As an ambulance owner, the first question most people ask is, “Where do you even buy an ambulance?” The truth is, with a few Google searches, finding these vehicles at relatively affordable prices (compared to your typical Sprinter van build), is simple. We acquired “Ms. WeWoo” in July 2021, and 10 months later, she became the rig you see today. It was the result of a monumental effort from my partner, Mia, and her father—without his mechanical, electrical, and plumbing knowledge, the renovation would not have been possible.
Here are the most important lessons we learned along the way, and where you should begin if you’re interested in converting an ambulance.
1. Do Your Research
We settled on using an ambulance after we exhausted other, much simpler options. We originally discussed the possibility of an RV or travel trailer, but they were expensive for two recent graduates. Next, we looked into van builds from Mercedes, Ram, Ford, Chevy, older Volkswagens, and others, but again, the price to acquire the vehicle was unrealistic, not to mention the conversion costs.
After more research, an ambulance fit our criteria—and after seeing average prices, we decided to move forward. Bidding on auction websites was fruitless, but after a trip to New Jersey, we found her. The engine was in good shape and only had 140,000 miles on it, which is low for a diesel engine. EMTs tell us she’s a “baby.” A diesel engine was appealing to us because while repairs may need a specialized mechanic, they’re available throughout the U.S.
The next step was to figure out what we wanted inside the van, especially important items, like a shower, stove, sink, fridge, pantry, power, and WiFi. Another appeal of the ambulance was the built-in cabinetry and its size. I’m 6-foot-5, and while I could probably stand up straight in a Sprinter van, the ambulance allows for full extension while sleeping and has plenty of storage. We also valued the quality of the materials and parts in the ambulance, as government-grade vehicles are built to last longer than consumer vehicles.
2. Spend More Time Planning Than Building
Our process began with pictures, sketches, brainstorming, researching van-ready appliances, and figuring out ways to create the kitchen and sleeping area. We also had to decide how we were going to power our rig. After consulting with Mia’s dad, we decided on deep-cycle marine batteries. These batteries recharge while our rig is on, and can be drained and recharged repeatedly. They provide ample power for our remote jobs and allow us to enjoy a few comforts of home, like TV shows.
Planning is the most important phase before the build—and before you begin racking up a credit card bill. Take this time to make a majority of the decisions about the bones and nerves of your rig, which will save you time during the build. Cosmetic decisions are something to be considered as well, but are less pressing.
3. Design for Your Lifestyle
With the advent of vanlife and other trends within the conversion and RV community, you may feel pressure to create an expensive, Instagram-worthy rig of your dreams. While this can be an aspirational goal, it shouldn’t be the main goal of your design. Make lists of everything about your living space that you love or don’t want to live without. Something that we wanted to keep in the ambulance was a walkway between the front office area and the back kitchen. We utilized the two built-in benches and a folding table mechanism, made with a piano hinge, to create a full-sized bed in the middle of the rig that could become a daybed or dining table during the day.
We work remotely and needed a workspace that could accommodate both of us. The built-in desk and chair are handy and provide enough space for a computer and a work area next to it. Designing for your life is a balance of ignoring social media, reaping its wisdom, embracing what you want from your rig, and deciding how you want to be able to live on the road.
4. Embrace Function Over Form
A rig is never truly perfect or finished, and after 2 months of traveling, we found several issues that we have to remedy before we take our rig back on the road for an extended period of time. In addition to the improvements, once your build is complete, it’s likely that you’ll have one part or another that will need some work. Just like a home, you learn to grow with it. RVs, including ambulances, have many advantageous gaps, cabinets, and other areas for storing items.
One way we changed the inside of our rig was by taking out the fluorescent lights and replacing them with more efficient and brighter LED lights. This makes a world of difference in our ability to enjoy the time we spend inside the rig. While form is important, your home needs to function in many different modes. You don’t typically think about buying a fridge that doesn’t open while driving, but for this lifestyle, it’s a must. Is it ideal to have a control panel of buttons on my desk wall? No, but it’s functional and convenient. Be less concerned about how it looks, and more concerned with how it works in your space.
5. Invest Where It Matters
Depending on how attached you become to your rig, long-term thinking may not be something you’re interested in. But if you, like us, can’t imagine someone else living in your rig, you’ll be thinking about where to invest to get the most longevity out of your build. In our ambulance, we invested the most in plumbing, electrical, and food storage systems. We knew that cooking was going to be important to stay on budget. We also wanted to make sure we were able to store dishes and cookware and control our gray water output. We installed a large water tank for showering, washing dishes, and cooking, as well as a 5-gallon drinking water tank to fill water bottles.
The ambulance’s cabinetry allowed us to have a full kitchen with little modification, and it was safe to install a propane stove that pulls out from the inner cabinet. The fridge is another appliance that we invested in—it can be powered by electricity and propane, which means we can keep it cold whether we’re moving or stationary.
6. Practice Makes Progress, Not Perfection
My partner and I aren’t novice travelers, but as full-timers, we’re beginners. We’ve learned so many things through our time on the road, and we know there will always be new things to learn and places to visit. One of the best ways to learn is to make mistakes. The first time you take a turn too fast and the entire contents of your refrigerator spills over your bed is painful, but you then learn to not pack it top heavy and to always bring duct tape.
7. Don’t Do It Alone
The time, attention, suggestions, and constructive criticism people shared with us were vital to the build. We solicited ideas from friends, relatives, and anyone who wanted to be a part of our build. This experience would still be a dream if not for the people who took the time, even a few minutes, to help us. Consult with everyone—take polls, ask questions, utilize resources, and make sure you understand your vehicle, but don’t do it alone.
If living on the road appeals to you, an ambulance is a great solution. There are many ambulances on the market, with new ones being decommissioned every year. More people are converting these vehicles into rigs, so you may see more “campulances” out on the road. Living in a converted ambulance has its advantages and drawbacks, but above all, they’re solid vehicles that are built to last.