And now for something new.
My husband and I are starting a camper conversion of… wait for it…
… a used ambulance!
With socially distant travel being all the rage right now, we felt like it was finally time to pull the trigger on this project idea we’ve been talking about for a few years. I’m excited for a mobile adventure home base so we can spend even more time in lovely places, playing outside and exploring new roads and trails on foot and bike.
Why an ambulance? Well, Sprinters are too expensive these days, for one thing. And for another, it suits us because it’s
weird delightfully quirky. But more importantly, ambulance camper conversions are a relatively affordable way to approach to the increasingly popular world of van conversions.
Used ambulances are surprisingly affordable considering the quality of their build. They’ve often been well maintained during their life of service, and they are normally decommissioned and sold at auction after a moderate amount of time and/or miles. And they come ready-made with lots of things people usually need to add during their conversions: insulation, cupboards, seating, tons and tons of electrical wiring…
If you’re still on the fence about whether a used ambulance is right for your conversion project, I have another post on the pros and cons of converting an ambulance to a camper. We’re still in the early stages of our incremental conversion, but so far we’re happy with our choice!
If you’re convinced by the idea and ready to shop for your used ambulance, this post is all about what to look for when buying a used ambulance for a camper conversion. It turns out that some kinds of ambulances are perfect for a camper conversion, while others have some drawbacks, and there are many factors to consider. This is the guide I wish existed when we were first diving in.
Without further ado, here’s an overview of what to look for in a used ambulance for your camper conversion project.
Where to Find a Used Ambulance
Fortunately there’s a small community of people around the internet who are already into this (isn’t that true of anything on the internet these days?). Thanks to their forum posts and several discoveries of our own, we ended up with a pretty long list of sites we were checking regularly for used ambulances.
Ironically, we ended up getting ours locally on Craigslist! But, the process of perusing online listings was essential for learning what kind of ambulance we wanted and what a reasonable price range might look like.
Here, for your used ambulance shopping pleasure, is a list of websites that list used ambulances:
How to Read Used Ambulance Listings
Now that you’ve found some listings of potential ambulances for your camper conversion, what the heck do those descriptions mean? It’s obvious in hindsight, but it took us a little while to parse the titles so we could skim through them quickly and know if we were interested.
The first thing to know is that ambulances sort of have two manufacturers. The first is the maker of the vehicle itself: Ford, Chevy, etc. The year listed will correspond to the year the vehicle was made, just like any used vehicle. The model of the vehicle will also be listed, for example E350 (Ford) or C4500 (Chevy).
Then, there’s the manufacturer of the ambulance-specific parts, who takes the chassis and turns it into an actual ambulance. These names will be less familiar, for example Medtec, Horton, Road Rescue, Wheeled Coach, AEV, McCoy Miller. Sometimes for type 1 and III ambulances, which are a box mounted on a cutaway chassis (more on types below), the box may be remounted onto a newer vehicle chassis, so the box will be older than the vehicle year listed. These are called “remounts.”
Ambulances also have types, which are very important and which I’ll get into down below. For now, just know that there are types I, II, III, and medium duty.
The make and model of the engine is sometimes included in the listing title, otherwise it’ll be in the listing content. Examples are Powerstroke 7.3 L (Ford) and Duramax 6.6 L.
The type of fuel, either diesel or gasoline, is often included in the listing but rarely the title. Since gas seems to be a bit less common, sometimes it’s called out specifically in the title.
The drivetrain is usually assumed to be two wheel drive (2×4 / 2wd), so sometimes this is left out of listings. If it’s 4×4 this will probably be included in the listing title, or at least mentioned clearly somewhere in the listing itself.
Finally, the odometer mileage will be listed as it would with any used vehicle.
There are a few other things to look for in the listings, but you won’t generally see them called out in the title, so I’ll leave them for down below.
With all this, then, you can easily decode listings like these:
Now, the all-important question: which ambulance type is best for a camper conversion?
Ambulances are classified into four types: type 1, 2, 3, and medium duty. Here’s an overview of each.
Type 1: Box on Cutaway Truck Chassis
Type 1 ambulances consist of a pickup truck style chassis and cab (Ford F-450 for example) with a box mounted on the back. If they weren’t an ambulance, they’d probably be called a box truck. They’re a bit heavier than class III’s.
