13 Expert Tips for Campervan Conversions

Get some insider tips on the best ways to convert your campervan into touring machine

Have you been wanting to embark on a DIY campervan conversion project but are tight on both time and funds? Well, worry not as this comprehensive article has got your back. Packed with practical advice and all the necessary steps, you can turn your campervan dreams into a reality on a small budget in as little as one week.

The #VanLife trend has taken off in Ireland in recent years, with individuals seeking a simpler and freer way of life amidst the challenges and complexities of modern society. Encouraged by social media and travel restrictions, thousands of campervans have been bought and sold across the country, ushering in a new era of domestic exploration. That said, let us delve into the gist of things:

1. Consider all the Options

It is easy to fall in love with a van that may not be the best fit for your needs, especially if this is your first campervan project. Whether it is a classic Volkswagen or a charming vintage vehicle, your emotions can easily override practical considerations, potentially jeopardizing an ideal conversion. More often than not, most older vans are smaller compared to modern iterations and may lack the technical features necessary for a successful conversion.

The purpose of the vehicle is also a major consideration. If you intend to partake in outdoor adventures and travel off-the-beaten-path locations, you’ll need to carry an array of different equipment, some of which will have specific requirements. Expensive windsurfing gear or mountain bikes, for example, will not only take substantial space but require a higher level of security, i.e Campervan insurance.

In such situations, the best solution is a van that is as boxy as possible as it allows for the most storage space. The most popular choices for ample space for storage include the classic VW Transporter, Fiat Ducato, the high-top Renault or even the medium-wheelbase Peugeot. For those who are into adventure and off-road exploration, investing in a Mercedes Sprinter 4x4 is a great option. This vehicle boasts impressive maneuverability and sturdy, oversized wheels that make it well-suited for traversing any terrain.

2. Consider Your Budget

The decision to convert a campervan is a personal one, and each person has their own reasons and budget limitations. However, no matter how much you have to spend, it is paramount that the vehicle is in an optimal mechanical state, with a solid service history and low mileage. In fact, an older van with a lower mileage may be a smarter investment compared to a newer model that has seen better days. Inspect the chassis carefully and be on the look for rust spots, as dealing with corrosion can be a tedious and costly process.

As of the time of this writing, you can snag a decent medium-sized van for about 3,000 euros or somewhere close to 10,000 euros for a bigger model. Do not forget to factor in the conversion costs from screws to solar panels as it all adds up.

What Should You Consider When Buying a Used Van?

The age and mileage are a no-brainer, but most beginners tend to forget to consider the following elements:

Tires- Check the tread of the tires and determine whether they need replacement. If that’s the case, use it as an element of price negotiation.

Air Conditioning & Heat- These are vital components of ascertaining comfort in your campervan. Ensure they are working optimally as fixing them can be tough and costly.

Clearance- Next, check how the van sits on the ground. Low clearance can pose challenges when navigating through some campsites or off-road paths. This is a must-consider factor when buying an RV or a campervan.

Brakes- Check to ensure the pads are not too worn out and that they do not squeak when pressed.

Leaks- Check underneath the vehicle for any signs of leaks, especially if it has been sitting for a minute. While most leaks are easy to fix, some can be troublesome and so, it’s best to know what you’re dealing with.

Noises- Listen to the engine closely when shifting gears. If there are any abnormal or unusual noises, it’s a sign it needs to be checked.

Miles per Gallon (MPG)- Let’s be frank; it is highly unlikely to find a used campervan with great gas mileage, regardless of the age or price. Driving your home will inherently result in lower MPG compared to a conventional car. Nonetheless, we advise you to inquire about the previous owner’s gas mileage to have an idea of what you should expect.

3. Take the Van’s Measurements

Next, measure the length, width, and height of everything in the vehicle. This includes the windows and wheel wells. Keep in mind that many vehicles bow out a bit, meaning the width from the floor to the center and ceiling may vary. By taking measurements of everything, the next stages should be less challenging.

