Planning a van conversion takes a lot of time and research. Whether you’re in the early stages of planning your van conversion or are several months into planning your van conversion, this blogpost is for you. Here are our tips, tricks, and resources to make sure you’re planning your van!
Watch our video about planning a van conversion below!
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Back in May of 2018 we purchased our first Sprinter van brand new off the lot in Knoxville, Tennessee. We instantly fell in love with it. That van carried us 80,000 miles across mountains, deserts, and tundras on some of the greatest adventures of our lives so far. It was our tiny home and adventure mobile all rolled up into one.
After we purchased the van we took the next 3 ½ months to convert the van in Georgia. Building a van takes lots of work (way more work than you even expect) and it’ll test your patience and make you question your sanity. Trust me, a few weeks into building out the van the new excitement will be mostly gone. You’ll be standing in a torn apart cargo van wondering what the heck you’ve done.
But don’t worry-- it’s worth it. I promise!
Now, two years later we’re back at the starting line again. We’ve recently sold our beloved Sprinter van and have purchased a brand new 2019 144” 4x4 Sprinter van we’ll be converting into our new adventure mobile this summer!
Van life is such an incredible way to see and experience places at your own pace. If you’re willing to put in the work and make a few mistakes along the way, the work will pay off.
But with so many things to figure out and learn, where do you even begin when planning a van conversion? Let’s start at the beginning….
Make a Wishlist
Moving into a van inevitably means you're downsizing and giving up some of the luxuries your old life afforded. When some people build a van they keep it super minimalist and bypass adding things like a shower, toilet, or air heater. Others (like ourselves) want a little extra comfort on the road.
It’s important to us that our van is a place where we can comfortably work, live, and adventure. Therefore we choose to include a lot of everyday life luxuries such as hot water, toilet, and a large bed. Our first van was pretty large and allowed for far more luxuries than our new van will. But there will be a good bit of similarities between the two.
Start by making a list in order of most important to least import things to include in a van. Our list looked something like this:
- Full time lofted bed
- Enough power to go off grid for days at a time
- Air heater
- Hot water
- Bike storage
- Air conditioner
- Roof rack
That’s a lot of stuff, I know. And it’s not all going to make it into the van but at least we have a better idea of what to prioritize from both a space and budget standpoint.
Grab some graph paper and let’s get to drawing! Some people prefer to use SketchUp in addition to graph paper or entirely instead of graph paper. But, for me, I like old fashioned paper and pen.
If you don’t have your van in hand yet and/or are trying to decide which van is right for you and want to play around with the different van dimensions, I recommend utilizing Sportsmobile’s van dimensions page which can be found HERE. They’ve done a great job of measuring and sketching up all the different van models for each make and showing them side by side. Having these dimensions so readily accessible made planning our first and second van so much easier. We had a general idea of what we should expect spatially before we even had the van in hand.
If you’re not sure where to start with your van design, start with the things that you know there’s only one place for. For example, if you want a full time lofted bed, chances are you’re going to want to put that towards the back of the van vs. the front of the van where it might be more in the way of your sliding door.
I’ve drawn literally hundreds of van designs, most of which differ only slightly but every time I draw the van layout again, I think of other ideas and possibilities. I truly believe repetition is the best way to learn and think through your wants and needs in your van to ensure you get the best design possible for your van conversion.
NOTE: What works for someone else might not work for you. Don’t be afraid to get creative and play around with different ideas when it comes to your van conversion layout.
Double Check Your Blueprint
Once you’ve drawn out your “dream van” blueprint, you’ll need to double check the logistics of your plan.
- Get under the van and make sure everything will fit properly.
When considering things like gray water tanks for showers and/or sinks you’ll need to be aware of what the bottom of the van is like. For example, when we first designed our van where we wanted to place the shower was directly over the diesel tank and we ended up having to change our shower pan so that the drain hole wouldn't mean cutting through diesel tank. Yikes.
Gray water tanks are just one thing to consider. There’s lots of room under the van, just get creative and think critically.
- Use tape and markout the layout.
We highly recommend using painters tape to mark off your layout inside your van. This will help you better understand the space and function of your layout. In addition to using tape to mark off your floor plan, we recommend using cardboard boxes to construct things like cabinets, bed, and shower. Putting together boxes in the dimensions of your van components will allow you to walk around the van and learn whether or not the floor plan will really be functional for your needs. Is the hallway too narrow? Did you make door opening wide enough? Is the bench seat too long?
