What's In A Van?
So, I have decided to embark on my biggest project to date (and probably for a while, unless I finally get somewhere to build a cabin) - building myself a camper van, from scratch. Well, from an empty cargo van, anyway.
I'm making a video series to document the build, and accompanying each video with an article going into more detail - starting with this one, to accompany the Planning episode.
So, where does one start with a van build? Well, it's probably a good idea to pick which van you're going to use first.
The van is a wonderfully versatile vehicle, seen the world over and incredibly popular for anyone wanting to haul... well, almost anything. Except, that is, here in the US - where it plays a distinct second fiddle to the pickup truck. Maybe as a result, there's a little worse selection here than in other countries, though it has improved in recent years.
The three vans I could choose from are:
- The Ford Transit (the one I ultimately chose)
- The Mercedes-Benz Sprinter
- The RAM ProMaster, known as the Fiat Ducato outside of North America
Let's talk through the pros and cons of each of these.
I start with the ProMaster as, for me, it's the weakest choice. It does have some nice features:
- Straight walls, allowing for easier conversion, and wider interior space
- Cheapest option, giving you a lot of van for the money
That's... all I can call out that's separate, but let me be clear, it's still a very capable vehicle. What are the cons, though, compared to the other two?
- Lower roof height, at 76 inches / 1.93m for the tallest option (and no medium height option)
- 2WD only, unlike the others which have 4WD or AWD as an option
- Slightly worse ground clearance, making it even less great on poor roads
The Sprinter is a popular, luxury option. As well as nice build quality, you get:
- 4WD as an option from the factory (though they are hard to come by used)
- Decent interior height, at 78 inches / 1.98m in the tallest option
But, that comes with a few cons:
- High purchase price, as it's a bit of a luxury vehicle
- Hard to get maintenance, as it requires weird parts (for the US) and computer updates
- Bad fuel economy on the 4WD version, sometimes as low as 13mpg
The Transit is the vehicle I chose, but why? The pros:
- Decent price, not as cheap as the ProMaster but nowhere near as expensive as the Sprinter
- Easy maintenance, as everyone and their dog has Ford parts
- Highest interior height, at 81 inches / 2.05m (luxury for me!)
- AWD as an option, new in more recent model years
But what's the downside?
- No diesel option for AWD. They will give you the turbocharged engine though!
- Less fuel efficient than 2WD Sprinters. Though not by a huge amount.
- Very curvy walls. Already a bit of a pain to work on.
So what do you choose?
If you're tall, or want 4WD, then your choices are already a bit more limited. If you're mostly camping on places with good roads, though, and you're not taller than average, you can realistically be happy with any of these vans.
Plus, let's consider that the best van you can have is the one that you can afford - and with the current COVID-influenced market at the time of writing, prices are all over the place, with new vans being cheaper than used (provided you are willing to wait 6 months for them to get built, like I did).
But, as mentioned, I picked the Transit. I like maintainability, and I've driven a lot of Ford vehicles before (including many Transits) and generally like the driving experience.
A note on sizing
Most vans come in a range of widths and heights, but a lot of people just pick the longest and tallest variant, which is what I did.
There are reasons to go for the less-tall ones - if you're not tall and have no tall friends who will use it, and you'd like to worry a little bit less about low bridges and get slightly better fuel economy.
And there are also reasons to go for the less-long ones - notably, a better turning circle and general handling. That interior space will go away very quickly, though, and you may find the slight increase in maneuverability isn't worth dropping something from your layout.
If you want a better idea of van dimensions, Sportsmobile have a great one that covers all the various size options for each model.
Talking about layout, let's discuss that in detail. Laying out the interior of the van is perhaps the most important thing you need to do, and because everyone's needs differ and a van is a very small space, everyone is going to make different compromises.
In my view, the important aspects of an interior layout are:
- Sleeping, as the bed is the single biggest use of space in the van usually
- Cooking, as most people do at least some food prep in their van
- Seating, since it's unlikely you want to stand up the whole time
- Storage, so you can put all the stuff you have somewhere
- The bathroom, if you want one, and how elaborate it is
Let's go through those in order.
You're going to spend a good amount of time in the van sleeping. You probably want it to be comfortable! That's where bed design comes in.
The first thing is how big you want your bed to be. If you're travelling solo, you can get away with a single bed and save a lot of space - whereas if you're travelling with a partner, and at least one of you is tall, you're going to be sleeping longways in the van (rather than sideways, like shorter people can).
Most beds are going to be pretty big compared to the rest of the van though, and so there's a variety of placement options for them, each with its own tradeoff:
- A fixed platform bed, where the bed is permanently installed and elevated. This provides a huge storage space below it (the "garage"), keeps you higher up in the van where it's warm, and means the bed is always made. However, it will permanently use up a lot of space.
- A convertible bed, that is seating (usually a pair of sofas) during the daytime and which are rearranged into a bed at nighttime. You get a lot of space back compared to a fixed bed, but you lose a lot of storage space and have to do work to make the bed - no quick naps.
- A murphy bed, that flips down from the wall. These allow you to keep the bed made up while also getting the floor space back - but you now have even less storage space in the van, to the point you probably can only barely fit the utilities.
- A sliding bed, which is half fixed bed, half convertible. There's a fixed platform portion that gives you a place to quickly crash and some "garage" storage space, and a second segment that slides out over some seating/counters to make a full-size bed.
