Plan your van – camper van design and layout guide

a view of mark's interior from the bed

Okay, you have a van. Now it’s time to turn it into a camper van. The design and layout of your van is both challenging and rewarding. Start by deciding what features and amenities you want in your camper van. That’s the easy part. Then you must figure out how to fit everything in less than 80 square feet. That’s the hard part. But don’t worry, we’ll get through it together!

This guide goes over various features and amenities to consider. Additionally, I’ll talk a little bit about interior design and style, as well as how to plan your van layout. However, this is only an overview. Throughout this guide you’ll find links to more in-depth articles. I’m currently working on those articles, so if a section doesn’t have a link, check back soon! Or better yet, scroll down to the footer to sign up for our newsletter so you never miss post!

Contents

What are your goals and needs?

Before we get started, you need to identify your van life goals. Like what do you want to do with your van? For instance, if you want to live in a van to go mountain biking more, you might want a fixed bed with a garage for bike storage. Or if you plan to work remotely while on the road, you might want a super comfy work area. If you plan on city dwelling, stealth might be your number one priority. That’s the stuff you need to think about.

You also need to think about your needs. If all your needs aren’t met while you’re on the road, van life won’t be the fun adventure you hoped for. Read more about using test runs to identify your needs in this blog post. As we go through the different van features and amenities, keep these goals and needs in mind.

Weight distribution

Before we get started, let’s talk about weight distribution. Planning a van layout is hard enough as it is. But you need to try to keep the weight balanced as you design your layout. Uneven weight distribution can lead to uneven wear of the tires and even affect handling. It’s best to keep the heavier stuff between the axels and as close to the floor as possible. And don’t forget to consider the weight of the building materials. With only a few small projects left, our build came in at over 1,600 pounds! That’s not including any of our personal stuff either!

Windows

If your van already has windows, make sure to note their location before you start designing your van layout. More than likely you don’t want to build over the windows. So, the layout kind of revolves around where they are. If your van doesn’t have windows, you need decide if you want them and where they’ll go.

There are a couple reasons folks like having windows in their van. First and foremost, they provide ventilation. Even one small window used in conjunction with a vent fan will do wonders for ventilating your van. Second, they let in natural light. Also, when deciding whether you want windows, there are a few things to keep in mind. One, as mentioned before, you can’t/don’t want to build over them. Two, they’re harder to insulate. The best you can do is a window covering. Three, they remove the stealth factor of a cargo van. Stealth is likely more important for city dwellers, but it’s still something to think about.

Systems

mark's under sink plumbing
We didn’t want to deal with a lot of plumbing, so we opted for a simple setup.

We’re starting with systems because they are vital to a comfortable home. They support a lot of your amenities. For instance, ventilation, cooking, washing, etc. The location of these systems is important for the van layout. Batteries and water tanks weigh a significant amount. So, make sure to factor them into the weight distribution.

Water/plumbing

As far as water goes, consider what capacity you want for your potable water tank. The larger the tank, the heavier it is and the more space it takes up. On the other hand, smaller tanks require more frequent filling. Also, the location of the tank in relation to a sink or shower determines how far you need to run the plumbing. And you need easy access to fill the tanks. Moreover, you need access to the plumbing as well in case of leaks.

Electrical/propane

battery monitor
We have the power!

Electricity is a van conversion must have for most people. At a minimum, this includes leisure batteries, an inverter and a way to charge the batteries. Charging options include solar, shore power and the van’s alternator. Easy access to the electrical equipment isn’t super necessary, but they do need to be accessible. Switches, fuses and outlets need easy acccess, which you can place on a control panel. 

Propane is another beast because it is combustible. You need to decide what size tanks are best for you. Smaller camp-sized tanks take up less space but they’re one-time use. On the other hand, large tanks last longer and are refillable but take up more space. It’s safest to store propane in a sealed box or container with a low-point vent to outside the van. Additionally, when planning your van layout, think about how the propane is getting from the tank to its loads (stove, heater, etc.).

Kitchen

First, consider what you want in your kitchen, like sink, stove, fridge, and storage. Second, where do you want it located? You can design your van layout with the kitchen inside the van or a pull-out kitchen used outside the van. Inside means all-weather cooking. Whereas outside means cooking in the elements. The last thing to consider is if you want the kitchen all in one spot or split up. For example, some folks choose to have the stove along one wall and the sink along the other.

