My uncle picked up an old ambulance and is in the process of creating a camper out of it. It's already fully wired with lots of power options from defibulators, lighting, and life support equipment, has beefed up suspension, water supply installed, lots of stainless steel storage cabinets.. something else to look into perhaps.. good luck!
Yeah, these are great vehicles. The problem I've encountered is that there are specialists who buy these up at the auctions, refit them, and sell them back to ambulance services. So it's hard to get into a bidding war with these guys--they always seem to be willing to outbid mere mortals, and the vehicles they don't bid on are dogs.
i have a vw golf tdi. it has no ground clearance. it does great for long drives and little gear, and has hauled five cramped humans + gear and also three humans and three canines + gear. fuel efficient, but SMALL.
i also have a cng bifuel cargo van. it's 2WD, has plenty of ground clearance, and unless you're going rock crawling, i've found that good driving skills, a set of chains, and a shovel will do just fine. also, a build-it-yourself camper from a cargo van is much lighter than a full camper, as you won't take the time/energy/money to add less useful and heavier stuff, and the resulting fuel savings are noteworthy. even with a solar panel on top and a full load of stuff, we're getting about 17MPG highway, which, if you look at the price of CNG, means that it was cheaper to drive the van on the christmas road trip than it was to drive the golf AND there was plenty of room to haul back all our possessions from mom's house and still have room to sleep with the three dogs. it takes a little planning and smartphone mapping to make sure you're on track to find a CNG filling station, but it is pretty cool to drive the camper for less than the hatchback.
I've had 2WD vans and currently on my third 4WD van. No better way to roll in my opinion. I've modified suspensions on all of them and done many other mods. Ford E350 (1 ton) extended "Super Van", 6.8L Triton V10, ARB locking diff, onboard air system, 12,000 lb. Warn winch, BFG ATs. Luxury passenger conversion seats 10 + gear. Rear bench seats recline into a huge comfy bed.
It sees backroads of Baja, camping on isolated beaches, towing a 20' enclosed trailer full of desert toys, and does it all with ease and comfort. The only disadvantage is the gas mileage sucks; the V10 is strong on power but thirsty. My rig gets sub-10 mpg and maybe 6 mpg towing the big trailer over the mtns. That isn't a deal breaker for me. My rec budget is high and almost all trips are less than 300 miles RT.
Ford E350 4x4, Baja near Canyon Tajo, New Year's
For clarification: #1. Sportsmobile does camper conversions, most often with fiberglass pop tops. They market the company so well that people equate 4WD van with the Sportsmobile name. Remember that Sportsmobile is a company that does camper and custom mods, then charges the customer a premium price for it. Sportsmobile orders vans converted to 4x4 from Quigley in Pennsylvania. Then they do the camper conversions in Calif. Quigley only converts new vans from the factory (due to liability issues). Correction added: It appears that Sportsmobile has put together a 4x4 conversion of their own. Looks like top quality components, incl. a Dana 60 front axle and bigger brakes. Sitting on leaf springs (the Quigley's had coils). www.sportsmobile.com/4_4x4sports.html
#2. American (Ford, Chey, Dodge) full-size vans have not been factory produced in 4x4. Full size 4WD vans are aftermarket conversions. Don't confuse AWD with 4WD. (There are numerous AWD systems, and most are near worthless offroad). The two main 4WD conversion companies are Quigley (coil spring front suspension) and Advanced Four Wheel Drive Systems in SLC Utah (front leaf springs). www.advanced4x4vans.com/ Last I checked, converting a van costs about $10K.
If you plan to be driving many miles per year/long trips a diesel engine might pencil out. There are higher costs and maintenance associated. Some folks swear by their diesel, others swear at it. My friends w/ the Ford 7.3L diesel engines get 13-16 MPG (remember that these are 1-ton, lifted, with big tires, roof racks, non-aerodynamic, and loaded with heavy gear). The older 7.3L diesel seems to be considered more reliable and with less maintenance than the newer 6.3L (2003 and up). Equipped with a gasoline engine, the smaller V8s should get 10 to 12 mpg.
