How To Build A DIY Camper Van
A Clear, Step-By-Step Guide For Beginners
Want to build your own DIY camper van? Looking for an extensive, step-by-step van build guide with 100% free resources to get you going towards your own campervan conversion?
Here you will find all our documentation for how we converted our van into the campervan we live in today.
About This 100% free Camper Conversion Guide
No Build Experience Required
We barely knew how to use power tools before our van build. ZERO prior knowledge is required to follow our guide.
From choosing your van to plumbing, this guide starts from the beginning and details how to build a camper van from scratch.
Still have questions? We’d love to hear from you and answer any specific questions you might have. Send us an email on our contact page.
Choosing A Van For Your Conversion Build
If you’re in the very early stages of planning a camper van conversion, but you don’t even have a van yet, you might be asking yourself…
- “What type of vehicle should I get?”
- “How much do van’s cost?”
- “How do you effectively negotiate with a van dealership?”
If you have not yet selected your van, this section is for you. Below we will cover:
The Best Vans For Van Life
Choosing which type of van you want to live and travel is an important (and potentially stressful) first step when deciding to get into this lifestyle. There are so many different types of vans to choose from and each type of vehicle has their pros and cons. With all these choices, it’s easy and understandable to feel overwhelmed.
The Most Common 'Van Life' Vans
Understand Your Van Life Priorities
However, to really begin isolating which type of vehicle is best for you, it’s important to understand what your priorities are for a camper van.
When we were choosing which type of van we wanted to live in, we identified 6 categories and decided how important each category was to our van life experience. Depending on how you prioritize each of these categories can help you decide which type of van is right for you. These categories are:
- Off-Road Capabilities
- Gas Efficiency
- The “Cool” Factor
Learn More About Which Type Of Van Is Best For You
Our article, “The Best Vans for Van Life”, covers all the different types of vans you might be thinking about for your own van life journey. We discuss pros and cons for each type of van and which vans might suit you based on your priorities.
Understandably, if you are reading this van build page, you might be veering towards getting a commercial van. Therefore, do an in-depth comparison between Mercedes Sprinters, Ford Transits, and Dodge Promasters.
Why We Love Our Ford Transit Van
If you’re reading this van build guide, chances are you want to purchase an empty commercial van for your own camper conversion. When starting a camper van build from scratch, we think going with an empty commercial van is the right choice.
Common Commercial Van Types
Answering some basic questions about your van life requirements is important to helping you select the right commercial van for your camper van build. Questions such as:
- What is my budget?
- How much internal height do I need?
- Is off-roading important to me?
- Is stealth camping important to me?
In our case, we purchased a Ford Transit for our camper conversion and loved our decision. We loved the Transit’s combination of a strong engine, large internal height, and great price point.
Read more: Why we love our Ford Transit camper van
How Much Does A Ford Transit Cost?
Admittedly, it’s really hard to find a lightly used Ford Transit for a great 2nd-hand price. Therefore, we opted to purchase a brand new Transit directly from the Ford dealership.
In total, we spent just under US$37,000 for our 2018 Transit. For a detailed cost analysis, check out our Ford Transit Purchase Price Breakdown post.
In this post, we reveal:
- Base Price
- Additional Options
- Taxes & Fees
How To Negotiate With A Van Dealership
Whether you are buying a brand new van or even a lightly used one, chances are you might end up at a dealership and have to negotiate the price with a seasoned auto sales representative.
But if you’re like us, buying an expensive vehicle with a fluid sales price is nerve wrecking! Depending on how well you can negotiate can literally be the difference of thousands of dollars. We did a lot of homework and research before walking into physical dealership and because of our pre-planning, we felt calm and comfortable during the entire negotiation process.\
5-Step Process To Buying A Van From A Dealership
1. Learn Terminology
2. Study Market
3. Email Dealerships
4. Set Price Target
5. Visit Dealership
Want To Learn More?
We wrote up a separate article on how to effectively negotiate the purchase of your van from the dealership. The article expands on the above points and provides great insights on what to know before stepping foot at an auto store.
Read More: How To Buy A Van From A Dealership
Plan Your Van Build
Camper Van Floor Plan & Layout
Planning your van’s layout is fun! At this point you can let your imagination run wild and you can design the absolute perfect camper van that fits your unique needs. It’s an empowering feeling to be able to design and build a van interior from a blank canvas.
