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Gearing Up for Van Life: Van Conversion Tips to Make Your Time on the Road Easy

Tips and Tricks for Camper Van Conversion

If the whole van-life thing was a hot trend before the pandemic, international travel bans have truly pushed its popularity to the boiling point. Some call it “van-life” while others call it “overlanding,” but by any name, it’s a great way to see the country.

But converting a van into a camper that is comfortable enough for months on end of travel isn’t easy. To do so requires the proper gear and a well-built conversion. To that end, here are a few helpful van conversion tips along with recommendations for some standout van-life gear.

A first-person view of a tired adventurer enjoying the view of the sea from a van.

Choose the Right Rig

The quality of your conversion all starts with choosing the right vehicle. While VW Buses and Sprinter vans have more or less set the standard for van-lifing, these tend to be rather expensive options to properly convert, drive (i.e. fuel), and repair. There are plenty of vans, SUVs, and even hatchbacks out there that can make solid conversion picks.

Choose a rig that offers a decent amount of space, solid reliability, and reasonable gas mileage. The Honda Element, for example, has emerged as a surprisingly common van-life vehicle thanks to its open, boxy space, outstanding reliability and performance, and competitive fuel economy.

Plan Your Build First

Make sure you consider what you want to pack along and where you want to pack it before you start cutting wood and screwing it together. Get too far into your build, and you might realize that you’ve left out space for something important like your fridge or battery.

Electrify

Speaking of your fridge and battery, you’re going to need power. A few years ago it was more complicated to electrify a van setup, but portable solar power generators have made it increasingly easy. Jackery’s lineup of portable power stations suits a wide range of budgets and power needs, and the new Jackery 2000 Pro will pack plenty of power.

Once you have power, you can add in all the appliances, lighting, and devices you need. A fridge is arguably the most essential appliance, taking over the role of your endlessly ice-hungry cooler. Dometic makes some awesome powered coolers, with the CFX3 fitting most van-lifers’ needs (and space).

Recycle Materials

These days, lumber can be expensive, so instead of shelling out for all-new wood, look around for furniture that can be repurposed. For example, a desk bought from a secondhand store can easily be cut to fit a conversion, providing a tabletop and drawer space to boot.

A glimpse into van life.
Matthew Micah Wright/Getty Images

Cover Your Seats

When you spend weeks or months on end in the driver’s seat, spills will happen. Keep your upholstery clean by covering it up. There are seat covers available to fit the seats of most vehicle models, but if you can’t find one, take it upon yourself to engage in a DIY sewing project.

Attach a Patio…Sort of

Even if you manage to construct a supremely comfortable camper, you’re going to want to spend time outside. Depending on where you are, however, rain, intense sun, or mosquitos might make that impossible.

In the event of the first two, a simple sunshade will get the job done. There are many companies that produce roll-out shades that are easy to affix to a roof rack. If you’re battling mosquitos, pack along the Roadhouse Screen Tarp from Slumberjack, which attaches to most vehicles to provide both shelter and insect netting.

A couple living the van life.
Eternity in an Instant/Getty Images

Add on the Upgrades

And speaking of a roof rack, a solid rack can vastly expand your vehicle’s capabilities, allowing you to affix cargo carriers, bike or kayak carriers, showers, sun shades, and more. OEM racks, however, tend to be too fragile to depend on for any significant load. Yakima makes some of the best racks and cargo box options out there. Their LockNLoad System, for example, is extremely heavy-duty.

Don’t Forget Cleaning

When you’re traveling and living out of a van, things tend to get messy. The longer you go, the messier things get.

Build your camper so that it’s easy to clean. That means you can access everything, and as much as possible is raised off the floor to make it easy to sweep or vacuum. And get a vehicle vacuum. There are a million of them out there, and they’re cheap, take up virtually no space, and make it much easier to keep your van life from dirtying into disarray.

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