Van Life Guide: How To Build A DIY Camper Van Conversion
A DIY van conversion can range from a few hundred dollars to thousands. Knowing what’s possible to put in your camper will help give you an idea of what you want vs what you need. There is no right way to convert a van to a camper. It does not take an expert or a skilled carpenter to build a van.
We’ve created this guide to help you decide how to build your camper. We’ve spent over two years living in a van conversion and talked with hundreds of other vanlife experts to give you the best ideas. Below you’ll find the most up to date information about how to build a DIY camper conversion.
Quick Links: DIY Camper Van Conversion Plans
Van Life Advice
- What is it like to live in a van full-time?
- Advice for stealth camping in the city
- How much does van life cost?
- How to find free campsites
- Planning for a long term road trip
- Van life packing list
- Van life with a dog
- 8 ways to brew coffee without electricity
- Tips to keep mosquitoes out of your camper
- Where to rent a camper van (test it out!)
- Truck camping vs van life
Not Sure Where To Start?
What is Van Life?
Van life is an alternative lifestyle similar to living in an RV, tiny home, or sailboat. The van life movement is particularly attractive to digital nomads, minimalists, and outdoor lovers who travel frequently and camp in their vehicles.
Van lifers are nomads that travel in a camper van conversion, school bus, or converted vehicle. They typically work online, or move between seasonal jobs throughout the year.
Van life is not for everyone.
Some people end up living in a conversion van out of financial necessity, others build out expensive adventure campers for transcontinental tours. Of course, there’s a whole slew of people that fall in-between. Van life is not a normal lifestyle. So for better or worse, there isn’t a “one size fits all” path to living on the road.
On this website we’ve collated information on a range of lifestyle options. You’ll find advice on everything from free camping and using a bucket toilet, to installing expensive solar systems and mobile offices.
There are a million different ways to live in a van. To bypass some common mistakes we recommend asking yourself a few questions first.
Why do you want to live the van life?
It’s true that living in a conversion van can be cheaper than paying rent; but that’s not always the case. If you’re only doing this to save money, you may want to consider other options first.
- Renting in a lower cost of living area
- Getting roommates
- Doing workshares
We won’t even get into all the ways you can make money online. There is a reason most people live in houses and apartments, and that’s because they are optimized for living in.
This isn’t to discourage you from living in a camper, and when the right sacrifices are made it can be very cheap! But you will be changing your lifestyle significantly and so money shouldn’t be the only reason you choose to live on the road.
Van Life For The Adventure
The freedom to travel, navigating the unmarked roads, and spending more time in nature is the reason we chose to live in a camper. Van life allows you to wake up alone next to hiking trails that get crowded by tourists just a few hours later. You can eat dinner with a view and enjoy the sunset 365 days a year.
But, let’s make one thing clear: van life is nothing like staying in an apartment.
- If you’re someone that needs a hot shower every night before bed, van life is not for you.
- If you need reliable cell phone service every single night, van life might not be for you.
- If you hate planning ahead, van life is not for you!
There are alternatives to van life. RV living can give you a similar sense of freedom without limiting your electricity use as much. Many RV campers also come with full bathrooms including showers and toilets.
Renting an Airbnb for one month at a time, or establishing a home base and making shorter camping trips is another way to visit new places without the sacrifices of establishing yourself in 80 square feet.
Why We Chose Van Life
Ultimately, choosing to live in a van can be one of the most rewarding experiences of your life. These are the reasons we chose to live the van life:
- Relatively inexpensive: You can choose to spend as much or as little as you want on a van build. Some people convert the car they already own for under $500 and others spend $75,000 on the ultimate adventure camper.
- Extremely mobile: Unlike an RV, you can fit into a regular parking space with a van. They’re not as tall so you don’t have to worry about height. You’ll get better gas mileage in a camper van than you would with a travel trailer, and they can more easily drive up winding mountain roads or go off-trail in the desert.
- More comfortable than camping: In a camper van you’ll have the luxury of a regular mattress, shelter in the rain, more control over the temperature, and the ability to store food and belongings that you wouldn’t have when tent camping.
- Free camping: Because a camper is smaller and less complex than an RV it’s easier to go dry camping in the National Forests or even stealth camping in the city.
