RVs and camper vans give their owners the freedom to follow virtually any road without having to book a hotel or find a place to sleep in advance. The only requirement for this kind of road trip adventure is locating a gas station before the tank is empty.
Unfortunately, this type of free-spirited travel is often associated with massive motor homes. The upfront price tag and gas-hungry nature of these bus-sized vehicles can be a turnoff. However, a new generation of do-it-yourselfers is bringing back a trend that started long ago with those classic Volkswagens: turning standard vans into full-on campers.
But what's involved in making these modifications?
What kind of van do you need?
Cargo vans are usually the cheapest option for a do-it-yourself camper conversion project. The fact that these vehicles do not have any rear seats cuts down on prep work. One major drawback is that standard cargo vans have an average floor-to-roof height of 52 inches, which is not tall enough to allow an adult to stand upright. High-top vans, however, have ceilings that can reach six or even seven feet. This makes them a better option for a camper conversion (but a worse option for parking in a garage or ramp).
People with more romantic ideas about camper travel may be able to find vintage Volkswagen vans for their project. These retro vehicles may have the right look, but they often come with a greater risk of mechanical problems because of their age.
The least glamorous step in converting a vehicle into a camper is removing the old features. While cargo vans do not have seats, they could still have shelving, mats that are fastened to the floor and, most likely, a good deal of dirt and/or rust.
Removing the rust (with a grinder or similar tool) is a necessary step because you want to keep it from becoming worse in the future. If you build features such as shelving or a bed frame over the floor, you won't be able to see the rust problem, so it is wise to take care of it beforehand.
The first construction step that will turn your van from vehicle into mobile home involves installing interior flooring, walls and a ceiling. This is a necessary task if you want your camper to have that cozy, homey feel.
To create flat, even flooring, you'll need to cut a plywood subfloor to the correct dimensions and then screw it to your van’s floor. You can then cover the subfloor with vinyl tiles, carpeting or whatever else your design plan calls for.
The floor and ceiling could consist of any type of paneling. Standard plywood is easy to work with when it comes to cutting the panels to size and making spaces for exhaust fans, wiring or other necessities. You can then paint, paper or laminate the surface to fit with the color scheme of the other features in your van.
Insulation isn't the most obvious design feature of a camper van, but it's one of the most necessary additions. Not only will a layer of insulation keep the interior of your camper warm on cold nights, it will help you retain cooler air when the outside temperature is hot and you don't want to open the windows because mosquitos or other pests could get in.
Rigid polystyrene or styrofoam panels offer the best cost-to-effectiveness ratio. Flexible “blanket” insulation is another option for the entire van or for the corners where the inflexible panels cannot cover. 3M makes sheets of insulation using its patented Thinsulate material. This might not be the cheapest option, it is thin, flexible and easy to apply anywhere with spray-on or paint-on adhesive.
How to provide power to the van?
The lights and appliances (heater, refrigerator, stove, fans, etc.) in your van will need more energy than a car battery can provide. A gas-powered generator is bulky and noisy, and though batteries can give you enough power for a time, they will eventually need to be recharged.
One option is to use solar panels to charge the “house” batteries constantly so that they never run out of energy. This is certainly the greenest option, but it will fall outside of the do-it-yourself realm for most people because the system will require basic wiring and features like a charge controller and fuses. Also, the panels will need to be securely mounted on the roof.
On the plus side, making the initial investment in solar power will mean that you'll never have to find an electrical hookup or never have to deal with propane or a gas-powered generator.
Along with power, running water is an important trait that can change a vehicle from “a van that you sleep in” into a full-fledged home on wheels. The simplest option is to have cold running water for a sink. This can be accomplished with a couple of water canisters under the sink and a small, submersible pump.
A larger tank can be used for supplying water to a shower or to multiple sinks. These tanks can either go under the van or under the furnishings inside the van. Tankless water heaters save space, but they may require propane. All-electric models can eat up a lot of your battery power, but they will provide enough hot water for a quick shower.
Tank heaters come in different sizes, so you can strategize and install the smallest tank for your needs. Four to six gallons is the minimum size.
The most convenient and space-saving option for a camper van is a composting toilet. When set up and maintained properly, these toilets are odor-free and environmentally-friendly. More importantly, they negate the need for complex plumbing because they don't require water or a separate waste tank.
Other options include a cassette toilet, which requires the user to manually empty the tank by pulling it out of the back of the toilet. The whole device is then cleaned with chemicals. Other, more standard toilets require a waste tank. Some of these models have a vacuum-like flushing action similar to toilet in an airplane lavatory.
If your van is large enough — if you have a high-top van — you may be able to build a small enclosed shower area.
To save space, you could opt for a shower that is enclosed by a curtain instead of solid walls. You will still need a drain, shower fixture and, if you choose, a hot water heater. If you don't want to deal with the plumbing installation, you can use gravity power with a basic tank mounted on or under the roof or a simple Coleman camp shower.
In addition to a sink and counter, you can build shelving and cabinets to maximize space. Magnets installed on the inside of the door and the frame will keep the cabinets from swinging open and slamming shut while the van is on the road.
Unless you want to use a gas-powered camp stove, the best options are a microwave and/or an electric induction hot plate. If you plan your on-the-road menu so that your dishes do not require much cooking time, then neither of these devices will eat up your battery power.
A minibar-style refrigerator will be able to fit underneath your “kitchen” counter. This appliance will use power, but efficient models should be able to perform their task of keeping perishables cool without draining the house battery. Some portable fridges will even connect to your car battery via the cigarette lighter.
Collapsible furnishings can help save room, like a bed that folds into a sofa when you're not sleeping. (Photo: Vanguard Conversions/flickr)
A space-saving bed strategy is to modify a futon so that you can fold it up to create a sofa when you are not sleeping. Alternatively, you could make a wood frame bed with alternating slats that slide in between each other so that the bed can extend outward for sleeping and be pushed inward for sitting.
A wood frame bed may seem like it takes up too much space, but with the right design, you will be able to use the frame to hide water tanks, batteries, pipes or wiring. Or, you could build cabinet or drawers (again with magnets to hold them closed while you are driving) under the bed.
What about gas?
The major knock against RVs of all sizes is that they don't get good gas mileage. Camper vans average 15 to 20 miles per gallon. Using lightweight materials and cutting back on weight whenever possible could bring this figure up higher.
Camper vans, even the high-top variety, are easier to drive and cheaper to fuel than larger RVs. So though they are fuel hungry compared to regular vehicles, they do sit at the lower end of the RV fuel-efficiency spectrum.