Now those of you who follow me on Instagram and Twitter will already have had a little peek at what we’ve been hard at work on the last few weeks, but now it’s about time I shared our little project with all of you. You’ll know by now that the boyfriend and I are big fans of road tripping, it’s how we met on the West Coast of Australia and spent our first few months together, and it will always hold a special place in our hearts. It’s definitely something that runs in the boyfriend’s family, with his dad renovating camper vans and vehicles as a hobby, and his sister currently off road tripping Portugal in a van of her own. So it would be rude for us to not join in the fun and make the most of our time based in Germany by renovating a van of our own and setting it up to be the perfect road trip vehicle! We have been hard at work for several weekends in the crazy summer heatwave, figuring out how to do this project by ourselves, measuring, building, making mistakes and fixing them, and finally we are in the decorating stages. So I thought what better time to share the whole project with you and to finally let you see our new little travelling home.
So how did it all start?
We knew when we moved to Hamburg, that the boyfriend would need a van for work, so we thought why not get a van big enough that we could easily convert it into one we could use for longer road trips around Europe. We wanted to make the most of our time living in Europe and with so many countries just a few hours away, it seemed silly to rely on flights when we could easily hop in the van and drive to the next destination. Watch out my my upcoming post on our next big trip! Boyfriend found a great deal on a Mercedes-Benz Sprinter and his dad helped him to put a temporary bed in there to cover him for the insurance until we had time to build a proper one. The first step was already done before I even moved to Germany, but it was a great one because it meant we were already talking about what trips we could take during this summer. After a lot of discussion, planning and general wanderlusting, we had come up with a plan for our first big road trip – details to be revealed soon – and we realised if we want to make this a reality, we needed to get on and make a plan for renovating the inside of the van to make it suitable to live in. A big project, but one we were more than excited to take on!
Now first of all, I really want to stress that neither of us had any idea how to renovate a camper van, there was a lot of trial and error, a few mistakes and times when we had to scrap some wood and start a bit over. But we were determined and we were hard-working, with a vision of how we wanted our van to be. We started out by making our original sketches, then measured out the van working out exactly how big we wanted the bed to be, allowing space for storage along the sides and even attempting to sketch a plan for a bed that would either fold away or would turn into a couch. It was hard to plan and when we actually showed the plans to boyfriend’s dad and then worked it out according to the wood and bed we already had in there, our plans completely changed. We were lucky to have boyfriend’s dad around, he has done a lot of vans before so he was happy to offer advice and even a never-ending wood stack of materials for building. Without him, we definitely wouldn’t have managed to complete it so quickly! We eventually came up with a design for a folding bed that would give us much more space and a bit of a couch inside with a table/storage space which would be really helpful if the weather ended up being bad on our trip and we weren’t able to sit outside to cook. We also planned to pick up a little storage cupboard/drawers to screw into a corner to provide us with a clean space to store clothes etc.
The actual building wasn’t as hard as we anticipated with the two of us working hard on it, and boyfriend’s parents coming in to lend a hand here and there, or to hold a piece of wood while we fitted other parts. Once we had measured everything out, we started to screw the pieces of wood into the floor of the van to create the frame for the bed, and then next to it, a storage box to hold camping equipment. We already had a wooden bed frame which boyfriend’s dad had picked up from a friend free of charge, so it was just case of cutting this smaller to fit the actual bed frame we had created. We’ve found using this bed frame with wooden slats is much better than sheets of plywood, because not only is it stronger and less likely to break under our combined weight, but it’s also able to breathe and ventilate when the weather is hot. We also changed the bed frame so that we could remove half of it and put it away to create a couch for during the evenings if the weather is bad and we are unable to sit outside. Boyfriend very cleverly used his chainsaw to cut the wood into bridle joints which fit together perfectly and support the frame well, but are also easy to remove so that we can have more floor space in the van.
The storage cupboard we created will hold camping chairs and stoves, plus boyfriend’s work gear, and we have closed it off from the rest of the van to stop anything from sliding around while we drive. Plus we have also left enough space under the bed for several storage boxed for food and more camping equipment. We also have an idea to pick up a cheap, small chest of drawers to drill into the corner of the van to store our clothes neatly away. As I write this, boyfriend has just gone off to see a mechanic friend about installing a second battery to the van so that we will have an endless supply of power for charging phones, camera, laptops and possibly even putting in a fridge for later trips. We’ve been told installing a battery and hooking it up to the current engine will cost us €500, which is a big expense, but is also the only expense we have had since buying the van so we feel it is more of an investment for future trips. Overall, it was hard work, but nowhere near as tough as I expected thanks to good teamwork and extra help from the family.
How long did it take?
We worked one full weekend with two 12 hour days non-stop (except for strawberry and ice cream breaks) and the whole of the main frame, the bed, storage spaces and the sanding was all done. We were so proud of have finished so much so quickly, we even had time to create a perfect sized mattress and the folding bed function. Without boyfriend’s dad advising us and helping with a few bits, it would have probably taken two full weekends for us to figure out a lot of things. Boyfriend went back the following weekend just to add in a few small wooden features and to close off the storage space, but these were simple things he did single-handedly. We had free access to a huge stash of wood, plywood, nails and screws, plus we used a combination of chainsaws, drills and more to get everything fixed in.
Advice for anyone working on a similar project
If you’re thinking of renovating a van and turning it into a camper, be aware that it is not a small or easy project. You have to prepared to put a lot of hard work in, but the harder you work on it, the better the results will be. Full expect your plans to change many times before you reach the final design, don’t be precious about sticking to one way of doing things or one particular idea/layout, the more flexible and adaptable you are, the better your van design will be. Talk to friends, or even friends of friends, or even people online who have done similar projects. Read blog posts, research online, look at a whole range of designs to work out what would work best for your van – each van is a different shape, size and has different requirements so don’t forget to realistically plan for yours. For example, our van has huge windows on all sides, so we’ve kept building work to the floor rather than installing high cupboards that block the light, we’ve put our storage under the bed and along the sides but have still retained the huge height of the van and have plenty of space to sit or even stand inside the van.
If you have carpenter or mechanic friends, pick their brains, ask advice and don’t get carried away in complicated designs, sometimes the simplest are the most comfortable and effective, plus the most realistic to build in a short time-frame or with limited experience. If you’re not sure whether you are capable and are even thinking of getting professionals in to do the job, hold on! We had no experience and not much of a clue, and we managed to build a great fit-out for our van, we’ve barely spent any money on it and yet it looks amazing. Before you spend a fortune, just think about how much more it will mean to you to build it yourself. Our van really is our baby and we are so much more excited to road trip in it for the first time after building and creating it ourselves. It’s such an achievement. I’ll be posting more about the makeover when we’ve decorated and pimped out the van a bit!
Have you renovated a van > camper – how was your experience? What tips and advice would you give to newbies? What are your best road trip experiences?