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Van Conversions: A Beginner’s Guide to Van Life
November 12, 2019
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Van conversions have taken over adventure social media in the past few years. Photo: Herson Rodriguez

Van conversions and the van life (the latter often prefaced by a hopeful hashtag) have become two staples of adventure social media in recent years. Van conversions are all over the internet. And while we certainly don’t condone spending more time scrolling through adventure fodder online than actually getting out and adventuring, we have to say… we do love van conversions and the #vanlife feed.

There’s something so beautiful and quintessentially un-materialistic about life on the road and changing scenery and skyline in front of you every single day, with no ties holding you back and everything you need packed neatly away in the back. That’s including (but certainly not limited to) the kitchen sink.

The van life lifestyle is a minimalist one. It’s one away from the stresses of work, council tax, flat inspections, broken boilers and the daily grind. The life that many of us dream of. It’s so idyllic in so many ways (even if it seems a million miles away from where you are right now). Here, we’re going to provide a beginner’s look to van conversions, the van life, and the wonders that lie within…

Van Conversions, you say? What’s a van conversion?

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A van conversion is, well, exactly what it says on the tin. Photo: Johannes Hofmann

A van conversion is exactly what it says on the tin, really. It’s the modification of a van of some sort. They can, of course, come in all shapes and sizes. In this article, we’ll naturally be focusing on van conversions for the specified purpose of travel and adventure. We’re not so interested in people converting vans for school buses or for ‘Fast & Furious’ reshoots. If that’s a thing. Vans don’t tend to be particularly fast, nor furious for that matter.

We’re interested in van conversions that turn a van into a house on wheels and allow people to jump into the driver’s seat, buckle up and explore the world at whatever pace they see fit. We’re interested in having a look at the #vanlife. Normally this consists of taking the back of a van and sticking in some sitting or sleeping space, some storage space, perhaps a little kitchen unit, and in the best examples, a lot of personality.

The Rise of Van Conversions and the #VanLife

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The #vanlife hashtag has been going for nearly a decade now. Photo: Dino Reichmuth

Van conversions have been going on as long as vans have been around, of course, but the rise of van conversions into the mainstream came hand in hand with social media and the #vanlife hashtag. The hashtag portrays the van as more than just a modified vehicle, but as a lifestyle and a mindset.

The origins of the hashtag can be traced back to a van dweller called Foster Huntington. In 2011, Huntington ditched his career as a designer at Ralph Lauren in New York and moved into a 1978 Volkswagen Syncro. He would spend his days driving about the Californian coast, stopping in scenic places, surfing his days away and tagging pictures he posted on a shiny new social media network called Instagram with the hashtag ‘#vanlife’. He quickly gained a whole lot of followers too (he now has 972,000).

The hashtag was a play on rapper Tupac’s famous “thug life” tattoo and was often accompanied by other hashtags – the likes of #homeiswhereyouparkit, which is now the name of his book – but the #vanlife hashtag really stuck.

The New Yorker cleverly note, in their longread on the movement, how the #vanlife hashtag, like all the best marketing terms, is both “highly specific and expansive”. So it grew. At the time of writing, more than six million Instagram posts have been tagged with #vanlife and many of them don’t even feature a van. As long as the show nature, beauty and freedom, they’re in the right vein.

Van life is much more than just van conversions now. It’s a lifestyle – and one which has cued seemingly endless Instagram accounts dedicated to it. Many of which are actually quite good. Here are a few of our favourites…

Van conversion inspiration: Instagram

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Van life is exactly that now; it’s a lifestyle as much as a choice. Photo: Tommy Lisbin

Instagram is very much the home of the #vanlife movement and if you’re interested in having constant van life inspiration at your fingertips, then there are plenty of people worth a follow. Here are five of our favourite van lifers on Instagram to keep you stoked – even while you’re sitting on your toilet.

1. Genevieve Jahn (@Joie_de_Vieve)

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You have to understand the way I am, Mein Herr. A tiger is a tiger, not a lamb. Mein Herr. You'll never turn the vinegar to jam, Mein Herr. So I do… What I do… When I'm through… Then I'm through… And I'm through… Toodle-oo! Bye-Bye, Mein Lieber Herr. Farewell, mein Lieber Herr. It was a fine affair, But now it's over. And though I used to care, I need the open air. You're better off without me, Mein Herr. Don't dab your eye, mein Herr, Or wonder why, Mein Herr. I've always said that I was a rover. You mustn't knit your brow, You should have known by now You'd every cause to doubt me, Mein, Herr. The continent of Europe is so wide, Mein Herr. Not only up and down, but side to side, Mein Herr. I couldn't ever cross it if I tried, Mein Herr. So I do.. What I can… Inch by inch… Step by step… Mile by mile… Man by man. Bye-bye, mein Lieber Herr, Auf wiedersehen, mein Herr. Es war sehr gut, mein Herr Und vorbei. Du kennst mich wohl, mein Herr, Ach, lebe wohl, mein Herr. Du sollst mich nicht mehr sehen, Mein Herr… Auf wiedersehen, Bye bye mein Herr! – Cabaret In case you didn’t notice, I’ve said bye-bye to the Eastern Sierra, for now. photo: @brookpifer

