Tips for First-Time Camper Van Buyers
When starting the conversation to purchase your own camper van, “It’s easy to get a little bit over your skis,” says Dustin Sauer, founder and “chief exploration officer” of Portland-based Overland Van Project.
Translated, what Sauer means is that there’s so much information on the internet—from DIY builds on YouTube to idyllic scenes posted by Instagram influencers—it can be overwhelming.
“No matter what, if somebody is going to purchase a van, they need to rent a van,” Sauer says.
That will help buyers suss out what features they absolutely need, and which they can forgo. In Oregon, potential van lifers have plenty options for renting before placing an order for their dream build. Outdoorsy, for example, launched in 2015 and has more than 1,000 vans, RVs, travel trailers, and other rentals available in our state alone, with thousands more across the US.
GoCamp is another option. Founded in Portland in 2017 by Deborah Kane, this van rental site grew tremendously through the pandemic, now offering rentals nationwide. That includes dozens of listings in Bend, Eugene, Hood River, Medford, and throughout the Pacific Northwest. There are more than 60 vans listed in Portland alone of all shapes, styles, and sizes to give potential buyers a wide range of amenities to test out.
CEO Camila Ramirez says that one of the best things about GoCamp is its wide variety of filters, not only for locations and dates, but also what amenities are included, van layouts, and even specific models and builders. That allows users to sort through rentals to find exactly what they want in a potential van and males GoCamp a natural choice for renters who are looking to try before they buy.
“It’s very easy to go on a website or Instagram and be enamored by different layouts, but that doesn't always fit your personal needs, your preferences, or your travel style,” Ramirez says. “First, go to the drawing board and really understand, ‘If I were to purchase a van, what am I looking for?’”
That’s in line with what Sauer suggests—renting something modeled closely on your dream van so you can get the most out of your experience and have good feedback to provide your builder on what you like and don’t like, as well as what you want versus absolutely need.
“One might be the actual length of the van. I find that it’s the most important thing, right? Let’s figure out the platform you’re going to build on,” Sauer says. “People often change their mind after getting into a van.”
For Ramirez, the complaint she hears most often after first-time buyers make their purchase is wishing they had more bed or living space rather than including a shower or toilet. Many have second thoughts about thinking they couldn’t live without those things being inside their van, she says.
“Rent with the intent of pressure testing your assumptions,” Ramirez says. “Those big assumptions that are deal breakers for us, really go in renting to test those because it could turn out that your travel style in a van is very different than what you anticipated it being.”
Sauer says the team at OVP enjoys working with first-time buyers to help them figure out which model and layout, plus added amenities, they can get for their budget. OVP has several preset layouts—all named for glorious west coast peaks like Rainier, Mazama, and Shasta—for buyers to choose from before they begin customization. Getting into the nitty gritty, he says, requires a hard look at how and where you’re going to use your van. For example, a van owner who’s going to visit Phoenix in the summer is going to need much more substantial battery capacity than someone who in Oregon only runs their AC when leaving their dog in the car or to take the edge off at the end of a hot summer day before hitting the sack.
“Those are big costs savings. It’s probably an $8,000 difference between being in 80-degree weather at night or 100-degree weather,” Sauer says.
Gretchen Bayless, cofounder of Axis Vehicle Outfitters in Hood River, agrees with everything Ramirez and Sauer advise when pondering the direction of your van build. Back in 2015, Bayless cofounded her own rental company, Roamerica, which evolved into the current van-build business that offers two very sensible and family-friendly layouts. She found that many Roamerica clients were coming back and asking to purchase the vans they were renting. That led to Axis, which is sort of an outlier from other builders in that it makes vans not only to be campers, but also daily drivers, with up to five seat belts for picking up the kids after soccer practice (plus car seat capability). Axis also offers a more off-grid-ready, adventure version that can still hack it in town.
“They’re not some monstrous vehicle with a million different systems,” she says. “Our vehicles are designed for folks that are looking for high functionality.”
Bayless says one of the biggest misconceptions about the camper van market is that they’re financially unattainable. She notes that Axis—as many builders do—works with a loan officer based in the Pacific Northwest who is intimately familiar with the dream of van life. Sauer says that OVP also has connections to financing options that make it just like buying any other RV, and less onerous than it once was to secure a loan for these types of projects.
Axis offers built vans starting at under $100,000, which, as far as camper vans go, is pretty good. OVP offers more customization; prices start around $100,000 for semicustom builds but can easily get up to around $200,000 when pulling out all the stops.
Sauer says that while most builders would be happy to sell you a van with every bell and whistle known to man, they want customers to drive away feeling like they got a van that suits their needs and didn’t break the bank.
Bayless says the other misconception is that vans are too heavy and therefore unsafe to use as your daily driver—a notion that Axis challenges with builds weighing in at just under 1,000 pounds. That means the van still has a payload of more than 2,500 pounds to play with, making it easy to haul lumber from the hardware store or put the bed up and fill it with gear, bikes, and other toys like motorcycles.
“You have so much weight left in the vehicle that it makes it really easy to drive, really safe to drive as a daily driver for extended trips,” she says.
According to Bayless, finding a blank canvas (an empty van ready to be built out) is tough at the moment due to supply chain issues. Vehicle makers like Mercedes Benz report that the global microchip shortage has wreaked havoc on their ability to deliver new vans. That’s led storied RV manufacturers like Airstream to consider options other than Sprinters for new models. Other automakers like Ford, however, are ramping up production in hopes the chip shortage is tailing off. Nevertheless, prospective van lifers who are considering their options should keep in mind that putting in an order with Ford or Mercedes could take up to a year to fulfill.
First-time van buyers in Oregon who would like to gain some inspiration for their purchase, as well as view the work of more than 50 van vendors, have two opportunities to catch the Adventure Van Expo when on stops in Hood River June 17 & 18, and in Bend September 30 & October 1. The touring event, with nearly a dozen stops across the country, will have hundreds of vans on display and include demos, live music, food, and beer.