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 converted camper van and conversed with hundreds of other van life experts to give you the best van life 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
Living In A Van 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?
- Van life with a dog
- 8 ways to brew coffee without electricity
- Planning for a long term road trip
- How to find free campsites
- Tips to keep mosquitoes out of your camper
- Where to rent a camper van (test it out!)
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 Camper Van
Living in a van is not like the camping trips you’ve been on. 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.
Keeping Food Cold
Portable, 12 volt refrigerators are popular in van life. These have a low power draw and can run off a relatively small solar system. There are many options available ranging anywhere from $200-$1000 depending on the features.
But refrigerators aren’t a necessity. Some people prefer using a large cooler, eating fridge-free meals, or dining out at restaurants. We wrote a blog post explaining the differences between coolers and portable refrigerators that is worth a read if you’re on the fence.
Heating Food In A Van
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.
Batteries are the most expensive part of your solar system so you want to make sure you’re getting the right type. Our blog post about batteries for solar storage covers the most common questions and explains how to make your batteries last as long as possible.
- How to size your battery bank
- AGM deep-cycle vs Lithium LiFePO4
- Battery types
- Battery chemistries
- State of charge
- How to combine batteries
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.
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 In A Van
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: