How to DIY a Campervan for Road Trips & Van Life (in 10 Steps)
#VanLife is taking off and it’s not just Instagram fuelling the hype with photos showing off impressive rigs set against the great outdoors.
With average house prices surging during the pandemic and remote work here to stay, more Canadians are opting for a simpler and cheaper life on the road. International travel may also not get going until 2023, resulting in higher demand for staycations and road trips.
Whether you want to explore more of your own backyard or give nomadic living a shot, this DIY guide breaks down the key steps to converting a van into a camper so you can turn your van life dreams into reality.
1. Figure out your budget & travel style
A DIY van conversion can cost a few thousand to tens of thousands of dollars, so it’s important to set a realistic budget before you start building. You should also think about the type of travel or van living you want to do. For example, it’s a good idea to invest in a 4x4 vehicle for exploring off-road areas and a vent fan if you plan on staying in hotter climates.
From there, make a list of must-have and nice-to-have amenities and then research online to determine how much each component will cost. If you’re working with a limited budget, make sure to browse second-hand sites like Craigslist and Kijiji for tools, building materials and van life essentials such as solar panels, portable stoves and cargo boxes.
2. Choose your van
The most popular kinds of vehicles used for van life are:
Cargo & conversion vansGMC Savana
Cargo vans usually have nothing in them, making them a great blank slate for building your custom home on wheels. Conversion vans are basically upgraded cargo vans with windows and installed seating.
Examples: Dodge B-series, Ford Econoline, Chevy Express, Chevy Astro, GMC Savana
- Pros: Affordable, built to last, budget-friendly parts, easy to find
- Cons: Gas mileage could be better, limited storage space
European-style cargo vansFord Transit
Euro-style cargo vans have a modern design and enough room to fit a bathroom, shower, and workspace.
- Pros: Stylish, lots of space, good gas mileage for the size
- Cons: Costs more than other cargo vans, costly repairs, large size won’t fit in as many places
Vintage vansVolkswagen Vanagon
Brightly coloured and retro-styled, these are the campervans that usually come to mind when you think of life on the open road. There is also a big online community passionate about old Volkswagens, so you’ll find plenty of support when doing DIY repairs and modifications.
Examples: Volkswagen Vanagon, Volkswagen Bus
- Pros: Cool retro look, easy to repair, parts aren’t hard to find
- Cons: Expensive, can break down often, lacks modern safety features
Designing a minivan camper conversion is for you if you want to save money or dabble in van life on the weekends.
Examples: Dodge Grand Caravan, Toyota Sienna, Honda Odyssey, Kia Sedona, Mazda 5
- Pros: Affordable, easy mobility, compact size fits everywhere
- Cons: Not much space, lacks privacy
3. Gut & clean the interior
Once you’ve selected a van based on your budget, lifestyle, and mechanical skills, it’s time to take everything out and do a big clean. You may have a lot of work cut out for you if you have an older van, as this step may include taking out the utility floor, doing rust repairs, or removing grime from windows and cracks.
4. Take measurements & design the layout
When the interior is completely bare, get the length, width, and height measurements of everything, including the windows and wheel wells. Afterward, start designing your floor plan with your must-have amenities in mind. You’ll most likely want a full-size bed, kitchen, ample storage space, and small workstation, so make sure to draw those out and see how they’ll all fit together. Consider marking your van with tape to get a better visual of where things will go.
5. Install insulation & flooring
This is where converting your van into a camper really begins. Start by insulating the walls and floor with space-saving materials such as foam board, spray foam, or wool batts. Next, put in flooring that’s thin, lightweight, and long-lasting.
Even if you plan on travelling to only warm weather locations, it’s always a good idea to insulate as temperatures can plummet at night. It’s also worth investing in a heater if you’re going to travel through colder regions or during winter.
6. Build the foundation
Use your measurements and building materials like plywood to construct a bed platform, kitchen counter, bench, cabinets, and storage areas. This may be the longest part of your van build depending on your carpentry skills.
7. Put in light & power solutions
Before installing anything, you’ll first need to figure out your daily power consumption and then find solutions to meet those needs. Many van lifers rely on solar panel kits, while others use solar generators or powerful lithium-ion batteries. If you plan on using battery-powered string lights and can go without a fridge and cooktop, you may be able to get away with large-capacity power banks to charge your essential devices. Once insulation and electrical cables are in, put in walls and ceilings using lightweight and easy-to-install materials such as groove planks and aluminum composite panels.
8. Craft your kitchen setup
The kitchen will be one of the most used areas in your DIY camper, so spend some time designing your dream kitchen setup. You’ll most likely want to install a sink and have modern comforts like a fridge, stove, blender, and kettle.
9. Consider adding a bathroom and shower
From campgrounds and gas stations to truck stops and fast-food restaurants, you’ll find plenty of public bathrooms throughout your journey. However, it may be worth installing a toilet and shower if you have enough space and the idea of not having a bathroom nearby stresses you out. There are many toilet options to choose from, with most van lifers recommending composting toilets, bucket toilets, and chemical cassette toilets. As for showers, you’re spoiled for choice too. Options range from solar shower bags to installed showers with tankless water heaters.
10. Figure out how to maximize storage space
It’s easy for your campervan to feel cluttered and disorganized, which is why having ample storage space is key to smooth van living. There are various ways to maximize storage, including installing slide-out shelves, hanging closet organizers over the doors, and taking advantage of the space under the bed platform.
This is just a brief overview of the most common campervan modifications. There are plenty of other upgrades you can make – from installing an oven to adding a portable washing machine, the sky is the limit when it comes to DIY van conversions.