- Electricity: Solar panel setups allow you to get power on the road and charge small electronics, portable refrigerators, or ventilation fans. All of these are a step up from tent camping. *Although you most likely will not be able to power large electronics like an air conditioner or hair dryer, so keep that in mind. *
- Bathrooms: In a camper van you can choose to travel with a portable toilet, and there are options for showers. None of these are going to be luxurious but they are available.
- Pack up and go: The best part about a van conversion is your stuff is always with you. You can spend the night right next to a hiking trail or your favorite waterfall. You don’t need to worry about checking in and checking out of an RV park or hotel. You can space out your grocery store trips every few days and visit Starbucks for some Wi-Fi. There is a lot more freedom involved than RV living or tent camping.
Choosing Your Van
Once you’ve decided that van life is for you, start by choosing your van. We wrote an article to help you do this. It will cover some basic questions to ask yourself like budget constraints, mechanical abilities, and where you plan to travel. We also go over the pros and cons of the following vehicles:
- Cargo vans and conversion vans
- Euro style Vans – Sprinters, Promasters and Transit Vans
- Classic vans – VW Vanagons, VW Bus, 70’s 80’s vans
- Ultra-low budget vehicles – live in what you currently own
- Overlanding vehicles
- Class B RV’s
High-top or standard?
There are advantages and disadvantages to buying a high top van. Bigger isn’t always better. Things like the ability to drive through parking structures, travel with large roof toys like a kayak, and the higher price tag are just a few examples.
Shorter vans may be less comfortable, but they make it much easier to go stealth camping in the city.
There are ways you can make a standard height van more comfortable. Designing a layout that has proper seating or packing some foam pads to save your knees on the floor are just a few examples.
Everyone should consider the cost before starting van life! Not only should you think about the price of a build, but also the cost of living on the road.
In our article discussing the cost of van life, we give three examples of campers living on the road using a budget of $850 per month, $1,200 per month, and $2,000+ per month. You can watch the videos, find out where they spend their money, and decide if this is really a lifestyle you want to pursue.
Buying The Van
Some people want to start with a fresh slate, but most will end up buying a used camper van. In the article we wrote about buying used, we cover topics like rust, mileage, vehicle age, re-sale value, and self-inspections. We also give tips on search terms to use when looking for a van on craigslist.
If you have a little extra cash to spend, we recommend renting a camper van for the weekend. You can rent a couple of different van types or styles before jumping in head-first.
The Camper Van Conversion Process
You can convert a van yourself or hire a professional. In making this site we’ve pulled together as many resources as possible and designed DIY guides to help you build your van.
We are not professional outfitters. We do not offer solar installs or consulations.
But we do try to provide the most accurate information available. We’ve lived in a camper van for 2 years and put hours of research into every single article on this site.
As we’ve mentioned several times, there are many different ways to build a van and we recommend using this resource in conjunction with other websites to build your dream camper.
Planning Your Layout
Before you jump into electrical, purchasing refrigerators, or installing a fan, you should get an idea of what you want your layout to look like. A lot of this is going to depend on your circumstances or travel style. Consider the following:
- What type of van do you own?
- Is it a high-top or standard?
- Do you need to be stealth?
- Do you plan to travel off-grid?
- Are there windows?
- How many people are traveling?
- Are you traveling with a dog?
- Do you need a toilet, shower, sink?
- How much storage space is needed?
- Will you be working in the van?
- What do you plan to cook on?
- How will you store food?
- How do you intend to power electronics?
- Can you pack items with multiple functions?
- How will you evenly distribute weight?
- What is your budget?
To start, our best advice is to look at other vans first. Take your time to bowse through Instagram, Pinterest, or websites like ours. Keep in mind no van is perfect, and it’s very common for people to change their layouts after trying the lifestyle for a while.
To give an example: when we first built our van, our bed was close enough to the roof that we were unable to sit up straight. As it turns out, that was a major pain. About a year into our trip, we re-built the bed to lower it about 4-inches. That small change made all the difference and we were a lot more comfortable moving forward.
Seek examples of other van builds and make it your own. There are only so many ways to re-arrange a camper, and no reason to re-invent the wheel. Check out some of the posts below to see examples of our favorite van builds.
Outfitting Your Van Life
Upfitting your van should be done in conjunction with designing your electric system. That’s because you don’t want to purchase a refrigerator without taking into account how much power it’s going to draw.
