As #vanlife gains momentum, manufacturers are producing more vans suitable for camper conversions. Some companies will convert your van for you, offering predesigned and custom options. But if you can’t, or don’t want to, pay the steep price, consider doing your own conversion.
While not as iconic as the Mercedes Sprinter, the Ford Transit is a popular choice for a DIY campervan conversion. We converted a 2015 medium-roof model to learn how it’s done and crafted this step-by-step guide to explain the process.
Editor’s note: Although this guide features a Ford Transit, the methods outlined can be used in similarly sized conversions of any type of cargo van.
YOUR BASE VEHICLE
Picking your base vehicle steers the conversion process, but it’s a personal decision that depends on many factors. Check out this guide for help in choosing the right camper van for you.
For our conversion, we chose a 2015 Ford Transit 250 with a 3.2-liter diesel engine and a medium-height roof. The vehicle features a 148-inch wheelbase, 100.7-inch height and 357.1-cubic-foot maximum cargo capacity. This model provides adequate ground clearance, the ability to stand upright (if you’re under 6 feet tall), and plenty of interior space, while still being short enough in length to comfortably navigate busy urban areas.
CREATE A LAYOUT
Before you start building, design a blueprint of your van’s look and function. Be sure to consider these basic components:
- Barriers and insulation
- Electrical system
- Water system
- Kitchen and cooking system
- Sleeping system
- Floor design
- Ceiling design
- Walls and storage
What form do you want these components to take? Do you plan to hook up a sink or shower? Do you want a raised bed platform or something that will convert into daytime seating? Will you require desk space?
To create a floor plan, measure your van’s interior dimensions. Be sure to account for the location and height of the wheel wells, windows and the uneven ribs that run the length of the floors, walls and ceiling.
Decide where you want to situate big items. Unless you know exact dimensions, use common measurements, such as for a mattress. The layout should include your bed system, kitchen area, fan, refrigerator, water system and electrical components.
While a paper sketch will do, online 3D modeling tools can help you to visualize the finished project. SketchUp is a free, comprehensive online 3D modeling tool popular with #vanlifers.
Here are some tips for creating your campervan layout:
- Avoid placing any electrical components — like batteries and inverters — near fuel tanks.
- Allow a few inches of space around a refrigerator for venting purposes.
- Make sure your electrical system is easy to access.
- Position your vent fan as far away from windows as possible.
- Be creative with your space: A bed can double as a couch, a bench can hide a toilet, and you can take advantage of collapsible and telescoping objects, such as a desk or table.
STRIP, CLEAN, DAMPEN
Even empty cargo vans likely contain elements you’ll want to remove, like extra passenger seats, shelving, plastic flooring and wall barriers. Strip your van down to its factory sheet metal before starting the conversion.
Large panels of sheet metal inevitably create acoustic amplification and vibrations. Since you plan on living — or spending a significant amount of time — in what’s essentially a sheet metal box, you’ll want to dampen the noise. The best way to do this is to apply peel-and-stick materials with high viscoelasticity designed specifically for this purpose. Noico and Kilmat are popular brands of this type of material.
It’s important to apply sound-deadening material to clean sheet metal. Wipe your van down with rubbing alcohol before application. While you don’t need to cover 100 percent of your vehicle, aim for at least 30 percent. Here are some tips for applying sound-deadening material:
- Cut the material into small sheets or sections.
- Apply evenly across the walls, floor and ceiling.
- Cover the entirety of the wheel wells.
- Don’t forget about the cab area, the doors and underneath the hood.
INSTALL FAN(S) AND WINDOWS
Installing a ventilation fan (and any additional windows you want) requires cutting through the van’s sheet metal, which you’ll want to do while it’s bare.
A ventilation fan helps control interior temperature and relative humidity and increases indoor air quality. Most vanlifers agree that the MaxxFan Deluxe is the best choice. It’s the only complete RV-specific ventilation system that features an all-in-one fan, vent and rain shield.
Supplies you’ll need:
- MaxxAir MaxxFan Deluxe
- Hein interior and exterior roof vent adapters
- Dicor self-leveling sealant
- Butyl tape
- GE Silicone II sealant
- Primer, paint and clear coat (matching your vehicle’s paint)
- 3/16-inch-diameter, 2-inch-long bolts; washers; nuts
- Painter’s tape
- Rubbing alcohol
- Caulking gun
- Power drill
1. Place the roof vent adapter where you want to install the fan (aim for the flat center of a sheet metal panel).
2. Cover the area with painter’s tape and mark the cutout.
3. Drill holes at all four corners (to allow space for the jigsaw).
4. Cut out all four sides.
5. Smooth the sharp edges with sandpaper.
6. Drill holes into the fan flange.
7. Wipe down all cut and drilled surfaces with rubbing alcohol.
8. Touch up all cut surfaces with primer, paint and clear coat.
9. Use butyl tape where the fan flange will attach to the adapter.
10. Use a silicone sealant where the adapter will attach to the van.
11. Install the adaptor and fan flange with hardware.
12. Apply Dicor sealant around the fan flange.
13. Install the fan and fasten with included mounting hardware.
BUILD THE FLOOR
You’ll want to insulate your entire van, starting with the floor. For the floor, lay down and adhere to 3/8-inch oak strips. Because the floor is ribbed and uneven, the strips serve to keep the plywood subfloor from sinking into the foam board insulation.
