Since you have decided to build your van and make it your home on the road, the conversion process would not be that easy. It would help if you considered many things before even starting the van build, from the budget, van layout, to all the things you are loading your van. Well, I got you covered! Here are tips and tricks you need to take serious note of in building your dream camper.
1. Choose a Van that Best Fits Your Needs (If You Still Don’t Have One)
The first important step in building your van is to have one that best fits your needs and preferences. If you still don’t have a van to convert or haven’t decided yet on what kind of van you would purchase for your van build, you can take a look at the many models and sizes available in the market. Your choice will be highly influenced by your budget and the van layout you want.
Renting a van for a short trip is a good way to test different options for vans. This activity further helps you feel the vehicle, find out what would work best for you, and get some ideas when building the van.
Here are some van recommendations you might want to try. Cargo vans are great for stealth camping if you want to go unnoticed. It is also an excellent choice for full-time van living and has a perfect blank canvas for your customized van build.
High-top conversion vans are typical full-size passenger vans converted into a campervan. It is complete with built-in amenities like high-tops, leather seats, and lighting, which is easier to build and would take less time than cargo vans.
Class B and Class C Campers are move-in-ready vans that do not need much customizing. The pre-built campers are the best choice to quickly dig into full-time van life. You can still customize these campers to your liking and make some small adjustments if you want.
Skoolies are renovated school buses made into houses. These vehicles offer bigger space with enough room for couches, beds, and bathrooms. They can accommodate large groups of people like friends and families.
After knowing your choices, the next step is to know the things to consider when choosing your van. The van’s height is one thing to note, especially if you would be a full-time van lifer. Know if the van can accommodate the heights of people using it and if you can stand up inside your van.
Different roof heights have varied advantages. High-roof vans have more headspace and storage space and are the best option if you decide on full-time van life. These vans are ergonomic and practical but have limited indoor parking and drive-throughs. High-roof vans are also a bit trickier when driving through strong winds.
On the other hand, a standard roof van makes parking and driving anywhere easier, as some high roof vans are considered oversized in some cities. Standard roof vans are perfect for a weekend trip or stealth camping. However, these vans’ roofs are too low to allow you to stand inside and are not recommended for full-time RVing.
Another factor to consider in choosing your van to convert is its fuel type. Gasoline-fueled vans are perfect for short hauls, with much stop-and-go driving, shorter distance trips, and many city stopovers. Diesel-fueled vans are preferable for long-distance, cross-country road trips and trailer towing.
The budget for building a van could get expensive, but a higher budget gets you more van options. There is always a van for you that fits your budget, needs, and wants for a camper. It does not always need to be brand new. Plus, there are plenty of used cargos you can choose to convert to a campervan.
Note that the cost of a van is separate from the cost of your build. You can cut down on some budget for building, reuse items, and be thrifty but not sacrifice the van’s quality and comfort.
2. Work Out Your Van Conversion Layout Before Building It
Working out your conversion layout is one exciting part just before building your dream camper. This part is where you imagine how everything fits inside your van. Do not forget to take pictures of your van before the conversion to properly know where to put things, locate anchor points when fixing furniture, and locate sturdy places to secure heavier things.
Take measurements of your van’s length on all sides so that you would be making a layout with the exact van specifications. This reduces the chances of miscalculations and lets you know what could fit in your van and what needs to be removed.
A van layout can be anything you want, and no one layout fits every van. The layout highly depends on your preference and what you’ll load in your van. It should be comfortable, able to hold all the things you’ll need in your trip, and maximize the van space with enough room to rest.
Here are some things to note when laying out your van. First is the number of people occupying the van. More people would require more bed space, especially for tall people occupying the beds.
There should be enough space for the storage of clothes and equipment. Always remember to keep an even weight distribution when placing furniture and equipment in your camper. Do not put all heavy items on one side like batteries, water tanks, and beddings.
You can install the water tank on the driver’s side and batteries on the passenger’s side. The even weight distribution prevents accidents on the road and too much pressure on the tires.
Go for multipurpose items to make the most out of the small space. For example, a kitchenette is for cooking and supports the pull-out bed frame. Also, make use of foldable items like tables and chairs.
3. Check Out Some High-Quality But Thrifty Materials
List down all needed things before starting your van build. Budget your resources well and canvass and compare prices to come up with products of high quality but lower price. This is to save money, as van build could get expensive if you are not wise in budgeting.
