Van life for beginners

Disclosure

Before heading for van life, I must share my opinion about it after owning a van for one year.

In short: the van owns you more than you own it.

Owning such vehicle means spending a lot of money, time and energy.

Police, insurances, mechanics/maintenance, garage, breakdowns, parking fines, accidents, speeding tickets, potential thieves and the likes will keep you busy and worried!

Make sure you are ready for the ride. Renting might be a better idea.

Note: many websites/apps allow you to rent vans from other private individuals, Drivy for instance


Van life steps

Here a summary of what starting up your van life could look like. It has an estimated total cost of 6’000€.

Note: the estimated costs assume you do everything yourself.

  1. Buy a VW T4 that’s around 10 years old with 150’000km4’000€
  2. Paperwork (tax & insurances) – 1’000€ max for a whole year
  3. Sell the seats you don’t need + 150-200€ per seat
  4. Safety gear such as a steering wheel lock & hidden kill switch50-100€
  5. Build bed that can store stuff underneath – 200-400€
  6. 12V fridge, 12V LED lights, stove, 10L water containers & more – 200-400€

What to inspect when buying a van?

Get the state of the vehicle double checked by a workshop: organisations such as your breakdown insurance usually provide this service at a reduced cost (sometimes even free).

For instance in Germany you want to contact ADAC and in Switzerland you want to contact TCS, do your research online (googling and asking on forums) and offline (ask friends and family).

Getting “a friend who knows” to check a vehicle you want to buy is rather reckless. What if your friend made a mistake? Is your friend a mechanic anyway?

You want to check:

  • mechanical state
  • floor
  • rust (on the vehicle body and also underneath)
  • insulation quality if any
  • doors close and lock properly (sliding door, back doors & front doors)

Find a van that has good mechanics, no rust (or very little), a floor in a good state, and a good insulation. You will then save yourself a LOT of time and money. You will be able to focus on converting it right away.

If the next mandatory yearly mechanical test – called “TÜV”, “MOT”, “contrôle technique” depending on which country you are in – is in less than a year. You want to double check it would pass that test: some garage provide pre-tests.


Safety first: Anti-theft gear

Vans often get stolen. And you probably don’t want to get through this experience. Take care of this asap. Neglect this and it could be the end of the adventure.

Theft will look for the easiest target: think of thieves having the choice between 10 vans, they will “attack” the one the least protected. Having these protections makes your van much less likely to be stolen.

My top recommendations

  1. buy a steering wheel lock
  2. install a hidden kill switch

Other safety accessories

  • GPS tracker – pretty awesome, but requires the device to be always plugged in & a sim card working in each country where you drive
  • Wheel lock clamp: very inconvenient to setup, especially when the weather is bad

Safety first: Breakdown insurance

Engine smoking on the highway? Lost or forgot your keys? Flat battery? This insurance will solve your problem, avoid any drama and crazy expensive bill.

It usually costs less than 100 euros per year, so I highly recommend signing up for a breakdown insurance.

ADAC is a German breakdown insurance that anyone in Europe can sign up to, even if you are not residing in Germany. This fact is not advertised on their website, so call them if you want to sign up (yes they do speak English).

There are other breakdown insurances such as TCS in Switzerland, or AAA in the United Kingdom.


Vehicle: what to buy?

  • 10 years old maximum – unless you are fine with recurring maintenance
  • max 15’000km per year – i.e. 10yo means max 150’000km
  • no rust – check under the car too
  • min. 5 seats on papers – you want to carry friends too, right?
  • windows present at the back: only on doors – i.e. back doors & sliding door
  • floor in good shape: fixing it could cost 500+€ and many days
  • 130+ km/h max speed on flat surface: you want to be able to go up mountains & do 1000+ km trips without losing it
  • double-check insurance costs, note that registering the van as a camper van might get you a huge discount

Number of seats on vehicle papers

Note: this is true for countries in Europe, it might differ in other countries.