4. Be Thorough in Planning

When it comes to campervan conversions, you should expect the unexpected and plan everything upfront. This will help avoid headaches and expensive disasters. The worst-case scenario during a conversion is having to remove a beautifully installed floor or expensive wall panels due to missed vital steps. To avoid such, it is better to create and adhere to a solid plan when it comes to vital aspects like windows, ventilation, and access to water tanks and gas taps. Do not wing it! You can always remedy mistakes during conversion, but it will only lead to wasted time and money.

While using paper and pen is fine, you may not be accurate in regards to the scale and measurements. There are numerous free 3D modeling programs out there like SketchUp that will help you make a precise and more detailed layout. With the help of a 3D model, you be able to experiment and incorporate various ideas and configurations even before the conversion.

5. Pick the Best Quality for Your Budget

When it comes to a self-build, one of the best things you can do is invest in quality materials. There is no skimping on the materials if you want a build that will meet your needs and stand the test of time. However, that does not mean there are no pocket-friendly materials that will achieve the same results.

Heavy-duty plastic containers, for example, are highly versatile and great for storage purposes in your van. They are relatively inexpensive, available from numerous suppliers, and easy to replace. In addition to being robust, they are also easy to clean, making them an excellent option for those with a sandy or dirty kit. Let’s be honest, using a pressure hose is way easier than having to sand down those hand-crafted wooden drawers.

6. Get as Much Equipment as Possible

Something as seemingly small like bits can halt your build if you have the wrong ones. If I were to embark on another camper conversion project, I would start by dedicating two full days to ordering all the necessary materials and equipment that come to mind and storing them in a designated space. This includes everything from major appliances and tools to wood and even small details such as screws and adhesives. Having to wait for delivery or making multiple trips to hardware stores significantly extended my build time by up to two weeks.

Keep in mind that you will always have to buy additional items, especially if this first conversion project. However, having as much as possible at the start will hasten the project and make the process smoother. Taking your time to list down and get the required tools will be one of the best decisions you can make for any build.

Using used or recycled materials in your campervan conversion can also be a good idea. Many people tend to underestimate the quality of things just because they are not brand new. A good example is repurposing wood from an old wardrobe. With a bit of creativity, you can add uniqueness to your build and also save some money.

As with any DIY project, however, keep in mind that you need to put in the time and effort if you want satisfactory results. Any seasoned craftsman will tell you that a proper finishing job can make a world of a difference. Sanding several times and adding several coats of paint and varnish will lend a more professional look. Be creative and resourceful. In addition to looking for used parts from other owners or online, explore your own home or the local DIY store for inspiration. A great way to add uniqueness and a personal touch is by repurposing items from your garage, loft, and cupboards. Do not be afraid to think outside the box and utilize items in unexpected ways.

There are numerous ways to decorate your campervan interior. By upcycling old items, such as vintage biscuit tins, spice racks, plastic guttering, and metal buckets, you can add unique and stylish touches to your conversion. With inspiration from Pinterest, you can achieve an Instagram-worthy look without spending a fortune.

You may also want to incorporate copper piping into your campervan build. It is one of the most affordable and readily available aesthetically pleasing materials, making it an excellent option if you are on a budget. Consider using it to make unique and personalized touches such as custom faucets, handles, and other decorative elements. With its timeless look, copper is a versatile material that can add a touch of elegance and charm to any campervan interior. Plus, reusing materials like copper piping is an eco-friendly way to give new life to old items.

7. Cut Holes in the Van

The first step in turning your van into a campervan is by cutting several big holes. More often this entails:

-Installing 2 porthole windows in the backdoors

-Installing a sliding side window

-Installing a roof light above the bed

-Installing a fan in the roof.

There are many free helpful videos on platforms like YouTube on how to correctly do this step by step.

We recommend purchasing these items as early as possible and shipping can take several weeks depending on the stock and your location. They need to be installed first as they affect the placement of other components and doing it later would be a nightmare.

If this is your first time, we also recommend practicing before embarking on the cutting. The job can be daunting, regardless of your experience and you don’t want to make mistakes. We recommend taking it slow and easy.

