There are many things to take into consideration before you choose your van for life. From height, weight and the number of potential users to roadworthy legalities that will vary from state to state and country to country, like seat belt points and passenger numbers. It can seem like a minefield of options when you first set out to buy a campervan but making a list of essentials in your tiny home (aka ‘ needs’) and a separate list of desires, or what you would love to have but can live without (aka your ‘wants’) can help you narrow down the choices. Through the process of elimination, you can search for and target the right kind of van first time and this will save you lots of time communicating with sellers or endless tyre-kicking in car lots. Read through the considerations and ask yourself how each point relates to you to determine what van will work best in your situation. Equip yourself for a successful start to your new nomadic lifestyle by covering all your needs and get working on those wants!
What Size Van?
One of the most important questions when you are buying a van to live in is what size the vehicle should be. What class and engine size van are you legally allowed to drive on your current driver’s license? What size van do you feel most comfortable driving? Where do you plan on parking your rig, what kind of places will you be stopping over night?
If you have bought a shell or a vehicle that requires a lot of work, do you have the space required to build or refit the van comfortably beside your house? Will you require paid-for storage for the van if not used all year round? When parking your van, will it overhang onto the pavement, will it get you down those rural laneways to the most deserted spots, will you be comfortable and safe driving from one scenic stop off to another?
In some countries, vans will only be registered to campervans by the relevant authorities if they meet certain specific criteria. These essentials can include the length of the bed and existence of a fixed cooker and can also detail the number of windows, doors and vents that are necessary. In some instances, insurance companies require clear access through the driver’s cabin and out the back door before a van will be changed to a legal campervan on the books. The advantages of having your paperwork in order in your van include cheaper road tax and better insurance offering which suits your needs.
Stealth parking is a huge consideration. Do you plan on staying overnight regularly in town or cities, or built up suburban areas? Do you prefer your van to appear stealthy, like a normal commercial van, do you plan on blending in with the other merchant vans on a crowded building site? Do you want your van to scream ‘CAMPERVAN!’? Do you mind if strangers know you live in there, are you planning on staying mostly on campgrounds anyway?
What Height Van?
Van life is so much easier and simpler if you have enough room in your rig to stand up straight. Of course, this is a very personal thing, depending entirely on how tall you happen to be! Standing up to shower, to cook, bake and wash and to organise your things is invaluable. If inclement weather is likely keep you indoors for long periods of time, being able to stretch out and walk around is a huge bonus. Otherwise, it can be a miserable experience, waiting out the winter weather in a little tin can. Taller vans are more useable for longer terms and more comfortable for short trips and the extra height can make your space feel more like a tiny home.
Taller vans will give you much more freedom inside but most likely won’t fit through the gates of a drive-thru and thanks to locked height barriers, they may be excluded from certain car parks and parking spots. Some van dwellers don’t mind living in a shorter vehicle. They tend to agree that they spend little time in there anyway! It is a case of what works for one person might not necessarily work for another so put some thought into the kind of van life you will be living and plan for your van accordingly. Be brutally realistic with yourself if this van is to be your full-time abode. You wouldn’t buy a house you couldn’t stand up in, would you?
What Number of People?
How many people are planning on living or travelling in your rig at once? If you are a solo traveller, van life can be organised a lot quicker and easier. Two travellers will require twice the storage space, for clothes and kit and other essentials like food and water. Travelling as a family can require a lot more thought and design as everyone will need their own bed at least, and some areas (like the dining table) may need to be permeant which will drastically affect your layout. You will need to plan lots of storage for incidental items like coats and shoes that will inevitably clutter the living space and can trip you up!
Legally, depending on your state or country, passengers should be belted in into carefully installed and crash-tested seats only. It is nice if your passengers are comfortable but much more important that they are safe so check out the laws pertaining to your country and design your rig with potential passengers in mind. Swivel seats are great for functionality and can turn the cab area into the dining room while protecting your friends and family on the road. Extra belted seating which turn into the bed (such as Rock n Roll style setups) are another great trick to have the best of both worlds of comfort and safety. A solo traveller won’t need to worry about carrying passengers and some van dwellers remove the front passenger seat for extra storage on the road.
What Length of Trip?
