5 tips for making a van into a home

The perfect van spot near the crag at Otiñar, Andalusia, Spain
The perfect van spot near the crag at Otiñar, Andalusia, Spain

After years of travelling and climbing, I have finally realised the dream of having my own climber’s van, (almost) fully converted into a mobile home with all of my climbing kit, bed and living essentials in the back. Travelling in a van is almost certainly the best way to explore different climbing areas and make the most of short or long breaks in work (or weather).

Partially-converted and partially-decorated.

There seems to be 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 5 tips I wish I had known before I converted a van into a home:

A room with a view
  1. Think a few steps ahead – it seems obvious, but the further you can think ahead the better. Plan as much of your conversion as possible, then keep changing or refining your plan if you need to. It might seem a bit tedious at times but it’s probably fun the rest of the time. 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.
  2. 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 it was written off when you didn’t check your blind spot, 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 much as you could! 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 that I’m not tripping over climbing kit.
  3. Look at what everyone else has done – it’s 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.
  4. 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, this has meant I’ve had to miss out on finishing the job and even worse, miss out on some climbing.
  5. Use good materials/tools – they will help you do a better job much faster, even if it means borrowing them. It’s worth the investment to get decent quality tools, so consider buying these 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, pencils. 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 the tape measure. Thin plywood isn’t good for anything more than lining you 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. 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.
The van when I bought it
The insulating process…
The ply lining and electrics
Building the bed and cupboards…
The (almost) finished conversion from behind
#yoga #vanlife

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