Van Life is all around us. From the idyllic pictures of travelers in sun soaked places on your Instagram screen to the sounds of tinkering on that old VW up your street, the notion of packing up and living off the grid is taking the country by storm.
People all over Britain are coming down with a serious case of Wanderlust, and if you’re reading this article then you must have been gripped by it too.
In this article I’m going to give you some tips and tricks on converting your own van into a cosy camper. From the essential tools that you’ll need to get started right down to what living the van life is actually like, I’ll help you to get your conversion process underway and hopefully get you out into the big wide world!
How to convert a van into a camper
Before you start cutting boards and thinking about what style of bed you want, you’re going to need the right tools to get you started.
It might sound obvious, but you need the correct gear if you want to create a house that’s not going to fall apart at the first speed bump. So, here’s a quick fire checklist of the things that I used to convert my own home on wheels.
Jigsaw - Save time and energy and get yourself a good quality Jigsaw. They're great for cutting through your cladding or pallet wood and especially handy when making intricate curves and joins in your woodwork. Get a good pack of blades so that you can cut through a variety of materials.
Drill - A good drill and spare drill bits are essential for any self build. You’re going to be drilling into metal frames as well as building cupboards and drawers, so get something powerful like a Bosch Combi Drill. Make sure that you have a pocketful of bits and a spare battery on charge before you set to work.
Stationary - You’re constantly going to be making notes and diagrams, and you will most definitely lose pencils and rubbers in the lost universe behind your false wall. Keep a tape measure, masking tape and a spirit level close by (or in a tool belt if you're a pro).
FastGlas Fibre Glass Kit - Cover over any pre existing holes and repair any cracks before you start. Follow the instructions carefully and wear a mask (this stuff is strong!).
Cladding and insulation - Thin cladding, pre-made boards or palette wood are the usual choices for cladding the walls of your van. Whatever you choose you'll need a lot of it, along with some softwood pine pieces to make a ribcage and wall in your living area.
Then you can decide how you want to insulate your new home. I went with silver bubble foil and EkoRoll, and this combo kept me and my girlfriend toasty all the way through winter and keeps the van cool in summer.
Batteries - 12V batteries come in lots of different sizes. We have 2x 100aH batteries that give us ample energy, but you’ll need to do some calculations to see how much electricity you'll be using in your own build.
Look at the wattage of the devices you’ll be using and grab those old science books from your loft to work out what size battery you’ll need.
Solar panels - Two 100W solar panels from Photonic Universe hook directly up to a neat little regulator in the electrics box. These feed into our batteries and keep them charged up from the suns golden rays!
Split charge relay - For when the sun decides to call in sick. This bit of kit charges up your batteries whenever your engine is running, meaning that you can still watch Game of Thrones on a cloudy day!
Fuse box, fuses, lights and wires - All of your electrical components will lead into a fuse box. Get a large box that has enough fuse holders for all of your appliances. Fuses and lights can be found from your local hardware store or eBay, and you should make sure that you get way more wire than you think you'll need - you're definitely going to need it!
Inverter - Converting 12V to 240V electric, this device means that I can charge my laptop and camera batteries on the go. Bigger items will need a bigger power rating, so have a look at the item description before buying.
Fridge - Don't think that you can plug a normal tabletop fridge into your van through your inverter though; it will drain your batteries in the blink of an eye, leaving you with soggy vegetables and warm cream cheese (which no one wants).
12V fridges are expensive but totally worth it if you’re going off-grid. Dometic do a great fridge with a little freezer in it which won’t let you down.
Water and gas - We have two 25L jerry cans that I use for fresh and waste water, and a 15kg bottle of gas that has being going strong since August 2017! We cook off a three burner camping hob and have a trusty metal kettle for when we need hot water.
What's the best van for a conversion?
‘How do I start’ is a question that I get asked a lot, and the answer is with the right van. There's a lot that you need to think about when choosing your vehicle; length, height, weight, license category etc., and they will all have an impact on the design that you've been dreaming up while looking at those office spreadsheets every morning.
We wanted to go for something with a high roof as I'm pretty tall, so a Vauxhall Movano Maxi Roof was the perfect choice. It's not too long but has plenty of room inside for everything that we need.
The classic self-build choice is definitely the Mercedes Sprinter - they are reliable, easy to buy parts for and long enough to fit multiple rooms inside.
The VW Crafter is also a sturdy starting point to consider too. Whatever van you choose make sure that you have a look around inside it first, and don't be afraid to pull out a tape measure to see if some of your design ideas will work inside the space.
Think about which way you would want to put your bed and if you will be able to sleep comfortably in it - once you’ve bought it there’s no going back!
It doesn't matter how old the van is as long as you look for certain signs. Check the seat belt wear, drivers chair and mileage to see how much it's been used. Look for any rust spots that have been covered over, and check that the engine is cold before the van starts up. Take a good look at the engine to see if anything looks rusty or broken, and place a hand near the exhaust pipe to see if the fumes are clear and not too sooty.
You can also do a registration check to see the past history of a vehicle. Do your homework before you buy, and if you get stuck just follow the words of my cousin - ‘If you buy cheap you buy twice’.
What's it like living the vanlife?
Van Life has given us a sense of freedom that we never thought was possible. It's a calming and relaxing way of life that moves with us wherever we want to go. Sometimes we eat our lunch to the sounds of the rain on the roof, and other times we just sit and watch the sunset by the side of the river with a cup of tea in our hand.
We've saved so much money too, and we feel a lot more self sufficient now that we're living off-grid.
We have a chemical toilet in our van, we shower at the gym, and we fill up our water from a variety of spots (including our friends garage and the local park).
It might sound like a faff to some, but once you get used to a new routine it starts to become just as easy as your previous life. Moving from a terraced house into eighty square feet was a cleansing process that made us decide what things we really needed in our life. Now we travel light, and we don’t miss any of the clutter that used to live in our under stairs cupboard.
I’ve met a lot of different vanlifers while living off-grid, all of whom have different interests and professions. We've met surfers, climbers, painters and photographers. We've hung out with architects who live on construction sites for days on end, computer programmers who code on the road, and lots of other creative people who make their income from blogging and social media.
Alternative living certainly ignites a creative spark inside of you; are you ready to embrace a new sense of off-grid freedom and find out what you can achieve?
Browse our collection of inspiring stories and pictures from van dwellers and learn what's it's really like living in a van.
Written by Seb Santabarbara @vincentvanlife