Notes on a Small Van Conversion
It is a truth universally acknowledged that everybody wants a live-in vehicle. Baby boomers with a pension want a fibreglass kitchen appliance on wheels, while impoverished and not-so impoverished millennials want to fashion a liveable space in the back of a second-hand work van. Next, they want to drive north and occupy every passing place in the northern Highlands, and discover new ways to be smug about it on social media, but those are other stories.
Having owned some kind of liveable van for six years, for much the same reasons as many other outdoorsy people and freelance instructors, I get asked quite often how I did mine. My answer begins with a disclaimer, because two years ago I made the uncommon decision to downsize to the smallest van that I reasonably could, and converted it as cheaply as I reasonably could, to still want to spend time living out of it. So my setup is a little different to the wheeled palaces that other people drive. I won’t pretend some of my friends’ vans don’t make me jealous, but for someone who wants a compromise of efficiency and expense for something that is still vastly more comfortable to spend time in than the back of an estate, this works.
The internet is replete with advice and video tutorials on how to do a flash camper van conversion, but I would like to offer some advice on doing a budget small van conversion.
I’ll explain better the thinking behind downsizing. My previous van was a short wheelbase Volkswagen LT35, which was medium-sized and medium-comfort. Crucially, it wasn’t high enough to stand up in the back - having spent a lot of time in the backs of vans, I believe firmly that if it’s not high enough to stand up, it may as well not be close. It makes a massive difference to your sense of spatial freedom. It also had no windows in the back, so the only light came in from the driver’s cab, and sitting in there felt a bit too much like being in a cell. I could have installed a window or a skylight, but for various other reasons, mainly fuel economy and pleasure of driving experience, I decided to sell it instead.
Getting a smaller van was partly motivated by cost, but it was also a lifestyle thing. Having spent a whole summer purely van dwelling, I decided that long term this was basically a bit shit. I’ll very happily go weeks at a time working away from home or off on trips, but after a while it becomes a drag, always having to think about where to park and where to find amenities, and a hassle to keep on top of life admin without your own address. I also put in some pretty epic mileage for work, so I wanted something that was more enjoyable to drive and didn’t burn as many dinosaurs (or as big a hole in my pocket).
So based on all the little things I had learned from my own and others’ vans, all the little details you wouldn’t necessarily think of in organising your life in such a limited space, I decided to get the smallest, most efficient van that I could comfortably sleep in, sit in, cook in and store all the clothing and kit that normally travels around with me.
I searched online and visited various dealers around Sheffield, who probably found it was a bit weird that I wanted to climb in the back and lie down before I’d even test driven the vehicle. I spent a lot of time playing with a measuring tape and squatting on the rear wheel arch to see if my head touched the ceiling. After trying out and dismissing the very smallest vans, I bought a Transit Connect with a long-wheel base and high roof. This, I decided, met my minimum size requirement - long enough to lie comfortably in, tall enough for storage and for the bed to make a comfortable seat.
It wouldn’t be true to say I had a good time converting the van, but I don’t think this was anything inherent to the process - it was January and I was suffering some form of sunlight-deprived winter blues that year. The fact it was cold and damp outside made doing things uncomfortable but also put up some practical barriers to getting the job done, as certain types of sealants and glues don’t work well in those conditions. Also, I am crap at DIY. The fact that I succeeded with this project, despite jigsawing a wonky hole in the roof and falling back on my usual hackjob toolkit of thumb tacks, duct tape and elastic, means that pretty much anyone should be capable of doing the same. At the time it felt like I was doing everything wrong and taking forever about it, but it only really took me a couple of weeks.
STEP 0: THE ORDER OF DOING THINGS
This was tricky. You don’t want to insulate and carpet the thing then realise you should have routed the electric wiring somewhere inside. Then again you don’t want to have to rip everything apart if you want to change the wiring. In the end, my decision to keep electrics super simple (I’ll come to that) sorted this out. But before embarking on any of the following, it is definitely good to have given some thought to all of it. I made measurements and drew diagrams, but was not very organised with tools and materials. There were many trips to B&Q for more bits and pieces. I did not necessarily do everything in exactly the order that follows, but next time I would.
