Van Life: How to Buy & Build an Affordable Sprinter Camper Van

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By CTT Athlete PF Pidgeon

Editor’s Note:

Is there such a thing as an affordable Mercedes Sprinter camper van? Most rock climbers salivate over Sprinters. However the highly coveted Euro luxo-barge is often considered out of the conservative price range for a new vehicle, unaffordable or too much work for the camper conversion, and impractical as a daily rig. This article helps change those perceptions. We met up with CTT Athlete Patrick “PF” Pidgeon III, right before his annual climbing pilgrimage from San Diego to Yosemite. PF has always been a trusted CTT advisor for all things technical. This includes climbing tech tips, advanced sport climbing and bouldering, camping, rigging, life hacks, AND automotive builds. Always the contrarian, PF’s affordable Sprinter camper van conversion and related musings are depicted below. Thanks PF for showing us how to buy and build out a Mercedes Sprinter adventure van for $10,000 (versus $100,000)!

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These days if you are trying to be a full-time climber, or making camping on the cheap a serious part of your life, there is no better way than a Sprinter you’ve built out yourself. One often asks, how can I have a cool Sprinter van without breaking the bank? Read on fellow adventurer.

I’ve been an outdoor enthusiast my entire life. I grew up surfing, camping, fly fishing, all standard things most California kids did back in the day. In high school I became interested in hiking, which ultimately lead to rock climbing.

Once I became a climber, I committed to life as a professional dirt-bag. I adopted the spirit that it is always better to be out adventuring. Over the years, I have done more than my share of tent living. I’ve slept out of the back of trucks, inside SUV’s, next to cars, inside four-season tents, and outside on bouldering crash pads next to campfires. Thru the years, I’ve become a camping wizard. I can be comfortable anywhere, with minimal supplies.

While learning these skills, usually with the idea of improving my camping, I finally realized the need to make things easier traced back to a childhood memory of riding with my parents to go beach camping. It was the mid 1970’s, and I was sitting happily in the backseat of a grey 1969 Volkswagen Westfalia camper van. I didn’t know it at the time, but those early camping trips would form a lasting memory that would be with me for the rest of my life. Essentially, the idea is that camping can be easy. I’ve always taken time to look for better ways to camp while on climbing trips, yet failed to realize I was actually remembering the ease of those childhood days in the VW Westy camper van.

With the advent of Sprinter vans in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s, I thought I had found the premier vehicle to recreate that memory. I was forced to ask myself, “Do I have a spare $100,000 to buy a brand-new adventure vehicle? Or could it be done for less…perhaps $10,000 to $15,000?”

 

I think the time I invested over the years being creative with my camping options truly paid dividends. I believe people should figuratively pay their dues. Spend some time tent living, and having to dirt-bag around a bit. This time is important because it teaches what’s really necessary to survive, versus what is a luxury. The skills I learned over the years living out of tents and other vehicles have been invaluable with transitioning to van camping. If you are used to living on bare minimums, working with less, and multi-purposing daily items, then #VanLife is amazing. Living out of a van actually means you have the opportunity to take a ton of stuff. You can make camping feel more like home. The van provides extra amenities to augment your experience, comfort, and sustainability anywhere. If someone actually has the means to get a Sprinter and build it out without taking the time to tent camp first, well that is their choice. I just think a delayed experience can be helpful in the decision as to what one really needs for van camping.

Here is the main question if you are thinking of making the choice to live The Van Life. Do you need a dedicated adventure vehicle, or would a dual-purpose vehicle work for your needs? Throughout my adventure career, I have known countless individuals (including myself) who have lived short-term out of all types of vehicles. Usually the vehicle was a daily driver with a creative sleeping area and storage. Vehicles such as trucks, SUV’s, sedans, and wagons can all be turned into ultimate camping adventure vehicles, and be great daily-use vehicles as well. I still own a Nissan Xterra that performs this function. If you are only camping and climbing on extended trips a couple times a year, then a van might be more than you need. That stated, the Sprinter van is one of the premier vehicles if planning for long-term trips or live-in arrangements.