No one knows every detail before starting, but doing lots of research ahead of time will make the process go much smoother.
We recommend making a mental list of equipment as you read through this post. We’ve also created a van life packing list to give you an idea of how much storage space to set aside.
Now it’s time for the fun stuff!
DIY Insulation and barriers
Adding insulation will be one of the first steps in your van build process. This is an optional decision. You can live comfortably in a van without insulation. But it will require a lot more effort like following the weather and controlling heat through the windows.
Most people do insulate their vans. The most common materials to use are foam board insulation, spray foam, thinsulate, fiberglass, and wool. Each material varies in effectiveness and some are easier to install than others.
Our article on how to insulate your camper van explains these materials in-depth and covers the best way to insulate your walls, floor, ceiling and windows.
Soundproofing your camper should be done before adding insulation. This is done with large, sticky sheets that adhere to the walls and reduce vibrations. Not everyone chooses to soundproof, but it does make the drive significantly quieter.
Noise dampeners make the biggest difference in large cargo vans like the Mercedes Sprinter or Ford Transit. Some people choose to install soundproofing only in the engine compartment of their smaller vehicles.
Condensation is inevitable. Breathing, cooking, and simply living are all going to add vapor to the air. We do not recommend installing a moisture barrier–you can find out why here. But there are ways you can significantly reduce moisture and prevent mold.
In our blog post about avoiding condensation and moisture we dispel some of the myths about dehumidifying your van and give tips to keep your van as moisture-free as possible.
Bugs and mosquitos will make your life miserable. We talked about this in our experience living on the road for two years. Unless you plan to spend your entire trip in the southwest desert (which has a distinct lack of bugs), please consider bug-proofing your van! This includes sealing up windows with mesh, and a few other tricks. You will thank us later.
Properly sealing the exterior of your camper including the roof, windows, and any construction holes is the best way to avoid leaks in the rain and prevent bugs. In our blog about roof sealants we discuss the different types and how to use them.
Temperature Control In A Camper Van
When you live in a van, nothing is more noticeable than the temperature. Luckily, with your little home on wheels, you’ll have the ability to follow the weather. We recommend chasing the birds and driving north in the summer and south in the winter.
Unlike an RV, you probably won’t be able to run an air conditioner. They simply use too much power. But there are other ways you can reduce the heat.
Installing a vent fan is imperitive if you’re constantly camping in hot weather. The airflow also helps to exhaust condensation and moisture year-round. Covering the windows with Reflectix and parking in the shade are other ways of keeping the van cool.
Focus on cooling yourself using misters, damp washclothes, going for a swim, and spending daylight hours in air conditioned public places. Read our blog posts for more tips and tricks to stay cool:
Keeping warm in a van is easier than staying cool. A heater isn’t necessary in most cases unless you plan to take your van on some ski vacations. There have been plenty of mornings we’ve woken up with frost on the windows and our water bottles frozen; but we weren’t uncomfortable.
Much like staying cool, the first step you should take is focusing on yourself:
Wear warm clothes: The tried and true method is wearing lots of layers to bed. Go to sleep with a hat, and thick wool socks on. Consider using a winter sleeping bag and cuddling up if you have a partner or dog.
Hot water bottle method: You can stay warm at night by boiling some water and pouring it into a water bottle or covered container. Then cover the capsule with a light towel and lay next to the bottle at night. Water bottles can stay warm for up to 6-8 hours; perfect for a good night’s sleep.
Heating Your Van
There are a few different ways you can heat your van. Some of the most common are electric heaters, wood stoves, portable propane heaters, or diesel air heaters. We recommend reading through our guide to learn about the pros and cons of each.
Much of this is going to depend on your access to power, how long you plan on running the heater, and how cold you expect the temperatures to get.
Where To Go To The Bathroom
The first question we get asked when people find out about van life is where we go to the bathroom. That’s why we wrote a whole article that goes into the details. Bathrooms are something we worried about quite a bit before starting our trip; but we’re happy to report that bathrooms are everywhere.
Gas stations, libraries, shopping malls, visitor centers, rest stops, restaurants, retails stores, grocery stores, campgrounds, and parks are just a few of the places that have bathrooms available to the public.
