How To Build A Camper Van
An Actionable, Step-By-Step Guide For DIY Beginners
Want to build a 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? From the first step to the last, our van conversion guide will get you on your way to planning and building your own camper van.
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 building our camper van. 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.
Build A Camper Van - Table Of Contents
Part 1 - Choose Your Van
Part 2 - Plan Your Van Build
Part 3 - Interior Design Planning
Part 4 - Build The Foundation
Part 5 - Electrical System
Part 6 - Interior Furniture
Part 7 - Plumbing
Part 8 - Miscellaneous & After Market
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:
Selecting The Best Vehicle For You
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 vehicle 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, we do an in-depth comparison between Mercedes Sprinters, Ford Transits, and Dodge Promasters in Chapter 2: Why Ford Transits Make The Best Camper Vans
Why Ford Transits Make The Best Camper Vans
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
Planning Your Van Build
Great! You got your van and now it’s time to start planning your conversion build. Now is a great time to start asking yourself the following questions:
- “Do I want a stealth camper van?
- “What type of bed do I want? Fixed or convertible?
- “What kind of tools do I need?
- “Should I install a toilet and/or shower room?
Below we cover the following topics in our layout planning section.
Camper Van Floor Plan & Layout
Planning your layout is perhaps the most fun part of building a camper van! 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
- Buying an older van
- Not installing back windows
- No vent fan (or an ineffectively small fan)
- Forgoing solar panels
- Not having any other roof installations (i.e. roof rack, awning, etc)
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:
Essential Tools To Build A Camper Van
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 Camper Van Build Tools
Camper Van Interior Design Guide
Building The Foundation Of Your Camper Van
Here is where we really start to get our hands dirty and start building our camper van interior. We call this section the “foundation” because it deals with everything before building interior furniture.
Here we discuss:
- How to properly insulate a camper van
- Putting in windows and a vent fan
- Installing a floor, walls, and a beautiful ceiling
Check out each of our chapters below for more information on each state of this part of the van conversion process.
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 & How To Install Them
We did hours of research and ended up purchasing a MaxxFan. Long story short, we LOVE the MaxxFan.
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.
How To Insulate A Camper Van
We used 6 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.
Before attaching any of our plywood walls (or ceiling planks), we installed cross nut and furring strips all over our van to get the best possible adhesion for our walls, ceiling, and interior furniture.
If you’re original plan is to simply screw your own walls into the van’s sheet metal frame, please reconsider and check out our post.
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.
Installing the floor of your camper van is usually the first thing you that is ‘built’ in the van and is a greater starter project to get experience for future parts of the build. Follow this camper van floor installation guide and you’ll have a sturdy and beautiful floor installed quickly & effectively.
The 4 Levels To A Successful Camper Van Floor Installation
1. Sound Deadener
Reduce vibration and that annoying rattling sound by placing sound deadener on the van’s bare metal floor.
Prevent cold air from creeping up through your floor boards by adding a few layers of insulation.
Add support and stiffness to the top floor boards by adding a sub-floor on top of the insulation layer.
4. Top Floor
Add a beautiful top layer to your camper van’s floor. There are a number of material options to choose from.
1. Sound Deadener
Vehicles of all shapes and sizes, especially old ones, are prone to rattling when driving on bumpy and poorly maintained roads. In addition, outside noises, such as from construction sites, trucks, tire noise, and headwind can easily pass through the van.
Sound deadener, when strategically placed throughout the van, helps to dampen and absorb outside noises before they enter your vehicle.
Recommended Sound Deadener
We bought a box of Noico Sound Deadening Mat and placed strips of the mat all throughout our van. The before and after difference in sound reduction was noticeable and worth the effort and cost. We would purchase the same sound deadening mat if we were to build a second van.
How To Apply Sound Deadening Mat
We cut up our sound deadening mat into strips and placed these strips all over our van. These strips were ~6″ long and anywhere between 2-4″ wide, depending on where they are placed.
