Vehicle conversion tips to fit any van-life budget

A woman standing at the back of a partially completed van conversion project, holding her arms out wide with a measuring tape held between them.

You have approximately thiiiiiiiiiis much space. Clay Banks / Unsplash

Every time my neighbors walked by the cacophony of clatter and power tools spilling from my garage, they peered in with curious expressions. You could almost hear the refrain from the old Tom Waits song muttering in their heads: “What’s he building in there?”

After a few days the object of my efforts emerged. From the outside it looked like a normal Honda Element, but inside was a bed and desk, refrigerator and storage, electric lights and appliances, and more. All or at least most of the makings of a tiny mobile home and office.

For those who are handy with tools, a van conversion is the ultimate DIY project. The opportunities for tinkering are endless.

But it’s not something you want to go into unprepared. Trial and error might be fine in the garage, but it can be a real pain to discover that your untested conversion idea didn’t pan out once you’ve already driven out to the middle of nowhere.

To that end, I’ve got a few tips that can help you on your way to building a superior overlanding rig. Van conversion budgets can vary greatly, so these are organized by how much you’re looking to spend. We’ll start, though, with a few tips that are relevant to all van-lifers.

General van-life conversion tips

Plan ahead

Don’t just start cutting boards and screwing things together. Take the time to sit in your empty vehicle and visualize where you want everything to go. Make a map. Draw a picture. It can be frustrating to get deep into your build only to realize you’ve neglected to make space for something essential.

Consider access

When you’re on the road, you’ll be using certain items repeatedly and will want to be able to access them easily. Cooking gear, clothing, toiletries—these are the kinds of things you won’t want to be constantly digging around for.

Get seat covers

When you live in your van, you eat in your van. Spills will happen, so if you don’t want your upholstery to turn into a work of abstract art, cover it up. Depending on your vehicle model, there might be covers designed to fit your seats. If not, it’s time to try out your sewing skills. The best material for your setup depends on your personal preference and perhaps the climate you’ll be driving through. Hot weather means thin, cool materials. Colder weather means it’s time for warm and soft.

[Related: How to keep your car from getting butt-burningly hot this summer]

Don’t forget a table surface

The most basic van build designs tend to be simple bed platforms. While that will get the job done, adding table surfaces makes a conversion significantly more livable. Even if you’re working with limited space, you should find ways to incorporate flat surfaces where you can place drinks, prepare food, and even work on a laptop.

Van-life on a budget: cut corners

Recycle materials

Lumber costs are high these days. Instead of going to the hardware store to shell out for new wood, search your local thrift stores for second-hand furniture that you can alter to suit your needs. For my first conversion, I cut a desk down to fit my space, and not only did it provide me with a solid surface to work and cook on, but also drawers for organization and the perfect space beneath for housing my fridge and power station.

Petite power station

I’ve seen a number of van-life setups without electrification, but it really diminishes the experience. These days, solar power generators are pretty ubiquitous among van-lifers, and while they do tend to be pricy, you don’t necessarily have to break the bank to get one. In a piece I wrote about the best solar power generators, I recommended the Jackery 300 as a solid budget pick. For $300, it’s a great way to keep all your devices charged on the go.

Van-life with a little money to burn: expand your lifestyle

Power up

If you can afford to upsize your power station, it’s worth it. The extra juice can really take your comfort to a new level. Shoot for at least 1,000 watt-hours, which can power a small fridge, lights, and several devices for a few days between recharges. There are a lot of great models out there that excel in different ways, but the Jackery 1500 will do everything you want it to do, and well. 

[Related: A beginner’s guide to choosing the perfect van-life vehicle]

Get a fridge

While a typical cooler is fine in a pinch, a mini-fridge makes life a whole lot easier when you’re traveling for days, weeks, or months on end by eliminating the need for ice and making it easier to store food over the long-term. Be sure to get one that has an “eco” setting that will draw less power. The sky is the limit in terms of costs, but I’ve used this generic $250 unit extensively and it’s always gotten the job done.

Add a room

When you’re in your van all the time, it can be nice to set up a sitting area outside. Depending on your location and the time of year, however, mosquitos and other insects might make that intolerable. I’ve found that the Roadhouse Screen Tarp from Slumberack provides an excellent solution. For $230, it tacks shade, shelter, and mosquito protection directly onto the side of your van.

Van-life gone wild: upgrade everything

Upgrade your rig

Now, I don’t mean by buying an entirely different vehicle. You can always buy a fully-loaded overlander van, but that wouldn’t be a DIY project, would it?

Instead, add fancy upgrades to your project van. Yakima roof rack systems will offer way more roof cargo carrying capacity than most racks made for your vehicle by an original equipment manufacturer (OEM). And Thule has essentially set the standard for quality cargo boxes. These outside storage opportunities will really free up the living space in your van.

Get everything on camera

A video camera system can be a great way to not only film your van life experience, but also help keep your vehicle secure while providing a record if anything untoward occurs. I’m a fan of the Nextbase dash cam ecosystem, which links up cameras on your dash, rear, and in the cabin, allowing you to film everything. It’s also got other slick features that can be helpful on the road, like an emergency SOS function, parking guidance, and more.

Stay cool

I’ve already mentioned installing a fridge rather than a cooler, but if you really want to up your cold-storage game (and can afford it), get a fridge with a built-in freezer. Dometic makes a bunch of good options, and their 75-liter unit offers a good balance between capacity and space efficiency.