STEP 1: INSULATION AND PLY
With limited space to encroach upon, and reasoning that I wasn’t planning to spend long stints in there in cold weather anyway, I went for the most minimal insulation - double foil backed bubble wrap. Cheap, easy to fix with spray on glue (I regret the spray on glue, it’s nasty shit), and provides the vapour barrier you need to the cold metal. Cutting the plywood and the foil to the right shapes to cover the walls was a bit fiddly. I measured and cut the sheets of ply then used them as a template to cut the foil, then stuck the foil to the inside of them, drilled some holes and screwed them in to the metal.
STEP 2: CARPET
I’m lying, I did other things first. But they only got in the way. I used simple cheap carpet on the floor, and stretchy van-specific carpet on the walls. Again I fixed it with nasty carcinogenic spray-on glue which kills aquatic life and the cells in your brain. For this reason when I ran short on carpet and glue, clearly not having done my measurements very well, I decided to do the ceiling with something less grim (but not before hopping to the following, intervening steps).
STEP 3: ELECTRICS
This was the most daunting aspect for me, because as far as I’m concerned, electricity is witchcraft and white magic. But after some trying to get my head around it, considering where to put a leisure battery, dismissing the idea of a solar panel and so on, I decided based on my intended use of the van that I wasn’t going to install anything but lights in the back.
I did some sums and figured that a couple of LED strips use so little energy that there was no need for a leisure battery, and that I was unlikely to run down the starter battery by using them. Then I picked up some neat advice about wiring from the internal fuse box using a ‘piggyback’ fuse, and got my hands on a voltmeter and a bunch of little 1A fuses. I experimented with the position of the lights - you don’t want to be putting whatever you’re trying do into shadow with your own head - and found that a strip across the central beam worked pretty well. I got a switch for them with a dimmer control, and chose ‘warm’ white, so that my circadian rhythms would not be confounded if I was sitting in there at night. The wiring was accomplished with extreme incompetence, but it worked. I just routed it wherever I could poke it through out of the way from the back of the glove compartment, and taped it along the edge of the ceiling (where it would be hidden when I finished doing that).
STEP 4: HOLE IN THE ROOF
If electrics was the most daunting, this was the most terrifying part of the process. Am I actually going to cut a big hole in my most expensive possession? I was certain based on my previous van experience that I wanted a source of natural light in the back, not to mention good ventilation. A skylight has the benefit over a side window of better stealth properties, useful if you sometimes want to park up for the night somewhere where van dwelling vagrants might not be welcome. Though there is definitely much to be said for a window too, not least because it’s one of the requirements to register the vehicle as a conversion in order to be allowed to drive faster and pay less for insurance.
I bought a Fiamma 40 x 40cm skylight, which comes in two parts - one sits on the roof and is screwed in to its counterpart piece which slots in from the inside ceiling. It can be opened as wide as you like and has a built in mosquito net, though I added a midge net to mine as well (I also cut out sections of midge net which can be fixed to my front side windows by magnets, for those rare warm nights in the Highlands in summer). Because my roof was not very thick, it also needed to install some batons of wood to be inserted inside as a spacer (which were also handy afterwards for attaching the ceiling felt). This particular skylight did not come with a blackout blind, but a tea towel, tacks and elastic sorted that out.
I waited for at least a couple of days of dry looking weather. To cut the hole, I measured and marked it out with a marker pen, then took a deep breath and drilled holes in the four corners. I started small then went through the holes with increasingly large drill bits, until big enough to accommodate a jigsaw blade. I got my hands on a cheap jigsaw (error) and started cutting. The roof of my van is corrugated, and the central channel is reinforced with an extra bar of metal. When the jigsaw hit this, it stuck. I pulled it out and carried on, but the blade had bent slightly and it started cutting wonky. Shit! I replaced the blade and carefully carried on. It looked a mess, but fortunately the skylight overlaps the hole by an inch or two, so it wouldn’t be visible.
The tricky thing then was to seal the gaps. I did this by cutting pieces of wood to the shape of the corrguations, then varnishing the wood to protect it from moisture. There are probably better materials for this, but I had plenty of wood offcuts handy. I also put a bit of paint around the freshly cut metal of the hole, just in case any damp worked its way in. Then, with the skylight screwed on, it was simply a matter of squeezing an entire tube of Sikaflex EBT+ sealant into all the gaps and screw holes. I’m pleased and mildly surprised to say it has never leaked.
