So you're ready for a van-venture?! Alright, let's do this! First things first, you need to design your van. Overwhelmed already? Good news, you're not alone. This is probably the most overwhelming phase of the entire process. The possibilities are limited only by your physical space, your budget, and your imagination! There are so many beautiful, insta-worthy builds out there to take inspiration from. So many creative ideas that you know you probably wouldn't have thought of on your own. But with endless options, so many inspirations, and virtually limitless possibilities, it can be incredibly difficult to make all the decisions that come together to form one cohesive design for your van to fit perfectly into your own unique lifestyle. So where do we begin?
Comfort and simplicity are the most important aspects to your overall design. Imagine trying to live your life being physically uncomfortable every single day. And not the good kind of uncomfortable that helps you grow as a person, but the kind that makes you cranky and gives you body aches. Key things to prioritize for your comfort are things like seating, bed size and thickness, and windows. When we built our very first van, Miles, these were our main issues. We had dual swivel seats, a bench, and our outdoor chairs. So many seating options were perfect because no matter what the situation was, we were able to find a comfortable place to be for eating, working, or reading. We had plenty of windows in that build as well, which was great for letting in natural light, enjoying the views, and making the tiny space feel more open. The bed size is where we made a critical mistake in our build. We built our bed widthwise instead of the popular lengthwise. It was nearly a queen size bed measuring 72" x 60". The problem was that Blackhawk is 5' 11" tall (71 inches). We anticipated this to be just right for us and decided not to add flares to the sides of the van which would've given us an additional 6 inches of length (3 on each end). Unfortunately, we quickly discovered that this was a very tight squeeze for Blackhawk who tends to sleep coffin style. Not being able to completely stretch out was a reality check for him, and we ended up sleeping at a diagonal, which then became and issue for me (Madi). But there was another issue with our bed that affected both of us, the thickness of our mattress. We've been camping plenty of times on our tiny inflatable sleeping pads, so we figured a 4 inch mattress would be completely tolerable. Turns out though, it wasn't. And now we wouldn't suggest anyone go with less than a 6 inch mattress. We chose the 4 inch mattress because we wanted to fit our bikes in the garage space under the bed, but also wanted to be able to sit up fully in bed to avoid hitting our heads. We did achieve this goal, but the 4 inch mattress was NOT worth it. In hindsight, we wanted to get into mountain biking, but we never did and we really didn't need the bikes and shouldn't have designed any our build around them. Although, if your bikes are your number one piece of adventure gear, you might need to design your build around fitting them in somewhere, but don't compromise your comfort for it. While you might be perfectly comfortable not being able to sit up in bed, if not, keep thinking outside the box until you find a solution that works for you.
When is comes to simplicity, everyone will have different versions of the easiest way to do any one task. For instance, Blackhawk thinks it's easier to be able to remove the grey water tank to be able to dump anywhere, but I think it's easier to have a hose and find a proper dump that you can pull up to because it's harder for me to carry a large water jug than it is for him. It's up to you to think things through and weigh the pro's and con's to decide what will be easier for you. We recommend doing this for every single task that you will be doing on a regular basis. If your day to day chores and routine tasks are tedious and more of a hassle than they need to be, you won't enjoy it and it will take away from your overall #vanlife experience.
One of the biggest debates in the vanlife community is fixed bed vs. convertible bed to table. We get asked almost every day which we recommend, and the truth is that it's totally up to you and we can't give a recommendation either way. Having a convertible bed will open up the space immensely, but it will also take away some storage space, but it will also be an extra chore every morning and evening. For some, this might not be an issue, but for others it might be a deal breaker. For me, I would hate converting it twice a day, so I probably just wouldn't do it. Then I would begin to feel lazy and that would affect my mood every day which would add up over the weeks and months and eventually I wouldn't be enjoying my time in the van. I would choose to store an outdoor table and chairs that I can utilize as needed instead. If having a comfortable workspace is a must have for you, designing your cab to be the perfect set up is a great alternative option that would allow you both a comfortable workspace and a comfortable bed for a nap between zoom calls!
