So, you’re thinking about living van life, huh? SWEET! It’s not just for hippies down by the river anymore; millennials have made sleeping in a van cool again. The #vanlife movement is an increasingly popular mentality among people who are embracing minimalism, chasing their dreams, and living lives that are most fulfilling to them. But since you’re sort of building the tiniest home ever with your van conversion, there’s a lot of planning involved and decisions to be made before you can get on the road.
There’s a lot of logistical things to think about and plan for when you’re building a tiny home on wheels, but luckily there are also a lot of resources. Crowd-sourced sites that rate camping spots throughout the country, endless van life blogs and YouTube channels have made planning and completing a van conversion way easier, and provide a lot more options than revamping a beat-up VW bus. Connecting with those already living the nomadic lifestyle is definitely your best tool.
There are a lot of things to consider, but here are our top 6 things to think about before getting started:
1. How will you decide which van is right for you?
If you search #vanlife on social media, you’ll see an array of different vans converted into tiny homes on wheels. There’s the Mercedes Sprinter, the Ram Promaster, the Ford Transit, and some people have even converted ambulances! Each have their own pros and cons, so it’s best to do research and reach out to those who may have the vehicle of your choice to see how they like it and if they would recommend it.
There’s different lengths, widths and shapes; some take diesel and some gasoline; some are 2-wheel drive, some are 4-wheel drive, and some have dually wheels. Depending on the size and design of your build, and where you plan to take it, all are key factors in determining which van you should chose. If you live up north and know you’ll be in snowstorms, consider a 4x4 van, because the weight of these things once built out is HEAVY, and you don’t want to take a risk of sliding on slippery roads.
2. Why did you buy the van in the first place?
Are you selling everything to live in the van full time? Will you be a part time dweller? Whatever your situation may be, it’ll be a determining factor in what van you chose and its design. If you bought a van you know you’d have to renovate to make it a living space, how you organize the space and what features you choose to include will differ depending on its purpose.
Most people buy a van, ambulance, horse trailer, school bus – you name it – in order to convert into more of a living space, including a space you can sleep comfortably; we don’t always want to be out under the stars. Your van’s bed should play a big role in your design-build process, not only because comfort is key, but also because getting a big bed in a small space like a van takes a bit of creativity (and an awesome custom mattress manufacturer).
3. How will you make the van into a comfortable living space?
Your van is basically a really tiny studio apartment, and it definitely takes some creativity to fit everything you’d typically need to live comfortably in any vehicle. Even a school bus conversion has a lot of strange obstacles to deal with like wheel wells and those terrible little metal windows everywhere. Regardless, we think choosing the bed for your van is definitely a really important decision. It’s likely going to double as a couch, and you may have obstacles like wheel well bump outs to consider.
A van bed is almost definitely going to need features and dimensions you won’t find at a brick-and-mortar mattress store. But don’t fret – there are actually custom mattress manufacturers (like us!) that specialize in making weird van mattresses. Whether you need a three quarter bed or the space saving corners of a custom radius bed, Custom Mattress Factory can create virtually any design you need, in-house.
We even make hinged beds that can fold up. Another great thing about designing your own van bed is that you don’t have to sacrifice on comfort. For instance, getting a foam mattress for the van would give you a high level of comfort without taking up the height space a traditional mattress does. And the custom hinged mattresses we make don’t feel hinged when you’re sleeping on them. Even if you need one corner notched out to accommodate a cabinet or something, there’s a custom mattress solution for any kind of vehicle sleep space, even smaller vans.
One thing you’ll have to consider when designing a mattress for the bed in your van is the material you want the mattress to be made of. Memory foam is really comfy, but tends to sleep hot. Custom latex mattresses are natural, comfortable and breathable, but they might put a strain on the van’s weight limit. Same with all-foam mattresses. This is yet another reason having a mattress custom made for your van conversion is key to comfort and spatial use: you’re not limited to inflexible innersprings, traditional rectangles, or standard sizes.
And then there’s the bed linens to think about. But this one’s not an obstacle; the best custom mattress makers make bespoke bedding sets that will perfectly fit the mattress you had them create, no matter the shape or size. The van and its bed might be a tight space, so you should pack all the luxury and comfort you can into that spot. An oasis can be tiny, right?
It’s easy to overlook “details” like your van mattress when designing your little mobile home. And if you haven’t considered using a custom mattress manufacturer, you may have even thought of a mattress as an obstacle, because you’re only going to find standard sizes in stores. But now that you know you can make your van bed anything you need it to be, consider it as a feature instead of a utility.
4. How important is a bathroom to you?
This is definitely something you want to think about because you’re going to have to use the bathroom and you’ll eventually need to shower. But your van may not have the space for these amenities. Many van lifers have gym memberships to nationwide gyms where they’re able to use their bathroom facilities. If you’re looking for a more private option- you can choose to put a full bathroom or just a toilet in your van.
There are many options for toilets to consider as well and depending on your lifestyle, you’ll have to decide how you want to handle the nitty gritty. There are compost toilets, urine diverting toilets, flush toilets that require a black tank, portable toilets, stationary toilets, etc. Everyone has a different opinion on this but from our opinion, if you’re able to swing a full bathroom in your van, definitely do it.
5. How much water will you need?
A creature comfort of having a house is that you can turn on the faucet and water will run continuously. Your showers are long and hot, you’re able to take baths and, for the most part, you don’t have to worry about running out. Boy does that change when you live in a van (and it should!).
You will have to decide how big of a freshwater tank you are going to need. The more water you have, the better, obviously, but the bigger the tank, the more space it takes up and the more it weighs. Regardless of the size of the tank you decide on, you will have to change your water consumption habits. You will do things like “submarine shower,” which is when you turn the water off and on as you need and not letting it just run.
You have to do the same thing when you wash your dishes. You get everything wet, soap them up and then rinse them all at one time. It definitely takes some getting used to, but it can be done. You may run out of water while brushing your teeth a few times, but you’ll get it.
Pro Tip: You can get around this by staying at campsites that have water hookups, or parks that have shared showers. It’s definitely a different way to live, but a lot of people are choosing it, so changing your shower habits can’t be that bad. Just don’t stop wearing deodorant and drenching yourself in patchouli – we said this wasn’t just for hippies anymore, no need to be so on-the-nose.
It’s important to remember that when you live in a van you have to think about safety in a whole new way. You must always be aware of your surroundings, and be especially careful where you park at night. Taking a peek at the side view mirrors of the van is a good trick for getting a quick view of outside before actually stepping outside. It’s also important you’re careful with who you share you live in a van with, and your travel plans.
Sadly, it’s a scary world and you just never know. Better to be safe than sorry and keep your business as private as possible. You could have extra locks installed on your van doors; we’ve even seen people install dash and side cameras on their van.
Staying Safe & Super Comfy Anywhere on the Road
One of our specialties is manufacturing mattresses for van beds, because, well, they’re not really a thing. You’re likely not going to get a standard king size bed in there, and what if you need a corner notched out or a mattress with a hinge? We hand-craft custom mattresses for even the strangest of sleep spaces – vans, horse trailers, boats. Streamline your van reno with a mattress made specifically for your space and matching bedding made-to-order, too.
Research and planning for a lifestyle like van life will take a lot of time, but it’ll be worth it in the end when you’re out there living your best life enjoying the freedom and beauty this lifestyle provides. Grab a pen and some paper and just sit and think about your future self in the van. What does it look like? Feel like? Then go back through the things above and write down a few bullet points under each thing to consider. Get the ball rolling, ask questions, research, and make it happen!