A 4×4 van conversion is a great way to get away from it all!
As avid boondockers for the past couple of decades, we understand the allure of the great outdoors off the beaten path.
There’s a big difference between the experience you’ll have in a busy campground or RV park and those that happen off the grid and away from the crowds.
Many people enjoy the camaraderie they find in highly populated campgrounds, while others prefer to be surrounded by natural vistas and the peaceful exuberance of nature.
But as much as we love boondocking, our 43′ diesel pusher has its limits. (Although we’ve only had to be towed out of a boondocking location once in 20 years, which is kind of amazing considering where we take it!)
The most adventurous among us enjoy traveling to locations most people can’t even access with a motorhome or most towed RVs. For these travelers, a 4×4 van conversion may be just the ticket!
- 1) What Is a 4×4 Van Conversion?
- 2) What Companies Make a 4×4 Van?
- 3) What’s a 4×4 Conversion?
- 4) Is It Cheaper to Buy a Camper Van or Build a Conversion?
- 5) How Much Does It Cost to Put 4×4 on a Van?
- 6) Do You Have Experience with a 4×4 Van Conversion?
What Is a 4×4 Van Conversion?
The term “4×4” means four-wheel drive (4WD). With a 4×4 conversion van, the van’s engine powers all four wheels. But there’s more to four-wheel drive than just sending power to all four corners.
When a 4×4 van is shifted into 4WD mode, the front and rear axles both get power all the time. This means that no matter the terrain being driven, engine torque is always going to at least one front wheel and one rear wheel. The end result is more traction.
This is how four-wheel drive provides such great off-road capability.
A 4×4 van conversion is a van with 4WD capability that’s converted to an off-grid camper, allowing you to travel some serious off-road terrain, (including mud, ice, and snow), in order to camp in remote destinations.
What Companies Make a 4×4 Van?
Only one van comes straight from the factory with 4WD, and even that one is going to be coming from the manufacturer as AWD (all-wheel drive) starting in 2023 (more on the difference between 4WD & AWD in a minute). So beginning in 2023, if you want a brand new 4×4 van, you’ll have to buy a new van and have it converted to 4×4.
So let’s take a brief look at the only van that has come straight from the manufacturer with 4WD/4×4 (again, until 2023).
Mercedes Sprinter Vans
Since 2015, Mercedes has made 4×4 Sprinter vans.
As we’ve noted, however, starting in 2023 Mercedes Sprinter vans will come from the manufacturer with AWD systems instead of 4×4.
But there’s quite a difference between four-wheel drive and all-wheel drive. In a nutshell, all-wheel drive (AWD) uses electrical components to send extra torque to a wheel when low traction is sensed by the system.
That’s useful in dangerous road conditions such as snow and rain, but it’s different from 4WD (4×4) which sends power to both axles all the time.
Serious traction for intense off-roading generally calls for the more robust 4WD (4×4) system. With the 2015-2022 Mercedes 4×4 vans, the 4WD is selectable so you can run it in 4WD or rear-wheel drive mode.
The Mercedes Sprinter 4×4 vans have been incredibly popular among serious vanlifers who love to go off-roading or even overlanding. In addition to the 4×4 feature, they’re tall so most people can stand inside them, making them comfortably livable as well.
Some companies have built camper vans based on the Mercedes 4×4 van including the Winnebago Revel and the Sportsmobile campers.
The suspension on Mercedes Sprinter 4×4 vans is lifted 4 inches higher than the 2WD versions to accommodate the running gear. This gives more ground clearance to the 4×4 versions of the van, another distinct advantage for off-roading.
However, really serious off-roaders and overlanders who want even more ground clearance can get a lift and suspension kit from companies like Van Compass that will lift the van an additional 2 inches.
That may not sound like much, but not only is it an additional 2-inch lift, it also allows space for larger all-terrain tires.
The Mercedes Sprinter 4×4 vans make great camper van conversions. They’re roomy and there are lots of options for building out the interior.
If you’re interested in seeing what can be done with a Mercedes Sprinter 4×4 van conversion, check out the excellent video below from our dear friends and co-hosts on The RVers Tom & Cait of Mortons on the Move.
They interviewed Chad from Living the Van Life about his awesome 4×4 van conversion. And wow – this bright, creative YouTuber really pulled out all the stops!
A couple of additional notes regarding brands and AWD vs. 4×4 — Even though it’s not a true 4×4, the Ford Transit Van became available with AWD in 2020. And although a true 4×4 sends power 50/50 to the front and rear, the Mercedes system can only send 33% of its engine torque to the front and 67% to the rear. But it’s still an awesome off-road vehicle!
Older Imported 4×4 Vans
There have been other original (direct from the factory) 4×4 vans manufactured outside of North America. Occasionally you can see them on the road in the United States and Canada.
The Volkswagen Vanagon Syncro (1984-1992) and a couple of Japanese vans (Toyota Hiace and Mitsubishi Delica 4×4 vans from the 1990s) are examples.
These are rarely seen here in North America (but they’re out there!) because of U.S. restrictions that don’t allow foreign vehicles to be imported until 25 years after manufacture.
There are now importers of these very cool vintage 4×4 camper vans in the U.S. and Canada, but they can be expensive because they’re hard to find.
If you’d like to take a look at some, check out retro Mitsubishi specialist Nomadic Van Life and Delica USA in the United States, and Silk Road Autos in British Columbia, Canada.
What’s a 4×4 Conversion?
There are conversion companies that take vans that come from the factory as NON-4×4 vans and convert them to 4×4. In fact, some of these companies can even convert RVs to 4×4. (If you’d like to see some 4×4 RV conversions, one such company is ujoint offroad.)
