Vanlife is Entirely What You Make of it.
And nowhere is that more true than the van you live in. But no matter what vehicle you have or can afford, living in a van is ultimately about freedom, rebelling against the typical, and enjoying life on your own terms.
This page is all about helping you, future vanlifer, choose your van, plan your design, install creature comforts like electricity and plumbing, and actually build out the interior of your DIY campervan conversion. Below you’ll find awesome infographics, detailed information, step-by-step guides, links to helpful resources, and more.
Your van is an important aspect of #vanlife, but it’s also just a vehicle - van living is really all about the experience of being out there. And we’re here to help you turn your van into a home so you can get on the road as quickly and easily as possible!
Table of Contents
Note: Some of the links to products that we recommend on this page are affiliate links. This means that if you click through one of our links and buy something, we get a small commission at no cost to you. This helps us keep this blog going so we can continue to provide you with van build tips, tricks, and guides. We believe in honest opinions, and we never recommend anything we don't know about. Every recommended product on this page we've either used personally, have personal experience with, or have researched heavily.
- >Choosing Your Van
- >Planning Your Layout
- >Do You Need a Bathroom?
- >Installing Solar and Electrical
- >Lighting Options
- >Insulating Your Van
- >Refrigeration Options
- >Stoves and Cooking
- >Water System and Plumbing
- >Flooring Options
- >Walls and Ceiling
- >Essential Tools for Every Van Build
- >Helpful Extras for the Road
- >Taking a Test Run
- >Build Resources
Note: Some of the links to products that we recommend on this page are affiliate links. This means that if you click through one of our links and buy something, we get a small commission at no cost to you. This helps us keep this blog going so we can continue to provide you with van build tips, tricks, and guides. We believe in honest opinions, and we never recommend anything we don't know about. Every recommended product on this page we've either used personally, have personal experience with, or have researched heavily.
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Choosing Your Van
Choosing a van is your first important step when taking the leap towards living in a van. There are many types and models of vehicles out there, and the best one for you really depends on your needs and wants.
Some vans are better for extra space, some are better for stealth camping, some are more cost-effective. If you’re reading this page, chances are you plan to build out your van yourself. But if you want something already converted that will take minimal work to get on the road, there are options for that, too.
To help you choose the right van to live in, we’ve put together an infographic with pros and cons of some of the most common types of vehicles out there on the road. This should give you a good idea of what to look for, and we also have more detailed descriptions of these vehicles (and more) further down the page.
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Volkswagen Westfalia Campers (and anything VW)
Volkswagen campers are by far the most iconic vehicles in the vanlife community. They’re classics, and they always will be. This category includes the old Kombi bus (VW Bus), the 1980-91 Vanagon, and the newer Eurovans. Also known as Westfalias or Westies, many VW vans were converted into campers by the Westfalia Company in Germany (except for Eurovans, which were converted by Winnebago in the US).
Westies are just plain awesome. They’re fun to cruise around in, they’re pre-converted, the camper setup is very functional, and there’s a large community of VW owners, aftermarket parts, and innovative modifications. Many of them also have pop tops, which add a ton of extra headroom when parked and even let you sleep two extra people.
But if they’re so awesome, why wouldn’t you want a Westy?
Well, for starters, they can take a chunk out of your wallet. Since vanlife has been gaining in popularity, the price of old Vanagons has risen along with it. They’re also very old vehicles, and there’s just a lot that can go wrong mechanically with anything that rolled off the assembly line during the Cold War.
GoWesty, a well-known Vanagon restorer and parts maker, recommends not buying a Westy unless you have at least $25,000 to spend overhauling it and replacing aging components. Even if you find a cheap Westy hiding out in a garage somewhere, be prepared for frequent breakdowns and expensive mechanical headaches unless you spend the cash to fully rebuild it.
This is also what some people really like about Vanagons. There’s a certain romance to working with a pre-computer engine, learning it inside and out, fixing it on the road, and having the ability to add new innovations to a classic vehicle. If you’re mechanically inclined, enjoy tinkering, and have some cash to burn, a VW could be a lot of fun.
But if you’re on a budget, don’t want to deal with a lot of mechanical issues, or really want to customize your van’s interior and functionality as a living space, there are much better options.
Sprinter Vans (and Other Euro-Style Vans)
Sprinter vans have been around for awhile, but they’re still the new kid on the block. These vans are especially known for their interior height, long wheelbase, and boxier shape - making them ideal for building out a spacious, functional living space. This category includes the original Mercedes/Dodge Sprinters, as well as Ford Transits and Dodge Promasters (check out this article and this helpful graphic for more information on the differences between these).
If you want the ultimate vehicle to customize for your DIY van conversion, the Sprinter is the van for you. They have enough headroom even for tall people to stand up, and enough interior space to design any kind of layout. They also typically have diesel engines, which means greater fuel efficiency and engine life (many diesel Sprinters have been known to make it past 400,000 miles). If you think you’ll be doing a lot of off-roading, the Mercedes Sprinter also comes in a 4x4 version.
However, Sprinters are a lot more expensive than other options. It can be tough to find anything reasonably priced with less than 200,000 miles. For the Mercedes Sprinters, parts are more expensive and it may be difficult to find mechanics that have experience working on them (this is less of an issue with Transits and Promasters). And, since these are complex vehicles, they don’t lend quite as well to tinkering as something classic like a VW Vanagon or old Ford Econoline.
There are some variances in the features and reliability of different model years, and differences between the Mercedes Sprinter, Dodge Sprinter, Ford Transit, and Dodge Promaster - so make sure to do your research. The Sprinter RV Conversion Sourcebook is an incredible resource on all things Sprinter (and van conversions in general), and it goes over all the options in detail.
If you have the money to spend on a decent Sprinter, there are few better vehicles out there. There’s really nothing else that competes in terms of flexibility and space for a custom buildout. But if you’re on a budget, there are other options that work well and cost less.
Cargo Vans (and Passenger Versions)
The quintessential “creepy white van” van, cargo vans are great for stealth camping and generally not being noticed. These things are everywhere, and they’re always an excellent choice for living in. This category includes the Chevy Express/GMC Savanna, Ford Econoline, Dodge Ram Van, and the old Chevy Van.
Cargo vans are ubiquitous and their base designs have barely changed for decades. That means they’re overall reliable, parts are common, and mechanics know how to work on them. They’re also generally good, flexible vans - nothing fancy, but they offer a perfect blank canvas for your own custom van build.
People tend to buy cargo vans for work and hold on to them for years, so many vans on the market can be pretty beat up. Although you can find inexpensive cargo vans in good condition, it can be tough to find anything with lower mileage - so be prepared for all that comes with owning a higher mileage vehicle. Cargo vans also don’t offer much headroom. There’s no way even shorter people will be able to stand in one, and the lack of headroom also cuts down on storage space.
But if you want to do a lot of stealth camping in cities, a cargo van is your best option. There are so many of them on the road that people just don’t notice them, and they have a lot of floor space to play around with your perfect layout. But if you don’t plan on stealth camping and you value storage space and headroom, there may be better choices.
High-Top Conversion Vans
The Gnomad Home van of choice. Conversion vans are typically full-sized passenger vans (Chevy Express/GMC Savana, Ford Econoline, Dodge Ram Van, etc.) that have been converted into comfortable traveling vehicles, or even wheelchair lift vans.
Conversion vans have some pretty sweet built-in amenities, including high-tops for extra headroom. Many have comfy captain chairs, leather seats, mood lighting, TV/VCR, and a rear bench seat that folds down into a bed. If you’re not picky about your living situation, this could be all you need to get started. And if you gut it and customize it yourself, the high top offers tons of great storage options that other vans just don’t have.
You can also find these vans for pretty cheap. Most conversion van owners don’t use them as their daily driver, so older lower-mileage vehicles in good condition aren’t too difficult to find for a decent price.
However, there are some downsides. If you want to customize the interior you’ll have to completely gut the entire thing, which can be a lot of extra work. The weird shape and fiberglass construction of most high tops also make it more difficult to install solar panels, a ceiling, or anything else on the roof. And we’ve also found that some auto repair shops aren’t tall enough to put our van up on a lift - though that’s only really an issue for major work, not routine maintenance.
Still, with the high top and low cost of conversion vans, they offer the best combination of affordability, versatility, and space of any van out there.
Class B / Class C Campers
If you want to hit the road as soon as possible, then a Class B/C RV camper is a great option to consider. These vehicles are typically move-in ready, and barring any mechanical issues shouldn’t need much customizing before hitting the road. Class B campers (aka “campervans”) are built inside a van body, while Class C campers have a custom body built on a van cab/chassis.
Older Class B/C campers are built on Chevy or Ford base, but you can find some built on Toyotas and other vehicles. If you have the money for a newer one, you can find campers built on a Sprinter vehicle base.
The big advantage to buying a pre-built camper is that it’s already built out, so you won’t have to wait to hit the road. Many feature innovative ways to convert the living space into a sleeping area, and may even include a bathroom/shower. These vehicles should also have electrical, plumbing, propane, and water systems already installed (although if you want solar power, you’ll likely need to add this yourself).
Older class B/C’s can also be relatively affordable - more expensive than just a van, but comparably priced to what you would spend buying a van and converting it. Like conversion vans, these vehicles are typically not daily drivers, so with some looking you should be able to find older low-mileage campers in decent condition.
So what’s the downside? Well, for starters, RV conversions aren’t exactly known for quality. Most manufacturers use cheap (i.e. shitty) materials, and just don’t build their vehicles to withstand the stresses of full time living. You’re also locked into a pre-designed layout, so it will be a lot more difficult to customize how everything functions.
And, if you buy a pre-built RV, you really have no idea what’s going on behind the walls. You could easily end up inheriting someone else’s problems, whereas with a custom build you know exactly what went into it and how to go about fixing anything that goes wrong.
Despite the downsides, buying a Class B/C camper can be an excellent choice if you want to get on the road quickly, or if you want to test out vanlife before throwing yourself into a custom build. Just make sure you know what you’re getting into.
In many ways, skoolies are the ultimate in mobile living. The big advantage here is space - there’s tons of room for couches, beds - even a full bathroom - and you can easily accommodate families and other larger groups. There are also some really impressive skoolie builds out there that are nicer than actual houses, and it’s a whole lot cheaper to convert a bus than to buy a similar-sized RV. Skoolies come in multiple sizes, from “shorties” to full-sized buses.
Skoolies do have significant drawbacks, however. Their size makes them a bit unwieldy to drive, and getting to some of the more out-of-the-way camping spots just won’t be an option. If something goes wrong mechanically, it can be much more expensive to fix than a normal vehicle. Also, the sheer size of these vehicles means the gas mileage is much worse than other options.
But, if you’re traveling with multiple people and you want the best in space, comfort, and flexibility, a skoolie can be a great choice.
A minivan is an excellent choice if you don’t need a whole lot of space and/or if you’re on an especially tight budget. Even though they’re smaller than a full-size van, you can still build a nice, functional interior inside of a minivan. Plus, they’re cheaper to buy and and have better gas mileage than larger vehicles.
This category includes any type of minivan, but old Chevy Astros/GMC Safaris are especially popular for diy van builds. Check out IntotheMystery13’s Youtube channel to see what he did with an Astro - and for some great tips on building a van in general.
