10 Tips for a DIY Camper Van Conversion

10 Tips For Building Your Own Camper Van

Building your own camper van can be daunting; even an experienced carpenter will hit roadblocks. Starting with nothing but an empty van and turning it into a dream campervan DIY conversion is no simple task. For those determined to build their DIY camper van, here are essential tips to help you navigate the process.

1. Test out van life

Before fully committing to building your own camper van, it's a good idea to try it out if you haven't already. As much as you might want to embark on this new adventure, van life isn't for everyone, and that's ok. 

  • You can rent a camper van and go on a trip to test out the lifestyle. Most campervan rentals include everything you need for a successful trip - all you need to do is bring your essentials like food and clothing. 
  • If you can't rent a campervan, try sectioning off a small space in your home or apartment that's about the size of a van. Try spending at least a few hours a day "living" in that small space, and pay attention to things like a workspace, cooking, and even using the restroom.  

2. Research and plan

It goes without saying that there is an extensive amount of research and planning involved with DIY campervan conversions.

  • Research different van models and sizes to find one that suits your needs and budget. Do you want a van with lots of livable space inside or something small and easy to maneuver and drive? Do you want to stand up in your van? Will you need a four-wheel drive? Can you easily find parts for your van? Will a common mechanic know how to work on it? That quirky Delicata might sound cool, but if it breaks down, you're going to have to have parts imported, and it will be hard to find someone familiar with the vehicle. 
  • Create a detailed campervan layout with a floor plan including essential features such as a fixed bed, a kitchenette, storage, and a bathroom (if desired). You can use an affordable software program like Vanspace 3D to plan different layouts before you even have your vehicle. Ensure you consider electrical wire placement, water routing, venting, and your heater placement in your van layout.
  • Determine how much storage space you will need. List everything you want in your camper conversion, and then try to figure out where you will most likely store it. Recreational items like climbing gear, mountain bikes, paddle boards, and photography equipment can take up a lot of space. It might behoove you to swap out that luxurious indoor shower for more storage space underneath your bed and cabinets.
  • Consider weight distribution and balance when planning the layout to ensure a safe and stable ride. You won't want to put your water tank, battery bank, and storage all on the same side of the van. 
  • Don't forget about light! If you're a fan of natural light, you'll want to plan for windows, which may take away from storage space. 
  • How will you heat and cool your van? Especially if you will be traveling with pets, you will need a way to keep your van cool if you plan to travel in the summer through warmer regions. An air conditioner will require a robust power system. If you plan to chase powder all winter, you'll want a reliable, safe heater. And a requirement in any van's layout is a vent fan for airflow.
  • Utilize multiple resources when conducting your research. Everyone has a different perspective, and even if that one YouTube channel has everything you need, watch at least a few other videos and read various articles to verify consistency.
  • Plan for accessibility to items that might eventually fail. More often than not, we hear about a van lifer with a simple short or a leak, and they had to tear apart their whole van to fix it. Remember this as you're putting things together like a Tetris game. Examples: You should be able to see and access your batteries for troubleshooting. Always leave some extra wire so if you have to replace a USB outlet, you'll have enough slack to do so.

3. Document, document, document

Did we say document? Photos, video, lists, cost, time... document everything in as much detail as possible. First, this will help you, or even the next owner, know how things were built in case you have to fix something or want to upgrade. Second, this is typically the only way DIY van builds can be insured properly.
  • Invest in a tripod for your phone at a minimum so you can easily document intricate build aspects as you go. 
  • Keep an itemized list with receipts for every. single. item. in. your. van. 
  • Make a "build binder" with sections so you can file everything easily. Don't forget to keep track of your time! This will help determine the overall value of the completed campervan conversion. 

4. Insulation and weather considerations

  • Invest in high-quality insulation to regulate temperature and minimize condensation within the van.
  • Consider the climate you'll be traveling in and choose insulation materials accordingly. Thermal insulation is vital for cold climates, while reflective materials can help with heat in warmer regions.

5. Electrical System

  • Plan your power system carefully to accommodate how much power you will need for your chosen appliances and other charging needs. 
  •  If you're adding a solar system and battery bank, research options to determine what will meet your power needs. Consider what part of the country you will be in most, if you will be in inclement weather often, if you need more rugged solar panels and/or higher battery capacity. 
  • Determine if you want shore power and/or an alternator charger for alternative charging methods.
  • If you don't have a lot of power needs, a simple portable power station paired with portable solar panels might be sufficient.

6. Plumbing and water supply

  • How long do you plan to be off-grid? Start monitoring how much water you use for basic necessities and plan your water storage accordingly. 
  • Keep in mind that in some regions, it's more difficult to find potable water hookups to fill a water tank, but you can usually always find a grocery store that has an indoor fill station for water containers up to 5 gallons. Having a simpler, portable container water system might make more sense. 
  • You may want also to consider having a secondary fill option for your water storage that can be gravity filled with an external container. This might be a good compromise if you prefer a larger water tank but are unsure if you will always have access to pressurized water fill stations. Then you have the best of both worlds!

7. Safety and security

  • Don't forget the smoke and carbon monoxide detectors! 
  • Always have a spare key, and even consider a hidden lock box under your van for an emergency key. 
  • If you have important documents or high-end electronics, you can install a safe inside your van bolted to the floor to deter potential thieves. 
  •  If you have an older van, you can install an after-market security alarm system for added peace of mind.

8. Storage solutions

  • If you have a lot of recreational gear, you may want to invest in exterior storage boxes on the back of your van or a storage box on top of your van if you have room. 
  • You can use throw pillow covers as cases for extra bedding or seasonal clothes that can double as pillows. 
  • Soft storage cubes, over-the-door shoe organizers, and small totes work great for organizing gear, clothing, and basic supplies.

9. Where to go first

Moving into a van can be a big adjustment. Make it easier by planning camping logistics ahead of time so you can focus on settling into your new space. 

  • Have a plan for where you will stay for the first few weeks. Scope out a few boondocking spots, plan to park at a friend’s house, or even reserve a camp spot at a park. 
  • Stay close to your home base, friends or family so that you have access to resources and familiar places in case anything about your build needs adjusting. 
  • Caravan. If you know anyone who is already on the road, ask to travel with them briefly to learn how they choose their destinations. 
  • Nomadic gatherings are a great way to meet other people on the road.

10. Seek inspiration and advice

  • Join online forums, Facebook groups, or camper van communities to gather ideas and seek advice from experienced DIYers. 
  • Learn from others' experiences and use them as a reference for your own project. 
  • Don't be afraid to ask for help. Maybe you need some help figuring out your solar power and electrical system, or an extra set of hands would be helpful when installing your overhead storage space. The point is, you don't have to do it ALL yourself.

Final Thoughts on DIY Camper Van Conversions

Building your own DIY camper conversion is a rewarding and challenging adventure that offers the freedom to create a personalized mobile home. While it requires time, effort, and a diverse skill set, the final result is a unique and functional space that enables unforgettable travel experiences. 

Whether you're planning on building out a Ford Transit cargo van, Mercedes Sprinter, Ford Econoline, or an older used van, remember to carefully plan, research, and consider all aspects of the project before diving in.  

Regardless if you build it 100% yourself or get help from friends or the DIY community, the joy of hitting the open road in your first van will undoubtedly make the journey worthwhile. Happy DIY building and happy travels!

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