Tempted by Van life? Looking for how to build a DIY camper van conversion? We obsessively documented EVERYTHING from our DIY camper van conversion process. Whether you are converting a Ford Transit, a Mercedes Sprinter, or a Ram ProMaster, it’s all good. Our step-by-step directions should point you in the right path whatever the van you choose to convert. Happy conversion!
VIsual Index – DIY Camper Van Conversion
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Sequential Index – DIY Camper Van Conversion
Our Build Journal below is presented chronologically. That being said, the order of some steps can be interchanged; for example, you could decide to upgrade the tires, the radio, or install the Air Lift system at any moment. But some steps should be performed in the right order… The timeline below indicates what we think is the critical path:
First things first, here is a list of the tools we are using for our DIY van conversion and throughout this Build Journal. A down-to-earth list with the essential and not-so-essential tools that make our build easier and better.
The swivel seats help optimizing space in our van. The Transit, Sprinter, andProMaster can be ordered with factory swivels (with some limitations), but installing an aftermarket adapter is often cheaper and it’s actually quite a simple task. Let’s get into it!
A roof rack is a great way of adding real estate to the roof of our van! It’s also a safe and easy way to attach accessories such as solar panels, storage box, awning, etc. And with the permanent ladder, clearing the solar panels from dirt/snow is much less hassle!
We’re not off road enthusiasts, but we’re not roadies either. We need tires that can handle highway, off-road, and snow as well. And we don’t mind the badass look too, because we’re such badass people. Whether you are converting a campervan or own a work van, this is something to consider.
Do you have what it takes to convert a brand new van? This is the test right here. We just brought home a new shiny van, and we’re about to cut a big hole through the roof to install a fan… THERE IS NO TURNING BACK NOW!
We did NOT add a window above our bed, and, well, maybe we should have… We’re considering adding one to our van during summer 2019 (edit: we didn’t! 2020 maybe?). If we had to start over we would most likely do it at this point of the conversion, right after the Maxxfan installation.
Off-the-grid or not, we still have to run the fridge, the fans, the water pump, the lights, etc.; our autonomy and freedom depend A LOT on electrical power at all times. Harvesting power from the sun feels a bit like cheating to us: we LOVE IT! If you say freedom, we say solar!
If space is a rare & precious thing in a van, why not create some space outside? An awning is not cheap, but we’d rather be outside. Rain or shine. Do we actually use it? Please take the time to read our “Second Thoughts” in this article…
If you have enough budget to invest in a van, ski gear, and ski passes, then you have enough budget to invest in a dry heat source; we can’t recommend that enough. We LOVE our Webasto as it is an “unlimited” heat source (it uses fuel from the van’s tank, so no need to refill a propane tank), it keeps the humidity level below 40% (even when drying ski gear!), and it’s powerful enough to keep the van warm (68F) at all times. This thing is awesome.
Webasto AND Propex, do we really need both? Here’s the situation: right before our first winter (2017), we had some issues with the Webasto. We decided to add the Propex as a backup heat source, because being parked at -22F (-30C) is not a joke; having heat is a safety matter! Turns out our Webasto is working fine, so we didn’t really needed the Propex after all, but it’s nice to know we can have heat when we forget to add enough gas in the tank, AND a second heater is not a bad thing when temperatures drop below -20F (-30C)…
We don’t like drilling holes in our van as it could: attract rust on bare edges, spread metal chips all over (almost impossible to remove and will attract rust), interfere with your van electronics (!). Cross Nuts and Hex Nuts are the solution! Check it out!
And now is the time to install a floor in our van because, you know, we need something to walk on! That being said, a floor has many other primordial functions than just supporting our feet. Indeed, a proper floor installation prevents water infiltration (= rust), provides thermal and noise insulation, and serves as an anchor for the cabinets. In addition, it should be resistant to wear, be able to withstand enough weight, not produce any squeak, and … look good (yep, that counts!).
Welcome to the most controversial topic on van conversion: Thermal Insulation! One could spend days reading about it online only to find out there is no consensus on the topic… Our research on insulation and condensation led us to choose Thinsulate, and we’re glad we did! After two winters chasing snow full time, Thinsulate kept us warm even down below -22F! And it still looks great after all this time (no molds, no bugs). Awesome!
There are a lot of creative ways to make a bed: Murphy bed, pull-out slats, futon, etc. We personally wanted a permanent bed (so we don’t have to do/undo the setup everyday and to leave plenty of room for the “garage”). A raised platform bed seemed ideal, and we haven’t looked back!
