So you’re dreaming about filling your life with freedom, discoveries and travels?
Vanlife is about creating a life that allows you to have more time for yourself, to achieve your dreams and make every day whatever you want it to be!
It may sound too good to be true… but it IS true. Vanlife has so many upsides that it brings more and more people to choose vanning as a regular way of living. They choose to ditch the house, the pool and the fence in the suburbs for a nomadic lifestyle, in a well-organized and space optimized 60 to 95 square-foot house on wheels -hello, 2021 new lifestyle trends!
But once you start to dream about this life scenario, you’ve got to do your homework and make sure you are well-prepared for it. Whether you decide to go for a DIY camper or turn to a company that specializes in van conversion, the more prepared you are, the better your experience will be!
We’ve put together this guide to help you get started with your van conversion project and make the best-informed choices, every step of the way. Whether it’s choosing your van, planning the design, optimizing the storage or fixing electricity and plumbing, we’ve got you covered with free plans, inspirations, ideas and useful, pragmatic articles.
Let’s build this new vanlife of yours, shall we?
Getting started & safety measures
1. Establish a budget
It may sound like a buzzkill, but establishing a budget and planning the expenses related to your conversion project as precisely as possible is a great way to ensure the success of your journey – AND to avoid stress!
There are as many van models as there are budgets, and planning ahead will make it easier for you to decide what kind of material you’ll use and whether you do the build work yourself or hire people to do it, for example.
2. Determine the type of travel you want to do
Will you stay in the city or travel into the wild? Do you plan to stay in warmer areas, or are you into colder weather? Answering these questions will help you choose the right type of vehicle for you and determine how much insulation you need!
3. How many people will be staying in the van?
Are you planning to travel as a family, or as a couple? Do you have pets? If you have a dog, is it more on the chihuahua’s, or the great dane’s side? In other words, how many beds and how much space do you really need for everyone to be comfortable?
4. How much storage space do you need?
Consider all the vanlifers coming along for the ride and their personal belongings, including clothes, books, etc. Then, see if you have larger items you’d like to bring -surfboards, bikes, musical instruments… ?
This information will guide you when planning your storage space.
5. Safety first: Being safe on the road
In a van, safety means two things:
- Securing personal items to make sure they don’t fall all over the place when you’re on the road -even if you hit a bump! Paying attention to this will ensure you don’t break anything of value and most importantly, that no one gets hurt by something heavy flying around the van.
- Onboard systems have to be built properly. This means that all electrical appliances and propane hoses need to be installed perfectly well, by someone who has the skills and knowledge to follow through.
6. Will you need an office space in your van?
If you do computer-based work on the road, having a space that’s optimized to work is an important aspect of the conversion journey. Think about including a comfortable seating area with a table in your layout, for those rainy days when you can’t work outside!
7. Food: Cooking or ordering take-out?
If you plan to do a lot of cooking, you may want to consider including a stove, a fridge, a water tank, a sink, and counters, on top of storage space for dry food and non-perishables.
12 Most Important Tools for your
DIY Van Conversion
So here you are. You’ve decided to build your own van and you’re about to step into one of the most exciting DIY projects of your life -if not THE most!
Even with good preparation, you probably still have a few questions that will be answered along the way. Once the first steps are done (planning the layout and sketching up your plans), you’ll be looking into which building materials are best for your van conversion. The answer to this question will have a major impact on the tools you’ll need to transform and build your DIY camper van.
What tools and parts do you need to convert a van?
If you choose to build most of your DIY van conversion with tinktube, you’ll need a tape measure -this is your essential tool for any project-, a pipe cutter to cut the tubes, a t-handle wrench to assemble the parts or a drill with a set of bits, to assemble faster. tinktube’s connectors work well with these bits.
|Tool||Where to buy it||Price|
|Tape Measure||Local hardware store or Amazon||$9 – $15|
|Pipe Cutter||Online at tinktube||$35|
|T Handle Wrench||Online at tinktube||$9|
|Drill / bits (optional)||Local hardware store or Amazon||$45 – $99|
If you need to add wood to your project (either to cut / prepare surfaces, table tops or frames), insulate your van, build cabinets, work on electricity and plumbing, you might also need these:
|Tool||Where to buy it||Price|
|Utility Knife||Local store or Amazon||$10 – $15|
|Level||Local store or Amazon||$12 – $20|
|Straight Edge||Local store or Amazon||$34 – $62|
|Hole Saw Kit||Local store or Amazon||$40 – $100|
|Jig Saw||Local store or Amazon||$50 – $150|
|Forstner Bits||Local store or Amazon||$26 – $60|
|Circular Saw||Local store or Amazon||$60 – $150|
|Hammer||Local store or Amazon||$10 – $15|
Of course, not all these tools will necessarily be essential for your project. It all depends on what you plan to build and which material you’ll be building with.
