Designing and building your very own campervan from scratch is one of the most exciting – and most daunting – things a campervan enthusiast can do. But just as with anything in life, preparation is the key to success.
After all, if you haven’t planned ahead you could easily end up with a cold, leaky and uncomfortable van that sends your dreams of van-life careering off the road! This ultimate go-to guide will help you convert your current van into a wonderful home on wheels.
Full of top tips, this guide is essential reading for anyone embarking on a DIY campervan conversion. It’s jam-packed full of in-depth guidance on planning, budgeting, vehicle choices, ventilation and insulation options, and much much more.
We’ve even included some examples of great van conversions and the stories behind them. So it’s both an indispensable source of information as well as inspiration to help you create your very own dream camper.
What better way to prepare for your next DIY campervan conversion project?
Anyone getting themselves involved in converting a campervan needs to start off with a clear idea of what they want to get from the finished article.
In as little as a few months, you could be turning the key and heading off on your first adventure together with your self-built campervan.
Envisioning that is one of the most important things you can do at this early stage. The clearer idea you have, the better. Try asking yourself some of the following questions:
- How many people will be travelling? And will there be pets? Is it just you and a small dog? Or perhaps you want a camper fit for the whole family?
- What will you be taking with you? And we don’t just mean whether you need an extra pair of shoes or space for winter coats. Food, clothes and other essential items will be a given but what about bikes and surfboards? Your ideal trip might involve tea and cake next to the beach, but many campervan fans also love outdoor activities, too. Will you need roof racks or bike racks to transport your precious gear?
- How do you plan to use the camper? The style of camping you prefer and time of year you travel can have a big impact on your plans. If you prefer using campsites then there should always be a ready supply of electricity and water available. However, if you love the feeling of going off-grid then you’ll need to up the levels of self-sufficiency in the camper. And while summer-only tourers might be able to make do with less creature comforts, if you’re planning to explore in the dead of winter you’ll need to make sure you’re always dry,
Converting a van into a camper is popular among enthusiasts for a whole range of reasons.
But whether you’re looking to cut down on living costs, or just want to spend more time adventuring on the open road, a conversion project is not something to be taken on lightly.
The time, effort and money involved can be substantial.
There are three main ways to convert a campervan that are worth considering:
- Campervan conversion companies – If you don’t have the time or skills to complete a camper conversion yourself there are plenty of companies that can do it for you. Even if you decide to go down this route, then reading our go-to guide is still vital. Knowing what’s involved in DIY projects like this means you’re in a better position to tell the company what you want and have a better understanding of what’s achievable within your budget.
- Van conversion kits – Some people will happily tackle the whole conversion and create a masterpiece, while others may have less time to commit. A good option could be to buy a kit to install in your van. Rather than having to design and build your own interior, you can simply pick from a variety of flatpack kitchen, wardrobe and bed units. They’re relatively straightforward to install, with plenty of scope to make the build unique.
- DIY campervan conversions – If you have the time and you know your way around a set of tools then a full DIY conversion can definitely save you money and gives you the most control over the outcome. An added benefit is that because you’ve done all the hard work yourself, you’ll have a good idea of how to solve problems if something goes wrong further down the line.
Whether you decide on an all-out DIY campervan conversion project, hand it over to the professionals or somewhere in between, it’s vital you carefully measure and plan beforehand.
Getting the right layout is crucial when it comes to considering whether the project will be a success for you. For example, how much storage will you need? Do you want a permanently fixed bed or are you happy to use a fold-down? Do you want a built-in cooking area or will you make do with something more ad hoc?
Now is the time to weigh up the options and come up with a well thought-out plan. Think about what you wanted in your ideal campervan and bring it to life on paper. And while a quick sketch might help you see whether everything will fit, it’s no substitute for a properly measured and drawn-out layout.
You can start from scratch or search for pre-designed layouts to suit your needs. There are plenty available online for the most popular models. So, put down your power drill and pick up your pencil!
Buying a van and converting it yourself is a lot of fun and can result in some great cost savings when compared to buying a ready-made campervan. However, if you don't keep a close eye on your budget then these savings can soon get eaten up.
To give you an idea of how much it would cost, if you’ve got the skills and have a good eye for a bargain then some DIY campervan conversions can come in under the £1,000 mark (not including the vehicle).
However, most will cost between £3,000 and £5,000 depending on the quality of interior and appliances you decide to fit. Larger vehicles with more high-end or complex features can run into five figures (particularly if you involve the professionals).