Locking differentials kick a** off road. If you aren't familiar with them, do some research. A typical 4x4 isn't getting traction to all tires in the way most people believe. In low traction situations, one front wheel and one rear wheel will spin. Or, in the case of 2WD, one of the two will spin. A limited slip or posi-traction diff will be of some improvement. A locking diff puts power to both wheels on the same axle equally. I've driven in 2WD with a rear locking differential in places where 4WD vehicles with open (conventional) diffs were getting stuck. Also, contary to old-school wisdom, automatic transmissions do quite well off road. They multiply torque at low rpm and apply power smoothly to the wheels. So, perhaps your most cost-effective solution is a 2WD van with an aftermarket locking differential and a moderate suspension lift.
Detroit Locker (Eaton Corp) is the tried and true bomb proof locker. It is full-time and has some annoying characteristics on the highway: clunking noises, chirping tires on tight corners, and torque steer (pulls to the side when getting on/off the throttle). The newer "Soft-Locker" is an improvement on that. A part-time locker is probably best for less than 20% off road use. ARB makes an "air locker" actuated by compressed air at the flip of a switch. A little more expensive due to the additional onboard air compressor and plumbing. My van has an ARB in the rear axle. Disadvantages are that the air line can leak and the pump can wear out (been there, done that). The Eaton "E-Locker" is activated with an electromagnetic ball-ramp mechanism at the flip of a switch. I've had zero problems with the one in my Wrangler despite the severe abuse it gets offroad. Parts and installation will set you back around $900 - $1200.
All terrain tires, taller and wider, will help add traction. Extra clearance under the chassis and increased suspension travel will be an advantage off road. Tires have gone way up in price - about $1K for a set. Price the suspension lift. The rear can be done with inexpensive lift blocks and longer U-bolts. Don't forget to pencil it for 4 new (longer) shocks. Don't cheap out on those. Monotube type, Bilstein 5100 or KYBs, should control the stiff springs.
My cost-effective recommendation is: 2WD Ford E250 (3/4 ton) or E350 (1 ton), not the extended "Super Van" due to the rear overhang which ruins the departure angle when off road. All terrain tires, 33" tall. Moderate suspension lift of 3" to 4" Rear axle ratio 3.73 or lower (higher numerically). If needed you could have new ring and pinion gears installed to change ratios at the time of an Eaton E-Locker installation to save on labor costs. Carry a Hi-Lift jack and strong, high quality snatch (tow) strap. Camp in comfort and have fun!
#1. Sportsmobile does camper conversions, most often with fiberglass pop tops. They market the company so well that people equate 4WD van with the Sportsmobile name. Remember that Sportsmobile is a company that does camper and custom mods, then charges the customer a premium price for it. Sportsmobile orders vans converted to 4x4 from Quigley in Pennsylvania. Then they do the camper conversions in Calif. Quigley only converts new vans from the factory (due to liability issues).
Not entirely true...at least not when I got my Sportsmobile ('04). Sportsmobile did the 4x4 conversion to my van themselves in CA.It is not a Quigley 4x4. I'm not even sure they offer the Quigley conversion anymore at all.
Nice post, ClimbBaja, that's all the info you need right there.
Regarding gas vs diesel, I'm one of those that swear by my diesel. I owned a Ford V-10 and and traded it for a Dodge with a Cummins diesel, and couldn't be happier. Maintenance has been about the same (I do my own oil and filter changes), but the engine costs more up front. I am seeing 30-40 percent better mileage, and so that offsets the additional cost of diesel fuel. The turbo charged diesels really kick ass in a big heavy rig vs gas though, especially at high elevations, you have to drive one to believe it.
You are right though, you have to drive many miles to justify the xtra cost of the engine.
Also, as mentioned, you're pretty much looking at Sportsmobile - legendary for their particle board, cheapo construction and massive depreciation.
Dude, you really have a beef with vans. Did you have bad childhood experience in the back of a dirty no-window perv van?
You don't need Sportsmobile unless you want the poptop. My 4x4 was custom done, most of the interior and furnace etc was custom.
Like was mentioned before, you can start with a 4wd cargo van and build it out as you want it. Or work with one of many smaller conversion companies that do RV style conversions/upgrades or heck sack up and do the work yourself.