To insulate the floor, cut and lay varying lengths of ¼- and ½-inch XPS rigid foam board in alignment with the ribs, using thicker strips at the low points and thinner strips on raised areas.
After insulating the floor, cut, lay and drill 3/8-inch plywood sheets into the strips to keep the subfloor in place. Next, apply expanding foam around the edges. Finally, lay vinyl wood planks to finish the floor. The vinyl material and tongue-and-groove design are a good choice for effective moisture resistance.
As a finishing touch, install aluminum angle edging around all visible areas of the floor — including the front, back and stairwell.
BUILD THE BED
Many bed systems can be found, including prebuilt platforms and customized designs. Here are a few of the most common:
- Platform bed: This design provides plenty of storage space and is permanently fixed, which eliminates any work before going to sleep.
- Drop-down table bed: During the day, this is a telescoping table flanked by two couches. At night, the table drops down, and the upright mattresses come together to create a bed.
- Couch bed: This design functions as two couches by day and a bed by night.
We installed an elevated bed platform in our van and designed it to hold a full-size mattress. We built the platform at a height that would allow us to sit up in bed and placed it as far back in the van as possible to save space.
THE BED PLATFORM
To install an elevated bed platform, affix two horizontal support beams to the van walls using rivet nuts (alternatively, you can install vertical “legs” for support, but these take up more space). Next, cut four wooden beams and run them crosswise, spacing them evenly to provide as much support as possible. Affix these with joint hangers to the horizontal support beams and ensure they fit snugly in their hangers.
Then, place the bed platform in the direction in which you want your mattress to face. Some people use hardwood or premade campervan-specific platforms, but we installed an IKEA slatted bed base. We reinforced the bed base support beams with flat aluminum edge and affixed the base to the top of the four wooden beams using 90-degree corner angles. This setup allows for easy bed adjustment or removal.
Editor’s note: We installed our bed platform first and found it was easy to remove and replace in a matter of minutes. This is useful if you plan on doing your conversion over a longer period of time but want to sleep in your van for short adventures.
INSTALL WATER AND ELECTRICAL SYSTEMS
Planning out your water and electrical system in advance is key so that when it comes time to install these components, you won’t run into any placement issues. A basic campervan water system includes a fresh water tank, gray water tank, water pump, sink, and associated plumbing. Water tank sizes vary from 5 – 30 gallons, depending on how much water you plan on using and how often you want to refill.
It’s important to store your fresh water tank inside your vehicle (especially during winter months or if you live in a cold climate) for easy refilling purposes. Gray water tanks are often stored beneath the kitchen sink in a cabinet, allowing easy access for regular dumping. It’s essential to secure your water tanks so they don’t slide around when you’re on the go.
If you plan on running pressurized water to a sink and/or shower, you’ll need to install a water pump. There are two different types of pumps commonly used: manual foot-powered or electric.
A manual foot pump should be mounted to the floor or wall. The installation is simple: one tube feeds to the sink faucet and the other feeds to your fresh water tank. This is the system we intend to install in our van. Installing an electric pump is more complicated, but the benefits include having consistent water pressure and being able to hook up to a hot water heater if desired.
A basic campervan electric system includes a solar panel kit, two 12-volt DC batteries, and an inverter (if you intend on powering 120-volt appliances, like smartphones or microwaves). Check out our guide to helping your campervan go solar for more details on the installation process.
Once you’ve run all necessary wiring and plumbing, you can finish the van’s interior. This includes insulating all walls, the ceiling, door panels, nooks and crannies.
When insulating a campervan, use a material that’s easy to install, has a high R-Value, doesn’t off-gas, can be stuffed into hard-to-reach places and doesn’t retain moisture.
A specialty insulation called Thinsulate is popular in the vanlife community. Stuff all nooks and crannies with loose Thinsulate, then cut large sheets of it to adhere to the ceiling and wall panels.
To finish the ceiling, lay tongue-and-groove cedar planks, cutting holes if you want to install lights. To finish the walls, cut and paint wooden panels before installing them. When installing wall panels, it’s important to cut access holes for electrical wires, especially if you haven’t finished your electrical system.
Once you’ve finished the base interior, it’s time to start thinking about storage and accessory ideas. To get started, check out our articles on kitchen essentials for easy #vanlife cooking and ideas for maximizing storage space in a campervan.
Now it’s time to hit the (off) road!