Both cargo vans and conversion vans can be a great option for your camping or van life endeavors, although each of them has a unique set of strengths to consider:
- Cargo van – More options to choose from on the new and used markets, superior stealth factor, easier to insulating to no rear windows
- Conversion van – Used models can be a real bargain, certain interior amenities like a folding rear bench seat come pre-installed, most models are move-in ready
When it comes to vehicle conversion, a cargo van can be considered as the base for any modifications, while a conversion van is a vehicle that already has all the added interior luxuries and creature comforts.
Despite the differences, cargo vans are commonly used as the base for conversion vans due to their spacious and empty rear area.
Note that both van types are still highly customizable, although cargo vans have the edge as their rear cargo area is virtually empty, without seats, windows, or other items.
However, conversion vans come with various pre-set i.e. factory-installed modifications, meaning that you’ll have some form of basic customization already available.
For example, handicap conversion vans (or wheelchair vans) come readily equipped to provide easy access for wheelchair users.
This means that you won’t have to do much (if any) DIY customization work if you get a conversion van, especially when compared to a cargo van.
And to help get a better idea of which van type can be the best choice for you, in this article I’ll cover:
- The differences between a cargo van and a conversion van
- A detailed look at the pros and cons of cargo vans and conversion vans
- How much cargo vans and DIY conversion vans typically cost
- All the types of conversions vans explained
- Cargo van vs passenger van for conversion purposes
- Best cargo vans for conversion
Cargo Van vs Conversion Van – The Differences
Although cargo vans and conversion vans share a lot of similarities, there are still certain factors that set them and in a nutshell, these are the main factors that set them apart :
- Cargo vans – A type of van designed for work by offering lots of cargo space to transport various things, including bigger and heavier items (e.g. furniture, a mattress, box spring, etc.)
- Conversion vans – A passenger or full-sized work van whose rear cargo/passenger area has been customized by a third-party company by adding different luxuries (e.g. a kitchen and a bed) meant for camping and road trips
Let’s now take a more detailed look at the main differences between cargo and conversion vans:
1. Cargo Vans are Designed to be Used for Work
The primary reason why cargo vans are manufactured is so that they can be used as robust workhorses by various businesses.
These vehicles are used worldwide by all kinds of companies for transporting equipment or making in-town deliveries.
That’s why these vans have vast loading areas, plenty of payload capacity, and impressive towing capabilities for the heavy-duty models.
2. Conversion Vans can be Used for Various Purposes
Although conversion vans can be outfitted with the right equipment for van dwelling or road trips, they can be used for various other purposes as well.
Some conversion vans can be modified into larger taxis and even limousines by the right third-party company.
While bespoke fitting services can transform the van into a vehicle that can be used for industrial work.
It’s safe to say that sky’s the limit as to what conversion vans can be used for, depending on the van conversion company and your budget.
3. Cargo Vans Have no Factory-Installed Rear Windows
Work vans come with an enclosed cargo area that doesn’t have any windows unless you manually install aftermarket ones.
This is the case for commercial vehicles like cargo vans, as the cargo is meant to be protected from the elements, including sunlight.
Thankfully, fitting aftermarket windows for van dwelling purposes isn’t that hard due to the thin walls.
4. There are Different Types of Conversion Vans
It’s worth mentioning that a conversion van can be based on either cargo or a passenger van.
Some conversion vans are designed for leisure, while others are customized for commercial purposes.
Here are some examples of conversion vans used for work:
- Commercial vans
- Shuttle vans
- Office vans
And these are a few examples of conversion vans designed for leisure activities:
- Adventure vans
- Travel (or family) vans
5. Cargo Vans are Classified as Commercial Vehicles
According to the official vehicle weight classes and categories of the Federal Highway Administration, most cargo vans are categorized as light-duty vehicles of Class 1 and Class 2.
As a result, a cargo van would most likely have commercial registration plates (depending on your state), which is not always the case with conversion vans.
