Converting your first camper van is both an exciting and an intimidating endeavor. All at once, there is an entirely blank canvas in front of you. It holds the promise of adventure. But the process of converting this piece of metal into a home on wheels can be rather daunting.
Below is a list of some of the mistakes seasoned van lifers made while converting their first camper van. These five van lifers have all spent significant time building and traveling in their vans, and therefore, have a comprehensive understanding of what they would do differently if they could start over.
Some of these van lifers are single, some travel with their partner, and others travel as a family. This is their compiled list of “no-no’s” and mistakes to avoid during the conversion process.
12 camper van conversion mistakes:
1. Underestimating total scope of work
Building out your van is an endeavor. It is a common mistake to think that the work can be done in a handful of weekends.
Nick (@nicklefish) had this to say – “When I first started building out the van, I thought that I would be able to finish it in a couple weeks or a month. The truth is that it is a really big project. It’s a lot of work and it takes time. And if you rush it then you’ll make mistakes and either have to redo those parts or just live with it being done sloppy. It’s best to take your time and give yourself plenty of time to work on it.”
2. Underestimating the cost
Nick also had this to say about the cost – “I didn’t realize how expensive it would be. I was pretty naive as to how much money it would take to build it out. There are plenty of ways to keep costs down, such as using re-purposed materials or finding used appliances.
But it still winds up being a big chunk of change. Every van is unique, and so the costs vary quite a bit, but I would expect to spend somewhere between ten and fifteen thousand or more for things like materials, appliances, and batteries.”
3. Not acquiring adequate workspace and tools
Next, Nick discussed the importance of making sure you have adequate space and tools to complete your build – “When I started my van, I was living with some friends in a small house that didn’t have a flat driveway or a garage. I also had a very limited set of tools. The first couple of months were really difficult. I eventually moved, and found access to a garage and a better workspace.
But I also wound up buying several thousand dollars worth of tools that were essential to the job. You’ll be doing a lot of cutting, staining, painting and gluing, so it’s nice to have a large garage or workshop to keep things organized. Space to work and good tools are essential.”
4. Not installing a fridge
Brad (@bradinthevan) shared how he wished he had installed a fridge right from the start – “I have never gotten around to installing a fridge. I really wish I did this upfront and built my cabinets around a high quality, low energy fridge.
But my budget was tight when building, and I opted out with the promise to install one later. It’s been three and a half years, and I still long for the day I can crack open an icy cold 0% beer in the back of my van!”
5. Not considering your destination’s climate
It is possible that you will use your van during the winter in Alaska, and turn right around to use it in the dry desert summers. In this case, you want to ensure your van is fully equipped to accommodate both weather extremes. If you know that you will only be roving around warmer weather, it might not be necessary to think too hard on cold weather gear.
But if you do decide that your van will be your full time home, or your home in a colder climate, think hard about what sort of accessories will make your space more livable in the cold.
Take the advice of @bradinthevan. “ I didn’t install a heat source. This didn’t bother me until recently, when I’ve wanted to use my van in the winter. It’s far too cold for my liking now. I’m very envious of vans with a stand alone heat source.”
6. Not choosing the right size van
Brad also had this to say about choosing the right size camper van – “Although I am happy with the size of my van, I have seen a lot of people make the wrong decision regarding the size of their van, and it ultimately causes them to fall out of love with their van. Mine is tall enough to stand up in, but short enough in length to fit into almost any car parking space. It’s the perfect stealth camper. Choose your size wisely!”
7. Not tracking total vehicle weight
Deb and Ian (@journeyfromthemiddle) had this to say about balance and weight considerations – “We took twelve months of researching before the actual building commenced. Our situation is a bit different than most. We (in Australia) planned and provided detailed spreadsheets to a bespoke van builder in the UK, since our plan is to travel the UK and Europe for 18 months.
Our builders are amazing. Together we tweaked our ideas and built an amazing van.
However, my husband and I didn’t fully understand the importance of tracking the weight of everything that goes into the build until much later. By the time we realized this, it was too late, and we had to compromise on other things. Completed vans have a maximum weight limit, and must be as balanced as possible.