We won’t lie, this whole FarOutThing revolves a lot around the mountain bikes. They deserve a neat and functional storage. And we can’t emphasize that enough: repetitive tasks should be made easy (we ride almost everyday in summer, so that’s definitely a repetitive task)!
It’s the first cabinet we’re building, so it’s quite the learning curve… but we made it! In retrospect, we’re VERY happy with the large countertop (we cook a lot in the van), and we like that the electrical system doesn’t use much room (but it’s challenging to work on it because it’s so small).
Designing a 12V electrical system from scratch is not a simple task, we learned that the hard way. It is where most people get discouraged, so it’s BY FAR our most detailed guide on this website. You’ll learn how to size your components, decide between different technologies, make the connections, install fuses and breakers, etc. We’re also sharing our Wiring Diagram, which is flexible and can be implemented on pretty much anything (Transit, Sprinter, ProMaster, Tiny House, Boat, Trailer, etc!). Hope that helps!
There’s not much use to make of the space above the countertop… except, of course, adding storage! The overhead storage will be used to put away our kitchen stuff (dishes, pots & pans, food containers, espresso machine, etc.).
In a small space, organization is the key to sanity! Looking back, we LOVE our bedroom storage because we both have our own “storage cubes” to put away our stuff, organized by categories. No random packing, it’s all neat!
Adding a propane range and pressurized water were GREAT decisions, considering we live full time in the van. The sink & stove cabinet is home to the Atwood range, the Dometic sink, and some storage for household products & food as well.
We hesitated to install a draft beer system in our DIY campervan conversion, but we finally installed a pressurized water system instead. This is the Water System Installation of our DIY campervan conversion. Materials, tools, cost, and installation. Fully illustrated to make it easy to understand!
We chose Thinsulate (and we’re glad we did) as our “main” thermal and noise insulation. To be effective, Thinsulate needs to be fully expanded: that’s almost 2 inches thick for SM600L Thinsulate. There are locations where we just don’t have that space (we’d rather keep that space as living area), so we installed Low-E insulation (formerly EZ-Cool) to act as a thermal break.
Right from the start, we knew we wanted a rustic finish. It is fairly easy to obtain a nice & clean finish with the tongue and groove paneling: each plank will sit flush with the adjacent planks, creating a uniform & continuous surface. The planks are relatively thin at 5/16” thickness, making them flexible enough to conform to the van’s funky surfaces. We did not sand the planks, but we finished them with varnish to protect them against a spaghetti incident.
After some trial-and-error, we finally found what we think are the perfect recessed ceiling LED lights! The first LEDs we ordered were WAY too bright as the glass was clear instead of frosted. Even with a dimmer, the light was shocking for the eye. Then we stumbled on the Acegoo LED lights…
We plan on living full time for a year in the van (update from the future: we’re currently in our third year!). For a minimum of comfort (and convenience), we really wanted a toilet, and after reading about composting toilets, it seemed like the perfect solution for us! It’s honestly really easy to install and manage; there is no odor (that’s right!) and no black water to deal with. It’s one of those things we couldn’t live without. Sweeeeet!
Propane stores a LOT of energy in a compact and cheap way. To get an equivalent amount of energy via solar & batteries would cost thousands and thousands of dollars. To make it perfectly safe, we enclosed our propane tank in a sealed & vented locker. This Propane System Guide has everything you need to build your knowledge and execute your build. We even share our Propane Diagram in there, hope that helps!
The Ford Transit can be ordered with the optional Upfitter Auxiliary Switches, but getting access to their output is a bit tricky. Fortunately, we did our homework, and we’re guiding you through the process!
As we progressed in our conversion, the van got heavier, and we could see the back starting to sag… We decided to add an Air Lift Spring Kit to bring the van back to its original level and to improve the ride. And with the on-board compressor and the wireless remote, we can adjust the air pressure in the springs on the fly to level the van for the night! Neat!
And here’s the only non-DIY part of our Transit van conversion: the mosquito screens. They’re almost too good to be true, there is NO WAY we could have matched the functionality or quality of those. So we did not bother making them!
The Ford Transit can be upgraded with an aftermarket radio, and we’ll show you how in the following article. We went from the basic Ford factory AM/FM radio to the Pioneer AVH-W4500NEX 6.94″ TouchScreen Multimedia Receiver: it has Android Auto & Apple CarPlay (wireless or USB), backup camera ready, DVD receiver, Bluetooth, SiriuxXM, etc. Sweet upgrade. Let’s get to work and get done with the installation!
