Because I am a very busy person, drowning in social engagement invitations, I have watched literally hundreds of van life videos over the past six months. Many of these videos are walk-throughs of conversion/camper vans, and utilizing this not quite but kinda first-person experience, I believe I have pieced together the greatest van layout in the known universe.
Anyone who has ever built out a living space in a van will tell you that every cubic inch counts. This probably isn’t a surprise to anyone, but it’s still an important mantra to repeat to oneself every 12 to 15 minutes as they design their van. Every. Cubic. Inch.
With that in mind, the first and most important element of my van layout actually has nothing to do with the van. It’s me. I’m 5′-8” and 165 lbs. after breakfast. Being a barely averaged sized American adult male means the space my body doesn’t take up is more space to work with in the van.
The head space a tall person would need in the van can, in my case, be utilized for storage – or a disco ball. Since my arm span is relatively compact, I can cheat a little bit with the width of the van and worry less about smacking my elbows into things.
With the absolutely perfect van life size of my body taken into consideration, here’s what I have planned:
Types of vans that are ideal for my van layout
People have converted all manner of vans (and other vehicles) into campers and full-time homes. Van lifers by and large seem to have zeroed in on three van makes and models: The Mercedes Sprinter, the Ram ProMaster, and the Ford Transit.
The Mercedes Sprinter is popular with van lifers for its factory 4×4 models, its resale value and the availability of van life build-out starter kits for the money-saving do-it-youselfers, of which there are many. They have diesel engines and good gas mileage by van standards.
I ruled out the Mercedes for two reasons: the price tag for purchase/maintenance and the availability of licensed Mercedes dealers and repair shops. The purchase price aside (it’s the most expensive of the three listed here), maintenance costs are a little ridiculous and finding certified Mercedes repair shops can be difficult. If you break down far from a dealer, you’re in for a ruinously expensive tow, before you even get to the inflated repair costs.
The Ram ProMaster (A.K.A. the Fiat Ducato) may be, just by a centimeter, the most popular van lifer option. Prices for new ones are reasonable and prices for used ones are extremely reasonable, which is great for buyers, but not so great for sellers.
The 90-degree angles in the cargo area make the conversion much easier. (Walls that curve require A LOT more anal-retentive design tweaking and internal framework cutting, not to mention more than a few lost cubic inches of space.)
Almost any garage can service the ProMaster and they don’t charge a month’s salary to change a break light. Also, this is a preferred van for tall people, as it has the widest interior, which makes side-to-side sleeping feasible. Front-to-back sleeping takes up a wee bit more horizontal interior space and, as we already know, every cubic inch counts.
People report that driving the ProMaster is relatively easy, despite its width, and it has a turning radius comparable to a standard car which makes a world of difference for urban driving. The one downside is that the ProMaster is (front) two-wheel drive, with a lower clearance, so you can’t convert it to a 4×4 and take it off-roading for remote camping or to access adventure sport locales.
If you play your cards right, a used Ford Transit may be the least expensive van life option available. It has the tallest roof configuration option of the three I mention here, again making it popular with tall people and short people with a passion for wearing sombreros inside. It also gets decent gas mileage for a van (16 mpg city, 20 mpg highway).
The downside is that it’s rear-wheel drive, which can be a headache for driving in snowy and icy conditions. However, this can be at least partially compensated for if you carry a lot of weight in the back, which is probable with conversion vans, since some of the heaviest stuff goes in the back. And if you must, with a little work on the wheel wells, you can have it converted to a 4×4.
I have decided I’m going with the Ford. The price is right, it appears to be a little more durable than the Ram and there isn’t a garage anywhere in the country that can’t service it.
If I were planing to do a lot of international travel in my van, I would probably go with the Ram, since Fiat is a little more international than Ford, but apart from Canada, I have no plans to cross borders with my van.
OK, on to the really good stuff, the van layout.
Van layout bathroom
I’m opting for a fixed bathroom and this is a non-debatable component for me. Many vans don’t have a fixed bathroom. Often the toilet is hidden in a cupboard on a retractable platform and showers are frequently a makeshift situation, when they exist at all, with nothing but a removable shower curtain protecting the rest of the van from also taking a shower. There’s good reason for these improvised bathrooms. Having a fixed bathroom takes up a lot of precious space and adds several hundred, maybe even a thousand dollars to your build-out budget.
