First of all, what is a campervan? What sort of campervan do you want to buy? There are plenty of questions to ask yourself when choosing a campervan.
Let’s start by checking how you’re defining a campervan. If you’re thinking of the classic image of a VW with a pop-up roof, then you’re mostly right, but sometimes the term is used generically to mean something bigger – like a van conversion or a motorhome. We’d better start by clearing this up.
What’s the difference? Well, definitions of a campervan do vary. Traditionally, as we’ve said, it means a VW (or other van) with a pop-up roof, but sometimes they have had a fixed, high-roof, too, but they’re still generally smaller (and usually without a washroom or toilet) than van conversions based on larger vans with high roofs. Motorhomes are easier to define as they’re mostly living accommodation built on the back of a cab with a chassis. That’s definitely not a campervan! Confused? We hope not.
It’s quite easy really. The most popular form of campervan is a VW with somewhere to cook, eat and sleep, but there are lots of variations on that theme, and we’d like to help you think about the key things to consider when choosing a campervan.
1. What are you going to use the campervan for?
Campervans appeal to all ages for so many reasons and uses. Your reason for buying one could influence your final choice, specification and budget.
Is your campervan going to be your main car, a home office or mainly kept for holidays, weekends, days out and sporting activities?
If you’re using it every day then those extreme alloy wheels and lowered suspension you’ve always dreamed of might not be that comfortable when you’re driving it all the time (and there’s more chance of those gorgeous alloys getting scraped). On the other hand, the more you use it the easier it is to justify a few extras.
On a more practical note, do you have a preference for a rear tailgate or twin ‘barn doors’? The tailgate is probably the most popular choice as it’s seen as more car-like rather than the more ‘workman-like’ barn doors (hence the VW California is only available with a tailgate). Tailgates provide shelter if you need it when you’re loading or unloading or washing a muddy dog, perhaps, but some find them heavy and too high to reach. The twin rear doors give you the option of only opening one at a time and only exposing half the rear boot – handy if you have a dog that you don’t trust to jump out if you were opening a tailgate. Bike racks are available for both styles of rear doors.
And another thought when choosing a campervan is, do you want a short or long wheelbase campervan?
Most campervans are on the standard ‘short’ wheelbase Volkswagen Transporter, measuring just less than 5m long – a very practical size for parking. It doesn’t sound much, but the extra 40cm of the long wheelbase version seems to make the interior feel noticeably larger. Of course, it does give it a wider turning circle, so it might not feel quite so manoeuvrable, but it’s definitely an option worth considering – particularly if you want to travel with lots of sporting or camping equipment.
2. How many people will travel in your campervan?
This is a critical question that could definitely influence your choice of campervan as most seat a maximum of four people (two in the front and two in the rear), which is obviously a popular option; however, it might not be enough if you have three (or more) children or want to be able to take an extra person with you for a day out, on the school run or for a longer adventure.
Seating for up to six
To carry more people, the best option when choosing a campervan is to look for a conversion with a three-person rear bench seat, with seat belts for each individual, or a twin passenger seat – or both, so six people can travel in your campervan!
The wider, three person rear seat converts into a larger bed, which could be useful for some.
Vans like the VW California carry extra people with separate (optional) seats added between the front and rear seats, but, as you can imagine, these get in the way when camping.
Space for sleeping
With a double bed in the pop-up roof and another created by converting the rear seat, if you’re taking five or six people, then remember you’ll need an awning or tent for the extra people to sleep in.
Other tips regarding rear seats are to consider which way they fold and convert into a bed. With the traditional ‘rock and roll’ seats, you usually end up sleeping on the same side you sit on, which may not be as flat as the other style, which folds out so that you sleep on the other side. Also, check if seat belts and head restraints are or can be moved out of the way when it’s in bed mode.
3. New or used?
If you don’t want to commit your finances to a brand new model when choosing a campervan, then there are two options. The most obvious option is buying a used campervan, if you don’t mind searching online and finding a seller or dealer you can trust.
The other option is a new campervan conversion of a used base vehicle. This way, you could be given the opportunity to make the interior and exterior bespoke to your wishes and dreams for a lot less.
It’s not only the campervan that’s your pride and joy, but also the people in it, so there are some important safety issues to consider.
If you’re hankering for an old ‘split-screen’ or ‘bay window’ VW camper, then remember they don’t have airbags or crumple zones, and probably no head restraints or rear seat belts either. How safe would you feel travelling in one?
Safety standards and testing
So, assuming you’re looking for a newer or new campervan, make sure it is fitted with proper seat belts for all occupants, and also ask if the rear seat has been crash tested to automotive standards.
There are lots of campervan converters out there, but standards do vary, and important things to check are the electrical and gas fittings, plus a safe storage location for any gas bottle to the approved standards.