For example, a passenger van that was converted into a travel or adventure van wouldn’t need commercial reg plates as itd be considered a passenger vehicle.
Pros and Cons of Cargo Vans and Conversion Vans
Both van types have their own unique set of strengths and weaknesses, even when it comes to camping, road trips, and van dwelling in general:
Cargo Van Pros
1. Ideal for Stealth Camping
If you’re into stealth camping i.e. sleeping inside your van in a city or any “no overnight camping” area, look no further than a cargo van.
Stock cargo vans are rather bland, and won’t draw unwanted attention, while the windowless rear part means that no one can see what’s inside.
Ideally, your van shouldn’t have fancy exterior modifications like a chimney, solar panels, or any decals that draw unnecessary attention.
And if your state’s laws permit, tinting your van’s front windows will add an extra layer of stealth camping appeal.
2. Adding Interior Insulation is Very Simple
Cargo vans come out of the factory with an empty (read naked) cargo area.
This means that you have direct access to the walls and ceiling of the interior at the rear to install insulation.
You won’t have to rip various stuff that is pre-installed in other vans, which makes insulating a cargo van much easier.
3. Installing Custom Windows that Open is Easier
Although some vans come with built-in windows, they usually cannot be opened.
Thus, many people remove the original windows to replace them with aftermarket ones with screens, as that’s a great extra to have if you’re camping or on a road trip.
But I have to warn you, fitting aftermarket windows with screens on a van with factory-installed windows can be rather challenging.
Doing the same thing in a cargo van is simply easier, and when installing the windows, you also get to choose exactly where you want them.
4. Lets You Customize Everything from Scratch
Unlike conversion vans, cargo vans have a bland and empty rear area that’s just waiting for you to customize.
This is great news if you want to start transforming your cargo van from scratch, compared to a conversion van where you’d have to do some ripping and uninstalling first.
You’ll have all the freedom to customize every inch of the cargo area as per your taste and needs, as you won’t have to remove or detach anything.
5. Even Very Tall People Can Stand Inside
Some cargo vans have a high roof version that means even tall people can stand straight inside the cargo area.
In fact, the high roof version of the Ford Transit cargo van has an interior height of 81.5” that should be enough for everyone up to 6′ 7” tall.
This is great news if you plan on living inside your cargo van, as you won’t have to spend thousands of dollars on a custom high top.
Cargo Van Cons
1. Getting a Loan from a Bank can be a Problem
Most cargo vans are registered as commercial vehicles, meaning that many banks might not finance commercial vans, or they can have different interest rates for them.
So if you’re trying to buy a cargo van with commercial registration plates, you might be disappointed to find out that your bank doesn’t issue loans on commercial vehicles.
However, this isn’t a problem for passenger vans or any van that’s not registered as a commercial vehicle.
2. Used Models Will Usually Have Many Miles on Them
Cargo vans are almost always used exclusively for work, meaning that they’re constantly on the road, packing on the miles.
Besides, most cargo van owners will probably only sell them when they’re already beaten up with lots of miles on the clock.
Thus, if you’re on the used van market, a better option would probably be a conversion van that’ll typically be in a better condition with lower miles than an equally-priced cargo van.
3. There are No Pre-Installed Interior Luxurious
The interior area behind the front seats of the typical cargo van has zero creature comforts.
Unlike most conversion vans, there’s no interior upholstery or rear seats that fold down into a bed.
Although some might prefer building everything out from scratch, don’t expect to find any in-built amenities as you’ll have to add everything yourself (or use a third-party conversion company).
Conversion Van Pros
1. Typically More Budget-Friendly than Other Vans
Opting for a conversion van can be a sound plan if you’re on a tight budget, especially if you can’t afford a brand new high roof cargo van.
But even if you’re on the lookout for a used vehicle, a conversion van will typically still be less expensive than a cargo van of similar age and miles.
For example, you can get an old conversion van (e.g. from the 90s) for around $1.5k, and with all the taxes, fees, repairs, and overall conversion, it’ll probably cost you $10k in total, which is very reasonable.
