A Burgeoning Van Life: How Colorado Became a Hotspot for Campervan Enthusiasts
From the VW bus to modern Class B campervans, explore the rise of these nomadic van life trends taking root right here in Colorado.
Whether by choice or necessity, traveling, sleeping and even living in vans has become part of the fabric of American life. Social media abounds with stories and photos. An internet search reveals scores of van life sites. Many apps offer advice, camping locations and access to other van lifers.
The recreational vehicle industry has enjoyed some very good years, more than partly due to COVID-19. The Recreational Vehicle Industry Association (RVIA) reported that in 2021, manufacturers shipped more than 600,000 RVs of all types. The fastest-growing segment was Class B campervans, increasing 91.5% year-over-year.
READ: Made in Colorado 2022 — Outdoor Edition
Colorado is a van life hotspot
Colorado’s scenery and recreational choices made it a natural campervan consumer and outfitter hotspot. A 2018 survey of 725 van owners by Outbound Living ranked Colorado No. 2 among van life states, after California.
The RVIA surveyed Class B campervan demographics, which – much like Colorado’s – trend younger:
- 42% younger families
- 45% millennials and Gen-Z
- Two-thirds male
- More than half without children at home
- 44% like outdoor sports
- 32% fish
- 32% like water sports
Campervan buyers’ motivations included “maintaining control over one’s own itinerary, spending time outdoors and visiting a location with natural beauty.”
Younger van lifers may think they’ve discovered a new, different and romantic lifestyle. Instagram and Facebook pages focus on some of this, highlighting remote employment while shifting locations from ocean to mountains to desert. But van life goes way back.
A short history of vans
Accounts of the Romani (“gypsies”) from Medieval times show these nomads traveling throughout Europe in horse-drawn wagons. A 14th-century monk wrote that they “rarely or never stop in one place for more than 30 days,” and were persecuted wherever they went.
Motorized campervans debuted in America with the 1910 Pierce-Arrow Touring Landau at the Madison Square Garden Auto Show. It included a fold-down bed and sink. “The Vagabonds” — Thomas Edison, Henry Ford, John Burroughs and Harvey Firestone — outfitted a Lincoln truck for annual camping trips between 1913-1924.
In 1950, Volkswagen began producing the Type 2, a box on the Beetle 2 chassis. People almost immediately saw it could be adapted for camping. By 1956 the VW Westfalia camper had come to America. Underpowered but appealing, it became symbolic of an alternative lifestyle. Its nickname was “hippie bus,” although it attracted plenty of non-hippies. The VW bus was discontinued in 2014. Volkswagen’s all-electric ID.Buzz, will be marketed for the 2024 model year.
American-made commercial vans had more power and room than the VW and adapted well to camping. With beds, carpet and often stoves and refrigerators, they also acquired fancier accessories like mood lighting and sound systems, luxurious seating and sleeping options, and distinctive paint jobs.
A happy medium: The class B campervan
“Recreational vehicle” (RV) encompasses converted buses and semi-trailer trucks (Class A) and motorhomes with a bed over the cab and conveniences like built-in showers and toilets (Class C). In between are Class B vans, large enough to accommodate multiple beds and other amenities, but smaller, more efficient and maneuverable.
Class B campervans were developed beginning in the mid-’70s in Canada, by Roadtrek and Pleasure-Way.
According to Phil Ingrassia, president of the Recreational Vehicle Dealers Association (RVDA), “They kept the flame alive by outfitting vans into real RVs, with kitchens, bathrooms and sleeping that were above and beyond what the early van campers could’ve imagined.”
Mercedes-Benz Sprinters offered more height and a narrower wheelbase, and their “Eurovan” silhouette has become the U.S. standard. Ford’s Transit was similarly accommodating, and RAM (part of Stellantis) modified its existing vans to European-style standard with ProMaster. These three brands dominate the Class B market.
RV industry giants like Winnebago and Airstream now convert far-from-basic campervans based on Sprinters and ProMasters. Scores of smaller van conversion companies also advise and sell van parts and accessories to DIYers, while primarily building and selling completed units or converting van shells that clients bring to them for conversion.
Matt Felser, co-owner of Dave & Matt Vans, and Eric Miller, co-owner of Tourig, are van life poster boys: enthusiasts and Colorado-based van converters who have lived full or part-time in their campervans.
Felser and partner Dave Ramsay opened a successful van conversion business in Gypsum. After college, Ramsay joined a New York hedge fund; Felser went ski bumming. Ramsay soon quit finance, converted his first van, and started a small van rental company.
Felser was teaching Spanish in Vail, “exploring my next vehicle to bike and ski outside of school,” he said. In 2016-2017, “The only way to get a campervan was to get a Winnebago or Roadtrek or get a custom van for nearly $100,000. Not doable.” Instead, he bought a used ProMaster and “watched about a thousand YouTube videos, everything from flooring to electrical to even how to use power tools.” When Ramsay finally arrived, he helped finish the job in about four months.
Driving cross-country in 2018, people’s interest was a revelation, Felser said, and they saw a business concept. Converting used vans,
“We sold one, then two, then four … and now have built 350-plus,” Felser said.
Dave & Matt Vans focuses primarily on RAM ProMasters. As RAM dealers, they have more access to vehicles. ProMasters handle well, they’re reliable and have the most interior space. “We provide everything you need and nothing you don’t,” Felser said of their ability to keep prices lower while offering maximum design flexibility.
Expanding to a larger facility in Rifle, they want “to be the largest private manufacturer of RVs in the country,” Felser said.
