Campervan conversions guide – advice and best vans for conversion

  • Building your own campervan conversion is easier than it sounds
  • Plenty of firms in the UK to help with custom conversions
  • Can save you money and gives you infinite choice

The appeal of a campervan holiday is easy to see, whether you're in the UK or further afield. Total freedom is a real luxury and it’s something that campervanning offers – you decide where you drive, where you stop, what and when you eat and drink, and where you sleep.

These homes-away-from-home can be made to suit just about everybody, with models available at both ends of the market – you can have something as simple as a van with folding seats, right up to virtual spa hotel on wheels.

But there’s one thing that unites most campervans purchased in the traditional way – expense. Campervans don’t have to cost the earth to run, but the majority are rather expensive to buy, and even comparatively small versions often come in well in excess of £50,000.

Campervan conversions - Volkswagen Grand California

The cheaper solution? Do it yourself. Converting an existing van into a DIY campervan from the ground up is a cost-effective way to get exactly what you’re looking for at a fraction of the price of buying from a main dealer.

It’s not the best solution for everybody, though, and there are lots of items to consider, research and experiment with before undertaking a conversion.

Why convert a van?

Is it legal to convert a van into a campervan?

Should I buy a new or used van?

How much does a camper conversion cost?

> Do I need a special licence to drive a campervan?

Best vans for a camper conversion

Other things to consider

Why convert a van into a campervan? 

It’s a fair question to ask. After all, nobody recommends chopping the roof off your family hatchback – they recommend purchasing a convertible instead. And even the stingiest farmer would probably concede it’s better to get a purpose-built tractor than to upgrade their Volvo with big wheels and a plough.

The thing is, converting a campervan isn’t like building an all-new vehicle from the ground up. Instead, it’s like fitting out an empty house.

With very few exceptions, campervans aren’t made from the ground-up in factories anyway. Third-party conversion companies purchase vans and fit the interiors out as a separate venture. This means it’s a process that you can easily choose to undertake yourself.

Campervan conversions - Nissan NV300

There are two main benefits to a DIY camper conversion. The first is cost. Converting your own camper can be far cheaper than buying one from the regular campervan market – you don’t need to support the costs of the factory that built it, the dealership that sold it to you or really anything besides your own time and materials. This is especially true for those campervans sold through main car manufacturers, such as the Volkswagen California, which aim to simplify the process but cost a fair chunk of extra money for that peace of mind.

You can also build on a used van, which could save you thousands before you’ve even begun.

The second is flexibility. Unless you’re specifically ordering a custom-built camper, you’re at the whims of whatever’s available when it comes to the layout and features of your van. 

As such, building your own camper can be ideal if your needs are somewhat unusual – maybe you’ve a large family and need plenty of travel seats, or you need the van to be accessible by wheelchair. The sky really is the limit here.

Is it legal to convert a van into a campervan? 

Absolutely. As long as you steer clear of major structural modifications to the van’s chassis, engine or cab, you can convert the load area of your van to be just about anything you like – including a camper.

The question here is whether you want to re-register your vehicle with the DVLA as a campervan rather than a regular van. The benefits of doing this are higher speed limits on UK roads, as well as the possibility of securing lower insurance premiums (or those tailored to campers). You may also be eligible for cheaper ferry or toll road prices.

The DVLA doesn’t make life easy for DIY converters to change their vehicle designation, however, and campervans must meet a strict set of guidelines aimed at ensuring your vehicle resembles the description of a campervan – that’s so police or other enforcement agencies can identify it as such.

The full list of requirements is available on the DVLA website. They include things like seats and a table, cooking facilities and storage cupboards, while externally the van needs motorhome-style graphics, windows and a habitation door.

The requirements are somewhat ambiguous and if you’re undertaking the project on your own we’d suggest seeking help from a specialist in order to make sure your vehicle qualifies. Any vehicle that you’ve ordered from a bona fide manufacturer should be supplied to you ready-registered as a campervan with the DVLA.

Should I buy a new or a used van for a camper conversion? 

This is rather like asking whether you should buy a new or a used car – there are advantages to both.