We placed the sound deadening strips on:
- wheel wells
- the van’s side panels
- ceiling panels
- metal floor
Once the strip is placed down, use the mat roller to compress the mat onto the van’s metal surface. You’ll know that the mat has been properly rolled out when the foil-embossed top side is smooth and flat.
2. Floor Insulation
After the windows, one of the easiest way that inside heat is lost is through the ground. This isn’t because heat escapes through the floor but because this is where cold air easily seeps inside. Therefore we can put a layer (or two) of floor insulation to help slow down the encroachment of cold air through the floor boards.
Recommended Floor Insulation Materials
We used Frost King duct insulation as our first layer of floor insulation and placed the material directly on top of the sheet metal floor and sound deadening strips. We like the duct insulation because when compressed down onto the floor, the material takes up very little vertical space. Once our floor was covered in duct insulation we could instantly feel the difference when walking in the van with our bare feet. The top foil layer also acts as a reflective barrier to reflect heat back into the van.
Unlike Polyiso, XPS foam board has high compression strength, which makes it an ideal material for walking on. XPS boards come in different thicknesses, but we recommend using 1″-thick boards for better insulation.
You can usually buy XPS foam boards from big box home improvement stores. If you are in the USA, both Home Depot and Lowe’s carries XPS boards.
3. Sub-Floor Installation
In order to create a firm & stable base for the top floor to sit on, a sub-floor is recommended to place on top of the floor insulation. We recommend using 1/2″ plywood when constructing your sub-floor. We went slightly thinner than that for our own van build, but wished we gone a step up in thickness.
4. Flooring Material Options
With the first three layers completed, you’re ready to install a beautiful & functional top layer to your camper van floor. A great floor material for a camper van needs to be:
Fortunately, there are several great floor material options out there to choose from.
Luxury Vinyl Planks
Luxury Vinyl Planks (LVP) are becoming increasingly popular in the van life community and is the material we use for our own camper van floor. LVP provides the best aspects of hardwood flooring without any of its drawbacks. These vinyl plank boards are not only beautiful and long lasting, but they also aren’t prone to moisture absorption, warping, and mold growth.
This high-tech flooring material consists of multiple layers, but starts with a waterproof, PVC vinyl core and finishes with a scratch resistant top later.
Best of all, there are so many different “faux wood” options when going with luxury vinyl planks. From different colors and textures of Oak, Cherry, Hickory and more, the choices are practically endless. If you want to replicate our own floor, we purchased “Biscayne Oak” Lifeproof Luxury Vinyl Planks from Home Depot.
The downside to luxury vinyl planks is that they aren’t very cheap and are relatively heavier than other options.
Another solid, popular option for DIY camper vans. Laminate floor boards also have lots of different colors and styles to choose from. The biggest downside, however, is that they aren’t nearly as waterproof or stain proof as their LVP counterparts.
5. Floor Installation Guide
Our cedar plank ceiling is one of the aspects of our camper van build that we are most proud about. Sure, you could just slap on a simple plywood ceiling, but why not put in a little extra effort to get much better results? A great camper van ceiling really helps to make your interior really POP.
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.
Parts To A Great Ceiling Installation
- Install Furring Strips
- Mount Your Ceiling
Insulating your ceiling is critical because the van’s sheet metal roof is constantly bearing the brunt of the sun’s rays. After a full afternoon under the sun, the roof can get HOT. And this heat easily transfers inside the van.
Install Furring Strips
Although you could screw your ceiling material straight into the ceiling ribs of your van, you’d be much better served by installing furring strips first. Not only would you be creating unnecessary holes in the van (hello rust!) but the pull out strength of screws in sheet metal is considerably less than if you were to use furring strips.
Furring strips are strips of wood that you attach to the van first, which allow you to later attach wall and ceiling paneling to for stronger adhesion.
To create your own furring strips and attaching them to your van, check out our post on how to install walls in a camper van. That article goes into great detail about furring strips and cross nuts, which are needed to attach the strips to the van.
Ceiling Lighting Options
Interior lighting is an infrequent DIY van build topic, but an important one when it comes to making a camper van ‘feel’ like a real brick & mortar home. Picking a set of interior lights that not only emits ‘warm temperature’ light but also adequately brightens the space is crucial for long-term van life.