Looking to save money on tools?
The cost of the tools have a big impact on your conversion budget, especially if you don’t already have some of what you need on hand. Instead of buying it all, try these options:
- Some family members or friends might be willing to lend you their tools for free. Who knows, you might even end up with a helping hand as a bonus!
- Tool rentals are common in many hardware stores. If you need some specific tools that are more expensive, try to rent it.
To help you out on your planning process, here’s a downloadable checklist of the most important tools for your van conversion:
Click on the check list to download it
Again, the parts you’ll need will mostly depend on the building material you choose for your van. If you choose to work with pipes and fittings, these are the parts you’ll need:
Camper van storage
Small Spaces + Creative Storage Ideas = Better Van Life
If you agree with this equation, chances are you’ll find this part helpful. Of course, you’ll probably get rid of a lot of belongings before officially moving into your van, but let’s be real: it doesn’t matter how little stuff you’ve got, you’ll always need to optimize your storage space in order to keep a good quality of life in a van, because it IS a tiny living environment.
Planning your storage is a great way to ensure you’ll make the most of what you’ve got. A good idea is to make a list of all the things you plan to bring with you.
Yassss. Every. Little. Thing.
Then, begin to figure out how and where exactly you’ll place your stuff in the van -if you’ve played tetris before, this is where some skills you didn’t even know you’d developed all gloriously come into play.
Shelves & cabinets
Shelves and cabinets are a great way to maximise storage, since the space they occupy is usually not used otherwise. Cabinets are easy to secure while on the road with locks to make sure your belongings don’t fall out of their designed space, but there are clever ways to secure shelves as well: Check out this post for inspiration.
It’s a well-known fact: No monsters hide underneath van beds, because there is simply no room for them -it’s all used for storage.
While this is reassuring, it also means that you’ll need to optimize this precious storage space in the best possible way. Different van layouts, different types of beds. While some van beds are more on the traditional side, others are convertible sofa-beds, like this one:
If you’re looking for something like this for your van, we’ve got a free plan for you!
Last but not least, the roof of your van is a great place to store things, especially the bigger items, like surfboards, snowboards and bikes. It is imperative that you think about safety when building such a storage option, since it could do a lot of damage if not fixed properly or not sturdy enough.
This post by Ryan Winter from Freedom Van Go presents 5 Ways To Make The Most Of Your Van Roof Rack. Get some key insights that will help you think of all the safety aspects of your project.
Photo credits: Freedom Van Go
Camper Van Kitchen Build
Everybody’s gotta eat, right?
The question is: how are you going to deal with the cooking in your van. Will you mostly do take-outs or will you actually cook your own meals?
If you plan on cooking, you’ll need a kitchen, vanlife style. Two good questions to start thinking about the project:
- What will my kitchen include? A fridge? A water tank? Will I use propane?
- Where will I put this kitchen? On the side of the van? All the way at the back?
Then, depending on how much space you have and how big your kitchen needs to be, you’ll be able to organize the van and create a kitchen that’s both functional and optimized for your specific van layout.
You will also need a table to eat (and perhaps, to work). 97 Customs has created the perfect swivel table for the van, made of tinktube. The construction makes it possible to optimize the space according to the constantly changing needs throughout the day!
As long as you can anticipate your needs and what you want the inside of your van to look like, you’ll be all set to build something great: a custom kitchen that’s really tailored to your specific van model and layout! Building options are numerous and you’ll easily find free plans like this one, for example, online.
Camper Van Shower Options
Showering is one of the most important concerns when it comes to life on the road. Dry shampoo and baby wipes are OK every now and then, but at some point, we all need a good, hot shower. What’s your strategy on that? Let’s start with some van life shower ideas:
Shower at the gym
Probably the most popular shower option amongst vanlifers: take a membership at a gym that has establishments all over the country so you don’t have to worry about getting memberships to different gyms when you travel around.
No membership needed, but you’ll usually have to pay a few dollars to use these showers. Some truck stops also have a laundromat, and if you are travelling, you might as well sleep there too!
Shower at campgrounds or state parks
You’ll probably end up sleeping there every once in a while, so you might as well enjoy their showers as well!
Build a DIY van shower >
Building your own shower gives you the freedom to tweak it in various ways ;
Building a tank that heats up, perhaps on the roof of the van to create a solar shower. This option is quite simple to do and lets you use gravity as a way to bring water to you with a rubber hose. Build some removable walls for privacy and you’re all set!
Using an electric portable shower with a water pump and a heat tank is a great way to make sure you’ll always get hot water, even if it’s cold and grey outside! There are many options available online. All you’ll need to figure out are privacy walls.
Camper van bedding options
While you can shower and cook outside the van, the main point of vanlife is to sleep in there.
