Small Camper Conversion

Every adventure couple needs a home on wheels and in that respect we’re no different. We worked hard on this Small Camper Conversion to turn a typical high roof box van into a fully workable and liveable space for our day to day adventures across Snowdonia National Park and all of North Wales.

Having used a tiny Astra van for 18 months for this purpose, including a week long tour of Ireland’s biggest mountains, we knew we had to think deeply about the use of space and how to convert a van to a camper – it was a real challenge to fit everything in the Astra and still be able to sit and sleep! This time also made us very aware of not carrying excess equipment, living off the most minimal yet functional set up possible.

A year on from selling the Astra van, we picked up this great little high roof box van, a burgundy 2006 Renault Kangoo. With only 100k on the clock and a couple of owners (not builders) it seemed a great little buy. We had plenty of scribbles and doodles for all the van design elements we wanted at the ready, and managed the full conversion in just over a month. The following video shows the entire build, start to finish, and each step of the video is listed in detail with materials lists and still photos further down this post.

Spoiler Alert

Unfortunately days after we finished the electrics, with only the diesel heater left to install, this van decided to fail. Like really fail. The engine suddenly developed a serious sounding knocking noise, and after our local garage investigated they found the cam shaft and associated parts to be ready for the bin. This left us with an enormously tough decision, made even harder by the onset of the worldwide Coronavirus outbreak, do we buy an entire replacement engine or just strip everything out and cut our losses? As we’d just bought a newer bigger van to convert for longer trips, we couldn’t financially justify spending over a grand on this van with the risk that something else serious might be right around the corner, in more ways than one.

It took us a single heartbreaking hour to strip out the previous 6 weeks work. We’d put so much effort, care and thought into the project that it was pretty soul destroying to see it reduced to an empty shell once again. However, we managed to salvage most of the materials and reuse them in our other van. We learnt a lot on this Renault Kangoo small camper conversion project that we can take with us, onwards and upwards as they say…

Note: we ended up selling the van for scrap. Most of this blog was written during the build, so we’ve left the original tone and optimism as was.

Why Van Life?

The van is much more than just a place to sleep for us. Our most common use for the van is at the end of a long day adventuring – we love being able to get changed into comfy clothes, brew up and make some food with everything to hand. Even if we’re not staying out, this end of day ritual is incredibly important for well being and mindfulness by the sense of freedom it gives us.

On to the bigger freedoms a small camper conversion provides: we can sleep anywhere we like, fall asleep and wake up to any view we like. Given that we work in website design and social media, we can work anywhere we have a 4G signal. We can choose to cook dinner at a moments notice to an unexpected sunset, rig the slacklines up in a remote forest at golden hour, sit under piles of blankets with hot chocolate watching a stormy beach front, park up in the mountains to catch the best sunrises…

Small Camper Conversion Step by Step

Everything we did in this project start to finish, materials and supplier links at the end, as well as a few of the best YouTube videos we found for reference.

Step 01 – Strip Out & Clean

The internal fittings came out pretty easily, most were either torque screws or simple plastic poppers. We removed everything apart from the dashboard, door cards and seats. A deep clean ensued, giving us a complete blank slate to get started.

Step 02 – Install The Floor

We started with the floor as there are no straight lines in a van! The floor gave us a solid base to measure everything else from. Laminate floor may be colder to the touch than carpet but it’s far more practical for keeping a small living space clean. We bought an 8’x4’ 12mm ply sheet and cut it to size with a jigsaw, working carefully around all insets to give a tight fit. We had the whole floor done in approx 2 hours

Floor Layers in order:
– 5mm double foil bubble wrap
– 12mm plywood board
– two layers of 5mm fibre board
– 5mm laminate floor

Step 03 – Walls

We started by completely covering the van walls in double foil bubble wrap, using aluminium tape to secure it in place and form a seal. The van’s natural cavities were filled with standard wool style loft insulation.

The wheel arches in van camper conversions are often an unsightly intrusion into the space, so we thought we’d build to upright walls to cover them with recessed storage to make the most of the depth of the wheel arches. These walls were made from 9mm plywood board.

For the second half of the walls we used 5mm plywood board to achieve a curved effect. This gives us a better sense of space in the seated end of the small camper conversion van and yet also somehow makes it cosier!

Step 04 – More Insulation

We added a layer of double foil bubble wrap to the ceiling and patched in around the walls.

Step 05 – Recessed Storage

As mentioned, we wanted to make use of the space above the van’s wheel arches for storage, so we cut rectangular holes in the upright 9mm plywood walls. We then made boxes to fit each recess and used contact adhesive to fit them. These were left face down overnight with 8kg weights bearing down to secure them.

Not an error but we certainly learnt a lesson doing these – on the drivers side (3 shelves) the boxes are flush with the openings, but the passenger side (2 shelves) have a lip that stops items from sliding forward and we wish we’d done both sides like this.

Step 06 – Wallpaper

We expect it won’t last that long with wear and tear but we wanted to create a look and feel that’s hard to achieve with other materials, so we chose to wallpaper the plywood sheet wall panels. We chose pretty nice quality paper, really textured with a partial 3D effect. The upright walls have a light grey and white pallet board design, while the curved walls have a stone wall design with rich Cotswold and terracotta colours.