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The eagle-eyed among you will remember Genevieve Jahn from our list of the best outdoor photographers and travel accounts to follow on Instagram, so it’d be remiss of us to leave her out of our recommendations for van lifers to follow. Genevieve’s account is full of big mountains, beautiful landscapes, her 1985 Toyota Bandit, and the wonderful Sailor, her pet husky.

2. Emily and Corey (@wheresmyofficenow)

Emily King and Corey Smith have been living the van life since they met Foster Huntington who, if you’ve been paying attention, you’ll know started the hashtag. They met way back in 2012 in Nicaragua. Huntington mentioned that he thought they’d work well in a van, and all these years later, they’re still doing it. So he was right. Emily was a web designer, giving her a possibility to work remotely and make it possible. The two now spend their life on the road, mountain biking, surfing and hiking around the world, all from the base of their 1987 Volkswagen Vanagon camper, which has been modified beautifully for the purpose.

3. Vanlife Diaries (@vanlifediaries)

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Our latest ‘Vanlife Diaries’ feature article is live ‘ Meet Obinna & Aissatou of @oursoulagenda ⬆️ Link in profile to view the boss video clips and wonderful article these two excellent humans have dropped! Words from the full story “Essentially, we wanted ownership over our time and our future. We’d also spent the past 6 years living in cities, as we were in New York before Oakland, and had grown tired of the pollution, the pressure to conform to the city lifestyle, the fast pace, and the glaring socioeconomic inequalities. We wanted to get back to nature where we feel happiest and the most productive.” 🙌🏽 ❤️Edited & published by Jared Melrose @youandiandthesky one of the team here at Vanlife Diaries #vanlifediaries Uniting this international community around this wonderful earth.

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Vanlife Diaries has become one of the most popular van life accounts on Instagram, with over 465,000 followers. Not only because it highlights beautiful pictures from van lifers around the world, but because it tells their stories too. It’s all about showcasing the beauty, art and community of van life, and it does a damn good job of doing so.

4. Sheena, Jason and Riley (@mavistheairstream)

Sheena, Jason and Riley run the ‘Mavis the Airstream‘ account. Mavis being a 1977 Airstream Sovereign which has been converted into a traveller’s dream, Sheena and Jason being a woman and a man – and Riley being a poodle. What a combo. This account is particularly good for any fans of interior design. Sheena and Jason have done an unbelievable job with their van conversion.

5. Joana & Eric (@desfenetressurlemonde)

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Mountains Love [ English below ] FR // Ce soir là était aussi une première fois. La première fois que nous empruntions la route qui traverse le Parc National de Jasper en fin de journée… Quand la route se fait beaucoup plus calme et que la lumière se fait douce. Si douce qu’elle en caresse les montagnes et les sublime. _________ EN // This evening there was also a first time. The first time we borrowed the road that passes through the Jasper Park at the end of the day… When the road is much quieter and the light is soft. So sweet that it caresses the mountains and sublime them. . 🚐💨✨⁠ .⁣⠀⁠ .⁣⁠ www.DesFenetresSurLeMonde.com⁠ .⁠ .⁠ #desfenetressurlemonde #nouveauxnomades #simplyadventure #lifeofadventure⁠ W/ @chapkaassurances & @frontrunneroutfitters⁠ .⁠ #reformlife #exploremore #roamtheplanet #voyage #iamatraveller #overlander #vanlife #passionpassport #openroad #vanlifediaries #overlanding #roadtrip #fulltimetravel #nomadiclife #adventuremobile #campervan #neverstopexploring #outdoors #travellife #wildernessculture #projectvanlife #exploringtheglobe #staywild #exploreobserveshare #homeonwheels #coupletravel⁠

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Des Fenêtres sur le Monde’ translates to English as “windows on the world”, which is a fitting name for an account which seems to cover a lot of ground. French nomads Joana and Eric have been living the van life since 2015. Their converted van is a 1984 Volkswagen T3 Westfalia and they run one of the most beautiful accounts, in terms of nature and outdoor photography, that the #vanlife hashtag has to offer.

