The Ultimate Van Kitchen

How do you use that tiny space for an entire kitchen? We give you the tips and tricks to get you enjoying your food and watching that sunrise!

“What’s it going to be? More space for the bed, or the kitchen?” This is the question I posed to Chris when mapping out the possible layout of our current home and Mercedes Sprinter van. Without much thought, he told me the kitchen had priority. So began the plan for the ultimate van kitchen.

We 100% could have had a bigger bed and smaller kitchen but the taller person had the final vote!

The scenario we faced with the bed and kitchen is one every van builder has to decide on. Primarily because your bed will 100% use up the most space in the van. Even if you have a bed that converts to a dining and lounge space – you will still need that space a third of the time to sleep. While tent camping has that grounding sense by cooking on a fire – it is not allowed in every campsite or year-round. Not to mention it can be a lot of effort to prepare and time to cook. So a kitchen in a van is an obvious convenience to not exclude in a layout.

Van kitchens can be anywhere from very basic to as comprehensive as ours. Where you do have limited bench space, consider how you might expand this with lift out benchtops and slide-out tables.

Our first van was small so we utilised the exterior to stand and cook in our kitchen. The rear door was the perfect cover from light rain.

If you are in a small van like our earlier article, The plan that dictates all of the van conversion – the layout! suggests, your kitchen will be either in the back of your van or upfront. Some small vans do have kitchens alongside their beds (usually convertible), but this presents problems with storage accessibility when the bed is being used. Keeping the bed separate to the kitchen ensures that curry doesn’t follow you to bed. Always consider how much effort you can be bothered with when you are a week into a trip.

At the back of a small van, you are able to utilise the exterior space as your kitchen. You can stand up and there is plenty of ventilation for steam. You can also easily build a splashback to protect the rest of your van from cooking fats and food spills, which adds opportunity for vertical storage. Splashbacks can be either a complete block out wall or partial if you want to keep your views.

Even up close it can be hard to tell adhesive tiles from real tiles! These are Tic Tac adhesive tiles.

When talking splashbacks consider a material that is food resistant! Absolutely get creative but some options are:

  • Perspex – Cheap, light, will scratch & can place wallpaper behind.
  • Steel – Durable & items able to magnetise on.
  • Tiles – Trendy, heavy, durable, labour intensive.
  • Adhesive tiles – Trendy, light, durable, replaceable & customisable with scissors! (We used Tic Tac Tiles).

Whether big or small van – vertical storage is key to good use of space. You can store:

A few hooks keep pot lids from rolling inside draws or cupboards!
  • Cutlery
  • Spices
  • Potholders
  • Utensils
  • Fruit hammocks
  • Pot lids
  • Herb gardens

All of these can be put up with either baskets, magnets, velcro and hooks.

Before putting anything else into your kitchen you want to remember lighting that space up! Wiring lights is something best done in the early stages of a van build. You will cook in darkness and not needing a lantern constantly keeps more bench space available!

  • Downlights – Good for spreading light over an area from above.
Down lights are great for brightening up the entire space, we used ‘Dream Lighting’.
  • Strip lighting – Able to change light colour & cook with dimmed light (not attract flying insects)can also help you see or allow you to make food with a diffused light in late hours of the day.

When designing literally any space, including kitchens there is a basic concept to fitting everything in. Always place the largest items first and smallest items last. Packing a van, this stays the same but because you are driving everything you also must think about weight! If something is heavy – try and keep it as low to the floor of the van as possible.

Place frequently used items to the front of the draw for convenience!

What to do with a fridge/cooler box?

  • Allow room to drain a cooler box
  • Fridges enable recipe variety
  • Camping fridges are made to travel and better insulated
  • Buy second hand or sales for budget savings
  • Remember in a small you will sleep right by your fridge
  • Our favourite fridge is Dometic but Engel, ARB & Bushmans are reputable too.
  • Place on a drawer slide to get the most out of kitchen storage or access from the top with a lift up bench.
Easy to access when cooking and slides away when not in use! Dometic fridges are comfortably quiet if you need peace at night to sleep!

The 2 other key components to a van kitchen is a cooktop and storage! There are 2 cooking methods we recommend:

Gas – Popular, budget, need to refill, cheap, efficient, does require building compliance and certification by a plumber (check with insurance), risk of fires/gas leaks.

Plug in, induction cookers keep benches clear when not cooking but you should only use these with a bigger electrical set up!

Induction – Requires a beefy electrical setup (only run with lithium batteries!). no refills required, free from the sun, fast cooking, cheap after initial install, safer.

In small vans, being able to cook outside solves ventilation. Slide-out draws is often the best way to do this with a long hose to a gas bottle. Otherwise, pull out your cooktop and put it on a fold-out table (flip-up or drop-down). Any remaining room is your storage!

A sink and tap is something small vans will not always have. They are useful but not essential. Our first van had a camping pop-up sink and a hose connected to the water tank instead of a tap. Large vans have the luxury of installing a sink. If bench space is a premium, consider adding a fitted chopping board to your sink for more food prep space. Pumps for taps:

A 12 volt electrical pump (Shurflo) to have water available, hands and foot free! An easy enough edition if you are thinking about it.

Hand Pump – Clearly see water usage, must use 1 hand always when pumping water, cheap & easy install.

Foot Pump – Clearly see water usage, hands-free when pumping, cheap & easy install.

12-volt Electrical pump – Easy to waste water, hands-free when pumping, more expensive, trickier install, but feels like a house kitchen.

If cabinetry is not your forte, Ikea may be a great way to have draws without the hassle of measuring and cutting!

Another recommendation when building a van kitchen is build draws wherever possible. They are a pain to build but save items being buried and lost in the pantry. If carpentry just sounds too overwhelming – take the Ikea short cut!

  • Measurements are available online.
  • Utilise the Ikea kitchen web designer (staff assist in-store).
  • Only assembly is required.
  • Heavy units.
  • Ikea benches are water absorbent particle board – consider alternative.

If you do make your own kitchen cabinetry consider a waterproof material such as MitchLite. Expensive but weight-saving again! For cheaper options consider marine ply. MDF and Chipboard are not suitable for kitchens or potentially moisture exposed areas.

Consider collecting easy van recipes for no-thought meals and shopping! Watch out on the blog for favourite, staple recipes we use to get you started in a van kitchen!

Now you are armed with lots of tips designing your ideal van kitchen with what materials will work best for you, with your skills. Planning according to your needs, we know you will be whipping up a storm to make the neighbours jealous!

Published by Kiri Borgas

Curiosity has guided me, travel has grown my dreams and the natural world has inspired and excited me. This is how I've become a tiny home lover and van dweller - learning all I can with my fiancé to share a passion for the world around us.

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