It’s unusual to find a type 1 with a walkthrough between cab and box (more on walkthroughs below). Typically they have a small passthrough window instead. Otherwise type 1 ambulances would be great candidates for a camper conversion, especially because they seem more likely than other types to come with four wheel drive.
Common vehicle models for type 1 ambulances include Ford F450 and Chevy CK3500.
Type 2: Cargo Van
Type 2 ambulances are basically just a van with a lot of storage, seating, and equipment in the back. They’re the smallest and lightest type of ambulance. Common models are Mercedes Sprinter and Ford Transit, often with a raised roof.
As far as camper conversions go, a great deal on a type 2 ambulance might make sense if you want to do a traditional camper van conversion and need the van. The smaller space, compared to types I and III, means you’ll likely have to rip out a lot of what’s already in there. We didn’t look closely at many type 2 ambulances because we already knew we wanted the spaciousness of type 1 or 3.
Type 3: Box on Cutaway Van Chassis
Type 3 is similar to type 1 except for a few differences:
- Cab and chassis are cargo van style instead of truck
- More often have a walkthrough between cab and box
- Lighter gross vehicle weight than type 1
Common type 3 models include Chevy G3500 and G4500, Ford E-350 and E-450.
In our opinion type 3 ambulances are ideal for camper conversions because of the cab walkthrough. They occasionally come with 4wd, though these seem to get snapped up quickly, possibly because they make the ideal conversion candidate.
Medium Duty: Box on Medium Duty Truck Chassis
These ambulances consist of a box on a burly truck chassis with a cab that resembles a commercial big rig. Common models are Freightliner, International, and Kodiak. They’re heavier and can have extra headroom, sometimes up to to 74 inches. We thought these would be overkill for a camper conversion, but did see a fair number of them in used listings.
Personally I was confused by the term “medium duty” because these seem to be the “heaviest duty” type of ambulance. Especially since there is a type of Ford F-450, a type 1 ambulance, with an engine branded “super duty.” It helped to understand that the “medium duty” term is referring to general truck duty classifications, apparently classes 5 and 6 specifically. And the Ford engine name is just branding.
Drivetrain: 4×4 vs. 2×4
Most people assume that if they want an off-road camper, they need four wheel drive. Used ambulances do come as 4×4, but they’re not common, so you’ll have to decide whether you want to hold out for one.
We ended up getting a two wheel drive, and we have tentative plans to have it converted to 4×4 (more on this below). Before you make your decision, think carefully about whether you really need 4×4 (opinions are split). The consensus seems to be that, whether you end up with 4×4 or not, driving and self-recovery skills are even more important than drivetrain type.
That said, if you want to snag a 4×4 used ambulance, what will you look for? Most of the ones we saw were type 1, usually Ford F-350 or 450, which did not have walkthroughs. The occasional type 3 Ford E-350 or 450 might pop up, and it might have a walkthrough, but I bet it will get snapped up fast by someone else looking to do a camper conversion!
We’re in the process of figuring this out right now, but from what we’ve been told, it’s possible to convert a 2wd to 4wd for somewhere in the neighborhood of $15,000. So if you find a screaming good deal on a 2wd but can’t give up the 4×4 dream, this may be a feasible route.
It’s best to find a local shop to talk to about this; look for one that specializes in off-road vehicles. This kind of shop can also do other modifications you might want, like a lift, front bumper, and rugged exterior coating, at the same time.
So which models can be converted? Ford E-350 and E-450 seem like very safe bets. We were also told our Chevy 4500 would be no problem. The shop actually said pretty much anything is possible, but more unusual models might take more research and be more expensive. I would think it’s best to check with the shop that will do the work before committing to an unusual model.
There’s also the route of a DIY conversion kit. Well-known kit maker Quigley sells the parts, if you have the skills (we don’t). You may occasionally see a used vehicle for sale that’s already had a Quigley conversion done.
Walkthrough From Cab
If you’re using an ambulance for a camper conversion, a walkthrough between the box and cab is pretty important. Imagine parking for the night and being able to get to your living space without going outside. Or being able to drive away from a campsite under sketchy circumstances without going outside. Or having kids or other passengers in the back while driving, and being able to communicate with them.
