Carrying out a van conversion single-handedly: These are the main points.

The interior of a converted van

Enthusiasm and self-motivation are the main drives that help move forward any DIY project. However, without a plan and without any structure you will not get very far. Only if you approach the matter from a long-term perspective will you avoid unpleasant surprises on the road.

The first test.

The single-handed conversion of a van turns individuals who were vaguely interested in travelling before into true vanlifers. Those who have decided to follow this route should try to find out how to make optimum use of the interior design of the vehicle for their own special needs. The challenge is no less than to turn a surface area of a few square metres into a real home. Functional factors should be taken into account without neglecting what you need to feel good. At the same time, the single-handed conversion of a van can be regarded as the first important test: It puts the do-it-yourself-spirit – which is so important to vanlifers – to the test, and is therefore a good indication for how one’s future life “on the road” can be turned into a success.

The interior of a van during the conversion work

The conversion of a van requires careful planning.

The storage space.

The optimal usage of storage space is another factor that should not be underestimated. As a first step it is recommendable to make a list with all the utensils you definitely want to take along. Especially hobby equipment like surf and snowboards require a lot of space and have to be stowed in an intelligent way. As a consequence, many vanlifers become real space-saving experts. The Swiss couple Debbi and Dominic have learnt to create large stowage areas within a small space. “Most of our storage room is to be found below the living spaces,” explains Dominic. Any space wasted by the hollow structures in the van is thus outweighed by the new storage space created in the interior of those structures. It is a matter of being creative! If there are hollow spaces in the vehicle, these should by all means be filled up later. If it is not possible to do this, most probably the layout is not ideal, and you should – sooner rather than later – draw up a new plan.

The right seating concept.

In planning the conversion, it should also be clarified who is going to ride and live in the van. Will additional passengers be transported in the van from time to time? The answer to such questions provides guidelines for the direction the conversion will take. Many vanlifers who travel alone or with a partner deliberately choose to install two seats only – the driver’s and the passenger seat. The choice of the right seating concept is a decision between the option to be able to transport several people simultaneously and the advantages of a larger living space.

A man and a woman are sitting in the driver’s cabin of a van

Most vanlifers travel alone or with a partner and therefore do not require more than two seats.

The energy supply.

When it comes to the supply of energy, the decisions you take are usually irrevocable. Therefore, you should check carefully which electrical appliances you want to install. What will be really important when you are on the road? Once a decision has been taken, it is necessary to ascertain how much electricity the selected devices will need. Do they need 12 volts or 230 volts, is a voltage transformer or even a generator necessary? Do you need heated water? And what will be used for heating it? Fuel or gas? Insulation plays a decisive role in the energy concept of the vehicle, too. Vanlifers Mike and Jess recommend taking this point particularly seriously. “Good insulation is incredibly important. For this purpose, you have to find the correct glass for the window panes since they lose and gain heat. In extreme weather conditions, however, the only solution are aluminium-coated windscreen covers which are simply a must-have for vanlifers,” explains Mike.

A man is standing in the opened sliding door of a van

Mike and Jess take along the aluminium-coated windscreen covers even when it is raining.

Cooking in the van.

Reaching a decision on the right kind of energy and adequate storage space also has to do with the question of how you want to transport and prepare your food. Apart from the power supply, the size of devices such as the fridge and the cooktop must be taken into account. Where are you going to put the pots, pans, dishes and the cutlery? Are there other kitchen utensils that you cannot dispense with? Or is a kitchenette unnecessary because you always eat out anyway? The vanlifer couple Max and Lee have settled for a compromise. They made a conscious decision not to cook in the vehicle. Nevertheless, to them, this solution is also an integral part of the van. “We have positioned the gas hose for our stove tops in such a way that we can unfold a table at the rear of the Sprinter. On this table, a gas stove can then be connected with the gas hose,” Lee reports. This particular solution prevents food odours and saves a lot of space.

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Sanitary facilities: inside or outside?

Installing sanitary facilities can be a critical issue. Many vanlifers have no problem with attending to their personal hygiene and emptying their bowels outdoors. For others, however, it is difficult to imagine living in the van without a toilet and a shower. If solutions such as portable outdoor showers are ruled out, then the next big challenge needs to be tackled: dealing with the sanitary situation. It must be clarified how and where fresh water and waste water tanks, canisters, pumps, hoses, faucets and shower connections can be installed. However, there can be an elegant solution to what sounds like a lot of wasted space. Vanlifers Nick and Maggi show us how it works. On a surface of about one square metre, they have installed a very comfortable shower area as well as a composting toilet. “Our shower takes heated water from a 150-litre-water tank. Taking a shower at home is still fun,” says Maggie.

A man takes measurements with a ruler

The correct installation of the sanitary facilities in the van is a matter of millimetres.

Sleeping en route.

Even the German poet Heinrich Heine knew: “Sleep is the most delicious invention.” For many vanlifers, a good night’s sleep is an important aspect, too. A major challenge in this context consists in reconciling this need with living comfortably during the day. A popular and effective solution is turning the living into a sleeping area and vice versa. Vanlifers Lexi and Cody show us how easy this can be. “During the day, our sleeping area becomes a lounge area with table,” explains Lexi. Using a single board, the lounge area can easily be converted into a large bed. “Covers, pillows and blankets are hidden beneath the seat bench. The conversion takes less than five minutes,” says the young American. In this solution, she and her boyfriend Cody benefit from having both a spacious living and sleeping area.

Two individuals are lying in a bed in a van

A comfortable bed is important to vanlifers, too.

Vanlife safety.

All the windows and doors are closed, the locks of the van are locked, but is that sufficient? Unfortunately not. Even a home on four wheels is not protected from break-ins. Especially the van’s large windows make it rather tempting for thieves to look inside. Our suggestion: Do not reveal too much. Simply fit some curtains or install a privacy screen which serves to discourage unwanted visitors. We strongly recommend you to keep your valuables safe and protect yourself from robbery or burglary by installing a safe or an alarm system. However, vanlife safety can be taken even further. The following things should be reviewed, too: Do you heat with gas and therefore require a gas detector? Are boarding devices required? Is it necessary to install safeguards for small children or pets? Do cabinets and drawers remain closed during the journey? And is the luggage well secured?

Let’s get started.

Once the main considerations regarding the conversion of your can have been completed, you can get started. A realistic assessment of your own abilities is important! Even the best and most independent vanlifers should consult other people in certain situations. It is imperative that aspects which concern the general safety – respectively the road safety – of the van be reviewed and accepted by experts. Once this step has been completed, there is nothing to stop you from finding your personal fulfilment on four wheels.

Two men are installing something in a van

In order to master the conversion, in certain situations, assistance from a third party can be necessary.

Two men are installing a wall cabinet in a van

Wall cabinets help create storage space, too.

A woman removes a hose from an opening

The gas hose can easily be removed from the opening.

The shown conversions were carried out by independent third parties. The suppliers and conversions were not checked by Mercedes-Benz. In this respect, these illustrations do not represent an assessment of the supplier and/or conversions by Mercedes-Benz.

Photos: Max & Lee, Debbie & Dominic, Mike & Jess, Nick & Maggie, Paweł Czerwiński, Lexi & Cody, Mark Atkins

More Links to explore: Max and Lee, Mike & JessNick & Maggie, Lexi & Cody, GoVan    


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