Packing up and traveling the world in a camper van is the dream of a lot of people. Instagram and TikTok are full of beautifully styled photos and videos of people living the dream in their converted van.
But, before you get to that stage, you need to kit out your van. Buying a camper van is an option. But they are expensive and difficult to customize. Having your van exactly how you want it is super important. Especially if you’re planning on living in it. Or just spending a few weeks or so in it.
So, to help you get out of town and travel the world, here are some of the most important practical features to consider. (Plus a few fun little extras that will make the experience even more perfect.
Choosing Your Van
First of all, you need to choose the type of van you will be able to convert. There are a few things to consider before buying any kind of vehicle. But these considerations are even more important for something that you will be converting and likely driving around a lot. These considerations include:
Size is important for several reasons. One reason is that the size of your van will dictate your budget for renovating. The more space you have, the more you will have to convert, and the more money you will have to spend on fittings and furnishings.
Size will also need to be considered in terms of the number of people who will be traveling and living in the van. If it is just you alone, then you can choose the best size for you. If you are traveling with a partner or children, then you will need more space. This includes space for them to sleep, to shower, to use the toilet, and to spend rainy days when you can’t go outside.
Style is of course a huge factor to consider. From both an aesthetic and a practical standpoint. When you’re converting your van, there is a lot you can do to change its overall look. But there is a limit. And you’re going to want to drive something that makes you feel happy and looks good. Especially if you have a very specific aesthetic.
Whichever style you have, make sure you consider this before getting your van. It’s also a good idea to have your ideas mapped out beforehand. Even if it’s just on a Pinterest board. If you will be spending a lot of time in your van, then it’s important to make sure that it is comfortable and adheres to your style, as well as practical.
Cost is, of course, a huge factor to consider. Buying a second-hand van is a common choice for many people. This is due to the fact that vans are generally expensive. But also because converting and renovating a van is easier if you’re not ripping out anything new.
However, buying second-hand does mean that you need to check the van over. You don’t want to be halfway down Route 66 and find out your bumper is back at the other end. Cutting down on costs can mean cutting down on safety. Make sure to spend money on a good-quality van that is in the best condition possible. Then spend the rest of your budget on other features. Safety should be your number one priority.
Similarly to the above section, age is another important safety factor to consider. Especially if you’re going for a retro style. Converting a van into a camper van does not require any kind of mechanical skills and experience. But it will require the expertise of a mechanic if there are any technical problems. This is not something that you should try yourself, unless you have the skills and experience.
You can still buy a relatively new and second-hand van and give it a retro style without investing in a very old vehicle. While some older vehicles are still in excellent condition, they cannot be driven very often or very far. So it’s important to find a balance between age, style, and cost.
This is one of the most classic options when it comes to traveling in a van. VW Vanagons have a good amount of space, but aren’t so bulky that they will be difficult to drive and maneuver. They are also already designed to be used as a camper van. But this doesn’t mean that you won’t be able to convert it to suit your own style. Only that you don’t have to change the shape and layout of the van too much.
There are different styles of VW Vanagon. The main difference between them is the roof. The roof can either be entirely flat, which is great for adding a roof box or bike rack, or it can have a pop-up canvas roof. This opens up the roof, almost like a small tent. So, even within one type of van, you still have multiple style options.
Sprinter vans are definitely one of the most popular types of van for converting. They are of a decent size and will be able to fit a bed, cooking space, and even a wash and toilet space in some cases. They also have windows and doors which open at the side of the van. This makes it much more accessible than vans which only have openings at the very end.
Sprinter vans are also great for long trips. Per gallon, you can even get to around 500 miles, if not more. This makes it much more fuel efficient and will take you further for longer. So you won’t have to be as concerned about planning your route around gas stations.
Cargo vans are another great option. They aren’t the most popular, potentially due to their industrial style. This is the sort of van you would see used to deliver parcels or on a building site. But this should be a reassurance of how strong and sturdy it is. Especially if you want to install a lot of heavier items, such as cooking and washing facilities.
