The global spread of the coronavirus is disrupting travel. Stay up to date on the science behind the outbreak>>

Ever thought about converting a van into a campervan? Here’s how

Join the booming number of British travellers taking to the road in a campervan they’ve converted themselves. We chat to the authors of The Van Conversion Bible, Dale Comley and Charlie Low, about the practicalities, perks and potential pitfalls.

Published 21 Jun 2021, 08:00 BST
The National Caravan Council reports sales of motorhomes tripling since 2000, while Auto Trader's 2020 survey found ...

The National Caravan Council reports sales of motorhomes tripling since 2000, while Auto Trader's 2020 survey found that over half of all new van buyers wanted it for hobbies, travelling and converting into campervans. Dale Comley and Charlie Low have co-authored The Van Conversion Bible, a new book guiding first-timers through the renovation process, from start to finish.

Photograph by The Van Conversion Bible

Offering the chance to get outdoors, live off-grid and take less-frequented back roads, travel by campervan allows the journey to be as important as the destination. But with prohibitive costs and long waiting lists for new campervans and bespoke conversions, more and more people are choosing to convert regular vans into mobile holiday homes themselves.

The trend for slow travel on four wheels was gathering pace long before the pandemic, but thanks to the increase in staycations and a lockdown-led desire to get out into the wilds while remaining in a bubble, it has shifted up several gears. In recent years, travel companies have reported a sharp rise in the number of campervan holiday rentals, with a number of specialist companies springing up to cater to our newfound love of life on the road. But since March 2020, this trend has spread into the ownership market. 

The National Caravan Council reports sales of motorhomes tripling since 2000, while demand for commercial vehicles is up 57% year on year, according to Auto Trader, whose 2020 survey found that over half of all new van buyers wanted a van for personal use, such as hobbies, travelling and converting into campervans.  

A search on Instagram for the tag #VanLife thows up over 10 million posts. Here, Dale Comley and Charlie Low — the curators behind the account @climbingvan — share a snapshot of a view from the bed in their own converted campervan.

Photograph by The Van Conversion Bible

An Instagram search using #VanLife reveals around 10 million posts, most of which give a sense that campervan trips today equate to something akin to mobile glamping — with all the show-off home comforts to hand. It seems the lifestyle is increasingly appealing to those working remotely; campervans have proved to be excellent mobile home offices, allowing owners to travel as they work. Today, companies offering van conversions or purpose-built vehicles are reporting wait lists of up to 18 months. So, with costs often prohibitive, an increasing number of people are doing it themselves. It’s the lockdown project that’s launched a litany of lifestyle blogs — but is the process as easy as social posts suggest? 

“Planning is everything,” says Dale Comley, who’s co-authored The Van Conversion Bible with his partner, Charlie Low. “No single task is that difficult or technical — YouTube is helpful for tutorials. The hard part is understanding the order in which things need doing. We know people who’ve spent lots of money converting and ended up with a van that doesn’t work, and they’ve had to go back and redo things. It’s crucial to look at potential pitfalls at the drawing-board stage, weighing up all options before you build.” 

“Planning is everything,” says Dale Comley, who’s co-authored The Van Conversion Bible with his partner, Charlie Low. The couple left their Bristol home in 2021 to live in their campervan full time.

Photograph by The Van Conversion Bible

Planning is pivotal to the success of a van conversion. Not least because adding elements to vans that are innately heavy can quickly take you beyond the legal weight limit allowed by vehicle licences. “You’ve got to decide, do I want that cladding, or wood flooring, those solar batteries, or that Belfast sink,” says Charlie. “For our own van, we put in a ridiculously heavy sink but saved weight by building our own kitchen units.” The couple did the entire conversion themselves, spending £6,700 on top of the £8,000 price of the van. 

“Rather than buying a £60,000 motorhome, you can do it at a fraction of the cost, to the spec you like,” says Dale. The couple’s new book comes with plenty of handy hacks and ‘how to’ guides, including a graph showing average costs for builds, sourced from over 2,000 people who’ve brought vans to convert, ranging from old wrecks to pristine off-the-lot rides, with infinite conversion possibilities in between. Generally speaking, the more DIY time, the lower the budget. But for some people, certain things, such as the electrics, are easier to outsource. 

