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Converting a van into a camper is the ultimate chance to create a tiny home and have the freedom to take it with you to whichever destination you want to explore next.
A year ago, craving new adventures and inspired by the #vanlife movement, I took the plunge and along with my boyfriend, bought a big white van to begin our van conversion!
Not being able to afford to buy a house in London, converting a van into a camper seemed to be the perfect solution to my home renovation dreams… and combined with the endless possibilities of travelling in it afterwards it seemed like a double win.
I began the project with some very basic woodworking skills learnt at art school, but not a clue how to plumb in a shower or install solar panels to power my appliances. We had to learn everything from scratch as we went along – and hopefully after reading this guide you will feel confident to learn these skills too.
- Campervan Conversion Guide
- Cost of a Camper Van Conversion
Campervan Conversion Guide
This campervan conversion guide will share with you an overview of the things I have learnt in my conversion so far to give you an idea of how to turn an ordinary van into your dream camper.
Step 1 – Choosing Your Van
You should first decide which type of van is right for you. Think about what you want to include in your conversion and how much space you will need. Is it important for you to be able to stand up in your van? Do you plan on travelling with other people?
Whilst a smaller van like a Volkswagen T4 can look very cool and retro and may be easier to drive in narrow streets, if you are 6ft 4” and planning to travel with your whole family you might find a larger panel van like a Mercedes Sprinter or a Ford Transit more comfortable.
We opted for a LWB (long wheel base) Fiat Ducato (same as a Peugeot Boxer/ Citroen Relay) to give us maximum space to build everything we wanted to.
Step 2 – Buying Your Van
There are some important steps to take before you buy your van – you want to make sure it’s not going to let you down once you hit the road. It would be heartbreaking to go to all the effort of converting it into a camper, to find out that the van has a long list of mechanical issues and can’t leave your driveway.
Unless you can afford to splash the cash on a brand new van, it’s likely that you will be looking to purchase a second hand van for your conversion. It can be an overwhelming world out there if you’ve never bought a used vehicle before so here’s a list of things we found helpful to check when browsing:
Age and mileage of the van – set yourself an age and mileage range realistic for your budget. Don’t rule out slightly older vans that have been looked after well.
Overall condition and service history – It’s always useful if you can see the van’s previous history and know that it was well looked after by previous owners. It’s also a good idea to get a mechanic to come and look at the van with you if you can – The AA and RAC offer services to check a vehicle out for the ultimate piece of mind.
- MOT checks: A quick and free check you should always run is the vehicle’s MOT history on the DVLA website. Fill in the reg number here to look for any red flags.
- HPI check: Before you part with your money for a used van, it’s definitely worth paying a small fee for a vehicle history check. This will tell you if the vehicle has ever been reported stolen, written off or clocked.
Once you have found a potential van for your campervan conversion, make sure you take it for a test drive to see if it drives well and is the one.
Best Book for a Van Conversion
This paperback book goes in to far more detail than I ever could here.
With detailed diagrams and step by step photos, it covers vehicle choice, joinery techniques, insulation, heater installation, water plumbing, vehicle electrics and more.
Step 3 – Designing the Layout
Before you decide on a layout for your van to camper conversion, it’s worth thinking about what you plan to use it for most. Will you be working while you are on the road? Is it important for you to have a big kitchen space?
One of the biggest decisions will be whether to have a fixed bed or have a bed that folds away in the day, that you have to make each night. You should also decide if you want to close off the cab area, or leave it open so that you can access your camper from the driver’s seat.
- We opted for a bed that folds away during the day to become a seating area. We decided that having to make the bed each night was a worthy compromise for having a large dining/ working area in the day time.
It only takes us about 3 minutes to transform the living space into a sleeping space, which really isn’t too bad!
I am lucky enough to be carrying out my van conversion with an architect, who was able to draw up 3D a model of our van plan.
- If you don’t have these skills, it’s worth sketching out a few layouts by hand, or using Sketch Up to give yourself an idea of which you like best.
Make sure you find out the dimensions of any furniture or appliances you plan on including so that you can plot them into the design early on.
It also helps to mark out your layout in masking tape on the floor of the van so you can get a real scale feel for how it will be.
Step 4 – Ventilation and Windows
Unless you buy a van that already has windows in the sides or rear, you will probably want to put some in to allow natural light into your camper and to see those beautiful landscapes you park up at. Also for when you are parked up on a hot summer’s day, ventilation will be your best friend.
To add in windows you have to cut a big hole in your van, which sounds terrifying, but with a window installation kit that gives you step by step instructions, it is actually a lot simpler than it seems.
Once you are a pro at cutting holes in your van, you’ll want to add in some air vents on the roof too. These are really important as they allow fresh air to circulate throughout the van in hot weather, or when you are cooking and showering.
- After a lot of research into different air vent options, we added one Fiamma roof vent above the living area and one electric powered Maxx fan above the kitchen area – these aren’t cheap but are arguably the best air vents on the market.
We didn’t want to end up with a damp van or one that was unpleasantly hot in the summer, so we thought it was worth investing in the Maxxfan.
Step 5 – Powering Your Camper
The most common way to install electricity in your conversion is by adding leisure batteries, charged up by solar panels on your van. You will need to think about all the devices you plan to use inside the camper to calculate the size of the solar panels and batteries that you will need.
A solar charge controller allows you to transform the sun collected by your solar panels into energy to power your lights, and charge your phones and laptops completely off grid!