You don’t need an actual van to live vanlife! Truck campers, sedans, Honda Elements, camper trailers, old ambulances, box trucks, sail boats, even bicycles - people are hitting the road and living nomadic lifestyles in all types of rigs.
It’s very inspiring to see all the creative ways that our fellow nomads are using to make even the most unexpected vehicles work as a living situation. And many of the ideas and principles used in custom van builds easily translate to other types of vehicles.
Don’t let not having a van stop you from freeing yourself! We think that vans are awesome, but just know that if you have the desire to live this lifestyle, you can make it work with just about anything.
Testing Your Options
Are you eyeballing a few different types of rigs but aren't sure what to go with? One option is to try renting a van for a short trip. This can be a great way to get a feel for the vehicle and get some ideas for your build.
Outdoorsy is a peer-to-peer rental marketplace where real van owners list their campervans for rent, and they have all kinds of rigs available to test out (if you already have a van, listing it for rent can be a great way to make some extra bucks when you're stationary).
Planning Your Layout
Planning the layout of your new home is one of the most exciting parts of building a van. The possibilities are endless at this point in the build process, and it’s a lot of fun to imagine how everything will fit together.
But laying out your van effectively also takes forethought and some careful planning. You need to figure out how best to cram everything you need into a small space, all while keeping it comfortable and livable.
Here are some things to consider when planning your layout:
- How many people will be living in your van? One, two, three or more? Do you live with pets? More people means more bed space or additional convertible sleeping areas. And don’t forget that you’ll need enough open hangout space for everyone as well.
- How tall are you? If you’re over 6’ tall, layouts where the bed goes across the van will prevent you from comfortably stretching out. But if you’re short, crosswise beds won’t be a problem.
- How much storage space do you need? Do you have a lot of clothes, instruments, equipment, books, or other things you just can’t part with? We highly advise downsizing as much as possible, but you’ll need a place to store everything you’re bringing.
- Do you want to have windows and natural lighting? Windows and natural light help your living space feel bright and open. But windows are less stealthy, and they also prevent you from putting in full-height furniture and storage areas. Some vans already have windows and some don’t, but you can always cover up existing ones or install your own.
- Do you need somewhere to sit and work? If you do computer-based work on the road, consider including a comfortable seating area with a table in your layout. Tables are also great for meals and congregating.
- Do you plan to cook inside your van? If you see yourself doing a lot of cooking, it’s a good idea to include a full kitchen with water tank, counter, sink, fridge and stove. You’ll also want to include enough space for dry food storage.
- Do you have large items like dirt bikes, surfboards, or mountain bikes that you need to haul? Some layouts include storage space for such items inside the van, or you can look at options for hitching them on.
Keeping an Even Weight Distribution
When planning your layout, make sure to even out your van’s weight distribution. This means you’ll want to avoid putting the heavy items (batteries, water tanks, etc.) all on one side.
In our van, we installed the water tank on the driver’s side and the batteries on the passenger’s side to help keep weight evenly distributed.
Making Sure Everything Has Multiple Functions
When you live in such a small space, it’s a good idea to include multi-function items wherever possible. For example, our kitchenette is not just a kitchenette - it’s also a structural support for our pull-out queen-sized bed frame.
Designing your layout with an eye towards multiple uses for everything will help you include all the functionality you need while still creating a comfortable and inviting space.
Examples of Common Van Layouts
The layout of your van is very personal - there isn’t one magic floor plan that will suit everyone’s needs. But there are quite a few tried-and-true layouts that work well in different situations. Even if you go your own way, exploring different layout ideas is a great way to get inspiration.
Fixed Rear Bed Platform Layouts
This is the layout we have in our van. It’s also probably the most widely-used van layout in general - variations of this floor plan can be found in many different campervans, including VW Westfalias.
The Westy version of this layout features a futon-style bed that flips up into a couch during the day, and full-height storage along one side. Other variations of this layout have bed frames that pull out to full length (like our queen-sized pullout bed frame) - or if you’re shorter than 6 feet you can lay across the van.
This layout is a simple all-around performer, but its biggest strength is all the storage space underneath the fixed bed platform. We keep four instruments, backpacking gear, workout equipment, tools, a spare solar panel, extra water, books, and our AGM batteries under ours. There’s a ton of space!
The drawback is that the space taken up by the bed is not functional hangout space when your van is in “day” mode, so it’s overall more cramped. But if you have a lot of larger items to store, a fixed rear bed platform is probably your best bet.
Lengthwise Bed Layouts
These layouts typically feature a lengthwise bed that functions as a couch during the day and pulls out into a wider bed at night. The middle of the van is open from front to back, with the bed and storage on one side and the kitchen unit on the other.
This type of layout is great for organization and easy access to your things. You can have shelving and cabinets down both sides, and store more stuff underneath your bed. One downside is that the central “hallway” can make this layout feel cramped and closed in.
Convertible Dinette Layouts
This layout combines the best of the first two floor plans. The back of the van functions as a dining area with spacious table during the day, then converts into a bed at night. Some van builders set the dinette on a raised platform with storage underneath.
This type of layout offers tons of storage space (though not as much as fixed platform layouts) and easy organization. The convertible bed design also means that the entire van is usable hangout space during the day - there’s no “dead” space.
The downside is that it could be a process converting your van into “bed mode” every night. It also doesn’t have as much storage space as fixed platform layouts, which could be a problem if you have bulky items like bikes, surf boards, or instruments.
Kitchen Behind the Cab Layouts
Many DIY campervans have kitchen units that are directly behind the cab, sealing it off from the rest of the van. These layouts offer increased privacy and stealthiness, especially if you completely wall off the cab, and open up some space in the back of the van. This layout can be paired with a lengthwise bed, fixed bed, or convertible dinette bed. You can also place your propane and water connections right by the door, making refill easier.
We’re personally not the biggest fans of this layout - we like the ability to move from the living area to the cab without having to exit the van. But it does allow for a lot of creativity with the rest of your floor plan and has a lot of stealth camping benefits.
Where to Put the Kitchen?
You can easily flip any of these layouts around left to right or front to back and still make a functional van. So where’s the best place to put your kitchen? Should it go on the passenger side or the driver’s side? Behind the cab or in the back?
It all depends on what you care about most. Putting your kitchen by the side door could simplify refilling your water and propane tanks. Putting it behind the driver’s seat creates a nice, open feel in your van. Right behind the cab makes your van more private, while all the way in the back is a different twist on most van layouts out there. Some vanlifers even have kitchens that pull out of the trunk on drawers for cooking outside.
Resources and More Example Layouts
Designing and Testing Your Layout
So you’ve got tons of ideas for your van swimming around in your head. How do you go about making them into reality?
The first step is to draw out your ideas. The easiest way to do this is with a pad of graph paper, a mechanical pencil, and a ruler. This allows you to quickly sketch layout concepts, see how everything fits (or doesn’t fit), and work out potential problems. Be sure to draw your layouts to scale - say, one inch = one foot.
After you’ve decided on a basic layout, it’s time to test it in your van. We blocked out our layout on our van’s floor using painter’s tape. Some vanlifers even construct full-scale mockups out of scrap wood and cardboard. If you have the extra time, this will really help you iron out any issues before you start actually building.
Planning Your Layout with SketchUp
Computer-based layout tools like SketchUp are another option for planning your van build. SketchUp is a free 3D design tool that can really help you visualize your van’s interior. It has a bit of a learning curve, but there are some great tutorials out there going over how to use SketchUp to design your van.
Do You Need a Bathroom?
A bathroom setup is something you may think you need at first, but there are a lot of tradeoffs that in our opinion make installing a bathroom just not worth it:
- Bathrooms take up a lot of space - which is already at a premium inside a van.
- There’s a potential risk of unpleasant smells overtaking your living space.
- You’ll have to deal with dumping your waste somehow.
- There are so many easily accessible places to go to the bathroom that having one in your van just isn’t necessary.
So how and where do you go to the bathroom on the road?
Our Choice: Public Restrooms and/or a Poop Shovel
The idea of not having your own bathroom nearby can be incredibly intimidating, but we’ve found that this is actually one of the easiest parts of vanlife. Public restrooms are plentiful throughout North America, and we’ve never not had a bathroom when we needed one. Gas stations, truck stops, Walmarts, McDonald’s - you name it, we’ve done some business there.
What about when you’re camping? Well, most campgrounds (including many free National Forest and BLM campgrounds) have some sort of bathroom situation. If there’s not an actual running water bathroom, you’ll typically find pit toilets (aka vault toilets), which are basically much nicer/cleaner permanent porta-potties. We also recommend picking up a good poop shovel for those times you’re camping in a wilderness area without bathrooms.
But what if you really, really, really need to go right now and you can’t just step outside? This is where an emergency pee bottle comes in handy. We keep an old Nalgene water bottle in the van for this purpose. It holds a lot of volume and it’s spill proof. Just make sure not to use it for drinking!
If You Really Want One: Bathroom Installations and Portable Toilets
If you hate the idea of not having your own bathroom and you’re okay with giving up the space, it’s completely possible to put a toilet in your van.
Installing a full-blown RV toilet and blackwater tank is generally too expensive and complex for the typical van build, but there are some portable options:
- Porta-Potty: Camco 5.3 Gallon Portable Toilet. This little toilet has a flush tank and separate holding tank for your waste. Odors are controlled using chemicals, just like in a porta-potty. These types of toilets are relatively inexpensive, but remember - you’ll need to dump your waste somehow.
- Composting Toilet: Nature’s Head Dry Composting Toilet. Much more expensive but also more pleasant and environmentally-friendly. Just drop your load and add some peat moss/sawdust, and your toilet will naturally break down your poop into compost. If the Nature’s Head toilet is out of your price range, you can also try making your own composting toilet.
- Budget Toilet: Luggable Loo. With the Luggable Loo from Reliance Products, you can turn any 5-gallon bucket into a portable toilet for your van. Make sure to line your bucket with a trash bag or toilet waste bag - then once you’ve done your “doodie” just tie up the bag and dump it in the trash. Reliance also sells deodorant chemicals that will make it easier to live with your new roommate
Again, we really think having a toilet in your van is unnecessary - there are bathrooms all over the place, and there are better ways to use the space. But if you want more information on putting a toilet in your van, this page from Build a Green RV is an excellent resource.
Part of the reality of living in a van is that you probably won’t be able to shower every single day. This is easier for some than it is for others.
We’ve met people on the road who hate going more than a couple of days without a shower, so they’ve built or bought elaborate shower setups for their vans. And there are others (like us) who are totally fine going a week or two without a shower.
Whatever your shower preferences, there are tons of options for taking a shower on the road, from portable systems you can bring with you to inexpensive public showers. Here are some of the most common:
- Shower at a Gym. For $20 per month you and a guest can get access to every Planet Fitness location, and with over 1,400 clubs throughout North America you’ll never be far from a shower. Many other gyms and YMCAs also offer free trial memberships if there isn’t a Planet Fitness around.
- State Parks/Developed Campgrounds. Every once in awhile, it’s kind of nice to stay at a state park or other developed campground - and a big reason why is that they have showers (and sometimes laundry, too). This is what we’ve done most often when we need a shower on the road. Many state parks also have small day use fees if you don’t want to actually camp there.
- Truck Stops. Sometimes you might end up spending the night at a truck stop, and most of them have shower facilities you can use. They tend to be a bit pricey - something like $10 or more - but if you really need a shower this is definitely an option.