We installed 12 LED puck lights in our camper van. Six of these lights were put in our ceiling and the other six run along the bottom of our upper cabinets. These puck lights are super slim, energy efficient, and look great. Each light, when turned on, only consumes 2w of power (0.17ah).
If you purchase these lights, be sure to get the ‘warm white’ set (instead of the ‘cool white’). We love the color temperature of the warm light variety.
LED Strip Lights & String Lights
LED strip lights are a great alternative for those on a budget build, prefer more indirect light, or who simply desire a less complicated lighting solution in their camper vans. Run these strip lights along the edges of your van’s ceiling and plug into any USB (type A) port and you are good to go. These lights also come with a remote so you can select up to 16 different colors to brighten up your van.
Alternatively, fairy lights also work well and really increase the ambience of your van’s interior. We have a set of these fairly lights and sometimes like to bring these lights outside (with a portable charger) to help brighten up our campsite.
Ceiling Material Options
Similar to camper walls, there are two popular choices for ceiling material.
Using plywood is an easy choice for ceiling material. It’s relatively cheap and easy to install. If you do go the plywood route, select nothing thicker than 1/4″. Any more than that and you’d be adding unnecessary weight and downward pull-out force.
Tongue & Groove (T&G) Planks
Going with tongue & groove planks is a great way to really take your van build to the next level. Cedar planks, which is what we used, are lightweight and look great. You can also oil or stain them to exactly the color you like.
We purchased our cedar T&G boards from Home Depot. Make sure to inspect each board for cracks & scratches before purchasing.
Camper Van Ceiling Installation Guide
Check out our article for a step-by-step explanation on how we installed our camper van ceiling. In that article we discuss:
- Reasons for selecting cedar planks for our ceiling
- How we stained our wood planks
- How we planned our ceiling layout with a simple graphic drawing
- Building in slots for our LED puck lights
- How we attached our cedar plank boards to our van’s ceiling.
Electrical System Installation
Assembling your own DIY electric system in your camper van can feel like a daunting task. With so many things to consider, a multitude of wires and components to buy, it can be confusing to know where to start. That’s why we created this step-by-step electric guide to get you from start to finish as quickly and effectively as possible.
In this section of our van build guide, we cover:
- What electric wire sizes you need
- How to properly size your house battery system
- Everything you need to know about solar panels for camper vans
- Step-by-step installation guide to get everything connected and working
If you’re ready, let’s get started!
Before building any part of your camper van, it’s a good idea to create a list of exactly which electrical devices you want to have. With this list, you can then begin to lay out all the electrical wires necessary to power those devices. Ideally, you’ll want to lay out your wires BEFORE installing your floor, walls, & ceiling.
Some of the most common and important electrical devices that are commonly installed in a camper van are:
- Ventilation Fan
- 12v Fridge
- 12v and 120v Electric Sockets
- Electric Water Pump
- Diesel Heater
- Solar Panels
- 120v Inverter
After creating your own list of electrical devices, it’s a good idea to create a mock-up design of your camper van layout. This will help you when it comes time to laying out your electrical wires.
Laying Out Your Camper's Electrical Wires
With this list, you can then begin to lay out all the electrical wires necessary to power those devices. Ideally, you’ll want to lay out your wires BEFORE installing your floor, walls, & ceiling.
There are 3 things to know before laying out your electrical wires in the van.
1. Select The Correct Wire Size (Wire Gauge)
The wire thickness (wire gauge) you use is dependent on the device that will be drawing power through that particular wire. But simply speaking, we’ve found that the following rules have served us well.
Lastly, when selecting your electrical wires, it’s important to chose stranded copper wires instead of the solid copper wires commonly used inside homes. With all the movement inside a van when driving, the wires need to move and flex easily. Solid copper wires are at risk of snapping after repeat exposure to vibration and movement.
