I. Introduction

The dream of open roads, breathtaking landscapes, and the comfort of your own mobile home-on-wheels has led many to the rising trend of van life. While campervans and RVs are the conventional choices for this lifestyle, a new breed of conversion vehicles is attracting adventurous DIYers: retired ambulances. With their durable build, pre-existing compartments, and powerful electrical systems, these vehicles offer an exceptional canvas for personalized camper conversions.

In this article, we'll delve into the reasons behind the popularity of ambulance conversions, discuss the common challenges and benefits involved, compare the most frequently encountered models and their unique features, and share tips on where you could find a retired ambulance to start your own conversion project. Whether you're a seasoned van lifer or a beginner looking to embark on your first camper conversion journey, this guide will provide you with invaluable insights into the world of ambulance camper conversions. So, let's get started!

II. Why Are Ambulances Popular for Conversion?

  • Built for durability and reliability
  • Comes with existing storage solutions
  • Pre-wired electrical system
  • Unique and different: standing out from typical vans or RVs

Ambulances have been steadily gaining popularity among the vanlife community and holiday travelers for a variety of compelling reasons.

Durability and Reliability: Perhaps the most attractive feature of retired ambulances is their robustness. These vehicles are built to last. They're designed to respond to emergencies in all sorts of conditions, from inner cities to remote rural locations, in all kinds of weather. They're constructed to handle a lot of wear and tear, which gives them a level of durability that isn't often found in regular vehicles. Furthermore, because they need to be ready to respond to a call at a moment's notice, they're routinely serviced and maintained, ensuring their reliability.

Pre-existing Storage Solutions: Another appealing aspect is the pre-existing storage spaces. Ambulances are designed with multiple compartments, cupboards, and cabinets to hold the vast amount of medical equipment required for emergency response. For those seeking to convert a vehicle into a camper, this is a major plus. It reduces the need for custom-built storage, saving both time and money in the conversion process.

Pre-Wired Electrical System: Ambulances are equipped with a sophisticated electrical system, originally intended to power critical medical apparatus, communication technology, and both internal and external illumination. This typically encompasses high-capacity alternators, multiple battery systems, and the ability to operate via shore-power, providing a valuable foundation for camper conversion. However, the ease of modification for off-grid camping can vary; while some models offer a straightforward transition, others may require substantial modification to meet the needs of life on the road. To illustrate this point, my own personal ambulance conversion benefits from dual alternators, capable of generating a whopping 320 amps. The diversity and potential of the electrical infrastructure within an ambulance make it a key advantage in the conversion process.

Unique and Different: For some, the charm of converting an ambulance into a camper lies in the vehicle's uniqueness. Not only do they stand out from the crowd aesthetically, but the narrative of giving a new lease of life to a vehicle that has potentially saved lives is an appealing and conversation-starting feature. Ambulances provide an excellent base for a custom conversion that truly reflects the individuality of the owner.

These features combine to make ambulances a popular choice for conversions, offering a strong and unique alternative to more conventional vans or RVs.

III. Common Challenges When Converting an Ambulance

  • Stripping and deep cleaning: potential exposure to biohazards
  • Difficulty in making modifications: built to withstand harsh conditions
  • Potential mechanical issues: high mileage, idling hours
  • Legal considerations: lighting, sirens, certain colors may not be legally used for private vehicles
  • Insurance can be challenging.

While converting a retired ambulance into a camper van has many benefits, it also comes with its fair share of challenges. Being aware of these potential hurdles can help you plan your conversion more effectively.

Stripping and Deep Cleaning: Ambulances are vehicles that have seen a lot of medical emergencies, which means there's potential exposure to biohazards. Therefore, it's essential to strip the interior and give it a deep cleaning to ensure it's safe and sanitary. This process can be labor-intensive and time-consuming.

Difficulty in Making Modifications: Ambulances are built to withstand tough conditions, which makes them a little more difficult to modify than standard vehicles. The robust build can make tasks like cutting through the body for windows or vents a tougher job than expected.