But planning your camper’s layout is also about compromise. It’s impossible to fit everything you could ever want in such a small interior space. Inevitably, something things will have to give and be left out. Bringing along your own washing machine & dryer is a nice convenience, but not very pragmatic.
And there are so many facets to consider when planning your camper van build.
In this section, we touch on many of these issues so you can learn from our experience and begin building your perfect campervan. To get started with planning your layout, we recommend to first read our camper van floor plan guide.
Should You Build A Stealth Camper Van?
We admit, the idea of designing a “secret” camper van was a cool concept at first. The idea of parking and sleeping for free without anyone realizing is enticing. But these days, camper vans are so ubiquitous that practically everyone knows what a camper looks like, especially the police and thieves.
Though building a truly stealthy van that evades notice is still possible, you’d have to try very hard to make your camper look just like a generic work van. What would you have to give up in order to achieve such a van?
Requirements for a stealthy van
So is it really worth it to build a stealth camper van? In our case, we didn’t think build a stealth conversion van was worth it. And after 2+ years on the road, we still have no regrets.
To learn more, check our our article: Why You Shouldn’t Build A Stealth Camper Van
Building A Fixed vs. Convertible Bed In A Camper Van
Because the bed area will likely take up the majority of the space in a camper van, planning your sleeping area should be one of the first decisions to make when planning your van’s interior layout. And the most important question when planning your bed build is whether you want to build a fixed or convertible bed in your camper van.
These are bed frames that are permanently built into the van and are ‘fixed’ in place. Having a permanent bed is convenient, removes the hassle of having to put the bed away every morning, and gives you more storage space under the bed for your belongings.
These are beds that can be put away and converted into a living and/or dining space during the day. Convertible beds are space efficient and great for maxing the utility of a van’s limited interior area. (We have a convertible bed and love it)
On YouTube and in real life, we’ve noticed that fixed beds are definitely more common in camper vans. They’re convenient and allow for more under-bed storage. But we aren’t shy about our bias towards having a convertible bed!
Read our unabashed post as to why convertible camper van beds are the best choice!
Toilets In Camper Vans
Deciding whether or not to make room in your camper van for a toilet is a very personal decision. Some feel that having a toilet is an absolute must and others are comfortable without it. There is no right or wrong answer here and we each have to plan our camper van build based on our own needs and requirements.
Common Camper Van Toilets
- Chemical Toilets: Thetford 2.6 Gallon Porta Potti. Our original RV toilet of choice. These toilets are a self-contained unit that houses both a fresh water tank (for flushing) and a waste water tank. Provided chemicals are used to eliminate waste water odors, but users have reported that smells can still leak out.
- Composting Toilets: Nature’s Head Composting Toilet. These new & fancy composting toilets are becoming more popular in the van life community with each passing year. Though they are more expensive and can be a tricky to install, composting toilets are not only friendlier for the environment, they also do a great job at eliminating odors from the toilet. Just add your composting material of choice and make sure to mix well after you’re done!
- Foldable Toilets: Reliance’s Collapsible Portable Toilets. These space efficient, budget-friendly toilets might be the best option if money is tight and you absolutely need a toilet. Simply fold the toilet out, hang a bag below the seat, and away you go! Throw the bag out for ZERO smells.
But Is A Toilet Really Necessary For Van Life?
We had a toilet in our van once, but in 7 months of traveling we never used it once. We just didn’t want to deal with the waste and the smells. We eventually threw the Porta Potti out and never looked back! In our post, Do You Really Need A Camper Van Toilet?, we discuss why we’ve traveled just fine without a formal toilet and how we manage the bathroom issue.
How To Heat Your Camper Van During Winter
Planning to travel in cold climates? No matter how well you insulate your van, you’re van WILL get uncomfortably cold if are in freezing (or near freezing) environments. But having a heating solution can significantly improve your comfort and outlook on van life during the winter.
Depending on which type of heater you get will determine whether you need to plan in advance for it’s installation location. For example, if you plan to use a simple propane heater or electric heater, you won’t need to accommodate these heaters in your van build floor plan.
But if you want to get a fuel-operated heater, which we recommend, it’s best to plan ahead and make room for this heater in your layout planning.
To learn more about camper van heaters, check out our post, How To Heat Your Campervan. There we discuss the different heating options available to the campervan community and which type of heaters we prefer.
