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Van Life pt.1

How to custom-build your very own European adventure

Story by Tens June 30th, 2015

A brother to one, and close friends to all of us here at Tens - Bri & Lisa are two companions from the Highlands of Scotland. They dreamed of travelling and experiencing their favourite hobbies away from home. Last August they bought a Mercedes commercial van and their camper project was born. They designed and built the camper themselves, enduring most of the fierce Scottish winter outdoors. The van was built to suit their interests in motocross, snowboarding and surfing. They embarked on a do-it-yourself adventure across scenic Europe, and here’s how they begun…

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Built Not Bought

When the opportunity to travel arose, touring around Europe in a camper reached the top of our list.

The ability to pack more personal belongings than the average suitcase holds really appealed to us. Hobbies have always been a big part of our life; travelling by van allows us to bring everything we need to motocross, surf, snowboard, cycle, cook and skateboard. Van life offers the ability to explore numerous locations at your own pace - we love the thought of being able to prolong a stay somewhere we enjoy. Varying the view you wake up to and sleeping off the beaten track adds adventure to travelling.

With around four months to travel and some of the most scenic countries in the world right on our doorstep, exploring Europe was the perfect option for us. Leaving in March, we have enjoyed snow in the alps, hit some spring surf in Portugal and will reach Croatia by midsummer.

“Home is where you park it.” - Foster Huntington
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Why self-build?

Building rather than buying was a very ambitious, but fun decision. It challenged us mentally and physically however the sense of achievement was more than worth it. There were days when the job lists grew longer rather than shorter but the satisfaction of eventually ticking everything off felt bloody good!

We chose a 2008 Mercedes Sprinter 311CDI and have never looked back. Here is why we chose to self-build…

- Bri had motocross bikes on the brain and this vehicle offered the perfect race van conversion.

- We wanted to maximise space for both a decent sized bedroom and kitchen area that suited our needs.

- The possibilities in customising the van were endless.

- We both had time to put into building, so we were saving money in labour!

- Last but not least, this is our first home together and we have loved making it our own, and doing it completely from scratch.

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Checklist

1. Choose a van suited to your needs.

2. Design a layout to maximise your living space and your hobbies - spend plenty of time on Instagram, eBay and Pinterest for van-spiration. Check these for starters: #adventuremobile #vanconversion #homeiswhereyouparkit #diycamper #camperconversion.

3. We highly recommend getting a company to cut the wood kit for your furniture / layout structure - it will save you heaps of time. Be sure to go for a lightweight option for a lighter load.

4. Find a decent garage to work on your van. Make sure you have a heater - and tunes!

5. Have decent company - project days can be long and some jobs require more than one person.

6. Most Importantly - enjoy the van as you build it!

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Where to begin?

Begin with a shell, then gut & clean.

Depending on the condition and/or age, you may need to re-floor the van. We inserted two skylights - one above the kitchen / seating area and one above the bed. Severe Highland weather revealed a few leaks which were easily fixed with sealant and wider screws. Two side windows were also fitted with a little help from our friends.

Always have warmth in mind: insulate, insulate and insulate! We used foil bubble wrap stuck with spray glue on the majority of the inside. On top of the foil we used glass wool and 30mm Kingspan insulation wherever we could fit it. Remaining smaller spaces were packed with glass wool. Plan your plumbing and electrics. Our biggest challenge was considering these factors with every single task - they are all intertwined, so plan ahead, visualise and lay everything out! Cable ties always help to keep things tidy. Lining the van walls with 4mm ply was a great step - our van started to feel like a solid home. We painted the ply grey before insertion. Be careful drilling the screws - note where your cables are!

Voila - you have the first few layers to your shell!

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The Kit

Cutting the wood ourselves would have been too big a task, so we designed our layout and got a company that specialises in motocross race vans to construct our custom interior kit. This saved us a lot of time. We opted for light-weight veneered plywood which was worth the extra cash. T-edging was used with push in latches on the doors. With your walls in you can now start mapping out your layout. Decide where you want lighting and sockets. We got our spotlights on eBay.

We started with the dividing wall, pullout bed, overhead cupboards then the wardrobe. The pull out bed provides storage of the diesel and water heaters. Next was the bed which extends over the back space of the van and was fitted using steel bars.

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The Living Quarters

With the bed frame in place we then fitted the toilet & shower room which slightly steps into the bedding area. There is a small door on the back wall to allow removal of the waste tank of our swivel Thetford toilet. The wet walls came with our wood kit.