2. There are Plenty of Storage Options Available
One of the main perks of a conversion van is the vast amount of space for storage that you can utilize in many different ways.
The high top offers additional storage space such as natural shelves above the front seats and at the back.
You can also use the side sliding doors that most conversion vans have to incorporate extra mounting storage space and even install fold-out tables.
3. Used Models Usually Cost Less With Fewer Miles
Unlike cargo vans, the conversion types are typically used for leisure activities.
The ordinary conversion van might only see an occasional road trip up to a few trips per year at maximum.
This means that most used models won’t be as beat up mechanically, nor will they have tons of miles on the clock.
So don’t be discouraged by the manufacturing year of a particular model, because even older conversion vans might still be in superb condition with low miles.
4. You Can Move In Right Away
One of the luxuries of buying a conversion van is that you can start living inside pretty much immediately.
The factory-installed amenities like interior upholstery, windows with curtains, and some type of basic insulation should help you to feel fairly comfy for the time being.
Then you can slowly start upgrading and customizing the vehicle, without feeling in a rush as if you were in an empty cargo area that doesn’t even have a carpet.
5. There are Rear Windows that Let You See Outside
Being able to see what’s going on around you while driving and camping is quite an asset.
Not only will you be able to maneuver around much more easily, but you’ll be able to enjoy those lovely sunrises and the surrounding scenery.
Besides, you can always pull the curtains down or even tint the windows if they’re not already tinted.
Conversion Vans Cons
1. Not Optimal for Stealth Camping
Stealth camping is all about being as undetectable as possible, and having lots of windows on your van is far from optimal.
You’ll draw much more attention, especially at night – even if you’ve pulled the curtains down.
In this regard, a cargo van will do a much better job as they blend perfectly in a city environment if you’re into city stealth camping.
2. The High Top Makes Customization More Difficult
Although the raised fiberglass top provides more space and extra storage options, it also makes customizing your van’s interior more challenging.
Most of the high tops of conversion vans are curved for aerodynamic reasons, which makes installing roof racks, solar panels, and vent fans anything but a walk in the park.
On top of that, the fiberglass used for the top is rather flimsy, which means insulting it is yet another challenge.
3. Taller People Might Not be Able to Stand Inside
Sure, the raised top adds plenty of interior high, but people over 6 feet will probably struggle to stand tall inside most conversion vans.
On the contrary, some of the tallest high roof cargo vans provide over 80” of interior height, which means that even really tall people should be able to stand inside comfortably.
Thus, if you or your partner is really tall, you might want to consider some type of upgrade for an even higher top or even a cargo van with a really high roof.
Average Cargo Van and Conversion Van Prices
A cargo van vs conversion van comparison wouldn’t be complete without mentioning the respective prices of each van type.
And to help you get a better comparison for which van best fits your budget, I’ll list both new and used prices:
New Cargo Van Prices
Note that there are quite a few brand new cargo van models, but I’ll only focus on the most popular ones below.
1. Mercedes-Benz Sprinter
- Average starting price – $37,689
The very capable Sprinter relies on German engineering and premium build quality, which logically reflects the price.
The most popular trim level for a brand new MB Sprinter is the 2500 regular roof, 144” wheelbase, RWD with a 4-cylinder diesel unit that starts at $42,430 on average.
2. Ford Transit
- Average starting price – $36,303
The legendary Ford Transit comes in various shapes and sizes with lots of space at the back.
There are 4 trim levels available, with the most popular option being the Transit 250, 148” wheelbase, medium roof, RWD powered by a 3.5L V6 gasoline powerplant that starts at $40,340 on average.
3. RAM ProMaster
- Average starting price – $35,253
RAM’s popular workhorse has been one of the top cargo vans for a while now, and it comes with a few upfit packages that are meant to make customizing the vehicle much easier.
