Tempted by Vanlife? Looking for how to convert a van to a campervan? We obsessively documented EVERYTHING from our DIY campervan conversion process: how to's, products and material, tools, lessons learned, etc. 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 campervan conversion!
In each GUIDE of this Build Journal, you'll find:
There are 3 options to find your way around here:
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 to install the Air Lift system at any moment. But some steps should be performed in the right order... To clarify the timeline below indicate, what we think, is the critical path:
First things first. 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.
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 time. Harvesting power from the sun feels a bit like cheating to us: we LOVE IT! If you say freedom, we say solar!
We chose to convert the largest Ford Transit available, thinking we would have plenty of extra space... Note by us from the future: "nope, no extra space"! Indeed, every precaution should be taker to maximize the space available. Adding swivel seats is one of these precaution, we HIGHLY recommend it! We use it constantly. So let's get to work!
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 has "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 time. 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. So we decided to add the Propex as a backup heat source, because being parked at -22F (-30C) is not a joke; having heat is 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 are the solution! We prepared a fully detailed article about Cross Nut (choosing the right size for your van, installation tips, etc). 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’s 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 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 that topic... Our researches 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!
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 in it because it's so small).
Designing a 12V electrical system from scratch is not a simple task, we learnt 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, where to 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!
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 requires 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 EZ Cool to act as 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 the 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 funky surfaces. We did not sand the planks, but we finished them with varnish to protect them against a spaghetti incident.
After a few trial-and-error we finally found what (we think) are the perfect recessed ceiling LED lights! The first LED 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 seamed 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 these thing 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!
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 it's 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!
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 audiophile or something; in fact we’ve been using the same small portable stereo in our house for the last 10 years, but we quickly got bored of 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 ambiant 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, complete our quest for the perfect audio experience. It’s exactly what we were looking for!
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 breazy! Similar design should work for Transit, Sprinter or ProMaster.
La Pièce de Résistance. All this van conversion must serves 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 than this. 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 🙂
The Ford Keyless Entry Keypad allows 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 to 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!
WE'RE DONE, YAY!!
BE OUR GUEST:
Nice To Meet You.
Hello! We’re Isabelle and Antoine In 2017 we sold our house (and everything in it), quit our engineering careers and moved into our self built campervan. We’ve been on the road since then and every day is an opportunity for a new adventure; we’re chasing our dreams and hopefully it inspires others to do the same!