Top Tips – DIY Easy Camper Van Build
This is a blog on how to build your own basic campervan. Ideal if you are travelling New Zealand or Australia and have a small van you wish to turn into your mini home-on-wheels! Although this is a really great starting point for any camper van build. We will also be posting a step by step guide on a more complicated camper van build once our current conversion, Bohemia, is complete.
When we arrived in New Zealand, we had no idea that we would end up buying a camper van and renovating it ourselves. As complete novices, we bought a third-generation backpacker van in Auckland with a view to ‘do it up’. Fortunately, we fell on our feet and landed ourselves a job at a holiday park. This meant we would have access to some tools and could empty the van whilst we were living in an on-site cabin.
Before you continue, please note that this is an easy-build guide to a basic non-self-contained camper-van that does not have electricity or running water.
Introducing Patch – our home on wheels:
- Our van was a Mitsubishi L300, made in 1997, diesel engine, over 400,000 kms and his name was ‘Patch’.
- Patch was not self-contained (NSC), although there was the potential size to get certified – we just didn’t see the need!
- It was a two-berth camper with a kitchen area out of the back, we also purchased a gazebo for those really rainy or really sunny days
Over the years, the laws in New Zealand have become more strict. It is now rather difficult to get a van this size certified as self-contained (SC) and there has also been a reduction in the number of freedom campsites for NSC vans.
If you have no idea (just like us) about the difference between SC and NCS, then here is a brief explanation. If you’re already clued up and want to get to the details of how to build a decent camper on a budget, then skip to ‘How Did We Build It?’.
Self-Contained and Non Self-Contained Explained
There is no need to explain what a non self-contained camper van is really – it is basically a van that lacks in all of the regulatory items required to be self-contained. Although our van, and many others, will contain some of the items. If you are travelling to New Zealand for a long period and you want a cheap car or van to explore with, a NSC vehicle will be your cheapest option.
To become self-contained you need to have the following, and then have this certified by the correct authorities to receive your little blue sticker:
- Fresh water tanks: 4 L per person per day (12 L per person minimum); eg. 24 litres is required for 2 people for 3 days & 48 litres is required for 4 people for 3 days;
- A sink: (via a smell trap/water trap connected to a water tight sealed waste water tank;
- Grey/black waste water tank: 4 L per person per day (12 L per person minimum, vented and monitored if capacity is less than the fresh water tank);
- Evacuation hose: (3 m for fitted tanks) or long enough to connect to a sealed portable tank;
- Sealable refuse container (rubbish bin with a lid).
- Toilet (portable or fixed): Minimum capacity 1 L per person per day (3 L net holding tank capacity per person minimum);
How Did We Build Our NSC Van?
We had a minimal budget and had also never done anything like this before. Our van was originally a tradesman vehicle, it was then purchased to be converted into a backpacker van. It was an ‘okay’ build, but we had better ideas, and by the time that we purchased the van it had already been lived in by three other backpackers – so you can imagine that everything was worn and deteriorating.
First things first…
Rip Everything Out
We got straight to it with a drill, taking everything apart and removing from the van – including the old carpet which was pretty grim.
We kept some of the wood that had not been ruined and used it for the new build, and also some of the screws!
Clean and De-Mould
This van needed a bloody good clean when we first bought it!
After ripping out the interior we cleaned the inside until it was gleaming and got rid of the mould that had built up around the windows.
Measure and Design
We didn’t think of any particular design until we had emptied the van, that way we had a better idea of the space we were working with and how best to utilise it.
Steff was the brains behind the design, I just stood there with my measuring tape shouting numbers every now and then. Do bare in mind though, when you are designing a camper van, you need to be flexible because plans can change during your camper van build. Frustration is inevitable in this case!
Our design in a nutshell; we knew that we only had a small space, we knew that we wanted a living sofa space that converted into a bed, and we knew that we needed a kitchen.
This was an easy task because our van was so small. We went to Mitre 10 (a DIY store in New Zealand) and got a basic roll of carpet for $20 NZD. Bargain! We used a Stanley knife and Liquid Nails (industrial super glue) to fit the carpet. Easy peezy lemon squeezy! We chose light grey because of the general decor theme we were going for. BONUS TIP: if the floor of your camper van is corrugated then fit a piece of plywood before laying the carpet. This is something we wish we’d thought of!
Project ‘Get Some Wood‘
This became a daily task for us, we became quite good at it! With our build we were trying to be as cost-effective as possible, therefore we went on the hunt for free wood.
There are two big DIY companies in New Zealand that have stores all over the country – Bunnings and Mitre10. If you go to either, you can ask if they have any ‘off-cuts’ of wood and they will give these to you for free. This is basically wood left over from customers cuts. Our second option was picking up unused wooden pallets from supermarkets, usually found in car parks. But be quick, there’s always someone else that wants them too! We only purchased one piece of wood and that’s because we couldn’t find a free piece big enough for our kitchen backboard. This was only about $35 NZD so didn’t burn a hole in our pocket! We used a bit of plywood and MDF.
Paint was quite expensive, we went with a basic white because it makes everything look clean and fresh! Luckily, we only needed one pot of paint. When we had cut our wood to measurement, we sanded it down until it was smooth and painted it all white. This is a timely process because there was a lot of wood, and you know – paint has to dry first.
BONUS TIP: Get yourself a small tester pot of paint to maintain your build, scuffs and stains are inevitable but can soon be fixed up on the road!
Maximising Storage Potential in your Camper Van Build
The original build of the van had limited storage, so during the design process, it was our priority to ensure that we had ample space to store our belongings.
After all, this is your home on wheels.
- The L-shaped sofa area was storage, all you had to do was lift the wooden lids and access your stuff.
- In the under-bed storage, we had two long boxes that we kept our clothes in.
