How to turn a van into a house-on-wheels for those super long road trips

For those handy travellers looking to take on a project, why not DIY a van to make your road trips super comfortable?

Across the world, especially in the US, there's a movement where people are preferring to minimise their lives and live permanently on the road, working jobs they can do remotely with just an internet connection - but they don't have to give up a home to do this.

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That's where the Van Life come in - re-purposed vans turned into little mobile homes that anyone can make to their specifications. You save money on accommodation, don't have to deal with the weather like you would when camping and can go almost anywhere the road takes you.

But you don't have to want to live that nomad lifestyle to make a mobile home of your own - if you like taking long road trips, want to be super comfortable at campsites or just feel like letting your creativity run wild, you too could try out converting a van in your spare time.

How do you do it though? asked a full-time Van Lifer to share their best practices for making your mobile home dreams a reality. 

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But why choose the Van Life?

Here's one reason why a couple decided to do the Van Life full-time.

"Van Life has given us a sense of freedom that we never thought was possible. It's a calming and relaxing way of life that moves with us wherever we want to go. Sometimes we eat our lunch to the sounds of the rain on the roof, and other times we just sit and watch the sunset by the side of the river with a cup of tea in our hand," says expert Seb Santabarbara that manages the @vincentvanlife Instagram account with partner Rose. 

"We've saved so much money too, and we feel a lot more self-sufficient now that we're living off-grid."

It's a great way to see your country as well if you take a month-long sabbatical. 

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What kind of vans to look at?

When looking for the perfect van to DIY, there are a few things to consider - how high you need it to be, what kind of license you need to drive it and whether you can easily get parts for it when on the road. 

Santabarbara recommends a Mercedes Sprinter or a Volkswagen Crafter as popular options, and they are normally available to buy second-hand.

Think about how you want your home on wheels to look like before you buy a van and - like any other car you would buy - make all the usual checks to see if it's in good condition and checks all your boxes before buying.

READ: When someone calls shotgun: Car etiquette for road tripping to hell 

What you will need to turn the van into a home

Now for the actual DIY part - having the right tools is essential and a lot of planning needs to go into creating your home-on-the-road.

  • Jigsaw - Save time and energy and get yourself a good quality jigsaw. They're great for cutting through your cladding or pallet wood and especially handy when making intricate curves and joins in your woodwork. Get a good pack of blades so that you can cut through a variety of materials.
  • Drill - A good drill and spare drill bits are essential for any building project. You’re going to be drilling into metal frames as well as building cupboards and drawers, so get something powerful like a Bosch Combi Drill. Make sure that you have a pocketful of bits and a spare battery on charge before you set to work.
  • Stationery - You’re constantly going to be making notes and diagrams, and you will most definitely lose pencils and rubbers in the lost universe behind your false wall. Keep a tape measure, masking tape and a spirit level close by (or in a tool belt if you're a pro).
  • Fibre Glass Kit - Cover over any pre-existing holes and repair any cracks before you start. Follow the instructions carefully and wear a mask (this stuff is strong!).
  • Cladding and insulation - Thin cladding, pre-made boards or palette wood are the usual choices for cladding the walls of your van. Whatever you choose you'll need a lot of it, along with some softwood pine pieces to make a ribcage and wall in your living area. Then you can decide how you want to insulate your new home.

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  • Batteries - Twelve-volt batteries come in lots of different sizes. Two 100aH batteries will give you ample energy, but you’ll need to do some calculations to see how much electricity you'll be using in your own build. Look at the wattage of the devices you’ll be using and grab those old science books from your loft to work out what size battery you’ll need.
  • Solar panels - Two 100W solar panels will feed your batteries and keep them charged up from the sun.
  • Split charge relay - For when the sun decides to call in sick. This bit of kit charges up your batteries whenever your engine is running, meaning that you can still watch some TV on a cloudy day.
  • Fuse box, fuses, lights and wires - All of your electrical components will lead into a fuse box. Get a large box that has enough fuse holders for all of your appliances. Fuses and lights can be found from your local hardware store, and you should make sure that you get way more wire than you think you'll need.
  • Inverter - Converting 12V to 240V electric, this device means that I can charge my laptop and camera batteries on the go. Bigger items will need a bigger power rating, so have a look at the item description before buying.
  • Fridge - Don't think that you can plug a normal tabletop fridge into your van through your inverter though; it will drain your batteries in the blink of an eye, leaving you with soggy vegetables and warm cheese. Twelve-volt fridges are expensive but totally worth it if you’re going off-grid.
  • Water and gas - Get 25-litre jerry cans that you can use for fresh and wastewater, and a 15kg bottle of gas that will last you a while. Another handy addition is a three burner camping hob and a trusty metal kettle for when you need hot water.

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