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Van Build Diary #1: What!?! We're Building A Mercedes Benz Sprinter Camper Van?!?

Updated: Dec 11, 2020

So, the decision was made: we have to do a van conversion. RV’s aren’t safe enough, trailers make us too long for some of the places we need to travel through, so . . . a van - to allow us to be permanently nomadic, slow travel/worldschool for the rest of our lives. . .

And for those of you who are wondering about our thought process on nomadic travel, you can skim the posts in the "nomadic travel category" and I will soon be posting all the considerations that brought us to this decision soon. . . click the green button at the top of the page to subscribe to get alerts as to new posts!

All five of us and the dog Nikki sitting in front of our new Sprinter van
Us and our forever home!

However, there is no van build out there that can accommodate our needs – sleeps and seats five, no pop-top, wet-bath, stove/oven and sink, garage, and my husband’s desire not to have a bed on top of him. . . so, it has to be a custom van conversion.

In this post, I’ll explain why Marino and I are absolutely insane and at the ages of 54 and 40, respectively, with ZERO mechanic/auto/construction background, we’re going to do the conversion ON OUR OWN! Also, I will go into the details of:

  • why we went with a Mercedes Benz Sprinter

  • why we bought it brand new 2020 (I am so against buying new cars!)

  • why it isn't a 4x4

  • why we're building it on our own

As a side note *some of the links below (not all) are affiliate links - I may receive a small commission (at no cost to you) if you purchase through the links provided. I never post a link to a product or service that I haven’t used myself & love! (Learn more here)

Why in the world would we build our own van!

Well, as already mentioned, we don’t really have a choice in the department of having to get a custom van conversion – there is nothing that fits our needs. If you’re curious why the world of RV’s and trailers is not an option for us, you can read this post on the considerations against it.

As for our needs, I swear, we’ve check every website of every van converter we could find and there isn’t one that has a prebuilt van, or a standard van layout that fits all of our needs. So, again, no matter what, the van we need must be built from scratch.

The question, then, is:

What make and model of van will we need?

It quickly became clear that we had no other option than the Mercedes Benz Sprinter, high roof, 170 wheel base extended, 3500XD, 6 cylinder diesel:

an image of a white cargo Sprinter van, 170 ext wheel base, high roof
Simple, functional and ready to customize!

As a first quick point, we need a high roof vehicle, one in which we don’t need to pop the roof up to stand in. We plan on exploring all sorts of weather conditions in our van and don’t want to deal with the temperature control issues that arise with pop-tops.

a van conversion with a pop-top to sleep two in a tent like pop-up
Dante would love the feel up there but it doesn't work

That leaves us with a few major makes that are used in van conversions, that have high roofs and are available in the U.S.:

  • Mercedes Benz Sprinter

  • Dodge Promaster

  • Ford Transit

  • and I’ll add the Winnebago Revel (but I don’t really count it because it is on a Sprinter chassis anyway – so, again, Mercedes Benz Sprinter)

All three makes have high roof versions, they come in a couple wheel-base lengths (the distance between the front and back wheel wells), and they also have options for extended length behind the back wheel well to be even longer.

Photograph of a Transit, Sprinter, and Promaster, from left to right in that order. All are white.
Seemingly, there's nothing too different about the three . . .

However, once you see the measurements, and keeping in mind that we will be a full-time van-living family of five, it soon becomes very clear why we’re going with the Sprinter, and which Sprinter we are going with.

Two tables, the one on the left compares interior lengths of the cargo area and the one on the right compares interior heights. The bottom rows are circled in red for the longest wheel bases with extension. For Length, the Transit is at 12'10", ProMaster at 11'8" and Sprinter at 15'. As for interior heights, the Transit is 6'7", ProMaster is 6'2", and Sprinter is 6'3".
Honestly, there's nothing to compare when it comes to size

Some immediate observations:

  • The few inches that you gain on width in the Transit and Promaster do not outweigh the huge gains in length in the Sprinter that will allow us a “short” queen in the back (stayed tuned for the layout in our next post – subscribe at the top of the page if you want to be alerted!)