- Solar Shower. For easy, inexpensive showering in wilderness locations, nothing beats a good solar shower. This is basically a bag of water that you leave out in the sun until it heats up, then hang it from a high place and shower using the attached nozzle. 5-gallon solar showers should get you about 5 minutes of good water flow. There are also pricier but more convenient pump-operated solar showers that you can buy.
- Electric Portable Shower. Electric showers like the Big Kahuna Portable Shower feature a 12V submersible water pump and a holding tank that let you shower anywhere - just fill up the tank and turn it on. However, if you want a hot shower you’ll need to preheat the water somehow.
- Buy (or Build) a Road Shower. Essentially a black water-filled tube with a spray nozzle that you mount on your roof racks, a road shower is a solar shower on steroids. You can buy a ready-made one, or build your own out of PVC pipe.
- Portable Tankless Water Heater. If you’re serious about your showers, then look into getting a portable tankless water heater. These run off of propane to deliver on-demand hot water, and you can even pair this with a pump to pull water from a nearby water source.
- Desperation Move: Baby Wipe Shower. Sometimes a real shower just isn’t available. In those situations, cleaning yourself with baby wipes will do in a pinch.
Solar and Electrical
Having electricity on the road is essential, especially if you want to refrigerate food, see at night, and do computer-based work on the road. But it’s also one of the most intimidating aspects of any van build.
How much power do you use? What kind of solar panels should you get? How much does all this cost? What do you really need to get started? How do you install everything?
These are all questions we had when we started with our build, and we’ve compiled all our research, recommendations, and resources below.
Our Choice: Build Your Own System (Cheapest but Most Complex)
We had absolutely zero experience with electrical work before we built our van, but we found a ton of really helpful information out there on the internet. We even wrote a detailed post about how we wired our electrical system that walks you through everything we did.
That said, working with electricity can be dangerous, and you should be sure you know what you’re doing before you dive in. If you have any electrician friends, this might be a good time to bribe them with beer.
Every DIY solar setup has a few main components:
- Solar Panels. These take sunlight and convert it into electricity.
- Batteries. These store all of your electricity that you’ll use to power everything.
- Charge Controller. This takes the current flowing from your solar panels, regulates it, and charges your batteries at the optimal rate.
- Battery Monitor. This shows you useful information, including how charged your batteries are. With lead-acid batteries, going below 50% charge may damage them.
- Inverter. This converts the 12V DC current from your batteries into 110V AC current that you can use for charging computers or using other things that have a standard wall plug.
- Wiring and Fuses. These connect everything together and add an element of safety.
We also recommend adding a battery isolator, which charges your batteries from your vehicle’s alternator while driving.
You can buy full solar kits that have all the components you’ll need except for the batteries and inverter. Kits come sized as small as 100 watts (one panel) and as large as 400 watts (four panels). Whatever you go with, we highly suggest getting an MPPT charge controller, which are a little more expensive but much more efficient than PWM charge controllers.
Here are the main components that we recommend for a basic electrical system:
- Renogy 200-watt Solar Panel Kit with 40A MPPT Charge Controller. You can always add more solar panels as needed.
- (2) VMAXTanks 125ah Deep Cycle AGM Batteries. VMAX also makes 155ah and 100ah batteries if you need more or less capacity.
- Xantrex Pro-Watt 1000W Pure Sine Wave Inverter. While you could get away with a smaller inverter, this 1000W inverter will grow with your power needs. Pure sine wave is the only choice if you have any complex electronics like computers. The optional remote switch is a worthwhile add-on.
- Keyline Chargers Smart Battery Isolator. This battery isolator is simple to install and does the job.
- Blue Sea Systems Blade Fuse Box with Negative Bus and Blade Fuses.
- Inline Fuse Holders, ANL Fuses, Wiring, Safety Cutoff Switches and 12V/USB Outlets.
This setup will cost you somewhere around $1500-$1600, but it should take care of all your basic power needs (unless you’re regularly running things that draw a lot of power, like televisions, air conditioners, or power tools). If you need more charging power, you can always plug additional solar panels into the system.
Electricity was something we didn’t want to worry about at all in our van, so we went big from the beginning. We bought Renogy's 400-watt solar kit and two VMAX 155ah batteries. We mounted three of the panels on our van’s roof, and the fourth we attached to a folding stand made out of PVC so we could roll it out as needed. While the system works great and keeps us charged up, in hindsight it was a little bit of overkill - especially since we added a battery isolator.
Installing Your Electrical System
And here are some other resources we've found to be helpful:
If the idea of wiring your own system is a bit too intimidating and you have a larger budget to work with, then buying a self-contained system like the Goal Zero Yeti 1250 is an option. The Yeti features a 105ah lithium battery, solar charge controller, inverter, and outlets all contained in one unit. It’s about as plug-and-play as you can get.
You’ll still need to add solar panels to the mix, and for that we recommend getting one or two 100-watt panels from Renogy. Goal Zero makes solar panels as well, but they’re way overpriced in our opinion.
While this system is dead simple to install and operate, the big downside here is cost. For about the same price as a Yeti, you can buy a complete system with greater capacity. And that’s before you add the solar panels that you’ll need to keep the Yeti charged.
Charge Batteries from your Alternator: Keyline Chargers Dual Battery Smart Isolator
If you find yourself in overcast climates or heavily forested areas for an extended period, solar panels alone may not be enough to keep your batteries fully charged. When we first spent several days camping in the deep woods, we ran into issues with excessive battery drain. So we installed a battery isolator to help supplement our solar panels.
A battery isolator allows your vehicle’s alternator to charge your auxiliary batteries while you drive, and keeps everything separated so you don’t drain your starting battery. Since we installed our Keyline Chargers Dual Battery Smart Isolator, our batteries are almost always fully charged. It’s also very simple to install - the toughest part is running the cable inside your van from the engine compartment.
Other Electrical Options: Shore Power and Generators
While we think a battery isolator and a 200-watt solar kit provide more than enough power for most vanlifers, some people may want additional ways to generate electricity and charge up their batteries. Especially if you’re planning on running power-hungry electronics like TVs and air conditioners, adding a generator and/or shore power hookups will help you deal with the extra load.
Connecting to Shore Power: Renogy 1000W Inverter/Charger
If you’re staying at developed campgrounds, many sites have electrical hookups that allow you to plug in to run electronics and charge up your batteries. To do this, you’ll need a charging unit like this 1000W Inverter/Charger from Renogy.
These units take 20A or 30A power input, and also include a built-in pure sine wave inverter for running your sensitive electronics. You can either run a cable inside, or attach a power inlet to your van (like this 20A power inlet or this 30A power inlet). Renogy also makes a 2000W Inverter/Charger if you need more power.
Having the ability to plug in to shore power gives you more flexibility in charging your batteries, and it doesn’t add all that much cost to a build (about an additional $200 over a solar-only setup). We’ve definitely been in situations where our batteries were running low in a forested area and we wished we had hookups.
Shore power isn’t strictly necessary, but it’s also good to have as a backup.
This generator from Champion Power comes highly recommended, and it can produce enough electricity to run a 15,000 BTU RV air conditioner. It’s also relatively quiet (for a generator - they’re all pretty damn loud), and it can run off either gasoline or propane.
Generators take up a lot of space, so you might want to hitch it to the back of your van with a cargo hitch attachment. They’re also pricey, loud, and annoying. You won’t make many friends outside of an RV park if you’re running one of these. But they’re also just about the only option for powering an AC in a van.
LED lighting is basically the only choice for your van build. The style of lights you pick comes down to personal preferences, but they should be LED and able to work on a 12V system.
LED lights have several advantages that make them perfect for DIY van conversions:
- They’re energy efficient. This means they won’t be a huge drain on your battery.
- They last forever. Most LEDs are rated to last 50,000 hours. That means you could leave your lights on 24/7 for nearly 6 years before they burned out.
- They don’t give off heat. This is very important in a small space. You don’t want your lights making those sweltering summer nights even hotter.
- They come in a variety of hues. Love the warm feel of incandescent lighting? Get some soft white LED lights. Prefer the harshness of bluer light? Pick up bright white LEDs. Whatever your preference, there’s a tone to match.
- They’re cheap. It won't cost much to light your whole van.
12V LED Puck Lighting
We have LED puck lights in our van. Puck lights are typically recessed into the ceiling, so they have a very clean look that’s really integrated with your van. It’s also easy to create different lighting zones by running your lights off different switches. We have six puck lights in the main living area that are controlled by one switch, and two more over the bed that run off a separate switch.
Of all the LED lighting options, puck lights are the most difficult to install. You’ll have to run wiring behind the ceiling/walls for each light. And you’ll need to cut a hole with a hole saw to recess the lights into the ceiling. But with some preparation and care it's not too difficult. We have full instructions for installing LED puck lights in our epic electrical post.
12V LED Strip Lighting
LED strip lighting is another way to put simple and attractive lights inside your van. Strip lighting is typically sold in 5 meter (16.4 ft) lengths, and you’ll probably need about two strips - one for each side of your van. This type of lighting produces an even glow throughout.
Since there’s less wiring involved, installing LED strip lights is much simpler than puck lights. You also won’t need to cut any holes because strip lighting should come with its own adhesive. We’ve seen most vanlifers stick strip lighting down the side edges of their ceilings. However, it’s not as easy to create separate lighting zones as it is with puck lights.
LED Xmas lights
Recommended Dimmer Switches
LED lights can be incredibly bright when they’re on full force, and we don’t always want to be blinded when we’re inside our van. Running lights at full brightness also consumes a whole lot more power than running them at a lower intensity.
We strongly recommend wiring your LED lights to a dimmer switch so you can control the brightness. You’ll use less electricity, and your van will be much more comfortable.
Here are some good dimmer switch options:
Insulating Your Van
Insulation is often the first step in any diy van build, and it’s also one of the most misunderstood. There’s a lot of misconceptions and incorrect information about van insulation out there, and many people end up wasting money and time on unnecessary steps and products.
So what is the best way to insulate a DIY campervan? Below, we go over everything you need to know about insulation, the different products out there, and how best to use them.
A Primer on Insulation and R-Values
There are two types of heat transfer that we’re insulating against when we build a van: radiation and conduction.
Radiation is heat transferred through air or a vacuum- think the heat radiating off of a fire. In a van, the biggest source of radiant heat is your windows. Sunlight (radiant heat) shines in through the windows and heats up the inside of your van. Using a reflective window covering will help deflect radiant heat and keep your van cool. Reflective surfaces also help keep radiant heat inside the van during the winter.
Conduction is heat transferred across solid surfaces- think touching a hot stove. It’s also how heat gets out of your van in the winter. The heat inside your van is conducted through the solid surface of your walls and ceiling. Insulating the inside of your van will help prevent heat loss through conduction during the winter, and will also stop your van from conducting the sun’s heat inside during the summer.
Why You Want Thicker Insulation on the Ceiling
The third type of heat transfer, convection, means that hot air naturally rises to the ceiling. Because of this, insulating your ceiling is most important for keeping your van warm. If you can spare the height, we recommend using thicker insulation on the ceiling.
What is R-Value?
R-value is a measure of a material’s Resistance to heat transfer by conduction. Space is at a premium when you’re living in a van, so we usually want to use insulation with a higher R-value per inch.
What Type of Insulation Should You Use?