We understand that you would want to put as many decorations in your van as possible; after all, it will be your home for days or years if you decide to be full-time. But, we should always go for the needed ones and not just stuff the van with all the stylish things you may find but don’t get to use every time you travel.
Look for stores and online platforms like Craigslist, Facebook marketplace, construction sites, thrift stores, and camping stores that offer sales and some great deals for a specific time every year. You can buy one thing at a time while planning your conversion layout.
4. Use Bathroom and Shower Alternatives
It’s nice to have a bathroom in your van that you can use any time of the day. It is also more hygienic rather than using public restrooms. However, placing bathrooms in your camper has disadvantages. For one, bathrooms take up a lot of space in your van and are not an option if you have smaller campers.
Bathrooms may also be a source of leakage, causing an unpleasant smell into your camper. Furthermore, it is expensive to build and needs a stable water system, which adds to your expenses.
One bathroom alternative you may want to consider is the use of public restrooms, which is plenty across North America. These public restrooms are found in gas stations, truck stops, trailheads, and restaurants, all open at your service.
Installing a portable toilet in your van would be a less expensive choice than a full-blown bathroom. In taking a bath, you can shower at gyms or the bathroom facilities present in almost all campgrounds. Plus, you can do the laundry at the same time there. However, these campgrounds may have some fees if you use the shower and do not camp there.
A solar shower is a bag of water left under the sun until it heats up and then hung in a high place to serve as a shower. It is an inexpensive and practical shower alternative for RVers. A solar shower may also do for locations too far from the city and does not have establishments that offer public showers.
5. Install Electrical and Solar Power Alternatives in Your Camper
It’s a no-brainer to need electricity in your camper, especially for full-time van living. However, wiring your electrical system would seem intimidating, especially if you do not have experience and knowledge in doing it.
You can either let a professional do a good job installing an electrical system in your van or consider these options to power your camper.
A portable solar generator builds an integrated solar panels system in your camper. It is another great source of electricity aside from the van batteries, which may not last long if all appliances are plugged in.
You can also use shore power, a method of plugging the van into an AC electrical grid, commonly available at many campgrounds. On the other hand, generators are like shore power, plugged into an AC system to recharge but store less power.
A portable power station is a great choice if you do not wire your electric system manually. It is a self-contained electrical system, complete with a battery, solar charge controller, inverter, and outlets.
6. Use LED Lights for Efficient Lighting
LED lights are always the number one choice for efficient lighting, and there are many reasons LED lights are the best for your van.
The first good reason to use LED lights is their low power consumption. Living off-grid would always have you thinking about cutting down on power usage, and LED lights are the most energy-efficient option for lighting.
In standard incandescent light, 10% of the energy is used for the light, and 90% is used in producing heat. LED lights have less heat output that helps lessen the heat inside the van. Lastly, these lights are long-lasting. Some LEDs would serve up to 50,000 hours of life, while incandescent would not have come close.
7. Insulate Your Camper for Any Weather During Your Trip
Insulation is an essential part of your van. It braves off cold weather climates, keeps warm air out, protects the van from harmful UV rays, and increases ventilation. You should insulate walls and floors if needed.
Good insulation must have value for money. No need to spend hundreds or thousands for insulation, as there are numerous choices on the market, and most of them are wallet-friendly, affordable, and of high quality.
Insulation should also withstand vibrations. Driving would cause a lot of vibration in your van, and insulation is a durable material that can withstand breaking would not easily fall apart. Insulations should also be moisture, mold, and mildew resistant.
They must have natural mold resistance, as insulation prevents moisture from entering the van. Some materials that are impervious to moisture are foam board or spray foam.
Van builds insulations should be non-toxic and would be a major plus if they are eco-friendly. These materials should not have harmful gases or microscopic particles shedding from them that may cause allergic reactions and would not make your van livable.
One effective insulation you can use is sheep’s wool. It is a renewable insulation material, non-toxic, and environmentally friendly. It also has a low market price and has great moisture management properties.
Reflectix is another known insulation used for vans and homes and other purposes. It is a thin bubble wrap with a reflective coating that acts as a radiant heat barrier and reflects heat away from your van. This insulation is highly recommended for DIY van builds because of its affordability.
Polyisocyanurate (Polyiso), a rigid foam board insulation, is another easy to work and affordable insulation known for its effective vapor barrier.
8. Consider Different Ventilation Alternatives
An important part of a campervan is ventilation. Depending on your budget and van layout and build, you can use multiple ventilations. Installing one or a combination of these ventilations makes your van feel fresh all the time.
