Mercedes Sprinter van conversion review – Insights for buyers ready to try Van Life
Updated: Nov 9, 2020
Are you thinking about doing a van conversion? It can be both an exciting and daunting prospect. So where do you start? Especially these days, when the road trip market is being flooded with new vehicles, new conversion companies and various kit types. My husband and I love active travel and outdoor exploration in our Sprinter. And in our two years of van ownership, we have received a lot of questions from both friends and complete strangers about which features we love and if it’s a worthwhile investment. So, I decided to write this review and lay it all out for you.
What's different about this review? Because it is written by a woman who initially was not convinced it was a purchase that I wanted to make. And I am sitting here now, with a different attitude. Yes, camper vans are loved by both men and women. But more often you hear from men professing their love for this rugged vehicle as part of their arsenal of masculine toys.
Well, I’m hear to tell you that although I may have spent more time than my husband assessing the dollar-value-to-use-to potential-future-monetization factors (hey, I’m part Irish and value-oriented), I have become a Camper Van convert.
Initially, aside from the financial investment, I wasn't clear if this would be a ‘toy’ we’d both get equal enjoyment from. And admittedly, I was a bit intimidated by the thought of driving a RV – they just always seemed so, so…..BIG! But I can say now with complete honesty, that I love owning our van. It's really a lot of fun, it's much easier to drive than I thought and although it was a financial investment for us, we have found an added personal benefit: a new way to deepen our bond as a couple, over our love of the outdoors.
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2017 Mercedes Benz Sprinter Van – 4x4; length 19’; engine/gas ULSD, gas mileage 14-17mpg; water tank 14-15 gallon; 2 solar panels, A/C and D/C power; shower head (between rear doors with snap-on privacy curtain); hot water heater; D/C space heater; electric penthouse canopy; capacity - sleeps 4; outdoor manual canopy; electronic/ automatic sideboards; off-road Hi/Low lights; air compressor; fridge; sink; microwave; storage: 6 shelves with sliding doors, wheel well storage, and we use a Rocket Box on the roof for longer road trips. Lighting: inside over sink, reading lights over both upper and lower sleeping areas, outside porch light; Kenwood stereo with cell phone/ personal music connection capability; separate radio battery; cell booster; Sleeping capacity: Our rig can sleep 4 adults tightly or 2 adults and 2 children more comfortably. But quite honestly, its perfect size for 2 adults and can feels like a small studio apartment on wheels when organized efficiently.
Comfort TIP: the sleep platform in our setup was easily made far more comfortable by buying a twin size, two-inch
foam bed cover. This set us back ~$50 but makes a remarkable difference in comfort (and warmth). When not in use, we fold it up and stuff it into a large duffle. We keep bedding and two full size pillows in a second large duffle and both fit nicely side by side behind the folding bench seat as we drive. Worth it!
Food Storage TIP: We supplement our small fridge with a small cooler. Its a great option for sodas, beers and other beverages. And the 28 quart size fits nicely between the two front seats of the van. If your travel budget doesn't allow for a Yeti cooler, we bought this Lifetime brand cooler at half of the cost, it's bear-certified and keeps ice solid for two-three days.
Do I need a 4x4?
This is an important consideration and will determine if you get your van now, or 8-12 months from now (estimated wait time for a Sprinter 4x4). I've read that as of 2019, Mercedes-Benz upgraded their South Carolina manufacturing plant, so Sprinters are now being made in the USA. Ford Transits are also rumored to be having more 4x4's available for 2019/20 as well as Ram ProMasters. But again, if you want a 4x4, you may need to wait for it. So here are my thoughts:
Skip the 4x4 IF – most of your road trips are at traditional campsites, you don’t venture into unpaved wilderness much in a vehicle, or you only plan to do Summer / fair weather road trips. In other words, most of your driving is on pavement. But that still leaves so much to explore! And realize that a vehicle with two wheel drive and good tires can handle most dirt roads that are in decent condition. Just do your research to find out current road conditions before you head out. So with that in mind, there are a lot of available Sprinters without 4x4 traction, just waiting for you to convert them.
