If you’re thinking about creating a camper van, whether to start wandering the country full-time or just for summer road trips, planning is the most important part of the process. Or at least just as important as the building process. There’s a lot to consider and only a little space to do it in. Van conversions can get a bit chaotic and tricky, regardless of how prepared you are.
If you’re trying to walk into this process blind with a can-do attitude, well, good luck. And also, don’t do it. Why would you do it? If you plan your van build the right way, your mini motor home will be a tiny oasis you can’t wait to get back into for your next outdoors adventure.
What’s the best way to make a van into a home? Let’s get into it:
Get Your Priorities Straight
The best way to go about starting your van plan is to figure out your must-haves. Treat it like a home search, HGTV-style:
What square footage are you looking for? Don’t forget to consider wheel wells, inside height, and the cab portion of the van when considering the square footage. You don’t want to plan a layout and find you’ve got much less space than you thought.
What features should the van itself have? We’re talking engine type, mileage, MPG, age, AC, backup cameras, leather bucket seats. You’re going to be driving it, like, all the time, so make sure you know what you want.
What are you trying to fit into the van? Are we going for a convertible daybed in the van? Or a full-on dedicated bed? What should be in the kitchenette? Can you squeeze a water closet in there? What about storage?
By now you’ve also got to nail down whether this van build is for home on the road or whether it’s for fun cross-country trips a couple times per year, because it will affect everything about the process.
Choose the Kind of Van You Want
When considering a van, it’s not just about square footage and leather seats. You have to think about things like:
Ease of repairs
Some makes and models of cargo vans are expensive to repair, either because of age or scarcity, which makes parts and skilled labor more difficult to find, and more expensive.
Do you want 2-wheel? 4-wheel? All-wheel? Front-wheel? This is starting to sound like a Dr. Seuss poem. Don’t forget to decide whether you think the van will need off-road capabilities.
This is why you need to decide what’s going in the van first and understand how much it will weigh, give or take. You don’t want to pick a van that won’t safely hold and transport the weight of your little house on wheels.
Diesel vans are more fuel-efficient and tend to work better in mountainous terrain, but they’re more expensive than gas. Gas vans are low-maintenance and lower-cost, but not as hardy as diesel engines.
Do your research. Even if a certain make of van has a stellar reputation, the model and year are sometimes just as important. Every so often all makers put out a lemon. Years 2000-2020 could have been great for a certain van overall, but maybe 2009’s were a nightmare. Find out so you don’t get stuck with a lemon.
New or Used?
Obviously new vans are great – zero people don’t enjoy getting a brand new vehicle. However, call back to your budget. Likely, we’re going the used route. It makes more sense for any budget, really, and if your van conversion is for full-time living, buying a used van also fits with that sustainable, eco-friendly vibe.
Popular Van Choices for Conversions
There are lots of different cargo vans to choose from; four of the most popular are:
These vans are almost ubiquitous when you’re talking about long-distance delivery vans like DHL, because they’re known for their longevity. They come in 3 sizes and 2 heights, and you can find ones with a 4x4 drive train. They do pretty well off-road, too.
This is one of the “Oh, that one” vans – hugely popular for conversions. They come in three footprint sizes as well as three different heights, and they’re known for their reliability. If you’ve got one from 2020 or newer, you can also take these vans off-road.
People sleep on this van, but it’s the only time it’s actually smart to buy a Dodge. These guys have a wider body than almost all other cargo vans, plus the walls are straight, which makes the building process easier. It comes in 4 sizes and 2 generous heights.
Ford E Series
The quintessential murder van, this one is a van life classic. They were produced for over 50 years, ending in 2014, so you can find these everywhere. Which also means you can find parts for them everywhere (read: easy to get repaired and/or work on).
People are loving school buses right now, too. But that’s for another time.