I chose the sliding bed, as it gives me some seating back during the daytime while still leaving me with a big chunk of storage space.
A van is never going to be close to as useful as a full kitchen, but what kind of cooking you do can vary wildly. If you're going to be regularly cooking from scratch, you'll want a decent amount of preparation space - while if you're mostly eating out, you might not even want much other than a sink.
Sinks and stovetops/hobs do permanently cut into the available preparation space, but both can be made so there's an insert that goes over the top to give you some of that space back.
Fridges, too, can be a decent chunk of space usage - be careful to plan for the fridge's full size, including any ventilation requirements, and remember that only the bigger ones have any useful freezer space. Non-perishable foods will need their own amount of pantry space, too - don't forget that.
Finally, cooking ventilation is important to consider - you don't want the smells and humidity building up inside the van. My kitchen is both in front of the sliding cargo door and also below the ventilation fan to help with this, but if you don't cook in the van often, this is not too much of a worry.
Next up is where you sit. Generally, seating is positioned based on where everything else isn't, and in my case it'll be under the sliding portion of the bed.
There are some important things to note, though:
- If you want more than two people to ride in the van when you're driving, you need forward-facing seats with seatbelts. These take up a LOT of space, and you will have to compromise to fit them.
- If you are mostly going places with a reasonable outdoor climate, you can always have the option of outdoor seating, which can be especially useful for entertaining friends.
- Seats can hide storage space, utilities, or even a toilet underneath them, so they can serve useful secondary purposes. Mine will have the utilities under them (water tank on one side, batteries and electrical on the other).
There is no such thing as too much storage, or storage that is too big. As well as clothes, you need to store bedding, food, cooking utensils, appliances, cameras, laptops, outdoors/sports gear, and plenty more depending on what you're doing.
My plan is to sneak storage wherever I can - obviously my bed design affords me plenty of space under the garage, but I will also be adding overhead cabinets, floor-level cabinets, a little spare storage under seats, and some over the driving cab. The largest item I need to regularly store are snowboards, but if I had to store skis or bikes I would probably rearrange the layout to make those sizes possible.
Also consider that it's nice to have storage that has built-in electrical sockets (so things can charge without being out), and some secure storage with some kind of lock for valuables.
So, this is the most variable of all. Some people just don't have any bathroom facilities in the van, and they're fine with that! US gas stations nearly always have a toilet available, going in the wilderness is doable if you're smart about it, and occasional showers can be had at gyms or with a portable camping shower.
Having a toilet as a minimum, however, is pretty common - sometimes, well, you just gotta go, and it's dark outside. If you're just having a toilet, you can hide it under a seat or a table/counter most of the time and then have it revealed when it's needed, with a curtain for privacy if you need it.
However, some people want to level up to having an interior shower as well, and then you have a real space requirement. Collapsible/hide-away showers are doable, but generally only if you want to use them infrequently - if you're showering on the regular, you want a dedicated shower/toilet room. I want one of these, so that's a decent chunk of my layout used up right there.
As for toilet technology, there are a few options:
- A traditional RV toilet, with a separate blackwater tank. The most convenient to use, the least convenient to empty.
- A cassette toilet, that combines this into a smaller, more portable format, but still has nasty waste that needs emptying.
- A composting toilet, which instead separates the liquids and solids, and composts the solids into something almost pleasant.
Composting toilets have the advantage of not needing any blackwater tank (permanent or portable), and the only outputs from them are urine (which can be disposed of easier than solid waste), and compost (again, easier to dispose of), but they are - at least in my experience of them outside of vans - a bit trickier to use. They don't smell, though, if they are used right.
For that reason, I'm going with a composting toilet, located in a small shower room with an indoor shower.
To make all this comfortable and useful, you also want some utilities - usually at least electricity, most often water, and then in some cases gas.
- Electricity is usually a 12V system to run RV-specific appliances and USB chargers, and a 115/230V system to run laptop chargers and smaller general appliances. Some batteries, a charge controller, an inverter, and solar panels are what I'm going with for this - I'll do a much more detailed writeup in future.
- Water is for showering, cooking and drinking, and is also really heavy. I'm adding a 32 US gallon tank over one of the wheel wells (low down to help with the centre of gravity), which should be enough for two of us for about a week.
- Gas is for air heating, water heating and cooking in my build, but some people opt to not have it at all and instead do air heating with fuel (often from the vehicle's tank), water heating with either fuel or electricity, and cooking with either a portable stove or electric induction.
While I'll talk about all of these in detail themselves in future, the important thing to think about in terms of layout is where you are going to fit them. Piping and electrical cabling need space to run, water tanks and batteries need big spaces low down on the vehicle, and propane tanks need their own airtight locker with a drop vent if they're inside the van.
Picking a van and a layout is a lot of work, but also something you can do while waiting for your van or materials to arrive, at least - I've spent a couple of months designing and modelling ideas to make sure I was happy with the choices I made. They're not irreversible - anything can be undone and changed with effort - but you ideally want to get it right the first time.
One thing I will recommend is that you should do a virtual or real walk-through of the space mocked up. I did this with a VR headset as I modelled my van in Blender, a 3D modelling program, but you can also do it with cardboard or cheap plywood inside the van itself, and I will be doing this just to double-check all the dimensions and how the space feels.
After all this choosing, though, the first steps of the actual build are mostly the same no matter what you choose - flooring and insulation. The video and article about that will be the next one up!