Camping and caravanning has been a popular British pastime for decades, and with the rejuvenation of the iconic VW Camper over the last 10-15 years we have seen a resurgence in motorists taking up the lifestyle and adapting it to their own specific needs.
While there is still a healthy industry based around the manufacture and sale of purpose built caravans and campervans across Europe and the USA, covering an array of luxurious living spaces to call your ‘home away from home’. Yet, now more than ever, there is a desire to create your own little hide away and build it yourself. The idea of having a campervan exactly to your own specifications is all too tempting for most, and to do the work yourself and be proud of the results is extremely rewarding. Also, the knowledge that yours is unique, there isn’t another like it on the planet, is immensely important to a lot of people. It is for this reason that so many people are now turning to camper conversion over being satisfied with the offerings of the manufacturers.
For decades people have been converting vans and other vehicles into campers for all sorts of leisure and work purposes. Whether it be a ready-made campers from a world renowned manufacturer, a new or used conversion supplied by a specialist converter or a DIY conversion to a second hand van you’ve picked up from an auction, there are very few limits as to what you can and can’t do to customise your camper to perfectly reflect you and your passions in life.
If you are planning a conversion or thinking of purchasing a converted camper then here are a few hints and tips, things to look out for and aspects to consider.
DIY or Ready Converted?
Many people choose to purchase a ready built camper either from a dealer or privately for the benefit of driving away with your new portable weekender. Others however enjoy more of a challenge and decide to create their own masterpiece from scratch. The difference can be minor or enormous depending on your point of view, automotive knowhow and craft skills. If you are lucky enough to find a van that suits your needs and has all the features and functionality you are looking for then that’s great. If however, you are looking for something a little more bespoke then you’ll either need to commission a conversion of a brand new van through a specialist fitter (which could become costly) or carry out the conversion yourself using an existing camper and modifying it to suit your needs; the third option is creating your dream camper from the empty shell of a suitable van. Regardless of which option you choose, there is a degree of planning and preparation to do first, even before you go looking at vans.
Before you can go shopping for a van to convert you’ll first need to consider a few aspects of the design which will ultimately determine which van(s) will be best suited to your requirements and therefore enable you to realise your vision.
It’s important to think about what you want to use the van for: Is it going to be a tool to transport kit and equipment only or are you planning to live in it too? How many people will be living in or from the van? Do you need to be able to stand up in the van? All of these things will determine the overall dimension of the van you buy to ensure that you can fit everything you want inside. On the flip side, your budget may restrict the size of van you can afford which will in turn determine the number of people you can comfortably accommodate and the features you will be able to incorporate in the van itself. Height, Length and engine size are the 3 main considerations when deciding on the best van for the job.
Vans are available in a variety of sizes, all of which could be converted and can provide different levels of comfort in a camper. Logic dictates that the bigger the van the more comfortable and more luxurious you can make it. Commercial vans tend to make the best conversion due to their lack of internal features in the cargo bay meaning you have a blank canvas to start working with; however if you wanted windows then these would need to be cut into the panels, seats for the rear would need to be sourced and fitted separately, etc. If you were to use a minibus or small coach you may find that you need to remove seats or supports before you can begin to rebuild.
The smallest vans, such as VW Caddy, are no bigger than a medium size car and can be fitted with a bed where the boot and rear seats would be, but there is very little space for much else. The next size up would be vans such as the VW Transporter or Mercedes Vito - Both good size cargo bays which will easily take a double bed and living space. There is also a wide range of ‘off the shelf’ conversion accessories available to help with your project. Swivel chairs in the front help to open up the space for a living area or small cooker while a tailgate makes an excellent semi-awning to provide extra cover. There is then a jump up to the larger vans such as the Renault Master or Vauxhall Movano - these larger vans tend to come in high-top and long wheel base (LWB) options offering extended headroom and load space in the rear. The newer VW Transporters (T4,T5 & T6) also comes in Short (SWB) and long (LWB) options and with or without extending roof options.
