Charlie Low and Dale Comley share some hints and tips on how to convert your own camper van into a cosy climbing home on wheels. Check out their van configurator!
In the past few years van conversions have boomed. Forming both your transport to the crag and your accommodation once you arrive, as well as providing a much higher level of comfort after a tiring day's climbing than a soggy tent, vans are the perfect investment for most climbers. Before we converted our van, we used to spend our climbing holidays cramming all of our climbing gear into a tiny Fiat 500 and spending two weeks slowly growing stiffer and more and more tired as we slept in a tent and ate substandard camping food. When the weather turned, we were stuck sheltering in a tiny flooding tent looking forlornly at some wet rock.
Fast forward to now, and we feel that we are practically living the life of luxury! On a long drive, we can pull up wherever the view is best and stop for a tasty meal cooked on a big hob, have a good night's sleep in a comfy double bed and set off again fresh the next day. After a day of climbing, we have a proper base to come back to and relax in, which makes a massive difference to your climbing on a long trip when you're able to rest effectively! If the rain rolls in, you can just drive off towards the sunshine. It feels like a pretty perfect setup.
Over the past few months, where hopping on a plane to Spain or the Alps hasn't been an option and we have an unclear picture as to when international travel might be possible again, the demand for van conversions has been skyrocketing. The versatility they provide means that you can head off last minute without having to book accommodation or find a campsite, with the added bonus of being able to follow the weather (very useful in the rainy UK!), and they make social distancing far easier than staying in any other form of accommodation.
Back in January 2019, we bought a LWB Mercedes Sprinter and spent just over a year converting it into our mobile climbing home. Dale comes from a design and engineering background, so we spent almost a year before we bought the van meticulously planning and deciding on a layout based on all of our requirements. We converted the entire van ourselves, from plumbing and gas to electrics, figuring all of it out along the way by reading blogs and articles. We wanted to design a van that was both practical and cosy - we made sure that it had space for all of our gear, and all of the functionality we would ever need, but we also spent a lot of time making it feel like a tiny second home rather than being inside the back of a van.
The magic of converting your own van is that you can create something that fits your needs exactly, whether that's a van for the weekend warrior on a budget, who needs somewhere to sleep and make a cup of tea but not much else, to those looking to live, and possibly work, in their van full time. Whether you just have a couple of bouldering pads or a full trad rack, winter gear and road bikes, you can pick a van and design a layout that works to suit your needs. Below we go through some of the logic we considered when planning our own layout, and the basics of converting a van.
Deciding on a van and a layout
There are a few main factors that will influence the size of van you convert and the layout you go for:
- Type of trips planned (weekends/weeks away vs several months/living in a van)
- Number of people (just for 1-2, or needs to fit a family of 3-4)
- Activities you'll do whilst away (do you only need to fit sport climbing gear, or do you need enough room for bouldering mats, a full trad and winter rack and maybe even bikes?)
- Facilities required and budget (are you happy with a basic bed, sink and using a camping stove, or do you want room to sit down, a built-in cooker, and possibly even a shower and toilet?!)
Once you have decided on these requirements, you can start to think about the size of van you might need, and the different layouts that might work for you. If you have a lot of gear to store, you may need a high fixed bed with a lot of storage underneath, whereas if you don't have much gear but you want to live in your van full time, you may want to prioritise more living space and a bigger seating area.
It's crucial to spend a lot of time designing your layout and finding the right size of van for you, otherwise you could put hundreds of hours into converting a van only to find it's not practical.
If you're struggling to decide on the right size of van or layout, we've recently built a van configurator that can help you find the perfect layout. It asks you a series of questions, and then suggests a layout based on your requirements:
The stages of converting a camper van
Below we have given a basic summary of the tasks you'll need to complete at each stage of your build. You can find more in-depth information about each stage of the conversion on our van conversion blog.
Installing windows/skylight/solar panels
One of the first jobs when converting a van feels like one of the scariest, as it involves cutting a massive hole in the side of your van! In reality, once you commit this is actually one of the easiest jobs - you can buy window fitting kits that come with everything you need, and you will only need basic tools, such as a drill and a jigsaw.
Once you've cut the hole in the side of your van, if you've used a tool such as a jigsaw rather than a specialist tool like a nibbler, you'll need to file down the edges and paint them with some anti rust paint. Then it's just a case of putting the primer on the van and the glue on the windows, and sandwiching them together! We used some gaffer tape to hold the window in place once it was in, and then you just need to wait a few hours for the glue to set.
Installing the skylight works in much a similar way, except once you've cut the hole in the roof you may need to level the roof out with some mastic tape before fixing the skylight in place.
If you're installing solar panels, these will also need to be attached before you do anything else, so that you can drill through the van and secure them from the inside. We used wells nuts to attach ours as these are great at sealing the holes and stopping leaks, and covered them with silicone sealant to be extra safe.
Insulating your van is really important to make sure it's cosy and warm in winter and stays cool in the summer. Before you insulate, you will need to stick sound-deadening strips to the walls and roof of your van, as these dampen noise and stop it sounding like a tin can when it's raining! We then used a mixture of thermal insulation board such as Recticel or Celotex for the large panels and the floor, and recycled bottle wool for the hard to reach corners (sheep's wool is also a good alternative).