There are many different types of insulation material out there, and some are a much better choice for vans than others. We generally recommend two insulation schemes, depending on your budget and your priorities:
Option 1: Sheep's Wool Insulation
- WALLS, CEILING, AND DOOR PANELS: Sheep's Wool Insulation
- FLOOR: ½” Extruded Polystyrene Foam Board
- FRAME AND FILL-IN: Sheep's Wool Insulation
Sheep's wool insulation is a good insulator, it's environmentally friendly, and it has natural moisture management properties that will help control condensation in your van. It's also a natural sound absorber, so you may be able to save on additional sound dampening materials. And, vs foam board, it's much easier to install without making mistakes.
But, sheep's wool is a bit more expensive than rigid foam board, and it's tougher to get (you can't just go to the hardware store, you have to order it online). But if you're okay with these tradeoffs, then we think it's one of the best options for insulating your camper van. We plan on using it in the near future for van build #2.
Option 2: Rigid Foam Board Insulation
- WALLS: ¾” - 1” Rigid Foam Board Insulation
- CEILING: 1” - 2” Rigid Foam Board Insulation
- DOOR PANELS: Fiberglass Batts, Rigid Foam Board Insulation, or Reflectix
- FLOOR: ½” minimum Extruded Polystyrene Foam Board
- FRAME AND FILL-IN: Great Stuff Gaps and Cracks Spray Foam Insulation
Rigid foam board is cheap, easily available, and effective. It has the highest R-value per inch of just about any insulation material, and you can insulate an entire van with it for less than $200. This is what we used to insulate our current van, and we highly recommend it if you're on a tighter budget or short deadline.
But, proper installation is vitally important when working with foam board - you don't want to create a situation where moist air can become trapped behind the insulation, since it can condense and potentially cause rust issues over time. Rigid foam board products are also derived from petroleum, and some products may have environmental concerns associated with them.
Sheep's Wool Insulation: Eco-Friendly with Moisture Management Properties
Sheep's wool insulation is our top choice for insulating a camper van. It's effective as an insulator, but more than that it eliminates some problems that plague most vanlife insulation schemes.
Condensation can be a big issue when you live in a van. Most other types of insulation either soak up moisture or may cause it to become trapped, creating problems down the road. Sheep's wool insulation is entirely breathable, allowing moisture and condensation to naturally evaporate out of your van. This also means you don't have to worry about installing it incorrectly, like you do with foam insulation.
Sheep's wool is environmentally friendly, and doesn't carry any of the concerns around production methods, off-gassing VOCs, or toxicity that comes with most other insulation materials. It's also a natural sound absorber, and even helps purify your air (and air quality is extremely important in a small space).
The downsides to sheep's wool are availability and cost. You can't just run out to the hardware store to pick some up - you have to order it online, which means shipping costs (generally about 20%-25% on top of the material cost). Sheep's wool is more expensive than rigid foam board, and thus might not be an option for budget builds. But it's also much cheaper than other widely-used insulation materials like rock wool or Thinsulate.
Rigid Foam Board Insulation: Cheap and Effective Workhorse
Rigid foam board is an excellent choice for insulating a van conversion. It’s the biggest bang for your buck by far, and it gives you high R-value without sacrificing too much internal space.
We recommend using ¾” to 1” thick foam board insulation on the walls of your van, and 1” to 2” thick foam board on your ceiling. You can also use foam board to insulate your door panels. For floor insulation, extruded polystyrene foam board is a good choice.
Polyiso is a bit more expensive than other foam board, but it has the highest R-value per inch at R-6. And it’s typically foil-faced on one side, so if you install it with an airgap (or just don’t put walls up over it) you’ll also get the benefit of a radiant heat barrier.
Polyiso should be your first choice of insulation for the walls and ceiling of your van. But, it can be tougher to find than extruded polystyrene, so if your local store doesn’t carry it XPS will do the job.
Extruded Polystyrene: Recommended
Extruded polystyrene (XPS) has a high R-value per inch at R-5, and it’s a little bit cheaper than polyiso. We recommend using XPS to insulate walls and ceilings if you can’t find polyiso anywhere.
XPS has very high compressive strength, which means you can stand on it without damaging it. For this reason, if you choose to insulate your floor we recommend using a thin sheet of XPS (½” or thinner). It’s so strong that you can even use it to make lightweight cabinets for your van.
Expanded Polystyrene: Not Recommended
Expanded polystyrene (EPS) is an open-celled foam board (think styrofoam) that is the cheapest of all the foam boards. It does work, but we generally don’t recommend using EPS in your van. It insulates less than XPS (R-4 per inch), and the gaps between the foam cells allow moisture to penetrate, which degrades the insulation over time. Polyiso and XPS are much better choices for a slightly higher cost.
Spray Foam: Gaps, Cracks, and Fill In
Making sure any holes in your insulation are sealed off and filled helps your insulation really do its job. Great Stuff Gaps and Cracks spray foam insulation is the best way to fill in any space around your foam boards, and to insulate any hard-to-reach spots. You can also spray this into the hollow vehicle frame for insulation (you’ll need a whole bunch of cans for this).
It is possible to insulate an entire van with nothing but spray foam. But you’ll need to buy an expensive kit, and it would be very easy to make a complete mess of your van if you don’t know what you’re doing. Foam board insulation is much cheaper, easier to install, and insulates nearly as well.
Some diy van converters have used Great Stuff as the adhesive to glue polyiso boards to the inside of their vans.
Fiberglass Insulation: Use Sparingly
Fiberglass insulation is great for insulating door panels. The inside of your door panels are usually covered up dead space, and filling them with fiberglass batts is a cheap way to insulate your doors really well. We also used fiberglass to insulate the frame of our van, which works fine, but if we had to do it again we’d use spray foam.
We don’t recommend using fiberglass to insulate other areas of your van. Sure, it’s cheap, but the R-value per inch is very low (about R-3.7 per inch… an R-13 batt is 3-½” thick!), so getting an effective level of insulation takes up way too much interior space.
And, fiberglass is definitely not something you want to breathe in or get on your skin. Anywhere you do use fiberglass should be fully covered to prevent particles from getting into the air. It’s also a good idea to cover fiberglass batts with trash bags when installing them to really make sure nothing will get out.
If you do go with fiberglass, make sure the stuff you get is formaldehyde-free.
Reflectix: Don’t Use This Incorrectly
If you search “how to insulate a campervan” on Google, you’ll find many videos, blog posts, and instructions recommending that you line the whole interior with Reflectix and put more insulation or your walls directly on top of it. This is not correct, and if you do this you’re just wasting money.
Reflectix is essentially a sheet of bubble wrap covered in reflective foil. It’s effective as a radiant heat barrier but does almost nothing for conductive heat. It definitely has its uses in a van conversion, but most people have a fundamental misunderstanding of how Reflectix works.
Reflectix only works if there is an air gap next to it - Reflectix themselves recommend at least a ¾” gap between their material and the area to be insulated. This is the case because Reflectix is a radiant heat barrier, and when you put it right up against your van walls the foil cannot reflect back radiant heat (remember, radiant heat is only transmitted through air or a vacuum). If there is not an air gap, the insulating power of Reflectix is very low.
So how do you best use Reflectix in a van build?
In the summer months, your windows will be one of the primary ways that heat gets into your van. Because of its reflectivity, Reflectix works great as a window covering to reflect radiant heat away from your windows. And, if you’re concerned about height in your van, layering Reflectix under your subfloor is a good way to add a little insulation (R-1.1) without sacrificing headroom.
Reflectix can also be used to line areas where there’s a natural air gap (such as the inside of door panels or cabinet interiors).
We do not recommend using Reflectix to insulate your walls or ceiling. Without an air gap, the R-value of Reflectix is about R-1. Even if you have the recommended ¾” air gap next to the Reflectix, the R-value per inch is less than R-3. There are much more efficient and cost-effective insulation materials out there for these purposes - you’ll be better off filling the space with rigid foam board.
Insulated Window Curtains with Insul-Shine
Most of the radiant heat entering your van comes in through your windows. To help mitigate this, we made insulated window curtains using Insul-Shine reflective batting and dark blue fabric sewn together. Like Reflectix, Insul-shine features a reflective surface that reflects radiant heat.
Our curtains are also reversible, so they help out in both hot and cold weather. When it’s hot out during the day, we face the reflective side outwards to reflect heat away from the van. On cold days and nights, we turn the reflective side inwards to prevent radiant heat from escaping.
Eclipse Sunshade Retractable Windshield Covering
If you have leftover Reflectix, you can easily make your own reflective windshield covering. But if you want something that's much easier to set up and take down, we highly recommend getting an Eclipse Sunshade retractable windshield covering.
This awesome piece of equipment permanently mounts on either side of your windshield and accordions out when you need it - simply pull the two sides to the center of the windshield, where they attach together with heavy duty velcro.
We've had our Eclipse Sunshade since 2016, and it's easily one of our favorite things we've ever installed on our van. And we have beat ours up over the years, and it still looks and functions like new.
WANT AN ECLIPSE SUNSHADE? Buy yours using this link to receive a 3% discount off your order!
Installation and Resources
If you’re looking for even more info, we wrote a detailed post all about insulation that digs into the hows and whys, and digs into different materials We also wrote a detailed post on how we insulated our van that goes over installing rigid foam board, filling gaps with spray foam, and insulating our door panels with fiberglass.
You absolutely need a vent fan when you live in a vehicle full time. Your vent fan will help keep your van cool and free of condensation, and the airflow is a lifesaver in hot weather. You’ll also need to keep it running while you cook inside the van to suck out any fumes.
Vent fans start with basic, no-frills, three-speed units and go all the way up to expensive fans with thermostats, rain sensors, and remote controls. Here’s what we recommend:
Our Choice: Maxxair Maxxfan Deluxe with Built-in Rain Cover
We don’t have a Maxxfan Deluxe on our van, but we would install one if we had to do it again. The Maxxfan’s biggest selling point is its built-in raincover. The ability to open your vent and run your fan while it’s raining is critical, and the raincover on this fan lets you do that while still looking sleek and low-profile.
The Maxxfan Deluxe has 10 speeds, reversible airflow, and a thermostat, and it can run in “ceiling fan mode” for air circulation. Maxxair also makes a version of the Maxxfan Deluxe with a remote control.
The Alternative: Fan-Tastic Vent 7350
This is what we have on our van. The Fan-Tastic Vent 7350 has all the bells and whistles, including 14 speeds, reversible airflow, thermostat, remote control, and rain sensor. While this is an excellent product from a great company, the rain sensor and lack of a rain cover prevent you from using your fan while it’s raining.
We added Fan-Tastic’s Ultra Breeze Vent Cover so that we can run our fan in any weather, and the setup works fine (although it looks like a big shark fin on top of our van). This fan is more expensive than the Maxxfan, and that’s before you add the raincover.
Budget Option: Fan-Tastic Vent 1200
If you want to spend as little as possible on a vent fan, the Fan-Tastic Vent 1200 (about $130) is your best bet. This fan has three speeds and manual controls, and it has the same quiet operation and energy efficiency of Fan-Tastic’s other fans. If you find that you need to use it while it’s raining, it’s easy to add on an Ultra-Beeze Vent Cover later on.
Air Circulation: Fan-Tastic Endless Breeze 12V Box Fan
Sometimes you need a bit more air circulation than you can get with a vent fan. That’s where the Fan-Tastic Endless Breeze 12V box fan comes in handy. This fan has three speeds, low power draw (1.2ah - 2.6ah), and plugs into a regular 12V car outlet.