  • The straight walls of the Transit and Promaster make it easier to build on the walls but still don’t outweigh the gains in length in the Sprinter

Another major consideration is weight capacity. We are 3 adults and 2 rapidly growing children. Our water consumption (drinking and cooking) and use (dish-washing and showering) is necessarily that much more than other van-lifers we've seen. Now, did you know that each gallon of water weighs 8.25 pounds?

If I've calculated correctly, we need just 20 gallons of water per week for drinking and cooking. This translates into 165 pounds by itself! Most van-lifers will go for a maximum of 35 gallons of water onboard. Well, we definitely will not be showering 5 people and washing dishes for 5 on another 15 gallons. So, we're more in the range of 50 gallons of water onboard, which is closer to 415 pounds, just in water. That doesn't even include our own body weight!

So, on the weight front:

a chart comparing the payload (how much the vehicles can carry) with the largest Transit at 4530 lbs, ProMaster at 4330 lbs, and Sprinter at 5188 lbs
Again, hard to compare - the wiggle room the Sprinter provides can't be beat

Now, that is all just a matter of size and weight capacity. Honestly, none of the sizes will accommodate the sleeping and seating needs that we have as a family of five except for the Sprinter “high roof 170 wheel base extended.”

Still, there are other considerations as well:

  • Mercedes Benz is a European make and, since we’re going to be in Europe for a while (a post on our travel plans will be coming out shortly, subscribe above if you want to be alerted!), we would like a vehicle that can be easily serviced in Europe, no concern about availability of parts, etc. This is also true in other parts of the world as well!

  • Benz was meant to last forever, especially diesel. We are planning to live in this thing for the next 20 years at least and need to make sure it will last that long, if not longer!

So, we’re going with the Mercedes Benz Sprinter, high roof, 170 wheel base, extended, because of size, weight capacity, durability, and ease of servicing internationally.

Next Question: New or Used?

Not sure how many of you just happen to look up Mercedes Benz Sprinter, 3500 XD, high roof, 170 wheel base, extended vehicles but, just so you know, there aren’t too many used ones out there. Those that we did find are either so decked out that they cost $100K or more, or are in the $50-70k range but are 2011-2016’s and that is before tax.

How much is a brand new 2020? No fancy packages, just the standard? $53,000 (before tax) – and that is the high roof, 170 wheel base, extended, 3500XD, 6 cylinder, dually wheels (double wheels in back for an extra 2,000 lbs. of weight capacity)!

Now, after doing all the research, it didn’t make sense to us to buy a used Sprinter. We’re planning to live in it for the next 20 years. Even if we took a smaller number, like 10 years, the $3,000 we would save on the cheaper version of a used one only comes out to approximately $300 savings per year ($3000/10 years). For 20 years, that is only a $150 savings per year.

For such a little difference, we can have the satisfaction of knowing that no one else has touched it, no unreported accidents, no unknown tampering with mechanical parts, etc. Plus, we can choose exactly where and what kind of windows we want, etc.

Now, every part of my body screamed out against buying a new vehicle. I have NEVER bought a new vehicle, EVER! They lose approximately 10% of their value just in the first month of being driven off the lot!

And yet, the numbers point in only one direction – buying a new Sprinter!

So, with deep breaths, we did it! And, we got a fantastic deal. We shopped around, I’d say, across the whole country!

At first we planned to order directly from the factory – might as well get exactly what we wanted. Nope, not for us. Mercedes Benz is stopping production for 6 months and new orders will likely be available in January of 2021.

Since our “wish date” to start travel is March of 2021, we knew we couldn’t order directly from Mercedes.

So, we searched the stock already available. We ended up going with a local dealer, Keyes European of Van Nuys. The Sprinter expert there is fantastic (contact me for his information). He was so helpful and able to cut us a great deal that no one was able to beat.