Step 07 – Tongue & Groove Ceiling Cladding
Anticipating the future demise of the wallpaper, we opted for cladding the ceiling in light spruce tongue and groove boards. This lightweight timber is incredibly easy to work with, and very cheap from the usual home and garden stores. The cladding means we can continue the ceiling boards all the way down the walls of the small camper conversion whenever the wallpaper looks too shabby to put up with any longer!

As described earlier, we first installed a sealed layer of double foil bubble wrap. Through this we attached 18x38mm timber battens to the van’s own ceiling braces. The gaps were filled with wool style home insulation and then the entire ceiling was covered in another complete layer of foil bubble wrap, creating a sealed air pocket for maximum efficiency. This is held in place by a second layer of timber battens, that also gave us a solid anchor point to firmly mount the cladding. Other than trimming the two outside cladding pieces to follow the curves of the van, the other lengths were roughly the same size and installed very quickly.

Step 08 – Cladding the Rear Doors

This van has an uneven split in the rear doors, with one smaller frame and one larger. In the few trips out while we were doing the project we noticed it was really handy to keep the smaller door shut as a windbreak for the Biolite and gas stove, with the larger door left open for the view. With having a few lengths of tongue and groove left from the ceiling we measured up and found there was enough left over to cover the small door. A layer of double foil bubble wrap was added across the exterior panels and we filled as much of the door frame as possible with standard home wool style insulation.

We marker penned around the edge of the rubber door seal to give us a clear edge to work off all the way around. There was a small section at the bottom of the door we covered in stretch carpet before starting with the lowest panel and working up to the top. Each piece was trimmed to match the marker pen border and it shuts perfectly flush against the seal. A small notch was needed to fit the door handle through, and a couple around the locking mechanisms.

Initially we left the larger door for a week and discussed various options for it, including more storage and even a potential location for a water storage tank, but in the end we decided we wanted the cladding to finish off the look so we repeated the above process. A couple of pieces of timber were installed behind the cladding, for supporting coat hooks.

Step 09 – Patching in with Stretch Carpet

We really didn’t want to use any stretch carpet to be honest – while the “gloss black units/full carpet” look is very popular it’s really not our cup of Yorkshire tea. However, the nature of our design meant there would inevitably be some gaps to fill, so we opted for a clean “white/grey” carpet that we feel looks pretty neutral and adds negative space around the colours and textures in the floor, walls and ceiling. We also used this to finish off all the exposed metal surfaces in the small camper conversion cab interior.

Step 10 – Finishing The Shelves

We drilled 6mm holes in either side of each recessed storage shelf and fed 6mm rustic brown twine, tying tight knots at each end to hold firmly in place.

With some old jam jars we used a little trick my Grandad used to have in his garage, screwing the jar lids to the top of the recessed storage which makes use of the top of the space and gives us the perfect place to store tea, coffee and hot chocolate.

Step 11 – Pull Out Sofa Bed

We spent countless hours discussing the hows and whys of the sofa bed design for this small camper conversion van. Given the limited space, we felt this structure was probably the most important element to get as close to perfect as possible.

As we work from the space, we didn’t want any kind of narrow “sit up and beg” seats (typical of the boring rock n roll beds every man and his dog seem to use). We like to lounge around with plenty of space to get comfy and move cushions to suit, so we opted for a extra deep frame of 720mm and utilised the full width of the van at 1310mm. With the front seats fully forward and the headboards down the depth extends to 1100mm, giving us a total sofa platform of 1.3m x 1.1m.

The frame itself is made from 3 simple box sections of 62x43mm CLS timber, with the outer two screwed to the floor with L brackets. Two wide flat planks cross over the box sections front to back and then the slats simply sit on top. Behind the car seats the box sections are closed off with 5mm plywood panels.

With the pull out section we felt it was important to have as narrow gaps as possible in the slats, for both comfort and strength. We used 38mm wide timber and left a small 3mm gap between each slat. The pull out section extends the full depth of the sofa bed, giving a total bed size of 2m long by 1.1m wide (6’6″ x 3’6″). When the bed is fully extended there is still a 300mm gap before the back doors, which works ok as a small seat with the doors open and as a place to put bits and bobs like coats and shoes when we go to sleep.

Underneath the bed we needed a really accessible way of managing the storage. We love cooking on the road and outdoors so we dedicated one side of the sofa bed to a pull out draw that fills the entire space. The draw was made from an old pallet and some leftover cladding, with a bit of twine for the handle. As the floor is laminate the draw slides easily in and out and being 450mm x 720mm it’s plenty big enough for all our food related items. This leaves the other half under the sofa bed, which we kept open. This is a great space for easily accessing our clothes bags, the air bed, gas stove, timber for the Biolite, a few clean towels and our double sleeping bag (yes, all that goes underneath half of the bed).

