VAN Series: How to Plan Your Van Conversion & Build (Vanlife)

You can never plan too much when it comes to building the your own Campervan. Some people design and plan for years, while other wing it and plan it as they build. There are pros and cons to both methods, with the obvious ones being the planners will spend less money on mistakes and will not be held up by shipping times, while the spontaneous builders will be on the road way sooner, but will inevitably run into way more issues along the way. For our build, like most, we fall somewhere in the middle. In this post, I will go over some of the resources and tools we used to plan our build to help. Please note, there are a million ways to go about building a rig for the road, and it will 100% depend on your skill, budget, time, and goals. We primarily used FarOutRide, which is like the campervan bible as far as DIY and the Explorist.Life which make the best DIY tutorials out there. So let’s dive in!

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Personal & Vehicle Goals

Step one for everyone’s build plan should be to determine what your personal and vehicle goals are. This is a broad question but to help narrow it down, these are some of our goals.

Personal: To be able to live on the road for weeks or months at a time, travel the country, and work along the way during the week. We plan to return to our home every so often, or when necessary, so carrying everything we own in a vehicle is not a requirement.

Vehicle: To be able to have two people, and a dog, be able to sleep well, cook real meals, work full time, access dirt and snowy roads, carry gear for our adventures, and not be too bad on gas. Do you need your vehicle to navigate rocky dirt roads in the desert requiring 4wd, or are you keeping it on the roads and can get away with 2WD?


Determining a budget can be one of the most abstract and difficult things to do when it comes to building a van or vehicle. Because how the hell will you know everything you need, until you start building it out. What I’ve found helpful during our planning phase for which components to buy/build/omit, would be to determine what the high/medium/low quality to the item. This will give you a better understanding about what type of components you can afford or where you want to focus your money on. For example, we prioritized our money on electrical system, and the rest of the build were either off the shelf low-end product or we built it ourselves from Home Depot.

A rough estimate for what you can expect to pay, based on our experience would be as follows:

Vehicle: This is really dependent on how long you have to look, how good of a mechanic you are, and how long do you want the rig to last. If you’re looking for just a year on the road, go for that high-mileage vehicle at the end of it’s life. Plenty of vans and buses out there for under $5K. On the other hand, if you’re looking for a long-term solution, you can expect to pay $20K-40K for a new/used van that’s 2WD and smaller wheelbase. But if you’re looking for a bigger van, tall roof, 4WD, and low mileage or new, you’re going to be looking at a minimum of $45K and as much as $100K.

Resources:, Facebook Marketplace, Vanlife Trader, Facebook Groups, Carfax

Build-Out: On the low end, building a platform for a bed, a table to cook on, and maybe simple electronics setup, you can find yourself under $500. To have a complete buildout, with low-end components and a lot of DIY, you can get by with $2K-$5K. For a full build out, with high quality components and minimum DIY, you’re looking at a minimum of $10K and high as the moon. Some buildouts spend $100K+.


I’m jumping ahead, but I wanted to list off a great resource to help, and that’s called VanSpace3D. This is a software that, in my opinion, anyone can learn and will help you visualize your future van build, understand the available space, and make changes very quickly. In general, you’re going to find yourself deciding between a handful of designs that are tried and true. There are only so many variations of where to place a bed, cooking area, and the remaining area dedicated for seating. Your best resources here are going to be the usual: Websites like this, Instagram, Pinterest, Google, Facebook Van Build Groups, and YouTube.

Electrical Demands

This all depends on what you’re looking to power. Do you just want lights or a place to charge your phone, or are you looking to have a full home setup where you can plug in fridge, charge computers, run fans, or even run power tools. I won’t even begin to dig into all of the great resources, but I can summarize things that you will need to run lights, plugs, and a few permanent appliances: 12V Battery, 12V Distribution Panel, Wiring/Cables, Lights, Lugs & Connectors, Switches, and Outlets.