HOWEVER… a 4x4 is worth waiting for IF – you like taking your rig off the beaten path, enjoy camping remotely, plan on road-tripping in winter or in all kinds of weather, enjoy beach camping or sometimes find yourself crossing shallow creeks or muddy roads in your adventures.The traction in this vehicle is insane! The first time my husband took me out in the van, he wanted to demonstrate what it could do, so I would gain confidence in the vehicle's capabilities. We were out driving some extremely chewed up, rocky road near Carrizo Plains, and as we came across a steep, rutted downhill, I clutched the seat with one hand and the ‘oh shit’ handle with the other as he put it in low gear and calmly worked our way down. Then once at the base, to underscore his point, he BACKED UP the same rutted hill, again without hesitation. In plain language, that bad boy digs in when needed. So if you want to play in woods with a 4x4 rig, plan for it, put your deposit down, and use the wait time to plan your layout and save your pennies for your conversion.
What about a bathroom?
For our rig, to optimize space, we decided we did not need a dedicated bathroom space. Instead, we use a portable commode type system, which can be emptied easily and without cross-contamination. For any women you need to convince, have them read this blog post. I was initially hesitant as well. But the closed system is set up to minimize odor, including a neutralizing liquid which gets replaced after each dumping. To be honest, the primary time that we use it, is when we need to go at night, and we don’t want to get dressed, leave the van and go out in the cold to pee. And since we are getting down to details, I personally don’t mind peeing outside ‘au naturale’. But for the ‘other’, I will either use the portable commode when we are camping remotely, either set up outside between the back doors or inside with good ventilation. But more often, we are either driving through a town, or passing a campground, where I can run into a pit toilet or restaurant bathroom. As example, we were on a 6 week road trip in British Columbia and didn’t need to use the commode even once, simply because we had access to other places that we could use. But on a winter weekender in Death Valley, where the night time temperatures were close to 30 degrees, I can say that it definitely got used.
TIP: Plan you van layout to include space for easy access storing of this commode. They often come with a cover and can serve a secondary purpose as a step stool for getting up into the upper loft if you have one.
Our favorite features
Our van has a lot of terrific small details that make it feel like home. But I decided to share our top five, and the most asked about features.
1. The Penthouse Pop-Top – this is an alternative to getting the new hi–roof taller van models, which can also provide headroom within the vehicle. But despite similar head-room advantage, I would purchase the penthouse/pop-top, ‘tent’ style top again for these reasons:
In our rig, the upper bunk platform is broken to three pieces.This is handy when you plan on sleeping down below but want extra headroom in the kitchen area while prepping food. The front piece of the platform (which is not fixed) connects with wire loops to the top of the vehicle, and elevates with the roof. The extra bonus is that when you do this, the remaining pieces of the upper platform can now serve as a convenient shelf for duffles, camera gear, backpacks, etc. Even If you never plan to sleep up there, this frees up space in the living area by creating a shelf to get items off the floor when parked.
Closer to nature
If we do want to sleep up top, the zip-mesh windows on all sides are a terrific option for cool breezes and listening to the night sounds with the van door closed. It feels like tent-camping but with a more comfortable sleeping surface. In our rig, the mesh windows also have a second layer, zippered plastic window in case it gets too cold. And finally, adding roll-down black-out curtains will add privacy and additional warmth when sleeping up top.
If you are a wildlife photographer, the zip-mesh, canopy, screen windows are double-zip. This allows you to lay quietly and unobtrusively on the upper canopy with your lens out the window, getting great shots without scaring off wildlife with a sliding van door.
The lower sleeping area is 3-4 inches wider than the upper area, due to the structure of the pop-top. But even on nights we choose to sleep on the lower surface, it's really nice to have the penthouse top up, allowing fresh air to circulate through the mesh-screen windows.
2. Vehicle size - our van is 19‘ long, 8’7" tall at the solar panels. I was initially hesitant to get a camper van, as I had envisioned the feeling of driving a ‘bus’ or that it would be hard to turn or park. Not true! At only 19’ feet in length, it drives more like a large truck or standard passenger van and can easily make U-turns when needed. Plus it fits easily into any standard parking slot at a grocery store. Granted, I haven’t tested my parallel parking skills in this rig. But I haven’t needed to do that yet.
The other major benefit of this size of vehicle is access to standard camp grounds instead of RV parks, as vehicles over 20’ in length are banned. This often means, quieter campgrounds (no generators) and more scenic sites, as they are designed for a smaller vehicles to access.
