So, what do you need to do to turn a van into a camper? And how hard can it be?
As lockdown starts to ease and social gatherings become more the norm, I find myself increasingly bombarded with campervan related questions.
Why? My partner and I started a camper van conversion business during lockdown (a story for another time), a career move which has made us the targets of endless, though welcome grilling. It seems every new person we meet has or wants to buy a campervan.
It's potentially that I socialise in very outdoorsy circles, but campervan conversions undeniably took off in 2020, nearly as fast as Tik Tok and homemade banana bread, and the desire to own one, convert one, stay in one or just fantasise about one is becoming more and more the case for lots of outdoor lovers.
"Where on Earth did you start?"; "How did you know what to do?"; "Just how hard is it?"; "Do you have a background in this stuff?!" are the common ones. So starting with this piece, I hope to address all of your van build related questions so you can get started on your own awesome camper van conversion.
How difficult is it to convert a van to a camper?
Lots of people are opting for a self build camper van over a professionally built one these days. They cost less, allow you to build to your exact specifications and needs, and will be completely unique to you. Plus, it's a pretty rewarding challenge if you've got some free time and money.
The easy answer is that it depends. If you buy a van and stick a mattress a duvet and a camping stove in the back, you've got yourself a basic campervan. It would take you about 20 minutes and wouldn't be too hard at all.
So really, converting a van into a camper is as hard as you want to make it. Below is a handy guide, things you should consider before you embark on converting a campervan, and they should give you a heads up as to how difficult, long-winded and expensive it might be.
But how do I begin converting a van into a camper? A Starter for 10
1. Set your budget first
This one's pretty easy. How much money do you have in the bank to put towards this project? Setting a budget for your campervan build and staying well within it is essential. There's not a lot of point planning a luxury home on wheels if all you can afford is a basic bed and kitchen build.
2. Decide on a base van before anything else
This will be your biggest financial outlay and potentially the thing to trip you up. When people ask us how hard it is to convert a camper van, we generally answer that it's a lot harder if the van itself keeps breaking down on you.
If you wire your light in wrong, chop a piece of wood too short or spill something on your cushions, it's fixable. But if your van breaks down and trips you up on the regs, the conversion won't even be on your mind. So nail the base van first, concentrate on the rest later.
The main things to consider are the size, make, year and mileage. It's not necessarily true that a smaller van would be cheaper, Volkswagen T5's for example are one of the most expensive vans out there and they're definitely on the smaller end.
Have a think about your needs, do you want to be able to stand up in it? Will you be wanting a shower, toilet cubicle, lots of storage, as well as a kitchen and seating area?
If the answer is yes to both of those, you'll probably want a high roof, long wheelbase van, such as a Peugeot Boxer, Citroen Relay, Ford Transit, Vauxhall Movano, Renault Master, VW Crafter or a Mercedes Sprinter. These all come in varying heights and lengths so shop around and see how much space you feel you'll want.
Handy tip: if you're visiting vans and testing out the head height, take off around 15cm for insulation on the roof and floor.
If you want something nifty, a replacement for your car perhaps, a weekend warrior DIY camper with a basic bed and kitchen, or are simply nervous about driving a larger van, a smaller one might be best. Mercedes Vito's, VW T5's, Vauxhall Vivaro's and Ford Transit Connect's are all great small campers. Check out a more detailed run down of the best small camper vans here.
Make, Model & Mileage
This one is hugely subjective. I'm not going to advise which make you should go for, a maximum mileage amount or a minimum year, because you can decide on that for yourself. But what I will say is this: Do. Your. Due. Dilligence. (And follow the advice below).
Do the Work Beforehand
Always, always, always get the vehicle you want to buy inspected before you buy it. This applies whether you're going to a dealership or through a private seller. 63% of new drivers don't do the research on the vehicle they're buying and 70% admit they don't even know what to look for
Given we're not all mechanics, that's not really our fault. However, there are ways to ensure you're not buying a dud. So, here's the deal:
1 Download and print this AA checklist
This is a comprehensive guide of things you can check on the vehicle, such as service history, bodywork, lights and interior cab functions etc.
2 Arrange for the AA, RAC or a local mechanic to come and inspect the vehicle
They will look at all the bits you perhaps have no idea about, such as the engine, gearbox, brakes, clutch etc. This allows you to go into a sale with your eyes wide open and you'll be aware of any work that needs doing on it.
3 If there's major things wrong, try and negotiate with the seller to get them fixed
Pick your battles though, having bought 7 vans now, we have come to expect to have to do some work ourselves, so pick the most important ones and if they're not willing to get them done, see if you can negotiate the price to give yourself some wriggle room to do it.
4 If the van passes all of those tests, you are good to go!
You can relax now and focus on an epic campervan conversion, knowing the base van won't let you down (hopefully).
3. Decide what you absolutely need
Ok, conversion time. Let's split it into two shall we? Needs and wants. What is non-negotiable? If you're anything like me you've probably jumped straight to the Farrow and Ball paint catalogue and are fantasising about where to fit all your houseplants and cushions.
