How to build a wagon Part 1: What is a wagon?
Camping truck. The word conjures up thoughts of the legendary VW Bus, or perhaps the later EuroVan. These days, there are large and small campervans, pre-built and DIY campers. No matter what it looks like, the idea is the same: something smaller than an RV, larger than a car, where you can sleep or maybe even live. A tent on wheels, if you will, perhaps with some amenities provided. house.
I wanted a camper. In the past few years I’ve been on several big road trips. In 2021, it was a 10,000-mile adventure coast-to-coast across 30 states. In 2022, it’s a slightly shorter trip through 10 states and 8 national parks. I did it all in a Mazda Miata RF, the smallest car you can buy in America.
Follow my travels on My YouTube channel And check out my book on budget travel, aptly named Budget travel for dummies.
Although I liked everything, there were some fairly obvious issues. Surprisingly, the lack of space was not the greatest. I was able to set up a tent, sleeping bag, inflatable mattress, and more. The world is your oyster when you can pack light. The problem was that there wasn’t much margin for error. I couldn’t sleep in the car, at least not all night, and there was no refrigerator to store food. Also, after 6+ hours of driving, I was dreading having to set up camp and get up early the next day to demolish the place. Also, it was almost 6 hours over the daily limit. I like the Miata, but it’s not the most comfortable car.
So I started thinking about converting the truck and what I wanted from such a machine. Solar power was essential, not least to power some lights and the fridge, but to charge my laptop and other equipment if I was spending a few days in the wilderness. I also don’t want anything huge. After visiting over a dozen national parks in Miyata, being able to easily navigate and park anywhere was key. Most important of all, I didn’t want to spend a lot of money.
In general, there are three suitable options for truck conversions: a pickup truck, a full-size “regular” pickup truck, and a large light commercial truck. Colloquially, the latter is also through the most common model, the Sprinter (made by Mercedes). There are pros and cons to each, but all can be driven with a standard driving license and can be placed in a (more or less) standard parking space. There is a lot of overlap in these categories, not least because modern vehicles are much larger than their older siblings. Today’s “mini” pickup trucks are larger than the full-size trucks of the past. For our purposes, we will try to combine the different options into these three categories.
Minivans: Once minivans became the specialty of soccer moms and dads everywhere, they largely disappeared from the market. These are usually front-wheel drive, based on a vehicle chassis, have sliding doors on one or both sides, and are usually the smallest of the three campervan options. Options include Chrysler Pacifica, Dodge Caravan, Honda Odyssey, Toyota Sienna, etc. There are also commercial minivans, also called “compact cargo vans” or “haul vans” such as the Ford Transit Connect, Ram ProMaster City (aka Fiat Doblò), Nissan NV200 and others.
Modern minivans are by no means small, just as all vehicles get larger over time. But what is even more attractive is that they are often very cheap and there are many of them on the used market. Careful planning and smart packaging can fit beds, kitchens and more inside these trucks, although a stand-up shower and full-sized beds may be out of the question.
Trolleys: Full-size trucks, perhaps best exemplified by Dodge Ram and Ford Econoline, are more of a size distinction than models. Over time, the name has come to refer to a wide range of compounds. In our discussion, we’ll classify them as vehicles larger than a pickup truck, and smaller than something more obviously commercial, with a large interior and short hood.
There are plenty of options in use here too, although the newer ones tend to drift in size to the next category, with prices to match. Old Econoline trucks were almost everywhere, and were synonymous with the word “fan” for decades. They transported people and goods everywhere. Thirsty V8 engines and questionable reliability make them more expensive to buy than their used prices seem.
Sprinter vans (also known as large vans): The larger camper options are also called light commercial vehicles. The Mercedes Sprinter (pictured above) is the most common, and gave its name to this class. The Ram ProMaster and Ford Transit are other options. These are smaller than the “carts” of a FedEx/UPS truck. Campers of this size can easily have a small kitchen, shower/toilet, and full-sized bed, and function pretty much like an RV in all but name.
Their size isn’t the only big thing, they are on average the most expensive category of campervan. Due to their size and weight, they are also more expensive to operate. However, there are often diesel engine options, which helps a bit.
Even larger, there are converted school buses, cube vans, etc. It can certainly be converted, but it’s beyond what I consider a “truck”, campervan or otherwise.
There is no wrong answer with the above. Each fits a different need and budget. Obviously, larger options will allow more space for things like toilets and showers, but smaller options will be easier to drive and park, not to mention much cheaper.
As for what I wanted to do with the truck and my budget, I had one specific type in mind. Fortunately for me, there are so many options and endless possibilities. I even found one. But more on that in Part 2. Stay tuned…
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(marks for translation) camper