You’ve been scrolling through your social feed and, out of the blue, you have the sudden urge to purchase a van and convert it into a camper. Why? Because so many others have had a similar brainwave and it’s highly likely your timeline is choc-full of envy-inducing images of couples enjoying the view of an empty beach from the comfort of a double bed in the back of a swanky campervan.
The global pandemic has put the brakes on most foreign holidays, leading to a huge interest in UK staycations. What’s more, people are going one step further by replacing traditional accommodation by bringing their own in the form of a modern camper.
If you don’t mind getting stuck in, own some power tools and have the time, budget and patience for some hard work, it’s totally possible to transform the cargo area of a van into a beautiful place to lay down your head at night. On top of this, most modern vans have the space and ability to house things like kitchens, fridges, electrical sockets and even television screens to make staying away even more comfortable.
Anyone at the very early stages of campervan shopping will want to take a look at our Best Vans for a Camper Conversion article, where we run down some of our recommendations for excellent commercial vehicles to get started with. We’ve selected them for their ease of driving, frugal engines, modern in-van tech and handsome exterior looks.
DIY campervan conversion: Checklist
Before you break open the power tools and get started, have a look through the checklist below and ensure you have a clear idea about the direction you are taking the project, and whether you have the time, budget and patience to finish it. After all, there’s nothing worse than living with a half-completed project.
It is possible to wash your hands of any hard labour and take it to a campervan specialist. There are plenty out there specialising in most makes of van. These conversions can cost anywhere from £5,000 for some basic insulation and cladding of the interior, all the way to £50,000 for the full luxurious campervan experience.
If you’re doing things yourself, expect to part with anywhere from £3,000 to around £10,000, depending on your level of skill, the amount of tools you can get hold of and the general choice and cost of materials and equipment that you use and eventually install.
How much time do you have to dedicate to converting your van into a camper? If it is only something you can realistically fit into the evenings and weekends, it could take a year or three to get it just the way you want it.
If you don’t have a full-time job or are lucky enough to do something that allows for plenty of flexible time, then it is possible to convert a van in six to eight weeks. Again, depending on your experience and skill level.
Hand things over to the professionals and it’s likely you’ll have a converted van on the driveway much faster, but bear in mind there is currently a lot of demand, so lead times could be a lot longer than expected.
Another way to approach the build is to do as much as you can yourself, and then get professionals or tradespeople in to carry out the tricky stuff. A carpenter could fit out the rear, for example, and then a trained electrician could help with power and lights. You’ll also get certification that way, which is important for the resale value of your pride and joy.
Vans are fairly large and unwieldy things to work on, so you need to ensure you have ample space to work on them. Ideally, a large workshop or garage will afford you the ability to work all-year-round, while remaining sheltered from the worst of the weather.
Fitting out a van on a busy residential street is possible but it’s not ideal and we are not sure how your neighbours will feel about the use of power tools at all hours and the mess left after trimming wood panels.
DIY campervan conversion: Tools
The more tools you can get hold of, the easier this camper conversion is going to be, simply because the correct tool will slash the amount of time and faff you have to put up with. We’ve collated a list of essentials below, but don’t take it as a complete list. The more the merrier!
- Clamps - essential for pinning panels to walls and generally offering a second pair of hands to hold things in place.
- Jigsaw with various blades - required for cutting intricate shapes in wood, metal, cork and other materials required for cladding the interior of a van.
- Screwdrivers – invest in good screwdrivers that aren’t going to round screw heads.
- Impact driver – a power tool that’s essentially for driving screws into tough surfaces, like the metal found in the interior of a van. Similarly, make sure you buy the correct screws for the material.
- Electric drill – go cordless if you can. Manufacturers like DeWalt, Milwaukee and Ryobi all do excellent 18V drills with long-lasting lithium-ion battery packs. It saves on trailing wires and increases freedom of movement.
- Tape measure – trust us, you’ll need it.
- Mitre saw – they look scary but these are required for cutting nice straight pieces of wood, such as flooring or wooden batons for fitting out an interior.
- Multi-tool – although not essential, these things are beyond handy, especially if it is cordless. They can easily remove old adhesive materials, slice thinner pieces of wood or sand down any unwanted surfaces.
- Pencil – keep it behind your ear and look like a professional.
DIY campervan conversion: The Steps
Now you’ve purchased a van, gone through a thorough checklist, procured the tools, set a budget and time scale, it’s time to get physical. Every campervan conversion project is different which is why the guide below offers a general overview of some of the most important steps to take when converting your campervan.