Hold those horses a moment, remember how we said converting a van isn't always easy? Focusing on the boring stuff first is one of those examples. Once you've got all the essential features pinned down, the rest will come easy (or easier) promise.
These can be costly beasts, and given they're one of the first things you'll install, it's a good place to start. If you haven't bought a van with windows, there's a good chance you'll want to spend some money putting some in. These can be installed on the back or sides (or in the ceiling if you go for a roof vent).
Will you be installing them yourself? If so, it will probably one of the trickiest and most nerve-racking jobs of the camper conversion, but enough YouTube videos and tool safety videos and you'll be fine (more on that later). Plus, it'll be cheaper than getting a professional in!
A great starting point for any campervan conversion. Do you want a fixed bed, or a convertible one? If you've got a big van, chances are you'll able able to have a fixed bed and a separate seating area, meaning you have somewhere to eat and chill, and you can get straight to sleep hassle-free at the end of the day. Others, space restricted or not, prefer a convertible bed.
This could be a dinette-style fixture (where the table comes down between the seats to form the middle of the bed), a rock n'roll style (where the backs of the seats push down) or a pull-out slatted bed. The options are endless. Plan your layout first and the rest will slot into place.
Handy tip: it's useful to bear storage in mind at this point. Do you have bikes or surfboards that will need to fit in? This will determine which layout you go for.
What do you need out of a kitchen? Are you a cooking whizz who needs loads of countertop space? Or the opposite, you want to pitch up, whack a ready meal in the oven and be done with it? Or somewhere in between, perhaps?
The most common kitchen install for DIY converters is a simple 2-burner gas hob. This will allow you to make all manner of pasta, rice and one-pot dishes, and hey, you'd be surprised what feats you can cook up on just 2 hobs!
Will you be needing a fridge? Check out our detailed article detailing the best camping fridges, it also gives you a run down of all the different types of fridges out there and which might suit your needs best.
Ok, if you started reading this article because you wanted to be told exactly how easy it is to convert a camper, maybe stop reading here. Installing a shower into a camper van is quite an advanced move in the world of DIY campervan conversions, but 100% doable if you do your research.
That's to say, if you're installing tiles, moisture-protected, insulated shower cubicle, however there are easier options. A simple 12V shower on the back doors of the van is a great, very easy add-on.
The same goes for toilets. You can install an integrated composting loo, a motorhome-style fitted toilet, or you can simply work in some cupboard space for a self-contained portable Porta Potti that requires no electric or wiring up. Bish bash bosh.
Are you planning on taking your camper van out in winter? If so, however insulated the van is, you will need heating. Unless you own 17 jumpers and are a hardy camper used to the cold.
There's a few options out there: gas heaters, diesel heaters, woodburning stoves and even underfloor heating. There's no right answer, but this article is a great place to start on figuring out what's best for you.
4. Plan, plan and plan some more
Charlie and Dale over at Climbing Van talk about how much they planned their first conversion and boy did it pay off. They spent a year researching, thinking about what they liked, what they didn't like, what they'd do differently to other people and what order to do things.
We had the pleasure of chatting with Charlie and Dale on the Call to Adventure Podcast - listen in!
Having built a few camper conversions now, my partner and I have definitely learnt these things along the way, but Charlie and Dale show you can get it right the first time. And hey, if you're converting it for yourself there'll probably only be one go of it!
That's not to say you can't add things in and change as you go, but it's important to think about where you want the lights for example, as they'll need wiring in at the start of the project and you'll find it a whole lot harder to do later on.
Similarly, laying the flooring when you have nothing installed will be easier than moulding it around beds and kitchens. Planning the layout, where fridges and toilets will fit in and how cupboards will open are also good things to think about. Think carefully about the order in which you'll do things.
Ebooks, YouTube videos and blogs are a great place to start, as are Facebook forums. Ask people who have converted a van what they did wrong, regretted, or wish they could change. That will help too.
5. Watch every Youtube video out there
The sheer amount of campervan conversion Youtube videos that are out there now is mesmerising. It's easy to be overwhelmed by the thought of wiring in electrics and using power tools, but the truth is you can teach yourself anything with the right amount of determination and time.
Of all the other professionals building camper vans out there that we know, very few of them have a background in electrics, joinery or carpentry, most are self-taught. So good news, you can get there too!
6. Call in the camper van experts
It is totally possible to install gas hobs, heaters and boilers into a van yourself. But my advice would be to get someone in regardless. At the very minimum I would recommend finding a registered Gas Safe Engineer that's qualified to work on motorhomes and offer to pay for their time to get some pre-install advice, as well as asking them to sign it all off an issue a certificate at the end.
This combination will ensure you're meeting safety standards, and that you're not undoing work. The worst thing would be doing the work and then having an engineer tell you you've done it all wrong. Trust me, this will make your life a lot easier and a lot less worrisome.