Ask yourself a few questions about your van plans. How long will your campervan trips realistically last? Setting up a van for a road trip or weeklong getaway is a lot simpler than building a rig worthy of living in full time. Comfort takes a back seat (literally) during road trips and ‘roughing it’ on a blow-up mattress often will suffice short term. There are only a couple of things you will need to organise before you take a short trip in your van, especially if you have a place to empty waste and refill water waiting at the end, and the worries are fewer with a basic build. Water can be toted in containers rather than fixed tanks and the storage space required will be minimal. The rest you can figure out en route.
If you are planning on living in there for a longer period, your van should be a warm, inviting and converted into a fully functional tiny home. There are 6 essential things to take care of before you set out on your van life journey; a decent bed, a way to cook, ample fresh water storage, electricity, a toilet solution and temperature control, in the form of insulation, ventilation and heating if applicable in your climate. A week across country in the summer will need little prep, a month in December in snow and ice a significant amount more.
What Kind of Travel?
What kind of places do you envisage visiting when you are on the road? If you will be hopping from campground to campground, spending a lot of time on registered sites with all the facilities you need, your van layout could be a very basic one. With water, a waste point for your toilet and trash collection provided by the site, you will not need much else to be comfortable and have fun.
Living fulltime in your rig, maybe you have employment and you may stay predominantly in one area. Perhaps you have access to a daily shower in the gym or workplace and won’t need a separate shower cubicle taking up space. If you live in your van and don’t travel much, a basic layout which takes care of the essentials like bed, fresh water and a toilet solution for emergencies might be enough.
If you are working towards a completely off grid experience in the wilderness, miles from the nearest outpost and aim to be self-sufficient for weeks at a time, your rig will require a little more of everything: water and waste water storage, solar panels for electricity generation and battery storage and refrigeration for a good stash of food. More space inside is a bonus but can cut down the number of places you can park and reduces the number of places your rig will be welcome. A different base van will work for different people, depending on their own particular style of travel.
What About Pets or Children?
Building a van for extended trips with children and pets will need more thought as both require plenty of room to roam within the van, will take up more storage space and obviously both need a place to sleep. There are some great programs online which will guide you through van build designs and help you plan your layout, especially if you have to incorporate many beds and pet areas. Providing privacy for older children is very important to ensure they have room to grow and to help them have a positive and successful van life!
Pets are a little easier but still need planning for. If your dog or cat doesn’t like to sleep on your bed, where will it sleep? An underbed garage can be converted into a kennel if the dog is small enough to fit and there is light, space and fresh air. Maybe your dog is to big for a kennel and needs more room than most, or maybe your cat is low maintainable and requires nothing more than rubs. Maybe you travel with a more unusual pet like a snake, spider or parrot, all of which have their specific needs to consider. We have met van dwellers online who travel with menageries of pets, chickens, fishbowl aquariums full of Tetras, rabbits, parrots, piglets and even once a nomadic rooster!
Whatever pet you take along on your van life journey, be sure to plan out enough space for sleeping, a large tote for food, toys and accessories, and a reliable spot to keep food and water bowls (ideally on a nonslip surface) readily accessible for your furry or feathery buddy to help them settle in well to the nomadic lifestyle and to live comfortably in your van. Of pets and children, if they are happy, warm and satisfied, you will be too!
What About Beds?
It is important to get bed right in your rig to ensure you have a great start to every day of your van life. Consider what kind of bed suits you most before you start your build. Do you prefer to have a permeant bed, made up and ready to climb into at a moment’s notice? This will mean either starting with a longer base vehicle or giving up some space in your living area. Some inspiring van designs include a fixed bed built higher up to provide underbed storage. This will affect the height available in the bed so consider if you like to sit up in bed or take part in any bed-related shenanigans that will be impacted by having the roof so close to your head. If you travel as a couple and one of you will be sleeping by the back doors, consider how much room they will need to be able to climb over you to get out; to get to the toilet in a hurry or to arise, switch on the heater and make you your favourite breakfast in bed.
