After years of travelling and climbing, I have finally realised the dream of having my own climber’s van. Travelling in a van with your home in the back is almost certainly the best way to escape, explore different climbing areas and make the most of breaks in work or weather.
When the coronavirus pandemic hit, ‘social distancing’ and ‘self-isolating’ became new concepts Hazel and I were already familiar with since we were at the end of a three-month van trip. Vanlife seems as convenient as ever now that flexibility needs to be built into every trip plan as well of means of isolating and being independent.
There’s no end to the information online to help you convert a van, from Youtube to Instagram and private blogs, there’s information from amateurs and professionals, and fellow climbers. But still, with all of the information out there, there are plenty of things I didn’t know before I started that would have saved me time and money.
So with that in mind, here are some tips I wish I had known before I converted a van into a home:
- Think a few steps ahead – the number of jobs you need to do on a van for it look anywhere near ‘liveable’ may be overwhelming, and it often feels like you need to be several different tradesmen at once, but the order in which you do things can be really critical – not just because you’re building one thing on top of another, or because you need to know when to buy/order things, but if you don’t have an idea or what the plan is further down the line, you won’t know how all the different parts of your new home will interfere with one another. If you don’t think a few steps ahead, you may double or even triple your workload as you undo your previous steps or work around the irreversible changes you’ve already made. So save yourself a bit of time, sit down, have a brew and really think about how your wiring affects your cladding, how your bed might get in the way of your cupboard doors or how that side unit might stop the door from closing.
- Don’t get precious about your van – this is really important. Your motorhome is a vehicle with a limited lifespan, just like you. One day it won’t be around, either because you wrote it off, it died of high mileage, you burnt it down by setting your curtains on fire or any number of other things. If you’re too concerned about the scratches on the worktop, the dents in the body work or the rough edges of your handiwork, then you won’t be enjoying your precious van as you should. What really matters is the quality of time you spend inside the van and the quality of adventures you have outside of it, hopefully in the hills or on the crags or beside the sea. With that in mind, design your van around comfort and practicality – for me this includes having nice materials around, good lighting, a heater and enough space/storage that I’m not tripping over climbing kit.
- Look at what everyone else has done – converting a van is not an exam, you can copy other people. There are innumerable blogs, videos and articles that will help you plan and complete your conversion, and on top of that you’ve probably got some friends that have converted their own vans for the same purpose. It’s worth doing a lot of research before you even get hold of your vehicle, so you know what can be done and what shouldn’t be done. You can often find explanations of exactly what you want to do to exactly the vehicle you want to do it to, how to do it and where to buy the tools and materials. The internet really can take you from a novice to a semi-competent van builder, don’t waste this resource. Equally, don’t miss a chance to snoop on what your mates have done – some conversions might look really good on Instagram but that doesn’t replace the advice from a mate that’s lived in their van for a while, has worked out where they put their wet kit or what cooking in a van for a month rather than a weekend is like. I’ve seen a lot of pretty pictures online that after a closer look don’t seem too practical at all.
- Don’t rush – sometimes things do just take ages, but better to just give yourself the time than rush. If you’re trying to get a job done too quickly, you’ll eventually waste more time undoing what you rushed in the first place, trying do it better the second time. I’ve already talked about planning ahead, but taking the time to both plan and work is equally as important. Sometimes rushing will leave a bit of a mess or you’ll have to scrap the materials you were using and have to spend time getting some new ones, other times you’ll make a big mess and have to re-think things altogether. You’re also far more likely to be complacent about safety, hurt yourself and be out of action for a while. Roughly 100% of the injuries I’ve sustained doing DIY (thankfully all very minor so far) have been due to rushing the job. It’s meant missing out on finishing the job and even worse, missing out on some climbing.
- Use good tools – I really can’t stress this enough. They will help you do a better job much faster. If you don’t have the tool, beg, borrow or steal, it’ll still be worth the hassle. Consider investing in essential tools early on before going through a bunch of cheaper tools first. A good set of power drills are worth the investment, along with all of the basic tools you’d expect to find in a tool kit – knife, pliers, small ratchet screwdriver, tape measure. I bought a 2m long tape measure that fits in my pocket, as barely anything in my van is longer than 2m and as its in my pocket I rarely lose it. Thin plywood isn’t good for anything more than lining your van or cupboards, get real wood for structural stuff and doors and try going to a builder’s merchants rather than a hardware store chain (they’re much cheaper). Wear gloves as much as you can, it’ll save your skin from glue, varnish or just general cuts and scrapes and you can do more climbing afterwards. It’s worth spending a bit more to get decent drill bits and blades that will last and do a good job, if you can get these as a big set as you start your project, you’ll definitely save money and time in the long run. Generally speaking it’s better to buy small kits of things like screws, fuses, electrical connectors, bits etc., you always use more than you think. Also, don’t be afraid to ask around for good tools you might only need for the odd job – I can save time by going to a friend’s house, having a cup of tea and a chat, checking out their tool shed and eventually borrowing a power tool, rather than spending all of that time doing a rough job with a hand tool.
A few extra things…
A van conversion is never really finished, I continue to work on my van to improve the comfort and practicality of life on the road. Beyond the essentials of a bed and a stove, here are a few things I’m glad to have and a few things I’ve added afterwards:
- A diesel heater – I bought a cheap Chinese heater off eBay and although I rarely need to use it, knowing I can always heat the van up on a cold evening or to dry out my kit makes a lot of different.
- Good electrics – get a split charge relay, a solar panel of some sort, an inverter, USB sockets and good lights (LED warm white). Travel is a lot easier if you can use your smartphone and you can travel a lot longer if you can charge your laptop and do some work.
- Swivel seats – these add a lot of room to the van (even if you only have one) and can make it much more comfortable if you’re sharing.
- Door hinges and fixings that really work – it’s not worth having these be flimsy or unreliable. You don’t want a jar of olives and half a dozen eggs falling out while you’re driving and it’s a real pain if you need to use two hands to get into a cupboard.
- Lots of little storage places – you can buy sewn pockets from Etsy, build a closed shelf above your cooker, fill the cupboards with storage baskets and have hooks for your keys and other items around the van. It’s really useful if everything has a space and you’ve got the surfaces clear when you’re driving.
- Re-purposed climbing gear – I’ve got old ropes holding kit in place, an old nut as a handle and bolts I removed from the Quarryman to clip stuff to. It makes the van feel more like home.
- A window – I know some friends have avoided putting windows or roof lights in their vans for simplicity, but natural light and ventilation are really important to making your van liveable.
- A ‘wee pot’ – this isn’t a sophisticated or complex addition to the van, but being able to pee without getting out is really handy in the night or when you’re parked in a random town and don’t know where the toilets are. Men can us a bottle with a big mouth but men and women can use a big pot with a lid.
- A portable shower – you can get big bags you leave in the sun that heat the water up while you’re at the crag, but we’ve gone for one with a rechargeable pump that we sit in water we’ve heated up ourselves. You could just as well do a mix of these things to make use of solar power. It makes a big difference knowing you can shower when you find a secluded spot and makes van life much more pleasant.
- Some decoration – I had Hazel help me with this. We got some postcards from our travels, some of our favourite photos and some art/patterned material from places we’ve visited. It goes a long way to making your van feel like home.
Here’s the van in various stages of completion:
If you’ve got any questions get in touch! Remember to be a responsible van dweller and consider the locals wherever you park up.
Thanks for reading