Many dream of converting their minivan or full-size van into a camper, but do you have the skills and tools necessary to successfully (and safely) pull off a DIY conversion?
Not everyone is handy with a table saw or miter bits, and some people have never even picked up a hammer. If you’re contemplating a do-it-yourself (DIY) project to convert your existing van—be it a minivan, full size van or vintage Kombi—you should think long and hard before gutting the interior and trying to convert it into a custom camper of your dreams.
Perhaps you’ve arrived at this page because you’re thinking about taking the plunge to DIY your van camper-style, or maybe you’re considering hiring the job out to one of the countless professional conversion companies across the country.
When thinking about whether you ought to convert a van into a camper yourself or hire a professional, it helps to answer the question:
Should you DIY your camper van conversion?
Ultimately, the answer will depend on your unique situation and skillset.
If you don’t have the knowledge but you do have the funds, then consider that trading your traditional van in for a pre-made camper van might be the best option for you. If, however, you don’t have the funds but have the know-how on building and design (not to mention the time), then attempting a DIY might be a good project.
What options do you have if you lack the funds, knowledge and access to the many tools you’ll need to complete the task?
In this case, you might consider seeing if you have any friends who are handy with tools and willing work for beer. Another idea if you decide you do the work yourself is to make the changes temporary so that you can put the van back together in stock form in order to sell it down the road.
A short camper van conversion history lesson
Some of the first converted rigs were old school buses, which hit the roads in the 1950s and are to this day a popular DIY platform due to their ruggedness, availability, reliability and cost. But “skoolies” (as they are fondly called) can be a real beast to drive and not for the faint of heart on the highway.
Most used school buses sell for around $3,500 after years of service carting around school kids, and DIY owners often throw another $7,000 to $10,000 to convert them into a small home on wheels.
If you decide to go this route, finding a used bus from a warm-weather state is highly recommended so that the bus isn’t a rusted heap due to decades of use on salty winter roads. Facebook is a good resource if you’re looking for an already-converted skoolie or if you want to take on someone else’s project they just can’t finish.
How long does a DIY van conversion take?
Folks who have gone through the process of hiring a professional company to convert their van report that it can take up to a year to create their dream full-size camper van. The do-it-yourselfers, on the other hand, commonly report that it can take years to fully convert their van. However, the timeline ultimately depends on what you want and how much time you have to commit to working on it on weekends and holidays, since most DIYers also have to juggle a full-time job.
DIY conversion: pros and cons to building your own camper van
One huge advantage to building your own custom van is that you can design and execute the layout and features exactly as you want them. If you make a mistake, you can redo it again and again until you’re satisfied.
It helps to identify what criteria you absolutely have to have in a camper van from the start. For example, do you want a shower, or can you live without one? How about a gas stove? Once you’ve identified these “must-haves,” work those elements into your plan first.
Here are some of the advantages and disadvantages of converting your van on your own:
Resources and tips for DIYers
If you decide to attempt the DIY van conversion, the good news is there are plenty of great resources out there to help. A few such resources when looking for components to outfit your DIY camper van are RB Components, VanLifeOutfitters and Zen Vanz. YouTube is another great resource for ideas and know-how as you tackle your DIY camper van conversion.
Be sure to do your research about what others DIYers have found helpful in their builds and what they viewed as a waste of time. For instance, you can find countless articles about how others regret not having running water or making the best use of storage space. Or, for instance, you may want to reconsider having that big picture window on the side of your rig since having privacy may trump a good view every now and again.
A few other handy and popular design features to consider include a drop-down side table for food prep, a diesel heater for those cold nights, a washable floor and wiring your alternator to charge your rig’s batteries while you drive.
Conversion van company: pros and cons of hiring a professional
While a self-built camper van can offer more flexibility, customizability and is a good option for those on a budget, it’s not for everyone. If you’re short on time and not set on certain design features, then going the pre-built route may be your best bet.
Or, if you already own a vehicle that you’re attached to (such as grandpa’s old Volkswagen bus, or your uncle’s 70s van with a fantasy scene painted on the side), and if you’ve got the funds, then looking into a company that can do the conversion for you might be the best move.
A few questions to keep in mind when shopping for a conversion company are:
- Do they have a long-established professional history of converting vans?
- Can you afford all the materials and labor?
- Can you commit to the plans? (It’s hard to change anything once the conversion is done.)
Self-built DIY vs. professional van conversion: which is right for you?
Whichever route you choose, at the end of the process you’ll hopefully have a safe, reliable rig that you can adventure in for years to come.
If you decide to hire a professional van conversion company to modify your van or truck, we suggest you visit their websites and open a dialogue via phone or email. Here’s a list of a handful of reputable conversion van companies in the West and where they are located to get started:
Also, keep in mind that vans have been converted for camping for decades, so at any given time there are thousands for sale across the United States. From the classic Volkswagen Westfalia and “skoolies” to state-of-the-art luxury Roadtreks and ProMasters, Mercedes Sprinters and Ford Transits, there might be a used rig you will fall in love with and want to make your own.
We’ve really only dipped a toe into the deep waters that are DIY camper mods and builds. Whatever decision you make—whether to do the work yourself or hire a professional to see your dream become reality—can ultimately result in a rig that you’re proud to own and brings enjoyment to you every day you use it.
Whether you need inspiration or are interested in purchasing a converted van, we invite you to browse our selection of new and used campervans for sale.
Don’t see what you’re looking for? Call us at (866) 370-8222.