Do you mind making the bed up every night, turning the seating area into the sleeping area by rearranging the hardware, unscrewing the telescopic table leg and fitting together the bench cushions before dressing it up in fitted sheets? Both options come with pros and cons. Making the bed up in such a small space can feel like a frustrating, no fun game of foam Tetris at times, and hiding a duvet during the day when the bed is tucked away in couch mode is no mean feat either. Conversely, having your bed made up all the time means sacrificing the otherwise useful living space in your rig permanently. What type of bed you choose is in many ways a personal thing, so be realistic about your sleeping habits and design accordingly.
What About Storage?
If you plan on hauling bikes, kayaks or other sports equipment on your trip, you may need to include a garage in your build. Plenty of different van designs will give you space, mostly under the bed, to tote large items or large volumes of anything you might need. A garage space is great to hide the barbecue, fuel and other seldom used items out of the way of everyday life but if you travel light and pack minimally, you may not require one.
Garages are also helpful places to keep extra water supplies, battery banks and general storage. Some designs include the toilet in the garage, some opt to keep the fridge and others have dog beds/cages built in there. Some people minimise their belongings a considerable amount and require very little storage space for their stuff in the end. A solo traveller with no pets will most likely not need as much storage as a family when living and travelling in a van so each situation is very different.
What About Windows?
How many windows does a van need? Windows obviously work to provide natural light in your tiny home during the day, but glass gets very cold, especially at night, and can cause condensation which if left unchecked may lead to bigger problems in the end. Provided the number isn’t set in stone by laws or regulations you can add as many windows into your build as you like. As van interiors tend to be darker places, aim to keep all existing windows in any vehicle you buy, including the back doors, to save money lighting the space during the day. Consider the need to insulate the windows at night when temperatures drop as glass will facilitate a huge loss of heat in your home.
If you are looking at a skoolie or minibus base vehicle, there may be too many windows, and to avoid condensation, some may need to be covered up or replaced. This is another extra cost to be considered when buying. Having many windows in your rig has pros and cons. One better placed pane beats two awkwardly situated windows, lighting nothing and sucking the heat from the van at night!
What About Doors?
Your tiny home on wheels, whether you live in it fulltime or take weekend trips, should have a defined escape route that is clear of any insurmountable obstacles, every time. The last thing you need in an emergency is to have to scramble to get out and to safety, so this is rightly a big concern when buying a van.
Van doors are great to keep the interior aired out and fresh, but excess doors can impede your build design if you try to keep them all clear and usable. Different vans have different door layouts too, from big back doors to sliding and those cool barn doors you see on Instagram. Based on your needs, ask yourself do you need more than two ways in and out? Is your layout functional, reliable and safe? If you carry equipment like bikes or boards, will it be seamless and safe to unpack and repack without unpacking everything else you own? Doors are heat loss hotspots due to breezes coming from the seals. What kind of weather will your van travel in most, and will it be easy to insulate these hot spots?
What About Weight?
The weight of any vehicle is another legal issue. Your van could be deemed unroadworthy and seized and you could be fined if the vehicle and its contents weight exceeds the vehicle plate weight- the weight the manufacturer has declared as the heaviest it can be. Some van builds can become overweight easily if the builder has not taken into account the eventuality of the journey, the weight of water, the number of passengers, the level of kit, equipment and supplies that will be carried. Water is heavier than you’d think, wood panelling used in interior builds can be big and bulky and weigh more than it might appear. Kids, dogs and a weeks’ worth of food and drinks for the family can really add to your overall weight so be careful to figure these things into your plan!
In order to drive a heavier vehicle, you may need to get another license so check out the particulars of your situation before you commit to a style. Interior modifications are relatively easy to refit to suit yourself so be sure you get the exterior right and start with the best base vehicle that fits for you and your style of travel.
So What Next?
After reading all about campervan layouts, the pros and cons of the different styles, the options of an underbed garage area for added storage, thoughts about windows and doors for added light and ventilation, the safety concerns and legalities and the essential considerations like height, weight and potential passenger numbers, are you closer to deciding which van suits you most? Have you eliminated some styles of van from your search, or put extra thought into which model to choose based on where exactly you plan on taking your tiny home to? Whatever you need, there is a size and style of van to suit your lifestyle. Your next step is to buy it! Straighten out your priorities, narrow down your search significantly and make purchasing your vehicle so much easier so you can get ready to start on your new nomadic van life in your perfect rig!
To make this process even easier we created a checklist that contains everything you need to consider. Download it for FREE by clicking HERE