 

This year an opportunity came up and I was able to purchase a Sprinter for a reasonable price. This was my chance to participate in the grand experiment called Van Life. I am not in a situation where I plan to live full-time out of my van. However I spend more than enough time away from home, climbing and working to warrant a dedicated adventure vehicle, especially after years of dirt-bag camping and tent-living. Therefore I thought the price of $5,000 for a 2005 model year with 200,000 miles was justifiable. The size I found is a 118-inch model. This is the shortest Sprinter model ever made, and is sort of a unicorn in its rarity. The short length coupled with the standard (low) roof makes this Sprinter quite nimble. The vehicle has no rust, and the bluebook street value at the time of purchase was $7,000. I knew the previous owner, and the vehicle’s maintenance history. I saw this as a decent investment, and a minimal cash outlay.

People ask how to locate or source the right vehicle. Put the word out to friends and family that you’re looking for a Sprinter. See what you can find out. Sometimes you can find deals on fleet vehicles. However, make sure you get a vehicle that had reasonably good maintenance. I’ve have heard horror stories about fleet vans.

I was excited to begin the camper van conversion build-out. Like many of us on a tight budget who try to climb, work, and simultaneously sustain a normal lifestyle, having a separate adventure vehicle fully built-out is an extravagance most climbers are unable to afford. As such I selected a budget of less than $10,000 for the build-out. I also decided I would do the interior work myself.

 

Here are questions to consider for next steps. What do you actually want the van for? Will you live in it full-time? Will it be more of an adventure vehicle? Are you going to work out of it, and drive it every day? Will you need electricity, running water, or refrigeration? How large of a van will you need to fit all your gear / possessions inside? Several of these questions will play a factor in the van model you ultimately choose, and how you build it out.

Once you obtain a vehicle, try to utilize as much of your existing camping / climbing equipment as you can into the build-out. If you already own a camp stove, figure out a way to incorporate it into your build. Coolers, water jugs, even household items can be incorporated into your build. Building on a budget means you’re only limited by your imagination, plus your pocketbook. I’ve seen creative solutions that were inexpensive, yet had a lasting effect.

 

You don’t have to spend much money if you take your time, have a well thought-out plan, and shop around for the best deals on equipment and necessities. However you must also be willing to make concessions. Do you really require a fully-loaded Winnebago Sprinter with a bathroom? Would reasonable bed space and some sort of functioning kitchen be enough? Will you build it out on your own? Do you have the necessary skills and tools to complete the build? YouTube is great for giving basic lessons, but it doesn’t teach everything. Try searching Google with queries such as DIY van build, Sprinter build out, etc. Searching for specific Sprinter building terms is also helpful. Examples include Sprinter insulation, dc electrical, and fresh water storage. I’ve watched a few informational videos, which are excellent. Other videos and articles leave much to be desired. The other problem to overcome is owning the correct tools for the job, or at least having access to them.

Prior to building anything, I highly recommend getting CAD drawings with interior dimensions of the specific van you plan to purchase (or have already purchased). Prior to doing the build, create drawings with your preferred interior dimensions. This gives you an opportunity to think through different configurations. Take your time. Certain portions of the interior can be difficult to change once they are built. It’s a real pain to run wires and install lighting after you’ve put in wall panels. Trust me here!

Once you have decided on a basic layout, performing a mock build-out is invaluable. Place items like milk crates, coolers, and foam mats in a similar pattern as to how you plan the build. Try to get things as close as possible to what your finished build will be like. Placing painters tape on the ground to represent walls or cabinets is also helpful to define space / depth. Then go on an overnight camping trip, and see if it works for you. Many ideas appear to be functional on paper, when in reality they are not. Once something has been built, it can be difficult to change after the fact.

If you’re part of the Climbing, Surfing, or Outdoor community, talk to others who also have Sprinter vans. Ask them about their projects, to see how they did their builds. Learn what problems or issues they ran into, and how they solved them. They will most likely be glad to show you, and proud of their work! You will receive amazing ideas from other van owners, which you wouldn’t have thought of yourself. I believe anytime you can benefit from someone’s experience, it is worth asking questions.

