How to build your own DIY camper van

Last Updated January 2020

A road trip is an exciting and affordable way to travel scenic routes, and many people are joining the #VanLife movement so that they can pursue their wanderlust in style.

RVs can be expensive and camping can be rough, making the DIY camper van an appealing option for its cost and comfort as well as its potential for personalization.

Before you get started on your own camper van, it’s important to think about what you’re looking for in your travels and what you want out of your vehicle. Planning ahead will lead to smooth travels, and soon enough you’ll be comfortably sleeping in your mobile tiny house, reaping the benefits of your DIY efforts.

Key considerations when choosing your vehicle

First and foremost, you need to choose the foundation of your camper van: the vehicle. Taking certain factors into account will help you lock in the perfect set of wheels for your adventures.

1. Understand your climate and terrain

The first step to the perfect DIY camper van is understanding your trip. What types of roads will you be traveling and what temperatures will you be facing? Consider if you’ll be driving over rough terrain, low bridges, or tight roads, and think about potential parking constraints. It’s important to check road conditions ahead of time to understand what you might be putting your vehicle through.

2. How much space do you need?

Decide how much room you need and how much you’re willing to spend in order to determine what type of vehicle will work best for you. A school bus or short bus might work for those looking for more space and luxury. Conversion or cargo vans are a close second, though slightly less spacious.

Popular camper van conversion models include the Mercedes Sprinter van, the Ford Transit van, and the Dodge Promaster, preferred for their roomy interiors and high ceilings. That being said, these vans often cost more. If you’re on a tight budget and don’t mind roughing it, you might consider converting a minivan.

3. Consider the weight of your DIY additions

The weight of the vehicle plays a big part in your decision as well. A bigger vehicle necessitates a bigger motor and also creates a more significant carbon footprint. However, if you purchase a vehicle that has a small motor and then add a lot of weight from modifications, you will burn more fuel and cause more wear and tear on your engine, which can lead to mechanical failures.

Ensure all mechanical functions are properly operating both before and after you’ve modified the van. All vehicles have weight restrictions, and going over the limit in your DIY efforts may restrict some garages in terms of repairs when the mechanic needs to lift the van up. Make sure you take into account what you will be adding to your travel vehicle and the amount of weight it adds.

4. Diesel vs. gas — which is better?

You’ll find more truck stops with diesel filling stations, and diesel burns slower and lasts longer. It also generally emits less carbon dioxide into the environment.

Steps for building your own camper van

Step 1: Strip the vehicle naked

Remove all unnecessary parts and materials from the interior, such as the seats, flooring, and walls. Depending on the vehicle you purchase, you might not need to remove anything; however, with a more complex vehicle like a school bus, you might need to take out the seats and other extraneous items such as bag racks in order to make space.

Step 2: Make needed fabrications and wiring

If you’re installing a mini fire stove, propane tanks, solar panels, toilets, or any other special features that will take up space, do it while the van is empty.

If you do want to install solar power, you’ll need a solar collector, a battery bank, a controller, and an inverter. If you’re adding any piping or wiring, make sure it has been done professionally to avoid electrical glitches and fire hazards. As you figure out the layout, keeping in mind that things like insulation take up space, it’s important to take exact measurements of absolutely everything.

Step 3: Insulate the vehicle properly

If your van adventures will take you into colder climates, you will want to make sure your vehicle is properly insulated to handle extreme conditions. Even if you’re traveling in milder or warmer temperatures, you need to insulate your vehicle and make sure you have a great ventilation system.

Understand heat transfer in your vehicle to insulate it the best you can. The three main types are:

  • Radiation: This is heat that can be transferred without direct contact to a heat source. In a vehicle, this is the sun that comes through the windows. To minimize radiation heat, you should use easily manipulated, heat-reflective materials such as aluminum and reflectix. In colder months, place the reflectix with the shiny side facing inward to keep cold air out. Fill any gaps and cracks in the car with spray foam.

  • Conduction: This occurs when heat is transferred through an object. Take a cast iron skillet for example: Although the handle doesn’t come in contact with the flame, it still gets hot. The metal framing within a vehicle’s walls is a conductor, so insulating with foam or fiberglass can improve energy efficiency.