In addition to that, these are some of the most common options:
Backpacker style: Depending on how you choose to live in a van, this option may or may not be available to you. If you’re someone that regularily parks out in nature, on BLM lands, or in National Forests, it’s ok to go out in nature if you follow proper burial procedures and leave no trace.
The pee bottle: If you’re stealth camping in the city or stuck in the confines of a camper, the pee bottle is a popular solution. Guys have it easier on this one, but girls can still use this method with the help of facy funnels like the SheWee or GoGirl.
Bucket toilets: The cheapest solution that still feels similar to a natural toilet is the bucket method. Products like the luggable loo imitate a toilet, but they are essentially just a bucket with a comfortable seat and lid.
Cassette toilets: Many van dwellers opt to use a cassette toilet (also known as chemical toilets) because they are relatively small, and work similarily to your household toilet. These toilets have a manual flushing mechanism that washes your waste into a black water tank where it’s broken down with a chemical. Then, you can empty it at a dump station.
Composting toilets: With a composting toilet you can go weeks without having to empty the waste container. These use a combination coconut coir or peat moss to break down the waste before disposal. Composting toilets are nice because they use no chemicals. But they do take up a large amount of space and are more expensive than the other options.
Water On The Road
Most people who live in a van carry large camping water containers that can be refilled. We carried 10-14 gallons of water with us at any given time.
You might be surprised to find that it’s easy to get a hold of free water to fill your water container (at least in North America). Nearly every campground is going to have a water spigot on-site, but here are some other locations you may not have considered:
Visitor centers: National Parks, State Parks, Forest Service Offices and City Visitor Centers often have a water spigot outside to use. If you don’t see one, just go inside and ask! They should be able to direct you to the nearest potable water spigot.
Dump Stations: Not all dump stations have potable water but many do, and they will be marked accordingly. You can find dump stations outside many marine and RV retailers, some gas stations like Flying J and Pilot, or check out this website to find a dump station near you.
Beaches and Parks: Some beaches and parks will have free water available. This is a great place to look if you happen to be near one—just make sure that it’s a potable spigot.
Paid Campgrounds: Even if you’re not staying at a campground many will allow you to fill up your water tank for a small fee; just drive in and ask the host.
Grocery Stores: If all else fails, stop into your local grocery store or Walmart. Many have water fill stations inside where you can purchase water by the gallon. We’ve seen prices around 37 cents per gallon if you bring your own jug.
Van Life Sinks
If you want to install a sink in your van, there are plenty of options. A manual foot pump or hand pump is the simplest and requires no electricity. Some van lifers choose to wire a 12-volt sink pump like you would in an RV. This gives you a constant flow of pressurized water which you can use for a shower as well. Here is a quick rundown of the most common practices:
Gravity fed: Placing your container at a higher point than your sink or water bottle is all that it takes. Using the gravity-fed water system is the simplest and cheapest way to access water. All you need is a spigot and you can count on it working every single time.
Hand pump: A hand pump is another simple and inexpensive way to receive water. All it takes is a pump faucet and some flexible tubing. Pressure from the pumping mechanism will draw water up the tube and out of the faucet.
Dolphin hand pumps are designed to screw directly on top of the 5-gallon containers you can purchase and refill at Walmart stores and gas stations.
Foot pump: These sinks involve a similar setup to the hand pump. They require only a few parts and if you purchase camper-specific pieces everything should fit together nicely. The difference between a hand pump and a foot pump is you will get a little bit more control over the water flow as well as hands-free operation.
Electric sinks: Building a 12-volt electric sink into your camper van is a great way to have a consistent supply of running water. This type of sink will make you feel the most at home and can also be hooked up to a hot water heater to make larger installations like showers.
Although an electric sink is not the simplest to install, it still only involves a few parts and requires just a small amount of electricity. The advantages of an electric sink include high and consistent water pressure as well as easy operation.
How To Take Showers While Living In A Van Conversion
Van Life is not like the camping trips you’ve been on. Despite the picture, you will most likely not be setting up a tent in the dirt or getting roasted marshmallows all over your face and hands. Your daily routine will be cleaner than you’d expect and you’ll be surprised how long you can comfortably go between showers.
In our article about taking showers on the road, we cover all of the most common options for finding a shower as well as how to install one in your camper.