The most widespread ProMaster trim level is 2500, 159” wheelbase, high roof, FWD powered by a 3.6L V6, which should cost you around $40,215.
4. GMC Savana
- Average starting price – $33,400
The Savana comes with some serious heavy-duty towing capabilities thanks to a truck-like ladder frame.
You don’t have many options when configuring the Savana as there’s only 1 trim level available (although there are 2 wheelbase versions).
The 2500, short wheelbase, RWD powered by a 4.3L V6 is the most popular version.
5. Chevrolet Express
- Average starting price – $33,292
The Chevrolet Express and the GMC Savana are mechanically identical vehicles relying on robust frames that let them tow up to 10k lbs.
There are only a single trim level and two wheelbase versions, while the most widespread option is 2500, short wheelbase, RWD with the 4.3L V6.
Used Cargo Van Prices
There are plenty of used models to choose from, although some models tend to hold on to their price even with thousands of miles on the clock.
1. Ford Transit 150 Medium Roof 130” WB
- Average price: $36,214
- Year: 2019
- Miles: 67,431
- Fuel: Gasoline
- Drivetrain: RWD
2. Chevrolet Express 2500
- Average price: $30,788
- Year: 2020
- Miles: 70,621
- Fuel: Gasoline
- Drivetrain: RWD
3. Nissan NV 1500 S
- Average price: $22,968
- Year: 2016
- Miles: 73,447
- Fuel: Gasoline
- Drivetrain: RWD
New Conversion Van Prices
Since there are fewer brand new conversion vans compared to cargo vans, I’m only highlighting a few popular examples below for your reference.
1. GMC Savana 2500 Explorer
- Average starting price – $76,995
You can expect a brand new Savana 2500 Explorer conversion van to come with plenty of interior luxuries such as heated seats with diamond stitch, LED lighting in the cupholders and roof, and even a big flat-screen TV.
2. Ford Transit AWD Explorer Limited SE-VC
- Average starting price – $75,995
This conversion of the highly popular Ford Transit includes various creature comforts such as a 3-way rear sofa with power recline and slide that turns into a bed, plush graphite carpet, and diamond-stitched leather seats, to name a few.
3. Chevrolet Express 2500 Explorer
- Average starting price – $74,995
This conversion of the Chevy Express is quite similar to the Savana as it includes amenities such as heated seats, LED in the cupholders and roof, wireless headphone integration, and a big TV.
Used Conversion Van Prices
The used market is where conversion vans really shine as there are more offers available with the potential to find a real bargain.
1. GMC Savana 1500 Explorer Limited SE
- Average price: $26,995
- Year: 2008
- Miles: 114,737
- Fuel: Gasoline
This used conversion van is more basic than its more modern counterparts, but it still comes with wooden trim and accents, a dark saddle carpet, traditional sport roof (including storage cabinets), a 3-way sofa with a power recline, and slide that turns into a bed.
2. Chevrolet Conversion Van Regency RWD
- Average price: $36,900
- Year: 2014
- Miles: 103,308
- Fuel: Gasoline
This conversion van comes with various luxurious such as 4 captains chairs, premium leather seats, 26-inch TV and 3-way rear sofa.
3. Mercedes-Benz Conversion Van Explorer Limited SE RWD
- Average price: $39,900
- Year: 2016
- Miles: 70,363
- Fuel: Gasoline
The Benz has plenty of conversion van-staple features such as hi-gloss wood accents, graphite leather, captains chairs, and even additional goodies like a leather steering wheel, ice chest, wireless headphones, and additional drink holders.
4. Ford Conversion Van Explorer Limited SE RWD
- Average price: $45,900
- Year: 2015
- Miles: 41,830
- Fuel: Gasoline
Apart from the standard seating for 7, the Ford conversion van also offers heated front seats, premium speakers, a Blu-Ray player, and a power-sliding sofa that turns into a bed.
All the Types of Conversions Vans Explained
These are all the common conversion van types available and what they’re used for:
- Travel or family van – This is typically the only conversion type that comes with either a low or a high roof, and the rear bench usually folds into a bed.