Camper Van Build Regrets
One of the best ways to learn how to build a camper van is to learn from other’s mistakes. In fact, one of the biggest reasons why our camper van build turned out so well was because of all the van life content (YouTube + blogs) that detailed what people liked about their van build and what they wished they could have done differently. Those types of content ended up being some of the most valuable when building our camper van.
Even though we did a ton of planning before converting our camper, but we still have a list of build regrets and would have done a few things differently. No matter how hard you try, it’s virtually impossible to get things 100% right.
Our own van build mistakes and regrets include:
Read our Van Build Regrets for more information on what we would have done differently if we could have a second chance at building our camper van.
Essential Tools For A Camper Van Build
Having the right tools will go a long way to helping you build the camper van you want. The good news is that even if you are on a tight van conversion budget, you do not need lots of expensive power tools for your van build.
4 Tools You Need For A Camper Conversion
We’re confident that you can build the vast majority of your camper build using just the below four tools. Altogether, these should set you back less than $300.
Useful for drilling holes & fastening screws/bolts. Even the cheapest power drill adequately met our needs. Don’t bother with an impact driver.
Great for cutting through wood, plastic, & even sheet metal. Better for curved cuts, but decent straight cuts can be made with a framing square.
Make accurate measurements and create straight cut lines with your jigsaw. Useful for furniture fabrication, which requires 90-degreee measurements.
A pair of long clamps are useful when building interior furniture. We used these clamps to hold pieces of wood together while the wood glue dried.
Where To Get Tools For Free
Other Useful Van Build Tools
For more in-depth information on all the major tools we used during our camper van build, check our article: Useful Tools For A Van Build
Build The Foundation
Of all the gizmos and gadgets you plan to install in your camper, putting in a ventilation fan should be at the top of your priority list. A vent fan may not be the sexiest piece of equipment, but proper ventilation is key to enjoying your van life experience.
Vent fans help to:
The Best Vent Fan: The MaxxFan
We did hours of research and ended up purchasing a MaxxFan. Long story short, we LOVE the MaxxFan and are believers that the MaxxFan is the best fan for camper vans.
More About Vent Fans & How To Install Them
To learn more about vent fans, including all the different options & models, and how to install a fan on your van’s roof, head over to our camper van ventilation fan post.
We love our two small RV windows. They bring in lots of natural light to brighten our tiny space and, working with our vent fan, bring in lots of fresh air. We couldn’t imagine living van life without having some sort of rear windows in our tiny home.
In this RV window installation article, we discuss everything you need to know about installing camper van windows during your own van build. This includes why we think having windows is important in your camper van and our step-by-step installation process for how we installed our RV windows.
We hope you enjoy!
How To Insulate A Conversion Van
We used SIX different types of insulation all throughout our van to keep us warm during the cold days…and vise versa. And after 2+ years on the road, we’re extremely happy that we spent so much time and effort insulating our campervan.
Van life isn’t nearly as appealing when you’re freezing in your camper van.
In this article, we talk about why insulating a camper van is so important, which insulation materials we recommend for camper vans, and exactly how we insulated each of the 5 regions in our van.
How To Build Camper Van Walls
After adding the insulation and the sub-floor, it’s time to start installing walls in the camper van. In order to put up your walls, several decisions need to be made.
The two most popular choices for wall material are plywood sheets & tongue-and-groove planks. Each material has their pros & cons.
- Plywood Sheets: Our material of choice. Plywood is easy to manipulate, bends easily, great for painting, & fairly inexpensive (depending on the material). For space efficiency and flexibility, most builders use 1/4″-thick plywood. But for greater stability we recommend going for 1/3″, if available.
- Tongue-and-Groove Planks: We ended up using cedar planks for our ceiling, but not for our walls. Planks are great if you plan to oil or stain them to create that cozy “log cabin” feel.
How To Attach The Walls
Whether you chose plywood or tongue & groove planks, you’ll have to decide how to attach these wood boards to the frame of your van. There are three common ways to attach these walls, but we only recommend the last method.
We really like how the plywood walls in our camper van turned out. They are adhered strongly to our van’s frame, keep our interior light & bright and don’t give off a claustrophobic feel when we’re inside.
To learn more about how we created and attached our furring strips & how we fabricated our plywood walls, check out our post on how we built our camper van walls.