Potential Mechanical Issues: It's not uncommon for ambulances to have high mileage and long idling hours, which could lead to mechanical issues down the road. The rigorous demands of emergency service can take a toll on the engine and other components, necessitating potentially costly repairs and maintenance.

Legal Considerations: Private use of an ambulance often comes with certain legal restrictions, such as the use of lighting, sirens, and certain colors. Depending on your local laws, you may need to make certain modifications before you can legally drive your converted ambulance.

Insurance Challenges: Finding insurance for a converted ambulance can sometimes be difficult. Because of their unique nature and the modifications involved, some insurance companies may be hesitant to provide coverage. You may need to shop around, work with a specialist insurance provider, or potentially consider self-insurance options.

By being aware of these challenges, you can better prepare for your ambulance conversion project and anticipate potential obstacles along the way.

IV. Benefits of Ambulance Conversions

  • Strong and robust build quality
  • Existing compartments and storage spaces
  • Good insulation for temperature control
  • Pre-wired for heavy electrical loads
  • More affordable than a purpose-built camper van or RV

Converting a retired ambulance into a camper offers a multitude of benefits that are both practical and financially attractive, making this unconventional choice a popular one.

Strong and Robust Build Quality: One of the key advantages of an ambulance conversion lies in its build quality. These vehicles are designed to handle emergency situations in all sorts of environments, which necessitates a robust structure. This means your conversion will be based on a solid foundation that's built to endure.

Existing Compartments and Storage Spaces: The in-built storage solutions in an ambulance can save conversion enthusiasts a considerable amount of time and resources. The numerous compartments and cubbies designed to store medical supplies can be easily repurposed to store camping gear, kitchen supplies, and personal items, maximizing the use of available space.

Good Insulation for Temperature Control: Ambulances are typically well-insulated to keep patients comfortable in all weather conditions. This feature is particularly beneficial in a camper conversion, helping to maintain a comfortable interior temperature whether you're adventuring in the heat of summer or the chill of winter.

Pre-Wired for Heavy Electrical Loads: As discussed earlier, ambulances come with an advanced electrical system, often including high-capacity alternators and multiple batteries. This pre-existing setup is perfect for powering the various appliances and devices you'll want in your camper.

More Affordable than a Purpose-Built Camper Van or RV: Despite the challenges, converting an ambulance can be a more economical choice compared to purchasing a brand new camper van or RV. The cost of a used ambulance and the conversion work often comes out to be less than that of a new, purpose-built recreational vehicle.

By capitalizing on these inherent benefits, you can create a unique, comfortable, and reliable camper conversion that truly feels like home on the road.

V. Common Models and Differences

Retired ambulances come in a variety of models, each one built on a distinct chassis. Below, we delve into the most commonly encountered types, focusing on their key distinguishing features.

Type I Ambulances: Constructed on a heavy-duty pickup truck chassis, Type I ambulances generally boast a higher power output and towing capacity than their counterparts. This makes them well-suited for negotiating challenging terrains or hauling additional gear. However, due to the design constraints of the pickup truck, the living space might be more compact compared to other types.

Type II Ambulances: These ambulances are built on a commercial van chassis, usually promising superior fuel efficiency compared to Type I. Their compact form factor facilitates easier maneuverability and parking, particularly in bustling urban areas. The trade-off, however, lies in their more limited space and storage compared to Types I and III.

Type III Ambulances: Created on a cutaway van chassis, Type III ambulances typically offer the most extensive living space, making them a sought-after option for conversions. They might not provide the same level of power or ruggedness as a Type I, and could be less fuel-efficient than a Type II.

Medium-Duty Ambulances: These are founded on commercial-rated chassis, such as the Freightliner FL60 and GM Kodiak. While offering a more robust platform, they are larger, heavier, and usually come with higher service costs.