Camper van showers:
- Wet wipes
- Sink and cloth
- Dry shampoo
- Water bag camping showers
- Pressurized sprayers
- DIY Gravity showers
- Portable hot water heaters
- Installing a tankless hot water heater
- Gym memberships
- Recreation centers
- Truck stops
Personally we have a planet fitness membership, but there are many options for finding showers on the road. You can use a standard camping shower, opt for a pressurized sprayer, or install one in your camper van conversion.
Van Life Cooking
Portable camping stoves, induction burners, and even camping ovens are common options that people choose to include in their van life kitchen. We encourage you to get creative when it comes to saving electricity.
For example, there are ways to make camping coffee without resorting to electricity. And you can save power by frying everything in one pan, or cooking over a campfire instead of on a stove.
The DIY Camper Van Electric System
Solar generators are a safe alternative for people who want electricity on the road but don’t have the time or willingness to learn all of the ins and outs of solar. Yes, they are more costly than building a do-it-yourself system, but they are safe, effective, and require no skills aside from figuring out which size generator to get.
Do It Yourself Solar System
With our disclaimer out of the way, let’s get into powering your van! Yes, electricity is complicated but it’s something that everyone can learn with enough time and effort.
We’ve put together an electricity guide that covers every part of a camper van electric system. This includes basics terms, finding out how much power you need, how to size your wires, how to get power from the vehicle alternator, and wiring diagrams.
Start with our camper van solar calculator
With the solar calculator you can input:
- All of the devices you plan to power
- How many hours each device will be in use
- What type of batteries you plan to use
- The type of charge controller you will use
- How many sun hours you think the solar panels will receive
This will answer the question: how many solar panels do you need? It will also give you estimates on battery bank size, charge controller size, and inverter size. We’ve included a video explaining how to use it. Finally, there are wiring diagrams for the not-so-beginner.
Solar panels collect energy from the sun. Our blog post on solar panel basics explains the different types of solar panels. We also give advice on how to get the most energy out of your panels, and how to properly wire them.
- Rigid vs. Flexible solar panels
- Fixed vs. Portable solar panels
- Solar panel cell type: monocrystalline vs polycrystalline vs amorphous
Charge controllers take chaotic energy from the panels and turn it into useable power that can be stored in the battery bank. In our article about charge controllers we cover:
- MPPT vs PWM charge controllers
- What size charge controller to get
- How to wire your panels
Solar Panel Kits
Solar panel kits typically come with solar panels, a charge controller, mounting equipment, and wires. These are nice because the system is already properly sized and it takes a lot of the guesswork out of choosing parts.
Most kits do not include batteries or an inverter so you’ll still have to purchase those separately. But, kits give you a good start to designing the system.
Inverters and Inverter/Chargers
Inverters allow you to power household electronics with your 12-volt battery bank. These are necessary if you want to charge things like a laptop, coffee pot or hair dryer.
Inverter/Chargers can power household electronics and charge your batteries using city power. These are less common in van life because many campers only use solar panels. But, they can be useful if you occasionally stay at campgrounds or have access to electric hookups.
Alternator Charging and Battery Monitoring
Charging a battery bank using your car’s alternator is a good way to get a bit of extra energy while you drive. The two main ways to do this are by using a battery isolator, or with a battery to battery charger.
Battery isolators safely combine your house and vehicle batteries so that your alternator is charging both at the same time when running.
B2B chargers use your vehicle electrical system to provide a proper multi-stage charge to your deep-cycle house battery.
Battery monitors can help you keep track of the battery bank state-of-charge. This will help you keep your batteries healthy and extend their lifespan.
Van Life Lighting
Strip lights, recessed lighting, and battery powered lights are the most common in a camper. We wrote a post about the pros and cons of each type and how to wire lights in a camper van to help you decide what’s best for your rig.
Other Van Life Accessories
Living The Van Life
Few people get to experience the joys of living in a van. Van life is becoming more popular and thus, more blogs are being created. You can also find insights throughout social media. We’ve covered many basics that we have personal experience with, like how to find free campsites, how get internet on the road, and how to van life with a dog.
But you should also seek out other van lifers and find out how they live as well. Listed below are a few interviews with some campers that can give you a better sense of the lifestyle: