Rooms in a van often overlap. Feel on top of it and create your own custom van vision that will inform your entire build process.
When you see the ocean view out the back door of a van, a cute puppy chilling at a campground or cosy beds on wheels – it’s easy to feel that wanderlust or ‘fernweh’ (german for aching to travel remote, unknown places).
But where do you start when you want to build one out yourself? The internet is flooded with #vanlife and it’s pretty disorientating other than getting a van (if you don’t already own one).
Something that will inform all your choices is your van layout design. This isn’t Ikea kitchen designer but we will run you through some of the pros and cons of common layout options.
The reason there are common designs is the space is very small, vans are only so wide! So designs are more finite and determined by products that van builds utilise. If you want nothing smaller than a double bed and you have a very small van – chances are you will get a bed in there and maybe some storage.
No matter the options always choose what you personally enjoy and prioritise what is important to you in a layout. Small spaces demand sacrifices so start by writing a list of what you CANNOT sacrifice. Of course try keep it to no more than 10 items. Van life is a minimalist lifestyle.
Vans vary from very small like a Renault Kangoo all the way up to the giant 170 wheelbase extended, high top Mercedes Sprinters and everything in between. What you fit in a Kangoo won’t be the same as a Sprinter and visa versa. Even if you do fit the same functionality into both vans they will operate extremely differently. While you might have an indoor shower in one van, the other van’s shower will be strictly for outside use. Smaller vans typically rely on utilising their exterior as extended living space but decrease how stealthy and private they are in public, while exposing you to the elements like weather, mosquitoes, muddy ground and more.
Let’s start with the bedroom. A place to sleep is one of the essential characters of a van conversion to camper. The first big question is – fixed bed or convertible?
Both small and large vans have this choice. If you choose fixed it can be at the back or front. Small vans have more choice here purely because a bed up front (when fixed) won’t obstruct you getting in to the rest of your van. For bigger vans there is more choice to have them raised or lowered. A small van has limited height to raise a bed before you are crouching constantly in a chiropractor’s nightmare. If you can raise your bed, the space underneath can be valuable storage – especially for large items you don’t want to store on the roof or side of the van (eg. bicycles). Warning though! Don’t get too excited for all this storage space. Chances are you may block off access to it from the interior and still have to go outside for that other tin of beans you didn’t have room for. No biggy in summertime bliss but rain, hail, snow or gale force winds will have you rethinking stuffing the space silly. If you do opt for a lower bed there will be less storage beneath but more opportunity for overhead cupboards, which are easily accessible from the interior.
If you chose a convertible bed this gives more flexibility to how the van can be used. It also comes with pack up and set up. Just personal choice if you aren’t bothered by this and want options more. Convertible beds typically involve a mode as a bed and then as seating and sometimes a table/bench top. Convertible set ups also mean it isn’t so vital if the bed is in the back or not. The common ways beds convert is by:
- A lift (raising into the ceiling and revealing seating)
- Murphy bed (a bed that flips into the wall revealing seating)
- Convertible seating or bench tops adjusting (slide out/fold out frames that lock into place and form a mattress).
Consider as well where you will store your bedding if you are using your bed as a couch.
Let’s go to the kitchen. This the other main component to a camper conversion as road travel doesn’t always place campsites right next to a bakery (but it’s great when it does).
Cooking will be mostly outside for small vans but even larger vans as condensation is mould’s best friend. Also the last problem you want in a van (ok maybe second to rust). Smaller vans will have kitchens either in the rear which is already well ventilated or upfront where the cooker is able to slide out or near the side door. Bigger vans do have the luxurious and more stealthy option to have an interior kitchen but you will need a window you can open and at least 1 roof fan ideally.