On that note, cargo vans are also great in terms of space. Partly because there are some very large cargo vans available. But also because they come in such a wide range of sizes. So, if you are concerned about trying to find a van that will suit your specific size needs, a cargo van should definitely be a consideration.
High Top Conversion
High top conversions aren’t the best looking vans, but they are pretty strong and sturdy. They are also great in terms of space, both in height and width. This van also won’t need as much work as some other vans. High top conversion vans come with super comfy seats which are usually very padded which will be great for long journeys. That said, other features will need to be completely ripped out. So, while you might find that some features can be left, a lot of others will need to be kept.
This type of van is pretty ideal for converting into a camper van. Especially considering that they can often be found for pretty affordable prices. Plus, few owners will use these vans as their main vehicle, so buying one second hand should mean having one with a relatively low number of miles.
Class B Camper
A class B camper is already a camper van. You can, of course, still convert aspects and change it to your own style and liking. But it isn’t really the same as converting a standard transit van or a cargo van. That doesn’t make it less of a project nor does it mean you can’t convert it into a completely different style.
Class B campers are great if you don’t want to do a huge amount of work. Especially if your skills lie more in interior design than mechanics. Unless you buy something really old, then you’re not going to have to strip out too much. That said, you absolutely can if you want to.
Skoolies are converted school buses and are a great option if you need a lot of space. A school bus will need quite a bit more work than most other vehicles. Mostly because they were designed for a completely different purpose. So you’re going to need to spend some time stripping out seats and installing a lot of essential features.
The shape of a skoolie makes it a lot easier to style as well. You will be able to add in multiple fold out benches, chairs, and beds. As well as a full dining area, kitchen, and bathroom. Designing the layout will also be easier as you are simply sectioning off a rectangle. This is slightly different from most other options as the shape is more rounded and much shorter.
Minivans are more commonly considered to be family cars. But they are definitely big enough to be converted into a camper van. The main consideration for this type of van is the height. Minivans are generally quite short, due to their original intention to only be used seated. This does mean that some crouching and crawling would be necessary.
Minivans are also a great affordable option, as they will be much cheaper than larger vans. If you buy one second hand (or even already have one!), this would be a great way to save money. They are also great if you don’t need very much space. Converting a minivan will mean that you won’t have much space with regard to cooking and toilet facilities. But you will be able to strip it, add in a bed, and potentially a small cooking area with a portable stove top.
If none of the options above appeal to you, there are lots of other options available. You can essentially make a camper van out of any kind of vehicle. You can even throw a mattress into the back of your car and call it home. (Although, we don’t recommend this for full time use.) Here are some other vehicles that you can get creative with:
- Flatbed trucks
- Tiny homes
- 4X4 Land Rovers
Ensuring the Van Will be Insurable
Insuring any kind of vehicle is incredibly important. Even more so if you intend to live in it for any length of time. Before you convert your van, make sure to check that it is covered under your insurance and speak with your insurance provider before changing anything. Interfering with the van, especially when it comes to seating and anything mechanical, can affect your insurance. This means that it’s also important to check it is still covered after you have converted it.
The items contained in your van will also need to be insured and some of these items can be pretty pricey. For example, radios, stove tops, refrigerators, and TVs are all worth something if sold second hand. If you are a photographer, then your camera will need to be insured, as well as any other devices you use for your work. Other devices such as laptops and tablets will also need to be insured.
One of the most important factors that will be considered when it comes to insurance is whether it will be used for temporary vacations or become your permanent residence. It can be pretty difficult finding an insurance company that will insure a van as a permanent home. So it’s worth considering before you sell your home and pack up forever.
Converting a van into a camper van is a fun thing to do, but it also requires a lot of practical work. Especially if you want to do as much as you can yourself. If you have some DIY skills, then there are definitely some jobs that you can do yourself. But, if you are lacking when it comes to important things (like plumbing), it’s worth hiring a professional, or at least consulting someone who knows what they’re doing.
To help you along, here are some of the essential tools you will need to begin converting your van:
It’s best to use a saw that can be used for multiple purposes and projects. Especially if you will be installing a lot of features yourself. Something like a hacksaw and a handsaw. These will be the best options to get you started.
