Proper lighting sets the mood for the interior of your campervan. Bright white lights can make your van look sterile. Warm lights can be easier on the eyes. Dimmable or secondary lighting makes it more pleasant to read at night.
When we built our van, we had a great system of LED strip lights built-in but forgot about the fact that there’s no way to dim them. On our next trip to Walmart, small battery powered push-button lights were our first purchase. These have been great for hanging out at night, but certainly something we could have incorporated into the build with better planning.
- Read this related post: Best interior and exterior RV LED lights
Why Choose LED?
LED lights are inexpensive and easy to work with. They draw an extremely small amount of power and don’t get hot to the touch. There’s really no competition when it comes to LED light technology.
The most popular types of overhead lighting are:
- 12V LED Light Strips
- 12V LED Recessed Lights
- Fairy Lights
- Battery Powered Lights
- Solar Lights
LED Light Strips
LED light strips are lightweight and versatile. You can cut them to size and run them almost anywhere. They come in a bunch of different colors and are easy to hardwire into your van.
Light strips are so weightless they can be attached with heavy duty double stick tape, zip ties, super glue, or any number of creative solutions. They can be used as primary lights or great secondary lights such as a sink backsplash.
Tips For Purchasing An LED Light Strip
- Be sure to purchase a string of 12 volt DC powered lights
- Choose the appropriate shade of light: bright white, natural white, or warm white to the change the mood.
- Get the desired length. Choose a light strip that can be cut to size. When in doubt, buy longer. They can always be used in extra parts of the build.
- Some light strips have peel and stick adhesive on the back.
How To Cut A Light Strip
Strands often come with cut lines pre-marked in spots that you can cut with an ordinary pair of scissors. Afterward, you’ll be left with metal contacts. These contacts can be either soldered directly together, or connected with some LED crimp on connectors.
12 Volt LED Recessed Lighting
I wish I had known about these little recessed lights before I started my van build. They are designed for RVs and boats so they’re quite small and really make a van look high-end. The process for hardwiring recessed lighting is the same as any 12V light strip. Read below for directions.
Tips For Purchasing Recessed Lighting
Just like the LED light strips, color of the light plays a big role. Choose between warm or cool light tones. Also consider the exterior color of the light.
They can often be purchased with white or silver finishes to match the interior of your van. Some (but not all) recessed lights come with spring clips for easy installation.
We recommend purchasing this type because it will be the most straightforward to install.
How To Install Recessed Marine Lights
To install spring-clip recessed lights, make a circular cut the size of the innermost ring. Then pop the light in and the spring clips will hold it in place. This is a simple process with no extra tool or glue required! Make sure to leave room for the wires and plan out your wiring before finishing out the ceiling build.
How to Hardwire 12V lights:
Whether you choose to use strips or recessed lighting, the process for wiring for any 12V lighting system will be the same. Because LEDs draw so little power, you can usually string together as many LED’s as you want. To install lights, we’re assuming you already have a fuse box and bus bar ready to go and attached to your battery. If you don’t know what those are, read this post to get an overview of a full electric system.
The first step before wiring everything is to make sure all of you power is off! There should be no fuse in the location you will be using. Only put the fuse in at the end of the process or if you need to check to make sure the lights work before more permanently mounting them.
1. Wire Multiple Strips Of Lights Together
Start by wiring all strips or strings of lights together. Lights will have a pair of red and black wires coming from them. Because everything is already 12V, you want to wire them in parallel. This means that all of the red wires will be connected together to run to the switch. All of the black wires will be connected together to run to the bus bar.
If you want to go all out, then you can use s soldering kit to connect wires. This is a good video on how to solder wires if you don’t know how.If not, you can twist the wires together an connect them with a butt splice or at a location where a terminal connector will be used. Here is a good Youtube video on how to crimp wires properly.
- Use stranded wire. Solid copper household wire isn’t meant to handle the vibrations. tight spaces and metal rubbing in a van.
- Don’t use twist connectors for joining wires. This is for the same reason as above.
- Test your equipment before installing it (switches and lights). It’s much easier to diagnose and repair issues when they’re right in front of you.
- When running wire, run a little bit extra (6” or so). This is so that if you make a mistake splicing or need a little wiggle room you’ve got some spare real estate.
- Stagger your splicing if you have multiple wires running together. This avoids a big lump of connectors in one spot.
What you’ll need to wire 12v lED lights
- Recessed Lights or LED Light Strips
- 12V Light Switch or Dimmer Light Switch
- Butt Splice
- Blade Terminal
- Ring Terminal
- 14AWG Stranded Wire
- Soldering Kit
2. Wire The Light Strands Into A Switch
One wire will be coming from the fuse box to your light switch. If you’re using 100W or less of lights, this wire should be 14 AWG. If your switch has spade terminals, use a spade connector. If it just has wires coming from it, use a butt connector to join it to the wire.
The second wire will run to your lights.
Dimmer switches have a third wire. This wire is usually black and should be run as a ground to your bus bar. The wire running to your lights will be white in this case.
Alternatives To 12 Volt Light Strips
Two things every famous #vanlife instagrammer has in common is a model posing and some fairy lights. Fortunately, these are easy to include if you want. Well, the lights are anyway! Fairy lights can be bought in 12V DC power form and will install the same as the LED options above. You can also buy battery powered fairy lights for occasional use and more flexibility.
We do not recommend purchasing AC powered fairy lights (that’s the kind that plug into a household outlet). The reason for this, is you’ll have to run an inverter every time the lights are on which is inefficient.
Battery Powered Lights
Battery powered lights are our current go-to for cheap, simple setups. If you’re intimidated by electricity (or just lazy) there’s no need to hardwire anything into your van. You can get by perfectly fine with some inexpensive push button lights, a flash light or a headlamp.
Solar lanterns have become more popular as batteries and solar cells have become increasingly accessible.
Solar lights charge in the sun during the day and then are ready for use at night. Goal Zero, Luci Lights and Biolite all offer solutions ranging from $20 up to $120.
This is a good for those on the road for long stretches of time and no auxiliary battery setup.
The downside to solar lights is that you have to make sure to charge them on a daily basis. It’s an easy habit to form, but can be inconvenient.
Lighting doesn’t have to be expensive, and with a proper install it can make a campervan look much classier. That being said, don’t underestimate the power of a headlamp, LED lantern or battery powered lights. You don’t need to be an electrician to benefit from suitable lighting.