I’m sure the creative, hidden bathroom design choices work just fine, and they can be quite ingenious, but for the sake of my physical and mental contentment, I decided I need a hard delineation between my living space and the bathroom. I need those four walls to make my van layout seem more like a home and less like camping on wheels.
There are a lot of van lifers driving around without a shower in their vans who claim that, after a few weeks in a van, you realize that you actually don’t need to shower that much. Those people are insane and cannot be trusted. I love a shower like I love a block of chocolate the size of a car battery. These people also claim that they can shower whenever they want at their gym. That feels a bit too hostel-y to me. No, I require a shower inside my van, period.
More and more vans are incorporating a water re-circulation system for the shower. This was once only available to engineering geeks who didn’t mind the (reportedly) frequent maintenance, but I’m seeing them crop up in new van layout videos more and more. I’ll definitely be looking into this option, once I have a handle on my space limitations.
Van layout kitchen
I’m still torn about a few kitchen design choices, but I have the basics figured out.
One thing I know for sure is that I want a deep sink, with a cover that’s flush with the counter top. Horizontal space in a van is too precious to have an open sink. The sink will also have a second tap for filtered water.
Also, I’m making the bold choice to include a microwave. Microwaves present both space and power sacrifices (by which I mean I’ll need a stout battery bank), but sometimes you just want a burrito in three minutes. Also, leftovers are delicious.
Ovens are more and more common in a van layout which, again, is an indulgence in both space and power. I don’t think I can afford to have an oven AND a microwave and the instances that I need a burrito in three minute far outnumber the instances that I need fresh chocolate chip cookies. I’ll just have to start buying fresh cookies, rather than making them myself. No one said there wouldn’t be sacrifices.
Refrigerators for vans come in all shapes and sizes. Many van life people will swear by the top loading fridge, because cool air sinks, so less cold air escapes when you open from the top, which therefore saves power. But those top loading refrigerators are usually housed on the floor of the van, which not only takes up precious footprint space, but it also means lots of deep knee bends to access the items in your fridge. I’m getting to an age where deep knee bends are no small feat. I want my fridge at torso height, which spares my poor knees and also frees up that floor space for things that have to live on the floor. So, I’m leaning toward a compact, front-loading fridge. With a freezer. I need my ice cubes.
Then there is the question of the stove. I’ll have one, of course, but I’m still seesawing over whether to have a propane or electric stove. Propane means less power consumption, but it also means worrying about one more finite resource that can run out at inopportune times. In a van, you’re already playing a never-ending balancing act with diminishing resources like electricity, water, and gasoline, not to mention emptying the ever-accumulating gray water tank and composting toilet before they overflow. I’m not sure I want one more thing that needs constant monitoring.
Also, propane adds a small, but nevertheless possible risk of a leak. (Fun fact: My parents almost died while sleeping in their VW Bus due to a propane leak.) So, add a propane leak detector, and its batteries, to the list of things I’d have to constantly maintain.
I’m leaning toward an electrical stove for now, but I’m not married to it.
Lastly, still on the topic of stoves, there’s the fixed stove option or a portable stove, that stows away in all of the upper cabinet space I’ll have above my 5′-8” head when not in use.
The fixed stove doesn’t necessarily mean sacrificing precious horizontal space, because, like the sink, you can have a cover for when it’s not in use. Unless you’re actively cooking, or just finished and it’s still hot, you can still use that space for anything.
A portable stove means it’s truly out of the way when not in use, and I’m not sure how often I’d take advantage of this, but one can choose to cook outside on hot days, reducing the strain on the air con (and the batteries).
Van layout bed options
As I’ve already described, van layout beds usually come in two varieties: The fixed bed and the some-assembly-required bed.
I’m going for Option C: a Murphy bed. Fixed beds eat up more van layout space than anything else. Meanwhile, there’s nothing more tedious than a complicated bed assembly when all you want to do is collapse. Murphy beds are the ideal compromise. The area can be used during the day for work and then, bam, you lower the (already made!) bed and you can go right to sleep without spending five minutes playing real life Tetris and then putting on the sheets and so forth.
With a Murphy bed, I greatly increase both my living and work space. The people with fixed beds usually end up working while sitting in the van’s passenger seat, which has been outfitted with a swivel so it can swing around and face the living area when the van isn’t in motion. A removable lagoon table serves as the desk. This seems clumsy and there’s no way it’s ergonomically correct. With the Murphy bed out of the way, you can design a proper desk and a serviceable seating area.
Some people with fixed beds just work in bed, which I have never understood and am not interested in trying.