Budgeting for a van is one of the hardest parts of planning as well as the most important. You’ll often see people say you can build out a Sprinter van for a few hundred dollars and then others who say it costs tens of thousands of dollars. So what’s the truth here?
Truth is that you get what you pay for. That doesn’t mean you have to get the most expensive option of every component on the market. But it does mean that the more money you invest in your van, the more bells and whistles your van will have. Again, what works for someone else may not work for you. Someone may try and tell you that you have to have 4WD or you have to have a roof rack. Figure out how you’ll be using your van, where you’ll be using your van, and when you’ll be using your van and construct a list of components that you’ll need in your van.
Something else to note when it comes to budgeting is that you don’t have to add everything at once. For example: an awning is high on our wishlist for this van, but the awning we’d like to purchase is 1) expensive, and 2) takes a few weeks to custom make. Because of the price and time constraint, we’re going to hold off ordering it for now. However, because we know we’d like to add an awning one day, we’re going ahead and add roof rails since they’re one of the first things to have to be installed in the van.
Organizing your budget
When constructing a budget we always use Google Sheets. It’s easy to access across all devices and it’s easy to share with other people.
Our plan is to share our finished Google Sheets budget when our van is finished and all parts are finalized. For now here is a screenshot of the spreadsheet so you can see how we organize our rows and columns.
It’s pretty self explanatory, but let’s run through a breakdown of each column just to clarify…Item
Name of the product
Basic description fo the product.
How many of the product you will need (ex: 4 wheels).
Cost per Item
How much the item costs per unit.
Quantity x Cost per Unit = Total cost (ex: 4 wheels x $220 = $880).
Left to Purchase
This column is helpful for things that might have low stock or perhaps you’ve already purchased some but realize you’ll need more of the product. (ex: 2 wheels in stock but need a total of 4 wheels, we’d be “2” in the “left to purchase” column.)
Link Option #1, #2, and #3
These columns are helpful when researching various products and/or searching for the best price online. We like to put URLs for all the different options we’re considering. Once we’ve decided on the exact item and where we’ll be purchasing it we’ll move our final product to the #1 column.
Giving each item a category is helpful when sorting the spreadsheet and trying to plan for what items you might have overlooked or forgotten to order.
Things often get delayed, backordered, etc., so keeping track of when you ordered the item will help you track when the order should arrive. If the item seems to be taking a while to arrive, check with the distributor so see if it’s backordered or find out what the holdup is. It always pays to be proactive.
Like the purchase date, this is helpful when talking with customer service about where you package ended up. Keeping the order number handy here is much more convenient than always having to dig through your email for the order confirmation email.
This column is most helpful when trying to decide which product you’re going to purchase, but is also a great place to leave your notes about order status, tracking numbers, etc.
Other things to note about the spreadsheet….
- The white rows are items that have not been purchased yet.
- Yellow rows are items that have been ordered (purchased).
- At the bottom of columns C, D, and E there is a code for “sum” which tallies the total cost in each of those columns. You can find the code by clicking the
- button in the bottom right hand corner of Google Sheets. Type in “sum” in the search bar and Google will help you find the code.
- Code for column C: =SUM(Sheet2!C2:C12)
- You would need to update the row numbers (here the row numbers are 2 through 12) as your spreadsheet grows.
Planning a van conversion is not an exact science. It takes a lot of work and trial and error to figure out how to make van life work. Before we even purchased our first van I (Sara) spent months researching. From various component options, talking to professionals, and weighing all of our options. While you’ll never have your van planned perfectly ahead of time to make the entire process stress free and completely streamlined, by planning ahead you’ll be doing yourself a favor and taking a lot of guesswork and stress out of the build out process.
Do your research, plan as best you can, and stick to the budget. Remember, so much of these vans are customizable so do what works well for you and keeps within your budget. In the end you’ll be happier in a van that’s a little simpler than your dream van if you’re in it and not stressed about finances.
Alright, that’s all for today. If you have any questions or comments about van building, be sure to drop it in the comments below.
Happy van planning, friends!