We use this fan for extra circulation when it’s hot, and to get the air moving when it’s cold at night and we have all the windows closed. We also keep it on for our dogs while we’re driving. There are cheaper 12V fans out there, but generally the cheaper the fan the more power it draws. The Endless Breeze is a great little fan, and it’s definitely worth getting for the added ventilation.
Installing Your Vent Fan
Cutting a big hole in your roof sounds intimidating, but it’s actually a lot of fun. If you follow a few simple steps, you’ll have your vent fan installed in no time. Check out our blog post on installing our vent fan for step-by-step instructions:
You’ll also need to run wiring and hook the fan into your electrical system. We wrote an epic guide to setting up solar and electrical in a van build that should get you started.
The refrigeration setup in your van is an area where you really do get what you pay for, whether you’re paying in money or in time. The best options are the most expensive. The cheapest options are a pain and/or don’t work very well. And if you try to save money with a DIY refrigerator setup, you could end up spending a lot of time on installation.
But even though you may spend a bit more up front, it’s much cheaper over time to have a good refrigerator in your van instead of a cooler or no refrigeration at all.
No refrigeration means you’re limited in what you can cook on the road, and chances are you’ll end up spending more money eating out. Having a cooler as your fridge means you’ll need to buy ice frequently to keep everything cold - and that cost adds up. Not to mention the constant pain of dumping melted ice and dealing with water-logged food.
Investing in a refrigerator for your van means you can store vegetables, meat, dairy products, and even beer. It means you can save money by cooking in your van, all while eating healthy fresh foods instead of processed meals. And if you have a good solar power system, you can keep your food cold with nothing but sunlight.
Why Portable 12V Fridges are the Best Option for Adventure Vans
In our opinion, the best kind of fridge you can get for a DIY campervan is a portable 12V fridge/freezer. These fridges are built for adventuring on 4x4 vehicles and boats. They’re very rugged, and they don’t need to be kept perfectly level like mini-fridges. They can run off 12V power or regular 110V. They keep your food as cold as you want, and they can operate as either a fridge or a freezer.
They’re also very energy-efficient, so they won’t be a heavy load on your batteries. The best 12V fridges use highly-efficient compressors that have very low power draw (0.7 - 3.0 Amps per hour, depending on the model and the ambient temperature). They’re also well-insulated and feature top-open lids, which prevent the cold air at the bottom of the fridge from escaping when the lid is open.
There are some downsides - especially cost. This is by far the most expensive van refrigeration option by a few hundred dollars. Some may find it difficult to organize food effectively with the top-open design. And with this type of fridge you won’t get the homey look of a built-in mini-fridge.
But in our minds the energy efficiency and ruggedness of these fridges win out over other concerns. Here are the top fridge choices for your van:
We don't have a Dometic CFX-50 in our van, but we wish we had gotten one for our build. This is a great little fridge that many vanlifers happily own. It’s rugged and durable, and it keeps your food cold for less money than many of the other fridges out there. It also has a nifty side-open lid, which makes it a lot easier to open with a lower clearance.
Another big benefit of this fridge is cost. It’s definitely not cheap, but its less expensive than the ARB 50-qt fridge. It has many similar features, including an automatic low-voltage shutoff to help save your battery. And it has some advanced features of its own, including the ability to control the temperature via a wifi app.
The CFX-50 is also very energy efficient - in our research for our epic post on 12V fridges, we found that it is the most efficient fridge on the market. If you need more or less capacity, Dometic CFX fridges also come in a variety of other sizes, including some that are double-zoned.
Dometic generally makes excellent products - they own the venerable Fan-Tastic brand of vent fans, and also make the ORIGO 3000 Alcohol stove that we recommend, among other things. They’ve also been showing a lot of love for the vanlife community of late.
- More affordable than competitors
- Very energy-efficient
- Operates at extreme angles (up to 30°)
- Interchangeable side-opening lid
- Easy digital controls
- Low voltage shutoff
- All-plastic construction
- Bulky relative to internal volume
Alternative #1: ARB 50-Qt Portable Fridge/Freezer
The ARB fridge 50-Qt Fridge is the best of the best. ARB is an Australian 4x4 accessories company, and all of their products are built to withstand just about anything. The ARB fridge is extremely rugged, and features powder-coated zinc steel construction for the ultimate in durability. It can take a beating, and works just fine on inclines up to 30°.
This fridge is also very energy-efficient, consuming less power to maintain the target temperature than competitors. And it has an automatic shut off, so it will turn itself off if it senses your battery voltage is too low.
This is the fridge we have in our van, and we couldn’t be happier with it. We find that the 50-qt size is perfect for at least a week of food for two people, plus a six-pack of beer. If you need more or less capacity, ARB also makes other sizes:
The big downside to the ARB fridge is cost - this is one of the most expensive options. But if you have the cash to spend, you won’t regret it.
- Highly energy-efficient (0.7A - 2.3A draw)
- Rugged coated steel construction
- Operates at extreme angles (up to 30°)
- Easy digital controls
- Low voltage shutoff
- Accessories are Pricey
Alternative #2: Engel MR040 40-Qt Marine Fridge/Freezer
The Engel MR040 is another great fridge that’s built to be taken anywhere. Made of durable ABS plastic, this fridge can withstand being thrown around in the back of a van, all while keeping your food cold and being nice to your batteries. Many people have these fridges and are very happy with them.
The Engel MR040 is energy-efficient, though not as efficient as the ARB fridge. Like the Dometic CFX-50, the Engel also features an interchangeable side-opening lid for flexibility and easier access when there’s low clearance.
The big downside to the Engel is cost - it costs about the same as the ARB fridge, and it has a smaller capacity. It also doesn’t have a digital temperature control (which some people actually prefer), and there’s no automatic low-voltage shutoff to protect your batteries. And Engel’s latching system could be better.
- Energy-efficient (0.7A - 2.7A draw)
- Rugged and durable
- Operates at extreme angles (up to 30°)
- Interchangeable side-opening lid
- Expensive, especially for its size
- Lid latches are poorly designed
- No digital temperature controls
- No automatic low-voltage shutoff
Budget Option: Passive and Thermo-electric Coolers
If your budget doesn’t allow for a portable 12V fridge and you just want to hit the road, a decent cooler works fine for basic refrigeration. Many vanlifers, including @wheresmyofficenow, began their journey with a cooler and upgraded to a fridge down the road.
There are two types of coolers out there: passive coolers (your typical Coleman or Yeti cooler) and 12V thermoelectric coolers.
These are just your standard coolers that keep food and drinks cold using regular infusions of ice. This is by far the cheapest option. If you have $50 to spend you can keep food cold in your van. High-end coolers can cost up to $400, but they’ll also hold ice for a lot longer.
Passive coolers work just fine for vanlife, but they have the added headache of needing to be replenished with ice every few days. This can be a bummer if you don’t want to leave that sweet campsite and run into town. Ice costs can add up over time, and over a couple of years you’ll have spent as much as you would have on a nice 12V fridge unit.
You’ll also have to worry about dumping ice melt and keeping your food from getting wet.
- Cheap upfront cost
- Keeps food ice cold
- Need to add ice periodically
- Need to dump ice melt and deal with soggy food
High-End Choice: Engel ENG65 High-Performance 65-Qt Cooler
The Engel ENG65 is a 65-quart cooler that can keep ice for up to 10 days, and costs less than marketing-heavy brands like Yeti.
A full 2” of polyurethane insulation all around gives this cooler Yeti-like performance without the overblown Yeti prices.
Budget Choice: Coleman Xtreme 50-Qt Cooler
The Coleman Xtreme holds ice for up to 5 days, and it costs less than $60. Although you'll need to replenish your ice more frequently than with a high end cooler, you really can't beat the price.
If you just need something cheap to throw in the back of your van so you can hit the road, the Coleman Xtreme is a great choice.
Thermoelectric Coolers: Coleman PowerChill 40-Qt
Thermoelectric coolers like the Coleman PowerChill plug into a 12V outlet and will keep your food cold without ice.
But there’s a limit to their cooling ability - they typically can only cool to 40° below the ambient temperature. So, if you’re in temps above 78° you probably shouldn’t store meat or dairy products in one.
Thermoelectric coolers also draw a lot more power than a 12V fridge, so take that into consideration when planning your electrical system.
- Cheaper than a fridge
- Doesn’t need ice
- Only cools to 40° below ambient temperature
- Draws more power than a fridge
DIY Refrigeration Options
With a little electrical ability and some patience, you can convert a regular 110V mini-fridge or freezer into a 12V refrigerator. Doing this could be complex and time-consuming, but it will get you a true refrigerator for a fraction of the cost of buying an ARB or Dometic fridge.
You’ll lose out on some efficiency (because of the extra insulation, freezer conversions are more efficient), but if you’re on a budget and willing to spend the time, this is a great DIY option.
Stoves and Cooking
Our Choice: Dometic ORIGO 3000 2-Burner Alcohol Stove (Easiest and Safest Option)
Most vanlifers go with propane for their cooking needs, but we’re not the biggest fans. Although propane stoves are relatively cheap and safe (for the most part), in our minds there’s too much that can go wrong with regularly using a flammable, pressurized gas inside a small living space.
For that reason, we recommend the Dometic ORIGO 3000 2-burner alcohol stove for your van cooking needs. It runs on denatured alcohol, which you can find by the gallon at most hardware stores and Walmarts, and some camping stores. Fuel cost is about $15 per gallon, which translates into $15-$25 of fuel per month, depending on how much you cook.
The Origo 3000 is dead simple to use. There’s a reservoir underneath each burner, and to fill them you simply remove the reservoirs and pour alcohol into the top. To light the stove, you turn the knob to fully open and stick in a lighter.
Since this stove runs off of unpressurized fuel, there’s no risk of explosion. And denatured alcohol is cleaner-burning and produces fewer fumes than propane - which is a huge plus when cooking inside a van.
Alcohol doesn’t burn as hot as propane so it takes a little longer to boil a pot of water. It’s also more difficult to precisely control the flame on an alcohol stove, so getting that perfect low heat can be tough. But our stove still heats up quickly, cooks well, and does everything we need it to do - all while giving us safety and peace of mind.
The Dometic ORIGO 3000 is available at several Marine/RV suppliers in the US, but it’s actually the cheapest on Amazon UK. US suppliers carry this stove for $300+, but we paid about $180 for it from Amazon UK, including shipping to the US.
- Simple to use
- Fuel is cheap and widely available
- Very safe - no risk of explosion and fewer fumes than propane
- Cooks just about everything very well
- More expensive than propane stoves
- Takes a bit longer to boil water
- Flame control not as precise as propane
Budget Alternative: Coleman Classic Propane Camping Stove (Cheapest Option)
If you want the ability to cook inside your van but don’t have a whole lot to spend, your best option is the Coleman Classic propane camping stove. For about $60 you get a sturdy and reliable 2-burner stove that runs off of replaceable 1-lb propane canisters. We’ve seen many people using these out on the road, and they do the job very well. Coleman has hardly changed the design of these stoves for decades, so you know they’re doing something right.
You can use the Coleman Classic both inside and outside your van. 1-lb propane canisters are widely available for a few dollars, or you can buy a hose adaptor that lets you run this stove with refillable 20-lb propane tanks.