Next was the insertion of our cooking unit. This extends over the sliding door area but leaves plenty room for getting in and out. We opted for the Smev unit which offers a sink and two gas burners. The unit has a drawer with storage below and our Waeco fridge fits perfectly. We also have an overhead shelf which could fit a microwave. Across the way we have two cupboard spaces in our three compartment wardrobe.

We extended the kit cutout for the window to give more sunlight and viewing.

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On Deck

Bri planned this one out well, and our second workshop offered the perfect setting for the job.

First on were the cross bars for our compulsory roof platform. Next, two 100w solar panels which we fashioned flexible brackets for.

On went the marine plywood - perfect for sunbathing and stargazing. To finish, we used a sheet of alloy with plastic core at the front to keep things stream-lined.

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The Rear

NEVER overlook the rear. This is the hub of all hobbies so try to maximise storage. Bri managed to get a ladder from one of his old vans powder-coated for the back door. Check the largest item (in our case, the motocross bike) fits after inserting the lights. Pack big to small, re-arrange if needed.

We cleaned out some old stacking crates to use for storage. The rear section is also used to store the gas. Bri fitted a tight seal cupboard to store the canisters and solved the gas route puzzle beneath the van. Hats off to him! He also discovered hidden blocked drains down there which drained around 5 litres!

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The Technical Bit

Electrical: 2x leisure batteries (stored under passenger seats), fuse holder, split charging kit for the different batteries, DC / AC inverter, 240v campsite hook-up, ‘connect and forget’ battery charger, 4x 240v stainless steel mains sockets with matching 3-way light switches, LED spots in living area, LED lights in garage and 2x spotlights pointing out the rear doors, 200W solar charging with 20a controller, 12v fridge and night heater.

Plumbing: Semi-rigid pipe used with push on fittings, Shurflo water pump, Truma Ultrastore 10L gas / electric water heater, shower kit, sink unit, 2x 25L water tanks, Wastemaster grey water tank.

Gas: 2x Calor propane bottles, sealed gas cabinet with gas dropout vent, bulkhead-mounted pressure regulator, 8mm copper gas pipe feeding hob and water heater.

Misc: Front bull bar with spots and LED lights, rear spoiler bar with LED lights, towbar, side windows, aluminium roof bars with marine ply platform, textured powder coated rear door ladder, wet room flooring in garage and toilet, lino in living area, bonnet wrap, carbon monoxide / smoke alarm, Blaupunkt stereo unit with standard front speakers and JBL speakers above the front seats.

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Finishing Touches

So far the project has been fairly Bri-heavy - time for Lisa to get to work! We ordered our cut-to-size mattress and seating from an online foam shop. As recommended, to reduce condensation we purchased a dry mesh layer from marinebedding.co.uk. With a little help from Cath Kidston the foam was dressed with wadding fabric from Dunelm Mill using Lisa’s wee beast of a sewing machine from John Lewis. Velcro covers were also sewn for the pullout bed foam.

To line the gap between the window and ply above the sofa we used foam and grey felt. Velcro curtains were made from discounted fabric for the sliding door window and we bought a blind for the seat window.

We put in some hooks for the shower curtain and Bri put up a pole in the wardrobe for hanging clothes. We used left over silver bubble wrap from the insulation to make sun deflectors for the front windows!

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The Final Product

Bri’s Dad, Charlie made us a wooden ladder for the bed, painted grey. We took a thick duvet to keep us warm in lower temperatures which doubles as an under-layer in hot weather. Duvet cover set from Urban Outfitters and bright seat cushions added some colour to the grey interior. We bought a shower curtain from amazon to cover the bulkhead which is very easy to clean - velcro was stitched on to hold it in place.

Ikea boxes fitted perfectly into the overhead lockers and we managed to take a good amount of kitchen good and utensils. We fitted a bonnet ‘bra’ to cover a previous design on the front of the van.

The rear section of the van contains: our gas; 2 x 25 litre water containers; one crate filled with all of our snowboarding gear; one crate filled with wetsuits, snorkels and swim stuff; one crate with cooking pots and other kitchen items; a 3m x 3m pop-up gazebo; a toolbox; 2 snowboards; a 7ft foam surfboard; 2 road bikes; 2 skateboards; a Kawasaki KX250f and motocross kit; a full width shelf offers good storage.

We had plenty to keep us occupied for our trip to come!

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Stay tuned for part 2 as we follow Bri & Lisa on the road…

You can discover more about Bri & Lisa’s story on their Exposure page here, their Instagram account @van.life - or if you have any further questions feel free to email them at hey@vanlife.co!

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