2. Choose Wires With Durable Wire Housing
Because a camper van will always be in motion, there will naturally be a fair amount of friction between each electrical wire and various parts of the van. With too much friction and chaffing, the protective housing that encases the copper wire strands are at risk of being damaged, which eventually becomes a dangerous fire hazard if the electrical wires become exposed.
Therefore, it’s a good idea to select electrical wires with strong & durable wire housing. If you can find a wire with MULTIPLE layers of wire housing, that is a plus.
One of our van regrets is that much of our van’s 14-gauge wires used vert flexible, but delicate silicone housing. Not very great to withstand vibration and friction while driving on the road.
When selecting wires appropriate for camper vans, it’s a good idea to find wires that have 2 layers of protective housing around the copper wire strands. For example, we like these 14/2-gauge “speaker wire” because not only are the positive and negative wires encased in their own protective jackets, but there is also a second jacket that covers both individual wires for added durability.
3. Use A Split Wire Loom For More Protection
We didn’t put our electric wires through a wire loom, but we wished we had for even more protection against vibration and friction while driving. Plastic conduits make laying out your electric wires a tad more complicated, but it’s worth the extra effort considering that your wires will be permanently behind you walls and ceiling boards. Keeping your wires safe from damage should be a top priority.
Calculate Your Battery Bank Size
One of the biggest problems we see with other DIY camper van build is improperly sized batteries. More often than not, the battery system in most van conversions do not adequately support the traveler’s daily energy usage. As a result, these batteries tend to die prematurely and the travelers are left without a reliable source of power.
In this part, we will go over what you need to know to build a proper battery system that can support your electrical demands day in and day out.
Step 1 - Select Your Battery Type: AGM vs Lithium
When it comes to sizing your battery system, the first decision to make is which type of battery you want to use; traditional AGM or Lithium batteries.
Traditional AGM: Absorbed Glass Mat (AGM) batteries are the most common type of batteries in camper vans these days. Affordable & ubiquitour, AGMs have been providing a reliable source of power for years. But depth of discharge issues (i.e. discharging past 50% too frequently) mean these batteries are at risk of dying prematurely.
LiFePO4 (Lithium) Batteries: The new kid of the block, Lithium batteries have a longer life span and can be safely discharged much deeper than an AGM battery. However, a considerably higher initial cost makes Lithium batteries prohibitively expensive for many. If it is within your budget, we recommend going with Lithium.
Step 2 - Calculate Your Daily Energy Usage
In order to know ‘how many’ batteries you need (how many amp-hours, more specifically), it’s important to make an estimation on your daily energy usage. This is the average amount of power you require per day.
To do this, make a list of all the electrical devices you plan to use in your van and figure out each device’s daily ‘amp-hour’ requirement. When you add up every device’s amp-hour draw, you’ll know how many total amp-hours you’ll need per day to run your devices.
Step 3 - Figure Out How Many Batteries (Amp-Hours) You Need
Once you know which battery type you want to go with and what your estimated daily energy usage is, you can then figure out how many batteries (total amp-hours) you need.
If you are choosing AGM batteries, simply double you daily amp-hour needs and this is your recommended AGM battery bank size.
If going with Lithium, your daily amp-hour need is equates to the minimum amp-hour battery bank size.
For more detail and explanation, check out our article “How to Calculate Your Battery Bank Size”
Adding solar panels to your camper van’s electrical system is a great way to become energy independent and to live off-grid for extended periods of time. And plus, it’s simply an awesome feeling to see, with a battery monitor, that you’re actually charging your batteries from the sun.
For an in-depth look at everything you need to know, check out our post on solar systems for camper vans
What You Need
To set up your own solar system in your van conversion, you’ll need, at the minimum, the following components:
- Solar panels: These panels convert energy from the sun into usable watts. We love our 180w Newpowa panels, but Renogy’s 100w panels are also popular.
- 10-gauge wire: This is the standard wire thickness when setting up a solar system. Your solar panels will come with ~3ft of 10-gauge wire, but you will need more to connect the panels to your batteries.
- Solar charge controller: This device controls the amount of power flowing into your batteries and prevents them from being overcharged. A solar charge controller is a must.
