How to convert a van into a campervan

Campervans tend to be insanely expensive to buy from new, but there is a cheaper way to get one on your driveway. Here's how to build your own DIY campervan.....

Mercedes V-Class Marco Polo

Campervans are expensive – mainly because they’ve been painstakingly converted to be comfortable for people to spend a significant amount of time in them.

Regular working vans, on the other hand, are not so expensive. And while you wouldn't want to go for a weekend away in a standard van, their comparative cheapness provides an opening if you’re reasonably capable with a hammer, a drill and a tape measure. Yes, it's time to build your own 'DIY campervan', and this feature will take you through everything you need to know before you start.

Plan ahead

The first thing to do is work out how luxurious you want your campervan to be. To that end, you’ll need to work out a budget based on the fact that professional campervan converters can charge anything from as little as £6000 for a basic van with insulation and cladding, up to around £60,000 for something truly luxurious.

Not only do you have to work out how much money you plan to spend on the project, but you also have to work out how much time you can spend on it. A project you do in the evenings and at weekends is not going to happen in a hurry, so you need to decide how much time you’re willing to sacrifice to the project, and how long you’re willing to wait before you can enjoy the fruits of your labours. It’s a balancing act between a desire for perfection and a desire for holidays.

Finally, you need to work out exactly where you’re going to work on your project, because it’s going to require a fair amount of space. A garage or workshop area is ideal or, failing that, a decent space on your driveway where you won't have to constantly move your van.

Campervan rear

Cleaning up

Vans are almost uniformly working vehicles, and have to transport all manner of materials around, including organic stuff. On top of that, they also ferry around people – who need to eat and drink. Spillages, therefore, happen.

That’s why the first thing to do before you begin to wield power tools is to clean the van thoroughly, outside and in. After all, you don't want to lovingly insulate and clad the rear of the van only to suddenly become aware of an unattractive odour as something decays behind your new panelling.

Cleaning up your van also gives you the chance to inspect it carefully, and treat any issues it may have, such as corrosion or rust.

Thermal efficiency

If you plan to stay in your campervan overnight, you'll very quickly become aware that it gets a bit chilly once the sun goes down, so you’ll need to cram insulation into every available orifice. But then you’ll be in danger of your motorhome becoming stuffy, so you’ll need to consider ventilation. That might involve fitting a roof vent, or swapping the sliding side door for one with an opening window. There are numerous options available to you, and the internet is full of helpful tutorials to get you started.

Campervan pop-top roof

Power to the people

This is the point at which you’ll want to work out where the electrics will go, because you’ll want to run all the wires to the right places before you install the cladding. If you plan to sell the van on in the future, it would be wise to employ the services of an electrician so the vehicle can be issued with the appropriate certification.

It's worth considering solar power too. After all, a van has a large, flat roof where you could position a couple of solar panels to help keep your leisure batteries topped up (weather permitting, of course). You might also want to invest in a portable power bank that's juicy enough to run anything you want to use in the van – from laptops to a camping stove – as a backup.

Bed and breakfast

This is where you need to be really clever, because if you're sleeping in the van at night during a trip away, you won’t want to be clambering all over your sleeping arrangements during the day. So, if your design and carpentry skills are up to the job, you can crack on with making a foldaway bed yourself. If you find yourself struggling at this point, there are myriad companies out there who will have already designed a good option for your vehicle, so it’ll just be a case of installing it.

Such firms will have also put together clever layouts for the rest of the areas you might need, such as a cooking berth, food storage, and water supply, including where to put a storage tank. If nothing else, they can be a rich source of ideas.

If you'd rather go it alone, there is free software available on the internet that can help you design a space-efficient layout for your particular make and model of van.

Campervan rear and boot

Heavy duty

All this luxury kit comes with a penalty – weight. That’s why you need to take great care that the kit you’re installing doesn't take your van over its load-carrying weight limit. Not only will you risk being a danger to others and yourself, but you’ll also be at risk of receiving a fine and penalty points. 

Safety kit is essential too, so if you install a cooker (either gas or electric), you need to make sure there are appropriate fire extinguishers fitted. 

And of course, if you’ve put extra seats in the back, they’ll all need to have seatbelts fitted, or no one will be able to use them when you’re on the move.

Paperwork

Once you’ve converted your van into a motorhome, the wisest course is to get in touch with the DVLA to let it know that you’ve done so. Why bother? Well, you’ll reap the benefits in lower insurance costs, cheaper MOT tests, and where windowless vans are restricted to 60mph on the motorway, you’ll be able to sail past at 70mph in your campervan (as long as it weighs less than 3050kg).

Conclusion

There is an undoubted attraction to converting a van into a motorhome yourself. After all, if you have the right skills, you’ll end up with a vehicle that is absolutely bespoke to your needs and desires. But such a vehicle will still come at a cost – mainly of time, skinned knuckles and frustration when things don’t go to plan. Still, if you’ve got the time and patience, you’ll be able to say "I did that" every time someone asks about your campervan. And that’s got to enhance every holiday.

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