Camper vans aren’t just for pensioners. Sure, they’re often associated with wearing a Hawaiian shirt as you waft across the country one Home Town Buffet at a time. There’s another side of the segment, though, one that will appeal to hardcore adventurers who want to step away from their desk and explore the great outdoors — for a weekend, a month, or a year. If you fit in that latter category, and if you’re looking for a rig, check out some of the wildest camper vans out there.
That’s right, the very same company that makes luxurious sedans and ultra-quick sports cars also manufactures some of the most bad-ass off-roaders on the planet. The Zetros wasn’t designed for camping, however. Originally, it’s a heavy-duty truck commonly used by the armed forces in various countries, for logging operations, and on trans-Sahara expeditions. It didn’t take long for adventure-seekers to discover its unusually high tolerance to pain, however.
Many aftermarket companies turn the Zetros into a camper, and Mercedes even entered the segment with a factory-approved conversion three years ago. The best ones create a vehicle that’s a lot like the RV your grandparents used to cruise around in, only cooler. Knobby tires, a lifted suspension, and the same genes that produced the G550 4×4 allow it to effortlessly cruise from point A to point B even if there’s a mountain range in between the two. Inside, Mercedes’ world-famous craftsmanship and attention to detail shine through. Work hard, play hard, and sleep well.
Maybe going off-road and eating berries to scrape by isn’t your idea of fun. There’s nothing wrong with that. Some seek a camper van that blends the comfort, luxury, and amenities of a mansion with the practicality of a car. If that sounds like you, check out the Mercedes-Benz Sprinter modified by Midwest Automotive.
Starting with a homely Sprinter, the same kind of van that delivers your FedEx packages, Midwest Automotive builds a camper van you wouldn’t trade for a night at the Hilton. The better-equipped models have a fridge, an oven, soft leather upholstery, in-car Wi-Fi, a premium sound system, and even a flat-screen television so you never miss a game. Better yet, you can work directly with Midwest Automotive to create a custom, one-of-a-kind van to your exact specifications. If you can dream it (and fund it), Midwest can build it.
The Ford E-Series is completely outdated as a delivery van, but it makes for a pretty awesome camper. Sportsmobile starts its conversion with the cab-chassis model, which is the only E-Series left in production. While the back part of it looks like sheet metal, it’s actually a custom-designed add-on made with steel-reinforced fiberglass. The van then gets a four-wheel drive system designed in-house and upgraded brakes sourced from the heavy-duty F-550.
If you don’t want to spend money on a new van, Sportsmobile will convert any E-Series into a 4×4 camper. The company notes the four-wheel drive kit is currently only compatible with the 6.8-liter V10 gasoline engine. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. Though thirsty, the 10-cylinder has enough power and torque to move you and yours over boulders.
Your local utility company and explorers deep in the Canadian wilderness have one thing in common — a Ford F-750. Colorado-based EarthRoamer started with the Blue Oval’s biggest truck to build a rugged four-wheel drive camper called XV-HD. It accommodates six people in a comfortable environment that includes a full bathroom with a separate shower, a washing machine, a drier, in-floor heating, and a Bose surround-sound system.
46-inch Michelin tires and a custom suspension with Fox shocks let it conquer and tame all kinds of terrain, Raptor-style. 250 gallons of fresh water, a 115-gallon fuel tank, and a 20,000-watt lithium-ion battery bank ensure you can spend weeks without needing to communicate with another human being.
Whether you’re planning a hardcore around-the-world trip or anticipating a full-scale zombie attack, there’s no better option than the MAN Noroader. Its name alone suggests that it soldiers on dutifully where other off-roaders get weak knees, turn pale, and turn back. Built in Switzerland, the Noroader rides on a proven semi-truck chassis for peace of mind when it comes to durability, and it’s equipped with a heavy-duty turbodiesel engine that delivers all the hill-climbing torque you could ever need.
The list of equipment reads like a survivalist manual. The Noroader offers LED search lights, satellite-based television and internet, a 4,000-watt diesel generator, an outdoor kitchen, a hydraulic platform for carrying an ATV or a motorcycle, and three separate fuel tanks with a total capacity of 317 gallons. There are three suspension settings to choose from called on road, bad road, and off-road, respectively. It’s tough on the outside, but the living quarters look like a luxurious condo. And, as a bonus, it’s so tall you’re certain to get the best view in the house no matter how far off the grid you end up.
The Volkswagen EuroVan is the direct descendant of the Bus hippies claimed as their own during the 1960s. The engine is in the front, not in the back, so the interior is bigger and correspondingly more comfortable to sleep in for days — or weeks — at a time. Volkswagen offered several variants of the EuroVan. Some were passenger-carrying models with three rows of seats, while others were fitted with the desirable Westphalia option and factory-built for camping. You’ll likely spend less on a passenger-carrying one but you will need to convert it into a camper. The Westphalia, on the other hand, is a turn-key solution.
Volkswagen sold the EuroVan between the 1999 and 2003 model years. American-spec models received a robust 2.8-liter VR6 engine rated at 140 horsepower. It spins the front wheels through a four-speed automatic transmission. While this might require some patience, we recommend you find a low-mileage example with a documented service history to avoid breaking down 100 miles away from the nearest service center. Plan on spending at least $15,000 on a clean example.
The Nissan NV is a full-size van designed to move anything that’s big and bulky. Body-on-frame construction makes it one of the more rugged options in the van segment — a boon if you need to tow — and it’s available with a somewhat awkward-looking high roof option that clears up a studio-like amount of space behind the seats. You can use the cargo compartment to build a walk-in van — Nissan claims even 6’3″ users can stand up straight — or you can install a mezzanine bed. Bluetooth connectivity and a USB port for iPods and other compatible devices are both standard while Nissan offers navigation at an extra cost.
Engine options include a 4.0-liter V6 rated at 261 horsepower and a 375-hp, 5.6-liter V8 shared with the Titan pickup truck. We recommend selecting the eight, and here’s why: You’re going to deck out your NV with a bed, cabinets, a sink, and maybe even a small kitchen. These features inevitably add weight. Odds are your adventures will take you to higher elevations. You might even climb up a mountain pass or two. Get the extra power; you won’t regret it.
Nissan asks $29,000 for a brand-new NV. Used examples start in the vicinity of $15,000.