This is why the van bed ideas are the most searched and analyzed in any van conversion project. There are different types of beds you can build in a van: some of them will make you save a lot of space, others will let you optimize storage. Either way, you’ll need to reflect on the best bed model for your own needs and the space you have available!
Regular Van Bed frame
Simple to build with wood or steel tubes, a regular bed frame can do just fine in your van. It all depends on the space you have. Some people won’t build a kitchen and/or a bathroom in their van, so the space doesn’t necessarily need to be maximized. You can also build a slightly higher bed to create storage space underneath!
This bed build converts to a couch and is just perfect for vanlife, because it really lets you make the most of your space:
- It transforms into a sofa, so you can use it both ways -you can also add a swivel table beside the bed and easily create a workspace or a dining room!
- It optimizes storage space, with added drawers underneath.
- As Élaine and Karine did in their van, you can customize the free plans from A to Z, making sure the sofa bed fits your space, whatever van you’ve got!
Bed railings are a good idea, especially if you decide to go for bunk beds! You might also want to add railings to use the bed as temporary storage when you’re on the road: the railings will help keep everything in place. Here’s a post with great loft bed railing ideas!
Campervan Outdoor Setup
Picture this. It’s a beautiful and warm sunny day and you’ve found the perfect spot to park your van. You’re about to cook a delicious lunch, which you’ll then enjoy with a glass of wine, outside. At that point, you might be looking for some shade, you know, a cooler area that’s protected from the sun. That’s when your campervan outdoor setup comes into play!
A removable canopy for the van is a great addition to your vanlife. It’ll let you make the most of your days, come rain or come shine. There are plenty of ways to build your own temporary shelter, and these DIY canopy plans might inspire you -simple, easy to build and pretty inexpensive!
Once the basic layout and structure builds of your van conversion project have been determined, it’s time to think about the last -but not the least!- details.
Choosing your van
You know what they say: “Different vans, same layout”… Or maybe it’s “different van, different layouts”? Anyway, what it means is there are as many possibilities as there are types of van -and much more, actually. When shopping for the perfect van, you’ll need to consider:
- Your budget -duh.
- The type of travel you’ll do -will you need a 4WD, a 2WD or an AWD?
- Your needs in terms of space (depending on how many travelers, pets and things you’ll bring along).
This post goes into more details about the 4 top vans for conversion projects!
Making sure your van is properly ventilated and stays cool in the warm summer months is crucial if you plan on staying and sleeping in it often. Not only for comfort, but also to avoid moisture and humidity, which can lead to condensation, bad smells and pollutants.
There are different ways to deal with ventilation:
- Opening a window is the most simple and of course the cheapest way to ventilate your van. To secure your belongings, you may want to add wind deflectors so people don’t notice your windows are opened.
- Installing louvred air vents is also quite simple, inexpensive and effective, plus you don’t have to think about opening your windows.
- An electric fan assisted roof vent or a manual roof vent are also good choices. A little more expensive, but the upside is that they allow you to create an excellent air recirculation system.
Insulating floors, walls and ceiling
Insulation may not be the sexiest topic when thinking about van life, but it IS a crucial step to stay comfortable, all year long. Again, there are various ways to go about insulating your van and what you do will mostly depend on where you’ll be travelling and the temperature there, but here are the most popular ways to insulate your van walls and ceiling:
- Thinsulate: it is more expensive than other types of insulation material, but it has a lot of upsides. Among other things, it’s good for noise reduction and it’s easy to stuff in places that are harder to reach.
- XPS Rigid Board: it’s easy to install and offers thermal performance.
- Rockwool: also easy to install and doesn’t retain moisture.
To go further in the details, read this article.
To insulate your van floors:
- The Van Life Tech Radiant In-Floor Heating System is a great way to maximise comfort, although a lot more expensive than other methods. It will make your life better though, especially in colder weather.
- We also saw that some vanlifers installed a 10mm hardboard and Karndean floor tiles on top of the factory fitted 1” laminated wood floor that had a heavy duty linoleum top layer. Although they mentioned they’d wished they’d insulated their floor better when they traveled to colder locations, this method could be just fine for warmer climates.
Electricity, water and plumbing
Disclaimer: This part can get tricky. Start by asking yourself the following questions:
- How much electricity will you use?
- What power source will you use? Solar panels, propane, battery?
- How will you fix these installations in the van, in a safe way?
Installing plumbing and water in a camper
Same goes with plumbing and water in your van conversion project. If you start by asking yourself what you’ll use the tanks for, it will tell you how many tanks you’ll need!
Here are 4 useful tips for installing a water supply with a tank:
- The tank(s) must be accessible.
- The weight of the tanks must be appropriate.
- The tap must be connected to the tank.
- Wastewater must be managed.
To dig further, here’s a post about electricity and plumbing for your van conversion project.
Van conversion offers so many possibilities! Make sure you’re well prepared before jumping into your project to make this adventure a success! 🚐