I am holding the keys to the Sprinter while standing in front of the Sprinter with Ilan, the Sprinter expert at Mercedes Benz
Getting the keys!

I will also say, we spoke with a fantastic dealer in Texas (I can give you his digits too), but he only had black Sprinters available at the time. After much searching on Facebook groups, consulting with van builders, and general internet research, we confirmed that a black van would impact temperature regulation in the van to such a degree that it wasn’t worth the long-term cost of running AC/ventilation more to counteract the effect of the black color.

Why Not a 4x4?

Originally, we thought we'd need a 4x4. It would give us the added relief of knowing we can get out of most of the situations we plan to get ourselves into. We will be boondocking at national parks, traveling through pretty remote places and not the best roads, especially when we make the trek through Central and South America - and this is speaking from experience. Also, a 4x4 gives you 4 more inches of breathing room under the chassis - many van lifers build their holding tanks under chassis and you really don't want to bust/scratch any of that.

However, as mentioned above, we couldn't wait to order directly from Mercedes Benz as it slows our timeline down considerably. We also could not locate one in our "basic" price range. . . meaning, they were all decked out with a bunch of extra stuff we didn't need in addition to the 4x4 and it took the van outside the price range we could afford. We got ours in the $50s and the 4x4s in stock now were all in the $70s.

So, we consulted with a couple upfitters and they mentioned that we could just switch out the rims and tires to add space under chassis and to compensate for not having 4x4. Given the fact that very few van lifers have 4x4 and since we're not planning to go serious off-roading with Baba (my 79-year-old mother) OR with the thousands of dollars of appliances, solar, and other equipment we plan to have on board, we should be fine.

Last Question: Who is Building the Van?

The conclusion we came to, after much research, is that we're building the van. There are several reasons why:

1) COST. A certified Benz “upfitter” (the official name for camper van converters) will convert a van for approx.. $80-$130k. A non-certified “upfitter” will usually quote $70-100k. Even the most complex builds that we’ve seen, when done without an upfitter, is $50-$60k MAXIMUM.

2) TIMING. Most uplifters are backed up because of having to stop work during quarantine and because the whole world is turning to RV/camper van travel while other forms of travel are limited/less safe. Some are even backed up to 2022.

We explored the possibility of contracting out “Phase 1” of the build – plumbing, electricity, insulation, etc. since that is the most overwhelming for us, but the only company so far that we’ve found that does this part (Freedom Vans – for those of you not in a rush), is already taking reservations for September of 2022!

3) CUSTOMIZATION. Many builders have specific partners they work with and while they can customize the build, they will customize it with the partners they work with. So, for example, if the upfitter works with Webasto for heaters, they will not install the diesel oven/stove/water-coil-heater combo that we want. Another example is, if they use Dometic cooler-style fridges, they won’t install the Vitrifrigo front-opening 8.1 cubic foot fridge that we need to meet our family’s needs.

Also, since there are so many of us, we have really limited storage inside the van. This means that we need to put our water holding tanks under chassis (on the underside of the van) and the few upfitters we’ve spoken to aren’t too excited to do that (the tanks have to be protected and insulated for travel through freezing temperatures, which isn’t as big of a deal for us if it gives us more storage space inside).

So, the verdict is in, and we’re building the van ourselves.

The five of us and the dog Nikki are sitting in front of the van, some holding tools, others with safety goggles and masks, some with work gloves.
We will all have some part to play!

It is terrifying and exciting all at the same time. The great thing is that there are so many resources online to figure everything out. The other piece of this that I’m loving is that I’ve never been a handy person. My perfectionism has always gotten in the way of trying to build/fix things. I don’t have that option anymore. This thing has to get built ASAP!

So, now that we have the van, it is time to build! For those of you interested in following this build, I have created a new section in the blog called, “Nomadic Life.” I will be posting on the van build, travel planning, and all other aspects of our journey towards hitting the road forever!

You can click the link above to sign-up to get alerts on new articles in this and other categories of articles and thanks for your continued support of On An Imperfect Journey!


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