Last Updated on July 7, 2022
Ambulances are purpose-built vehicles that aid health care workers provide mobile care and life-saving procedures until the hospital retires them. After helping people get a second life, ambulances sometimes get a second life as an RV.
The rear of an ambulance is ideal for converting into living quarters. It provides large amounts of storage space, a high head height, and other premium features. Higher output alternators, larger battery banks, power inverters, provide the on-demand power wanted by RV owners. Also, buying a used ambulance and converting it can often be cheaper than buying a used comparable RV. Ambulances feature quality construction and an overbuilt structure compared to an RV. Its strong structure enhances safety and durability and increases weight capacity.
Types of Ambulances
Not all ambulances are the same. There are four different types of ambulances and each one has different benefits when converting them into RVs.
Type 1: box on cutaway truck chassis
This type of ambulance consists of a pickup truck style chassis and cab with a box mounted on the back. Popular truck models for ambulances in this category include the Ford F350 and the Chevy Express 3500, Chevy Silverado 3500, GMC Savana 3500 and GMC Sierra.
Type 2: cargo van
This type of ambulance is a van converted for emergency mobile health services and is the smallest and lightest type of ambulance. Popular models are the Mercedes Sprinter and the Ford Transit.
Type 3: box on a cutaway van chassis
You can probably tell from the type descriptions that types 1 and 3 are very similar. Type 3 has a van chassis instead of a truck chassis and they tend to be a lighter gross vehicle weight. Popular models include the Chevy G3500 and G4500 and the Ford E-350 and E-450.
Type 4: box on a cutaway medium-duty truck chassis
This type is similar to type 1, but with a larger chassis. Although type 4 is called the medium-duty, it is the largest of all the ground ambulances. Medium-duty refers to truck class sizes 5 and 6. For reference, heavy haulers (10 wheelers) and concrete mixer trucks are class sizes 7 and 8, which are the largest sizes of trucks commercially available that don’t require oversized permits. Consumer truck manufacturers tend not to make chasses above class 4. Type 4 ambulance chassis are manufactured by commercial truck manufacturers, such as Freightliner and International.
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Which ambulances make the best ambulance campers
Each ambulance type has different benefits and drawbacks when converting it into an RV.
Walkthroughs vs pass throughs
For example, type 1 ambulances typically don’t have a walk through. A walk through describes the doorway between the cab and the rear of the vehicle. Van-based ambulances always have walkthroughs. Medium-duty ambulances usually have walkthroughs, but type 1 ambulances have just a window, called a pass through.
Most people prefer a walk through, so you will have to determine if you want your ambulance conversion to include metal cutting and if the vehicle allows for the size hole you need. Ambulances with walkthroughs are also the most likely to be equipped with four-wheel drive, which can be helpful or even necessary depending on the roads you drive. If you want to drive off the beaten path, you can easily find a type 1 ambulance with it.
4WD vs 2WD
However, if you want a different type of ambulance and four-wheel drive, you have two options. The first option is purchasing another type ambulance with four-wheel drive; this will require patience since you will spend a lot of time searching and once you find one, the competition for it will likely be fierce, so expect to pay a lot more for it. The other option is to buy a two-wheel drive option and convert it. There are conversion kits for this purpose so, if you have the tools and the ambition, converting it could be part of your ambulance camper rebuild.
Space and number of occupants
Type 2 ambulances are better suited to a single-occupant or a couple setup. Due to its limited size, it’s not a family RV. Type 2 ambulances are also better for heavy travel compared to other models since it is more fuel efficient.
Type 3 offers more space than the previous two but also a lower gross vehicle weight rating. This means you can’t put a lot of heavy objects in it. You may have to resort to using lower weight building and decorating materials, as well as decrease the number of items you wish to install.
Type 4 offers the most space, the highest gross vehicle weight, and a walk through. It will be the best model for converting into an RV for multiple people. You can add the most amenities and furniture compared to all the other models. It’s best for those who are heavy on living and light on travelling; due to its gross vehicle weight, fuel efficiency is the worst among all the ambulance types. Parking may also be an issue.
Popular renovations and additions
When it comes to converting an ambulance into an RV, the number and types of renovations are as diverse as the people who own them. However, there are a few common renovations that people who are interested in converting an ambulance into an RV should know about.
Until you alter the vehicle’s exterior, it will look like an ambulance. It will have decals that distinguish it as an ambulance, and it will likely come equipped with lights. It’s illegal to drive around in a vehicle that advertises itself as an emergency vehicle. You will need to remove or cover up the decals. Also, ambulances sold at auction often have a higher than usual amount of body damage (small dings and scratches) compared to most passenger cars, for example, so a new paint job will not only conceal the decals but cover up unsightly damage and help make the vehicle your own.
Ambulances come equipped with a lot of electronics. This is very beneficial for converting a vehicle into a recreational home on wheels. There is enough electrical power and wiring to support numerous lights and appliances. Fortunately, wires are often coded (markings on the wire itself with their function). You can also find wiring diagrams in the manual online or from the manufacturer.
