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.