- Measuring and Levelling Tools
These are absolutely essential. Before you start any kind of work, you need to know how much space you have. This also means that it’s important to know the exact measurements of the type of vans you’re looking at.
Clamps are an easy item to forget. But they are essential for installing any kind of furniture, plumping, or other features.
- Head Lamp
This might seem a surprising inclusion, but it is an essential. Especially if you’re working on a van with limited windows.
A cordless handheld power drill is the best option. This will speed up any installation and ensure that you have accurate holes of the right size for all of the essential fittings.
Ventilation is an incredibly important factor. Especially if you’re converting a van that wasn’t intended for long-term usage. For example, a transit van will have been designed for someone to drive for only a few hours or so. This means that there will potentially not be enough ventilation for people to sleep in it, let alone live in.
This is even more important when it comes to cooking and showering. This will cause a great deal of heat and condensation to build up in the van. If you can, it’s best to keep the doors open when cooking. But that isn’t always a practical solution, especially in bad weather.
A potential solution to this is window deflectors. They are predominantly used to block out sunlight, but can also be used to keep the window open while it is raining. This will allow you to keep an even flow of air throughout the van, without risking damage to the interior.
When it comes to powering your van, gas isn’t the only thing you need to consider. As well as the van itself, you will need to power lights, washing facilities, the kitchen, and charging sockets for electronic devices.
To power these additional features, you have a couple of different options. If you want an eco-conscious option, then a solar power system is a great choice. Other options also include portable power systems.
- DIY Solar Power System
Solar power is definitely one of the best options. It is eco-friendly and renewable, so you won’t have to worry about topping it up. Of course, the more sunlight you get, the more power you will have. But it is a myth that solar panels cannot be charged when the weather is cloudy. The sun is much more powerful than that.
Solar panels can be attached on a flat or angled roof. Just as they can on the roof of a building. You can install solar panels yourself or have a professional install them. As with any aspect of converting a van, if you’re not confident in your own abilities (especially with something as essential as power) then it’s always best to at least consult a professional.
- Portable Power System
Portable power systems are a super easy option. They are essentially very large portable batteries. They come in various sizes with various power charges. They can be installed anywhere, or tucked away in a closet. They will contain sockets so different appliances and devices can be charged on them.
The power system itself will also need to be charged. Most campsites will have charging stations. Or, if you have the skill, you can hook it up to the camper van itself and charge it through an alternator.
As mentioned above, lighting is super important. Especially if your van doesn’t have many windows and won’t get a lot of natural light. Even then, you will need electric lights for dark days and nighttime. When it comes to lighting, it’s important to find a balance between practicality and aesthetics.
- LED Lighting
LED lighting is great for practical use. You can install several normal electric lights. But you can also easily attach stick-on LED lights. These won’t require much work to install, nor will they require much power. They can all be switched on at once, or they can be pressed individually to have a single light. They can be the main source of light in your van, or just a helpful reading lamp.
- Fairy Lights
Fairy lights can make any set up magical. Whatever your aesthetic, adding in fairy lights will make it seem sweet, cozy, and magical. They are also very cheap and can be powered with small batteries or plugged in. As well as looking cute, they are also practical. Good quality fairy lights can give off plenty of light. So, if you’re looking for a way to add something a little sweeter and cozier to your very practical van, fairy lights are the way to go.
Whether you will be spending a few weekends a year or the rest of your life in your camper van, insulation is essential. Especially on vans that were originally designed for transportation. These will not have the right kind of insulation needed for people to be warm enough and well-protected.
Even if you are converting an old camper van, it’s worth checking the insulation. It might need replacing, and you don’t want to risk shivering on your first night away. The type of insulation you need will depend on the type of van you have, here are some of the best options:
- Wool Insulation
- Foam Insulation
- Spray Foam
Floor and Walls
Once you have the bare bones of the van sorted, it’s time to turn to the interior. The materials you use for the floor and walls need to be practical, but they can still suit your aesthetic. Just because you’re in a van, that doesn’t mean you have to compromise on style and comfort.