I think an important point here is to be creative. It is your adventure vehicle, so build it out your way. Should you have an idea you haven’t seen before, figure out a way to make it work. Take the time to draw up a plan and test it. Then execute it just like you would do any other part of your build. Just like your life!

 

Now it is 2018, and I’m the proud owner of a used Sprinter van. Cruising to Yosemite on Interstate-5 North feels like I’m riding a couch at 70 miles per hour! How did I arrive at this #VanLife? It all goes back to that VW van my family had when I was a kid, and the final realizations of what I truly needed and could afford. Like others on a budget, I built it out on my own and saved as much money as possible. This also gave me the opportunity to create a personalized camper in a style all my own. By building it myself, I know the Sprinter’s inner workings. If something fails or needs to be fixed, I know how each part was installed and how to access it.

I was able to make concessions on certain things, since I do not plan on living out of my van full-time. In my case, I bought the shortest length and height version available from the Sprinter van style I chose. I did this for two reasons. Firstly because it’s the shortest one made at 118 inches and I can easily park anywhere, including regular-sized parking spots. Secondly I also enjoy kayaking and stand-up paddle boarding (SUP). By having the shorter-height Sprinter, I’m able to place the kayak or paddleboard on top of the vehicle by myself. With a taller version, it would require a ladder or extra equipment. You will notice some of my exterior images depict the van with a roof rack, while other images lack the roof rack. I achieve better gas mileage with the racks off, and they are easy to remove or put back on.

Since mine isn’t a full-time vehicle, for me it was important to have more comfort and fun involved with my vehicle rather than overwrought full-time live-in Sprinter functionality. I chose to use less cabinetry space for clothing, and instead have easy access storage for daily use items. I use my cabinetry space for kitchen utensils and cooking equipment, in addition to a few often-needed items. I also wanted to use part of my van for climbing gear storage. Since I was more interested in comfort and fun, I opted for an excellent stereo with amps and speakers to match. I installed a sink with running water, and a 4-foot hose spout positioned next to the sliding door, so I can wash off after a surf session. I chose a couple different interior lighting styles, with options like colors and a dimmer. These add to the ambience of the vehicle.

I created comfortable and roomy sleeping arrangements. My sleeping design is actually more spacious than needed, with functionality I think surpasses other models.

 

Earlier I mentioned using as much existing gear as possible. I included a Coleman stove, which I’ve had for years. I also utilized an ARB off-road refrigerator I had previously used in my Nissan Xterra. I dedicated extra attention to the electrical considerations. I installed a house battery utilizing a 120-amp hour deep cycle battery, which I had for running my ARB Fridge. Similar to the cool interior lighting options, I found it useful to have numerous USB outlets and DC 12V plugs. I installed battery voltage monitors for both the house and engine batteries, and an isolator to separate them. The house battery has a separate fuse panel, so the system is completely self-contained. I have also factored in wiring and access points for the solar panel system I plan to add in the future.

 

All things told, I bought and built out a very nice Sprinter for under $10,000. I had originally budgeted $15,000 for total expenses. Ultimately it came down to the fact that I took my time. The first obstacle was finding the right deal on a Sprinter, which fit my needs. In my case friends and family were the most helpful here. I put the word out and a friend sold me one in great condition for a great price. I had already spent a few years admiring other Sprinters and gathering ideas. Once I knew the model I was purchasing, I used CAD drawings and created a plan to fit my needs as best as possible. This included a test mock build-out and camping trip. After completing that stage, I executed my build plan. I personally had the necessary skills and tools to complete the build on my own. I also had piles of camping equipment I had acquired over the years, which I included in the build. Sure, some of these things contributed to the lower costs. But looking back at the math, even if I had bought everything new, I could still keep the build-out cost within $10,000.

 

Thanks for reading. I hope you are inspired and motivated to build out your personal adventure vehicle. It doesn’t have to cost a fortune. It all comes down to you and your creativity.

Good luck, and I’ll see you out for an adventure!

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