Now, if you want to be able to charge your battery you’ll need to add the following options. There are three ways to charge your battery bank: Solar (via Solar Panels), Shore (Plug in with extension cord), or Alternator (Charge while vehicle engine is running). Solar charging would require solar panels and a solar charge controller. Shore power would require the exterior plug as well as a charger to convert the 110V to 12V to charge your battery. And lastly, you can get a DC-DC charge to use the electricity that your alternator makes when the engine runs to charge your battery.

There are tons of resources out there, but your best ones are going to be FarOutRide Electrical System Guides or Explorist.Life Wiring Diagrams.

Sleeping Setup

The whole point of the van build is to have an all-in-one system to drive, sleep, cook, work, and play (or some combination of that). Now where you sleep is probably the biggest space-waste in the vehicle since you only use it 8hrs a day, but takes up +50% of your space. Overall, most options cost the same amount, but it depends on your priority. Do you want a permanently fixed bed, would you care about folding a bed away every day, do you want a bed to disappear, do you want to convert seating into a bed, etc. Here are some options below:

Eating & Cooking Setup

This section would best be explained by my wife, since I just build what she was looking to have. Here you can keep it simple and just have a surface and use your trusty old camp-stove with a door open to vent the fumes and smoke. But if you’re looking to build out a more permanent solution, you’ll have to account for the following options. At the end of the day, cook tops are all the same idea, get hot and transfer heat to cookware. But the size of the cooktop and fuel they use need to be planned ahead. We went with a propane setup on a 3-burner cooktop. To use this, you either need to hook up propane every time you cook, install an interior propane cabinet to hold the tank and vents outside, or mount your tank outside and run the piping into the van. Other options include an induction cooktop that just uses electricity, or alcohol cooktops that use a camp fuel.

Things to plan for are how to you plan to vent the area while you cook, which can be opening a door, a window, or running a fan. Additionally, plan ahead how easy it will be to fill up your fuel while on the road. And last but not least, safety is #1 priority, and ensure you can cook in a safe environment and fumes and leaking will be managed. Always have a fire extinguisher, smoke detector, and carbon monoxide detectors. We stuck only with a cooktop, while other rigs use a full oven. Additionally, we use an electric kettle to boil water rather than boiling water over the cooktop with precious propane.

Seating Areas

In my opinion, seating areas and cooking areas are tied together because they are the remaining area after you figure out where the bed is going to be installed. A lot of builds will put a seat or two opposite your cooking area or against the bed to maximize space. Other builds prioritize seating areas instead and convert the dinette area into a bed a night. While other builds have a single extra seat or none at all, and just rely on having the driver and passenger seats on swivels to use instead.

For our rig, since we had the extended model, we went with a seating area between the kitchen and bed. During the day, the bed slides back into a couch and unveils a 4 person seating area with a slide-away table. At night, the bed slides down and covers up most of the dinette and table. So unless we shorten the bed, which we might do, our setup is either sleep-mode or seating-mode.

Cargo & Storage

It’s one thing to figure out where you’re going to sleep, sit, cook, etc, but if we were looking to build a rig that just did that, then I would recommend buying a mini-van. The whole campervan experience, like an RV, is to take your home with you to incredible places and get to do incredible things while you’re there. And for us, that means surfing, biking, hiking, climbing, rafting, you name it! In order to do all of those things, we needed a place to put the gear, not to mention the storage needed for food, clothing, supplies, and everything in between.

Starting with the kitchen area to store our food and cooking utensiles, which take up a lot of space, you’ll need cabinets or storage in the front. For us, rather than spend a month that we didn’t have to build a custom cabinet to fit everything, we just went to Home Depot and bout standard kitchen cabinets and they worked perfect. But this can be accomplished in many ways, from a tool chest like The Singletrack Sampler has, to custom bench/cabinet combo to store everything.