New vans offer greater choice – you’re not limited by what you can find in the classifieds, but instead can order directly from the factory in whatever colour, engine specification or interior trim you desire.

You’ll also benefit from a more modern vehicle – one with more advanced safety, comfort and interior technology. Meeting up-to-date emissions regulations will also help you stay legal for longer, able to drive your ‘van into cities that may ban older diesel vehicles.

Campervan conversions - Fiat Ducato

However, a used vehicle provides a very useful cost saving, even if you’re only shopping vans that are a couple of years old. They may well be models that have lived a hard yet well-maintained life, and the engines will be solidly run-in.

Older diesel engines may also be better-suited to the months of sitting idle that many motorhomes do, and can be easier to work on at home.

Many motorhome converters will happily work on second-hand vehicles, too. So, even if you’re not doing the fitting out yourself, you may be able to save a substantial amount by sourcing and supplying a used base vehicle to the campervan manufacturer.

How much does a campervan conversion cost? 

How much does a house cost? Pricing depends on how extensive, luxurious and complex the interior fittings are. If you’re just adding a basic bed and camp stove, modifications can cost very little, while a fully bespoke conversion undertaken by professionals will set you back a substantial amount.

Going DIY can cost as little as £500 if you do almost all of the work yourself. However even the relatively handy might find this a struggle, and for most we’d suggest factoring in at least a few thousand pounds in order to get the job done properly.

For safety, electrical, gas and plumbing installations should either be fitted by a professional or checked over by one. It’s well worth stretching the budget to include higher-quality materials, too – they’ll last longer, and the van will be much more comfortable to stay in.

If you’re simply handing your vehicle over to a conversion firm, you could be looking at a bill of £10,000 or more – though this is still a fraction of the price of a brand-new camper.

Do I need a special licence to drive a campervan? 

It depends solely on weight. Campervans - like any other vehicle, have maximum permissible weights, and depending on which categories are on your licence you may be able to drive some models and not others.

If you passed your driving test before 1997, you're authorised to drive vehicles up to 7.5 tonnes in total weight - known as maximum authorised mass, or MAM. This covers you for every camper based on a medium-sized or large van, and you'll only have to consider additional training and tests if you want to drive vehicles based on large trucks or heavy goods platforms.

If you passed your driving test after 1997, however, you're only authorised to drive vehicles up to 3.5 tonnes MAM by default. This will still cover you for almost all camper conversions based on medium vans and the vast majority of those based on large vans, too. 

If you want to drive larger vehicles, you can always undertake additional training and take a test to get the C1 classification on your licence, allowing you that 7.5 tonne limit that older drivers have by default.

The best vans for a campervan conversion 

Experienced converters may use anything from an MPV to an old hearse for a campervan conversion – but most will be based on medium to large panel vans. Here are some of our favourite new models – the world of used vans is murkier and your choice should take into account the specifics of the vehicles available to you.

Best large vans for a campervan conversion

Fiat Ducato

Campervan conversions - Fiat Ducato

Around three-quarters of large European motorhomes are based on the Fiat Ducato. As a van it’s a good choice, if somewhat getting on in years – but Fiat really caters to the campervan market with a specific camper series.

These benefit from a wider rear track, lower chassis and improved suspension, and Fiat’s well accustomed to working with camper converters. It’s a great, solid base vehicle and you’ll be in excellent company if you opt for it.

Mercedes Sprinter

Campervan conversions - Mercedes Sprinter

The van of choice for many premium converters, the Sprinter’s one of our favourite panel vans. Its driving manners are exemplary, and Mercedes offers it with an excellent nine-speed automatic gearbox that makes distance cruising effortless.

Pricier than some rivals and with a poorer payload but the Sprinter makes up for it with an excellent aftersales network and stellar reliability.

Ford Transit

Campervan conversions - Ford Transit

You’ll see many of these lining the lanes of a British campsite, and for good reason. It’s one of our favourite vans to drive, and the range offers lots of choice.

The Transit’s also great value both to buy and to run.