It is forbidden to drive with more passengers than the amount of passengers written on your vehicle’s papers. So if you add more seats than the amount written into the vehicle’s paper, it then has to be approved by an official institution.

This means extra time, money and energy. That’s why I recommend buying the van with the amount of passengers you’d like to carry already on the papers.


Vehicle: what size?

First, be clear on what usage you want to have, here are a few ideas:

  • possible everyday use ?
  • short holidays ?
  • regular 2+ months road trips ?
  • amount of people sleeping inside ?
  • amount of passengers ?
  • carry a lot of gear (bike(s), surfboard, kite surf, more) ?

If you don’t know exactly yet, I suggest you pick:

  • possible everyday use
  • 2 people sleeping inside
  • 4 passengers at least
  • park in cities & campings
  • carry average amount of gear: 1 bike, a skateboard, & smaller fun stuff
  • use it sometimes as a regular transporter

There are 2 general categories:

  • small vans: around the size of a VW T4 (i.e. 4-5m long, 1.80m high)
  • big vans: around the size of a Mercedes Sprinter (i.e. 5-7m long, 3m high)

What do those criteria mean

  • Possible everyday use: small vans will be better, big ones are hard to drive for everyday use
  • 2 people sleeping inside: small vans are fine, big ones are extra comfortable
  • 4 passengers at least: small van may have trouble to carry 4 passengers & still be nicely converted ( space for bed, storage…)
  • Carry average amount of gear: if your bike is foldable, or if you have a bike rack at the back of you vehicle, then a small van is fine

Conversion: what to do?

Again, be clear on what usage you want to have. Here are a few ideas:

  • amount of passengers ?
  • amount of people sleeping inside ?
  • only park in campings vs often park/sleep in city centers ?
  • use it sometimes as a regular transporter (i.e. to move house) ?

If you don’t know exactly yet, I suggest you pick:

  • 4 passengers at least: 4 seats required
  • 2 people sleeping inside: double bed or 2 single beds required
  • Park in cities & campings: discrete, stealth van required. Avoid trouble with the police or anyone badly intentioned. The least external “camper van” look you have the better.
  • Use it sometimes as a regular transporter: modular furniture required. Then you definitely want to be able to remove bed & furniture when needed.

Conversion: where to do it?

Van conversion in the street, courtyard or any other temporary place is a pain:

  • You bother people hence get in trouble
  • You are time-limited on when to use/access this space
  • You cannot leave your tools and materials lying around, you must setup before and clean after every session
  • You don’t have access to electricity

That’s why I highly recommend to find a dedicated place to work on the van conversion. A place where you can make noise, leave your van parked for days with tools and materials all over and have access to electricity.

You can rent a garage for that, but sometimes it’s not possible (i.e. your van is too big). Van communities or friends’ countryside house can be alternatives.

Van communities are also great because you will get great tips from other van owners (not only about van conversion). You’ll make new friends and ease into the van life with much less trouble.


Conversion: tools needed

The most important tools are:

  • a cordless drill – along with a set of bits
  • an angle grinder – along with a set for rust removal, wood sanding and metal-cutting
  • a jigsaw – along with a set of bits

With just the 3 tools above you can do pretty much all your van conversion. Make sure you get some quality cordless drill (i.e. buy a Makita), count 150+€ if buying brand new.


Conversion: where to start?

Bed & storage: without a bed & without storage, your van will be a mess in which you have no space left. Bed & storage are the cornerstone of your van. Get this done first & correctly, all the rest is luxury 😉

The rest: do the rest as you go, whenever you have time/budget. This means kitchen, insulation, electricity, roof window & so on.


Conversion: where to get ideas?

  • Pinterest : inspiration gold mine
  • Youtube : awesome for DIY tutorials
  • Facebook groups : great communities
  • Camper van shops
  • Festivals : ask for a tour 😉
  • Instagram : too cool for school

Resources

Communities

Buying in Germany

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