- We planned to use our camper mainly off grid, so have not installed a hookup for campsites. Instead we have one 200w solar panel and 2 AGM Leisure batteries that provide all the power we need.
Before you build the walls of your camper, make sure to run cables across the van from your batteries to where you plan to have lighting and power outlets. Once you have the walls and ceiling in place it will be much harder to add in new cables.
Step 6 – Insulation and Walls
Insulating your van is not the most exciting part, but you’ll be thankful that you did it properly when you have a cosy haven to come back to after a day of exploring.
There are a number of different materials you can use to insulate the floor, walls and ceiling of your van – look at the options available in your local builders merchant.
- We used 25mm rigid insulation boards for the floor and ceiling and a more flexible earthwool for the curved walls. You can also use expanding foam to fill any hard to reach gaps.
Once you’ve fully insulated the van, be sure to add a layer of foil bubble insulation to form a continuous vapour barrier. This stops any moisture from the air making its way to the metal of the van causing potential damp and rust over time.
Then it’s time to clad your insulated walls with either plywood or cladding to hide that spaceship insulation vibe and give yourself a blank canvas for the rest of the build!
Step 7 – Building the Bed
Once you are ready to start adding furniture to your campervan conversion, build the bed frame out of timber to your planned size. It’s important to include ventilation holes in the bottom of your bed base to avoid a damp mattress. If you are building a fixed bed, you could use bed slats to allow air to circulate.
We drilled some holes into the tops of our benches for ventilation – this also makes the bench tops lighter which is handy!
Depending on the size of your bed, you may be able to use a standard size mattress, or you may have to cut your mattress foam to a custom size using a bread knife (electric ones work best but a normal bread knife does the job too)
Step 8 – The Kitchen
Your kitchen camper is crucial in giving you the freedom to cook all your favourite meals wherever you are. Once you have decided on the layout of your kitchen, you will want to install a fridge or coolbox for storing fresh food as well as cupboards and hooks to store plates and utensils and a sink for washing your dishes.
The most important part of your kitchen will probably be your hob and/or oven. We installed a gas powered 2 ring hob in our camper. This gives us the ability to cook the same dishes we would at home with the beautiful backdrop of wherever we park for the night.
Step 9 – The Dining Area
Having a table in your camper to eat, work or play board games will be vital and is actually one of the DVLA’s requirements for converting a camper in the UK.
There are a number of ways to build your dining table, but the most common is to buy a ready built table leg and attach a table top.
We used a detachable table leg and table top to build our campervan dining table. The table top doubles up to form part of the bed base when the camper is in bed mode.
Step 10 – Water and Plumbing
Having a good supply of water for cooking, washing and drinking is one of the things that will make your camper feel comfortable after a long day. You will need a water tank large enough for your needs which can be stored under the van or built into your design.
The bigger the tank, the less often you will need to fill up, which is great if you plan to wild camp away from campsites – but remember a large water tank can also add weight to your camper.
It’s a good idea to have an external fill up point so you can fill up with a hose instead of having to remove and carry the tank each time you need to fill up.
You’ll need a water pump and pipes to move the water from the tank to the sink / shower. If you decide to have hot water in your van, you can also attach a water heater to your plumbing system for the ultimate luxury.
As well as the fresh water tank, you will need a grey water tank to collect all the water that goes down the sink. Again, the can be underslung so that it’s hidden underneath the van, or stored internally and emptied at an emptying point.
Step 11 – The Bathroom
One of the biggest questions faced by campervan dwellers is how to shower and use the toilet! The good news is that you don’t have to smell or give up any of your usual luxuries when converting a van into a camper.
Once you have your water system set up, you can run pipes from your fresh water tank to your shower. If you are building a shower room inside your camper, it’s important to make sure it’s completely watertight.
We used PVC panels to line the walls of our bathroom and a ready made shower tray for the base. We sealed all the edges with silicone to make sure no water would escape.
There are two main options when choosing a toilet for your campervan – chemical v composting. Our research showed that opinions on which type of toilet is best are largely divided, but here are the main pros and cons of each:
- Chemical: Chemical cassette toilets are a popular option as they are cheaper to buy and arguably simpler to maintain. You add chemicals after use to keep them clean and hide any bad smells. Some people say they resemble a portaloo you might use at a festival and find them unpleasant over time. They use harsh chemicals and must be emptied at designated points.
- Composting: After a lot of research we opted to build a composting toilet in our camper. These toilets work by separating urine and using sawdust. Very surprisingly they don’t smell at all. They are much more environmentally friendly and the main appeal for us was that the ‘contents’ can be bagged and binned responsibly, meaning you don’t need to drive around looking for a special chemical toilet emptying point every couple of days.
Cost of a Camper Van Conversion
I’m sure after reading this guide that you’re wondering how much does it cost to convert a van in to a camper van?
The truth is that like any project, the cost of a campervan conversion can vary dramatically depending on how high spec you want to make it.
Although my conversion is not completely finished, the estimated total conversion cost is around £10,000, including the cost of the van which we bought for £3,700.
There are lots of creative ways to save money and complete your conversion to match your budget. You can use reclaimed materials to bring down the costs and also try to source second hand parts from gumtree or eBay where possible. You can also save money by making as much as possible from scratch yourself.
Hopefully these 11 steps have given anyone thinking of starting a camper conversion an idea of the tasks ahead. There certainly is a lot to do, but the reward of having your own tiny home on wheels, ready for adventure, is totally worth it.