Storage is another major factor of your design, but it is far from one size fits all! Whether you're a climber, a biker, or a dog lover, the way you utilize your space as well as your ratio of storage to open space should tailored specifically to you and your needs. Prioritize storage for the things you must have, then add storage from there for the extra things; the things that you can live without, but hey if there's space, throw it in! (for me it's shoes and dog toys)
Another concept that can impact your storage is ensuring that as many as possible of the items you make room for are dual purpose. Now, I understand that a blender can really only act as a blender, but if you're going to store sleeping bags for backcountry camping trips, you could use those sleeping bags are your duvet on your bed in the van, this way you don't need to store them and will have room for something else.
Our biggest storage mistake we made in our van was storing things on the roof. You are not going to want to climb onto the roof and dig through that bin to find gear for activities you love doing. Not only is it going to take time and energy away from that activity you love, but it's going to be such a hassle that you'll find yourself not even wanting to do it at all. If you must store things on the roof, I would suggest making it seasonal items that you would be okay swapping out a couple times a year. Although if you go snowboarding on the weekends and surfing during the week, you may need to make sure your have room in the van for easy access to both your snowboard and surf board.
When it comes to the nitty gritty part of vanlife (where you do your business and how many days you realize you can go without a proper shower) you need to be honest with yourself and what your comfort level is. Personally, I'm more than comfortable with popping a squat behind a bush, but a lot of my friends are not and would absolutely require access to some form of a toilet. I can also handle going without a shower for more days than I care to admit. This is a topic that I could talk about for awhile and will touch on more in depth in a future article. For now, consider what your personal requirements are and what you can fit in your van build.
As I mentioned earlier, your van design should be tailored to you. This applies to everything from your toilet to your cooktop, and even your electrical. Your solar and battery requirements will be based solely on your needs, although it's always better to have a little more than enough. There are tons of resources out there for figuring this out, and we will put together our own quick guide to solar to share with you guys, but if you're like me and don't feel mechanically inclined, reach out to Blackhawk for a consultation.
The placement of your outlets inside the van should also be based on your needs. If your workspace is going to be in the cab rather than the bed, then add more outlets in that area. If you use your blender every morning and your electric cooktop every evening, then be sure to have the proper outlets in a convenient place. If its too much work to get out of bed and walk the five feet across the van to turn off the lights when you forget to do it before crawling under than blankets, be sure to add a two way switch by the bed as well as by the door, and some small bedside lights, too.
When designing your van, the only limits you have in your way are your physical space, your budget, and your imagination! Spend as much time as you can planning your layout. Consider any and every scenario you may find yourself in. Imagine doing everything day after day, multiple times a day. You may decide that something will get annoying, and if something you do every day is annoying you will quickly find yourself hating vanlife.
My number one resource recommendation for design advice is Ladi & Margaret's YouTube channel. Margaret has done a video series reviewing some of the most popular van builds online. This is an excellent resource because she speaks from experience and has very insightful views that you might not ever think of when designing your own van. You can find them on Instagram @curlyhaircamping or on their YouTube channel, Ladi and Margaret. or click here to watch the playlist.
If you're interested in checking out our very first van build, check out the full tour. We designed and built that van having never even stepped foot inside a campervan before! While we did make some mistakes, we are still incredibly proud of that build and everything that it taught us, not to mention the adventures it took us on! You can also see all of the other vans we've built since right here on our website. You can also reach out to us for a design consultation where we will go over your priorities and lifestyle and help you brainstorm for design ideas and give you recommendations and ideas based on not only our own personal experience, but our client's feedback as well.
Whether you're feeling overwhelmed designing your very first van build, or you're doing some research to improve the design of your current van, remember to take your time, embrace this phase even though it feels endless. You're eager to get into vanlife and hit the road, but rest assured that taking extra time to plan each and every little detail of your build will drastically improve your overall experience!
Good luck friends, stay carefree!