Carpet is a great option if you want extra warmth and comfort, but it’s a little impractical. Especially when it comes to cleaning. Carpets are difficult to clean in most situations, however, if you’re going to be spending a lot of time outdoors, this is more of a problem. This includes tracking in dirt from the country or from cities. So use carpet at your own risk.
Wood can be a more expensive option, but it is easier to clean. It is also timeless and will rarely go out of fashion. Wood will be difficult when it comes to cleaning because it will not react well to a lot of water, but that won’t be a huge problem. Using recycled wood is a great eco-friendly option as well.
If you like the idea of having wood but think it might be cold and not quite cozy enough, you can easily add in a rug or two. Unlike carpet, rugs can be washed and shaken outside, so they are easier to clean. They can also be hung on the walls to add extra warmth and coziness.
The most challenging part of converting a van is installing the wash facilities. This is because, unless it is already a camper van, you will need to add in plumbing. If you are happy washing at campsites, then a shower might not seem like an essential for you. But, if you will be in pretty remote places, then it’s definitely worth considering. There is only so much dry shampoo can do.
Portable Shower vs Installing a Shower
Portable showers are a great option if you don’t have much space in your van. But they can be difficult when it comes to privacy. You will also need to consider investing in a separate tent or screen to make a shower cubicle.
Installing a shower is a more complex option, but it will likely be better in the long run. Especially if you will be spending a lot of time or living in the van. If you do not have the skills yourself, it’s a good idea to hire a plumber. Especially if you have limited space.
Toilets are another feature that not everyone feels is essential, especially if you will be passing a lot of public toilets on your trip. But, that won’t always be the case. And while some often think that anywhere can be a toilet, this definitely isn’t the case for women and those who have periods.
Installing a toilet is a “better to be safe than sorry” feature. This is especially true if you will be living in your van. You can’t rely on public toilets all the time. This isn’t practical nor particularly hygienic, and some stops will expect you to buy something in order to use their toilet. Installing a toilet actually isn’t that difficult, space will be the main issue, but you can always double-up with the shower space. But, if in doubt, there are options such as shewees and lots of stops in most areas. So it’s a personal choice.
The kitchen is another essential feature. As much as you might want to, you can’t live off roadside diner and truck stop food forever. You can install a fully-functioning kitchen, or you can simply use the same portable items that you would take on a camping trip.
- Travel Stove
This can either be a gas camping stove or a portable electric stove top. For safety reasons, we recommend an electric stove top. Gas is generally better for cooking, but it is a huge safety hazard.
- Wash basin
Sinks are essential for washing up and getting fresh water. Even if you have a wash basin in the toilet and shower area, it’s important to keep them separate for hygiene reasons.
If you have the space, it’s a good idea to install a refrigerator. But, if you want to keep things compact, an electric cooler box or portable refrigerator are also great options. Portable refrigerators can have separate cooler and freezer sections, but still be pretty affordable.
- Portable Grill
These are usually powered with gas, so these are best kept for occasional use. Having a BBQ is one of the fun parts of traveling in a camper van. But using a grill for everyday use is not really a practical idea.
Planning Your Layout
Before you do anything to your van, you need to plan out your project. This includes drawing up a blueprint and working out exactly where different features will go. Make sure to try out different plans and consider all of your options. Here are some of the main questions to ask yourself as you are designing the layout.
- How many people will use the van?
- How tall are the people in the van?
- Do we need much storage space?
- How big of a kitchen do we need and how much workspace?
- How many appliances do we really need, and what can be used for multiple jobs?
There are a lot of factors to consider before converting a van into a camper van. Especially if you’re considering upping sticks and living in your van. The most exciting and fun parts are converting the interior, both in a practical and an artistic sense.
Overall, it’s important to begin in small steps. It is tempting to take the jump and leave the rest of the world behind. But that won’t be particularly exciting if you find yourself stranded in the middle of nowhere with a broken down van and no insurance.
So, remember to have fun but also ask for help when you need it. And maybe start off with a weekend trip before you set off to live on the road forever.