The high end of van life
Tourig, based in Golden, occupies a higher price and luxury niche. Co-founder and CEO Eric Miller said his job as a traveling sales rep in the outdoor industry inspired the foundation for Tourig. “I was spending a lot of nights in hotels and in tents and thought there’s got to be a more efficient way to do this.” Before becoming a dad in 2009, Eric spent 150 nights a year for eight years in one of two vans he and partner Paul Bulger converted. “It was fun to watch people’s eyes light up when I would pull in and get out,” Miller said.
Miller and Bulger, an experienced marine outfitter and skillful carpenter, joined up in 2014. “He understood what it was like to travel in a confined space … it’s the best part of what made us what we are today because of his quality and attention to detail,” Miller said.
They built their first van in Nederland.
“All of a sudden the phone rang and somebody said they wanted one, too. Then it rang again and before you knew it, we had people lined up and needed to hire some staff, and off we went,” Miller said.
Year one it was just two men converting two vans. Then it was 10-12 vans. Tourig now converts about 50 per year. “It allows us to really manage our supply chain, keep quality consistent and always elevated.” Prices begin at $225,000.
Tourig is a licensed Sprinter dealer, so it can purchase vans directly and sell used ones. Tourig branched into Ford Transits in 2021 because, unlike Sprinters, Fords can be serviced almost anywhere. Tourig has doubled its space so it can service any campervans, also expanding production capacity. A full van conversion takes Tourig four to 12 weeks including production, quality control and final detail. “Our guys are artisans. They’re craftsmen and it’s never enough, sometimes to our detriment,” Miller said.
“We’re seeing a lot of people in their 60s and 70s who a few years ago would have gone to a Winnebago or Airstream because that’s what you know.” Still, Miller has respect for what more mass-market manufacturers offer. “I think the RV companies do an amazing job of giving people a lot of stuff for a compelling price. What we provide is an experience.”
Summit Bodyworks, a subset of Transwest Automotive Group, a Colorado-based dealer for new and used RVs, trucks and trailers, upfits commercial vehicles for its national clientele. Need a bookmobile or bloodmobile? Summit Bodyworks is the place to go. Although Transwest already sold several mass-produced RV brands, Summit jumped into upfitting Class B campervans in 2019, even before COVID juiced the market.
“We upfit all other vehicles, so why not make that bridge? The Class B market is out of control and continues to rise,” said CEO Meredith Lyons. “The world has taken a different look for how to vacation. Once people see that they can sleep in their own sheets and have their own things, they see it’s a nice way to travel.”
Working out of two buildings in Fort Lupton, Lyons’ team of 15, including the eight-employee production crew, turns out seven units a month when enough Ford and Mercedes-Benz chassis are available. “Supply chains are getting better, but we’re a ways from saying, ‘Oh, they’re good,’” she said. Summit has added Freightliner to its Class B chassis mix.
Who are van lifers?
In the RVIA survey, 4% of RVs were campervans; 65% of owners made $65,000+; two-thirds male; 51% were aged 18 to 54; a majority without children at home. Full-time RV residents skewed older, female and less prosperous. Their top choices were trailers, fifth wheels and motorhomes.
“There’s a certain acceleration of the van market because it offers a lot of things for buyers: viability, flexibility and the chance to go places where you couldn’t go and stay if you didn’t have these types of vehicles,” said RVDA’s Ingrassia. Many said “they didn’t even think of an RV until their [travel] options were limited,” by COVID-19.
Living the part-time van life
Travis Berry bought a Sprinter equipped with a bed and a refrigerator. “Pretty spartan version. For my purposes it is perfect. It can get anywhere – small enough and inconspicuous. You can park it anywhere. Has the comforts I need. Kind of a mobile biking, camping, skiing headquarters.” Berry “lusted after one of those old VW campervans for years.” The Sprinter had “safety stuff and four-wheel-drive … not something I need to worry about breaking down on me.”
Future upgrades? “When I’m done working or when I start to slow down and spend more time in it — getting one with more creature comforts,” including a bathroom for his wife.
He’s driven it around the West — Wyoming for the 2017 solar eclipse and on bike trips around Colorado.
He thinks van owners are “a total tribe. I’m floored at the explosion of [campervans]. I wanted one for a long time, and they were sort of rare, but now if you go to the mountains or ski areas or to a trail, they’re all over the place.”
Phil Hayes found a used Sprinter in Omaha. He did some prep work himself, then worked with a Fort Collins outfitter. “We ended up with a fully converted van for about $65,000 to $70,000.” For his family of four, “It’s a little tight. Sometimes we put the kids in a tent,” he said. His Sprinter has a bed platform and a “garage” for storing gear.
The Razon family “had been wanting to buy and looking to van experiences – probably around 2019 before the whole COVID thing and didn’t pull the trigger,” Beverly Razon said. A road trip in a rented RV persuaded them. “The kids loved it, the dogs loved it.”
They found their 170-inch Sprinter in Kansas and outfitted it in Salt Lake City since the demand for conversions in Colorado was so great. With two pre-teens, they needed four seats, two beds, a kitchen, and space for gear and their aging dog. The Razons have made long hauls in the Sprinter. With fears about flying during the pandemic, it made travel possible. Being able to work on the road was also a game-changer.
The future is just over the next hill
Looking down the road, Ingrassia thinks the future looks bright — and electric. “There’s a lot of potential for the van market, especially as people take a look at the features these newer vans have. A whole new contingent of people interested in EV vans will be leading.”
Tim Jackson is president and CEO of the Colorado Automobile Dealers Association, the voice of the automotive retail industry throughout the state, representing 260 dealers. Learn more at www.colorado.auto