Sink

A sink is a multipurpose essential. It acts as a kitchen sink and bathroom sink, as well as a place to wash clothes. The biggest consideration is the sink size. You want the sink big enough to be practical but not so big that it takes up unnecessary space. And don’t forget about the sink location in relation to the water tank!

Stove

hinged countertop over the stove
We have a two-burner stove and oven with a hinged countertop to maximize counter space.

Unless you’re a raw vegan or plan on eating out all the time, a stove is a must. The three main things to consider when selecting a stove are: fuel type, number of burners and whether you want an oven. Additionally, consider if you want a permanently installed or portable stove. We chose a portable stove so we could cook outside during the hot summer months.

The type of fuel affects your other systems and storage, thus affecting the van layout. For example, an induction stove uses up battery power. But if go with a propane stove then you need a place to store a propane tank. The number of burners isn’t only about cooking convenience but counter space as well. The more burners, the more counter space you lose. Opting for an oven takes up potential storage space. However, an oven also means fresh baked cookies and muffins!

Counter space

There are different ways to maximize counter space without taking away floorspace. Consider a fold-up countertop extension. We set up our swivel table so it raises up to countertop height. Additionally, we have a hinged countertop over the stove. This give us extra counter space until it’s time to cook. The hinged countertop idea also works well with a reach-in fridge. You can even use a sink insert or cover for a larger workspace.

Fridge/cooler

fridge on the middle shelf of a cabinet worked for our van layout
We didn’t want to stoop down to get in the fridge, so we put it up higher. You can do whatever you want with your van layout!

Although a fridge or cooler is a convenient way to store perishables, they aren’t necessary. But they sure are cool! Too cheesy? A cooler’s up-front cost is likely less than that of a fridge. However, consider the cost and inconvenience of getting ice. Fridges keep your stuff cool until you run out of power and/or fuel. The idea is to get an efficient fridge. Because of this, many people buy RV or marine specific fridges. They are designed to use as little power as possible. Additionally, some RV fridges run off either electricity or propane.

There are three styles of fridges, and all three give you a wide range of sizes/volumes to choose from. Some even have dedicated freezers as well. One, an upright fridge. It has a door that opens like any other household fridge. However, if you buy an RV or marine fridge, the door also features a latch to keep it closed while traveling. Two, a drawer fridge. It is just like an upright except the door is the face of the pull-out drawer. Three, a chest fridge. It resembles a cooler with power. The key difference between the three types is how they open. A chest needs space above it to open. Many folks opt to put in on a pull-out shelf to maximize storage while still allowing access.

Relaxing, eating and working

a fixed bed with garage was a must for our van layout
Ignore the unfinished doors and focus on the fixed platform bed and the huge garage underneath.

When thinking about relaxing in your van, picture a rainy day where you’re stuck inside. You want a van layout with a comfortable space to sit and relax in. But this space is likely where you’ll eat and work as well. And this multi-use space can serve as a bed too. More on that below!

Seating

The great thing about seats is they double as storage. In addition, they can also double as a bed, but we’ll get into that in a little bit. There are two major things to consider with seating. First, the orientation of the seats. Jeremy and I prefer to face each other. Not because we like to gaze lovingly into each other’s eyes, but so we can hide our hands when playing cards. However, a bench seat could work better for you. Second, the number of people you need to seat. If you like to entertain or have more than two people living in the van, facing bench seats might work well.

Table

seats and swivel table
Our little sitting area complete with swivel table.

There are four different ways to set up a table. One, set it on a swivel leg. This gives you the most options as far as orientation, and they’re removable to free up space. Two, set it on a telescoping leg or legs. This is a popular option for those who use their seating area as a bed too. But more on that in a little bit. Third, a pull-out table. Tuck away the table when not needed and pull it out when it is. Fourth, a folding table. Just like the pull-out table it stays out of the way when not needed. However, the vertical space isn’t accessible while the table is stowed.

Bed

A great way to squeeze a lot into a small area is multifunctional equipment and spaces. This is the key to a successful van layout. Your bed setup is one of the best ways to do it. Since we just talked about seating and tables, let’s put them together and make a bed! The telescoping table drops to the height of the two bench seats. Then rearrange the cushions and voila! You have a bed!

The next bed option takes advantage of seats as well. A bench seat can pull out to make a bed or fold out like a futon. Another popular option is a fixed platform bed. The space underneath forms a “garage,” giving you lots of storage.

Toilet/shower

composting toilet under a seat maximizes space in a van layout
Our DIY composting toilet hides under a seat, complete with toilet paper holder.