Set a Budget (with a Little Room – Things Pop Up)
This is where we probably dash a couple of our dreams and zero in on our real list of must-haves: the ones we can afford. Consider these things when setting and divvying up your budget:
The equipment you’ll need to do the conversion
Building supplies (cost of wood, wiring, plumbing, HVAC stuff, etc.)
Infrastructure (electric, water, plumbing)
Any work you’ll need to contract out
Don’t stretch your budget too tight, because anyone who’s ever worked on any kind of home, van or not, will tell you that something always pops up. Be ready for it by leaving a 10% pad on your budget. Worst case, you use it. Best case, you don’t have to spend as much as you thought you would.
Plan the New Layout
This is where the question of what the van is for comes back into play. Do you need an apartment-sized fridge if the van is just for camping? Probably not. Do you want to live without an indoor stove forever if the van is for living in? Probably not.
Try to separate spaces as much as you can, even if it’s just little visual cues. Stack as much storage in as possible, in every nook and cranny. Look at how much room appliances and other pieces will take up. A big factor here is the bed in your van. After all, it’s going to take up a good chunk of your square footage.
In your van bed design, consider a few things, like what size mattress you want and/or can fit. If you’re sleeping alone, you can likely choose a van mattress that’s somewhere between a twin and a full. If you sleep with a partner or a pet, you might want a larger bed. For this, many people choose to make their van beds convertible so they can fold away or fold up into a couch/daybed situation during the day.
Don’t forget to consider the desired thickness of the van mattress. Consider the space from the top of the mattress to the van’s ceiling and make sure you’re not going to slam your head every time you sit up… if possible. If you want to make your van’s bed convertible, consider having the custom mattress made with a hinge for easy folding.
You’ve also got a choice of materials to choose from. The most popular choices for van beds are memory foam mattresses or latex ones. Memory foam beds are great for travel in cooler and drier climates because foam van mattresses sleep warm. Where latex mattresses sleep cooler and resist humidity, making them better choices for travel through warmer and lowland places.
There might be other things like a notched, curved or cut corner. Just remember, you aren’t limited by layout when it comes to your van bed; you can simply send a custom mattress manufacturer the measurements and a sketch of what you need and order a custom-sized mattress that fits your van’s bed platform perfectly, even with that notched corner.
Execute! (But be Flexible)
Once you’ve got things all squared away, it’s time to start the real work: the conversion. You can find hundreds of articles and thousands of YouTube videos of people who’ve converted their vans to living spaces; a bit of research will show you that everyone is capable of this project. So don’t worry – just stay flexible. Stuff happens in any kind of home build, even when it’s in a van. The good news is, if you mess up your first wiring attempt, there’s 80 square-feet to fix instead of the 2000 in a traditional home.
Keep your van and all your equipment in a safe place.
Take your time, but don’t drag your feet.
Ask friends for advice when you get stuck.
Recruit help for the heavy lifting by bribing friends and family with beer.
Never stop watching YouTube videos about it.
This process is supposed to be fun, whimsical, freeing. Don’t get drudged up in the more difficult parts; it’s the first of a tonne of journeys to come.
The Fun Part: Furniture & Décor
You know a project’s almost done when you’re picking out paint colors and throw pillows. It’s the most fun part for sure, because it means you’re almost road-ready! Important things to keep in mind with super-tiny spaces like a van is making it feel comfortable, not cramped. That’s why we were so on the storage kick earlier.
Choose light colors like whites and light greys, and cool LED lighting. Find a TV you can mount flush to the ceiling but that can be angled down on an arm when you want to watch movies before bed. Or one that’s hidden in a cabinet; that’s fun, too.
Whatever sitting and sleeping spots you have, choose plush cushioning and custom bedding. Especially for your van’s bed. An ergonomic, comfortable, custom van mattress with soft, silky cotton bedding is going to make your new tiny home into an oasis, whether you’re in the desert or the mountains.
Have we got you hooked on the idea of a DIY van conversion yet? Go ahead; pull up YouTube and start getting inspired!