The other debate in the van kitchen is gas or no gas? If you don’t choose gas we recommend induction purely as it is fast. But a big draw on power so only ever use induction with lithium batteries on board. Gas is efficient but you will need carry a bottle to supply it. Check regulations in your country for proper installation as well (insurance companies may dictate requirements also). Also consider a fire extinguisher, fire blanket, carbon monoxide alarm and regulation requirement of adequate water on board (if there was a fire – especially fire ban season). Consider these things for the space you build your kitchen.
Other than these first thoughts some kitchen essentials can be:
- A sink – collapsible, fixed or pullout bowl (with or without faucet functionality)
- Pots, Plates, Cups, chopping boards & cutlery storage – how will you keep everything from rattling when driving?
- Allow room for food items – you’ll likely buy bread, pasta, noodles, spreads, tinned veggies etc.
- A fridge/esky/cooler – Fridge items extend the variety you can cook enormously. What items do you use that need the cold?
- A splashback – how are you protecting your bed from fatty food mess?
Dollar stores, department stores, pinterest, youtube and Ikea will be your best friend for solutions that are space saavy and travel friendly when locking up your kitchen goodies. Shelving is ok for some kitchen storage but install a rail or netting to hold items in. Cupboards are good for large items or small items contained in a basket. Draws are ultimate in a kitchen as the access they provide is great. Fridges included if you are getting a chest fridge. Draws require room to access them so don’t box yourself in.
The debated necessity of van conversions is – the bathroom! Chances are when you’ve covered beds and kitchens – not much space is left over. Public bathrooms, gyms, sporting clubs, baby wipes and nature itself have all provided hygiene solutions to the van life community. But as we discovered in a pandemic – when you have to stay put, everything closes and you head into the depths of winter a private bathroom is highly welcome.
In a larger van we opted for both toilet and shower. As our primary home it is a luxury we don’t regret. Our smaller first van had no space for either toilet or shower. By the time small vans have added a kitchen, bed and some storage any bathroom features are a bonus. Shower options for a small van:
- If you have rear doors opening out pop a rod between both, with a shower curtain and have a scrub with a heated pot of water or solar shower (black pipe or bag heated by the sun & gravity fed).
- If you have a rear door that opens up into an extended roof attach a hula hoop (with shower curtain) or pvc pipe square frame (with shower curtain) to the roof and have a wash.
Toilet options for a small van:
- Grab a small pop up privacy tent and line a bucket (add a toilet seat for comfort) with a bag. Tip in some rehydrated coco peat or cat litter. Make sure you have a lid to prevent smells escaping and use minimal toilet paper. Double bag waste and dispose responsibly.
Larger vans can also utilise the above options or able to build an interior bathroom. Cold water will save you space of a water heater but are uncomfortable. If you install a shower, grab yourself a 12 volt pump and water saving shower head. Bathrooms can be half height to maximise living space outside of shower times too.
For toilets in large vans – the space each uses are much the same just different processes:
- Chemical Toilets – You must dispose of these at specified dump points and it is not a fun job. Eg. Porta Potti, Thetford, Dometic.
- Composting Toilets – compost waste in an organic substrate for disposal.
- Separating Toilets – compost waste but separate liquids and solids to avoid smells. Eg. Nature’s Head.
Again Pinterest, Youtube and social media are the best inspiration for van life bathroom solutions with lots of creativity for keeping you clean.
The Living Room
The living room. If you haven’t already designated seating in your van you may still have a space. If not most van designs include space for a camp chair to sit outside. Seating is typically:
- On top of a fridge – with either a slide out chest fridge or seat that doubles as a second lid.
- Is between the bed and kitchen – often only one or two seats.
- A bench style in combination with a convertible bed.
- A step or movable storage that doubles as seating.
- A flip down wall that creates a bench.
If you have gotten to the end of this layout introduction and ticked off your requirement list – you probably have a functional design that will work for you! This will also form the blueprint of your build and reveal the gaps you have to place batteries, water tanks, clothing storage and recreational gear. It will give you a clearer vision of what parts of the van will have fans, skylights, solar panels or surfboards mounted where. Best of all – it is custom to you.