Here are some ventilation alternatives for your van. Roof vent fans should be considered early in the van build planning if you plan to get one. They get rid of stale air inside your van and create a cooling current, which cools down an extremely hot motorhome, especially in summer. Roof vent fans can also dry out wet spaces and send moisture out of the van, especially when dealing with a rainstorm or hanging wet clothes in the van.
Interior fans are secondary fans you can use inside the van to create a cooler breeze with the vent fans. They are perfect for hot weather where vent fans would not suffice in cooling your van. They are versatile to be placed in bedrooms and many places in the van. You can also have multiple pieces of these running at the same time.
Air conditioners provide maximum cooling and are necessary equipment in vanlife, especially if traveling in a really hot and humid climate. However, air conditioners draw so much power and need a stable power supply of a massive solar setup or a decent-sized gas generator.
These ventilators are not practical and affordable in van conversion and are more seen in larger trailers and RVs.
9. Invest in a High-Quality Refrigerator
You should invest in a high-quality refrigerator, especially a full-time RVer. Storing food in the fridge is the best option rather than buying food for every meal, which would cost you a lot.
Using a cooler as an alternative may do, but it needs ice replenishment every time and may cause water leaks on your van. As for refrigerators, keep food fresh to be consumed longer, and you can stock food for days or weeks, especially for far trips.
There are a few things to consider when choosing the right fridge for vanlife. The fridge capacity of van refrigerators is smaller and more limited than those found at home. The size you’ll purchase depends on how much food you’ll store, how often you will go for groceries, and if you need an area for freezing.
The fridge’s efficiency and power consumption. Know how much power your chosen fridge would take or if the van can power it with other appliances.
Van builds are already expensive, and refrigerators are not an exception. The prices range from $200-$300, so remember to put a fridge in your van build budget to make adjustments on your budget if the need arises.
Here are some of the common fridge styles for your van build. Top-loading fridge (chest) is a common fridge style that stores more content than front-loaders. It is more energy-efficient and less cold escapes when opening its door. The access is above the fridge.
Front-loading fridge (upright) is a traditional fridge style that offers less storage space than top loaders. It also fits nicely in a van layout. Another front-loading fridge, the drawer type, is a pull-out fridge and doesn’t store as much as top-loading fridges.
10. Install Carbon Monoxide Detector
Carbon monoxide is an odorless gas created from burning gasoline, propane, wood, or charcoal. It is formed when combustion lacks oxygen and is deadly when in an enclosed space, which causes the body to lose oxygen.
Breathing it in too much carbon monoxide would cause suffocation that becomes deadly when not treated immediately. There were also reported death cases because of carbon monoxide poisoning to people who do not know about the harm carbon monoxide brings.
A carbon monoxide detector should be installed close to where exhaust fumes are blown, at the back of the van, near windows, or on the wall.
You can also reduce the presence of carbon monoxide in your van by airing out, limiting exhaust fumes, not blocking exhaust pipes, and limiting appliance use. These devices may emit carbon monoxide when run on gas, wood, or charcoal.
11. Avoid Using Carpet or Hardwood Flooring
Carpets are not an option you’ll want for your van build. It collects lots of dirt and debris and would only serve as a rug rather than a decorative flooring. It may also be the cause of the stinking smell in your van.
Van floors carry a good amount of weight, and scratching and hardwood flooring is not a practical option. It may look good at the start, but it wears easily and absorbs moisture causing the bowing and warping of van flooring. Furthermore, it is expensive compared to other flooring options and adds more weight to the van.
Here are excellent van flooring alternatives for you. Cork flooring is a soft but solid and durable material. It is highly sustainable, environmentally friendly, and adds thermal and sound insulation to your van.
Luxury vinyl plank (LVP) is another durable van flooring material with texture and slip-resistant properties. It is easy to clean, water-resistant, minimizes spills, and has straightforward installation.
Rubber flooring also offers additional thermal and sound protection. The non-slip and water-proof flooring is heavy and does not have the wow feels in terms of visuals, but it is a durable material for your van.
The road to van living starts with your well-planned van build that involves a lot of budgeting, adjusting, and fitting in all the needed things for your van. It would truly cost you a lot, but you will be guided on where to spend more and what is necessary to be in your van with these tips and tricks. After all, your van will be your home on the road, so it should be comfortable and safe as always.