Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Camper Van Conversion: Planning

So you want to chuck it all in, jump in a camper van and drive off into the sunset in search of a new way of life? Or maybe just have a cozy and convenient home-away-from-home you can go camping in on the weekends? Whatever you want to do or however you want to convert your van, planning is a vital part of the process, and the more time you spend on it, the easier the rest of the work will be. 

Before you start any planning though, you need a van! If you already have one, skip ahead, you lucky thing you. If not, we have some advice on looking and buying. 

1. There's no point in doing all the work of a DIY conversion in a beater that is going to conk out in a year or two. It's worthwhile investing in a quality vehicle that will go the distance, so decide on your budget and buy the newest van with the lowest mileage you can afford. The only caveat to that would be to be aware that newer vehicles (less than 10 years old) are often run by fancy computer systems that can make simple repairs very expensive. Getting a slightly older model isn't necessarily a bad thing! 

2. Trust your gut. We were in the process of buying a Mercedes Sprinter from a secondhand dealer when things started to seem sketchy - it was taking ages to get anywhere and they were always really vague on the phone about what was going on. We found out you can check a vehicle's MOT history online, we had a look and it had just failed on a looooong list of things and so needed a lot of work. We just didn't have a good feeling about the dealers, and decided to pull out. We later found out they were always getting complaints and having to change their company name because of legal issues! 

3. It's OK to ask for help! We don't really know anything about engines, mechanics or what to look for when buying secondhand. So we asked a mechanic reccomended to us by a friend if he would come with us and check our van out when we went to see it. It cost £50 for his time, and was worth every penny. He checked things we didn't know existed, confirmed the van was in great condition and pointed out work it needed that would have cost us thousands of pounds that the dealer did for us. 

4. Take your time. It's easy to get excited or worried that you'll never find what you want, and the temptation to leap at the first thing you see is strong. Try to play it cool, look at as many vans as you can, and be patient. Become obsessed with looking at vans online, on gumtree, eBay,, and at secondhand dealers. Look every day, you never know when your baby is going to appear! 

Once you have your van, the first thing to get really clear about is what you want to use it for, because this is going to affect what you need to have and your layout. Are you going to be living in it full time, is it a weekender or somewhere in between? Will you only be taking it on road trips to the south of France, or are you going to be sitting in it in Scotland in the depths of winter? Can you live without a toilet, do you need to know where your next shower is coming from, will having a fold away bed drive you crazy? Knowing who you are and how you like to live is important, because there's no point in not having the facilities you need - you'll just end up miserable. 

Classic van porn - we had a tendency to fantasise about much much larger vans than the one we owned. 

During the planning stage we spent a lot of time looking at 'van porn'. This isn't what it sounds like (budget videos of hippies humping in vintage VWs) but is the plethora of van conversion photos on Pinterest. There's so many, a lot of which weren't the style (or budget) we were going for, but there's always handy tricks or ideas to pick up. It's great for seeing what is possible, so get googling. Talk to everyone you know or meet who has a van, and get personal - how do they go not being able to take a shit in their own home? (As you will see, this is a reoccurring theme, but we all know shit happens.) 

After a lot of discussion, research and perving on other people's vans, we came up with the following: 

1. This is a full time live-in vehicle, so we want it to feel like a home. That means a well-equipped kitchen, space to relax and a permanent bed. Ain't no way we be faffing around making and un-making a bed every day.

2. We want to be as independent as possible. So, solar panels and 12v battery for power, rather than a 240v hook up, and a wood stove for heat instead of electric or diesel heaters. 

3. Neither of us care that much about hot or frequent showers and are happy (ish) to go like the Pope (in the woods, in case that joke didn't come across well in writing). Indoor washing facilities are therefore not a priority. 

Then we measured the van so we could figure out what we could put where. (At this point we'd like to point out that we never ever ever, in the whole conversion process, got a measurement right the first time. Measure twice, then do it again just for shits and giggles. You'll thank us later). People recommend building cardboard shapes so you can visualise the space and move things around. That's a great idea. We didn't do it (no cardboard) and instead made shapes on the floor with random bits of wood. It kind of worked. The cardboard thing is probably better. 

Finally, we drew a scale drawing (check us out!) of our floor plan. This is it, in all its geeky glory. 

Once you know where things are going to be in your van you can start planning things like your electrical system, get an idea of what materials you'll need to buy and forage, and get started on the insulation, which will be our next conversion post...tune in soon for some foil-backed-bubble-wrapped fun! 

-the FREEDOM junkies

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