Let's now shift our focus to some specific popular models:

  • Ford E350 & E450: Renowned for their robust nature and the relative ease of procuring spare parts, these models are often employed in Type II and III ambulance designs and are celebrated for their dependability.
  • Chevrolet G3500: This model is a popular choice, often found with a 6.0 liter gasoline engine, which is a cost-effective and less maintenance-intensive alternative to diesel-powered ambulances. It's commonly utilized in Type II and III ambulances.
  • Ford F350 & F450: These pickup-based cab and chassis models are also widely favored for their durability and the availability of spare parts. Predominantly used for Type I ambulances, their traditional pickup style cab renders them easier to service. Additionally, they offer the advantage of factory-available 4x4 options.

Keep in mind that the ideal model for your conversion hinges on your specific needs and preferences, such as your desired living space size, budget, and the kind of terrain you plan to conquer during your adventures.

When deciding on a model, take into account factors like the accessibility of spare parts, known mechanical issues, and the extent of community support, as well as your personal preferences for driving comfort and living quarters.

VI. Tips on Where to Buy a Retired Ambulance

When it comes to sourcing a retired ambulance for your camper conversion, there are a variety of avenues you can explore. Here are a few recommended platforms and tips to assist you in finding the right vehicle for your project.

1. Government and Municipal Auctions: Local and state governments often sell off their used emergency vehicles, including ambulances, via auctions. Some of these auctions take place on-site, but many have moved online, making it easier than ever to participate. Sites like GovDeals and Public Surplus are a good place to start.

2. Commercial Resellers: There are companies specializing in selling used fleet vehicles, including retired ambulances. These vehicles have typically been well maintained, making them a reliable choice. Be sure to research resellers thoroughly to ensure they are reputable.

3. Online Marketplaces: Websites like eBay, Craigslist, and Facebook Marketplace can also be good sources for finding used ambulances for sale by private sellers. Remember, though, to exercise caution and do your due diligence when buying from private sellers.

4. Direct from Emergency Services: Some ambulance services sell their vehicles directly once they've retired them from active duty. This can be a good option as you can gain a detailed service history. Contact your local emergency services and hospitals to inquire about their disposal process.

5. Specialty Forums and Websites: There are various online forums and websites dedicated to van conversions where people often list vehicles for sale. Sites like Expedition Portal and Skoolie.net might have listings for retired ambulances.

When purchasing, here are a few tips to keep in mind:

  • Inspection: Always get the vehicle inspected by a qualified mechanic before purchasing. This can save you from costly repairs down the line.
  • Vehicle History: Request the vehicle history report to understand how the vehicle has been maintained.
  • Budget for Repairs: Even well-maintained ambulances may need some initial work done. Always budget for unexpected repairs.
  • Test Drive: If possible, take the vehicle for a test drive. This can help you understand how it handles and if there are any obvious mechanical issues.

With some patience and thorough research, you should be able to find the perfect retired ambulance to start your camper conversion project.

VII. Conclusion

Converting a retired ambulance into a camper is a unique approach to creating your mobile haven. With their strong build, pre-existing compartments, and robust electrical systems, they provide an excellent base for a camper conversion. Though the journey from retired emergency vehicle to cozy camper comes with its fair share of challenges – including higher conversion costs, potential difficulties in insuring, and varying regulations – the result can be an exceptionally customized and reliable camper tailored to your needs.

Remember, the process of choosing the right model is a critical starting point. Whether it's a Type I, II, III, or a Medium-Duty ambulance, your choice should hinge on your specific needs, preferred living space size, budget, and the types of terrains you plan to tackle.

Sourcing your ambulance can take some time. However, by exploring avenues such as government auctions, commercial resellers, online marketplaces, direct sales from emergency services, and specialty forums, you can increase your chances of finding the perfect vehicle to convert.

The road to converting an ambulance into a camper might be bumpy and long, but with patience, thorough research, and a good deal of elbow grease, you can turn a retired emergency vehicle into a unique and comfortable home on wheels. Happy converting!

VIII. Additional Resources