In the United States alone, there are 355,000 surf vans and trailers sold every year. It’s accommodation and transportation in one, a tiny house with all the basic comforts that surfers can take anytime, anywhere. It gives them the freedom to come and go in different places — where they get to ride the first waves in the morning and be the last to pick up the surfboard as the sun sets.
See, being a surfer isn’t always fun and waves. It isn’t as comfortable as some people might think. Oftentimes, it’s filled with days on the road, constantly hopping from one beach to the next. Always being on the lookout for the biggest swells and breaks.
Most of them don’t stay in hotels to save money, especially during peak seasons when prices are unbelievably high. For this reason, surf vans became a popular choice for surfers and campers alike.
What makes a good surf van?
Surf vans can be a temporary home for a few days or even weeks. That’s why it must have all the necessary amenities to make it comfortable — even with its limited space. In choosing the right surf van, you must consider these things:
Amenities and features
A livable surf van should include a bed or sleeping area for at least two people, a small kitchen with a sink and stove, and ample space for storage of camping gear. It should also have a dining area that can be located outdoors, solar panels for electricity, air-conditioning, USB ports, and lastly — racks at the top for shortboard or longboard surfboards.
4WD, AWD, FWD, or RWD capabilities
The engine power and driving system of this type of vehicle are also important. Most car companies offer FWD (Front-wheel drive) and RWD (Rear-wheel drive) as cheaper options. But when planning on driving the surf van through tough roads, getting an AWD (All-wheel drive) or a 4WD (Four-wheel drive) is something that we recommend against the alternatives. This is especially helpful if the van gets stuck in mud, flood, or beach sand.
Although surf vans are good options for surfers on the go, they also come with their downsides. Most of them are old — as in half a decade old — so there could be some issues with their maintenance costs and performance on the road. Also, it might be gruesome to find a replacement for some of their broken parts.
Unlike cars, surf vans aren’t designed for driving on rough terrains. Instead, they’re meant to carry cargo, so their ground clearance must be considered. It mustn’t be too low from the ground to lessen scraping, more so when driving through rocky roads or flooded areas during the rainy season.
Top 5 Best Surf Vans
Surf vans enable surfers to live and enjoy life by the beach to the fullest. Just imagine having to wake up next to the sea and sleep with the sounds of ocean waves crashing through the shores every night…
But wait — not all of them are created the same. That’s why we’ve made a list of the ‘tried and tested’ surf vans by many surfers worldwide. Here’s the summary of our Top 5 Best Surf Vans:
- Volkswagen Westfalia (Our Top Pick)
- Balboa (Best Budget)
- Mercedes Benz Sprinter (Best High End)
- RAM ProMaster (Most Customizable)
- Ford Transit (For Working Surfers)
#1: Volkswagen Westfalia (Our Top Pick)
- Pre-owned starts at USD 20,000
- RWD / 4WD
- 15 ft length
- 93 sq ft interior
Let’s start this list with the brand that started the most classic look of all surf vans — the iconic Volkswagen Westfalia. This surf/camper van was manufactured from the 1950s to the early 2000s with only over 1000 units sold. But even though VW has already stopped this van’s production, it remains one of the popular choices for many surfers and hippies until today.
So, what makes this surf van famous aside from its aesthetic appearance? See, Volkswagen Westfalia can be converted in many ways. Every unit has standard equipment such as foldout seats for sleeping, birch plywood panels for a homey interior, cabinetries for extra storage, and wide windows for ventilation and full views of the sea.
Some models have sinks, as well as other equipment like mini ref, camping stoves, awnings and side tents, and portable chemical toilets. This surf van is comfortable and spacious enough to fit two to four people. It’s compact, reliable, and customizable — perfect for every surfer’s needs.
|Classic and timeless design||Hard to find units with low mileage|
|Highly-customizable||Maintenance may be costly|
#2: Balboa (Best Budget)
- Pre-owned starts at USD 15,000 to 17,000
- 18 ft length
- Has a 30-gallon water tank
The Balboa is a vehicle that’s unlike any other. This surf van was manufactured in 1972 and has only been in production for three years, making it one of the rarest vans in the market with only 30 units left cruising around. Since many people don’t see this type of van often, it’s guaranteed to spark conversations with other surf van enthusiasts.
What’s great about Balboas is that they’re cheaper compared to other surf/camper vans. This is because they’re made by combining Dodge, Chevy, and Early Ford chassis. It started first as a regular van that had the rear-end cut off, then turned into a newer, better version of it.
Now, let’s get into the interior part of this vehicle. There are two different layouts for the Balboa — one with an L-shaped kitchenette, and one with a straight kitchen on the driver’s side. Both are spacious enough and can fit multiple persons inside without feeling cramped. Surprisingly, it also has a full bathroom that has its sink, shower, and even a vanity light, a feature that’s difficult to find in other surf vans today.
For the icing on the cake, the Balboa has large windows that give panoramic and unobstructed views of the beach from inside the surf van. Pretty cool, huh?
|Cheaper compared to other surf vans||Hard to find, only a few units left|
|Spacious and customizable|
|Panoramic window views|
#3: Mercedes Benz Sprinter (Best High End)
- Price starts at USD 36,355 for a pre-owned unit / USD 145,920 for brand new
- RWD / 4WD
- 8 ft high ceiling
- 19.5 ft length
- High ground clearance
The Mercedes Benz Sprinter is definitely what a surfer’s dream is made of. It’s a smart-tech surf van for people who don’t mind spending a fortune for comfort and convenience.