Engine size is the third consideration. Most van models come in options of at least 2 engine sizes. If you are cruising around slow country roads then the smaller engines are fine but if you plan on longer distance trips on bigger roads then serious thought should be given to the larger option. Also, the more you pack into the camper the heavier it will be. Typically, try and buy the largest engine size you can, with the lowest mileage, for the van you want to drive. You don’t have to use all its power, but it will be there when you need it, which is better than needing it when you don’t have it!
Once you have thought about these things it’s time to start making your wish list. What do you want from your van?
- Normal height - Standing isn’t essential & want to be able to reach the roof rack
- Long enough for a bed, living area with swivel chairs and space to store bicycles for security when we are in the city - LWB
- Larger engine size for motorway driving
- Low Mileage for make, model and age.
- Side access sliding doors for easy access and Tailgate at rear.
- No Drivers Bulkhead to open cab/cargo bay spaces and fit swivel seats in front.
Now you are ready to start your search for the perfect van. Once you have the van to use as a base it’s time to begin planning the refit, interior features and how to transform your ex-builders works horse into luxury living quarters.
For tips on choosing a second hand van, see our other article - buying a used van.
Starting from the outside, external storage is a good idea with camper conversions as it’s a great way to save space inside the van. However, it can be useful to ensue you have enough space to store all be the largest items inside the van when absolutely necessary. For example, bicycles when in a big city for security or kayaks/surfboards when boarding a ferry (any extra appendages on the outside of the van take up extra space and therefore attract a premium on most ferry services).
Roof racks and cycle racks are excellent examples of ways to facilitate the exterior of the van to carry some of your bulkier items. Bolt on awnings and spot lights are great additions as they provide excellent outdoor living space when camping and light when coupled with a leisure battery at night.
This is where people will spend the most time and attention to detail. There is almost no limit to what can be put inside a camper van; the only limit is to how many of these features can be accommodated in one van and still be useable in the space provided. In a similar way to choosing a van in the first place, it is wise to make a wish list of features you would like to have in your van. Once you’ve compiled the list you can then to go back through and work out which of these items you absolutely cannot live without and which can be compromised to make way for the more important items if required. For instance, there is no point filling your van with loads of seating if you need to get a motorbike or surfboards inside.
Typically, your first job will be to ‘Ply Line’ the van. This is exactly what it sounds like. You will need to line the bare metal panels and struts on the cargo bay with sheets of plywood and box in the wheel arches. This will provide you with a sound base for the rest of your developments. A good starting point from here will be to insulate the floor, walls and ceiling of the van. This can be done easily and at relatively low cost by using rolls of flexible lining carpet available online from conversion companies and contact adhesive. It takes a little practice to get the lines and seams straight but if you take your time and concentrate you’ll have it mastered in no time (try using large sheets of packing paper to make stencils of the inside of the van to help cut the correct sizes). Remember: "Measure twice, cut once!" If you are fitting internal lighting, electrics or plumbing this is the time to install these too. Cables can be hidden behind the ply lining and light fittings and plug sockets counter-sunk into the linings.
Specific ‘Rock’n’Roll’ beds can be purchased to fit most vans and are normally the more comfortable, easiest to use. Space saving beds available but they can be costly. If you intend to build a bed yourself then this is also the best time to fit it. Also, if you are converting the front seats to Swivel chairs, get this work done now before the space in the van is filled, making it difficult to remove and reinstall the seats.
Everything else being installed can then be fitted. Small cooker and gas bottle (needs to be secured to the floor/bulkhead), Leisure battery (under the driver seat is often a good place to hide these), chemical toilet, shower, T.V. aerial and storage units are all common additions to a custom camper van; but that’s not to say you’ll fit them all into one van! Be conservative to start with. It’s much easier to find another small item to place in a gap at the end of the build than it will be to reduce the size of items built or purchased that simply don’t fit because the van is full. Be realistic about what you want and what you NEED. Try making a scale model of the inside of your van with graph paper and do the same with the thing you want to fit inside. This will help you visualize not only the overall layout and help you decide how best to arrange things but also highlight problems like certain items not fitting or overcrowding inside.
Consider your end use. Consider the kit you want to carry. Consider the number of people travelling, how long the trips with be and how self-sufficient you’ll need to be. If you take all of this into account when planning your conversion then you are already half way to building your dream camper van.