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Campervan conversions: What you need to know

A campervan lets you have the fun bits of camping such as being out in the countryside but without the not-so-fun bits of a water-logged tent. So you don’t have to put up with no soundproofing, airbeds that deflate overnight and having to pack a wet tent back into your car.

Campervans that come already converted can cost a lot. To get a new VW California you’re looking at around £60,000. Classic VW campervans are undoubtedly stylish, but they’re slow and not really that much fun to drive.

So what about getting a van and converting it yourself? 

A campervan overlooking a lake

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How to plan a van conversion

Not only do you get your own van to drive, and holiday in, a campervan conversion is a good side project and the options are endless. 

You get to decide exactly what you want your van to look like, and what facilities it’ll have and you should hopefully save some money too.

Yet, a van conversion isn’t something to jump into after an afternoon scrolling Instagram. It’s a long-term project and can take a lot of careful planning to make sure:

  • The van you end up with is what you want
  • It’s safe and roadworthy
  • You’ve not blown your budget on the project

Ideas are the first step, then pinning down a list of your must haves and things you’d like to have if they’re possible. You then need a budget and a plan of what jobs you can do yourself, and which you’ll need an expert for. Don’t forget make sure you sort out your tax and van insurance either too. Here we look at each in a little more detail.

 

Van to camper conversion ideas

Doing your own campervan conversion should save you money and let you get exactly what you want. You can decide what is a must-have and what would be a nice-to-have.

Some of the best campervans have everything you could possibly imagine, and look pretty amazing, but it’s important to work within your budget. 

You definitely need seats with three-point seat belts for when you’re driving along. If you have small children you need to factor in how car seats will work as well. Pets also need to be considered if you have any that might need to be in the camper. 

Let’s cover the basics. You need somewhere to sleep, somewhere to eat and something to do your cooking on. A fridge is always handy too, so have a look at portable 12-volt ones. You can find this kind of fridge on Amazon. 

Check prices for Portable fridges on Amazon

 

Then you’ll need somewhere to store water, both clean and waste water. It’s also good to have plenty of storage for all the stuff you’ll need on your trips.

You’ll probably want to insulate the van too, given how cold and wet the UK weather can be. Sound insulation should also make it feel far better than being in a tent.

Ventilation is essential and extra windows should help turn your van into a fully-fledged campervan.

You also need a battery for all your appliances. If you want to think a bit greener, solar panels are always a good idea.

 
Check prices for Solar panels on Amazon

 

Then, having your own toilet and shower might fall into the nice-to-have category, depending on where you plan on taking your campervan. 

 

What tools will I need for a van to camper conversion?

You need something to do your planning on - a pen and paper if you’re old school or a programme like Adobe Illustrator if you’re not.

Once you’ve got your plans finalised in 2D, it can be useful to check them in 3D in a CAD package such as SketchUp. This lets you make sure that everything fits in properly and works the way you need it to before you start any work.

If you’re converting a popular van, there are plans online to give you ideas to work from, if you like.

Then you can get to the bit you’ve probably been looking forward to most – the tools.

Things that should be useful include:

  • A sliding mitre saw to cut batons of wood accurately
  • Quick grip clamps to give you another pair of hands
  • A jigsaw to cut through steel panels, wood and plastics
  • A hole saw
  • A screwdriver bit set to save having lots of screwdrivers
  • A good drill and spare drill bits
  • A good straight edge
  • A tape measure

If you're looking to rack up serious mileage in your vehicle, converting your van to run on LPG could be a good way to save on fuel.  

 

Should I buy a new or a used van for a camper conversion?

Price is a big factor when deciding between a brand new or a used van. On the whole, used vans are usually cheaper. But, while they may seem like a bargain at the start, you need to calculate how much money you might have to spend on an older van.

It’s worth considering paying on a credit card if you can. This means you should have slightly more protection under Section 75 of the Consumer Credit Act 1974, but this isn’t always possible.

If you’re buying a used van from a dealer, you also have more protection. Under the Consumer Rights Act, all goods should be of a satisfactory quality, fit for purpose and as described. You usually have up to 6 months for a repair, replacement, or refund if this isn’t the case.

Buying from a private owner means it’s a lot harder if things go wrong. The onus is on the buyer to carry out checks before buying a van to make sure everything is as it should be. 

 

Best vans to convert to campers

Unless you’ve already bought an old ambulance or something else quirky to convert, certain vans tend to get converted much more than others.

The more popular a van is to convert, the more advice and ideas there should be out there. 

You might also find it easier to get ready-made furniture and other bits for popular vans.

Think about how you’re going to use the van before you part with your money.

Are you tall? Then being able to stand up in the van might be useful. So you’d probably be looking at a higher-sided van.