STEP 5: CEILING
I bought a cut-to-measure strip of felt from a fabric shop. With a slightly less horrible and much stronger kind of glue than the stuff I’d used on the carpet, I stuck small batons of wood along the edges of the ceiling and on either side of the central bar where the the LED strips were stuck on, then carefully mounted the felt using thumb tacks. Not the most professional looking, but it did the job and gave the van a cosier feel than the space station vibe of foil-backed bubblewrap. The felt has stretched and sagged a little with time, and has peeled away from around the lights a little, but this has been more annoying as a demonstration of my poor craft than it has been of any practical hindrance.
STEP 6: CURTAINS
Not much to say here. Blackout curtains from Dunelm (very conveniently they come in exactly the right length), cheap adjustable curtain rail from Homebase. Velcro sewn along the edges for maximal light blocking in both directions (for stealth and sleep purposes respectively). The rail has got a bit bent and broken with clambering past it, so a fixing point of some kind in the middle is probably worth considering.
STEP 7: BED
I actually built the bed first, because I was able to do this without having to be in the van. Having made all the measurements, I constructed a frame out of 2 x 4” timber, screwing it together so as to avoid screws in the end-grain of the wood. I reckon it’s more sturdy than it actually needs to be, and probably takes up more of the storage space underneath than necessary, but I’m no joiner. I thought about the mechanism and measurements for turning it into a double bed a lot, and in the end kept it simple - a piece of chipboard cut to the same dimensions as the frame, prevented from sliding around by retaining pieces of wood screwed on at either end, which could then slide out onto supports. Another narrower piece of chipboard which is stored down the side of the bed then plugs the gap.
The mattress is 3” foam encased in a fetching purple duvet cover from a charity shop. This is also in two pieces, with the narrower piece slotted down the side as backrest for sitting, when the bed is not in extended mode. The mattress is about 70cm wide in single mode, and 110cm when extended - this works well enough as long as your relationship to your bed partner is an intimate one.
STEP 8: COOKING
I found a good quality fold-out camping stove with two hobs and a grill for half price in Go Outdoors. I unscrewed it from the folding case and screwed it into the other side of my bed platform (which rests on top of the passenger side rear wheel arch). It takes an amazingly long time to get through a 3.9kg propane bottle, even with frequent use. The main concern with the stove in such a small space is obviously not gassing yourself or setting everything on fire. I had some difficulty finding something cheap and heat resistant to put behind the stove and under the grill, but in classic me style, made do with some cheap shallow baking trays from a bargain home store. It works.
STEP 9: STORAGE
Thinking about this actually comes way back at the start, before doing anything else - the organising of space. With a small van you want to make the absolute best use of what little you have, and part of that is not over-cluttering. You have to be able to actually move around and find things in there.
Boxes under the bed are good, because they make it easy to keep things organised and you can slide them out to access stuff. There isn’t enough of a gap between the back half of the bed and the stove unit in mine to slide a box in and out, so all my climbing gear goes loose in that bit, where it can also be accessed through the back doors. There is a compartment for food under the stove, and a slim stack of shelves in the back corner where the gas bottle and water container fit (I think my water container is about 15 litres), as well as some other bits and bobs. I have a loose box which slots in next to the gas for kitchenware and utensils. All the fixed shelving was made from offcuts of chipboard and wood, which doesn’t look stylish but it does the job. If I could be bothered to paint them, they would probably look quite nice. It’s worth bearing in mind that stuff will slide around unless you install some kind of retaining edge or hinged door to stop it doing so. Those thin rubbery mats are quite handy for stopping excess clattering while you’re driving too. I have just enough room at the back to squeeze in a small bouldering mat without really encroaching on space.
STEP 10: FIDDLING
I reckon you want to go off and spend a bit of time in a van before finishing it. There will be little things you notice that don’t work, that wouldn’t necessarily occur to you until trying it out. Small tweaks and adjustments for efficiency, comfort and so on. Just be sure to have an adequate supply of thumb tacks, shock cord, carabiners and duct tape. You’ll be fine.
Have I missed anything? Probably. Let me know.