- When the bed was made up, you had more storage in the space under there which was great for things you want super-easy access to.
- We also built in a boxed section next to the bed to secure our camp chairs, guitar and other bits and bobs.
- Behind the driver and passenger seat, we had four small boxes that stored our toiletries, device chargers, and other miscellaneous stuff.
- We built a shelf on the back of the board used between the bedroom and the kitchen, this served as a stand for our laptop so that we could lay in bed and watch Netflix!
- Our kitchen was designed to also maximise storage, we had two medium size boxes and one large box to store our dry goods and cooking equipment.
Fortunately, a foam mattress already came with the van. We cut a standard size double foam mattress into 3 parts so that it could function as part of the sofa and then also be put together to make a double bed. And bought fabric from ‘Spotlight’ – the most costly part of the entire van project.
We also purchased a hand-held sewing machine for $20 NZD from the same store. Then we wrapped the foam in the fabric, and Steff worked her magic. One tip we would suggest to people that are more advanced with this kind of thing – sow the fabric on to include a zip, so it can be removed for washing purposes.
In addition to the sofa/bed, we also used fabric to furnish the ceiling as before hand this was an old horrible grey vinyl. This helped to keep insulate the van during cold periods and made it look much nicer! We did this by using a drill to remove the three ceiling panels and fitting the fabric tightly before drilling the panels back on.
We also purchased cheap car seat covers for the front as the existing fabric had seen better days!
Privacy Is Everything
Curtains are so important. This is your home, you will be getting undressed in here, sleeping in here, and doing… other things perhaps! Also at campsites there are street lights that shine through your window. And the sun that rises way before you may be ready to wake up! Therefore, we bought black curtains and doubled them over, resulting in the ultimate black-out effect.
We also had tinted windows which is awesome because in the daytime you can have the curtains open for natural light and also maintain privacy.
For the curtains, we visited ‘Spotlight’ again and actually got a cheap deal on some off-cuts of fabric they had. Winning!
Our kitchen was located at the back of the van, and the lid of the boot opened up above your head acting as the roof of the kitchen. This was perfect because we could cook outside in the rain and unless it rained sideways (that’s a thing!), we stayed pretty dry.
The kitchen area served to be our cooking space and our bathroom. Despite not being self-contained we bought several items that served well for us being off the grid in our basic camper van build!
We designed for the kitchen to have several sections, a big food prep space and also cut a hole into this to fit our removable sink. Propped up against the kitchen was also a camp table that could be removed and put out the back of the kitchen – we used this for extra cooking and eating space.
Above the sink, we glued a small mirror, because when you don’t have a mirror and you’re on a constant road trip, you let yourself go!
Alongside the storage boxes, we fitted two basket shelves to the backboard and kept plates, cups and other dry goods in there. We purchased tea/coffee/sugar pots, using two cup hooks and a bit of string we kept these in place by tying a pretty bow. It’s the little things!
External Finishing Touches
Whilst making Patch all-new, shiny and fresh on the inside, we noticed he needed a bit of TLC on the outside too. So we bought black rims/alloys for the tires to cover the old ugly looking ones and also removed the rust from the rain gutter.
Using very very fine sandpaper we removed the rust until it was just smooth steel, then we used ’Rust-Kill’ and painted where the rust was. This is used to treat and prevent. This stuff is naturally brown when it dries so we then spray painted over the top and you would have never know the difference!
Our little home was as good looking on the outside as it was on the inside.
- External Camping Lead – (around $99 NZD from Mitre10) we plugged this into an extension lead when we were at Powered Campsites
- 20L Cool Box – kept cold for 2 days with 4 ice packs
- Camp Stove (One—Hob Burner) – we wish we had a two-hob burner though.
- Electric Frying Pan – if you’re staying at a powered campsite and the facilities are crap, this will serve you wonders, but really not a necessity.
- One large frying pan, two saucepans, two plates, two bowls, two cups, two glasses and two wine glasses. Also numerous cutlery and utensils.
- Tea, coffee, sugar pots
- Camp Stove Kettle
- Chopping Board
- Removable silicone sink
- String lightbulbs and two magnetic LED lights
- 10L Water Tank
- Rubbish bin
- Double bed sized foam mattress
- Memory foam mattress topper (easy roll into a small ball)
- Four pillows and one quilt
- Thick fluffy blanket for the winter
- Hot water bottle
- Fairy lights and various LED lights
- 2 sleeping bags (we only used these for hiking!)
- Storage boxes under sofa/bed
- Picnic Table
- 2 Camp Chairs
- 1 Gazebo
- Extension Lead
- Storage boxes
- Yoga Mat – great idea to stick between the van and the gazebo
- Jump Leads
- First Aid Kit
Before You Buy
If you buy a van you need to ensure that it has a WOF (Warrant of Fitness) and a REGO (car registration). A WOF determines whether the vehicle is road-worthy and a REGO means it is registered to be on the road. And if your vehicle is a diesel, like Patch, make sure the previous owner has paid their RUC (road user charges), as this is road tax for diesel.
It is also possible to pay for a vehicle to be checked by the AA prior to purchase, this will provide a detailed report on any work that needs to be done. It costs $99 NZD but hypothetically speaking if you did not get a pre-check and buy a vehicle without this knowledge, you could end up spending hundreds of dollars on getting it fixed instead.
And one more thing – car insurance is not mandatory in New Zealand, but that doesn’t mean you won’t need it. We only paid $35 NZD per month through AA for fully comprehensive insurance, it will be worth it if you do end up in an accident!
Now you have your DIY easy camper van build – where do you go?
We lived for one year in New Zealand, so if you are about to do the same, here is a list of some of the best places we explored across the North and South Island.
Want help booking a Camp Site? Drop us a message HERE and we’ll happily help!