The same goes for electrics as above to be honest, though there isn't a sign-off system quite as established. If you know an electrician, getting them in to oversee your work and help you with the basics could really take the pressure off.
If you're installing solar panels, these can be tricky to get onto the top of the van on your own, so at least rope in a friend to help with that!
Whilst a basic, DIY campervan conversion can be done using a handful of tools, it is sometimes useful to get the big guns out for jobs such as installing windows or cutting worktops. If you don't have a jigsaw or a track saw, see if a friend can lend you one and teach you how to safely use it at the same time. Tool hire places are great for this too.
Alternatively, ask a carpenter or a professional window fitter to get the bigger jobs done for you. If you wan't your conversion to be a fairly easy ride, this could be worth it. If you're up for the challenge, absolutely go for it!
Tips and Tricks for an Easy Camper Conversion
Here's a list of the things I wish we'd known before we started converting vans. Things that tripped us up and made the process a whole lot harder.
1 Ventilate, ventilate, ventilate
Even the most beautiful campers are tainted when damp rears it's ugly head. trust me, I learnt this the hard way. Putting enough passive ventilation into your van is crucial, that's ventilation which doesn't rely on you opening it, such as a window.
Low level, mid level and upper level ventilation will keep your van free of damp and subsequent mould, which can pose a real health risk. Damp also has a huge warping effect on wood, and if you're whole campervan island with it, this could prove costly too. Roof fans and Louvre vents are great ways to achieve this.
2 Don't cut corners on insulation
Future you will thank you for this, even if present you just wants to get to the fun bit. Do your research here and aim to use 3 different types of insulation. It'll keep the van cool in warm weather and nice and toasty in winter and in the evenings.
3 Prioritise storage
Your van might look amazing in your Instagram photos until you've actually put all your stuff in it. Enough storage will help keep it looking clean, tidy and presentable when you hit the road.
4 Make sure your cushions are at least 10-12cm thick
They will lose density over time and become a lot softer, so pick something that will last you. Make sure the covers are removable too so you can take them off and wash them every now and then!
5 Get a comprehensive breakdown policy
You'll thanks us later. Nuff' said.
6 Things will always take longer than you think
No matter how small a task may seem, figuring out how to do it always takes up more time than you think. Don't be alarmed or disheartened if you spend hours laying masking tape just so you can paint, or if the build takes 3 times longer than you expected, it happens to us all.
7 You will have to buy things you haven't factored in
Remember when I said set a budget? Aim to leave at least 20% of it unaccounted for. Extra screws, sandpaper, new paintbrushes and everything you didn't know you needed at the start will add up. As will insurance, tax and maintenance costs. Save space for this.
8 It will consume you
You know how parents say when they have kids they can't seem to find anything to talk about but their kids? This will be you with your van. Expect it to keep you up at night, to be thinking about it constantly, to obsess over every detail. This is normal, it might be a dream you've had for a long time and there's so many decisions to make. Just try not to be a perfectionist over every one, as it will take 1000 times longer (speaking to myself here).
9 You will get bored of DIY shops very quickly
This isn't really a tip, just a heads up. They used to be exciting, but it quickly wears off when you're there every second day and kthe B&Q staff know you by name.
Campervan Conversion FAQ
How long will it take me to convert a campervan?
Put it like this, however long you think it will take you, it will undoubtedly take longer. Even now, 6 vans in, I am still guilty of underestimating how much time something will take.
Some days you'll be tired, some days it won't come easy and others you'll spend hours simply trying to figure out where to start. I suggest you double or triple the time you think it will take now and if it's still feasible for you, dive right in!
Can I convert a van into a campervan on my own?
Of course you can! There is a huge amount you can teach yourself and a lot of people are converting a van on their own. If you want to, you could always rope in friends and family or call in some professionals to help you with trickier bits, but if you want to sail that ship alone, we back you
I want to start van life, but I have no idea where to start!
Great! Van life is becoming increasingly popular with people wanting to experience a nomadic, open-road lifestyle and we think it's awesome. If you have a van and you're wondering how to make the transition, we recommend this article as a great starting place of things to consider before you hit the road.
If you're about to embark on a campervan conversion that you plan to live in, then we recommend reading the advice above and not to rush it! Make sure you get it right first time round if you're going to be using the space all the time.
How much does it cost to convert a van to a campervan?
A seriously subjective question. A campervan conversion could cost you anything from £500-£40,000, which isn't overly helpful. Basically the answer to this one is that it will cost you as much as you have.
You'll be surprised what you can make work using Facebook marketplace and eBay for reclaimed wood and cheap campervan accessories if you're converting on a budget. Check out Facebook forums for second hand solar panels, upholstery fabric and paint. If your budget is £40,000 however, the world is your oyster!
Will a DIY camper van be safe?
Great question. This is why we recommend calling in the professionals when it comes to gas and electrics. It'll take the worry off your mind if you know you're doing things by the book.
We also recommend keeping on top of any damp (see above) and fitting a carbon monoxide alarm if you plan on putting any gas appliances in. Safety first remember!