AND one last note…If you have any fantasies of road-tripping overseas in a foreign country like we do, this size fits nicely into the shortest length hi-cube shipping container, thus saving you money.
3. The Solar – without a doubt, this is a big benefit. On our 6-week road trip in British Columbia, we never needed to plug in for power. The main D/C battery is charged by the solar and converted to A/C for outlets and the microwave. This means I can use a coffee pot, an electric skillet or even a hair dryer if needed. The battery also get charged by the engine when driving. So if you use your power thoughtfully and as long as it's not consistently cloudy, you can sit stationary and have power without turning on the engine, for about three days. And if the battery looks like it is running low? Just run the engine for ten minutes and charge it back up. Just make sure your gas tank is full.
4. The rollout side canopy -> This is a great feature for shade, and rain protection and is super easy to quickly roll out and back, and stores unobtrusively on the side of the vehicle. As noted later in this blog, this allows cooking outside the van in rainy weather.
5. The number of windows - We’ve seen several van layouts that only leave room for windows in the sliding and rear doors, leaving both sides solid, floor to ceiling, for other features. Personally, we love that our van has windows on every side, allowing light in and making the vehicle seem so much larger than its measured dimensions. We did block out one rear quarter panel of the vehicle for shelves /storage. But that's it. We kept space open for an additional window over the sink/counter area, as well as a window on the opposite rear quarter panel next to the lower sleeping area. These small windows allow for much appreciated fresh air ventilation and keeps the van cooler. For privacy, each of these windows has a pull down shade. In addition, referring back to the pop-up penthouse top, the breeze and lighting offered by the zip-screen windows up top create a comfortable, serene view of the outdoor area where we are camping. Again, a lot of light makes the space feel roomier. Don’t worry about not having enough storage space within the vehicle. Remember that on most road trip, you really don’t have to purchase and store food for more than 3-4 days. If you plan your meals simply, just stop and get fresh food as you pass through towns.The locals will appreciate your business and you won’t need as much space. Also, you will be surprised how few clothes you actually need. Again, planning a few hours for laundry part way through your trip, is another way to get away with minimal storage needs. And lastly, don’t forget the roof rack. We use a rocket box secured to the roof for backpacks and specialty/cold weather clothing that we don’t plan to use on a daily basis.
Indoor or outdoor cooking range?
I have read arguments both for and against a cooking range inside the van. The primary advantage for having one inside is weather protection. You can stay warm and dry inside the van while cooking. However, for our rig, we opted for a roll-out side canopy that provides rain or sun protection, and use a Coleman stove on a folding leg camp table. Although we have plenty of ventilation due to our pop-top penthouse panels as well as a fire detector inside the van, we didn’t want any strong odors like the smell of garlic or fish lingering in the van, long after the meal was done. So the space in our kitchen unit that would have allowed for a range top, now serves as wide prep counter. So acting as 'sous chef', I can prep inside, and hand ingredients to the 'chef' as he cooks just outside the sliding van door, under the protection of the roll-out canopy. I like this combination because it provides much needed counter space that is useful for a variety of needs.
Why not try renting first?
This is the most practical way to functionally check out different layouts and different van brands, in order to help determine what works best for your needs. Plus, by renting different vehicles, you can get a feel for each manufacturers engine, traction and overall drivability.
There are new rental companies popping up every year. If you want to try out some smaller vehicles, companies like
Boho Camper vans, Roam America and California Campers are popular resources. But if you are looking to trial a larger van similar in size to our Sprinter, here is a list of some of the companies I came across in my research, that may be worth checking out.
Outdoorsy – imagine AirB&B for camper vans and RV’s. Individual owners can list their vans for rent. This is where we will be renting out our rig in the future, so keep an eye out for it.
Native Camper Vans - Denver, Salt lake City and Las Vegas
Wandervans – Boise, Salt Lake City
Go Campervans - several locations in California, Idaho and Oregon
Why we love owning versus renting
So now that I brought it up and since so many rental companies are emerging, why not just rent one instead of shelling out big bucks to own a van? This is an individual question and one we didn’t have the luxury of considering when we bought our rig. However, with that in mind, if we were deciding between renting and buying today, we, personally, would make the purchase again. Why?