Walkthroughs are most common in type 3 ambulances, though you might see the occasional type 1 with a walkthrough, and you’ll see type 3’s without them. Models without a walkthrough have a passthrough instead, which is just a small window that slides open and closed
When looking at listing pictures, an interior shot showing the door or window is almost always included. You can usually see pretty clearly whether there’s a full door, or just a window:
Occasionally a door might be closed and look like just a window, so ask if you’re unsure.
Adding a Walkthrough
From talking to a couple fabrication shops and watching YouTube videos, it seems possible in theory to add a walkthrough for a few thousand dollars or less. I’m just guessing here, but this seems easier on ambulances that have the box mounted flush against the back of the cab, like this:
If there’s a gap between the box and cab it should still be possible, but more complicated. You’d need to cut two holes and seal around the opening with some kind of flexible rubber or plastic.
Another challenge is that on models without walkthroughs, there’s sometimes a console in the cab that would get in the way of an added doorway. Also, I suspect some cabinets would need to be removed from inside box before adding the door.
But in theory, if you want both 4×4 and a walkthrough and can only find one, it should be cheaper to add the walkthrough than convert to 4wd.
The dimensions of the ambulance box (we’re talking about types 1 and 3 here) vary based on manufacturer and model, but are usually in the neighborhood of:
- Height: 66 – 72 inches
- Width: ~90 inches (much wider than a van)
- Length: between 144 – 150 inches
That width and length are going to feel pretty roomy compared to a standard cargo van conversion, so the most important number is going to be the height.
Some listings include the interior height / headroom, but some don’t, so be sure to ask. Depending on your height, how much you care about being able to stand up inside, and what kind of layout you want to install (platform bed with bike storage underneath, for example), a shorter height might be a no-go.
Also note that there’s usually a section down the middle of the ceiling with grab bars and lights, which takes an additional 1-2 inches out of the headroom in the center. It seems removable, but we haven’t tried yet.
I didn’t initially expect the engine type to be a big deal. An engine is an engine, right? As long as it runs, I’m happy.
Well, it turns out that there are engines, and then there are engines. In particular, the Duramax 6.6 liter engine seems universally worshipped as reliable and long-lasting.
On the other hand, the Ford Powerstroke 6.4 and especially the 6.0 are, well, not liked as much. Apparently they have a tendency to need maintenance or fail unexpectedly. The Ford Powerstroke 7.3 is supposedly better, but still not as good as the Duramax. Take this for what you will, as I’m certainly no expert in engines, but we’re glad we ended up with a Duramax.
Gas vs. Diesel
Keep in mind that many ambulances run on diesel. You can look into pros and cons yourself depending on where you live, but in the US diesel is less common than gas (not all fuel stations have it), and more expensive. You’ll also need to find a diesel mechanic if you need work done, because not every mechanic works on diesel engines.
However, diesel engines have somewhat better fuel economy and often last a very long time (assuming you avoid those Ford models, apparently).
Which is better for the environment? It depends, but newer diesel engines are definitely better than older ones.
Location and Shipping
For some reason, most of the used ambulance dealers we found online are based on the east coast. And we are in California.
Fortunately we ended up buying locally from Craigslist, but while shopping around we asked about the possibility of shipping. We were told it could run a few thousand dollars to get an ambulance “shipped” (hire someone to drive it) across the country.
Another option is to make your own arrangements via a rideshare program or otherwise. Here’s an example of a successful arrangement.
As with buying any used vehicle, newer is better and older is cheaper. It seems like ambulances are decommissioned roughly 5-7 years after they were made. So any affordable used ambulances will be at least that old, and some will be much older.
Budget will usually be the biggest consideration here, but there are a few other things that can come up. This definitely isn’t an exhaustive list – please do your own research! – but to illustrate my point here are two issues we encountered while shopping for our used ambulance for our camper conversion:
- In California, CARB emissions regulations are gradually phasing out commercial truck engines older than 2010. Does this apply if the commercial vehicle is retitled as an RV or camper? Probably not, but this seemed like an uncomfortable grey area.
- The shop we talked to about converting to 4wd said that Ford E350 / E450 older than 2007 were best for conversions, because they lack a stability feature that makes the conversion more expensive (by about $1000).
Issues for your particular area and model may vary! It’s worth doing some research.
