VanLife Design Considerations Before Building Your Van – Part One

I recently wrote about the things I would change if I could travel back in time and rebuild my van (click here to read). Admittedly, that list was pretty short, only 2 items if you disregard the “whole spending an extra $5k on a different van altogether” part. I really don’t think that should come as a surprise if you take the time to think things through and do your research BEFORE you actually build out your van.

If you follow the steps in this two-part series, the probability of buyer’s remorse decreases drastically.

1. Prioritize your VanLife



Why have you decided to live in a van? What will your life look like once you do?

Some people live in a van to save money on rent but otherwise, live a “normal” life. In which case, traditional comforts such as a sink, toilet, closet space, and TVs are important. Some people live in a van and check out of real life. They don’t need or don’t want a lot of comforts inside their vans if they can create outdoor spaces too. i.e. Cooking, eating, cleaning, and going to the bathroom elsewhere. Ultimately, maximizing storage space and building relatively cheap for financial reasons.

And then there’s the group we’ve all come to know and love: the new generation of dirtbags. We’re the hybrid of living and working from our vans, but still traveling to off-grid, amazing natural environments for activities and adventures. This is where prioritizing the things that are important to YOU is…important.

Do you need more storage space or more kitchen space? Do you want a composting toilet inside, or can you plan your bowel movements accordingly? How much do you plan on working, and how much time do you plan to spend inside your van? These are questions specifically for you. No one else can, or should, answer them for you. After all, you’re the one living in the van with the decisions you’ve made.

2. Bed configuration


Now, immediately after I got done telling you that you need to prioritize your own VanLife, I’m going to tell you how I prioritized mine. It started with the bed. For me, I absolutely could not live in a van full time if I had to go to sleep every night knowing I wasn’t going to be comfortable and get a good night’s rest.

How do you sleep at night?

The first, most basic questions you need to ask yourself are,

  • How tall am I?
  • Do I need to be able to sleep completely stretched out, or am I legitimately, 100% ok with sleeping curled up every night?

Ultimately, I think the most efficient and flexible designs are the ones with the beds that can go across the back of the van. If you’re short enough to fully stretch out that way, OR don’t mind sleeping diagonally or with a slight curl, you’ve hit the jackpot. However, if you’re like me and need to fully stretch out, that configuration won’t work. You’ll need to put your bed along the wall, parallel to the van.

How much bed space do you need?

How big does your bed need to be? Are you planning to be alone 100% of the time, do you have a significant other, do you plan on attracting a significant other and trick them into the van?

If you’re absolutely certain there will never be another person sharing van space with you, obviously building it just to fit you is the most space-saving design. If you already have another person sharing the bed with you, then you need to decide how much space you’re willing to give up just for a bed. And if you’re like me, you want the best of both worlds.

I built a bed that is expandable. When I’m alone, it only takes up the space needed for me to fit on it. If I have a guest, I can pull it out and comfortably sleep two on the bed. (And if I’m really packing humans in there, a 3rd can sleep under the pulled out section, and a 4th could sleep curled up in the main entry way. True story.)


3. Storage Space vs. Living Space

If all you’re doing is living and working out of your van, then the priority should be living space. If you’re a complete dirtbag or hybrid dirtbag, then you need to prioritize storage space or come to some compromise between the two.

Storage Space


The most common and easiest place to get free storage is under the bed, unless you have a murphy bed. If that’s not the case, the storage can be in one big box or split up into separate compartments. The permanent, stationary part of my bed is L-shaped so I have two compartments: a lift-top over the long side of the L, and a pull-out drawer rated to 500lb. along the short side.

I also added kitchen cabinets, drawers, a closet, and built a completely separate box between the driver and passenger seats. If you have a Sprinter or other high-top van, you  could also do overhead cabinets.

Living Space


As I just alluded to, the living space can include the kitchen area, desk space, a toilet, and the components that make those things up such as water tanks, coolers, refrigerators, pots and pans, so on and so forth.

In terms of living space, I prioritized the kitchen and kitchen storage above the other things listed. Right after being comfortable while sleeping and having enough space to at least store my essential outdoor gear, I wanted to have a nice kitchen. That meant a 2-burner stove, a variety of pots and pans, cooking and eating utensils, a place for a 5 gallon water jug, and room for food (refrigerator and “pantry”).

After that, a place I could sit comfortably and work from my computer. And finally, a place for dirty and clean clothes. Any leftover space or empty compartments then just turned into additional gear storage.

4. Real Estate, Real Estate, Real Estate


What I mean by this is space, space, space. How much physical space do you actually have in your van?

Up to this point, it’s all just been theoretical planning and prioritization. At some point, you have to see if you actually have enough space to do everything you want. Yeah, I’d love to have a lot more comfort items in my van, but the reality is that there is a lot of compromise based on my priorities and physical limitations.

I’m a very visual person so just knowing that my van is 15′ long by 69″ wide doesn’t do anything for me when it comes to imagining how things will fit. I needed a real-world (and/or scaled) representation of how it would all come together.

Go out and measure the inside of your van

At the most basic level: length, width, and height.

To be more accurate and precise, measure the distance from the back door to the wheel well. From the back of the seats to the wheel well. The width from wall-to-wall. The width between wheel-wells. The height of the wheel-wells. The width of the walls as they begin to taper at the ceiling. Really, measure everything you can think of and make a sketch with all these dimensions. It doesn’t have to be fancy (for now).

Draw it like one of your French girls

(That’s an unnecessary Titanic reference.)

Once you’ve measured everything, get some engineering paper (graph paper/paper with squares) and start drawing everything out to scale. For example, 1 square equals 1 inch or 1 square equals 6 inches, however, detailed you need to be. Then start drawing in your furniture with your proposed dimensions, or use the “empty” outline to help determine how big things can be. Also, try to consider construction limits. That is, my barebones van was 69″ wide, but to build out the walls, I knew they would shrink by 3″ on both sides; effectively making it 63″ wide (which is why I couldn’t have my bed across the back).

Go outside and tape things off

If you trust your drawing skills or trust your ability to visualize everything in your brain, you can skip this part. But if you need an extra layer of reassurance and want to make sure you get everything done correctly on the first try, I highly recommend taping off your proposed layout to make sure it will truly work in the real world.

Use masking tape to first tape off where the new constructed walls will be. Then continue taping everything else off as you have it designed on the drawing. In theory, everything should match perfectly. In practice, we sometimes get the initial dimensions wrong, or we don’t account for this curve or that door when it’s closed vs. open.

You will quickly and easily see if something isn’t going to work. Or, perhaps you were planning to have a 10″ gap but in reality, it’s only 6″. Is that ok or does something need to change? Don’t forget to place things vertically as well. How tall do you plan to have the bed? Can you actually sit up? Is there enough head space? Is your closet tall enough for the clothes hanging inside?

Drawings and visualizing are great, but it’s hard to replace seeing the locations and outlines in the actual van.

To be continued…

In the next part, I’ll cover materials, electricity, the things you put inside your van, and how to ease yourself into it. Stay tuned!

About the Author


David Sandel