As vanlife grows in popularity, thousands of people have transformed cargo vans into living spaces, mobile offices, or adventure basecamps. If you want to follow in their footsteps, here are the best tips culled from expert van builders, DIY-ers, and more.
Rent Before You Buy
Many experts suggest renting a fully built-out campervan before purchasing your own Sprinter or ProMaster. Check RV rental platforms like Outdoorsy and RVshare for convenient options. While you may be tempted to splurge on a luxurious Class B RV, be realistic about your goals and try to find one similar to what you’d like to build.
If you see a van at a trailhead and the owners are nearby, ask for a peek inside or about build details. Most van owners love talking about their rig.
Don’t Start Your Build-Out Right Away
After making your van purchase, take a trip or two with a bare-bones setup—think air mattress and a basic Coleman stove—to figure out what you need and, more importantly, what you don’t. If you’re doing the build yourself, consider doing it in segments, so you can make adjustments as you gain both building and camping experience.
Use Cardboard to Plan Your Layout
Lots of builders use cardboard to mimic their proposed layout, allowing them to get a better idea of how the interior will look and feel before buying lumber and other materials. If you don’t like something, it’s easier to rebuild using cardboard.
One of the biggest problems many aspiring vanlifers have is trying to “overcomplicate the build,” says Ian Horgan, owner and founder of Wayfarer Vans, a campervan conversion company. “They want to create a place with all the same features as their actual house.”
Nearly everyone needs a bed, but how big? Many people need a galley of some kind, but should you go with a built-in fridge or an efficient cooler? Storage is always going to be tight, but how much is too much? If you plan to work on the road, will you need a dedicated workstation, or can you make do with the front seats and a swing-out table?
Likewise, don’t base your interior wishlist on YouTubers’ dream builds, suggests Brian Jagodnik, marketing director for custom van build company Outside Van. “Building out a van isn’t as easy as they would have you believe,” Jagodnik says. “Sometimes your dream build needs to be altered to make it into an actual living space.”
Keep Electricity Simple
If you don’t have electrical experience, powering your van can be a bit overwhelming. Luckily, you have options. If you want a more permanent solution, Renogy offers an all-in-one kit that simplifies the buying process. Just add the battery, inverter, and electrical accessories that best suit your needs. Ask an experienced friend or pay a technician for help.
If that option still seems a bit overwhelming, Goal Zero has a few “plug-and-play” options that are simple to set up, don’t require permanent mounting in, and can power most devices.
Skip the Shower and (Maybe) the Toilet
Having a dedicated shower sounds nice, but it also takes up a lot of valuable space and requires more intricate plumbing. More often than not, the shower stall becomes a storage closet. Nearly everyone I asked advised not to bother. As an alternative, consider a solar shower that hangs off the back of the van.
Whether to include a toilet raised a stink among the experts. If you’re typically staying in established campgrounds, both Jagodnik and Horgan suggest considering forgoing a toilet. If you absolutely need one, a cartridge model is the best bet for most vanlifers, although some might balk at dumping it.
Consider Hiring Help
If your DIY skills are more Bob Newhart than Bob Vila, you might consider hiring a company to do some or all of the build. “Lots of DIYers come to us for their second build,” Jagodnik says.
Expect to pay between $10,000 and $20,000 for a Wayfarer build (in addition to the cost of the van), while Outside Van charges between $30,000 and $200,000 for a build, depending on the options.
Plan for Future Changes
What you want and need is likely to change over time. Sandy Cockerham recently paid for a Wayfarer build and is already toying with the idea of future additions.
“I’m working to expand the bed on my own,” Cockerham says. “Eventually I hope to add a roof rack using the factory tabs on the top and then solar. I’ll also figure out where to mount a table to allow us to dine with the front seats swiveled to face each other.”
When you’re doing your initial build-out, try to imagine what you might want to add down the line and how you can better accommodate those future changes during your build-out.
Remember the old carpenter idiom: “Measure twice, cut once.” And if you’re cutting a hole in the roof for a ceiling vent, double-check the size hole you need and measure three times. But you’re going to make mistakes. Even professionals do. Don’t let the fear of making a goof keep you from building the van of your dreams.
“Don’t be afraid,” advises Greg Dyas, who is slowly building out his own van. “Just dive in and do it. It’s fun.”