How to Buy a Used Ambulance
Once you’ve made contact with the seller and are seriously considering the vehicle, you should do two things:
- Get the VIN number and run the Carfax report. Ideally you’d like to see a thorough maintenance history, no accidents, and details that match with what the seller has given you.
- Have it inspected by a local mechanic at your expense. This usually runs between $150-$200. The seller may be willing to drive it to a mechanic in their area (it should be someone chosen by you, not them, for maximum neutrality), or you may need to get a mobile mechanic to come to the seller. If it’s a diesel engine, be sure to hire a diesel mechanic for the inspection, and make sure they know the vehicle make and model in advance.
- The mechanic will inspect the vehicle part, but likely not the details of the ambulance box. Ambulances are complicated, and it seems common for at least some little thing to need fixing. Broken door latch, nonfunctional A/C, and electrical glitches seem to be common issues. The seller should disclose these (if they even know about them – some might not), but you might need to probe a bit.
Once you’ve found and purchased your used ambulance, it’s time for the fun part! We’re just getting started on our ambulance camper conversion; so far we’ve blown a fuse, drained the battery, taken apart some things we can’t put back together, and failed to remove a stuck gurney lock. But, we’re learning!
Update: Since I first wrote this post we’ve installed a solar and battery system and folding platform bed with bike storage underneath. We hit the road for three weeks in Arizona and Utah and so far, so good! Still plenty of work to do, but we’re appreciating how easy it is to do an incremental build while enjoying some time on the road as we go.
32 thoughts on “What to Look for in a Used Ambulance for a Camper Conversion”
Good information. I will say that most types 1’s do have a walk through or crawl through to be more realistic. I’ve been a paramedic/firefighter for over 25 years and have only been on one or two type 1’s with just the window slide. It maybe more of just what we’ve used, But it definitely comes in handy if need to escape a patient that gets violent.
Another option for purchase is government auctions or going direct with your town, city, county, etc… to see if they have any listings. I definitely agree knowing who built the ambulance makes a difference some are good some are not; especially when you tackle the wiring. That can be a night mare.
Our conversion has been inspected and registered in the state of MD – but we’re having a problem getting insurance. Recommedations?
I understand – we had to try a few companies too. We finally had success with State Farm.
I just purchased a 1980 Chevy G30 ambulance that had some conversion done. My biggest question is how do I find out what’s legal to leave on it (lights etc). It’s been quite the adventure since it was very low mileage and lived most of its life in Arizona now in Minnesota. Any help would be appreciated.
Congrats on your purchase! It depends on where you are, but I would say definitely take the decals off if they’re still on (the star of life and any text that says “ambulance”). We were stopped and scolded for that the very first time we drove ours, when we hadn’t gotten around to it yet. You might be able to do it with a hairdryer and old credit card.
I’ve also googled and found that here in California the flashy lights and sirens are supposed to be disconnected / removed / covered, but it’s a little vague and we are still figuring it out ourselves. I would hope making an effort is much better than no attempt at all, even if a few details aren’t quite to the letter. Good luck!
I bought a used 1995 GMC K3500 in 2020 up here in Alberta. Luckily it’s a 4×4 and has a walk through door. After looking for a few months and doing a lot of research online, (videos, blogs, pictures, etc.) I lucked out and came across the ambulance on Craigslist. It runs on gas and has very low mileage as it was a Search and Rescue unit that was well maintained. The engine is a big block 454 which means parts are readily available if needed. It’s a Type 1 that has a lower ceiling. I’m sacrificing headroom and living space, but it will also be easier to heat in winter. I just started to renovate so long way to go yet…I did a lot of research so I knew what I required for my needs, ie. lots of external storage, roof rack, solar, sink, etc..the list is long, lol. I could go on for a long time about what I’ve learned so far, but I just want to mention that it’s a good idea to carefully decide what your needs are before buying. Take your time…There are a ton of different styles of ambulances available, ie. windows on the side, different storage options etc. One of my favourite places that combines a ton of ambulance listings is a website called “SearchTempest”. I check it often as I can see ambos. for sale all across North America. Generally the best kept units have been maintained and stored in rural stations. Just because it’s old doesn’t mean it’s a bad choice! Parts can be easier to find and not as expensive as modern units. I avoid EBay like COVID as most ambos are being sold by dealers that are overpriced! Not always, but usually. The beautiful thing about ambos is that they’re built like tanks. I know because I drive one for a living. Yes some are heavy on fuel, but if safety is your concern they blow RV’s out of the water! I hope this info. helps a bit and please do a heavy disinfection of the box interior after purchase. Lots of nasty goings on back there! If you hear “ewww people died in there”, just remind them that “ lots of people have been saved in there”. A good start for research is “ Campulance Man” on Utube. He along with many other ambulance conversions are easy to find along with good advice. Oh yeah..one last thing. Lol.. Unless you’re driving on really bad roads or in heavy mud/snow, a 2WD unit with good traction off-road tires will get you through the crap. PS. Alissa..those bars in the ceiling make awesome hammock hangers! Just saying..lol. Cheers ya’all.
