Van Build Series Pt. 1 - Choosing the Van

I thought I’d kick off this new Van Build Series by talking about why my wife and I decided to convert a van into a camper and how went about choosing a van for the build.

Why Convert a Van into a Camper?

Before I get going with today’s post, I just want to answer a question that I’ve been asked a lot recently - why on earth would you want to convert a van into a camper instead of just buying a ready-made campervan?

There are of course many reasons why people choose to convert a van into a campervan.

For me, I have wanted a campervan for almost as long as I can remember. I have always loved the idea of being able to go off for a few days without needing to plan or book anywhere in advance. The freedom of seeing a fantastic weather forecast somewhere in the country and to be able to then pack-up the van and go off for a few days is something I’ve longed for, for a very long time.

As I’ve got more serious about my photography, I have also often thought that a campervan would be a great addition to my toolkit and would allow me to become far more mobile, helping me to get to locations that are currently just a little bit out of reach.

But, like so many people I speak to, buying a campervan is just so far out of my budget that it is beyond a joke. The only campers I’ve seen have been very old, usually very rusty and I think would probably cause me more trouble and stress that they’d be worth.

However the more I researched campers, the more I kept coming across self-build vans, some of which were certainly very well spec’ed and looked very nice.

Some of these vans were also quite quirky and had tons of character and lots of little personal touches. They had been designed and built around the exact needs of the people building them and more often than not, had the owners character and personality imprinted into the van.

All this got me thinking - if I built a van, what personal touches would I add, how would I design it around my photography and outdoor needs and would I even be able to learn the skills needed to be able to convert a panel van into a camper?

After discussing my plans with my wife (who was totally on-board with the whole self-built camper idea), we next had to think about what sort of van we would need.

Deciding on the Base-Vehicle

The base-vehicle (the make and model of van) is perhaps one of the most important decisions in any van build. We were both acutely aware that if we made the wrong decision here, we could be stuck with an unusable or impracticable camper. So we spent quite a long time thinking about what we realistically needed from a van and what we would most likely be doing with the van.

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For me, I need something I could use for extended off grid photography and outdoors trips. I hope to use this van to get out on location for days at a time and I don’t plan on staying in campsites all that often, so being completely self sufficient whilst off photographing in remote areas will be absolutely essential.

For my wife, we need to be able to go away for long weekends with our family and, like me, she would also like to stay off grid as much as possible. This should mean that we can keep the costs down and allow us to take more trips away.

We both felt that we would need rear seats (for children and friends) and that the van would need to be able to sleep 4 comfortably. We are also planning to do some extended road trips which may mean staying in the van for several weeks at a time. So having plenty space and light and also being able to stand-up in the van, would be important to us.

Basically, to cut a long story short, we started with the idea of a short wheel-base van (something like a Ford Transit Custom or a VW Transporter), but the more we thought about it, the larger we felt that the van would need to be. So the idea of a small van gradually morphed into us wanting either a long or an extra-long wheelbase high-top van.

Narrowing it down

So the search was on.

Once we had decided on the size of van, I then set about hunting for something suitable.

I spent a lot of time researching van makes, models, age vs’ mileage and scrolling through owners forums and campervan conversion blogs and YouTube video’s. Through all this research, several makes and models seemed to crop-up time and time again as being good options for us: Ford Transit, Mercedes Sprinter/VW Crafter (basically the same vehicle) and the Vauxhall Vivaro/Renault Traffic.

So, with an idea of what we were after, the next step was to start hunting for vans.

Finding our Van

Finding our van was a very long process of searching Ebay, Gumtree, AutoTrader Vans and Preloved over and over again, day in and day out, for what seemed like months and months and months.

There were so many highs and lows during this time: often thinking we’d found the right van, only to find it gone; two completely wasted full-day trips to Manchester to look at the same van - thanks to the most unreliable seller in the world who couldn’t even organise himself be in his home city (let alone at his own address) when he said he would. And when we finally pinned him down and saw the van it had so many problems with it, the main issue being a large whole in the floor (which he assured us would be good for ventilation) and the fact that the guy selling the van was living in it and had no apparent plan to move out. Needless to say, we didn’t get that one!