Some people don’t like the idea of pooing in their van. However, if it doesn’t bother you, what kind of toilet do you want? Composting and chemical toilets are the most popular. You can place a toilet in any inconspicuous space. Ours hides under one of the seats. I’ve seen some hidden in cabinets as well. Another popular spot is in the shower. That is if you want a shower.

Indoor van showers are awesome. However, they take up a lot of space. A shower is easier to fit in a longer van, but you can make it work in a short one. Really want an indoor shower but don’t have the space in your van layout? Consider a shower you can put away, like A Vintage Rolling Stone. But if you have a low top van, an indoor shower isn’t feasible even if you want one. Sigh. Therefore, an outdoor shower is always an option. The best thing about an outdoor shower is it doesn’t take away floor space.

Storage

wine box holder under sink
We utilized the space next to the sink bowl for a wine box holder/dispenser.

There are obvious storage solutions, like fixed-bed garage or under seats. But any nook or cranny is potential storage. Any. Have a step in your van? You can store stuff in it. We have towels and Q-tips in ours. Is there space next to your sink bowl? Turn it in storage. For instance, we built a box wine holder with room for garbage bags behind the wine. Many van lifers also include an “attic” above the cab. If you’re hard pressed for storage, consider a roof-top pod or a swing-away box for your tow hitch.

Interior design and style

While the look of your van conversion doesn’t affect the layout too much, now is a good time to think about it. The look you’re going for could influence the stove, sink and even fridge you choose. If you’re curious about what we used in Mark, check out our Gear page. The best thing about a self-conversion is turning an empty cargo van into a cozy home. A home that is just the way you want it. Need some inspiration for your interior? Pinterest is a great place to start.

Getting it all together

What I’m about to suggest might not be feasible to the full extent possible, but it’s still something to consider. Literally try to put everything you want to go in your van in one spot. I know this might sound crazy but hear me out.

My first nomadic experience was long-distance backpacking. The entire Appalachian Trail to be exact. When buying backpacking gear, it’s recommended to buy your backpack last. Why? Because once you have all your other gear, you know what size pack to buy. You can apply a similar theory to your van layout.

Like I said, it’s likely not feasible to get everything together, but the more you can amass the better. My husband and I gathered all the everyday things we thought we wanted to put in Mark. For instance, clothes, hobby stuff, kitchen stuff, toiletries, seasonal items, etc. Then we piled them in the spare bedroom. As a result, we had a better idea of how much storage we really needed. Having some sort of storage volume in mind helps when it comes time to design your van layout.

Designing your van layout

There are two ways to create a visual of your van layout – analog or digital. In other words, you can use pencil and paper or software. While good old-fashioned pencil and paper will get the job done, software makes it easier. Instead of erasing and re-drawing, drag and drop the different components with one click. Software also allows you to see the van layout in 3D. This gives you a better idea of how spacious the layout is.

Once you have designed a good van layout, I recommend testing it out. Some folks put masking tape on the van floor to get a better idea of how much floorspace they’ll have. Others use cardboard to craft makeshift cabinets and seats inside the van. This give you an even better idea of how the space will feel. I’ve even seen a couple who drew a life-size layout on their driveway with chalk!

our 2d van layout
Mark’s 2D layout. Everything we need is 76 square feet.

Make it happen!

Now that we’ve gone over the many things to consider when designing you van layout, it’s time to make it happen! Grab that notepad and pencil or boot up your computer and start putting it all together. Remember, your layout should meet all your van life goals and needs! If you want to look at other van layouts and floor plans to help you get started, check out Pinterest. Need more ideas? Head over to the Sportsmobile website. You can see their standard plans for Sprinters, Transits, Promasters and Chevy E-vans. Happy designing!

What’s next?

Once you nail down a van layout, it’s time to start the build out! Have zero building experience? Not sure what to build first or what order to go in? Don’t worry, that’s what Mark the Green Van is for! Our van build guide is coming soon, so stay tuned! Don’t want to miss out? Sign up for our newsletter in the footer!

Need more help getting started with van life? Check out our How to Start Van Life guide!

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Christina

Christina

I served 11 years in the Navy, and in 2014 I thru hiked the Appalachian Trail. These experiences helped prepare me for vanlife. My husband and I now live in our self-converted van, Mark.

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About Us

We left “normal” life behind and now live in our self-converted van, Mark. Our time in the military and backpacking adventures made van life an easy choice. The leap into van life and a self-conversion can be exciting yet daunting. We want to share our experiences and provide resources to get you from zero to van life!

jeremy and christina at sunset

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