So you decided to buy a van to convert into a campervan… or perhaps you are in the research phase and are trying to work out if you go for a Sprinter van… and if you do, which Sprinter van is best for conversion in terms of model, size and specifications you need for your van to be suitable for doing a DIY conversion (or having it professionally converted).
The number of decisions you need to make when selecting the right van for your conversion can initially seem overwhelming, but it is actually pretty easy to narrow down your options and work out which Sprinter van is best to buy for your camper van conversion.
Let’s start with brand. We’ll make it easy here – we’re all about Sprinter van conversions, and so this post focuses on helping you narrow down which Sprinter van is best for conversion, and why, as well as some of the factory options you may want to consider if you are ordering a new van, or buying a pre-owned van that may (or may not) have those options installed.
As far as brand goes, Sprinter vans are currently manufactured and sold in the US as both Freightliner and Mercedes-Benz Sprinter vans, however as the two are similar and Mercedes recently announced that Freightliner-branded Sprinter vans are going to be discontinued in 2021, we are focusing on the Mercedes Sprinter van brand in this post.
Let’s get into it…
Which Sprinter van is best for conversion when it comes to length?
Working out which length Sprinter van is right for you to buy for your camper van conversion is probably the biggest van conversion decision you need to make.
Sprinter vans come in a range of length, the most popular of which in the USA are described as the 144, 170 and 170 EXT wheelbase options (WB).
To translate the numbers, the overall lengths of each Sprinter van are:
- 144 WB Sprinter Van = 234 inches = 19.5ft = 6m
- 170 WB Sprinter Van = 274 inches = 22.8ft = 6.9m
- 170 EXT WB Sprinter Van = 289 inches = 24ft = 7.3m
In Europe the Mercedes Sprinter van also comes in a smaller length! This length Sprinter van is not available in the US, and may be too small for many people looking at Sprinter cargo vans as a base conversion van, but it’s worth being aware of their existence in case you’re looking to build a very compact camper van and you can get hold of one.
While we’ve listed the overall lengths, a better way to get a feel for the overall size of each is to see one in person. Even better, if you’re serious about committing to buying a Sprinter van yourself, you can rent one for a weekend or vacation and try the length and floorplan out for size.
144 vs 170 Sprinter Van
When it comes to comparing the 144 vs 170 Sprinter van lengths, let’s start with saying that both are very popular choices when it comes to conversion vans, and each has some distinct advantages over the other.
Many people choose the 144 Sprinter Van as you can build it out into a very versatile camper, and it drives, and parks, like a large car. A 144 Sprinter can fit in most regular parking spaces (at least, in the USA), so it’s a great choice if you’re going to also be using it regularly, for example for work or every weekend, rather than on fewer, longer trips throughout the year. It’s also a more nimble option for cities and if you plan to take your camper off-road regularly.
The 170 wheelbase Sprinter is just over 3ft / under 1 meter longer than the 144 wheelbase Sprinter, so it naturally offers more options and space for you when it comes to turning it into a camper van. The 170 may be a better choice if you need that extra space and aren’t concerned about being quite as nimble when it comes to driving and parking your camper van.
To help you narrow down which Sprinter van may be best for you in terms of length, we’ve included some things to consider, below.
170 vs 170 EXT Sprinter Van
The 170 EXT is less popular than the 170 and only comes as a cargo (not a passenger van), but can be attractive if you’re looking to buy the biggest Mercedes Sprinter van you can get your hands on, as it gives you an extra 15 inches in length at the back of the cargo section, compared to the 170 length Sprinter, at 289 inches long compared to 274 inches long.
Which Sprinter van length is best for your conversion really comes down to the essential question of how are you going to use your Sprinter van once it has been converted?
It’s important to consider that there are many people with different lifestyles and interests who are interested in ‘van life’. But what does van life mean to you?
Here are some questions that will help you work out which Sprinter van is best for you when it comes to the overall length of the van:
- Do you intend to live in your Sprinter van full time or for extended periods of time, or will it be something you don’t live in but use regularly on weekends or the occasional week away?