If you do go over budget then there’s no reason to despair as there are plenty of ways around this. Perhaps you could scale back some of your ambitions, or break the DIY campervan conversion down into several phases.
A good idea is to get the van up to a basic liveable standard with a decent bed and table in phase 1. But then move onto more ambitious plans in the following years. That way you’ll be able to get out and about in the van while also working on it.
An added benefit is you can adapt your plans to suit how you actually use the van. Items that seemed essential when you started out may become less so as you start using it in the real world.
While pretty much any large van can be converted into a campervan, most people choose one of the following for their conversion.
Good looking, easy to drive and a dream to maintain, the Volkswagen Transporter is one of the most popular vans to convert. There’s a variety of different models for you to choose from so there should be one perfect for you.
The great news is that whatever one you buy they hold their value exceptionally well, particularly if they’ve had a good level of maintenance and servicing.
Bear in mind the new entry-level campervan from Volkswagen, the California Beach, will cost you over £50,000 to buy, and you can see the appeal of creating your own from scratch!
As one of Britain’s most popular vehicles, it’s no surprise that the Transit is a go-to for many campervan converters. With its varied wheel lengths and roof heights you’ve got a lot of different ways you could play with this adaptable van.
It’s comparatively simple to drive and it’s known for its fuel efficiency, so you can look forward to low running costs following conversion. However, some of these vehicles will have had a hard life. So, look around to spot the best deal.
Watch out for rust on older models, particularly around wheel arches and under the sills. Rust can be an expensive, time-consuming and difficult thing to tackle – a headache you really don’t want in your DIY campervan conversion.
Popular among specialist campervan building companies, the Fiat Ducato is an obvious option to consider. While you won’t find as many as the Sprinter on the market, it’s another van you can easily stand up in and offers excellent value for money.
Although it’s wider than a Sprinter and not quite as easy to drive, as long it has a good service and maintenance record it should provide few problems for the campervan fan.
With a reputation for reliability but with a healthy dose of Gallic flair, the Trafic might not have the badge appeal of some of the other models but it’s still a good-looking vehicle with conversion potential aplenty.
The Trafic sits between the Kangoo and Master in the Renault van family, making it a great mid-size option for conversion.
Bear in mind the Trafic has a long production history dating back to the 1980s. While there have been subsequent updates in 2001 and 2014, these vehicles have identical interior dimensions. So, there’s plenty of fixtures, fittings and designs available to fit any Trafic.
Mercedes Benz Sprinter
Perhaps the most adaptable large van on the market, the Mercedes Sprinter has plenty to recommend it. With a huge variety of safety features, a large interior, and with four-wheel drive and powerful turbo diesel options this can be a great upmarket drive.
Due to the Sprinter’s popularity with delivery firms, there are plenty of second hand vans to choose from. But you’ll want to choose one with plenty of life left in it!
Try searching for a high-roof version with a long wheelbase, as this will make van-life more comfortable, especially if you’re spending extended periods on the road.
Despite being a large van, the Sprinter is quite narrow, making it better for narrow lanes than other wider vehicles. Perfect for those sunset trips to secluded beaches!
Congratulations! You’ve found the van of your dreams and you’ve got it home safe to your garage. So, what’s next?
It’s time to take things slowly with a step-by-step job guide so you tackle everything in the right order. But if you do get yourself into trouble, don’t worry there’s always help close at hand.
The campervan community are a helpful bunch. From Camping and Caravanning Club events and exhibitions, to camper club meets and owner forums, you’re sure to find the answers you need pretty quickly.
Step 1 - Stripping and cleaning out
The first real step in any DIY campervan conversion is stripping out the current interior of the van and giving it a good clean. How long this takes will depend on the type of van you’ve bought and whether you discover any problems along the way.
This is the perfect opportunity to treat for any damp or mould and repair any rust spots or other damage you discover.
However, be careful with what you strip out as you could re-use some of the interior materials or even make a tidy sum on an auction site.
Step 2 - Windows and ventilation
Perhaps the most obvious exterior difference between a campervan and a panel van is the addition of windows. So, cutting a hole in your van walls and fitting windows is one of the first jobs you’ll need to do.
Their location will depend on your chosen layout, so that’s why it’s so important to have planned ahead. Remember to triple-check your measurements - making a mistake at this stage is not an option!