For those without the time nor the inclination to put together a solar system from scratch, Renogy provides an easy and convenient 200-watt solar kit that comes with everything you need to put together a basic solar system for your camper van.
Comprehensive Solar Guide For Camper Vans
There is so much to know and learn about solar panels for camper vans that we created a separate, detailed post just on this topic. On our post we discuss:
- Are solar panels necessary for a camper van?
- Which solar panels we recommend for camper vans
- How many solar panels you need
- Series vs. Parallel: Which connection type is best?
- How to properly fuse a solar array system
- Attaching solar panels to your camper van’s roof
- How to incorporate solar panels to your camper van’s electrical system
- And recommended solar accessories
To learn more, check out our photovoltaic systems for camper vans article.
DIY Electrical System Installation
Now that you know what electrical devices you want to install in your camper van and whether or not you want to put up solar panels, you’re now ready to begin putting together the entire electrical system for your van conversion.
For most camper vans, there are 5 steps to putting together a complete electrical system:
- Step 1: Connecting the batteries together
- Step 2: Connecting the batteries to the positive & negative bus bars
- Step 3: Setting up the 12v system
- Step 4: Setting up the 120v system
- Step 5: Installing the solar system
We discuss in greater detail how to set up each step of your van’s electrical system in our DIY Camper Van Electrical System Installation Guide
Comprehensive Installation E-Book (FREE!)
For those that want nothing but images, we put together a 100% Free Electrical Installation Guide E-Book.
For greater detail, including a breakdown of all the different components and tools needed, check out our electrical system installation post.
Got electrical system questions for your campervan build? This section is for you.
Building Interior Furniture In A Van
With the foundation of your van’s build and the electrical system complete, you can now move onto building your camper van’s interior furniture. Fair bit of warning, there will probably be lot of sticky wood glue involved!
Check out our chapters below for detailed instructions on how to build each furniture piece inside your van conversion.
How you design and construct the bed in your van dictates the look and feel for the rest of your van interior. The amount of storage space and counter top real estate largely depend on how you decide to build your bed. In this section, we will go over the different bed layout options and their pros and cons. Later, we discuss different mattress options and which types of cushion fabric we recommend.
Fixed vs. Convertible Beds
Not to be over dramatic, but the choice to build either a fixed or a convertible bed is a huge decision and has repercussions on the rest of your van build and your lifestyle when you eventually hit the road.
Whether you choose a fixed/permanent bed or a convertible one, both styles have their pros and cons. We review each below.
These beds are permanent fixtures in your van. Whether you are using the bed or not, the bed will always be there. This is the most common type of camper van bed.
Convertible beds, which is what we opted for, can be converted into a dinette, working, or social area during the day when not needed.
Unless the dimensions of your bed frame actually match that of a standard mattress, you’ll likely have to cut a mattress down to size. And since traditional mattresses often have metal springs and other fillers that make cutting them impractical, a foam mattress is likely your best bet.
Our Recommendation: LINENSPA 5″ Memory Foam – Our foam mattress of choice and has lasted us well for 2+ years already. The top 1″ is a gel-infused foam layer to help the mattress cool during warmer temperatures.
To cut your foam mattress down to size, we really recommend using an electric bread/turkey knife. We tried to save money by using a regular bread knife, but the foam cutting process went horribly. An electric knife helped get us much smoother and straighter cuts.
Still need convincing? Check out our post: Best Mattress For Camper Vans
If you choose to go with a convertible bed, you’ll want to select a fabric to upholster your cushions, which will also be your mattress when in ‘bed mode’.
The types and colors of fabrics you can choose from to upholster your cushions are limitless. But not all fabrics are appropriate for van life. You’ll want to choose fabrics that are durable (have a high ‘double rub’ count) and are resistant to stains.
We recommend going to a fabric store and head towards the “Heavy Upholstery” section. These fabrics are thicker and more resistant to wear and tear.