The downsides include everything that could go wrong with using propane in an enclosed space, especially explosive fumes and carbon monoxide (make sure you have a CO detector). And buying 1-lb fuel canisters gets expensive after awhile. Having a larger tank is cheaper, but introduces more failure points into the system.
- Reliable, time-tested design
- Fuel is widely available
- Cooks as well as much more expensive propane stoves
- 1-lb propane canisters can get expensive
- Higher risk of dangerous fumes in your living space
Integrated in Your Kitchen: Built-in Propane or Alcohol Cooktops (Most Complex Option)
If you’re willing to spend extra time and money installing a stove and plumbing fuel lines, integrating a built-in cooktop into your build will give you a more permanent kitchen feel in your van. These stoves usually look great, and some even have covers that turn them into counter space when you’re not cooking.
Most cooktops you’ll find are propane, but there are also cooktops that run on denatured alcohol and even diesel.
Basic Propane Cooktop: Atwood DV 20S Stainless Steel 2-Burner Drop-In Stove
Propane Cooktop with Cover: Dometic 2-Burner Teardrop Cooktop with Glass Cover
Propane Cooktop with Sink: Dometic 2-Burner Sink Combo
Built-in Alcohol Stove: Dometic ORIGO 4100 2-Burner Built-In Alcohol Stove
Built-in cooktops are significantly more expensive than portable stoves. Installing them could be complicated, including adding plumbing to connect your cooktop to its fuel source. They also eliminate the freedom to take your stove and cook outside.
But if you want your DIY campervan to really feel like a home, a nice countertop with a built-in stove goes a long way.
- Gives your van a nice homey feel
- Several fuels available: propane, diesel, and denatured alcohol
- Most expensive option
- Installation could be complicated and may involve running fuel lines
- Eliminates the freedom to cook outside
What if You Want an Oven?
You can cook almost anything with pots, pans, and a stove top, so an oven isn’t a necessity. Most vanlifers we know don’t have one. But there are some things that you won’t be able to cook easily without an oven (how best to cook pizza in a van is an ongoing debate).
Oven units can get expensive and take up a lot of space, but if you have the budget and really want an oven here are some options:
Budget Oven Options
Coleman makes a foldable camp oven that sits on top of any camp stove. It’s cheap and it works, but you have to pay constant attention to it while it’s cooking.
Another option is using a solar cooker. Solar cookers harness the power of the sun to heat up food inside a reflective box. You can buy one, or make one yourself. Solar cookers don’t heat up to extremely high temperatures, so plan ahead for longer cooking times.
Water and Plumbing
No matter if you just need drinking water or if you want a full-blown sink setup, having a water source in your van is a must. And though water systems can get quite complicated, they really don’t have to be.
Will you be cooking in your van? If so, you’ll need some way to wash dishes. Do you plan on boondocking away from civilization for extended periods? Then you’ll need to make sure you bring enough water with you, and/or have a good water filter.
Below, we’ve compiled our recommendations, as well as a guide to common van water systems.
Our Choice: Under-Cabinet Manual Pump System
If you really want your van to feel like a home, nothing beats having a built in sink and faucet. A built in sink provides an easy spot inside your van to refill drinking water and wash dishes, and with some planning and a little bit of elbow grease installation isn’t that difficult.
There are a few ways to go about setting up your water system, and you can make it as simple or as complex as you want. But all built-in manual pump systems share the same basic components:
- Manual Water Pump
- Faucet or Spout
- Freshwater Tank
- Gray Water Tank (Waste Tank)
- Sink and Drain
Manual Water Pumps and Faucets
We think a manual water pump is the best choice for vanlife. Manual pumps are easy to use, they don’t require electricity to run, and they help you conserve water.
Our Choice: Whale Systems MKIII Gusher Galley Foot Pump
We have this Whale foot pump in our van, and it works flawlessly. Whale Systems makes excellent products primarily for marine use, but their products also work great as the basis for van water systems.
Before we installed our foot pump we were a little concerned that it would take many foot taps just to fill up our water bottles, but it’s surprising how much water this thing can spew. It’s easy to pump out as much or as little water as you need. And the foot operation means that both of your hands are free for washing.
Installation is also really simple - just screw it to the floor and clamp on the tubing. The Gusher Galley pump has connectors for ½” ID tubing. We found that ½” beverage tubing and hose clamps worked best.
We recommend pairing this pump with Whale’s Telescoping Spout Faucet - although it would be awesome to build your own spout faucet out of pipe and fittings (we’re considering this for our next build).
- Look Ma, no hands!
- Awesome water flow
- Simple to install
- Pricier than hand pumps
- Need to buy a faucet also
The Alternative: Whale Systems Flipper Hand Pump Faucet
If you want a more compact solution and don’t mind losing out on the flexibility of a foot pump, the Whale Flipper hand pump is a great choice. This is a combination hand pump and faucet that works well and is cheaper than buying both a foot pump and a faucet.
Another solid (and cheaper) hand pump option is Whale’s Vertical Self-Priming Pump faucet.
Both pumps accept ½” ID tubing and are easy to install. These hand pumps are good choices for a van build, but for us the lack of hands-free operation is a big downside.
Budget (But Less Reliable) Hand Pump Option: Valterra Rocket Hand Pump and Faucet
- Cheaper than a foot pump
- Easy to install
- Built in faucet
- No hands-free operation
Your freshwater tank stores all the water that you’ll use for drinking and washing. It needs to be made out of FDA-approved material to prevent dangerous chemicals from leaching into your water. It also needs to be big enough for your needs. This will vary from person to person.
At a bare minimum, humans need 0.5 gallons of water per day for survival. We’ve found that between drinking, making coffee and tea, and cleaning up after meals, we use about 1.5 gallons per person per day. So, our 14-gallon water tank plus our 6-gallon portable reserve tank can keep us going in the wild for 6-7 days before we need a refill.
Here are some good choices for water tanks in a manual pump system:
Our Choice: 14-Gallon Stainless Steel Fusti Tank
When we started putting together our water system we decided to look for a stainless steel tank. Even though plastic tank options are FDA-approved for potable water use, we still don’t like the idea of our drinking water being in contact with plastic for extended periods. Sure, they say it’s “safe,” but not long ago water bottles containing BPA were considered to be safe.
After weeks of searching, we stumbled upon this 14-Gallon Stainless Steel Fusti Tank from the winemaking supplier MoreWine. Fusti tanks are designed for wine storage and fermentation - but they also work perfectly as DIY campervan water tanks.
Our fusti tank keeps our water fresh-tasting and chemical-free, and the large top opening makes it easy to refill. We just fill up our 6-gallon reserve tank, dump it in the fusti tank, and repeat until full.
In order to hook this into your water system, you’ll also have to buy the ball valve attachment. The ball valve accepts ⅜” ID beverage tubing, so you’ll need a ½” - ⅜” reducer to attach this to a Whale pump.
If you need greater capacity, MoreWine also carries a 28-gallon Stainless Steel Fusti Tank.
- No risk of chemicals leaching into drinking water
- Large holding capacity
- Easy to install and easy to fill
- Most expensive option
- Round shape is not space-efficient
- Filling can be messy if you’re not careful
The Alternative: Polyethylene Water Tank
Polyethylene water tanks - like this 20-Gallon one - are the standard for RV and marine use. They come in a variety of shapes and sizes, and you can even have them custom-made if you need specific measurements or connector locations.
Installing a polyethylene tank is a bit more complicated because you have to think about how you’re going to fill it. Depending on where you place it, you could have to run a potable water hose inside your van, or install an exterior water connection. Another option that simplifies filling is to position the water tank near your side door.
Polyethylene tanks work just fine and many people use them successfully. But if we’re spending over $100 on a water tank, we’re just more comfortable with a non-plastic option.
- Variety of shapes and sizes
- Relatively inexpensive
- Made for RV’s
- Made of plastic
- More complex installation and filling
Budget Option: Refillable Plastic Water Containers or Water Cooler Jugs
The cheapest and easiest way to supply fresh water to your sink is with refillable plastic water containers. There are many styles available, including jerry-can style containers, the extremely common Aqua-Tainer, or standard 5-gallon water cooler jugs. Which one you go with really depends on personal preference and the dimensions of your kitchen cabinets.
This setup has a few advantages. It’s much cheaper than buying a dedicated water tank. It’s also a whole lot easier to install - just thread the tubing from your water pump straight down into the bottom of the container.
It also simplifies refilling - when your tank runs out, you can pull it out, refill it, and replace it. That means no risk of spilling and no installing a water fill attachment to the outside of your van. You can even carry multiple tanks for greater capacity and just swap them out when they’re empty.
- Cheap and easy!
- Expandable - just add more containers
- Simplest to install and fill
- Will need to change out water more frequently
- Containers are plastic
Grey Water Tank (Waste Tank)
Your waste tank doesn’t need to be anything elaborate - any sort of plastic water container will do. Just keep in mind that you’ll need something small enough to fit under your sink, but large enough to not need emptying every single day.
We have a 5-gallon clear plastic Hedpak container that our sink drains straight down into. We really like this container because it’s clear, which means we can easily see how full it is. With 5 gallons of gray water capacity, we only need to empty it every 3-4 days. Dumping is easy - just remove the tank from under the sink and pour it out into an RV dump facility or other approved area.
If you use biodegradable camp soap like we do, you may be able to dig a hole in the ground (at least 200 feet away from a body of water and away from your campsite), dump your gray water, and cover it back up. Regulations on grey water dumping vary from state to state, so make sure you’re not breaking any laws before doing this.
More Complex Option: Install Grey Water Tank Under Your Van
This involves cutting a hole through your floor to route plumbing and attaching a suitable holding tank to the underside of your vehicle. While this is a whole lot more complex, it does open up some space under your sink for storage. However, dumping won’t be as easy as it is with a portable container.
You can make just about any sink work inside of a van, but we really like this 16” Kingston Brass bar sink because it’s a good size (not too small, not too big), it looks great, and it’s a whole lot more affordable than other bar sinks we found.
You’ll also need a 2” bar sink strainer and a drain pipe from the hardware store (you may have to cut the pipe short or find a flexible one to feed into your gray water tank).
Another great option is the Dometic 2-Burner Cooktop and Sink Combo, which includes an attached propane stove.
Budget Option: Turn a Metal Salad Bowl into an Inexpensive Sink
What kind of tubing to use to connect the dots was incredibly confusing for us at first, and it took us awhile to weigh the options and figure out the best route.
The cheapest and easiest option is to use flexible beverage tubing to connect your water tank, pump, and faucet. Beverage tubing is available in whatever diameter you need, the most common being ½” and ⅜”.
Some people choose to use PEX tubing in their van builds. PEX is very common in household plumbing, but it’s not the best choice for most van builds. We tried using it at first, and it turned out to be nothing but a headache.
The trouble with PEX is that it requires special tools and fittings for installation, which dramatically adds to the cost. PEX also comes in sizes that are slightly off from the sizes you need for the pumps and faucets that we recommend, so it just won’t fit properly.
For ease of installation and overall quality, beverage tubing is the way to go.
More Complex Alternative: Adding an Electric Pump
The downside is a more complex installation process, including wiring and electrical. This is also the most expensive option. You’ll need to buy the water pump itself, an accumulator tank and strainer.
Having nonstop running water also means you’ll likely waste more water and will need bigger tanks for both fresh and gray water.
- Real running water!