The area under the fixed bed, or in my case the rear bench, serves as the “garage” area where you put all the stuff you don’t want sullying your living area. This includes tools, supplies, cleaning stuff, usually some or all of the electrical and plumbing components and, with outdoorsy folks, their bikes/surf boards/gear/toys. I do plan to have a folding bike stored back there, and a bag of juggling props, otherwise my garage space needs are going to be pretty minimal.
There are two schools of thought on a van layout and windows, particularly if you plan to live in your van full time.
The first is the very sensible desire to see out of your van and let natural light in. After all, you’ll be parking your van, at least occasionally, in picturesque places and why not have unobstructed views of your surroundings after going through the effort of driving to that pretty place? Also, most windows will open at least a little and, depending on your air conditioning situation, you’ll want good air flow on hot nights.
That said, one of the things that keeps van lifers up at night, and nail-biting during the day, is the safety of their vans, and its contents when they’re in the grocery store or on a hike or at an all-day conference. For this reason, some van lifers chose not to have any windows at all. This way, there’s little exterior evidence that the van might contain something valuable, never mind your most prized possessions. Also, having no windows makes “stealth camping” easier, as the van will seem more like a work/delivery van from the outside, greatly reducing the dreaded nighttime door-knock from the police, summoned by a concerned resident of the neighborhood.
I’m going with no windows. I plan to have air conditioning (see below) and I’ll make up for the lack of natural light from windows by having a skylight hidden between the solar panels on the roof, which will also house my vent fan.
This still may not be enough to provide needed air flow, so I’m seriously considering horse trailer vents. They allow for more cross-ventilation without worrying about people peeking into your windows, looking for valuables – or just watching you sleep.
In my quest to keep the van as low profile as possible, I’m going to have the solar panels installed so they’re flush with the roof of the van. That way, the only way anyone can spot the telltale solar panels indicating that something valuable is in the van is if they’re looking down on the van from up high. People going by on the sidewalk will be none the wiser.
There are a lot of opinions about how many solar panels (i.e. how many volts) one needs on their van. As I’m planning to be an electricity hog, I’m going with as many as I can get away with, preferably 400 volts or more.
Other crap on the outside
Per my previous statements, I’ll be keeping exterior crap to a minimum. That means no ladder on the back (I’ll have a removable, extending ladder, so I can reach the roof when necessary), no fixed, extending awning on the passenger side (very popular, by the way), no strong boxes hanging on the back, few if any extraneous antennae, and so forth.
Air con used to be the holy grail for van life. It’s such a power drain that only the most decked out vans had them, often at great sacrifice. But as solar panels and batteries have improved, air con is now reasonably realistic.
I’ve seen a few water evaporation air con set-ups that look intriguing, but I recently saw a van tour video where a guy had a small, standard window air conditioner in his van, with the surprising comment that these units use far less energy than most people realize. This merits more research, particularly how to vent it without cutting another hole into the side or top of the van, but that option may be the silver bullet. And again, since cool air sinks, I can position the window air conditioner up high, where there’s no fear of bonking my head.
My van layout will have a bolted down safe, in which I will store my laptop and valuables. Where/how is none of your beeswax.
I’ll write more about security in an upcoming standalone post.
As mentioned above, if I have my way, there will be no side windows in the van’s living area. Even with the skylight, interior lighting will have to be generous. There’s nothing more depressing (and creepy) than a small, dimly lit space. Also, my eyes aren’t getting getting any younger and I’m going to need plenty of light just to read and prepare food and so forth.
The current van layout lighting trend, which I love, is to have LED strip lighting, both up high and down by the floor, A.K.A. “toe kick lighting.” The customization of LED lighting allows for delightful flexibility in brightness and even color. The lights aren’t too expensive, but getting them installed in an aesthetically pleasing manner is reportedly not cheap. But it’s absolutely worth it, in my opinion.
The absence of windows will likely mean I spend more time with the side and/or back doors open. In order to keep the nature outside, I’ll need some kind of bug netting solution to cover the openings.
Those, in far too many words, are the broad strokes. There are a million tiny details that I can’t really plan for until I have a more exact idea of the type and layout of my van. Things like where dirty laundry goes that won’t stink up the entire van, storage for shoes (and other dirty things you don’t want in your living area), clothes and food, where the clean and gray water tanks will go, a garbage arrangement that isn’t gross or needs to be emptied once a day, how/where to mount the TV, and countless other minutia.
If anyone has notes or suggestions about my van layout, please leave a comment below.