A lot of electronics run off batteries (four batteries on larger units) separate from the battery that serves the vehicle’s engine, so you don’t have to worry about draining your vehicle’s engine battery. Batteries often reach their end of life shortly after being sold. It’s a good idea to replace them after purchase. Alternatively, some owners choose to put solar panels on the roof, which frees up the battery compartments. Often accessible from the inside and out, some people put a small stove top or BBQ equipment in there.
Besides cooking, people often install a sink. Most ambulance already have a water pump installed, so it’s not that difficult. For entertainment, most RVers use smaller, mobile devices that can be stored in a drawer or one of the many other storage compartments. You can also mount a TV. The ambulance’s siren’s speakers will still be hooked up. You may want to upgrade the speakers if you want to enjoy music while enjoying time outside the RV.
People want places to sit and lay down inside the rear of the vehicle. And, with a width of 95 inches and a length between 285 and 311 inches (on a type 1 ambulance), there’s a lot of room to be creative. A lot of people install a small table (perhaps a fold out table), seating and a bed. Some raise the bed to the ceiling when not in use and some people place it permanently, often near the rear of the vehicle. One popular idea is to place the bed maybe a foot above the floor and install drawers under it, which open from the head and the foot of the bed. The drawers at the head bed can only be opened when the rear doors of the vehicle are open.
Everyone wants a walkthrough. If you purchased an ambulance that wasn’t equipped with one, it’s possible to install one for a few thousand dollars. You have to cut through the wall of the box and another hole in the cab that matches the position of the hole in the box. Then, you need to seal the cab to the rear with a rubber or flexible plastic. Some ambulance boxes are right up against the cab. Other boxes are separated from the cab by a few inches of space. If you need to bridge that gap, the process becomes more difficult and expensive.
Many RVers want to embrace the RV, off-road, play by your own rules mentality and they want to drive their RV on roads less travelled (and less automobile-friendly); however, not a lot of ambulances come equipped with four-wheel drive. You can convert a two-wheel drive unit into a four-wheel drive one; there are kits for such an activity. However, it’s probably the most expensive and challenging conversions (depending on your skill set). Certainly, it requires the most, niche-specific tools.
Will your RV reno be a partial modification or a full-gut rebuild? There are benefits to both.
A partial modification requires less time, materials, money and skill. A typical ambulance layout includes cabinets and counters on the driver’s side and a bench on the passenger’s side. It’s not difficult to remove the bench and install a bed or to swap out the cabinets. This is the quick and easy way, but it does stifle design potential.
Fully gutting the interior (to the frame) allows for greater design potential, but it will take more time, materials, money and skill. Stripping the vehicle to the frame also makes running wires and fastening bolts easier, since everything is exposed.
The trim on the ambulance is expensive, durable and hard to find so, when stripping the vehicle, save the trim. You may be able to re-purpose it in the project.
These are some of the popular customizations, but what you want is up to you. Maybe you want a hammock and a patio umbrella on your roof. Whatever renovations you are considering, someone’s probably already tried it and there are sources to instruct you how to do it.
Tips on finding the best ambulance
1. How to read ambulance listing
Auctions are the best place to find used ambulances for sale. However, reading ambulance listings can be difficult if you’re not used to it.
Each listing will include the name of the manufacturer of the vehicle and the manufacturer of the ambulance-specific parts. The vehicle manufacturers are commonplace names, but the ambulance equipment manufacturers (Medtec, Horton, Road Rescue, Wheeled Coach, AEV and McCoy Miller) aren’t.
2. Check for “remounts”
The box on a type 1 or type 3 ambulance may have been removed from an older vehicle and then installed on a newer chassis. This means the box is older than the vehicle, so don’t assume box is the same age as the vehicle. Changing the box is called a “remount”.
3. Check engine and hours
Take notice of the engine model, fuel type, head height, insulation, drivetrain, odometer, and hours counter. Ambulances can idle a lot. The hours counter shows how long the ambulance was working (which is whenever the ambulance wasn’t parked at the station). Also look for dual alternators, rear airbag suspension, an on-board generator or compressor, a house battery system, and tilting cab seats, since these are desirable features.
4. Know how the ambulance was used
Lastly, find out how the ambulance was used. For example, a BLS (Basic Life Support) ambulance and an ALS (Advanced Life Support) patrol cities and respond to potentially life-saving incidents. BLS and ALS ambulances are driven aggressively, and this can wear components more quickly. Although ambulances are well maintained, expect to replace more components on a BLS or ALS ambulance compared to ambulances that served as either a patient transfer vehicle (PTV) or a mortuary ambulance. The latter two types will usually show less wear and mileage. Another ambulance type is a train ambulance. It’s a wheeled vehicle that gets used for long-distance transportation. Expect high mileage, but no aggressive driving.
The vehicle’s purpose when in service will also determine its features. For example, the BLS and ALS ambulances will come equipped with more electronics and higher engine performance, which are more important when transporting the critically injured compared to the train ambulance and PTV. Expect even less features from the mortuary ambulance.
If any information is absent, and you are considering that vehicle, ask someone for the information. The more you know, the better you buy.