thanks for the info Robert .. that was very informative. I live in Alberta as well. i just have been doing my research on this topic. just want to ask you some questions if you don’t mind. forgive me if my question seems dumb but I am just trying to figure it out. so do I have to rip everything up to insulate the ambulance or is the insulation that comes with it would be enough?.. I do like the option of installing that mini stove for heat.. I probably won’t stay in it through the winter but I am just wondering for the other 3 seasons. also, I wonder how do I get the ambulance directly from the fire station or EMT companies. I find it is hard to get stuff through the crags list in Alberta .. thanks in advance
Ok, Newer ambos have good insulation, but you won’t know how good until you look in the ceiling. Open the panel that runs down the middle to check. I wouldn’t try to live in my ambulance in an Alberta winter..lol. You know how cold it gets here! Better to go south or to B.C. I use mine for ski trips etc, but if your willing to put in a lot of work and rip everything out and put in more insulation that’s up to you. Just remember the less air in the walls the more condensation builds up, so I prefer to use a marine propane heater as it uses air from outside that’s dry. It’s not cheap, but I’ve used it on boats and love em. Watch out for heaters, ie, little buddy etc..they use the air inside your vehicle. Diesel heaters are ok as well. Do your research and figure out what’s best for you. Watch YouTube for info. and pleeeeese. get a carbon monoxide alarm! I just gave a list of sites to check for sales in a reply to another post on here so you can check it out.. kijiji always lots of ambos for sale in Canada. Best to have a mechanic check before buying. You can call ambulance stations, fireballs, etc..they sometimes know when they are going to upgrade. I hope that helps. Good luck!
FYI…Ambulance just listed today on Govdeals.ca …. 1992 Chevy K3500 …4×4 …starting bid of $5000.00…If I didn’t already own a 1995 I would seriously consider checking this out.
Thanks for your information, I bought a used ambulance but where can find an Auto store or person build to Rv for you. Do you have any ideas or advance for me?
is there any law in Canada (TRANSPORT CANADA) that say you cannot convert an ambulance to a motorhome ? What about the vehicle registration certificate…will it need to be changed to a motorhome after…?
In Canada you can legally use an ambulance as long as you remove/cover the red flashing lights. You must also remove/cover the word “AMBULANCE” and the star of life symbols. You can purchase clear lenses to replace the red ones, but they can run a good buck. I just unscrewed mine and spray painted them black. You can leave the white lights as is. They’re great for camping at night. You are also required to disable the siren. If you look on Kijiji under “used ambulance” you’ll see some examples. As for motorhome status..your insurance company generally requires that your ambulance has a working sink with running water, toilet, and a grey water tank etc…Check with your local vehicle registry to find out your provincial rules. I would HIGHLY recommend that you don’t tell your insurance agent that you’re buying an ambulance! It freaks them out!! Just tell them the make of the vehicle and year. i.e. 2021Ford F-350. When you’re done renovating the ambo. and you want to register it as a motorhome you’re insurance rate drops considerably. Just use some common sense when talking to an agent… Many contractors have used ambulances that they use for work as well. I hope you’re ok with my input Alissa? If you’re not just let me know. Cheers.
Fantastic info, thank you.
I’ve found a Chevy 3500 and am having a hard time getting an insurance rate that is feasible. Quotes between $2800 and $4300 for the year. The company that is selling it says not to say anything about it being an ambulance when talking to insurance and to say it is a Cutaway but once they enter the VIN it is flagged and the price goes crazy because it does not know how to handle it. Does anyone have any experiences with getting insurance in Canada/Alberta and what can anyone doing the same thing expect to pay monthly? This is a big hurdle and very hard to find someone that may be knowledgeable enough on knowing how to key it for being an RV Conversion. Any information would be great!