Single of whole vehicle type approval is also quite important, and you might want to ask if the conversion is approved by the NCC (National Caravan Council), and meets all European safety standards.
5. Customer service
However much you’re spending on a campervan, make sure the converter looks after their customers properly. How approachable and customer-focused are they? When you are choosing a campervan, you are also choosing the level of after sales service and support.
Where can you see its conversions? Are they available only from the manufacturer’s premises? Do they have any dealers? Is there the opportunity to see the factory, speak to a designer and return for any warranty work or subsequent modifications?
What about servicing and warranty? Does all this have to be done back at the manufacturer?
Is there an owners’ club or Facebook group you can join? These can be useful for getting useful hints and tips, and for giving feedback.
On the face of it, one peek inside most campervans and you could be forgiven for thinking they all look pretty similar. Closer inspection can reveal lots of differences in specifications and designs.
Optional or as standard?
Details such as whether a bed in the roof is standard or not, or the location of any fresh or waster water tanks vary – some are easily accessible (for cleaning and replacing) in a cupboard under the sink, while some are larger tanks tucked away elsewhere filled from an external point.
An oven or grill might only be available as an option, as most campers come with a two-burner gas hob (with or without a glass cover), although all-electric vans with induction hobs are still rare.
Heating and power
Heating systems vary between diesel heaters that sip fuel from the vehicle’s main tank, or gas ones, such as Webasto or Eberspächer. Some people prefer the diesel option as it preserves the gas. Some are programmable like a domestic one, but most of the time, you’re unlikely to even need a heater.
Solar panels are increasingly desirable, especially if you want to camp off-grid and top up the charge in the leisure battery. You’ll probably expect a 240v mains hook-up to be essential, but check how many sockets there are and where the inlet socket is positioned (some are easier to reach than others). These days, USB sockets are considered essential, so see how many sockets are fitted.
Seating and sleeping
We’ve already mentioned that rear seat designs vary so when they’re converted to a bed you either sleep on the same side you sit on, or they fold over so you can sleep on the back (usually flatter). A mattress topper is often a useful accessory to add for a bit more comfort. Sometimes, rear seats are fitted on a rail system so they can slide backwards or forwards. This can be handy, but some don’t like the rails in the floor (which collect dust and dirt) and also feel a fixed seat is safer.
Roll-out side awnings, mostly from Thule or Fiamma, are almost always optional, or can be retro-fitted. They’re very useful and can have side panels added.
Modern aids and features
The specification of the cab will depend on the base vehicle. Volkswagen has gradually improved the specification of the Transporter, so you’re more likely to find parking sensors, air conditioning and electric mirrors as standard now, plus Bluetooth. Check if you want sat-nav or steering wheel controls, as to achieve a certain, attractive price point, a lower specification model and lower powered engine might be used.
In terms of layouts, the side kitchen and rear bench seat that converts into a bed is by far the most popular; as previously mentioned, some conversions offer the choice of a rear seat for three people instead of just two. The wider seat obviously means the kitchen unit will have to be narrower.
Other layout variations sometimes available are twin single rear seats (making two single beds) with the kitchen at the back opposite a wardrobe and, possibly, a fitted toilet. Speaking of which, do you want a cupboard big enough to store a portable toilet?
Do you want an ‘off the shelf’ campervan or something more individual to your bespoke design? While the production of most interiors leaves little room for customising furniture, etc, if you want to upgrade the electrical fittings or choose a lithium battery, or something more bespoke, just ask.
There can be plenty of options to make the interior design more to your choice. You could find yourself with a lot of decisions to make, just like designing a new kitchen at home – from flooring to worktops and cabinet colours, plus upholstery – and that’s just the inside.
There could be choices for the (all important) exterior as well. Alloy wheels, body kits, retro two-tone paintwork or a colour-co-ordinated roof.
Have fun creating a campervan of your dreams, but keep it tasteful in case you ever want to sell it.
9. Volkswagen or …?
The options for choosing a campervan or van for conversion can seem endless, however when you take into consideration the value of the van long-term, there are some makes and models that stand out.
Our choice for the best camper conversion is the VW Transporter, which we base our 3 models of campers on. Volkswagen have a reputation that is well earned within the camper community for being reliable, safe and
Finally, while we completely understand the desirability of a Volkswagen campervan, it is worth reminding people that there are other models available at different price points.
There’s nothing quite as cool as a VW, but the other brands are usually cheaper (for a reason?).
10. Dreams do come true
The last point to consider is that if you’re choosing a campervan, then how could you let yourself down by not making your dream come true. Life’s too short. Enjoy it!
Explore our range of camper models to find the right match for your lifestyle, and if you’ve found the one for you, get in touch with a van designer to book a design appointment or take a look at the campers for sale from our trusted network of dealers.