Do you want to be able to leave the van in normal parking spaces? Will you spend a lot of time driving round the sort of lanes that only your satnav could know about? Then a smaller, narrower van such as a Transporter might be better.

If you’re not sure, try renting a campervan for a weekend. Then you can see how you get on with the size of it, the space it offers and what it’s like to drive.

See our guide to what to look for when buying a second-hand van and get peace of mind by doing a vehicle check on a prospective purchase. 

 

Best large vans to convert to campers

Vans that regularly crop up as being the best large vans to convert to campervans are:

  • Fiat Ducato
  • Ford Transit
  • Iveco Daily
  • Mercedes-Benz Sprinter
 

Best medium vans to convert to campers

Size is important when searching around for the best van for camper conversion. If a medium van is more what you’re looking for, here are some popular models for converting:

  • Volkswagen Transporter
  • Renault Trafic
  • Peugeot Expert
  • Vauxhall Vivaro
  • Toyota Proace
 

How much does it cost to convert a van into a camper?

If you’re good at DIY and happy to rough it a bit, you could convert your van for less than £1,000.

At the other end of the scale, you could pay a specialist van conversion company £40,000 to do a high-end job.

Most van conversions obviously fall somewhere in between. You should be able to get a high level of finish for under £10,000 if you did most of the work yourself.

Unless you already have the skills, some jobs are better done by experts and you should look to hire a tradesperson for the electrics and the gas. Aim to allow around £2,500 to £3,000 for these to be done professionally.

 

Will the DVLA reclassify my van as a campervan?

Getting your van reclassified as a ‘motor caravan’ – what the DVLA calls campervans – used to be reasonably straightforward. It was worth doing as it meant you could get cheaper van insurance and better deals on things like ferry crossings.

It also meant that if you had a small van with an unladen weight of less than 3.05 tonnes you could go as fast as a car on all roads.

But in 2019 the DVLA’s requirements got much stricter and most applications are now rejected. The DVLA says you can use your van as a motor caravan if you think it is one.

To be considered for reclassification, the DVLA expects certain work to have been done to your van both externally and internally.

The DVLA also specifies the body types of vans it considers as suitable for conversion to a camper.

The DVLA’s requirements for external work include:

  • Two or more windows on at least one side of the main body of the van, in addition to the windows in the driver and passenger doors
  • A separate door to provide access to the living accommodation
  • Motor caravan-style graphics on both sides of the vehicle
  • An awning bar attached to either side of the vehicle

A high-top roof (this doesn’t include a pop-top elevating roof)

And for internal work, the DVLA wants to see:

  • Seats and a table
  • Sleeping accommodation, which may be converted from the seats
  • Cooking facilities
  • Storage facilities

Each of these categories also has specific requirements that must be fulfilled.

 

Get campervan insurance

Getting valid van insurance for your pride and joy is a must. One thing to note is that campervans and motorhomes are classed differently for insurance purposes.

If you’ve converted a van for camping in, take a look at campervan insurance. If you’ve bought a vehicle with a definite cab and a bit more space, that’ll likely need motorhome insurance.

And while you can get insurance just for your campervan, some multicar policies include campervans so it’s worth comparing them as well. 

Compare cheap van insurance quotes

Get a quote

 

Don’t forget campervan security

After you’ve spent so much time and effort on your van it would be devastating if someone stole it. A combination of old school devices and modern technology is probably best.

So look at things like steering wheel locks, pedal locks and wheel clamps combined with some sort of tracker.

Improving your van’s security in this way should make it harder to steal and give you a chance of knowing where it is if someone does make away with it.  Keeping it off the road, preferably in a locked garage, could also lower the risk of it being stolen. And the lower the risk of theft, the lower your insurance cost might be.

 

What’s it like living the van life?

While some people just want to use their vans for holidays, for others van living is a way of life. 

Seb Santabarbara, a travel writer who documents his van life on Instagram, says: “Van life can give you a sense of freedom that you never thought was possible. It’s a calming and relaxing way of life that moves with you wherever you want to go.

You could eat your lunch to the sounds of the rain on the roof. Or just sit and watch the sunset by the side of the river with a cup of tea in your hand.

“You’ll need to make space for some essentials in your van, like a chemical toilet. But when it comes to showering, you can get creative and shower at places like the gym.

“You can also fill up with water in a range of different places and don’t be afraid to ask friends and family for help.

“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 house into an 80 square foot van can be a cleansing process. It can make you assess what things you really need in your life. You won’t miss any of the clutter that used to live under the stairs.

“Alternative living certainly ignites a creative spark inside you. Are you ready to embrace a new sense of off-grid freedom and find out what you can achieve?” 

 

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