Color Of The Walls
The color of the walls is completely up to you. Some like to keep the natural color of the wood for a more organic, cabin feel. Other’s like to paint their walls unique colors, like green, grey, and even red. Before we built our camper van, we created a color scheme and adhered to that scheme throughout our build. We ended up painting our walls off-white and have loved our choice since day 1.
This page is still a work in progress, and so much more needs to be written. But in our camper van floor installation post, we outline the steps we took to get install a beautiful luxury vinyl plank floor in our van.
We are most proud about how our cedar plank ceiling turned out. There was a lot of trial and error to get the color right, but we love our camper ceiling installation.
Electrical System Installation
Laying Out Your Wires
Calculate Your Battery Bank Size
Interested in getting solar panels for your campervan but don’t know where to start? Learn the basics of solar panels for campervans here.
DIY Electrical System Installation
This is the largest section in our entire van build guide. Head over to our Camper Van Electrical System Installation page to get detailed breakdowns and step-by-step instructions for every stage of the campervan electrical system process.
Got electrical system questions for your campervan build? This section is for you.
Building Interior Furniture In A Van
Instead of a fixed bed, we built a U-shaped bench that would convert into a bed at night.
In our article, How To Build A Campervan Bed, we talk about how we built our bed frame AND our mattress.
Building our own DIY kitchen counters was technically complex. All our measurements had to be exact down to the millimeter. We document our Kitchen Counter construction process here.
In our Upper Cabinet construction article, we go over how we constructed the frame of our upper cabinets and how we mounted them to our walls.
Plumbing certainly isn’t the sexiest part of any campervan build, but a necessary one for long term van life.
We’ve learned a lot through our plumbing hardships. Check our our articles below to learn more!
We scoured the internet and hardware stores for the best sink and faucet for our campervan. Click to read more about what makes a great campervan sink & faucet combo and why we love ours so much.
Plumbing was one of the most frustrating sections of our van build. In this article, we document the process of installing our sink & faucet hardware, and all the plumbing underneath.
Want to know everything in our kitchen? Follow us as we take a tour of our entire campervan kitchen.
How To Build A Camper Van FAQ
Our van build cost us ~US$20,000. Admittedly, we put in several premium products in our van, such as our 3x100Ah lithium batteries, Victron-branded electronics, and butcher block countertop.
A more budget-oriented build can absolutely be built with the same stunning interior design and functionality.
None whatsoever! We learned everything by watching countless hours of Youtube and reading campervan build blogs, just like this one.
Our van build took us 8 months. Our lack of building experience and an unusually rainy wet season really slowed us down. If we could build a second van, we’re confident we could build the same quality van in half the time.
100% Plumbing! We were so close to finishing our van we could smell the finish line.
But then our plumbing had leaks everywhere and finding the right connections was a nightmare.
Building our campervan’s electrical system turned out to be not as daunting as we previously thought. We believe that if you just take it slow and steady and you’ll be fine.
Visit our Campervan Electrical System Installation Homepage for step-by-step instructions.
Yes! Here are our top 3 pieces of advice for anyone interested in building their own campervan.
- Plan, Plan, Plan: Whether you are sketching out your campervan floor plan, or thinking about your campervan’s interior design, really fleshing out how you want your van to look and function is important to getting the most out of your van life experience.
- Proper Battery Bank Size: To avoid electricity supply nightmares, understanding your daily energy usage needs is important to properly sizing a battery bank that is appropriate for your travels. We’ve met too many travelers with undersized battery banks and constantly run out of power.
- Feeling Overwhelmed? Just look straight ahead: There were days where we simply didn’t want to work on the van. Too many projects, too hard, and didn’t know how to proceed. But developing ‘tunnel vision’ goes a long way here and simply learning to improve one thing and ignore the rest can really help get you across the finish line.
Final Thoughts: Build Your Perfect DIY Campervan
Building our campervan was a huge process that literally took blood, sweat, and tears. Every day felt like we were taking two steps forward and one step back. But in the end, on May 2019, we finished our van conversion and jetted off on our own van life adventure.
And If We Can Build A Campervan...
Converting our own DIY campervan with our own hands and ingenuity was one of the most rewarding accomplishments of our lives. And we genuinely believe that if we can build our own beautiful DIY campervan, so can you! Just make a plan, take it slow, and do the best work that you can. And when in doubt, learn from other’s build experiences.
We hope our “Build A Campervan” guide provides you with a solid foundation to convert your own van. And as always, if you have any questions or comments, please send us an email in the contacts page.