Turning a normal van into a campervan isn't easy but it's possible
© Naomi Fiddes-Baron / Quirky Campers
Exploration

11 tips for building the ultimate campervan from scratch

Always dreamed of owning an adventure home on wheels? With our expert guidance, the road awaits…
By Tom Ward
Published on
We’ve all dreamed of packing it in and hitting the open road. Wake up where you like, feel the sun on your face and head out into the day’s adventure. So it's little wonder, then, that heading out onto the open road with nothing but a good companion and a converted campervan to call home has become the pinnacle of self-funded adventure.
But how do you turn that second-hand van you’ve bought into the ultimate adventure home on wheels? How do you go about outfitting it for ultimate comfort and functionality? In short, how do you turn a vehicle into a home you’re happy to see the world from?
Although they look the part, VWs aren't always the right choice
Although they look the part, VWs aren't always the right choice
We put these very questions to Naomi Fiddes-Baron of Quirky Campers, Katie Bessert of Vanlife Customs, veteran campervan converter Georgina Jackson of 2travlrs.com and carpenter-turned-professional campervan converter Dale Barlow of DB Campers. All are experts in converting campervans, and can provide all the help you need. Here is but a taste of their knowledge to help get your wheels turning…

1. The squarer the van, the better

A square-shaped van is the most practical when it comes to storage
A square-shaped van is the most practical when it comes to storage
You might have your heart set on an old school VW Campervan, but the truth of the matter is that they're actually quite small compared to a modern van. “An adventure van is likely going to need to carry a variety of different types of kit,” says Naomi. “Some of that kit is going to have pretty specific requirements – from space to security. So, the best type of van is probably one that’s as square as possible, which will enable you to fit the most storage in."
You could of course look to the VW Campervan's contemporary, the VW Transporter, but Naomi has a few less obvious recommendations up her sleeve: "Something like a Peugeot Boxer is a good medium wheelbase option, a high-top Renault Trafic is an excellent smaller choice, or of course there’s the classic Mercedes Sprinter for the really big stuff. The 4x4 Sprinter is the adventure van of dreams, thanks to those chunky wheels and impressive driveability that will get you over all sorts of terrain.”

2. Budget for around $5,000 as a minimum

“Whatever your budget, you need to be checking out the mileage, the history, the rust spots, the floor and the panels!” explains Naomi. “In my opinion, the lower the mileage the better – I’d probably always (depending on the model) go for an older van with fewer miles on the clock than a newer van that’s been around the block a few times! You’ll probably be able to pick up something pretty decent for around $5,000, but I’d say you’re likely looking at nearer to $10,000 for a three-to-five-year-old medium-sized van with relatively low mileage.”

3. Don't jump into it

“Plan everything upfront,” advises Katie. “The last thing you want to do is pull down a bunch of insulation/wall panels/ceiling panels because you forgot a step during the construction process. Following a plan is infinitely better than winging it, and reworking mistakes will cost you more time and money in the long run.”
For an expert-build van, Katie suggests it will take around seven weeks to install everything – from vent fans to lighting, a bed frame and a kitchenette unit. “Use the best materials you can afford or you'll regret it,” she adds. “There are no shortcuts for quality builds.”

4. Use Euro Containers for drawers

Plastic containers are not only easy to clean but super robust
Plastic containers are not only easy to clean but super robust
That said, Naomi argues there are some materials that can be bought on a budget. “One of the best things we used in our van build was those heavy duty Euro Containers for drawers. They are cheap and easy to source, which means they are easily replaced if necessary. The fact that they are plastic means they’re super robust but, crucially, very, very cleanable! If you’re planning on dumping dirty boots and kit in your van, you’re not going to be overly happy if you have to start sanding down the wood grain all the time to keep it in good nick. Plastic, meanwhile, can be jet washed really easily. If you have removable drawers, they’re also really versatile. For example, you can fill them up for a wetsuit washer, or use them as a shower tray for an outside wash."

