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 climbingvan.co.uk, 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’.
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.