“I have a physics degree, so I’m comfortable with electrics,” says Charlie. “And Dale is an engineer, so his background is technical. We’re now designing bespoke electric systems for other people.” The couple left their Bristol home last year to live in their campervan full time, Charlie’s job as a data analyst for an adventure travel company and Dale’s engineer career happily on hold. “We met while climbing in the Dolomites, so we’re both outdoors people,” says Charlie. “Most of the climbers, surfers and mountain bikers we’ve met have vans — it’s a lifestyle we’re used to.” The couple have only just put in a composting loo, having done without until they moved into the van full time. “I was sceptical,” says Dale. “But it really doesn’t smell. And it’s something you appreciate when you’re in the van every day.”  

“We met while climbing in the Dolomites, so we’re both outdoors people,” says Charlie Low, co-author of The Van Conversion Bible. “Most of the climbers, surfers and mountain bikers we’ve met have vans — it’s a lifestyle we’re used to.”

Photograph by The Van Conversion Bible 5

Charlie and Dale are used to skipping a shower in favour of a swim, but their van has a water tank and heater powered by solar batteries and battery-to-battery chargers that work when the van’s engine is running. And they’ve found the EU to be well set up for places to park and top up with water or power. “Unlike the UK, which doesn’t really welcome campervans beyond campsites,” says Dale. “So, you need to plan ahead as overnight parking is actively discouraged in many places.” With their aim to foster a good reputation for campervanning, they’re careful about where they stay. “For us, it’s not just ‘leave no trace’ but ‘leave it better’ — so, we pick up litter and are try to be sensitive to local environments.” 

The couple have swapped life in the UK for France, where they’re currently seeking out climbing spots, having spent the last year switching between the two countries, largely to avoid Brexit’s limits on long stays in Europe. “We love Pembrokeshire, for the views and climbs, says Charlie. “But next time we leave Europe, we might go south, into Africa or the Balkans,” adds Dale. “Brexit is far from ideal, but it does mean we’ll travel to places we might otherwise not have considered.” 

The Van Conversion Bible authors have swapped life in the UK for France, where they’re currently seeking out climbing spots, having spent the last year switching between the two countries. Offering the chance to get outdoors, live off-grid and take less-frequented back roads, travel by campervan allows the journey to be as important as the destination.

Photograph by The Van Conversion Bible

Charlie & Dale’s top five tips for converting a van into a campervan
  

1. Buy a workbench

Don’t be tight and save by stinting on a proper workbench. We pretty much built our van using the side of a wheelie bin as an improvised workbench, and it really does nothing for your back.

2. Rent before you buy

Rent a van for the weekend to see if you actually like it. For outdoorsy people, campervans may make sense, as they’re perhaps used to living with less. #VanLife might look amazing on Instagram, but the realities might not suit you. And it’s a hell of a lot of time and money to spend if you don’t. 

3. Keep costs down

Do it yourself to make things cheaper. Timber is a big cost and will be about 30% less at independent merchants than in big DIY stores, and probably better quality, too.

4. Plan, plan, plan

Make yourself aware of all the options for fixtures and fittings and plan your design first, checking the weight of everything to ensure you don’t exceed your van’s licenced limit. Go into the fine details with your drawings. It’s so much easier and cheaper to make changes at this stage, than spend hours fixing things during building or afterwards.

5. Outsource

Don’t feel like you must do everything yourself. Outsource the elements you’re really not up for — perhaps electrics, fitting windows or gas. But don’t be scared. Many people are nervous about putting in windows, for example, as it involves cutting big holes in the side of your van. But it’s relatively simple. Most jobs aren't overly technical, but they can be very time consuming, so it may work out to be more cost effective to outsource in some areas.

Follow Dale and Charlie at @climbingvan. Their new book, The Van Conversion Bible, costs £25 hardback or £18 for the ebook.

Follow us on social media

Twitter | Facebook | Instagram 

Read More

Explore Nat Geo

  • Animals
  • Environment
  • History & Culture
  • Science
  • Travel
  • Photography
  • Space
  • Adventure
  • Video

About us

Subscribe

  • Magazines
  • Newsletter
  • Disney+

Follow us

Copyright © 1996-2015 National Geographic Society. Copyright © 2015-2016 National Geographic Partners, LLC. All rights reserved