VanLife Design Considerations Before Building Your Van – Part Two

In the first part of this series, I wrote the 4 core steps in planning your van design. First, you have to prioritize how you plan to live your VanLife. Next is deciding the things you can and cannot live without, such as sleeping, cooking, cleaning, and storage. And finally, figuring out how all of these things are going to come together and fit inside your van.

In this part, I’m going to cover the building materials, how to decide what you want vs. need in the van, electricity, and getting started. Vamos!

5. Building Materials


Up to this point, I haven’t mentioned the building materials. Mostly because they don’t really matter when constructing the layout and utilizing the physical space. But what is important is making sure the materials perform correctly for their intended use. That is, is the wall material flexible enough to follow the curve of the van? Do you really need the strength of a 2×4 or is that too bulky and you could downsize to 2×2 or 1×4? I’ve even seen some people go above and beyond and build / weld things out of metal (which definitely has the best strength-to-space ratio, but is also the most expensive and permanent).

I believe to have some level of comfort, every VanLife’r should insulate their vans. I went through every painstaking detail of how I insulated my van, and then posted here about how I would change it. Figure out what’s best for you and your budget.

How many things do you need to build from scratch vs. buying something already made? You could certainly spend the time building a custom kitchen, and many VanLife’rs do; however, I found factory reject or surplus cabinets, drawers, and a countertop for a total of $60. The countertop was already perfect in every dimension (got lucky) and all we needed to do with the cabinets and drawers was cut the backs down to fit the curve of the wall and meet our overall width dimension. All in all, it saved us 3 or 4 days of custom building and only cost $60. Even custom building would have cost nearly that much in material. And even cheaper and faster yet, what things can you buy at a secondhand confinement store or even plastic storage containers from Walmart (but for the sake of the planet, check the secondhand stores for plastic goods too).


6. Electricity


There are some people that get away without a separate electrical system for the living portion of the van (from now on, I’ll call it the house system or house battery). These are usually the real dirtbags that have no intention of working from their van and can wire up a few LED lights to the van battery as well as charge their phones from there too. But beyond those two minimal electronics, most people will choose to add a separate house battery or electrical system.

How much electricity do you need?

If you’re living and working full-time, you’ll need more electricity than people that aren’t. Even if you’re a part-time dirtbagger and part-time professional, you’ll still have higher needs. The typical loads are:

  • Cell phone chargers
  • Laptops
  • Lights
  • Coolers or Refrigerators
  • External hard drives
  • Blenders, toasters, or other kitchen appliances
  • Water heaters or small pumps (for sinks)

What you put into your van will determine how big your system needs to be. I’ve written an electrical design guide on my site to help you through this somewhat complicated process.

Sources of electricity

The most common electrical design is to have all your electronics somehow connected to your house battery(s), either directly or through an inverter. Then, as the battery begins to drain, the source(s) recharge the battery. To recharge the battery, you can use

  • The van’s alternator
  • Solar
  • Plug into an electrical outlet at someone’s house or RV park (this is called shore power)
  • Some combination or all 3

To charge through the van’s alternator, you need a solenoid or battery isolator. Solar requires a solar charge controller. And in order to plug into shore power, you’ll need an AC-to-DC converter.

I have designed my system to use all 3 and in fact, I can also power all of my loads directly from the source or just from the batteries. I don’t have enough room here to go into every detail so please check out the design guide, or download my schematics and layout here.

7. Items in Your Van

Everything in your van takes up space. If you haven’t guessed by now, space is at a premium and everything must have purpose.

I have a lot of backpacking items that I use everyday simply because they’re smaller and take up less space. I only have the pots and pans I realistically need and can nest together for compact storage. Almost everything can be used for more than one purpose; there’s very few 1-use, specialty items. Of the specialty items I do have, their value greatly, greatly increases the convenience and/or comfort of my VanLife.

When buying or planning your items, you have to be brutally honest with yourself if they are really, truly a necessity or just something nice to have. If it’s just something nice to have, does its value far far far surpass the space or dollar amount it costs?

8. Ain’t Nothing to It but to do It

“That’s it.” Nothing to it. Am I right?

I don’t think anyone would blame you for being cautious so even if you follow all these steps, plan as best as possible, outline everything with masking tape, and still don’t have the confidence to go out and spend $3k on material all at once, you can always take it one step at a time. Start with the easiest component, like a storage box, and gain some confidence in your planning and construction skills. If that goes well, try the bed (if it’s a simple design) or the cabinets. Either way, ease into it and learn as you go. Trust me, even the best builder in the world is going to make mistakes on the first try. I know we did. About a bajillion times.


About the Author


David Sandel