Once you've finished insulating, you'll need to apply a vapour barrier by attaching silver foil insulation (which is kind of like shiny bubble wrap) to your walls with some spray glue, and sealing it with silver foil tape. This provides a barrier between your insulation and the inside of your van where you are cooking, breathing and creating lots of condensation.
It makes sense to tackle your electrical system at this point, so that you can get all of your wiring in place before it's covered by your cladding. There are a plethora of different electrical systems you can choose, from a simple 12V system that charges using a solar panel to a full 230V setup using an inverter, with expensive lithium batteries and a shore hookup to charge up at campsites.
You'll need to do some research into the right system for you based on the kind of trips you plan on taking, whether you want to be completely off grid, and if you just plan on charging phones or if you want to be able to work full time in your van and charge laptops, cameras etc.
Once you've decided on your system, you should try and draw out a full wiring diagram for your setup before wiring everything in, as this will make it much easier to work your way through installing it. You'll use mainly crimp connectors and cable lug eyelets to attach your wires to different components in your system.
Before you start cladding your van, you'll need to decide on the aesthetic you're trying to achieve. Some people like the fully carpeted look as it has a soft feel and maintains heat, whereas others go for painted ply or cladding to give it a bit more of a 'log cabin' vibe.
We decided to fully clad our van using tongue and groove cladding. Before you clad you will need to build a wooden substructure to attach your cladding to. We also carpeted areas that we knew would be awkward to clad at this point, such as the doorways.
Once this was done, we screwed the cladding into the wooden substructure, slowly making our way up the walls before tackling the ceiling (we would recommend making sure you have two people for this job!). Instead of cladding the entire van, we first measured out where our kitchen units, bed etc. would be, so that the areas behind these structures wouldn't be clad. This was to save weight on our build (it's important to stay under 3.5T once your van conversion is complete).
When you have finished cladding, you'll have lots of fun carpentry jobs ahead of you. From building kitchen units to bed structures and overhead storage units, there are quite a lot of structures to be built. We built all of our units and structures ourselves, as there's a lot of weight-saving by making your kitchen out of 12mm ply vs installing a big heavy IKEA kitchen made of 18mm MDF, as some people opt to do.
As you are building, it's a good idea to think about how you might get extra storage out of every single area. We built hinged tops on our seating, as well as a little bedside table next to our bed which has a lot of storage inside, and pull-out drawers to access hard-to-reach storage space in the boot.
We also thought about ways to use the space as effectively as possible - we have a small seating area next to our kitchen which has a pull out table which comes out from under the bed, which is perfect for eating dinner, but if we want to relax we can also pull an extra bench out from under the bed to put our feet up, and if we remove the backboards from the seats it even doubles as a small second bed for any shorter guests!
Gas & water systems
Once your general structures are in place, you'll need to install your gas and water systems so you can have a working sink, hob and even shower if you decide to fit one! We installed our water tank in the boot of our van, and we have an underslung LPG tank attached to the bottom of the van. The fill points for both of these are in the boot, so we didn't have to drill more holes in the side of the van.
Our water tank is plumbed into our sink and outdoor shower via an electric 12V water pump. Our LPG tank is connected to our hob, heater and shower via a gas manifold, which means we can isolate the connection to any appliance if we need to. Filling up the gas for the first time was very nerve wracking, and it's quite stressful trying to deal with gas leaks in the car park of a petrol station!
At this point you will have all of the visual jobs left. It's amazing how quickly your van can go from looking really half done to basically finished. Once we had painted our kitchen units, our walls and added some tiles, the van felt so much more homely!
We also used quite a good hack for getting a good finish on our seating area without spending hours and hours sewing cushion covers - we stapled the material over some foam and onto a backboard. It takes hardly any time and you end up with a really good finish.
At this point we also sealed a lot of our exposed wood with wax to protect it (especially important for worktops and floors!) and added some little finishing touches, like coat hooks and a little shoe storage box by our sliding door.
If all of this sounds quite overwhelming, remember you can always pay a professional to do some jobs - it's very common to pay to have jobs such as electrics or gas installation done if you don't want to commit yourself! If you're short on time but not on money you can also consider paying a professional van converter build an entire bespoke van for you.
Once you've finished converting your van, you finally have a little mobile home to enable your climbing adventures! But with great power comes great responsibility...when living in a van, whether it's full time or just when away on climbing trips, it's important to follow the ethics of Leave No Trace. This includes important values such as making sure to take any litter home with you, digging a hole if you need to go to the toilet away from any water sources, and not parking up in any sensitive areas, especially if you have a larger van. There are apps such as park4night that you can use to find suitable spots to sleep, or you can always stay on a campsite.
Charlie and Dale run climbingvan, a van conversion blog which provides resources for people converting their own van. They have built a van configurator which helps people wanting to convert a van find the perfect layout for their requirements.
You can also follow their journey on Instagram (@climbingvan).
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