Camping, Bushcraft & Survival

The Van Conversion Bible | How To Make Your Van Life Dream A Reality

Ever dreamed of buying a van and turning it into a home from home? Here's what you need to know about the process from two people who've written a book all about it

At the start of 2019, climbers Charlie Low and Dale Comley did what so many of us have always talked about doing but never actually got round to. They bought an old van, an ex-DHL delivery vehicle, and turned it into their very own little home on wheels. Bored of living for the weekends and their holiday time, the couple packed in the stability of their nine-to-five jobs and now live their life on the road full-time. They run the website, post their #VanLife road tripping exploits on Instagram (@climbingvan) to over 80,000 followers, and have even written a book to help others to make their van converting dream a reality. This piece below is an excerpt from their book ‘The Van Conversion Bible’.

Our Story

We met back in 2016 on a climbing trip to Northern Italy. Ironically, we were meant to be travelling around in a motorhome. Unfortunately, it broke down a week before we made it out there, but that sparked conversations about converting a campervan. Ever since then, we had a shared dream of building our own climbing home on wheels.

“We had a shared dream of building our own climbing home on wheels”

Fast forward to January 2019. We drove up north to pick up a bright yellow Mercedes Sprinter, now aptly named ‘Ringo’. We returned to Bristol and the first snow of the year, but we were eager to start. We made the terrifying first step of cutting a big hole for a window in the side of our brand new van, warming the adhesive, which had frozen solid, under our many layers. 

We were both working full-time jobs, so our weekends were spent driving forwards and backwards to Charlie’s mums, where we had set up our ‘workshop’ on her driveway (thanks mum!), slowly seeing Ringo transform from an empty yellow courier van into what we now call home.

Although we had a limited amount of manual DIY experience, our planning personalities mixed with our technical backgrounds meant we approached the conversion logically. We spent countless hours researching, planning and designing before committing to the build.

Even once our own build was complete, we found ourselves answering hundreds of questions about the process, and so we continued to refine our knowledge to ensure we were giving people the best possible guidance. We have now easily spent enough time to have converted several vans (each!) understanding the van conversion process and the most efficient way of taking your very first idea, to your very own home on wheels.

Why We Wrote The Book

Before we started our own van conversion, we spent hundreds of hours researching everything we possibly could. Despite this, we still fell foul of inaccurate information that led to costly mistakes and frustrating evenings sacrificed to correcting faults. This gave us the motivation to better understand the process of planning, designing and building a campervan, so others could avoid the same pitfalls.

There are swathes of information on self conversions smattered across the internet in the form of YouTube videos, blog posts and lightweight e-books. Wading through all of this content can be exhausting, so we wanted to condense everything we had learnt into a single point of reference, to make the process easier for others. We decided to write this book with the vision of creating the ultimate van conversion guide for all aspiring van owners, making the dream of converting a van accessible to all.

“Converting a van is like building a tiny house, but without having to wait three years for planning permission”

For many, converting your own campervan will be the single largest DIY project you ever undertake, and it can feel daunting to start. The reality is many first-time van builders have very little prior experience or knowledge, but they have taken the plunge nonetheless. The majority of the complexity of converting a van resides in the planning and design stages, and many of the practical elements simply aren’t that complicated. By the time you finish your build, you will have learnt woodworking, electrics, plumbing, gas, fitting windows, furniture upholstery, and even interior design. Converting a van is like building a tiny house, but without having to wait three years for planning permission.

There isn’t one van to suit everyone as each person has different needs, budgets and skills, so you should design a van that works for you. Most motorhome and caravan manufacturers design their vehicles in a set way, trying to come up with a layout that works for everyone. But by trying to meet the needs of the many, they only satisfy a few. The beauty of building your own campervan is that you can design something completely unique to your lifestyle and aspirations. From weekend surf wagons to supersized bus conversions, Scandinavian minimalist masterpieces to quaint and homely cottages on wheels, you really can do anything you want.