After upgrading our radio unit, the next smart move was to upgrade our speakers. We ordered our Transit with the basic factory radio, which includes 1 speaker in each front door and they’re not that great… we’re not audiophiles or anything; in fact, we’ve been using the same small portable stereo in our house for the last 10 years, but we quickly got bored with the flat sound of the Transit’s factory speakers.
Let’s recap: in our quest for the perfect sound, we upgraded the Ford Transit factory radio to a Pioneer AVH-W4500NEX, AND we upgraded the factory front speakers. It definitely improved the sound, and we were pleased with the results. We enjoyed that setup for two years, but then we couldn’t help but push our quest even further: how can we make the audio even better? Indeed, because the front speakers are located in the doors close to floor-level, the sound quality was not as good under loud ambient noise (driving under heavy rain or wind, or when cooking in the van). So here we are today, adding Rockford Fosgate speakers to the headliner; and this, my friends, completes our quest for the perfect audio experience. It’s exactly what we were looking for!
We LOVE riding our mountain bikes. It can only means two things: 1-We drink a lot of craft beer 2-We take a lot of showers. Let’s focus on item #2 in here. This is our van conversion exterior shower setup.
While curtains work for houses, we think insulated window covers are better for campervans. They are lightproof (for shade & privacy) and insulated (to keep us cool in summer, warm in winter). We’re obsessed with functionality and with the rare earth magnets all around the edges, they just “snap” to the van metal window contour. Easy breezy! Similar designs should work for Transit, Sprinter, or ProMaster.
We are adding a second floor vent to cool down our bedroom (and the whole van too)! It’s similar to the fridge vent except that we added a gate, an inline fan and a duct to route the air above the bed.
We previously installed an Air Lift Kit, and we’re about to tap into it to solve a third-world problem: adding air to our mountain bike tires without a floor pump. It’s not by any means an essential upgrade, but we do actually like it a lot!
La Pièce de Résistance. All of this van conversion must serve our end goal: RIDE MORE. That means we’re packing a lot of gear, and we want to be able to load/unload it easily. If we have to play Tetris each time we need to access something, it isn’t gonna work in the long term; we can do better. So here it is: The Garage!
We’re pretty obsessed with our bikes, and riding (almost) everyday means a LOT of maintenance and repairs. For the last two years, we improvised repair stands with picnic tables, Adirondack chairs, bike racks, and other unrelated objects that are definitely not suited for the job. A repair stand is not absolutely necessary, but it makes mechanical sessions much more efficient and enjoyable! After holding back on this upgrade for the last two years, the time has come.
People elect to install dash cams for several reasons: evidence in case of accident, prevent fraud, capture footage of a road trip, etc. In the article below, we documented how we installed the Garmin Dash Cam Mini in our Ford Transit and why we chose it. Hope that helps!
The Ford Keyless Entry Keypad allows you to unlock your vehicle, you guessed it, without using your keys. Turns out we use it a lot when going for a bike ride or skiing because we like to pack light and getting stabbed by your keys when crashing is no fun. We’re no beach bums, but we heard surfers love it as well! It’s possible to order the Keyless Entry Keypad with a new vehicle or add one (or up to 8) later. After using the keypad on our Ford Transit for two years, we’re adding a second one on the passenger-side for more convenience. Here is how to install and program it.
A folding table is a convenient way to add more space for work, eat, etc. Then it can be folded away when not needed. Our folding table was installed a few years after our van life started because we initially didn’t plan our van interior layout for work. Now that we both have to use our laptops simultaneously, the folding table makes our van a bit more ergonomic and practical!
The Prime Design AAL rear door ladder kept showing on our social feeds lately, it seems to get increasingly popular. And we can see why: the aluminum design requires no drilling (neat!), it can be matched with any roof rack (or no roof rack at all!), and there’s a model for most van variants (Transit/Sprinter/ProMaster, all roof heights).
The Cabbunk bunk bed system is a pretty neat way of optimizing space by adding child beds to the cabin of a van/RV/motorhome. On top of that it’s modular, does not require a permanent installation, and fits the Transit/Sprinter/ProMaster vans.
A headliner shelf is a great hack to add more storage to your Sprinter van or Ford Transit van. We can’t say it enough: organization is the key to sanity in small spaces! You can either make your own shelf using a DIY Kit, or buy a bolt-on aluminum shelf.
Small spaces are fast to clean, but they also get messy in the blink of an eye! The key to sanity for Van Life is staying organized and taking advantage of all the space available to optimize the storage. Here are some storage, organization and space saving ideas we actually use.