Considering a campervan conversion? You’re not alone. The desire to escape the rat race and our overcrowded cities has never been stronger. One way to do that is with a campervan. A campervan offers unrivalled freedom to explore, the ability to pitch up anywhere and get a good night’s sleep and offers the comfort of knowing you will always have a dry roof over your head.
You could buy a readymade campervan but they can be very expensive. A DIY campervan conversion can be done on a more modest budget and gives you total control over the layout, fit and finish of your van. It will also teach you a few new skills too!
This is a high level guide to self-build campervans designed for newbies looking to transform their old van into a mobile home from home. If you’ve already got a campervan and want to give it an upgrade check out this brilliant post on Goboony’s blog.
The donor van forms the basis of your project. While many conversions use panel vans, you can use any van you like. Micro-campers use vans such as the Citroen Berlingo while more traditional campervans use Vauxhall Vivaro, Ford Transit, Mercedes-Benz Vito and of course, the Volkswagen Transporter. VW T5 conversion kits are some of the best-selling around but they are far from the only conversions you can perform.
Choosing a van is as much about personal taste and budget than anything else. The VW T4/5 is a popular choice but expensive. Ex-courier vans don’t have the brand cache of Volkswagen but are usually much cheaper and more readily available in different sizes. Check the van carefully before buying as everything hinges on the solidity of this platform. You can read more about choosing a base vehicle here.
As you can imagine, a campervan conversion will require some good quality tools to make the job easier. Tools you will need for a DIY conversion include a jigsaw, cordless drill, a basic mechanic’s tool set, detail sander and the usual tools you will have around the home.
Investing in good tools will return on that investment in time, effort and results. Buy quality, buy once but you don’t have to spend a fortune. This guide has some useful information on the tools you will need for a campervan conversion.
Planning is vital in any project and that’s true here. The more expensive and time-consuming a project is, the more time you should spend planning. It will save time, effort and a lot of money. Plus, it really is no fun removing and refitting a panel or appliance because it doesn’t fit properly or you forgot to lay a pipe!
Consider how many people will use it. How long a typical holiday will be. Do you need a bathroom? Shower? Heating? Do you need a fixed bed? Guest accommodation? Planning your requirements first will help you decide on a layout before you begin spending money. Check out our page on planning a layout for the questions you need to ask yourself. This page has more information on the layout of a typical self-build campervan.
Even the most basic panel van will need preparing before you can install anything. Remove any paneling, flooring, roofing, seats and equipment you don’t need. You can always put some of it back in a more suitable configuration. Strip the van as completely as possible so you get a good idea of the space you’re going to be working with.
Give the van a good clean and inspect it for rust, holes or any remedial work that may be required. It is much better to do that now than have to remove fittings when you notice a rust spot. This page has a real-life example of stripping out a Renault Trafic that goes into more detail.
Ventilation and insulation
Before you begin fitting out your campervan conversion, make sure you have considered insulating the van adequately and adding ventilation. Vans are not known for being warm and if you’re planning to spend the night, you’re going to need insulation. That insulation would ideally keep you warm in the cold and cool in the heat just like at home.
Ventilation is equally important. It helps prevent damp, keeps the air clean and helps airflow even when the van is closed up while on the road, at night or when unattended. There are a range of simple ventilation options you can use that can be fitted quickly and easily to most campervans.
The electrical requirements of a campervan are completely different to a builder’s van so be prepared to lay some cable. You don’t have to be a qualified electrician but expect to have to consult one, or at least have one sign off your work.
Typical electrical requirements of a campervan conversion include a larger van battery, wiring for appliances and for any lights and chargers. Optional but definitely recommended would be a solar power generation kit that can help keep batteries charged while you explore. Browse campervan electrics kits here.
Plumbing and gas
Plumbing and gas are also likely to feature in a campervan conversion. Like electrics, you should spend as much time planning the pipework and fittings as you spend installing them. Or pay for a professional to take care of the installation for you. Either way, your campervan is going to need running water, drainage and perhaps gas for hot water and cooking.
Most campervans use LPG bottles to provide gas. These are small, light and portable and work well. Plumbing will usually use a clean water store to feed taps with an optional water heater and then some drainage. Here are campervan gas options while plumbing considerations are outlined in more depth on VanDogTraveller.com.
If you’re planning to add gas to your campervan, you will also need to know the gas safety requirements of a conversion.
Kitchen and bathroom
It is the kitchen and bathroom that makes a campervan a home. Beds and seating can be put in any kind of van but it’s having a fitted kitchen and usable bathroom that makes a self-build motorhome stand out.
You can buy a ready-made kitchen for your model of van and fit it yourself or you could put one together from scratch. Much depends on the time you have and your carpentry skills. If you’re going for a traditional layout, buying a ready-made kitchen costs more but is easier to fit in a much shorter time. Building your own is incredibly rewarding but can be time-consuming.
Furnishing a self-build campervan is like furnishing a home. You can go for vanilla catalogue items that work well but lack flair and imagination, or you can go the bespoke route. If you have definite ideas or tastes, a campervan conversion is the ideal place to express yourself. Go with what makes you feel comfortable.
There are some amazing campervan furnishing ideas out there and we suggest spending a lot of time looking at what other DIY camper conversions have used, what worked and what didn’t and coming up with your own versions. Don’t be afraid to take risks, to ask for advice or to stick to the tried and tested. A campervan is an expression of your personality so there is no wrong way to do it as long as it all fits!
Insurance and regulatory
Yes we know it’s boring and we know it isn’t as interesting as solving an electrical or plumbing problem, but it is just as necessary. Campervans will need the usual MOT and insurance for the road but there are also other conditions too.
A campervan conversion switches from being a van to a ‘motor caravan’ in the eyes of the law. This means it will need to be re-registered with the DVLA. Depending on the size of your vehicle, you may need a Category C driving licence, a class IV MOT, different insurance that covers you during conversion as well as after and a whole lot more. This page is a great resource for information around the DVLA requirements while this page is a more general informational page on your responsibilities as a campervan owner.
As you can see, this is a very high level view of what can be a complex project. However, there should be enough here to convince you that life on the road delivers on all the promises it makes and provides the ultimate in freedom and a means to escape from modern life. No wonder so many people are converting their old vans!