1. Frequent use
If you are a one-trip-a-year type road tripper, then renting a camper van is obviously the more affordable way to go. But we camp overnight on average one to two weekends a month and our annual longer road trips range from 2 – 10 weeks. In between, my husband, who is a professional landscape photographer, uses it when he teaches a class. And because we live within a twenty-minute drive to either a beach or a ridge overlooking the city, we frequently opt for impromptu cook-out dinners with the rig, in lieu of cooking at home.
2. Anytime use
We keep our van loaded with a change of clothes and basic cooking supplies at all times, so we can pick up and head out on short notice. Owning, for us, means flexibility, as we don’t have to plan ahead for short trips and uses. As mentioned above, we randomly drive the 'Rover' up to the ridge above our hometown, simply to ‘overnight’ outdoors. One of our favorite perks to ownership.
3. Instant shelter for day trips – Camper vans are not just for the boys! I’ve used it with my girlfriends to camp overnight before an event or race, or for local, beach/wine country outings with visiting friends. If we have one glass too many? We have a place to take a nap and sleep it off before driving home.
4. A potential source of income – Once we have broken in our rig, we are considering renting it out through a site like Outdoorsy or GoCamperVans. This way, we can earn back some of the money we put into it, and have the pleasure of helping other people get out there trying out camper-van life.
Ready to purchase and convert your own van?
1. Start by picking your base vehicle – there are many smaller vehicle options out there. But if you are looking for something similar in size to our van, these are the top contenders. I believe most offer 4WD options.
Ford Transit - $33,145 base
Mercedes Sprinter - $38,420 base
Ram Promaster - $29,995k base
Chevy Express - $31,900
Nissan NV Cargo van - $28, 850 base
2. DIY or full conversion? - This is the next question you need to think about. Both custom vans and DIY kits will get you out on a road trip adventure and into the freedom of van-life. But there is also time and money to consider. If you have the money and are short on time, a custom conversion will leave more time for trip planning and alleviate the stress that can be associated with self-builds. But if you are the type person that is process-oriented, loves projects that involve creation and craftsmanship and want to save money, then a DIY kit may be just what you need.
This market is growing constantly. So the lists below are not comprehensive. It's simply a starting point created after doing some online research of some reputable companies that are gaining a following. Our van was converted by Sportsmobile and they did an excellent job. There is hardly anything we would change in our layout/design. Sportsmobile has also been extremely responsive and friendly regarding questions we have had while on the road, followup visits to the shop for tune-ups and tweeks. This is a well-organized, reputable company that pretty much started the entire Van-life craze. They are well-known for the pop-up penthouse roof like we have. So if you like that concept, it may be worth talking to them first.
Full conversion companies for large vans
The list below is in no particular order. Take a look and compare prices. All of the listed companies covert large van brands similar to ours.
Sportsmobile - Huntington, Indiana; Austin, Texas; and Fresno, California
Outside Van – Troutdale, Oregon
Tourig – Colorado
Van Specialties – Tualatin, Oregon
RB components – Los Angeles, CA
Colorado Campervan – Loveland, CO
SYNC Vans - Hailey, Idaho
Vanworks - Fort Collins, CO
Beartooth Vanworks – Bozeman, MT
Vannon – San Luis Obispo, CA
Off-Grid Adventure Vans - Maryland, **a new company that aims to produce a more environmentally sustainable, budget-conscious van
Glampervan – San Francisco, specializes in ProMaster conversion
DIY Kit companies
If you are looking to save money, but don't want to build every aspect of your interiors from scratch, you are in luck! There are some new companies out there selling conversion kits, ranging from simple bed and shelving kits to more complete conversions. This is a great solution that falls between a pricey custom conversion and the lengthy time involvement of doing everything yourself.
Adventure Wagon - Portland, OR
Contravans - Denver, pre-fab kits for ProMasters
And last but not least.... all the fun stuff on the OUTside of your rig!
Winch-ready bumpers, bike racks, roof racks, ladders, light racks and storage boxes - don't forget about all the cool gadgets to round out your newly converted van and make rough-ready for play. And no one does it like Aluminess, so you may as well include them in your planning right from the start.
We hope this was helpful.
Feel free to contact me with any additional questions.
And Have fun!
If you'd like some inspiration for your next road trip, check out our free stop-by-stop road-trip itineraries here.