- A permanent sink really makes a van feel like a home
- More complex installation, including electrical
- Most expensive option
- Potential to waste more water - you’ll probably need larger tanks for fresh and grey water.
Installation and Resources
Our detailed blog post on our water system install is still in the works. In the meantime, here are some resources that we found helpful:
- Running Water in My Van - Installing the Water System (Vandogtraveller)
- Install Fresh and Grey Water Systems (Buildagreenrv)
- Plumbing System (Sprinter Van Diaries)
- Tiny Home / Stealth Camper / Van Conversion Water System (Youtube)
- Campervan DIY Water System Install (Youtube)
Budget Option: Water Cooler Jugs with Dolphin Hand Pump and Folding Sink
Many vanlifers we’ve met use this inexpensive system as a basic way to store and use water in a van. This setup consists of a standard 5-gallon water cooler jug paired with a Dolphin hand water pump, which easily pumps out water for drinking, hand washing, and cleaning dishes.
5-gallon water jugs are widely available almost anywhere, and you can easily increase your water capacity by carrying several with you. When you finish one jug, just swap the pump onto the next one.
When you need a refill, you can exchange your empty jugs for full ones anywhere that sells water cooler jugs. Or just fill them up at your campground or other water source on the road.
The best thing about this option is that it’s extremely affordable - for less than $50, you can buy two water jugs, a hand pump, and a portable wash basin. And you’ll still have almost all the functionality of a more complex and expensive system.
- Cheap and simple
- Easy to setup - no plumbing required
- Multiple ways to refill - water exchanges widely available
- Washing requires more work than a permanent sink setup
- You’ll need to dump wastewater every time you use the sink
Washing Dishes with a Folding Camp Sink
If you go with this budget water jug option, chances are you won’t be installing a permanent sink - in which case you’ll need a basin for washing dishes. Folding camp sinks are inexpensive, pack away easily, and work perfectly for a cheap vanlife sink setup.
Camp sinks come in a few different styles, from double basin folding sinks to collapsible bucket-style basins.
Here are some good options:
Where to Find Water on the Road
Once you’re on the road, where exactly do you find fresh water? Here’s a quick guide to some common methods.
Refill Stations at Walmart (and Some Grocery Stores)
This is our primary method of getting water. Most (but not all) Walmarts have water refill stations where you can refill any container for about $0.37 per gallon.
The water you get goes through several stages of filtration so it’s free of microorganisms, harmful chemicals, and fluoride. To replenish our water we take our 6-gallon water jug inside, fill it up, dump it into our water tank, and repeat until we’re fully loaded. You can also find water refill stations at some grocery stores.
Water Cooler Jug Exchanges
If you use a 5-gallon water cooler jug in your system, you can easily exchange empty jugs for full ones just about anywhere (grocery stores, office stores, hardware stores, Walmart, etc).
Campground Water Spigots
Developed campgrounds and parks will have potable water spigots you can use to refill your tanks. We always make a point to fill up whenever we stay at a campground.
Filtering Water in the Wild
Recommended: Sagan AquaBrick Pressurized Water Filtration System. The AquaBrick easily filters the nastiest water you can throw at it - it will even filter pool water. If you want safe drinking water no matter the source, this is your filter. However, it's bulkier than a collapsible filter.
Compact/Budget Choice: Platypus GravityWorks 4L filtration system. This is a gravity-fed bag system that's more compact than the Aquabrick. Simply fill the 4L bag with water from any source, hang up the bag, and let gravity take over. In just a couple minutes you’ll have 4L of fresh, filtered water.
After you insulate your new home, the next step in a van build is installing a floor. This is an easy way to make your van look awesome - our shiny faux-wood laminate floor gets a lot of compliments - and really makes it feel like a home.
A sweet-looking van floor that’s also functional is not expensive. We did ours for less than $100. But there are a few things to think about before laying down the floor in your van. It’s important to understand each layer of a floor, and to pick the right materials for each section.
Anatomy of a Van Floor
Your van floor will have several layers:
- Sound Deadener (Optional)
- Insulation (Optional but recommended)
- Main Floor
Sound Deadener (Optional)
Loud road noise can get pretty annoying when you’re driving. But you can install sound deadener like Noico’s Sound Deadening Mat under your your van’s floor to help eliminate road noise and make your van much more enjoyable to drive.
We didn’t do this, and we really wish we had. We get so much road noise in our van that we have to talk loudly just to have a conversation.
But, sound deadener isn’t cheap - it will at least double the cost of your van’s floor installation. Most vans will need 2 rolls of Noico Sound Deadening Mat to cover the entire floor. Some vans (like extra long Sprinters) may need more.
Insulation (Optional but Recommended)
Since warm air rises there’s little danger of heat escaping through your floor, which is why insulation is optional. But insulating your van’s floor does have some nice benefits:
- It prevents heat from below from rising into the van on hot days and while driving.
- It will help keep the floor warmer on cold days.
We think that insulating your van’s floor is worth the minimal extra cost it adds to your build. The best floor insulation is ½” XPS foam board due to its high r-value per inch and its compressive strength. But a layer of Reflectix will add some insulation while taking away less headspace. We used Reflectix, but if we did it again we’d go with the foam board.
The subfloor provides a stable layer - basically a sheet of plywood - for your floor to sit on. You’ll see a lot of van build videos on Youtube showing a ¾” subfloor, but that thickness just isn’t necessary in a van. The thicker the subfloor, the higher the cost and weight, and the more valuable interior space it takes away. We recommend using ¼” plywood for your subfloor, which is plenty thick enough for a van.
There are several different materials you can go with for your van’s floor, from high-cost wood to low-cost laminate. Here are the pros and cons of each:
Laminate Flooring (Recommended)
We have laminate flooring in our van. It was simple to install (once we figured out how - which took a while), it’s easy to clean, and it looks great. It was also pretty cheap - three boxes cost us a total of $60, and it was more than enough to cover our floor.
The only downside is that our dogs have trouble walking on it without slipping. If you have dogs, we recommend getting a laminate floor with some texture.
Sheet Vinyl Flooring (Recommended)
Sheet vinyl flooring is another great option for your van’s floor. It comes in many different styles including wood-look and tile-look. It’s the thinnest flooring option, so it will save headroom, and it’s waterproof and easy to clean. The cost is similar to laminate flooring.
On the downside, it’s not the most environmentally-friendly flooring option, and it just doesn’t look as good as other options. But overall, sheet vinyl is a solid choice for any DIY campervan.
Cork Flooring (Recommended)
Cork flooring not only helps insulate your floor. It also acts as a sound deadener and it’s very comfortable to walk on. Cork comes in many different styles and colors, and it always looks unique. It’s also impervious to mold and mildew.
But cork is expensive - it can cost between four and ten times as much as laminate or vinyl flooring. Since it’s a natural material, cork flooring needs regular maintenance that could turn into a pain. It also stains and scratches easily, which is a concern living on the road.
Hardwood Flooring (Not Recommended)
Nothing beats a beautiful hardwood floor, but it’s not the best choice for a van. It’s much heavier than our recommended options, it’s expensive, and it’s also pretty thick - at least ¾”.
In a van build, there’s just no reason to go with a flooring option that’s thicker than ¼” because you’ll lose out on too much headroom. But if some free or cheap hardwood flooring falls into your lap and you're okay with losing out on the height, it can certainly make a unique addition to any van.
Carpeting (Not Recommended)
We’re not the biggest fans of carpeting in general, and it really doesn’t make sense in a van. It gets dirty easily, retains moisture, and smells. If you like the feeling of walking on carpet, we recommend getting a nice rug or floor mat and putting it on top of your floor.
Installation and Resources
Walls and Ceiling
After your floor’s installed, it’s time to put up your walls and ceiling. There are two main materials that we recommend using in your van build: ¼” plywood sheets and tongue-and-groove paneling.
You can use the same material for your ceiling and your walls, or you can mix-and-match two different materials.
¼” Plywood Sheets
Building your van’s walls and/or ceiling out of ¼” (or even ⅛”) plywood sheets is the easiest and cheapest method. The big benefit of ¼” plywood is that it bends easily - which is very important when you’re working with the curved surfaces inside of a van. You can also stain and paint it any color, or just cover it with a tapestry.
Plywood comes in several different types, the most common being pine and lauan. We used ¼” lauan plywood for the walls in our van. Lauan is cheap, it bends easily, and in our opinion its grain pattern looks nicer than pine. Hardwood plywood like birch costs more than pine or lauan, it weighs more, and it’s more difficult to bend. This type of plywood is a great option for furniture, but we think lauan is a better choice for your walls and ceiling.
A more expensive option is to go with cedar plywood. Cedar smells and looks great, plus it’s resistant to mold and mildew (which is a good thing if you’re spending time in humid areas). But, it’s more difficult to find, it’s a bit brittle, and it can be 4 to 5 times more expensive than other types of plywood.
- Easy to work with
- Can bend with the contours of your van
- Comes in a variety of types including lauan, pine, and cedar
- Can be stained or painted any color
- Doesn’t look as nice as paneling
If you want that homey cabin feel inside your van, then lining the walls and/or ceiling with tongue-and-groove paneling is a good choice. Paneling looks awesome - the cedar paneling on our ceiling is one of the defining features of our van. And we cut ours to random lengths and stained it several colors to really give it that mismatched, rustic look.
You can typically find paneling in pine and cedar. Pine is cheapest, looks fine, and will do the job. Cedar is more expensive, but it looks and smells awesome - and it’s resistant to mold and mildew. Paneling comes in different thicknesses, but we recommend using ¼” (5/16”). Thinner paneling weighs less, costs less, takes away less interior space, and will bend with your van’s contours.
While paneling looks better than plywood, it’s a bit more difficult to install. You’ll have to make more cuts, drive more screws, and make sure your lines stay straight. But if you have the skills and patience, using paneling really adds a lot of character to any van interior.
Installation and Resources
- Looks awesome
- Gives your van a cabin feel
- Comes in pine or cedar
- Thinner paneling can bend with the contours of your van
- More difficult to install
- More expensive than plywood
Installation can be simple or complex depending on your van. Typically, you’ll screw your walls/ceiling directly to the metal “ribs” of your vehicle frame using self-tapping screws(be careful not to go through the exterior sheet.
However, you may need to add studs or nailers in some situations. Our fiberglass high topper had nowhere to attach our ceiling, so we added 1x2 strips to screw into.
Check out these blog posts for step-by-step instructions:
What tools do you really need for a van build? It’s less than you think. While having access to a full wood and machine shop would be awesome, the truth is you only need a few basic tools to build your van.
Jigsaw (The Only Saw You Really Need)
If we had to choose just one saw to use on our next van build, it would be a jigsaw. No contest. Other saws excel at cutting straight lines, but jigsaws can also cut curved lines and any other shape you can think of. You can even cut through metal with the right blade - which comes in handy when installing a vent fan.
While other types of saws may be better for specific things (a miter saw is by far the best for making straight and accurate cuts on pieces of lumber), no other saw can do everything that a jigsaw can do. A good jigsaw will help you make all the cuts you’ll need to make in your van build. Just make sure you get some high quality blades with it.
Cordless Drill and Drill Bits
This is the next tool you should have in your van build toolkit. A good cordless drill is essential for drilling holes and driving screws. You’ll also need a set of high quality drill bits, because you’ll be drilling some holes through metal.