Step 12 – Blackout Curtain

This is the only thing we built that within a couple of days light use we knew we had to rethink the design. Initially we built a box section around the bulkhead ceiling brace with plywood boards, the idea being that the curtain pole and fittings would be hidden from view. However, with the curtain having to be adjusted to cover the seats we noticed it was popping out of the curtain hooks constantly. In addition the curtain left a small gap either end (where the pole was attached), defeating the purpose of the blackout…

After going around the houses with a load of complicated ideas, we realised if we simply stapled the blackout curtain to one of the plywood boards it would cover the whole space and easily fold up into the cargo net we have on the cab ceiling. The third benefit was that it gave us a space to hide the LED lighting strips inside the box section, providing a great flood of light exactly where we read and do work.

Step 13 – Leisure Battery & Electrics

Power and lighting make van life hugely more comfortable, and we opted for a reasonably common setup for this small camper conversion that includes a 110amp leisure battery, split charge relay, mains inverter and two switch control panels.

The leisure battery is installed behind the passenger seat, as the footwell is pretty much the perfect size to hold it without any movement and also allow for easy access. A single positive power lead runs under the interior trim from the engine battery and connects to the split charge relay. This clever device knows when the ignition is on or off, only allowing charge to pass when the car engine is ticking over so there’s no chance of running the vehicle battery flat.

We put an earthing point on the van chassis near the leisure battery, and installed a large fuse box that in turn connects to the switch control panels. Our first control panel contains USB sockets and a standard 12v cigarette type output. The second panel has on/off switches for the LED lighting.

We bought really cheap LED strip lighting from eBay, 8 x 30cm lights in warm white cost us less than £10, which comes with self adhesive backing making installation a breeze. LEDs are installed in the bulkhead box section (our reading lights), and the recessed storage boxes in the upright walls.

Finishing Touches

Table – we styled a neat folding table for the smaller back door with old pallets and leftover timber from the conversion. It folds up against the door and is secured by a twine rope and dowel plug. A longer piece of dowel sits into the table as a leg.

Brew Shelves – we love tea, Yorkshire Tea to be exact. So having a good place to put our brews is important. We crafted small fold down shelves from off cuts to match the table.

Sofa Draw – another element crafted from off cuts, we built a pull out draw to exactly fit the space under one half of the sofa. This houses our food supplies, cooking tools and tableware.

Finished Photos

As mentioned in the introduction, we’d completed everything except the diesel heater when the van decided to pack up. These are the final images of the finished project before we stripped everything out.

Materials & Supplier List

We shopped around extensively for the best prices on every single thing we bought for this project, with a clear aim of keeping the budget as low as possible while still achieving our expectations. This list is a complete index of every item we used.

Material / Product Quantity Supplier Notes
The Small Camper Conversion VAN itself!!! 1 JMH Motors Family run used car dealer in North Wales
12mm thick plywood board 2400×1200 1 B&Q Used for the floor
9mm thick plywood board 2400×1200 1 B&Q Used for the upright walls and bulkhead
5mm thick plywood board 2400×1200 1 B&Q Used for the curved stone effect walls
62x43mm CLS timber 2m lengths 4 B&Q Used for the sofa bed frame
40x15mm timber battens 8 B&Q Used for walls & ceiling and the sofa bed sliding slats.
Self Tapping Screws 100 B&Q 2 sizes for attaching timber to the van frame
Wood Screws 100 B&Q 2 sizes
Laminate Floor 3 sq mtrs B&Q 5mm thick laminate wood effect floor
Floor nosing protector strip 1 eBay 1.2m long to finish the rear door end of the floor
Wood & Stone effect wallpaper 2 Ruthin Decor One roll of each design was more than enough
Double Foil Bubble Wrap insulation 1 eBay 1 x 50ft roll
Aluminium tape 2 eBay 2 x 45m rolls
Standard wool style insulation 2 B&Q For filling cavities and behind the walls/above the ceiling
Gaffer tape 2 eBay Used all over the place behind the scenes
Mobile Phone net holders 2 eBay
Leisure Battery, Relay & Inverter Kit 1 (2nd Hand) Full kit picked up for half RRP from a friend (bit of luck!)
LED Strip Lights 8 eBay Cheap, discreet and easy to fit
Master Control Panel 1 eBay
5 Gang Switch Panel 1 eBay
Biolite Sunlight Solar Light 1 GoOutdoors Great solar rechargeable lantern that lights the whole van
Car Stereo Head Unit 1 Facebook Marketplace
Two new speakers 2 Halfords
6mm rustic twine 10m eBay For the rope stoppers in the recessed storage
Old jam jars with lids 3 n/a Used in the recessed storage
75mm Tongue & Groove Cladding 20 B&Q 20 x 2.4m spruce wall cladding (ceiling and back doors)
Grey Stretch Carpet 5 sq mtrs eBay Used to patch in and cover all metal surfaces
Trim Fix Adhesive 4 eBay To stick the stretch carpet

YouTube Camper Van Reference Videos

We watched a phenomenal amount of small camper conversion videos on YouTube in the months leading up to purchasing this van. For the most part this activity consists on working out how long the YouTuber is going to spend talking to the camera before actually showing any details or getting to the point. Here’s a selection of videos we found really helpful.