The popularity of Class B camper vans has resulted in a plethora of innovative designs; we’ve seen luxury vans, affordable conversions, and everything in between. But one ubiquitous problem becomes clear when you take even a cursory glance at the camper world: Where are all the vans built for families?
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Many of the most popular van designs fit two adults comfortably but would struggle to haul an entire family and all of the required gear. While California-based ModVans is one of the notable exceptions, many families often opt for larger DIY campers like skoolies, expandable trailers, or larger RVs.
Finding a camper van suitable for kids and gear is precisely the challenge my family faced. Like so many others, I’ve spent years dreaming of a camper before my husband and I finally pulled the trigger on a 2013 Mercedes Sprinter van. At first, we only had one child so we converted the van on the cheap with a bed platform, a gear garage, and a child’s pack-and-play crib.
But once baby number two came along, it was clear we needed a more functional design to fit all of us. At the same time, we wanted to maintain the size and drivability of a Class B. The solution? A custom van conversion.
I envisioned a Sprinter that could sleep four comfortably in the winter as we chased snow around the American West. I had even larger ambitions for the summertime, when we often camped with family and friends. Could we build a van that slept six people?
Four years of traveling with our first Sprinter helped me cultivate a clear plan for what we wanted in a custom build and what we didn’t. With two working parents and two kiddos, time constraints made another DIY conversion out of the question. Instead, we turned to the seasoned experts at Sportsmobile, specifically the Sportsmobile West office based in Fresno, California.
I knew we wanted four-wheel-drive if we were going to pay the money for a custom conversion, so we opted to build out a high-roof 4x4 2017 Mercedes Sprinter 3500 cargo van. The 170 extended version offers plenty of space, and we chose the high roof because we use our vans so much in the winter to ski. Sportsmobile has made a name for itself with its pop-up conversions, but we wanted to be able to cold-weather camp and stand-up tall getting ready for the slopes.
Open the sliding van door and you enter into the kitchen and living room area. Cabinets and counters on both sides of the van store cooking supplies, and the galley kitchen includes a microwave, refrigerator, sink, and two-burner induction stove. A small shelf above the stove keeps coffee mugs easily accessible, and two lined drawers help organize cutlery without making a peep while driving. One of the most helpful features is the full-height pantry, where cut-out storage areas of different sizes store a surprising amount of food.
The front passenger seat swivels and an extra counter space flips up to create an eating space, but our family eats most meals at the large dinette and table area located in the center of the van. The removable table is stored behind the driver seat, and this seating area transforms into a large sleeping space at night. Storage underneath the seats holds bedding for the kids, while two adults—including my husband who is 6 feet 4 inches tall—sleep comfortably in the queen-size bed above thanks to flared sides.
Windows throughout provide lots of light, as do ceiling and push-style LED lights. Built-in shades offer two settings, a slightly see-through privacy blind and a black-out shade (although we do wish the black-out shades were a bit darker). Storage was a crucial factor in the design, and clothing for four people fits in the four white overhead compartments. Two fans keep air flowing, extra insulation traps in heat during extreme cold, and a central command center controls the mechanicals, hot water, 200 watts of solar, 2,000-watt inverter, and the Espar hydronic diesel heater.
A white and gray interior color scheme complements the van’s exterior tenorite gray, and small touches like contrast stitching on the seating makes the van feel more modern than most RVs. We threw in the El Puffy Rumpl Blanket for some color and marine-grade vinyl ebony floors that sweep out easily and feel like home.
Outside, a flip down table and a pass-through cabinet make life on the road a little more convenient, and a large awning provides shade. A ladder leads to Zamp solar panels and a hardshell James Baroud Grand Raid rooftop tent with a mattress that’s wider than a queen and nine inches longer than a king size bed. It’s spacious enough for two adults or even one adult and two kids, and was the key to sleeping six people in the spring, summer, and fall.
Off-road accessory designer Aluminess provided a custom rooftop rack, light bar, exterior lights, and an air compressor for pumping up bike tires. The rear of the van is an adventurer’s gear garage, and the L-track securement track makes it easy to set up either bike racks or ski racks depending on the season. Hot and cold water and an outdoor shower are accessed from the garage as well, and a custom hitch holds expedition boxes and a tray for firewood.
Other bells and whistles—like a keypad entry security system, custom audio and navigation, and wireless cell booster—round out a long list of amenities. The one question I get a lot is whether we miss a bathroom, and for us, it’s not a problem. We use the outdoor shower, pee in the great outdoors, and have no problem in the winter relying on recreation centers to stay clean. Not having a full bathroom opened up a ton of interior space, and if we ever want to add a compostable toilet, we can.
Our 4x4 Mercedes Sprinter van cost approximately $62,000 and the conversion by Sportsmobile cost $84,000, for an all-in total of about $146,000 before tax. While expensive, we received bids that were almost twice as much from other conversion companies. Since each build is custom, prices will vary, especially if you opt for a smaller van.
Eight months in, our van—we’re still brainstorming a nickname—is running well and successfully hauling our family up hills and into valleys. I followed storms, camped in parking lots, and woke up to powder days this past winter, and six people had no problem sleeping on the banks of a river over Memorial Day. No matter the season, it’s my go-anywhere cabin on wheels.