5. Scour your cupboards, loft and garage – or your local DIY store

If Euro Containers are too heavy or large for your space, Dale suggests a number of storage alternatives, including straw or lightweight string bags placed under sinks and the bed. Or you could repurpose a spare washing-up bowl. “Washing-up bowls can be used – as can any receptacle that can be secured to the structure or placed in a cupboard or on show,” Dale says. “Cookie tins screwed to worktops provide colour and good utensil storage, too."
One of his favourite hacks is re-purposing an old spice rack to hold everything from phones to housing USB ports. Essential for the modern van.
Or you could even use standard house guttering from your local DIY store suggests Georgina, who has been on more road trips than you can shake a Little Tree air fresher at. “We bought a plain 1m stretch of black guttering and a few gutter clips, and attached it to the wall above the bed in the back of the van. It's the perfect size for storing things like gas canisters for portable stoves, toilet paper, kitchen rolls and other bits and pieces like that. Add a few cool outdoorsy branded stickers and no one would be any wiser. And it's really cheap and easy to install!”

6. Copper piping is super handy

Using alternative materials doesn’t mean you have to compromise on aesthetics, as Naomi explains. “You can hardly look at a campervan conversion these days without spotting a bit of copper somewhere in the build! One of the main reasons for this, aside from its aesthetic beauty, is that copper pipe is so readily available, cheap and versatile. So, you can forge it into stunning bespoke taps for your sink or use it to create curtain poles. We’ve even seen it crafted into an iPad stand for film nights."

7. Get creative

While the benefits of using recycled pallets for shelving ect. are clear, you not might think you can create more complex furnishings from upcycled materials, such as sinks or taps. Not so, says Dale. “Everyday items can be recycled and made into sinks,” he explains. “Copper jam pots, brass, ceramic bowls, galvanised buckets and even antique receptacles are all great and create a personalised look. As long as the plumbing underneath is solid, there’s no reason why you can’t use any of these. You can often find some amazing bits on eBay, including small hand basins that you can fit into handmade worktops."

8. Harness everything

The inclusion of a hangboard screams 'climber camper'
The inclusion of a hangboard screams 'climber camper'
Naomi even suggests using things like old climbing harnesses, chalk bags and belay loops for quirky and space-saving hanging storage – ideal for stashing everything from your phone charger to travel documents. And you can use climbing bolts as hook points – or even as curtain ties. These sorts of accessories are not only free but add heaps of character.

9. Make it somewhere you’ll actually want to live

Making your campervan somewhere you'd like to live
Making your campervan somewhere you'd like to live
Georgina knows the importance of making your campervan as comfortable and homely as possible. After all, if you’re out climbing crevasses or spending long days driving across deserts, it’s important you have a degree of comfort to enjoy at the end of the day. Decorating the walls can make all the difference, she says.
“We made good use of some surplus microfibre towels with map print on them to make the internal panelling in the van prettier,” says Georgina. “Surplus or old fabrics can be used as coverings on the walls of your van, and can really help to make it feel more like home! Blackboard paint is another cheap and easy way to make the van more ‘you’.”
Lighting is a vital part of the aesthetic design, too. For best results, Dale recommends using a mixture of light sources. “Anything goes,” he says. “Dimmers, fairy lights, household lamps, candles, over-bed lights, reading lights, etc.” Scour your local car boot sale for bargains to give your van a unique sense of comfort.

10. That goes for the bed, too

Don't scrimp on the mattress – it's the main component of a camper
Don't scrimp on the mattress – it's the main component of a camper
Sure you might have crafted the dream van, but life on the road can be tough, and without a good night’s sleep, your adventures will get off to a rocky start. Dale recommends using foam mattresses, but only the flame retardant variety. “Do not skimp on the cost as it’s important for safety, and indeed to have a good night’s sleep."

11. Secure everything

So, you’ve outfitted your van to your liking. Maybe, like Dale you’ve used a cookie tin as shelving or a ceramic bowl as a sink. But, as Dale advises: “Everything must be secured in your van for road movement. Mirrors need to be attached and everything secured.” His advice? Always carry spare bungie ropes with hooks on the end, or you might end up learning the hard way that things in your new van home tend to move around a whole lot more than your furniture at home…