clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

What to look for in an adventure camper van

Not all camper vans are created equal

A gray camper van sits in a snowy valley below mountains and a blue sky. The side door of the van is open with a snowboard standing next to it; one person in snow gear is walking towards the van and another person sits on the roof in a hammock.
The European-made Sunlight Cliff 4x4 Adventure van is a concept camper van that goes big on all things outdoors.
Courtesy of Sunlight

When you’re obsessed with the latest and greatest RVs, you’ll encounter a lot of innovative camper designs. No sector of the industry, however, has been as creative as the camper van. Love campers and trailers? Come join our community group.

Custom conversion companies know that many Class B camper van owners don’t just hang at a campsite all day, but instead use their vans as conduits for adventure. Mountain biking, rock climbing, surfing, paragliding, wind surfing, snowmobiling—a camper van provides an affordable way to access the world’s best adventures.

This means that unlike some RV manufacturers, camper van designers have embraced the gear-filled adventure lifestyle, ensuring their vans can work in gnarly backcountry situations. But this got me thinking: What makes a van ideal for adventure rather than just camping?

At the recent Dusseldorf Caravan Salon, the world’s biggest camper trade show, the Hymer Group debuted the Sunlight Cliff 4x4 Adventure Van, a concept camper that packs everything you can think of (like a tow winch, bike repair stand, a snowboard rack, and an integrated climbing wall) into one van. The van is unlikely to make it into production, but it gets the ideas flowing.

Below, I’ve rounded up the five most important factors that transform an everyday camper into an adrenaline-fueled adventure van.

An RV camper van, the Revel Adventure van from Winnebago, sits on a grassy hillside. The van is grey and has rooftop storage. There are mountains in the distance and a sunset in the sky.
The adventure-minded Revel from Winnebago was one of the first manufactured camper vans in the U.S. with four-wheel drive.
Courtesy of Winnebago

Four-wheel drive

There’s a reason that the European Cliff 4x4 uses the all-wheel-drive Ducato as its base, adding all-terrain tires and off-road roof lights to tackle any terrain. North American buyers can rest assured that more four-wheel-drive camper vans are coming stateside, too.

The Mercedes Sprinter is available in North America with a four-wheel-drive option, and Ford recently announced that starting in 2020, its bestselling Transit van will offer an “intelligent” all-wheel drive that will provide enhanced traction on icy, snowy, or muddy roads.

More manufactured camper vans are also offering four-wheel drive, including the Winnebago Boldt, the Winnebago Revel, and Modvans. Although there are plenty of #vanlifers out there without all-wheel or four-wheel drive, a true adventure camper is capable of off-road and all-weather expeditions.

A rear view of a blue and gray camper van with doors open, a ramp, and a snowmobile in the center. On the side of the interior of the van are racks for skis and flip-down beds.
Using flip-down beds, the Bivy from Outside Van holds a ton of skis, snowboards, and even a snowmobile.
Courtesy of Outside Van

Room for gear of all types

When I tour some travel trailers or Class A RVs, I’m always astounded that despite all the extra space, there’s no room for gear. Many RV owners are forced to add racks upon racks just to bring a bike or two, limiting both how much gear and which types you can bring.

The brilliant part about a camper van, however, is that the smaller camper can actually allow you to bring more gear. Camper van owners long ago figured out the helpfulness of a gear garage—a space underneath the sleeping area and accessed from the rear doors where you can stow mountain bikes, snowboards, and more.

If a gear garage doesn’t fit your needs, you can also design the van with an open center aisle through the load doors. Custom upfitters have taken the gear challenge to heart, making vans that can accommodate everything from snowmobiles to multiple SUPs. If you can’t haul the gear you need to play, it’s not an adventure van.

The interior of a camper van. There is a kitchenette with a sink. There are storage cabinets running along the top of the van.
The interior of a custom converted Sportsmobile van features space-saving elements like upper storage cabinets, a small kitchen, and a pull-out pantry that’s only four inches wide.
Photo by Lucy Beaugard

Space-saving solutions

The need to fit long surfboards or skis leads to the next tenet of adventure van life: It’s all about maximizing space. This means that kitchens are compact, storage features often pull double duty, and—much to the shock and horror of traditional RV owners—there might not be a full bathroom.

Adventure vans often trade bathrooms for more sleeping or gear space; I opted not to build a full bathroom in my van in order to accommodate two queen-size beds and all the necessary gear for a family of four. And there are also flexible bathroom designs that better fit the adventure van life, including different types of toilets, outdoor showers, and convertible bathrooms.

Beyond the bathroom, storage is key in a compact van. You don’t just need to bring a pair of skis for a powder day; you also need to haul jackets, pants, boots, and more. If you need help in the storage department, check out the organization section of our van life gear guide.

A camper van holds mountain bikes in a garage.
This $18,000 DIY camper from Far Out Ride prioritizes space for mountain biking and gear in an under-the-bed garage.
Photo courtesy of Far Out Ride

Innovative features

Where adventure vans have continued to impress in the past few years is with innovative features that make adventuring easier. We’ve seen winch systems in vans to help pull snowmobiles or wakeboards, and my own van has an air compressor to help fill tires or blow up inflatable SUPs.

Outside Van has been adding electric bike charging stations and Vitamix blenders on some of their vans, and the Germany-built Cliff 4x4 includes a climbing wall to access the roof. Hammocks are also a fun addition, whether they are mounted to back hitches or on roofs, and it’s now common to see bike mount stations on the rear doors of many vans. Whether whimsical or practical, an adventure van should have additional features that make an adventurer’s heart swoon.

The interior of a camper van with blue walls, wood countertops, gray cabinet storage, a kitchen area, counters, and a bench seat that transforms into a bed.
The First Tracks camper from Montana-based Beartooth Vanworks features a rear kitchen area with a bench that transforms into a bed for two and ski storage in cabinets up above.
Courtesy of Beartooth Vanworks

Built for off-grid and all-season travel

Unlike many RV users who put their campers into storage in the fall, a lot of adventure van owners keep going when the weather turns cold. This means that the van needs to be designed for all-weather camping, with good insulation, a source of heat to keep warm, and pipes that won’t freeze.

And while it doesn’t hurt if you plug in your camper van, most adventure vans need to be able to function off-the-grid. That’s because when you’re conquering a 14,000-foot peak or scoring a powder day, you’re probably not staying at a KOA. The best boondocking camper vans will have solar power, an inverter, and robust batteries.