The Sprinter is a 5-seater luxury vehicle. It includes 2 high seats at the front and 3 built-in passenger seats at the back, and an 8 ft ceiling height for seamless and airy ambiance inside its cabin. It has a built-in queen-sized bed, loads of storage space for surfing accessories, roof racks, solar panels, and a mini-kitchen with a ref, sink, and stove. Oh, and everything’s customizable as well — this surf van can indulge any camper/surfer’s needs, including their wants.
The good gas mileage that comes with this surf van is also worth mentioning. Even though the Sprinter leans more on the expensive spectrum, some variants use diesel that can help save money on fuel in the long run. When it comes to engine power, Sprinter’s higher-end models offer 4WD, which is effectively useful when driving through rocky, muddy, or steep roads.
|Spacious interiors with high ceiling||Very expensive|
|Come in diesel variants|
#4: RAM ProMaster
- Price starts at USD 20,000, USD 5,000-100,000 for conversion
- Comes in high or low ceiling
- 17.5 ft length
- Low ground clearance
The RAM ProMaster is the right choice for surfers looking for a highly customizable surf van that can be converted according to their needs. Due to its unique boxy layout, it’s easier to design its interior, with some surfers even preferring to do kit conversions and D-I-Y’s for a cheaper and more personal feel of their space.
This surf van has a base price of USD 20,000 for a pre-owned unit, but if customized by professionals, costs can reach up to USD 100,000. This depends on the overall design, furniture, and add-on special features.
Although the RAM ProMaster is not a 4×4, the FWD (Front Wheel Drive) provides better maneuvering and it performs well even in snowy areas. The only drawback is its low ground clearance, which can be a disadvantage when driving through rough terrain.
|Can be customized through D-I-Y, kit, or professional||Lower ground clearance than Sprinter|
|Easy maneuvering, good turning radius||Not a 4WD|
|Cheaper compared to other surf vans|
#5: Ford Transit
- Price starts at USD 35,000 for a pre-owned unit / USD 75,000 for brand new (without conversion)
- Comes in high or low ceiling
- 18.4 ft to 22.2 ft length
The Ford Transit offers innovative conveniences for the modern surfers — one of the reasons why this line remains one of the best-selling vans in North America.
Since working at home has been pretty common nowadays, the Ford Transit can be converted to fit a surfer-digital nomad’s lifestyle. It can accommodate multiple internet connections, audio systems, 240V/120V plugs-ins, and an electrical system that includes batteries and solar panels.
Given that this surf van’s meant for hauling cargo, its interior is spacious enough to accommodate four adults inside. Depending on how it’s customized, it can easily fit a mini-kitchen with a two-burner stove and small refrigerator, cassette toilet, air-conditioning, row seats, pop-up beds, and modular storage.
Lastly, when it comes to its price range, a Ford Transit’s brand new unit is less expensive than the Sprinter. But that doesn’t mean that it’s inferior when it comes to performance. This line has a bigger engine with a 10-speed Auto transmission and a higher horsepower than its competitor.
|Customizable for a digital nomad’s lifestyle||Professional customization is very expensive|
|Less expensive than its competitor||Doesn’t come in 4WD|
How to build a surf van (D-I-Y)
Converting surf vans with the help of professionals is pretty convenient, but it can be really, REALLY expensive. Typically, the average cost for modifications starts from USD 20,000 and can reach up to USD 100,000 depending on the furniture and amenities that will be installed. (Sometimes, the conversion itself is more expensive than the surf van!)
That’s why if budget is a concern, doing a D-I-Y is the cheaper option for many campers or surfers. Although it might be difficult to do this as a solo project, it can significantly lower the conversion expense to USD 5,000 or less.
So how does one build a surf van?
Step 1: Insulate the surf van with EPS foam and wood to lower the interior cabin’s temperature (this is important if the van is constantly under the sun). The insulation also acts as a cushion for sound and road vibrations.
Step 2: Create a list of all the features needed in a surf van to make it livable. It should have a bed, surfboard rack either on the side or on the roof, a small functional kitchen, a working/relaxing space, and a toilet if the space allows it.
Step 3: Maximize the space by creating a layout on where the bed, tables, and kitchen will be placed. Make sure that there’s enough room to walk in seamlessly without bumping into something.
Step 4: Take advantage of the other available spaces. Install cabinets above and below the kitchen for the cutleries and kitchen appliances, as well as storage under the bed for gears, clothes, and other gadgets. For extra amenities outside, put a provision for the clothes drying rack, pop-top roof, surfboard storage (like a motorcycle rack), and an outdoor shower.
Step 5: Keep everything clean and organized. Since surf vans are smaller compared to regular homes, it needs to be clutter-free.
Frequently Asked Questions
Q: Is it better to go for rental vans or purchase them?
This depends on your budget and how often you’ll use the surf van. If you only plan on going for a surfing trip once or twice a year, then it’s more advisable to choose a rental one instead. There are many online platforms where you can find surf vans for rent such as Outdoorsy, Airbnb, or EscapeCampervans. Surf van rental averages at USD 700 to 1,000 per week.
Now, if your budget allows it and you plan on staying and living in a surf van for a longer term, purchasing your own surf van is the better choice. This allows you to customize the van according to your needs. At the same time, buying surf campers or vans can be a good investment, too, as these kinds of vehicles get good resale value even after many years — given that it’s in good working condition.
Q: Where should you park surf vans?
There are many surf spots where parking a surf van is acceptable, but it’s always recommended to ask first to avoid paying fees or trespassing in private properties. Ideally, you should park near a beach or within walking distance of it.
Q: What do you need to bring in a surf van?
Living temporarily or permanently in a surf van also means you should embrace the minimalist lifestyle. With this in mind, the only things you should bring with you are your necessities. Among those are your clothes, toiletries, food, drinking water (especially when you’re in the tropics), repair tools, and basic equipment for surfing and camping.