Multifunctional $37K Free Bird camper van bridges van life with work life
Find an affordable, multifunctional and downright awesome new camper van model and chances are pretty good it’s only available in Europe. It can be kind of frustrating to those of us in the US. But with a big push from #vanlife, we’re starting to see more of these types of multipurpose, semi-affordable camper vans on the west side of the Atlantic. The latest to roll through our consciousness, the Free Bird from Caravan Outfitter, turns the 186-in (4.7-m) Nissan NV200 cargo van into a fully equipped camper and back again with a smart slide-rail system.
After touring the floor of the Düsseldorf Caravan Salon last month, this American got pretty jealous of Europe’s selection of affordable multi-use camper vans. It seemed the show was absolutely packed with smartly packaged camper vans priced somewhere between €30,000 and €50,000 (US$35,000 to $58,500), many of which double as everyday drivers thanks to floor rail mounting hardware and other innovative transformation solutions. While multifunctional camper vans, like the ModVans CV1 and imported-from-Europe TerraCamper Mercedes, have been gaining some momentum in the US, they’re often priced at $60K+.
The Free Bird from Washington’s Caravan Outfitter is the type of camper van the US needs more of to slowly level the playing field in the game of smart, multipurpose camper vans. Its story starts as many American camper van stories do … with the ages-old melancholy resulting from Volkswagen’s abandonment of the US van market. Brothers Kurt and Craig Campbell were hit particularly hard by that development because selling VW camper vans was a big part of their Pacific Northwest Volkswagen dealership business.
For years, the Campbell brothers looked back fondly on the era of VW campers, but eventually they decided to move on and do something about the loss. In 2015, they determined to create a new-generation camper van with the same kind of seamless functionality, fun look and manageable price range as the original VWs.
Being that they had a Nissan dealership, the Campbells decided to base that camper van on the NV200. They formed Caravan Outfitter as a new business venture, hired a team and got to work turning the compact NV into a properly tiny and efficient multi-day adventure vehicle.
Keeping things small and simple, Caravan Outfitter didn’t attempt to recreate the pop-top design central to many of the VW and Westfalia camper vans of yesteryear and today (actually they did on an initial prototype but decided to scrap it before production). Instead, they maintain the hard roof and let campers sit or lie down inside. The company says the seating is designed to comfortably accommodate people up to 6 feet 2 in (1.88 m) tall.
Cooking inside would be a bit claustrophobic without the headroom afforded by a pop-up roof, so the Free Bird does its cooking outside, through the rear double doors. A slide-out, single-burner butane stove and 29-L fridge combine with a pair of drawers to create a functional outdoor kitchen. The stove can remove and used elsewhere, and the slide-out below it can be used as a worktop.
The optional Batwing awning provides some rooftop over that kitchen as it swings its way around the back and side of the van to provide wraparound shade. Available add-on sidewalls create an exterior tent.
In the main cabin, Caravan Outfitter relies on a proprietary “Slide and Glide” floor to quickly transform the NV200 from empty cargo van to cozy camper van and back again in about five minutes a go. The rear camp kitchen box works with the auxiliary battery/storage box just behind the driver cab seats to provide the support structure of the interior.
During the day, each box holds two mattress cushions to create the cushioned benches that sit opposite each other across the dining table. The seat-back cushions are supported by each box’s swing-back frame, which folds away in bed mode.
When night falls, the table legs remove, and the tabletop drops down to join the benches together and create a mattress platform, allowing the four individual mattress cushions to form a 76-in (193-cm)-long full-size bed. A series of straps secures those cushions together and in place atop the platform. The fold-up passenger seat up front even works as a nightstand.
The Free Bird features a variety of other handy features, including LED interior lights, screen-vented windows, roll-up window curtains, dual USB charging ports, a 12V outlet and a roof-mounted vent. A battery isolation module ensures that the auxiliary AGM battery and primary vehicle battery are completely separate, so you’ll always be able to turn the ignition and get going in the morning. A Battery Tender under the hood lets you keep power topped off at the campground or at home.
As you can see, the Nissan NV200 is a two-sleeper and two-seater, without any rear seats during driving. Caravan Outfitter explains that it doesn’t offer a rear-seat option because the American-spec NV200 cargo van is not safety-tested for rear occupants. So while the Free Bird does offer camper and cargo configurations, it doesn’t convert into a people-mover.
Caravan Outfitter says that its conversion kit adds 525 lb (238 kg) to the weight of the vehicle, bringing the total van weight to 3,720 lb (1,687 kg). The company doesn’t expect the van to deviate too much from its EPA-estimated 25 mpg.
Caravan Outfitter began production late last year and is now preparing to get 2019 Free Birds rolling out of the factory. The 2019 model is available for pre-order now, and standard van features include a 131-hp 2.0-liter four-cylinder, backup cameras, heated side-view mirrors, cruise control and remote keyless entry. Pricing starts at $37,165, but Caravan Outfitter is offering an early bird special of $1,000 off during the month of September, bringing that base price down to $36,165.
Available van and camper options include a sonar bumper warning system, Thule crossbars, the Batwing awning, a Yakima roof box and a 2-in tow hitch receiver. Deliveries are scheduled to begin in December of this year.
Caravan Outfitter has several short Free Bird videos on its YouTube page, walking through various features and set-up procedures. The overview video below does a very nice job summarizing the overall layout and key features in about 3.5 minutes.
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