless for upfitting. The early models and late models are reportedly very reliable, but our experience with them has been very disappointing. The 4x4 version in the highest roof and length is the size of the Queen Mary, so long-term travel in these things is luxe. They are extremely safe and very nice to drive. Luxurious interior conversion companies are everywhere. Plan on taking it to MB for any repairs, skip on your thoughts about a solid axle conversion. Generally, we're just not super excited about Sprinter vans, but they are so pervasive, we are quite confident we're missing something about their allure.
Dodge Promaster - Here's your budget option. If you want a high-roof camper van that is front wheel drive and fair in the snow, something that will be easy to get camper van parts for, build your setup in, and not break the bank...the Promaster is an option. We won't tell you they are reliable, well built, or ideal for someone with options, but if you're on a tight budget and need that high roof, this is probably your best bet.
Body: There are 2 basic design differences in the setup. The Chevy Express and Ford Econoline are a cab-on-frame design, just like a 3/4 or 1-ton truck. They are the most durable and the heaviest design and play well with the 4x4 because the twisting and torquing on the vehicle through the bumps is mostly separate from the body which gives the greatest articulation and traction offroad and the more fragile body is subject to less stress with the degree of separation. The on-road ride can be slightly more truck-like in nature and the added weight does reduce fuel economy.
Uni-body design vans make up the full-size transit, the pro-master, and the conventional Sprinter van. The uni-body design integrates the frame with the body of the vehicle and is more car-like in nature. We have heard stories of people having issues with 4x4 uni-body vans ripping shock supports, having door alignment issues, body mount issues, etc, but I suppose the jury is still out because most of these designs are really late-model vans and we don't have a ton of data on it. The Sprinter is reported to have some structural enhancements that mitigate these issues, and particularly the cab/chassis models have a more conventional type frame at the back, but again, we don't have a ton of info on this. The uni-body design is very rigid. The driveway at our last shop was a little steep coming in and every time we drove in with a Ford Transit at speed one of the wheels would come off the ground coming in the driveway.
There are two main designs to 4x4 van suspensions. You have independent front axle design or IFS, and a solid axle design. Just like the body design, these both impact how the vehicle behaves. IFS vans are best suited for lighter duty off-roading, lighter vehicles, and situations where articulation isn't as important. We find the vast majority of people spend time with their vans on-road, so this is a popular option. The IFS van (like our GM vans) will drive outstanding on the highway, like the same vehicle did in 2WD, it may be a little more subject to the crown of the road, but they soak up the bumps without rattling through the cab and for long overlanding trips where you're racking up the mileage this is the preferred design. IFS 4x4 vans: Timberline GM, Quigley/Advance GM, Transit, NV Series, Factory Sprinter, Weldtec GM. Clydesdale may offer both an IFS and a solid axle GM vehicle, best to check with them.
Solid axle vans like our Ford Econoline vans are extremely durable. They are the chosen design for offroaders and purists who don't want to be scared about breaking anything. The solid-axle design is great for articulation, traction, and durability. If properly set up they can be friendly to drive on the highway and will hold the road for days if aligned correctly. I have spent a lot of time going cross country in a solid axle van and it's perfectly fine. There are 2 schools to the solid axle: leaf spring design, and coil spring. (Solid axle vans: Timberline Ford Econoline, Boulder Offroad GM, Vancompass Transit, Advance Econoline, U-Joint Econoliine, CCV Econoline)
U-joint is the driving force behind the leaf-sprung van and they have it dialed to perfection. We have only nice things to say about them, and their product is great. For sheer durability and beefiness, they are the best solution. A leaf-sprung van will have a wider turning radius and generally stiffer ride. Smaller gas engine vans can be quite stiff in a leaf sprung design.
Timberline, Quigley, and Colorado Camper Vans are the only companies that offer a 4-link coil spring solid-axle Ford Econoline. This is our preferred design for a general mix of durability and drivability. We have spent a lot of time dialing our design and just as sure as everyone else will probably say, we think our product is the best option, particularly for the money.
Additional: The last few topics I covered are extremely polarizing and people will argue sides to this until they're blue in the face. My attitudes towards these designs come from customer feedback and limited personal experience, so do your homework and read up at Expedition Portal and if you have any thoughts we'd love to hear them. Also, there are some other designs that are less common, Agile uses a twin traction beam design that they swear by and they are very well respected in the 4x4 community so it'd be worth checking out their system if you're so inclined.
Gas vs. Diesel: Diesel is both novel and useful but isn't the right choice for everyone. They can be noisy, very expensive to work on when they break, and both the base vehicle and general maintenance costs will likely be higher. Gas vans return significantly less fuel economy in many cases, towing capacity is often less, as is power. If you are building an 11,000lb setup, doing heavy towing or really racking up mileage, diesel may be your solution, otherwise gas is probably the best bet.
Buying a used vehicle
There are many new options for 4x4 vans, some of which are quite awesome. Our company was built on the used vehicle market so that's what I'll focus on here. It's very common to see vans trade hands and prices can vary wildly. That being said, I'm sure you've found that 4x4 vans tend to hold their value well. Here are some quick notes about our own experience with buying used vans.
Mileage is less important than condition for usability. We find that mileage definitely impacts value because it is the easiest thing to correlate with condition for the average person. If you're going to drive it for a few years and sell it, pay attention to the mileage, if you plan on keeping it forever, just look at the actual condition.
A vehicle can be decimated in 20k miles, or it can be pampered for 400k and look/feel new. There is some correlation between condition/mileage, but frankly, it's far less important than most people think. Look for a van that's been well kept, then consider the odometer. Late-model vehicles tend to be nicer, technology improves rapidly with time and time rapidly wears out vehicles.
Rust...rust is the most detrimental thing to the value of a 4x4 van. You can put 2 identical vans next to each other, same mileage and condition, and if one is noticeably rusty, it could be worth 10 grand less than the other. This is super important so pay attention to where the vehicle is coming from.
If you aren't mechanically savvy, get the vehicle checked out. Don't expect a perfect result. Any mechanic can find things to replace on any vehicle. Use it as a guideline more than a rule, and also take it somewhere reputable.
History report, run one. Again, don't expect a perfect result, but it is nice to know when a title has been washed or the vehicle spent time shiny side down.
You will very more than likely resell your van at some point, so consider that in your build. More than likely, whoever buys your van next will want something different, possibly completely. If you are making very permanent changes to your vehicle such as spraying the entire exterior in Line-X or paneling the interior with wood and liquid nailing every single board, understand someone else may not be keen on that aesthetic.
There are many things to consider, here is a few more questions to help get the wheels turning.
-Can I get where I want to without 4x4
-How long am I going to be in my van at a time
-Do I need to be able to stand in my van
-How many people will travel with me and how many does it need to sleep
-Does my van need to be secure
-How far from civilization am I going to be in my van
-What temperature span am I going to experience in my van
-What can I live with and what can't I live without
-Will this end my marriage
-Do I want to end my marriage
-Am I going to work on my own van and if so, where
-Of my wishlist, what can I do myself and what do I need help with
-Am I willing to talk about my vehicle to strangers everywhere I go
-How long do I want to keep this van
-Am I concerned about resale value and if so, how will I mitigate any losses
Links / Resources
Van upfitting resources
Faroutride - Superb resource for basic van building guide
Seat + Interior
Van Interior / Upfitting Companies
Grizzly Adventure Vans
High Top + Pop Tops
Van Bumpers + Accessories
Other 4x4 Van Conversion Companies
Camper Van Rentals
Need advice / Have advice?
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