mustard’s guide to campervan conversions
How to convert a van into a campervan
With international holidays back on the cards, campervan holidays are looking very attractive. Here’s the Mustard.co.uk guide to campervan conversions
Planning a holiday this year? More and more people are ditching expensive hotels and flimsy tents in favour of a very particular type of break – a campervan holiday. It’s easy to see the appeal, as these homes-away-from-home can be everything from adventurous to luxurious, from cheap and cheerful to really premium indeed.
Many people even opt for a DIY camper, converting a panel van from the ground upwards in a bid to save some cash compared to buying a premade one.
But there are lots of things to consider before attempting a campervan conversion. Here’s our guide.
Is it legal to convert a van into a campervan?
Yes, it is – but that’s only the short answer.
As long as you don’t perform any major structural modifications to a van’s chassis or engine, you can do just about anything to it – including turning it into a campervan.
However, if you want to re-register your vehicle as a campervan with the DVLA, you’ll need the conversion to meet a strict set of guidelines, aimed at making sure your vehicle resembles the description of a campervan – that’s so police or other enforcement agencies can identify it in traffic.
The full list of requirements are available on the DVLA website, and include things like requiring seats and a table, a bed fixed to the wall or floor, at least a single-ring hob to cook on, and some form of storage cupboard. Externally, the camper needs items such as windows, a habitation door and motorhome-style graphics.
It’s a rather ambiguous list, and even if you’re undergoing a DIY conversion we’d suggest getting some help from a specialist.
The benefits of changing your vehicle classification from a van to a campervan are that you may be able to secure lower insurance premiums, cheaper ferry or toll road prices and higher speed limits on UK roads.
What’s the best van for a camper conversion?
It’s possible to use anything from an MPV to an old ambulance for your campervan conversion, but for the inexperienced we’d recommend starting with an easier base vehicle. A medium panel van, such as a Volkswagen Transporter or Ford Transit Custom makes a great small camper for weekend getaways, while a larger van such as a Fiat Ducato or Mercedes-Benz Sprinter makes a fantastic vehicle for families or longer holidays.
Take any potential van for a test-drive, making sure you’re comfortable with the driving position and all the controls. You might want to consider a smaller van if you’re not familiar with driving larger vehicles, or opting for an automatic gearbox.
Should I buy a new or used van for a camper conversion?
There are advantages and disadvantages to both. A new van will give you greater choice, and the peace of mind that you’re not inheriting any mechanical maladies as a consequence of poor maintenance. You’ll also get a more modern vehicle, with a more efficient engine that conforms to more up-to-date emissions regulations.
But a used vehicle provides a very useful cost-saving, and their lower-tech engines are often better-suited to the months of sitting idle that a motorhome does by necessity.
For your first conversion, we’d recommend going for a used van – but buy carefully, making sure to get something that’s been well-maintained.
How much does a camper conversion cost?
That depends on how big of a transformation you’re after. Simply adding a basic bed and seating area into a van can be done for very little, but a more bespoke conversion will cost more.
DIY conversions can cost as little as £500 if you do most of the work yourself, though unless you’re a skilled mechanic we’d recommend factoring in at least a few thousand to get the job done properly.
Electrical, plumbing and gas installations should be checked by a professional if not fitted by one, and it’s well worth spending extra for higher-quality materials – they’ll last longer and will make life inside more comfortable.
A professional conversion company will naturally charge more, and you could be looking at upwards of £10,000 – still a fraction of the price of a brand-new vehicle from a dealer, however.
What should I consider when converting?
Travel seats vs berths
A travel seat is any one with a seatbelt. It’s well worth getting these fitted professionally – too many campervans have flimsy seats with loose cushions and insufficient seatbelts, and they risk tragedy in the event of a crash.
A berth refers to a sleeping area. The relationship between these is simple – there’s not much point making room for loads of people to sleep if your campervan can only transport two people.
Think carefully about how you want your furniture laid out – consider how you move around the vehicle, and which functions you’re likely to use the most. This could mean trading a smaller kitchen for a fixed bed, for example, or positioning the lounge where you can really comfortably stretch out.
You could visit a motorhome dealer to get a look at many different layouts all at once, and you can see which works best for you.
It’s not just the inside of the van that can be a living space – clever equipment on the outside can really improve your holiday experience. A great addition is that of a wind-out awning, providing shelter from the elements for al fresco living or dining.
You might want to consider a high-top roof, which will provide standing room in a small van or a greater feeling of space – and additional storage – in a larger model.
Active families will benefit from a bike rack on the rear, while a wind-up satellite dish and solar panel on the roof are fine supplements.
Think carefully about how you cook and eat when you’re on holiday. Some families can get away with just a single gas burner – just enough to boil a kettle or possibly fry up a bacon sandwich. On the other hand, many will want nearly full-sized amenities – four burners, an oven and separate grille are common on larger vans, particularly British models built to cope with our famous drizzle.
The washroom is another place where you can make or break your holiday experience. If you plan to stay on serviced campsites, you may wish to tone down the in-van ablutions or even remove them altogether for greater space. If, however, you enjoy wild camping or rallying, you’ll want a washroom where you can comfortably shower and sit on the loo.
If your van is a second-hand working vehicle, then the chances are it will have been a low-spec model, without many of the amenities you’re used to in your car. A quick and easy upgrade is a new stereo – touchscreen-equipped units with smartphone connectivity can be purchased for just a few hundred pounds and make a big difference to life on the road.
Where possible we’d choose a van with in-cab air-conditioning, making holidays abroad in hotter climes more pleasant. Other niceties to look out for are electric mirrors and a reversing camera to make manoeuvring easier.
Absolutely essential in a campervan – make sure you provide plenty of storage near the areas where you’ll be using it. You’ll want a wardrobe, for example, and if your van doesn’t have a fixed bed it’s best to provide a spacious place to keep all of your bedlinen.
Kitchen storage should be plentiful, with accommodations made to keep everything safe on the move. Plate and cup racks are a given, and don’t forget the cutlery drawer.
Also consider your outdoor furniture – somewhere neat to store camping chairs and a table will make your holiday just that bit more fun.
Do I need a special licence to drive a campervan?
That depends how big it is. If you passed your driving test before 1997, you’re authorised to drive vehicles up to 7.5 tonnes in total weight – known as Maximum Authorised Mass, or MAM.
If you passed your driving test after 1997, however, you’re only authorised to drive up to 3.5 tonnes MAM without taking a separate test to get the C1 classification on your licence. [https://www.gov.uk/driving-licence-categories]
Most campervans up to a large panel van size are well under 3.5 tonnes, though, so it’s not likely to be a problem until you graduate to larger, heavier models.
Do I need Campervan insurance?
Of course, once you’ve followed all this guidance, you’ll need campervan insurance to keep your pride and joy safe on the roads. Remember, this ought to cover not just the cost of the van, but its contents – and if you’re planning on venturing out of the UK you’ll need appropriate coverage for European driving, too.
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