Chances are you will be using the Jigsaw, and so, consider building the drawers a few days before cutting the holes so that you can get used to the machinery.

Some additional tips for cutting holes in the van:

-The process can be extremely loud so get some ear defenders

-Put masking tape before making the cut to protect the vehicles paintwork

-Double check the markings before making the cuts

-Cover your eyes and exposed skin to avoid damage from metal shards

-Do the job during clear weather. Whatever you’re installing will need time to dry, making rain your number-one enemy

-If you are nervous, seek a helping hand. This is a stage where you do not want to mess up.

8. Installing the Seats

This is optional, but it was a key part of my build. This involved creating a space that accommodates up to four people. Our design included installing two more seats in the back, which also acted as seats in the living space. I must say I was lucky as the garage I obtained the van from had a set of double seats from a Ford Transit they had just disassembled. I was able to get them for a mere £100.

The seats need to be properly installed and so, we decided to let the same garage do the fitting. In addition, the exact bolts positioning through the chassis can be awkward, making DIY installation a headache. In my case, the van had to be hoisted up.

You may not be as lucky, but a local break yard search may bear some results. Also, check your local yards and even listings on sites like eBay, craigslist, and even Facebook.

9. Be Creative

Yes, chances are you will spend hours or even days checking out other campervans for inspiration, but having your own personal touch on a DIY project is one of the most satisfying aspects of doing your own build. There is no limit to creating a personalized look for your build. You can use cushions made from vintage fabrics, reclaimed wood shelving, and upcycled items to lend the van a unique touch. As long as the foundations are sturdy, you can let your creativity run wild.

A great way to add a unique and cohesive look to your van is to pick a theme and apply it during the build. For example, if you're into surfing, you can use old fins as coat hooks, wetsuit material for cushions and storage, and even repurpose an old surfboard into a shelf or table.

By incorporating these personal touches, you can create a truly personalized and functional space. Just because something no longer serves its original purpose doesn't mean it can't be repurposed in a unique and interesting way.

See our campervan storage tips here.

10. Don’t Forget a Luxury Spot

Road trips do not always go to plan. When things go south or the weather takes a turn for the worse, you will appreciate the comfort and coziness of a well-equipped campervan. Adding personal touches is a good idea to make the van feel homey, so why not consider a board game collection for some family fun time or a mini-library packed with your favorite books? You can even get a Smart TV so that you can enjoy your favorite shows when it is too wet to go outside.

11. Do not Skimp on the Mattress

Quality sleep is essential for a great experience on a campervan trip. As such, you do not want to skimp on the quality of the mattress and pillows. Whether you opt for the latest 'Rock n Roll' bed or a platform bed with a luxury foam mattress, every penny spent will be worth it.

12. Lighting

This is another often overlooked aspect when it comes to a campervan conversion. However, it is a vital element if you want your interior to feel right. Whether you prefer the versatility of LED lights or a mix of various light sources, there are endless ways to add a unique and cozy touch to your van. Household lamps, Christmas lights, and even candles can all help create a homey atmosphere. However, if you decide to use candles, make sure to never leave them unattended for safety reasons.

13. Security

We cannot stress enough the importance of security when it comes to a campervan conversion. The van will be like your home, holding items that you value and could cost you a lot if stolen or damaged. Here are some tips to up your security game:

-Use window coverings or curtains to prevent prying eyes from seeing your valuables

-Invest in a good security system that includes door sensors, motion detectors, and a siren

-Install deadbolts on doors and windows to make it harder for people to break in

-Install a security camera system for remote monitoring

-Keep valuables out of sight and lock them in a hidden compartment or safe.

-Invest in a wheel lock and other anti-theft instruments to use when parking your van

-Park in well-lit places

-Install a GPS tracker to monitor your vehicle in case of theft.

Lastly, when you travel, make a habit of ensuring everything is firmly attached or packed away. This includes fragile items like ornaments and mirrors.

Read our guide on how to keep your campervan safe.

How about an Irish campervan hire? Rambling Rover is your number one choice.