While you’re cutting holes in your van also consider installing skylights to let in more light and give a sense of space.
Next up is the installation of a ventilation system in the van. Living and cooking in your home on wheels will create a lot of heat and water vapour in the interior, which will need to be removed somehow.
From top-of-the-range roof vents to simple window air vents getting fresh air circulating in the van is an important consideration. Even more so if your ideal van includes a toilet, shower or sink. After all that hard work, no one wants a moist, mouldy van!
Step 3 - Roof
Depending on your model of van a popular choice for those converting a standard low-roof model is the addition of an elevating or pop-up roof.
With a pop-up, it’s all about the flexibility - with the roof safely down when driving but then popping up when you reach your destination.
There are a whole range of models on the market, but if you fit a high-quality roof from one of the German manufacturers Reimo or SCA then it could help the resale value of your van.
Step 4 - Insulation and heating
Getting the right balance between promoting air flow but also keeping the van temperature controlled is a tricky one to get right. But if you do it will go a long way to making the campervan experience more pleasurable.
Good insulation will keep heat in, excess heat out and reduce the levels of condensation. And combined with a decent gas heater you should be cosy and dry whatever the weather!
There are many materials used to insulate campervans, from normal house insulation, thick foam or foil insulation. You apply these to the bare metal of the insides of the van using a spray adhesive or double-sided foam and then follow it with a vapour barrier to stop moisture being trapped.
Some rubber matting or lining carpet for sound deadening goes on next, followed by the final plywood panel. As well as controlling the temperature, this also makes the campervan more private.
Step 5 - Electric and gas systems
Taking on the conversion of a campervan is an exciting DIY project – but we all need to be aware of our limits.
Electricity and gas installation really is a job for the professionals as done incorrectly the results can be disastrous.
Also, if you think you might one day resell your converted camper its value will be seriously affected if you can’t prove the work was done to the correct standards.
If you think you might indulge in a spot of wild camping or staying at campsites without electricity then a useful ‘extra’ is to consider installing solar panels to boost your power.
Be warned though, installing them incorrectly, or failing to maintain them, will mean you might not get the full benefit of those sunshine hours.
Step 6 - Plumbing and water
A campervan isn’t just a place to sleep, it’s also a place to live, relax and even work. And when it comes to basic necessities for life, access to fresh water has to be at the very top!
But once you’ve used the water you’ll also need a place to store the waste water until you visit a disposal point.
Unless you’re looking to install a toilet or shower in your campervan, the installation of a cold-water system is relatively straightforward.
The main options you have are to install either external portable containers or fixed internal tanks. Most campervan converters opt for the convenience of internal tanks, with most located under the van and operated using 12-volt pumps.
In terms of collecting waste water, again most go with an internal tank. Remember that, along with the pipes, this needs to be easily accessible for cleaning and maintenance.
For both fresh and waste water, it’s important to accurately estimate your water usage to determine the correct tank size.
Step 7 - Lights
When you're planning your DIY campervan conversion you will need to consider your interior lighting. There are a wide variety of lighting options available for conversions. One of our favourites is to install LED strip lights.
With an ultra-long-life span, efficient power consumption and easy installation they really are tailor-made for campervan conversions. And with a whole host of different colours and lighting features available you’ll be able to suit your lighting to whatever your mood!
Step 8 - Bed and seating
A campervan simply isn’t a campervan if it hasn’t got a comfy bed and seating. A fixed bed is ideal particularly if there are two of you living in the van, and there’ll be oodles of storage space underneath for lots of camping gear.
Depending on the size of van you’ve opted for, you might not have the space for a permanent bed, but not to worry as there are plenty of innovative options out there to suit all needs.
Step 9 - Kitchen
When you’ve got lights, water and gas sorted out then you’ll be wanting to make yourself a nice cup of tea to celebrate all your hard work. Is there anything better than putting a kettle on the hob and settling back?
Putting a kitchen into your camper is a sure-fire way to get that homely feel. From stove/sink combinations to small space-saving fridges there are plenty of options out there so you can enjoy a home-cooked meal on the road.
Step 10 - Storage spaces
If you plan on touring for anything more than a few days then factoring storage into your DIY campervan conversion is really important.
There are so many creative storage hacks and ideas on the internet that there’s really not space to go into them all here! Make use of the backs of doors and chairs – and don’t forget the roof.
