Planning the best van conversion for your lifestyle

With COVID-19 making global travel either impossible or not practical or not safe, we have embraced #VanLife. This is something that we’ve been thinking about for a long time, and this was the perfect opportunity to take the plunge. While there’s no shortage of blogs, tutorials and Instagram accounts for planning a van conversion, our story is a bit different and we wanted to share that here.

Van conversions should NOT be one-size-fits-all. We’ve followed, liked and pinned lots of amazing van conversion designs. But when we started really picturing using and living in them, we realized none of them actually fit our needs. And interestingly, the design that best meets our needs is the easiest and simplest design we could imagine.

When starting a van conversion, it’s important to define your needs and design accordingly.

Defining your van conversion requirements

Things to think about when defining your needs:

  • How often will you be sleeping in the van? Living in it full time, or just the occasional stop-over? This will impact your sleeping arrangements, both in terms of comfort and ease of setup.
  • Are you solo or a couple? Sleeping 1 vs. 2 people changes your design possibilities.
  • How much stuff do you have? Are you a minimalist traveller or do you have bulky sporting equipment? This will impact your storage needs.
  • What climate will you be travelling in? Harsh winters (and hot summers) will require more insulation and better climate control.
  • What are your electricity requirements? Will you be hooking up to an external power supply or will you need to be self-sufficient and off-grid with solar power?
  • Will you have convenient access to washrooms and showers, or will your conversion need to include those?
  • How much do you cook? Do you need a small kitchen inside the van, will you cook outside, or do you mostly eat out?

DIY vs. conversion kit vs. custom

You’ll need to determine whether you’re doing the conversion yourself, getting something pre-made that you can buy and install yourself, or commissioning a custom conversion.

A DIY conversion is a great option if you’re handy, have access to the tools and a place to do the construction, and have the time to do it. And there are lots of blogs, tutorials and YouTube videos that will take you step-by-step through the process. My favourite is Far Out Ride; they give detailed instructions (and what they’d do differently next time) and share trip reports. And The Vanual has great content on van lifestyle.

If you don’t have any special needs for your conversion, an off-the-shelf kit might be the perfect solution. It will likely cost more than a DIY job, but far less than a custom job, and you’ll save lots of time too. Some kits are van-specific (maximizing the space if you have the right van) while others are generic (great if you have an uncommon van, but more wasted space). Kit options to explore include Wayfarer Vans (for Ram Promaster, Promaster City and Ford Transit), Adventure Wagon (for Mercedes-Benz Sprinter and Ford Transit) Contravans (for various vans and minivans), and RoadLoft and Freeway Camper Kit for most minivans.

If you have the budget and extra-special needs, you’ll want to consider a custom conversion job. You’ll work with somebody experienced in van conversion who will help bring your dream to life and get you exactly what you need, with a very polished design and finish.

Take an iterative approach

Take an iterative approach to your van conversion. It’s likely that you’ll find new and evolving needs as you start living van life. Don’t over-complicate and don’t over-design. The first version doesn’t need to be the final version. You can build on your first design. Starting small and simple minimizes your upfront investment and lets you build on your first approach.

Think outside the box

Most DIY and kit conversions you see are constructed of plywood and lumber. Some are simple wood frame bed boxes with storage underneath, while others are more elaborate with folding, sliding or collapsing mechanisms.

When brainstorming and planning your van conversion, let your needs guide the construction approach, and think outside the box.

Don’t focus on what comprises a typical van conversion, and think about your functional requirements, how those can be met, and how that translates into van life.

Testing a bed prototype with an IKEA SLÄKT mattress, plywood and Nanuk 960 hard cases
Testing a bed prototype with an IKEA SLÄKT mattress, plywood and Nanuk 960 hard cases

Build a prototype

While it may seem silly or a waste of time, building a cardboard prototype of your design will help you see how the design comes to life within the van. Measurements on paper (or in a computer model) can be deceiving. What seems large in a model might be smaller in reality. You might not have enough room to store larger items or sports equipment. Part of the van might be blocking something. You might not have enough headspace to sleep comfortably.

Or at a minimum, assemble everything you’ll need to pack for van life to see your storage requirements. You might realize you have greater storage requirements than you thought.

It’s better to find things out early when planning a van conversion, while you can still adapt your design.

Go for it

It can seem daunting to start a van conversion. Set a rough timeline for the conversion to keep you focused. And sometimes, there’s no right answer, and sometimes you’ll need to settle on your second choice. That’s OK. Remember it’s iterative so you can always change or improve something later. That’s better than being frozen by indecision. Let it go and enjoy the process and your newly converted van.

Continue to follow us here as we set out on our van conversion. We’ll share our conversion process and our van life adventures.

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