- Handicap or wheelchair van – These vans are modified to accommodate the needs of a disabled person in a wheelchair.
- Adventure van – These vehicles are modified for exploration and camping purposes with all the necessary sleeping and sitting conveniences.
- Motorhomes – They include several different classes (e.g. Class B camper van), and they can have various creature comforts such as a fridge and even a toilet.
- Commercial van – In these vans, the cargo area is modified and optimized by installing racking, ventilation, lighting, heaters, etc.
- Office van – The rear section of these vans is converted into a mobile workplace or office that includes a chair, desk, electrical outlets, computers, etc.
- Shuttle van – These are rather similar to travel vans, with the only exception that shuttle vans are used for business purposes as they’re typically used as limousines, taxis, and even school buses.
Cargo Van vs Passenger Van for Conversion Purposes
Both van types van their pros and cons when it comes to transforming them into a conversion van and here they are:
Cargo Van Pros for Conversion
- Easier to insulate than passenger vans since most cargo vans have ribs on the wall that let you stuff insulation
- There are no windows at the back, which improves both the interior insulation and stealth factor of the vehicle
- You don’t have to pull a carpet and any molding before you begin the conversion process as you would in a passenger van
Cargo Van Cons for Conversion
- Used models tend to be more beat up than their passenger counterparts due to being extensively used for work
- The lack of rear seat belts and A/C vents can be a real issue, especially if you’ll be traveling with kids
Passenger Van Pros for Conversion
- There are rear seat belts, A/C vents, and cup holders already installed
- The van already has rear windows, meaning there’s one thing less to worry about
- It’s easier to find a lower mileage used model for a good price compared to cargo vans
Passenger Van Cons for Conversion
- Harder to insulate than cargo vans
- Less stealthy if you’re into stealth camping
- Converting a passenger van is more of a hassle as there are things that you’ll have to tear and remove
Best Cargo Vans for Conversion
These are currently the top cargo vans you can transform into conversion vans:
1. Ford Transit
- Length – Regular (18.5 feet with 130” wheelbase), Long (20 feet with 148” wheelbase) and Extended (22 feet with 148” wheelbase)
- Roof height – Low (83.2”), Medium (100.8”) and High (110.2”)
- Drivetrain – RWD and AWD
- Engines – 3.5L gas
The best-selling Ford Transit cargo van offers plenty of flexibility that can be used for various kinds of conversion purposes.
2. Mercedes-Benz Sprinter
- Length – Standard (19.5 feet with 144” wheelbase), Long (22.8 feet with 170” wheelbase), and Extended (24.15 feet with 170” wheelbase)
- Roof height – Standard (96.3”) and High (110”)
- Drivetrain – RWD and AWD
- Engines – 2.0L turbo gas and 3.0L diesel
The MB Sprinter is just as practical, although it carries the extra running costs associated with the premium badge.
3. RAM ProMaster
- Length – Regular (17.75 feet with 136” wheelbase), Long (19.75 feet with 159” wheelbase), and Extended (20.85 feet with 159” wheelbase)
- Roof height – Low (88”) and High (99”)
- Drivetrain – FWD
- Engines – 3.6L gas
The ProMaster is very conversion-friendly due to its 90-degree angle sidewalls at the rear, although its maximum roof height and length can’t match those of the Transit and Sprinter.
Both cargo vans and conversion vans have their unique set of pros and cons; choosing one over the other greatly depends on your specific goals and needs.
Usually, a cargo van will be your main choice if you want to start a DIY conversion van project from scratch.
While opting for a conversion van with all the amenities already installed will be the better option if you don’t want to do any manual work.
For example, if you need a vehicle that’s designed for a handicapped person, you might want to look for a handicap or wheelchair conversion van that has everything pre-installed.
Nonetheless, cargo vans are still the usual go-to vehicle when building out a conversion van as they provide a great, bare base for any modifications and adjustments.