What year is it made? If you read comments above..you can’t claim it as an RV until you do interior renovations. Your best chance at cheaper insurance is probably to buy it first and then go for a lower rate later. I would go to a registry agent first and ask for advice before going to an insurance agent. A registry agent only wants you to have proper documentation. I’m not positive, but they might help with VIN problem. If you can tow it to your house and don’t park it on the street then you don’t need insurance until later. If it’s a city used ambulance I would definitely check the “idling hours”. If you’re buying it from a dealer make sure you get it inspected.
You could look into temporary insurance if you plan to only use the camper converted ambulance for vacations very few times a year. It works a bit like rental car insurance and costs way less that insuring it year round every year. Some auto inurance companies offer it.
Ha ya’all… INSURANCE for ambulance??? Outstanding video on YouTube just posted by “The Campulance Man”. Please like and subscribe to his channel! He has answered my email questions when I was looking for advice and he is an excellent source for information.
OK guys. It’s now May, 2021. There’s an ambulance buying frenzy going on due to YouTube, CheapRVLiving (now that Bob Wells has bought an ambi) and the prices are skyrocketing! The used ambulance sites are listing desirable clean rigs for $15,000-25,000, when a year ago nomads were picking up rigs for $5000 more or less. What to do now? Where to look? I seem to be forced into considering a cargo trailer or box truck only because of costs. Any ideas?
After scouring online ambulance sites we actually ended up getting ours locally on Craigslist. It wasn’t $5000 but I think it was a better deal than we could have found online. Maybe you’ll get lucky with something like that, if you’re patient. Good luck!
COVID is causing a lot of people to look for ambulances. Here are 5 sites I look at frequently to see what’s going on. 1-Searchtempest.com,…it uses Craigslist, Kijiji, and EBay..2-…Govdeals.ca,….covers US and Canada. 3..Publicsurplus.com,..Great deals on here,!…4…Ambulancetrader.com,..5…Ncemergencyvehicles.com. One more to check out is Municibid.com,,look under ambulance and vehicles for auction categories. It’s a good idea as Alissa suggests to be patient and know what you want. Good luck!
Thanks a bunch for all your fantastic information!
Thanks for this info. Has anyone had their ambo shipped when they bought it? Any suggestions on how to go about this? Just bought my first one and don’t want to put 1400 miles on it getting back home until I can go thru it with a fine-toothed comb.
very useful information, so your marine propane heater is vented to the outside…….little buddy heaters are sacrosanct on youtube RV videos
What about get the unit certified after converting it. Do you need a certification sticker for RV parks? Please respond asap
I think this depends on where you are in the world and what kind of certification you’re talking about. Maybe you’re referring to getting it retitled as a recreational vehicle? For short term camping in US RV parks I’ve never been asked for this but I can’t promise it’s universally true.
I’m. Just starting to learn about what to look for. Very informative.
I will be using this site to help with my search.
I like the type 3 the best. It seems to be the best design for adding furnature and appliances inside such as a mini fridge and maybe even an electric stove. I am a little concerned with gas mileage though. It probably get terrible mileage. Probably the worst of the lot. I’m guessing under 10 at most. Not exactily ideal for long trips.
Hi, Alissa…I found a Facebook page for ambo folks. It’s called “ Ambulance Camper Conversions – North America… You need to become a member to join, but it’s free. Great site for information.
Looks very helpful, thank you!
We have an opportunity to buy a 2010 E450 ambulance. We have a 10 month old son. Do you have any thoughts on how we would incorporate a child seat?
Wish I could help you, as we’ve wondered the same thing when thinking about the future. I once saw a campervan family that installed some kind of fold-up two seat bench in the back, but I haven’t thought through the details of how it might work in an ambulance. If you learn more, I’d appreciate if you would report back! 🙂
Good article for beginners. As for diesel engines, the 7.3 Powerstroke is the HOLY GRAIL of ambulance power plants. It’s renowned for reliability, durability, and not being encumbered by emissions devices like EGR, DPF, DEF. The Duramax would be my third choice after the 7.3 Powerstroke and Cummins, and i’ve owned fleets of them all.