Best medium vans for a camper conversion

Volkswagen Transporter

Campervan conversions - Volkswagen Transporter

Nothing’s more iconic than a Volkswagen campervan, and VW knows it – it even builds its own, the California, in a dedicated factory in Germany.

Luckily for those undertaking their own conversions, there’s a huge array of Transporters around – often in high specifications making for a van that’s powerful, comfortable to drive and stylish too. Being the most popular means there’s a huge market for third-party components, too.

Ford Transit Custom

Campervan conversions - Ford Transit Custom

A great number of British converters offer mid-sized campervans based on the Ford Transit Custom – it has an unbeatable image in this country as a workhorse, while its wide interior lends itself to a spacious habitation area.

Maintenance should be effortless, with a network of Ford van centres across the country – and if you want something a little different, Ford will even sell you a plug-in hybrid model with unchanged interior dimensions, ideal for the eco-conscious camper.

Vauxhall Vivaro

Campervan conversions - Vauxhall Vivaro

This van and its sister vehicles are all sides of the same four-faced coin, these mechanically identical vans make great conversions for those who want something compact without stepping down to the next size class.

They have low roofs, car-like driving manners and a good range of engines (including fully-electric models), while payloads are high enough that you’ll never have to worry about overpacking. To choose between them, evaluate which dealers you like the look of best – or flip the aforementioned coin.

Other things to consider when converting 

How many seats vs how many beds

Campervans will be equipped with a number of travel seats – this is a seat with a seatbelt. Of all the items in your van, don’t skimp on these – campers in the past have often had flimsy seats that don’t adequately support or protect occupants in a crash. If you’re installing any additional travel seats besides the two or three in the cab, source them properly and have their installation checked by a professional.

Campervan conversions - beds

Berths refer to sleeping areas – whether fixed or permanent. It’s usually best practice to match these to how many travel seats you have. After all, what’s the point in having six bunk beds if you can only travel on the road with two people?

Interior layout

This is individual to the user, and there are many options here. Consider which functions you’re likely to make the most use of. Keen cooks may want a larger kitchen, for example, while those who stay on serviced sites may not need a full-sized washroom. Fixed beds are a boon for those who like their rest, but they don’t provide much flexibility, so choose wisely – layout is key in a small camper.

You might wish to visit a motorhome dealer where you’ll be able to get a good look at many different layouts all at once, in order to figure out which works best for you.

Exterior add-ons

Many campervan owners live as much outside as they do inside, and there’s a wide array of equipment that you might want to fit to the exterior of your ‘van to facilitate this.

We’d consider a wind-out awning almost an essential, as it provides shade and shelter for al fresco dining or outdoor lounging. Smaller vans will benefit from a pop-top roof or permanent high-top to provide standing room and additional storage.

There’s also items such as bike racks, satellite dishes or solar panels – motorhome dealers will have all of this equipment available, and some of it could be invaluable to your plans.

In the cab

Remember that a van is, by and large, a working vehicle, and particularly if you’re buying second-hand you may not get many of the amenities you’re used to in your car.

We’d recommend searching out a model with in-cab air-conditioning, as it’ll make holidays in hot weather far, far more pleasant. Electric mirrors are useful for manoeuvring, and while a reversing camera is nice to have they’re fairly inexpensive to fit after purchase.

A quick and easy upgrade is a new stereo, which can bring smartphone connectivity, sat-nav and charging capabilities to even the oldest of cabs.

Storage

A campervan essential. Always allow for more than you think you’ll need, and remember to specialise it – kitchen storage ought to have accommodations to keep plates, cups and cutlery secure and safe during transit, for example.

Campervan conversions - VW Transporter rear

And remember, unlike at home, you’ll need storage for pitching essentials such as levelling wedges and electric hookup cables, plus your outdoor furniture. Models without a fixed bed will also need somewhere to store your bed linen during the day. And don’t forget a laundry basket!

Also read:

>> Campervan body styles - which motorhome is right for me?

>> Campervan twin test: Volkswagen California vs Ford Transit Custom Nugget

>> All about campervan speed limits

>> The Parkers Guide to factory-supported campervans

>> Volkswagen Grand California review