4×4 conversions are fairly complex (and expensive), involving the transfer case, drivetrain, engine power, transmission, differentials, electronics, and of course the suspension.
There are DIY conversion kits available, but installing them requires a fair amount of expertise. Not everyone who wants a 4×4 van conversion has the ability to do the 4×4 conversion as a DIY project, so the more popular option is to use a company that professionally converts vans for off-roading and overlanding.
Let’s take a look at a few of the most popular companies that convert vans to 4×4.
One popular option for a 4×4 van conversion is Quigley Motor Company.
Located in Manchester, Pennsylvania, Quigley converts new vans as well as pre-owned vans and offers several upgrades. The company offers 2-inch and 4-inch lifts, beefy shocks and sway bars, all-terrain tires, and automatic hub locks in addition to their basic conversion packages.
Quigley Motor Company has been converting and customizing vans for 50 years, so they’re well-known in the industry. They have a reputation for excellent quality and regularly provide conversions of all kinds to Ford Transit vans and E-Series vans as well as General Motors and Nissan vans.
Sportsmobile is also well-known in the industry. They provide 4×4 conversions as well as customized camper conversions to the interior of the van.
Located in Austin, Texas, and Huntington, Indiana, Sportsmobile converts new and used Ford Transits and Mercedes Sprinter vans.
We mentioned u-joint offroad earlier in the article as a company that converts RVs to 4×4. They convert Ford E-Series Class C rigs and vans and will work on vans dating all the way back to 1992.
u-joint offroad is dedicated to Ford conversions and offers lifts as high as 8 inches in addition to some cool upgrade options in the way of winches, lights, bumpers, and roof racks.
They also offer DIY conversion kits for the well-prepared do-it-yourselfer.
There are a number of other companies that provide 4×4 van conversions, both exterior and interior, making the options for off-road and overlanding campers pretty widely available.
Is It Cheaper to Buy a Camper Van or Build a Conversion?
The answer to this question really depends on what you intend to build or buy, and the options are practically endless.
There are used 4×4 camper vans on the market that may offer the best overall value, but they also can be hard to find. These are already 4×4 and already built to accommodate the living needs of the off-road camper or overlander.
Brand-new 4×4 van camper conversions are expensive – there’s no getting around that. But they’re available to those who can afford them. Several of the companies we’ve mentioned in this article will fully build out a brand new camper van for you…but again, it won’t be cheap.
Another option is to buy a brand new van, have it professionally converted to 4×4, and then build the camper’s interior out more simply yourself. You’ve got to figure in the cost of things like insulation, electronics, plumbing, and propane if you want those features.
Some budget-minded DIYers have great success working up simple builds that are less costly.
For a pretty cool rundown of lots of van conversion options and the costs to create those conversions, have a look at Nate Murphy’s van conversion guide. Bear in mind that the RV conversion costs would be in addition to the 4×4 conversion.
How Much Does It Cost to Put 4×4 on a Van?
As for the cost of converting a van to 4×4, costs vary depending on what you’re doing, as always.
But to give you a general idea of the cost of giving a van 4×4 capabilities, let’s look at the cost of a Quigley 4×4 conversion as an example.
Most of Quigley’s 4×4 van conversions will run you anywhere from $12,000 to $20,000 depending on the van itself and what you want, including upgrades like shocks or added suspension and lift.
You can get a basic conversion from Quigley for right around $12,000.
Note: If you want to have your van’s roof converted as well, hard high tops can add anywhere from $5,000 to $10,000, and pop tops can add $12,000 to $16,000 depending on your choices.
Do You Have Experience with a 4×4 Van Conversion?
If you have experience either converting or having a van converted to 4×4 and also converting the interior living space of the van, we’d love to hear about your van and how it’s worked out for you.
One thing is for sure, van conversions are very popular right now whether they’re professionally done or created by a DIYer. And the 4×4 versions can really get travelers away to some pretty awesome nooks and crannies of the world!
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Monday 21st of November 2022
Great article about converting a van to a 4x4. With the advent of OEMs offering AWD / 4x4 vans and the RAM Promaster with front wheel drive, the range of options is amazing compared to what it was. No longer do we have to worry about just getting out of our driveway with a rear wheel van; some of us converted vans back in the 70's (spent most of my money on the side panel murals) and rode in VW campers so it's in our blood. A couple of thoughts as my next purchase will likely be a van or a pickup: (1) Operating a Mercedes is an expensive proposition to be taken into consideration. Besides the usual maintenance such as fluid changes which easily cost more than triple, a repair will sent costs through the roof. We own a MB300 sedan and a parking light replacement costs $300 (had to go at it from inside the wheel well and remove body parts), at an independent shop no less. Right now we're dealing with a broken interior door handle, a well known problem based on the number of YouTube videos, dealer cost is around $1600 (replace the whole interior panel) versus a $20 door handle on Amazon, the DIY is tricky but looks doable. One MB in my lifetime is enough. (2) When thinking about a van conversion and all that's involved, a 4x4 pickup with a truck camper is an attractive alternative, especially from a cost standpoint. An entry trim crew cab 4x4 pickup and camper is about the price of a 4x4 crew cab MB before conversion. We're in the process of installing a 400w solar panel / 200Ah lithium battery system on our travel trailer in anticipation of longer boondocking. The biggest issue so far is the space on the tongue A frame for the batteries, we're trying to go from one lead acid to two 100ah or one 200ah LiPoFe4. We may just go with one 100Ah for now until we figure out an alternative. What will be your tow vehicle for your new Black Series travel trailer?
Monday 21st of November 2022
Hi Bruce! Thanks so much for sharing your experiences. We're not sure yet what we'll be towing the Black Series with just yet. We're working on that and will of course share eagerly when we get rolling!