- Do you want to be able to park in a regular parking space and navigate smaller roads with ease?
- Do you need to haul ‘toys’ (bikes, surfboards, etc) in your van?
- Is having a shower, toilet and kitchen area important to you?
- Do you want a permanent bed in your Sprinter van or are you happy to convert some dinette seating into your bed for the night, then back again the next morning? [click here for camper van bed layout ideas if you’re not sure]
- Are you / your vanlife partner particularly tall?
- How many people are going to be traveling (and sleeping) in your Sprinter van?
This is by no means an exhaustive list, but it gets you going in the right direction. For more food for thought when it comes to determining what your personal Sprinter van build must-haves are, read this post.
The answer to any one of these questions may swing the decision regarding which length Sprinter van to buy – generally the choice is between getting a short wheelbase (144 in the US), long wheelbase (170) or extended wheelbase (170 EXT) Sprinter van.
Which roof height should you choose for your Sprinter van conversion?
When most people talk about which Sprinter van is best for conversion, the big question is what length van should you get. But you should also consider whether you want a regular or high roof Sprinter van to convert.
The vast majority of Sprinter camper vans you will see out there have a high roof. This is because it allows most people to stand up fully when inside the van, and also provides room for wall storage units.
However, if you prefer a low roof and more European-style camper, you could consider getting a regular / low roof Sprinter van and having the roof converted into a pop-up (aka pop-top) roof, that you can raise when parked for more internal space.
We are seeing so many more new Sprinter van conversions with low roofs – which is particularly handy if you need to keep it in a regular garage!
Which Sprinter Van Model should you buy – cargo, crew or passenger van?
Whether you should choose a cargo, crew or passenger Sprinter van is a really good question, because the advice and answer depends on who you ask – and also, from a practical perspective, what is important to you.
Sprinter cargo conversion van
The majority of Sprinter van conversion companies will suggest that you choose to buy a Sprinter cargo van as your conversion vehicle. This is largely because a Sprinter cargo van comes with fewer extras than a Sprinter crew van or passenger van (that you may not want and which may get removed as part of the conversion process anyway) and it is available in all the different lengths and roof heights Mercedes offer for Sprinters.
If you know you want a 170 EXT, then it has to be a cargo van, as that is the only model that offers this length.
A cargo van is just that, an empty van, which may have some factory-installed windows (which are usually in the rear doors and sliding door, if installed) or may have no windows. Depending on the factory extras your Sprinter van comes with (assuming you’re not ordering and spec-ing it new yourself), it may have a factory floor with tie-downs, and some cable runs to the rear motion sensor and backup camera, as well as some internal lights. But that’s about it.
Plus, if buying new you can add factory extras on to it, to your preference, or at least bear this in mind if shopping around for a pre-owned Sprinter Cargo van, as some will be more basic than others in the driver’s cab and in terms of exterior details.
All this means a cargo van is the easiest type of Sprinter van to start from scratch with, especially if you have a particularly strong view about what windows you want, and where.
Sprinter crew van for conversion
A Sprinter Crew van is similar to a cargo van, but with some additions such as a second row of seats (to seat your ‘crew’ in – when you’re traveling with more than 2-3 people in the van at a time) and a window behind the drivers’ seat. Because of these extras, this means there is potentially more you need to REMOVE from your crew van before you start building your van conversion.
Many people may not want/need the second row of seats, and perhaps your van conversion design doesn’t call for a large window behind the driver’s seat. Or perhaps… this is just what you DO want, because you’re traveling with kids who need crash-tested seating and a window to look out of while you drive!
The Sprinter crew vans are currently sold by Mercedes in 144WB and 170WB options, so if you can find one then you do have the option of the longer wheelbase.
It’s also worth noting is that the Crew van’s RRP is several thousand USD more than the base cargo van.
Can you use a Sprinter passenger van for conversion into a campervan?