We have this 20V cordless drill from Black & Decker and we highly recommend it. This drill is affordable (right around $50) lightweight, powerful, and performs nearly as well as drills that cost more than $100.
A quality mechanic’s toolset includes socket wrenches, extenders, various screwdriver attachments, and other useful tools. This is something every van should have in the trunk, even when you’re on the road.
Aside from mechanical repairs, a mechanic’s toolset will help you loosen and tighten bolts - which you’ll need to do during the gutting process, installing your electrical system, and at many other points during your van build. This Crescent 170-piece tool set has all the essentials, including 6-point and 12-point sockets in ¼”, ⅜” and ½” - not to mention pliers, crescent wrenches and screwdrivers.
Mouse Detail Sander
The Black & Decker Mouse Detail Sander is inexpensive, easy to work with, and durable. We’ve broken orbital sanders from using them too aggressively, but this detail sander just keeps coming back for more.
You’ll also want sandpaper in a variety of grits - we recommend 60-grit, 80-grit, and 120-grit to start with.
You’ll need a caulk gun to spread sealant over any holes you drill in your van (like when you’re installing your vent fan or mounting your solar panels). We normally hate using caulk guns because many of them are difficult to squeeze, but this caulk gun from Newborn is incredibly smooth and effective.
Kreg Jig R3 Junior Pocket Hole Kit (Recommended But Not Essential)
A Kreg Jig pocket hole kit is technically not essential, but we think that using one is a great way to make strong, long-lasting joints when building furniture for your van. In fact, we wrote an entire blog post about how pocket holes can make your van build easier.
Other Basic Tools
Measuring and Layout Tools
Essential Electrical Tools
- N95 Masks. Sawdust and paint fumes are bad for you.
- Safety Glasses. Protect your eyes from flying shards of wood.
- Work Gloves. Splinters really hurt (ouch!).
- Nitrile Gloves. Trust us, you do NOT want to get Sikaflex on your hands (also protects your hands when working with wood stain and other chemicals).
Non-Essential (but nice to have) Tools
- Compound Miter Saw (Chop Saw). We already had one of these in our woodshop and we used it a ton. Nothing beats a chop saw when it comes to cutting pieces of lumber quickly and accurately. While a jigsaw can do the job (as long as you have a straight-edge guide), if you have access to a chop saw this will be much easier.
- Angle Grinder. For cutting through protruding bolts and other pieces of metal. We borrowed one of these from a friend, and it helped a lot with gutting our van.
- Kreg Jig K5 Pocket Hole Kit. We have the Kreg Jig R3 Pocket Hole Kit and we use it all the time. But we would love to upgrade to the K5 kit, which makes creating pocket hole joints even faster and easier.
- Sewing Kit. For upholstering cushions, making curtains, and any other fabric work you might want in your van.
- Tool Storage. It’s important to keep your tools organized, and a good toolbox helps you do that - as well as stores your tools in a compact space to bring on the road. Bucket organizers are also awesome for managing a ton of tools.
Your windshield is the number one source of radiant heat getting into your van. Making sure that it’s covered with a reflective surface goes a long way towards keeping your van cool during the daytime, and also comes with a privacy bonus.
We have Eclipse Sunshades installed on our van. While they’re pricier than the cheap sunshades you’ll find at Walmart, they’re very effective. And since they permanently install on your windshield they’re much more compact - a big plus for living in a van. All we have to do is pull the shades across and velcro them together in the middle and we’re protected from both the sun’s rays and prying eyes.
Interested in some Eclipse Sunshades for your van? Buy yours using this link to receive 3% off your purchase.
This little heater can crank out a lot of heat. When we started our journey in the early spring, the overnight temps regularly dipped below the 20’s. Our portable buddy heater made our van toasty in a matter of minutes, and our insulation kept much of the heat in when we slept.
The “Mr. Buddy,” as it’s called, is a great choice for keeping your van warm. It uses 1-lb propane canisters, or you can connect it to a larger tank with an adaptor. It also has safety features such as an auto shutoff if it tips over, if the pilot goes out, or if it detects low oxygen levels.
Finding reliable cellular service (and the internet that comes with it) is a constant challenge in vanlife, especially if you do computer-based work on the road. A cell signal booster like the WeBoost Drive 4G-X helps a lot in areas where service is spotty. It can take a weak cellular signal and amplify it into usable internet for web browsing and getting work done.
You need a way to access your van’s roof on the road, and permanently attaching a ladder to your van isn’t always a good option. The OllieRoo Extension ladder is very compact and lightweight. It easily stores in the back of our van and extending it to get up to the roof is simple.
This ladder allows us to do things like clean our solar panels, install new antennas, and add wiring for our portable solar panel. It’s been an absolute game changer, since we can always get up to our roof when we need to. This is especially good for fiberglass roofs like ours, since they may not take the weight of someone walking around on them.
Magnetic Mesh Bug Screen
We’ve run into some seriously mosquito-infested areas on the road, and it’s not fun when they get into your van. Our magnetic mesh bug screen lets us keep our doors and windows open while keeping mosquitoes, flies, and other insects out. The magnetic seal keeps your van protected even while entering and exiting.
In our opinion, having one of these is an absolute must for living on the road - especially in humid areas. To fully cover the width of a van’s side doors/back doors, you’ll need a larger screen that’s designed for French doors. If your vehicle has a smaller door opening like an RV, a screen meant for a standard door will work fine. We could only find standard door screens, so we bought two and hot-glued them together to cover up our side door.
Humidity can be a huge problem when you live in a vehicle, and it brings all kinds of harmful things like mold, mildew, rot, and rust. Because of this, Eva-Dry portable dehumidifiers have become a common sight among vanlifers.
Eva-Dry dehumidifiers like the Eva-Dry E-333 use silica gel beads to passively pull moisture from the air. Every ten days or so, it needs to be plugged into AC power to expel the moisture it’s collected.
The Eva-Dry E-333 is by no means a miracle worker. If you’re in an area with high humidity, it won’t make an appreciable dent in your van’s overall moisture levels. However, it really makes an impact in smaller enclosed areas that might have moisture problems like under the sink. We have one under ours, and it definitely helps keep things dry.
Our Accu-Rite thermometer helps us keep an eye on the temperature and humidity levels inside our van - all great information to have.
This little unit can mount on screws, and it also has handy magnets on the back. We use the magnets to stick it right onto the exposed metal of our vehicle frame.
Ventilation is extremely important in the rain. These window deflectors allow us to leave our front windows cracked while it’s raining, so we can pull in fresh air and create airflow with our vent fan. As a bonus, it also reduces annoying wind noise while driving on the highway. The Auto Ventshade is fairly inexpensive, easy to install, and makes a great addition to any van (make sure you get the correct one for your specific vehicle).
A portable jump starter like this one from DBPOWER really comes in handy when your starter battery dies in the middle of nowhere with no one around and no cell service (this happened to us… don’t ask).
This portable jump starter has enough power to jump V8 engines, and it’s very lightweight and compact. The whole thing fits under our front passenger seat. Definitely a useful item to have.
Travel, Maintenance, and Information
If you want to venture into working on your van yourself, you’ll need a repair manual on hand. Haynes manuals were widely recommended to us by mechanics we spoke with, and ours lives in the pocket on our van’s passenger door.
These manuals are a wealth of information on everything from regular maintenance schedules to removing your rear air handler unit. And because it’s an actual book instead of an online resource, you can still use it when there’s no internet service.
A road atlas is incredibly helpful if you find yourself stuck in a dead zone without cached GPS maps.
It’s also a lot of fun to turn off Google maps and try to plan routes and navigate like the old days (no, not by printing off Mapquest directions, by looking at an actual roadmap).
Rand McNally makes the best atlases in the business, and they’re updated every year.
Living on the road puts you in a wider variety of situations and environments than being stationary. If something goes wrong in the wilderness or if a disaster strikes, you’ll want to know what you should do. The SAS Survival Handbook is one of the best survival books out there. It covers primitive camping, edible plants, encountering wild animals - even disaster situations like nuclear war. It’s packed full of good-to-know actionable information. And it’s a blast to read.
Safety and Security
We have this Bulldog Car Safe hidden in our van. It holds everything we need it to. It’s not too big. And the way it mounts makes it difficult for anyone to remove it without the key.
So we don’t have to carry it around, we keep the key stashed somewhere else inside this magnetic key safe.
Basic Safety Items
Toasters, Coffee Makers, and Other Useful Items
Recommended Toaster: Coleman Camp Stove Toaster
It's surprising how great it is to be able to make toast in your van - it's one of those little luxuries that you can't get with just a camp stove alone. We have the Coleman camp stove toaster, and we love it. It’s simple to use, easy to store, and you can toast up to four slices of bread at once.
Recommended Coffee Maker: Aerobie AeroPress Coffee and Espresso Maker
The AeroPress is just plain awesome. You can make great-tasting coffee and espresso drinks in under 40 seconds. The shorter brew time allows you to use a finer grind, and the resulting brew is low-acid and easy on the stomach. And clean up is easy - just a quick rinse and you're done.
Alternative Coffee Makers
For Dish Washing: OXO Good Grips Palm Brush
This OXO palm brush really helps us conserve water while washing our dishes. We fill the reservoir with water and a few drops of Campsuds, and we only squeeze out what we need - so it takes care of both the initial rinse and getting our dishes soapy with minimal water usage. It’s also very compact, and the comfortable shape makes it easy to scrub dishes.
For Cleaning: OXO Tot Mini Dustpan and Brush Set
This mini dustpan and brush set is our favorite tool for sweeping. We bought ours for our wood shop a few years ago, and we had to bring it with us in the van. It’s small, the brush is the best we’ve used, and the dustpan doesn’t leave anything behind.
Taking a Test Run
You’ve spent weeks planning your layout, insulating your van, and putting in your floor, walls, and ceiling. Maybe you’ve built some furniture and even started installing electrical. You think you’ve got the whole thing figured out, that your van will work perfectly as a mobile living situation and you’ll be living happily on the road in no time.
But now is the time to take a step back and go on some test runs in your van. Take it out for a weekend here or there (or better yet, a week or more). Try living in it as you expect to on the road. We guarantee there will be things that worked well in your head but not so much in reality. And you’ll come up with random little hacks and innovations that will make your life on the road easier and more enjoyable.
When we first hit the road, we figured out several things that just didn’t work within days. They were all simple fixes, but they also weren’t things we could do easily on the road. Luckily, we already had plans to return to our former home soon for a wedding - so we stayed for a little bit longer and modified things to work better for us.
If you have the available time, taking your DIY campervan for a test run (or two) is a great way to identify any problems while you still have access to tools, package deliveries, and a place to work. There’s just a lot that you can’t foresee until you live in your van. Taking it out for some short trips throughout your build will help you understand how you’ll actually use your new living space, what’s necessary, and what’s not.
Even if you don't yet have a van, you can still get a jump on figuring out what you need in your build by renting a campervan for a short period. Peer-to-peer rental marketplaces like Outdoorsy feature all kinds of unique vehicles that you can test out and see what's to your liking. Doing this might help you nail down the type of van you want, or you might get an awesome idea for your own build
The resources on this list have a ton of great ideas and information that will help with your van build. Included are everything from awesome websites, blogs, and forums, to helpful Youtube videos and informative ebooks.
Websites and Blogs
Forums and Communities
Van Build Ebooks
Youtube Channels and Videos
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