Step 11 - Interiors and upholstery
When you consider all the other issues that you’ll have to surmount when converting a campervan, interior decoration might not seem high on the list.
You’d be right, but if you want your newly converted camper to feel like a home away from home then putting some effort into this part is well worth it – and it’s a lot of fun!
Step 12 - Install an awning
Another additional extra, but well worth considering at this stage. Exploring with a campervan lets you get out in nature, independently and at your own pace – and we wouldn’t swap it for anything else. However, one of the drawbacks is that sometimes you need just a bit more space to spread out.
Whether the weather has turned miserable, you’ve got some extra guests staying, or you need a secure place to store your outdoor gear, an awning is a popular addition to campervans and can practically double your usable space in an instant.
When you’re converting it might be worth considering whether to install a wind-out canopy on the side or roof of your camper.
Particularly if you’re doing the conversion work yourself, it’s important that you stay on the right side of the law as there are a number of rules and regulations that it’s all too easy to fall foul of.
Check your weight
It’s essential to check your converted van, additional features, contents and passengers, will not exceed the legal weight to drive. Do the following to check:
- Before starting work on your DIY campervan conversion, take the van to a weighbridge to find out its unladen weight. Find your nearest weighbridge via the government website.
- Take this weight from the van’s maximum authorised mass (MAM) (found on the VIN plate or the owner’s manual).
- This will give you the maximum weight that your fittings and furnishings, luggage and any passengers can be.
If you exceed this you will be committing an offence under the Road Traffic Act.
Check your driving licence
If you plan to drive your converted campervan in the UK, you need to be licensed to drive in one of two categories. Your age and the van’s MAM will determine the type of licence you require.
- If your vehicle has a MAM of 3.5 to 7.5 tonnes, you will need a category C1 licence.
- If your vehicle has a MAM over 7.5 tonnes, you will need a category C licence.
Most campervans are so-called Class B vehicles and will be suitable for C1 category licence holders. Always check before taking to the road in your campervan for the first time.
Reclassifying your van
After converting a van into a campervan, it will need to be reclassified through the DVLA. This will formally change it from a ‘van’ into a ‘motor caravan’.
Doing so grants you a range of benefits in terms of insurance cover, cheaper MOTs, and higher speed limits in some cases.
The DVLA is very strict about the changes you need to make in order to qualify for reclassification. These go far beyond simply putting windows and a bed in the van.
The full criteria can be accessed at the government website. You’ll need to send evidence in support of your application including interior and exterior photos.
Check your insurance
Both before, during and after your campervan conversion you’ll want to make sure you’re covered by campervan insurance that’s appropriate for your needs.
In view of the time, effort and money you’ll spend on making your van-life dreams a reality, you’ll want to ensure your investment is well protected.
There are many insurance options you can choose from, based on how you plan to use your camper, where you plan to take it and the level of cover you need for personal items.
For example, if you’re a keen photographer using their van for bird watching, you’ll want to protect any expensive photography equipment you carry from damage, theft or loss.
Taking the time to choose the right insurance means that whether you’re in the UK, Europe or further afield you’re always covered by a policy that protects you when things don’t quite go according to plan.
One of the best things about camper conversions is being able to search the internet and forums to find the very best ideas and inspiration for your own unique project.
To get you started, take a quick look at some of these real-life conversion projects.
Rob and Emily from The Road is our Home have lovingly converted a Mercedes Sprinter into a simply fabulous camper.
Their fit-out diary has lots of pics and is a great DIY guide to taking a vehicle from a builder's van to a sophisticated and stylish home. Some high-quality building skills are on display!
So you’ve got a super tiny budget, a lack of tools and experience and you need a quick turnaround? It may sound impossible but it’s not too much to ask at all! Just ask high school sweethearts Katie and Ben of Two Wandering Soles.
They bought a cheap van and managed to transform it into a livable home with all the essentials in less than one week of working time. Where there’s a will there’s definitely a way!
Digital nomad Sabrina at Backpacking Like a Boss converted a Renault Trafic into a campervan and has lots of ideas on how to convert successfully and live your van-life dreams.
And we couldn’t leave you without mentioning Mowgli Adventures. They spent 2,500 hours converting their big and beautiful 4x4 Mercedes Sprinter into the wonderful Baloo. A labour of love indeed!
So that’s the ultimate go-to guide to converting your campervan. If you’re embarking on your own conversion project soon, we’d love to hear from you. Let us know how you get on!