5 Tips for Getting Started with Van Conversions and Van Life

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It can be tough to know where to start with such a big decision. Photo: Wantto

Alright, so you’re sold on the van life. Now you want to get going. You want to get yourself a van, convert it and get out on the road. But… where on earth do you start? It’s obviously a massive call, deciding to live in a van and travel the world. It’s not cheap, you’re giving up a home for a vehicle with much less space and, typically, unless you can work from the road, you’ve got to give up your job in order to do it. With all that in mind, we’ve put together a handful of tips for anyone considering getting involved:

1. Rent first to get a taster for van life

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There are a lot of companies that rent you out a camper van these days. Photo: Ingo Doerrie

We fully endorse van life. We fully endorse working less, adventuring more and focusing on the beautiful scenery, people and places you love most. That said, it’s a huge lifestyle change from the everyday and it’s likely not for everyone. There’s a lot of maintenance involved, a lot less room to live in, a lot fewer everyday comforts and a lot of everyday issues you’ve probably not faced before if you’re a first timer – stuff like toilet use, sleeping space, cooking and cleaning (both your stuff and yourself).

You might love the idea of van life and living in a van conversion, but is the whole thing really for you? If you’re not 100% sure, there are plenty of places you can rent a VW or a more traditional camper van for a decent period of time. It’s a great way of finding out if the life really is for you before, you know, selling all of your worldly possessions and then finding out you don’t like it.

2. Pick your van carefully and to your needs

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Pick a van that suits you, not just one that’s nice and shiny like above. Photo: Simon Rae

It shouldn’t surprise you to know that picking the van you’re going to live in is probably the most important part of van life. The most important thing is that you pick a van that suits your needs, rather than just picking the one you think is most aesthetically pleasing. If they match up, brilliant. A win for all concerned. But that’s not the most important thing. You’re going to literally be living in the thing. It needs to meet your functional needs too.

Do you want pop out beds, for example, and if so, are you going to have the space for them? How many people are you planning on taking in the camper van? If you’re planning on kitting it out and doing a full conversion in the back – do you have the room you need, and, err, do you actually know what you’re doing? Perhaps getting a camper van – typically already geared out – is something you should consider if not. Is the kombi or VW you’ve got your heart set on actually functional beneath the bonnet, or does it just look really pretty? You don’t want to buy something, then find out you need a bunch of spare parts to fix it that are discontinued.

If you’re going to be off-road a lot, perhaps an SUV is the better option. Though, of course, there isn’t as much space as a full camper van. Basically, consider every option before buying – with your specific needs in mind. They’re what’s most important for a happy life. Not Instagram likes.

3. Always travel light

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Any space taken up by belongings is less space for you. Photo: Paul Trienekens

On the note of selling all your worldly possessions, if you are going to go all in and really live the van life, you do need to have the mentality that personal belongings are not of as much importance as in the moment experiences.

You should only carry what you absolutely need to live a healthy, happy and safe life. Otherwise, your van conversion will be full of stuff you don’t often use and you’ll have even less space. Being untidy or stockpiling while living in a van is not a happy combo. Once you get going, you’ll quickly find out what’s important, what you actually need, and anything else will just be taking up valuable space. Channel your inner Marie Kondo.

4. Don’t forget your hygiene!

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All those adventures mean you’re going to get dirty… Photo: Tommy Lisbin

Remember that it can get quite sweaty out there on the road. And you may not have any plans for a shower, or for how to wash your clothes? Well… we would advise getting some. Especially since a lot of the love of van life is access to stuff like surfing, mountain biking and hiking. As you’ll know, they all often leave you badly in need a shower.

A lot of campsites don’t have a shower, but a solar shower bag can be a cracking option for anyone getting started in a van. Keep wet wipes in abundance for times in between. And likewise, just keep an eye on laundry, and remember to do it whenever you can. In terms of clothing, you should also think about all-weather clothes that’ll do you in all conditions, and materials like merino wool which tend to smell less than others are always useful.

You should also think about your heating in advance. If you’re going to be living the van life in the UK in winter for example, you’re going to need a radiator to keep you warm.

5. Stock up when you’re shopping

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If you’re heading off the grid, stock up properly while you’re still on it! Photo: Brina Blum

The whole point of van life is that it means that you are able to get off the grid very easily. This also means that you you’ll likely also often find yourself far away from any everyday food supplies. So just make sure you get an abundance of snacks and make the most out of your shopping whenever you are in a supermarket. Oh, and toilet paper. Get that too.

If you’ve got your van but aren’t sure where to take it, check out our adventure holidays around the world now.