My backcountry buddies have pickups with campers and I have had the opportunity to stay in and compare both. I prefer the van to the truck for camping. feels roomier than a pickup camper. The only major advantage I see to the pickup/camper is that you can take the camper off and have a pickup bed to use for hauling and such.
I've had the AWD van and now have the truck/camper combo. The Previa was a super reliable and suprisingly capable vehicle. It held a raised platform for a full size bed and plenty of storage room. The clearance was rarely an issue on fire roads and down in the desert as long as I knew my limitations but I can easily say I never got stuck. Most likely because of its weight, as opposed to the subarus with the awd system. It got good gas mileage too, with a 5 speed manual. The reason I switched to a truck and an ultralight four wheel pop-up camper was option to have a fridge and sink to cook with in cold or nasty weather. The van was fine for cooking outside but too cramped/dangerous for cooking inside. The heater and extra room of the camper are great too. The biggest thing about these two vehicles is the van cost me $3000 and I sold it for that. And the 95' f250 diesel and 88' four wheel camper cost me $7000 total. The diesel gets 14-17 mpg with the camper depending on how I drive it. Diesels do A LOT better if you keep the speed down and accelerate smoothly. Bottom line is you can find very capable and comfortable vehicles for not much money if you're ok with not having something super flashy. They're out there.
csproul, Thanks for the correction. It appears that Sportsmobile has put together a 4x4 conversion of their own. Looks like top quality components, incl. a Dana 60 front axle and bigger brakes. Sitting on leaf springs (the Quigley's had coils). www.sportsmobile.com/4_4x4sports.html
You can build out your own 4WD camper van for WAY less than the cost of a Sportsmobile brand rig. If you've got the time, there's lots of posts on the interweb about how to convert a cargo van. If you don't want to do it all yourself, you can have a local van converter/RV place do the insulation, electrical, propane and whatever else you don't want to do.
Another outfit that adds 4WD to Econolines is Quadvan in Portland.
I have to say that I've been very happy with my 4WD Tacoma / FourWheel Camper combo.
2001 Tacoma with FourWheel Camper
I added a custom leaf pack for the rear suspension ($1200) and it was well worth it. It's at least as off-road capable as it was without the camper and the queen-sized bed, 2-burner stove, 5 gallon propane, 12-gallon water tank, and 3-way fridge are quite luxurious on longer camping trips. I get about 17mpg on the highway if I'm keeping up with traffic and can push 18-19mpg if I keep the speed down around 60. I lucked out and found the camper used an in excellent condition for $2k - a great value when you compare it to an outfitted 4wd diesel van. If you have the trust fund to blow on something like that, awesome. If not, and you want to maintain a high level of off-road capability, the Tacoma/FourWheel combo is a good way to go.
My boyfriend is trying to decide what to upgrade too. For 10 years we've traveled in his 03 tacoma, single cab, with all our gear and two dogs, sleeping in the tent. I just bought an 08 subaru which is great but not for sleeping in:) So... he really likes the new dodge RAM ProMaster to convert into camper style. I, on the other hand think he should go bigger tacoma/camper pop up. The promaster is front wheel drive which freaks me out in the snow and ice, and we can't go on 4whl roads very easily. He thinks it would be cheaper though than the truck/camper combo and he likes the idea of more space/standing room. Any more suggestions would be great or if anyone knows about the new promaster and can provide info. Thanks!
Hey Adam How does the Tacoma handle the weight? I am guessing you have a six cylinder. Does it have enough power? I like the looks of that set up but am not sure I can find a camper at that price. Used ones seem rare.
The front wheel drive on the ProMaster will actually be a benefit in the snow and ice as all the weight is over the drive wheels. I'm on the wait list to go see one when they hit the lot here in Sacramento. I do know they are more square than the Sprinter, giving more area. Not sure how much more usable space it will be though. If/when I get the call to go look at one I'll let you know what I think.
If you're really worried about the snow and ice and can wait a bit, Sprinter is going to be offered in AWD in model year '15 (should be available September '14 as per the dealer). Problem is they are going to be very popular so getting a good deal might be tough.