For clothes and shoes, you could really do a number of options, and at a minimum, just pack a duffle bag and bring that with you. Other rigs use the storage inside benches or containers that double as seating to store their clothes. We did a combination of the bench in the dinette being storage for dirty clothes and shoes, while the soft, overhead cabinets by VanEssentials as our primary means to store our clothes. We saw these before in a van we rented in 2019 and loved them. Lightweight, soft if you hit your head on them, and tons of storage and places to hook onto.

Last but not least, the “fun” gear. For this, we took a similar layout to most, where we used the space underneath the bed as our “garage”. In this area, we have our electrical system, water tank, and space for about 2-4 plastic bins. This gives us enough space to bring along plenty of gear for adventures, while our bikes get mounted on the back and space on the roof (as needed) to store big items like surfboards. Some builds put bikes and skis inside, but we wanted to prioritize interior space rather than gear safety. But these are all things to think about in your build.

Water Needs

This is a heavily debated item. Some builds have internal mounted tanks that store enough water to fill a swimming pool, with hot water, and an interior shower setup. While other builds bring a container of water like the one you bring camping and call it day. For us, we are somewhere in the middle. If you do go the route of a water tank, think carefully about where you’re going to put it. Not only for space considerations (which they are big), but inside, outside, in the front with the kitchen, or in the back with the gear. If it’s outside, be sure to never drive below freezing temperatures. And the further away you place the tank, the further you’ll need to run plumbing (tubing or Pex) to get to your faucet or shower. To get your head around what’s required, check out a tutorial by Explorist.Life. And as for showers, well, you’re on your own because we are going with an exterior mounted road shower, because every build we researched regretted how much space the interior shower took up for how little it gets used. And as my last words on this, we estimate, on the low end, we consume 2 gallons of water a day which just includes drinking, dog bowls, cooking, and cleaning. So you can imagine how quickly that camp water container would need to be refilled, which is why we ended up with a 25gal tank in the garage to hopefully make it a week in the desert when fully filled. See a great example of how to build and order your parts for a water system by and via the VanConversion.

Heating Needs

This was a last minute thought in our build, only because I thought it was going to be more complicated. Similar to cooking, you have a few options on how to heat your interior that does not include running your vehicle, see a great list here by FarOutRide. You can use propane, electric, wood, or diesel, and the price range is across the board. Propane heaters can be as simple as the little “My Buddy Heater“, but is not recommended for long durations in a closed space (like a van). Another propane option is to use the extremely expensive Propex heater, but unfortunately it goes through propane very quickly and will have you filling up your tank every other day. Electric space heaters really aren’t realistic, as they run at 1500W and will drain your battery bank in an hour, and would really strain your inverter to run long term even if you’re hooked up to shore power. Wood stoves are another alternative that people seem to love, it’s an efficient, warm, dry heat that is pretty cheap to run. Obvious drawbacks to it tho having to tend to the fire and it’s not very stealthy or aerodynamic. And last but not least, the option I recommend the most, a diesel heater. The patent for diesel heaters ran out, so China is making incredible (or shitty depending on the batch) diesel heaters for under $150. When it’s 35 degrees outside, that heater can heat our van up to 65 degrees in under an hour, with a warm, dry heat, that costs next to nothing to run, even when diesel is at $5/gallon. For a great video comparison, check out


You can never plan too much, but too much planning can get in the way of progress. As I find myself saying all too much, don’t let perfect get in the way of “good enough”. Though I have some experience building things around the house and have a technical background, I genuinely do believe, with the help of YouTube, anyone can build the van of their dreams. And for the things you can’t build or don’t have the confidence, please reach out to all these amazing resources online. Sure, some might charge you for their time, but it will be invaluable (and still much cheaper than having it built for you). On average, you can expect to pay 2x whatever the item costs if you want someone else to do it for you. So that means a new van, plus $15K worth of build supplies will cost you around $80K, but at least $160K if you’re buying it from a professional builder. So it’s up to you, what’s your money and time worth to you?

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