At times the search did seem endless and we just always seemed to miss out on the good vans within our budget. We couldn’t afford to go higher, so we just kept plugging away, searching daily until we found our van.

Love at First Drive

When I first saw our “van-to-be” on Gumtree, I had a good feeling about it. It wasn’t “too good too be true” (we’d seen a few of those already) as there were a few small issues which the seller described clearly in the advert. But on the whole it looked like a solid van, with no rust or other major issues.

We drove down to take a look and it really was love at first sight. It was a solid drive, had plenty of pull for a 3.5 tone vehicle and was bright yellow (if I’m honest, I’m not sure if the colour is going to stay yellow as I wanted something a little more stealthy - but the yellow is slowly growing on me).

But everything else about the van was just perfect and after months of false starts, highs and lows and, at times, shear frustration, we had finally found the one!

Introducing Our New Van

So, what did we go for in the end?

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Our van is a 2.4 liter TDCI, 6-speed gear box, diesel, high-top Jumbo (extra-long wheelbase) Ford Transit. She has 180,000 miles on the clock and used to be a CityLink delivery van. Something that I love about her is that she has a speed limiter that has been set to 70 mph (which means she hasn’t been belted up and down the motorway at Warp Speed)!

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The interior of the van was extremely grubby, but I don’t mind about that as it can be cleaned out (and after a day scraping out the dirt from the cab and giving it a thorough clean, she is starting to look quite nice).

The load area in the back is huge and should give us ample space for all our needs, but the van is still a manageable size and I should be able to get her up all but the smallest country lanes and mountain passes (I wont be going up Hardknott Pass in her anytime soon though)!

My Advice on Choosing a Van for a Conversion

So, what have I learned in the process of looking for a van?

  1. Think about what you need the van to do and be realistic. Spend some time considering how you intend to use the van, how many do you need it to sleep, do you plan on gong on longer trips, do you want to be able to stand up in the van. Really think it through and then try to go for the smallest van you can get away with, but if you really need a larger sized van, then just go for it!

  2. Be patient - finding a decent second-hand van for a low budget is possible, but it isn’t easy. Be patient, look every day and get a feel for what’s out there and eventually something WILL turn up.

  3. Set-backs are part of the course. Unfortunately, you will most probably come up against setbacks and disappointments. Unreliable people was probably our biggest source of frustration during the hunting stage (and we came across loads of them). If this happens, just smile and walk away - I promise you that you will be able to laugh about it someday!

  4. And this brings me onto my next tip - be prepared to walk away. This can be hard, especially when you’ve invested so much time in finding a van. But if the van (or the seller) isn’t right, just walk away - there are plenty of other vans out there.

  5. And finally - enjoy the process. Yes it can be frustrating and full of highs and lows, but at the end of the day, you are looking for a van to convert into a campervan and that’s an amazingly cool thing to do. Don’t loose sight of that and remember, even the most frustrating and disappointing search days will make you laugh at some point (even if it’s through clenched teeth)!

So that’s the van - it’s been a roller coaster already and I’ve not even started the conversion yet!

But I really can’t wait to get stuck into this new project and I keep catching myself thinking about all the photography adventures we’re going to have once she’s a full-on camper.

I’ll be blogging an up-date on the conversion once a month until she’s finished. With tips, advice, highs and lows, as well as all the bits and bobs I’ll be learning along the way, this should make for a great series of posts.

If you want any further information about how we chose our van, please ask in the comments below and I’ll try to answer you as best as I can.

I’ve got some great content coming up over the next few weeks, so if you haven’t done so already, please subscribe to my blog through the Blog RSS feed (at the top right of this page) and subscribe to my Newsletter to keep up-to-date with all my latest van and photography adventures.