Recognising everyone has different needs, we wanted to write a book that was more than just a story about how we converted our own van. Instead, we wanted to provide people with the tools to design something completely bespoke, and give them the confidence to start their journey. Converting a campervan isn’t about finishing in record time or bang on budget, it’s about building something you’re proud of, and will enhance your adventures for years to come. Van life really is possible for anyone, and hopefully, this book will help to make your dream a reality.

The Van Conversion Survey

To build up a reliable source of data on van owners and aspirational van owners, we conducted a van conversion survey. The survey asked a set of questions based on whether someone had already converted a van, or was planning to convert a van in the future. We asked van owners questions about build cost and time, the size, make and model of the van converted, and how people found the process. We asked aspirational van owners about their current skills, their concerns and their budget. We collected data from over 1,200 people and have used this data and the insights gained from the survey throughout the book, denoting it with a footnote each time the data is used.

The Van Conversion Process

The secret to converting a van you’re truly happy with is not in the physical conversion, but in the theoretical planning and design. There are different approaches you can take when tackling a campervan build, but spending adequate time before getting your hands dirty will give you the chance to properly explore different concepts and ideas. So exactly what process should you follow? We have architected the aptly named ‘van conversion process’ which underpins the structure of this book. It borrows concepts from product and software development, but we have tailored it to, you guessed it, the van conversion process. You can follow it step-by-step throughout your journey, from initial research to finished van, to creating a campervan that meets all of your requirements and is a joy to travel and live in.

The Importance of Planning

Converting a van is no mean feat. It’s a complex endeavour that will likely take a fair amount of time and money, but it’s also a rewarding process to navigate, providing you with lifelong skills and years of adventures once complete. It’s important to spend time researching your build to understand what’s possible before you commit to designing and building your van, as it will make the process easier and ensure you don’t make any costly mistakes. 

To Buy or To Build

Many people would never consider converting their own campervan. They would simply buy a pre-converted van or motorhome, or employ a professional van builder to save them the time and effort of planning, designing and building something themselves. If you are cash-rich and time-poor it makes sense. You get instant access to an adventurous nomadic lifestyle, and the vehicle itself has a relatively low depreciation rate, meaning it’s not a bad investment.

“Design a little home exactly how you want it, with features and a look fitting you and your lifestyle”

However, many aspirational van owners will not have the budget for an expensive motorhome or a pre-converted campervan, or they simply don’t want to. The main reason many choose to convert a campervan, other than the cost, is that they want to create something that fits their own requirements and vision. Converting your own campervan means you can design a little home exactly how you want it, with features and a look fitting you and your lifestyle. Of course, it’s possible to pay a professional van converter to design and build a campervan exactly the way you want it, and for some people who have the money, that’s the best option. But for those who aren’t in a position to pay a professional, or just want the rewarding feeling of building their little home themselves, converting your own campervan means you have the opportunity to build something which looks and feels exactly how you want it to.

How Much Does It Cost To Convert A Campervan?

So, the question on everyone’s mind – how much does it cost to convert a campervan? As you would expect, the answer is not black and white. The cost of converting a van will depend on numerous factors, such as the specification of your systems and the level of finish you are trying to achieve, as well as how shrewd you are throughout your build, and how many extravagant extras you decide to include. If you plan to include a full van respray, a pneumatic elevator bed or a suspension upgrade, don’t expect your conversion to come close to our indicative costs. Many people may also choose to have some aspects of their van conversion done professionally which will of course affect the total build cost. The more time you have to spend on your build, the more money you are likely to save.

“Spend time sourcing reclaimed materials and restoring them as opposed to buying everything brand new”

If you can spend time sourcing reclaimed materials and restoring them as opposed to buying everything brand new, you can save a lot of money. There are so many different variables affecting total cost. The physical size of the van you are converting, the specification of systems you have included and the finish you are trying to achieve will all affect your total build cost. We have collated data from our van conversion survey on the average cost of converting different size vans to different finishes and specifications to give you a rough idea of how much it might cost to convert a campervan.


Charlie and Dale are ambassadors for Dometic and Foga.

You can buy a copy of ‘The Van Conversion Bible’ here.

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