Van In The Road
Van Build / 18th Jan 2022

Planning A Van

What's In A Van?

So, I have decided to embark on my biggest project to date (and probably for a while, unless I finally get somewhere to build a cabin) - building myself a camper van, from scratch. Well, from an empty cargo van, anyway.

I'm making a video series to document the build, and accompanying each video with an article going into more detail - starting with this one, to accompany the Planning episode.

So, where does one start with a van build? Well, it's probably a good idea to pick which van you're going to use first.

Van Models

The van is a wonderfully versatile vehicle, seen the world over and incredibly popular for anyone wanting to haul... well, almost anything. Except, that is, here in the US - where it plays a distinct second fiddle to the pickup truck. Maybe as a result, there's a little worse selection here than in other countries, though it has improved in recent years.

The three vans I could choose from are:

Let's talk through the pros and cons of each of these.

RAM ProMaster

Ram ProMaster on a road

I start with the ProMaster as, for me, it's the weakest choice. It does have some nice features:

That's... all I can call out that's separate, but let me be clear, it's still a very capable vehicle. What are the cons, though, compared to the other two?

Mercedes Sprinter

Mercedes-Benz Sprinter in a forest

The Sprinter is a popular, luxury option. As well as nice build quality, you get:

But, that comes with a few cons:

Ford Transit

The Transit is the vehicle I chose, but why? The pros:

But what's the downside?

So what do you choose?

If you're tall, or want 4WD, then your choices are already a bit more limited. If you're mostly camping on places with good roads, though, and you're not taller than average, you can realistically be happy with any of these vans.

Plus, let's consider that the best van you can have is the one that you can afford - and with the current COVID-influenced market at the time of writing, prices are all over the place, with new vans being cheaper than used (provided you are willing to wait 6 months for them to get built, like I did).

But, as mentioned, I picked the Transit. I like maintainability, and I've driven a lot of Ford vehicles before (including many Transits) and generally like the driving experience.

A note on sizing

Most vans come in a range of widths and heights, but a lot of people just pick the longest and tallest variant, which is what I did.

There are reasons to go for the less-tall ones - if you're not tall and have no tall friends who will use it, and you'd like to worry a little bit less about low bridges and get slightly better fuel economy.

And there are also reasons to go for the less-long ones - notably, a better turning circle and general handling. That interior space will go away very quickly, though, and you may find the slight increase in maneuverability isn't worth dropping something from your layout.

If you want a better idea of van dimensions, Sportsmobile have a great one that covers all the various size options for each model.

Layout

Van Interior with bed retracted

Talking about layout, let's discuss that in detail. Laying out the interior of the van is perhaps the most important thing you need to do, and because everyone's needs differ and a van is a very small space, everyone is going to make different compromises.

In my view, the important aspects of an interior layout are:

Let's go through those in order.

Sleeping

Van interior with bed extended

You're going to spend a good amount of time in the van sleeping. You probably want it to be comfortable! That's where bed design comes in.

The first thing is how big you want your bed to be. If you're travelling solo, you can get away with a single bed and save a lot of space - whereas if you're travelling with a partner, and at least one of you is tall, you're going to be sleeping longways in the van (rather than sideways, like shorter people can).

Most beds are going to be pretty big compared to the rest of the van though, and so there's a variety of placement options for them, each with its own tradeoff:

I chose the sliding bed, as it gives me some seating back during the daytime while still leaving me with a big chunk of storage space.

Cooking

A van is never going to be close to as useful as a full kitchen, but what kind of cooking you do can vary wildly. If you're going to be regularly cooking from scratch, you'll want a decent amount of preparation space - while if you're mostly eating out, you might not even want much other than a sink.

Sinks and stovetops/hobs do permanently cut into the available preparation space, but both can be made so there's an insert that goes over the top to give you some of that space back.

Fridges, too, can be a decent chunk of space usage - be careful to plan for the fridge's full size, including any ventilation requirements, and remember that only the bigger ones have any useful freezer space. Non-perishable foods will need their own amount of pantry space, too - don't forget that.

Finally, cooking ventilation is important to consider - you don't want the smells and humidity building up inside the van. My kitchen is both in front of the sliding cargo door and also below the ventilation fan to help with this, but if you don't cook in the van often, this is not too much of a worry.

Seating

Next up is where you sit. Generally, seating is positioned based on where everything else isn't, and in my case it'll be under the sliding portion of the bed.

There are some important things to note, though:

Storage

There is no such thing as too much storage, or storage that is too big. As well as clothes, you need to store bedding, food, cooking utensils, appliances, cameras, laptops, outdoors/sports gear, and plenty more depending on what you're doing.

My plan is to sneak storage wherever I can - obviously my bed design affords me plenty of space under the garage, but I will also be adding overhead cabinets, floor-level cabinets, a little spare storage under seats, and some over the driving cab. The largest item I need to regularly store are snowboards, but if I had to store skis or bikes I would probably rearrange the layout to make those sizes possible.

Also consider that it's nice to have storage that has built-in electrical sockets (so things can charge without being out), and some secure storage with some kind of lock for valuables.

Bathroom

So, this is the most variable of all. Some people just don't have any bathroom facilities in the van, and they're fine with that! US gas stations nearly always have a toilet available, going in the wilderness is doable if you're smart about it, and occasional showers can be had at gyms or with a portable camping shower.

Having a toilet as a minimum, however, is pretty common - sometimes, well, you just gotta go, and it's dark outside. If you're just having a toilet, you can hide it under a seat or a table/counter most of the time and then have it revealed when it's needed, with a curtain for privacy if you need it.

However, some people want to level up to having an interior shower as well, and then you have a real space requirement. Collapsible/hide-away showers are doable, but generally only if you want to use them infrequently - if you're showering on the regular, you want a dedicated shower/toilet room. I want one of these, so that's a decent chunk of my layout used up right there.

As for toilet technology, there are a few options:

Composting toilets have the advantage of not needing any blackwater tank (permanent or portable), and the only outputs from them are urine (which can be disposed of easier than solid waste), and compost (again, easier to dispose of), but they are - at least in my experience of them outside of vans - a bit trickier to use. They don't smell, though, if they are used right.

For that reason, I'm going with a composting toilet, located in a small shower room with an indoor shower.

Utilities

To make all this comfortable and useful, you also want some utilities - usually at least electricity, most often water, and then in some cases gas.

While I'll talk about all of these in detail themselves in future, the important thing to think about in terms of layout is where you are going to fit them. Piping and electrical cabling need space to run, water tanks and batteries need big spaces low down on the vehicle, and propane tanks need their own airtight locker with a drop vent if they're inside the van.

In Conclusion

Picking a van and a layout is a lot of work, but also something you can do while waiting for your van or materials to arrive, at least - I've spent a couple of months designing and modelling ideas to make sure I was happy with the choices I made. They're not irreversible - anything can be undone and changed with effort - but you ideally want to get it right the first time.

One thing I will recommend is that you should do a virtual or real walk-through of the space mocked up. I did this with a VR headset as I modelled my van in Blender, a 3D modelling program, but you can also do it with cardboard or cheap plywood inside the van itself, and I will be doing this just to double-check all the dimensions and how the space feels.

After all this choosing, though, the first steps of the actual build are mostly the same no matter what you choose - flooring and insulation. The video and article about that will be the next one up!

You can see even more blog posts about the van build on its category page, and get updates via my YouTube channel, Twitter, or blog RSS.