  • Convection: When liquids and gases transfer heat through natural movement, convection occurs. This is the reason for hot air rising — it is simply less dense than cold air. It is essential to properly insulate the roof of your vehicle and build a good ceiling, as these have more effect than walls or floor.

Step 4: Install all structural finishings

Install your floors, walls, solar panels, mini stove, sink, and/or toilets, taking care to calculate your space correctly for furnishings such as beds, shelving, cabinets, and luggage. Understand that the luxury of a compost toilet takes up more space than a basic portable toilet.

Test out all of your mechanical and functional items to make sure that they’re operating properly before continuing with the build. Make sure to spread weight evenly to avoid worn out tires on one side, poor gas mileage, or other potential problems on the road.

Step 5: Complete your furnishings

The bed will take up the majority of space in a typical camper van, but there are some clever and unique ways to build a comfy bed that are also space efficient. For instance, the platform bed provides space beneath for storage, but it does sacrifice overhead space, which could create issues for taller people.

Try to combine as many objects as possible to save space. Utilizing or designing multi-functional furniture is one of the most efficient camper van hacks out there. Consider bunk beds, a bench that folds out into a double bed at night, or a compost toilet disguised as a chair. Shelves and cabinets are helpful for luggage and smaller materials you need to keep on hand as well as emergency first aid/food bags and travel cooking sets.

Step 6: Insurance and roadside assistance

Before you hit the road, make sure you have proper insurance coverage. It is great to have insurance with roadside assistance, or you can purchase your own roadside assistance packages. Check to see if your insurance and roadside assistance are covered in the areas you will be traveling in.

Step 7: Taking it on a trial run

After your travel vehicle is all built, do a trial run before taking off: Spend a week camping out in the vehicle. Make sure everything is working and functioning correctly, the vehicle is operating smoothly, and that you will be comfortable spending time in it for the duration of a longer trip.

Important questions to consider

  • Do you want/need to stand up in your van?

  • Are you planning to hook up a working sink?

  • Will there be a toilet in the van?

  • Do you need a full size bed?

  • Will you be traveling with a pet that requires extra space?

  • How much privacy do you need?

  • Do you need desk space if you’re working on the road?

  • How much water are you bringing with you?

  • Will you be cooking inside, outside, or both?

  • How much space do you need to store personal items, clothing, and shoes?

DIY camper van shopping list

  • Solar panels: Solar panels are a fantastic way to be energy-efficient, and this ECO-WORTHY 20W 12V IP65 Solar Panel Kit has all the capabilities for your off-road or urban adventures.

  • Power inverter: A power inverter is useful for charging laptops, phones, and other electronics, as well as for using an emergency roadside kit. The BESTEK 300W power inverter charges fast and is the size of an iPhone.

  • Coleman stove: Eating canned beans is one way to tackle a road trip, but when you could have a fresh, home-cooked meal, why bother with roughing it? This Coleman stove offers wind protection and is made for easy cleaning.

  • Vent fan: If your toilet doesn’t have a built-in fan or you plan on cooking some aromatic foods in the van, an in-line vent fan can prove extremely helpful.

  • Packing cubes: Luggage, dirty clothes, and poor organization can all cause you to waste precious space in your road trip vehicle, so maximize your layout with these efficient packing cubes that also include a laundry bag.

  • LED light strip: Lighting can really dictate the energy of a room, and harsh fluorescents won’t create an inviting atmosphere. Instead, opt for bright, space-saving LED strip lights with a warm glow, like this flexible 2-pack.

  • Composting toilet: This is definitely a splurge purchase, but if you need bathroom privacy and luxury long term, it’s an investment that might make a big difference to you. This spider-handle model can be disassembled in minutes and has a built in fan.

  • Roadside assistance kit: This is the most important cornerstone of driving a reliable vehicle. You can’t account for every bump in the road, and a roadside assistance kit like the Lifeline AAA Premium Road Kit helps you handle the unexpected with ease.
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