How To Build A Convertible Bed
Building kitchen counters might be the most technically complex part of a camper van build. Measurements need to be exact and installing drawer slides can be tricky if it’s your first time. In this chapter, we’ll go over some of the things you should be aware of when constructing your own counters.
Get Your Measurements
When designing your kitchen counters, it’s a good idea to plan what big items you plan to store inside them. Then you can begin designing the dimensions of each drawer to fit those larger items. Bulkier items to plan around include:
- Propane tank
- Fresh & grey water tanks
- Silverware tray
- Large pots & pans
- Instant Pot
- Trash bin
Take the measurements of these items and begin building your drawers. In the drawing below, you can see how we divided our kitchen counter (shaded in orange) based on several of our big items we wanted to place inside.
Counter Frame & Drawers: We used 1/2″ plywood and we found this thickness to be the best compromise between sturdiness and being weight conscious. Although you could go thicker than this to 3/4″, we definitely would not recommend anything thinner.
Counter Top: Butcher block is a common counter top material. Ikea sells a variety of affordable wood counter tops. If you are in the USA and want a bit more of a high end feel, check out the butcher blocks from LL Flooring. This is where we picked up our Walnut counter top and highly recommend it.
Drawer Slides: Drawer slides come in all different sizes and types. But we recommend picking up a pair of ‘soft close’ slides. They’re worth the extra few dollars.
Table Saw: A table saw has a steep learning curve, but once we got used to operating one we were churning out boards with highly accurate, straight cuts. Perfect for when constructing a kitchen counter.
Framing Square: This simple device is not only a ruler, but also helps to ensure that you have perfect 90-degree angles when constructing your kitchen counter frame.
Pocket Hole Jig: The Kreg Tools Pocket Hole Jig is an awesome little device that helps you create strong, 90-degree bonds between two pieces of wood.
Drawer Slide Jig: Fitting your drawer slides into your counters can be tricky, but the Kreg Tools drawer slide jig takes a lot of guesswork out of the installation process. We purchased this jig and were happy we did.
Cabinet Hardware Jig: We used this cabinet hardware jig to drill correctly located holes on our drawer fronts to attach our handles. While not a necessity, the jig made attaching the drawer handles effortless and error-free.
How To Build A Kitchen Counter
Upper cabinets are a great addition to a camper van build to maximize storage. In our van, we build upper cabinets that run the full length of both the van’ driver and passenger side, which allow us to store all our clothes, dry food, books, hygiene products, and more.
Benefits of Upper Cabinets
While upper cabinets are not as necessary to build as, say, a bed or kitchen, they do provide a number of benefits:
Upper Cabinet Frame: We used 1/2″ plywood for the cabinet frame and felt that this thickness was the best compromise between strength and weight. If you can find it, baltic birch plywood is a great, sturdy material for upper cabinets.
Door Hinges: These cabinet hinges are popular in many van builds. But for a higher quality feel, we went with these Blum Soft-Close Concealed Hinges. However, these concealed hinges are more complicated to install and require the concealed hinge jig and 3/4″ of plywood thickness where you drill your hinge holes.
Gas Struts: To help prop open your upper cabinet doors, we recommend these gas struts.
Magnet Door Catches: To help keep your cabinet doors closed while driving, these magnetic door catches were very well.
Table Saw: A table saw has a steep learning curve, but once we got used to operating one we were churning out boards with highly accurate, straight cuts.
Framing Square: This simple device is not only a ruler, but also helps to ensure that you have perfect 90-degree angles when constructing your upper cabinet frame.
Pocket Hole Jig: The Kreg Tools Pocket Hole Jig is an awesome little device that helps you create strong, 90-degree bonds between two pieces of wood.
Cabinet Hardware Jig: We used this cabinet hardware jig to drill correctly located holes on our cabinet fronts to attach our handles. While not a necessity, the jig made attaching the drawer handles effortless and error-free.
Concealed Hinge Jig: If you plan to use the Blum soft-close hinges, the concealed hinge jig is practically a necessity to help install the hinge.
How To Build Upper Cabinets (Step-By-Step)
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 is nobody’s idea of a good time.