A Sprinter Passenger van is basically a minibus/limousine and is available in the standard 144WB length.
Given its intended use is to transport people in comfort, of course this type of Sprinter comes with not just a lot of seats but amenities and fittings required for transporting all those people, such as windows all the way around the van, seat belt anchors, fittings in the floor for the rows of seats, air conditioning and lighting, etc etc.
As a result of all these additions, there is a lot more work to prepare a passenger van for conversion into a campervan, and there are some features that you cannot change – such as the full set of windows around the van.
For these reasons, the Passenger van Sprinters are not typically as popular as Cargo and Crew models when it comes to converting into campervans.
It’s also no surprise that the passenger van models are more expensive than the Cargo and Crew models. That said, based on our research of the used Sprinter vans being advertised by Mercedes (as approved pre-owned), there was a lot more availability of used Passenger Sprinters than the other models – so if you’re in a hurry to get a 144WB Sprinter van, perhaps you can live with and work around the windows and internal fittings in return for getting your hands on a van asap 🙂
In summary, then, to answer the question of whether you should buy a cargo, crew or passenger Sprinter van for your campervan conversion, the popular consensus is that if buying new, or if you have a lot of choice, then go for the Cargo van. If you have more specialist needs or preferences, or find a good deal on a used Crew or Passenger van and can live with the drawbacks, then these are still options to consider.
Which Sprinter van drivechain: Should you get a rear-wheel-drive or 4×4 (AWD) van?
This question is really the subject of a post in its own right. However, unless you are going to be driving in or spending extended periods of time in places with a lot of snow/ice, or intend to drive your converted Sprinter camper van off-road, then a rear-wheel drive Sprinter van is probably going to do a fine job – especially if you upgrade your tires to a set suitable for winter driving conditions.
While having a 4×4 Sprinter van may come in handy, you do need to ask yourself (a) can I find a pre-owned 4×4 Sprinter van (very hard to find!) or am I happy to wait for many months for a brand new one, and (b) do I mind / can I afford the extra cost of the 4×4 engine (around $8k more than the RWD version when new, last time we checked).
If you’re interested in seeing how the RWD and 4×4 Sprinter vans drive in the real world, then you could also consider renting one with Outdoorsy for a vacation or long weekend away – or even better, plan two weekends away, one in a RWD Sprinter and one in a 4×4 version! This is also a great way to try out camping in the different length options available, and see how you like the drive, layout and interior space in different types of Sprinters 🙂
How do I find a Sprinter cargo van to convert into a camper van?
If money is not your primary concern then you may want to consider buying a new, or nearly-new Sprinter van for your conversion.
Why buy a new Sprinter van?
A new vehicle will naturally come with the latest body, gadgets and a warranty (and you can choose all your extras), which is always nice.
However, it’s also worth considering that if you are going to go on and spend upwards of $50k / $80k / $150k on your Sprinter conversion, then you probably want that van to have the potential to last a long time, and quite simply, if you buy an older van with a few years and quite possibly many miles on the clock, then your camper van that you just spent a ton of cash on converting, may have a shorter lifespan than you may have hoped – losing you money, or at least enjoyment, in the long run.
If you choose to buy a new Sprinter conversion van, then the best place to start is by speaking with your local dealership to find out about availability and ordering. You can also fully spec out your dream Sprinter van on Mercedes’ website, and find out the RRP including all those nice extras you may want 🙂 Definitely speak to your dealer, though, because as mentioned above, there have historically been long waits to order new 4×4 Sprinter vans, although we understand the wait time has come down in recent months.
That said, buying a new Sprinter van involves spending a lot of money up front, and this can make it prohibitively expensive – and it can also be harder to find a lightly used Sprinter van, with the specs you want, at a good price. This means that if you’re not looking at buying a new van, generally, being more flexible on the model, color and specifications of your van will be helpful when it comes to finding something suitable in the used van market. After all – having a van and living the van life is better than no van, right?