Picking a Base Vehicle for a Camper Conversion Build

We spent at least 6 months examining the options base vehicle options for our camper conversion, 5 years by some measures. If you already know what you want then dear god skip to the section, we don’t want to be the person that made you change your mind and change all your plans.  Been there.  We’ve about decided there’s no right choice here, but there are definitely wrong ones.  At the start of it we defined a few simple priorities that acted as our guiding light throughout the process.  We strayed a few times, but always found our way back.  We highly recommend taking the time to make a similar list, especially if multiple people are coming along – you might learn really important / surprising things about your companions.  David, for example, didn’t know that Belle actually prefers s**t’ing in the woods (dream-girl!) and a fancy black water system isn’t something we need to prioritize.

Our DIY Camper Conversion Base Vehicle Priorities (In Order):

  1. A comfortable bed with enough height for David @ 6’2″
  2. NTSB approved rear row seats for a (hopefully) growing family
  3. Usable as a daily driver for David
  4. 4 wheel drive for rough / muddy roads
  5. Physical Security (Hard sides, access to driver’s seat from sleeping area)
  6. Capable of 1 week unsupported:
    1. food and water storage
    2. Electrical: CPAP machine + minimal device charging

Base Vehicle features we got excited about, but didn’t actually need:

  1. The extra interior space that comes from a Sprinter, Cargo Trailer, or other, larger base vehicles
    1. We’re designing this for camping on BLM land, so we plan on doing most of our cooking / eating / and living outside.  When Belle and I stood in a light weight pop-up camper (the Northstar 700) we were impressed, but it still felt so cramped neither of us really wanted to actually hang out in there.  More on slide in truck campers later…
  2. The ability to stealth camp
    1. We’re still aiming to be a bit stealthy, but we’re aiming to be boondocking on public land almost 100% of the time, so it’s not the focus.  That frees us up to create a sprawling base camp with our SUV tent, something we couldn’t do in a walmart parking lot.
  3. Suitability as a long term tiny-house
    1. We’re going to tour North America in this thing for 6-12 months, but the plan is to find a place to put down roots.  We thought about the merits of a slide-out trailer as a long term stationary residence, but felt like living in a slide-out or living rougher in our DIY camper were both about the same.  Either way we’ll be working 24×7 to build a better temporary structure, so it doesn’t really matter.  That and I think Belle is secretly trying to manipulate our life path towards living in a yurt.

Still reading? If you’ve made up your mind skip ahead to layout planning.  Just don’t be discouraged when you come back to this step after realizing your wine fridge won’t fit.

All The Base Vehicles We Considered

  • A Sprinter Van / Promaster / Transit / hi-top econoline:
    • What we loved: Space! We can put a queen bed “north-south” as they say in the biz and still have enough room for a dinette.  With enough elbow greese these can be super impressive RVs
    • Why we didn’t: Expensive for 2WD and insanely expensive in 4WD.  And David didn’t want to have one of these as a daily driver.  And Belle at 5’2 wasn’t comfortable in the driver’s seat.  We came close though, look I even designed my standing-desk office:
  • An AWD Safari or AstroVan
    • What we loved: Cheap and AWD! Stealth Camping!
    • Why we didn’t: these things aren’t made anymore, the ones on the used market are in pretty rough shape.  Also, there was no way to have a confortable mattress AND accomodate a growing family, deal breaker!
  • An SUV or Truck with a tent top
    • What we loved: Works as a daily driver, expandable into a more serious “overland” adventure vehicle.
    • Why we didn’t: These things also usually can’t accomodate a mattress in the stowed position, which means air mattresses, which breaks priority #1..  Also, Belle felt more comfortable sleeping in something with hard sides.  I get it, being stuck on top of an SUV in a tent isn’t rad if physical security is important to you.  As someone who’s been 6’2 since 7th grade it’s important to remember I don’t have a clue what it’s like to be 5’2.
  • A Slide in truck camper
    • I could write a book on this.. We had paper work ready for a signature on a brand new slide in camper for 23K, but two things stopped us.
      • Gross Vehicle Weight: We didn’t want anything bigger than a half ton double cab pickup, which meant a payload capacity of ~1500.  Salesmen for these things will try to tell you that if you install air shocks it’s find to put a 1500lb camper on a half ton truck, camper manufactur’s websites even have pictures of this configuration.  Weither you think it’s dangerous or not, you need to understand that you’re taking a liability risk by exceeding the max GVWR for your vehicle.  On our 2006 tundra even a lightweight popup would have only left us a couple hundred pounds for batteries, water, food, gear. F150 + a  pop-up camper from Four Wheel Campers?  Probably okay, but do your research. For us it just didn’t make sense.
    • And there’s no way to get to the driver’s seat from the sleeping compartment, fail!
  • A 3500 lb trailer from Lance
    • What we loved: Everything, omg so nice
    • Why we didn’t: More than we wanted to spend and neither of us were excited about towing something for all 14,000 of our planned road trip this year.
  • Then we thought of something pretty unique….

What we finally Picked as our Base Vehicle:

A 2006 Double Cab Tundra with a DIY extra long canopy hanging off the back!

It checks all of the boxes for our Camper Conversion priorities:

  1. A comfortable bed with enough height for David @ 6’2″- CHECK! Extend the canopy to the edge of the open tailgate and you get 100″, plenty of space.
  2. NTSB approved rear row seats for a (hopefully) growing family – CHECK! The 2006 double cab has just enough room for a rear facing child seat in the middle.  If we have twins we’re doomed.
  3. Usable as a daily driver for David- CHECK! David loved his 2005 RWD Tacoma, this is the truck of his dreams
  4. 4 wheel drive for rough / muddy roads – CHEEEEEECCCKKK!
  5. Physical Security (Hard Sides, access to driver’s seat from sleeping area) – CHECK! But ONLY because it’s a tundra with a rolldown rear cab window! We’ve been having trouble getting the canopy company to install a removable window, but we have hope that if the glass is replaceable, it must be removable.  Check out this (future?) post to see what happened there.
  6. Capable of 1 week unsupported: CHECK! And because it’s not that slide-in we were considering, we get to build it all up from scratch! 
    1. food and water storage
    2. Electrical: CPAP machine + minimal device charging

Meet goldilocks!! Why goldilocks?  Well obviously our hunt has been an endless search for “just right”, but it almost rhymes with Roxy, Belle’s mini cooper’s nick name. So there ya go.  Check here for more information about choosing a canopy.

 

 

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