There are so many different products and tiny fittings to think about that building a plumbing system in your van can become a real ache.
But we hope this section of our van build guide will help smooth your plumbing journey
Welcome to the interesting world of camper van plumbing!
In our camper water system introduction post, we give you an idea of what it takes to build you own plumbing system from scratch. You’ll learn about:
- How to build a plumbing system with PEX pipes
- Best water system products and fittings
- Toilet solutions
- And more…
ALSO INCLUDED: Detailed diagrams and installation explanations.
Check it out!
Water Storage Tanks
Storing water is a critical part of any camper van water & plumbing system. In any given van, there can be as many as THREE different types of water storage tanks:
- Fresh Water Tanks – Holds clean, fresh water
- Grey Water Tanks – Holds sink & shower waste water
- Black Water Tanks – Holds waste water from toilets
Fresh Water Tanks
Of all the three different types of water tanks, fresh water tanks are perhaps the most important.
These tanks store the water you’ll need to drink, prepare your meals, wash your dishes, and even shower. Check out our blog post specifically discussing fresh water tanks for camper vans. In this post we go into greater details regarding:
- Different types of fresh water containers
- How to install a fixed fresh water tank
- How to clean & sanitize a fresh water tank
Grey & Black Waste Water Tanks
Coming Soon – Sept 2021
Sinks & Faucets
Picking out the right sink and faucet for your van is an important decision that, initially, doesn’t seem so critical.
But because camper vans provide such a small living space, it’s a good idea to pick out products that make living in cramped quarters easier, not more stressful. Sinks & faucets are a perfect example.
With the right pairing, cooking and dish washing become a breeze. But get it wrong, and chores become an inconvenience and a headache.
“How to choose?”
Shop Our Camper Van Sink & Faucet
We scoured the internet and hardware stores for the best sink and faucet for our camper van. Read our sink & faucet reviews below.
Ruvati RV Sink Review
The right sink makes all the difference. That’s why we went with sink specifically designed for camper vans and RVs.
Deep and spacious and with plenty of included accessories; it’s no wonder we love our Ruvati RV sink.
Click to learn more about the best sink for camper vans.
Gooseneck Sink Review
Don’t make dish duty any more of a chore than it should be.
We looked at dozens of different faucet sizes and shapes and ended up selecting a beautiful, gooseneck faucet with a pull-down head.
2+ years later, we still love our choice. Click to learn more about the best faucet for camper vans.
Once you got your sink and faucet picked out, it’s time to install everything together so you can finally get running water in your van.
We provide a 100% FREE plumbing guide eBook to help you with the installation process.
Included in this eBook are detailed diagrams and clickable images (taking you to Amazon product pages) that help you piece together your own sink and faucet water system for your van.
Admittedly, living in a van means not being able to take as many showers as you would like. Our record is 6 days without a shower, but we’ve known people that regularly go much, much longer than that. For some, being able to take a shower is a vital part of van life. Below are a few common shower solutions while on the road.
- Built-In Showers: The most luxurious option without having to step out of your van. But this method is the most complicated and involves the most work. This video does a great job at explaining how to DIY your own bathroom with shower.
- Out-Door Solar Showers: These cylindrical water tubes attach to your van’s roof and heat up the water inside while sitting in the sun. Super convenient and nice, but you’ll have to shower outside.
- Solar Shower Bags: Our shower solution of choice. A solar shower bag is easy to fill at any sink or spigot and simply sit the bag outside in the sun or on your dashboard and you’ll have a piping hot shower by the afternoon.
- Truck Stops: In the USA many truck stop branches (Flying J and Pilot brands) offer showers in their stores. They cost ~$12 per shower, but they come in handy when desperate.
- Campsites & RV Parks: Unfortunately most National Parks in the US don’t offer shower facilities, but private campsites and many State Parks offer showers.
- Gyms: Having a monthly gym membership to national gym chains like Fitness 24 & Planet Fitness is a convenient solution to those who travel around the US and Canada.
Miscellaneous & After Market Upgrades
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.