Of course, you can tackle as many or as few steps as you like, seeing as some people are happy with an insulated cabin and an airbed, while others might want the full gamut of luxury trappings.
Step 1: Preparation
The first step is arguably the most important, as you want a nice clean sheet to start off with. Let’s be honest, you don’t want to put in weeks of hard labour only to discover a funny smell coming from somewhere in the cargo space.
With that in mind, it’s time to strip out the rear (assuming the cabin is all ok), ridding it of any carpet and cladding that already exists. Of course, if this is a new van, it may well come insulated and clean, so there’s no real need for this step.
From here, you can treat any damp and clean up any muck, mould or rust patches that you might find. It’s important to spot any faults at this point, as patching them up is much easier when dealing with a bare cargo area.
Remember to keep the materials you’ve stripped out, as some of the cladding and fixings can be reused, so long as they are in good working order and look good.
Faced with a blank slate, it’s time to plan your chosen layout and this can either be done with some good old-fashioned measurements and drawings or by using a piece of software like SketchUp, that allows you to plan and visualise how the inside might look.
Step 2: Insulation & ventilation
Insulating a campervan is vital, because the temperature typically drops overnight wherever you might be holidaying and that not only leads to very chilly occupants, it also causes a lot of condensation to build up on the windows and any bare surfaces.
There are lots of different materials to choose from, including regular house insulation, that can be stuffed into any available spaces in the interior before being covered by panelling. There are also modern foil and foam insulation panels that can be glued directly to the vehicle’s body.
After covering the unsightly insulation with a cladding or panelling of your choice, it is then time to think about ventilation, because a well-insulated van ends up becoming too stuffy. So you’ll want to consider windows that open and close easily or even expensive electrically operated air vents to keep things fresh.
Step 3: Electrics
It’s worth considering installing any really complicated electrical layouts before you enter the final cladding stage, as it’s perfectly possible and much neater to hide any wiring and cabling behind a facade.
This stage is arguably the one where it’s wise to involve a professional electrician, as getting it wrong can be extremely dangerous. Also, it’s good practice to receive the correct certification, so it’s all above board when you come to sell the van.
If it’s just a simple inverter with some domestic plugs or USB slots you need, you can look to install a leisure battery, which takes feed from the vehicle’s alternator to remain topped up and then powers an inverter of your choice. This is the easiest way to run things like fridges, cool boxes, entertainment devices and LED lights.
Step 4: Bedding and seating
A campervan isn’t really a true campervan unless it has its own bed and there are many routes you can go down here. The Volkswagen Transporter, for example, has myriad aftermarket companies making clever rear seats that neatly fold down into a double bed.
Ideally, a bed that neatly folds away is a great solution for maximising floor space for things like fridges, sinks and cookers. If you take the Volkswagen California, for example, this comes with a rear seating set-up that folds down into a double bed, as well as a pop-up roof that has space for a further two to sleep.
There’s also a fridge, sink, cooker and swivelling front “captain’s chairs” so it’s possible to transform it from a fairly standard passenger vehicle into a luxurious hotel on wheels in a matter of moments. It’s possible to replicate this if you are a dab hand at carpentry, or you don’t mind spending the money on the ready-made equipment to install.
Step 5: Make it safe
It’s all well and good turning an old van into a cool camper but it suddenly becomes a problem if it doesn’t adhere to safety regulations. All seats require seat belts, for example, and any use of gas or electricity to cook with should be accompanied by appropriate fire extinguishers.
It’s also a good idea to check your vehicle’s load-carrying capacities and make sure you haven’t strayed over them by throwing a kitchen, dining room and bedroom into the back of your new van. Overladen vehicles could land you with penalty points, fines or worse.
At this point, it is also possible to write to the DVLA to reclassify your van as a motorhome, which will reap benefit in cheaper insurance premiums, cheaper MOTs and the ability to raise the speed limit of 60mph for windowless panel on dual carriageways and motorways to 70mph. You will have to meet a fairly strict criteria, so make sure you check the DVLA website for more info. If you’re not confident in your own DIY skills or you feel that you’d like some help with your campervan conversion, read our article ‘10 best campervan conversion companies, and where to find them’.
Get the right kind of insurance for your converted camper
Modifications and conversions are commonplace with campervans, which is why our campervan insurance policies have been designed with this in mind. From van conversions and highly modified campers to imported left-hand campervans, we cover a range of campervans.
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