Therefore, weight is super important right from the start. Our van is right on the weight limit and is nicely balanced. I would say that when converting a van, the weight of everything should be closely tracked in a spreadsheet. How much does that composting toilet weigh? Or bench tops, or that timber bench top?
It all adds up. So our tip would be to always take the lightest weight option available, even if it costs a few extra dollars. You will save on fuel, wear and tear, registration (price and size is often guided by weight) as well as ensuring the legality of your van.”
8. Not building the right size bed
The Travel Bobbers (@thetravelbobbers – featured image top of article too!) had this to say about their bed size – “We made a few errors on the build, but the main one was building a sideways bed. I measured myself and it seemed fine and good. We were pleased we gained that extra space. We have tons of width, was was vital for storage and for our daughter’s lower bunk.
But after the mattress was in, the van was built, and we had begun to live in it, I began to sleep at a slight angle. It’s not a massive error, but just something we would change if we built another van.”
9. Not thinking through SWB vs MWB vs LWB
SWB? MWB? LWB? What do all these acronyms mean? They stand for short, medium, and long wheel base. While they are not directly related to the conversion process as much as the purchasing process, it is a decision that will directly reflect on what your conversion process and vanlife experience will look like, which is why it was included in this list.
The Travel Bobbers also had this to say about choosing a wheel base – “I feel we could have made this interior space with a MWB, but we went with a LWB. There have been times where we simply cannot find parking.
We make do, but it is a massive van, so at times I feel if it were smaller we would be able to find more spaces to park and maneuver. But we love the van, and the space we have made is perfect for us as a family. And on those rainy nights, we have so much room inside for our daughter to play and for us to move.”
10. Prioritizing the conversion BEFORE automotive maintenance
The family at Adopt A Van (@adopt_a_van) had this to say about priorities when starting a camper van conversion – “We ‘adopted’ a 2000 Ford Econoline E-350 SuperDuty for free from a local business. Since then, it has been an absolute blast to work on, but we’ve found a few stumbling blocks along the way.
The first, and probably biggest, was the sheer amount of deferred maintenance the van needed. We’ve devoted most of our early budget towards getting it up and running, and, as any good DIY-er, we have done it all ourselves. The learning curve has been steep and we’ve certainly occupied most of our time up until this point.”
11.) Not insulating correctly
Adopt A Van also had this to say about insulation – “After we stripped the van down, we realized that we have no idea what kind of weather conditions we would run into on our future journeys.
Thus, finding the right balance has been a huge puzzle. Many people have many different opinions about the best path of insulation, but they all differ significantly. We’re trying to forge our own path as best we can by using a hybrid of multiple other van builds we follow.”
12. Comfort vs practicality
Lastly, Adopt A Van shared their thoughts on struggling between comfort and practicality – “We are currently stuck on an interior build. We need to include some back seats for our kids, which puts space at a premium for comforts like a kitchenette, entertainment, and storage. We are learning as we go. One thing is for certain. This is the most exciting project we’ve worked on as a family in a very long time.”
Van conversions are as custom and unique as the person building it. No two vans will be the same, nor should they be. Everyone has different priorities, needs, and comfort levels. These recommendations are merely guides, but they are not steadfast rules. Remember to assess your needs before anyone else’s.
Personally speaking, I have built out two vans myself. One was a fully equipped camper van with a toilet, propane stove, fridge, and full bed. The other was a minivan with nothing more than a plywood platform bed and a few cabinets. I have lived in both. Each, in their own way, provided what I needed during that phase of my life.
Try to resist the temptation to copy another van you like if they have a different lifestyle, live in a different geography, or have a different budget than yourself. Making your van personalized to you is the best way to ensure you keep falling in love with your home on wheels every day.
Van conversions can be intimidating. But they don’t have to be. Mistakes are a natural part of the process, and when taken as a learning experience, are nothing more than an essential aspect of life on the road.
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As a solo female traveler, Katie is passionate about exploring outdoor spaces, involving others in the fight against climate change, and being a student of the world. She has traveled the U.S. in her van in order to film a documentary on solo female travel, and is currently on a mission to travel the world armed with nothing but a backpack and a fierce desire to taste the best local dessert in as many places as possible.