When Paul and I decided to buy a campervan to travel around New Zealand for a year, we had no idea what to look for. Whether you have only a few (thousand) bucks to get you started or you want to create a luxury home on wheels, in this article, we go through the key components to consider when buying or fitting out a campervan.
Maximising the use of space is key for any size vehicle, but the smaller the vehicle the more multi-functional these fixtures and fittings need to be. But let’s go through each of them in detail.
Got your campervan but wonder what to pack? Check out our complete packing list for your campervan travels.
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Sleeping and Seating
Consider whether you need sleeping space during the day – for example, to work on your laptop computer comfortably or to eat inside when the weather is cold and miserable. If you do, you will need to think about buying (or fitting) a campervan with a bed base and mattress that can be folded away to double as a seating area/workspace.
Mattresses can be anything from self-inflating sleeping pads to normal mattresses. If your sleeping area needs are not the standard size you can always get foam cut to size. Most importantly: Make it as comfortable as you can afford.
What about camping chairs? you may wonder. We opted against them as they require storage space we’d rather use for more important things. We sit inside when the weather is gorgeous but still enjoy the scenery and fresh air with our doors and windows open. A picnic rug could be a good compromise if you want the option for al fresco dining without the storage issue.
Beyond a good night’s sleep and somewhere to sit and eat/work, you’ll need water… to make coffee/tea, brush your teeth, wash yourself/your crockery etc.
If you travel around New Zealand and want to stay outside of paid campgrounds, your vehicle needs to be self-contained. The self-containment certificate requires fresh and grey/black water tanks of 12 litres (respectively) per person.
When it comes to water tanks, consider your usage, storage space and weight:
- Our in-built freshwater tank stored 85 litres, and our grey water tank holds nearly 100 litres. This was sufficient for the two of us for up to three days (including a quick shower daily in our wet room shower).
- A couple travelling in New Zealand, even in a basic campervan, must have at least two 25-litre jerry cans (one each for fresh and greywater). A full 25-litre jerry can is not light!
- If you don’t have space for an in-built tank and don’t want to schlepp around 25-litre jerry cans, a compromise could be a portable tank on rolls for both your fresh and your greywater.
Either way, ensure your freshwater container is BPA-free/made of food-grade polyethene.
Power Supply and Lighting
Before you spend money on a fancy (or even basic) solar/battery system, consider whether you want to be
- fully off-grid – with a DC system only
- able to switch between solar and mains power seamlessly – with a combined DC/AC system or
- able to plug into mains power occasionally – with separate AC and DC systems,
decide on the voltage for your DC system (most use 12 or 24V) and calculate your DC power needs. We opted for the latter, meaning we can use our AC devices when plugged into mains power at campgrounds but otherwise use DC only.
Once you know your system/power needs, you can source the equipment for your solar/battery system.
Monocrystalline panels are the most efficient ones out there, but in the end, it comes down to your power needs, roof space and budget.
While Maximum Power Point Tracking (MPPT) charge controllers are more expensive, we recommend them over Pulse Width Modulation (PWM) charge controllers to maximize solar efficiency.
12-volt charging sockets are great but you may also want to consider USB sockets for those devices that charge via a USB cable. In our Ford Transit campervan in 2018, we installed one single 12-volt charging socket for the Modem and a separate 2-socket USB socket for our Microsoft Surface Pro computers. If we self-built a Truck Camper in the future, we would install several power outlets that support the Cigarette Lighter Socket, 18W / 3A USB-A port, and a 45W 15V3A USB-C port for power delivery to our Microsoft Surface Pro computers.
Your house batteries need to be able to handle continuous (dis)charging, so heavy-duty deep-cycle batteries are what you need. Select your battery capacity based on your solar output and keep in mind that two 6V batteries in a series are as good as (some even say better than) one 12V battery. For our Ford Transit Campervan in 2018, we went with 2 Synergy AC6-225 (6V245Ah) AGM Batteries, however, if we self-built a Truck Camper in the future, we would opt for the ePOWER B-TEC 12V 300Ah Lithium Battery. A lot more expensive, but well worth the money.
Almost as important as your batteries, the battery monitor shows you how much charge your battery system gets, whether you draw more than you produce (and if you may need a top-up charge from mains power).
LED lights use very little power and are known for their longevity.
Some devices we normally use with AC actually operate on DC (for example, laptops). You don’t need an inverter if you only use those devices. Just get a charging cable that plugs into a 12V charging socket.
If you want to use an AC-only device (for example, an induction cooktop, toaster, blender, hair dryer or electric heater) with your solar system, you require an inverter and AC power outlets. We opted against an inverter as our heater alone would have depleted our battery bank in no time.
12-volt Battery Charger
A battery charger comes in handy if you are stationary in crappy weather for several days (and you have the opportunity to plug into mains power to charge your house batteries). We opted for a separate 12-volt 7-stage battery charger as an inbuilt one was too expensive. We only used it twice in the entire year that we were in the van.
When we do self-build our Truck Camper in the future, we plan to install the Enerdrive EN3DC40+ 12V 40A DC2DC+ Battery Charger which incorporates the MPPT.
We bought an ex-rental, so our van was already fitted out, which made it difficult to change the solar/battery set-up as a non-expert. If you fit out your van yourself, DIY is the way to go (even as a complete novice, as it’s not rocket science). It saves you heaps of money, and you can easily fix any issues / alter the system down the track.
Refrigeration and Cooking
Unless you buy your food fresh daily or travel in the depth of winter, you will have to look at some form of cooling/refrigeration. Our campervan had an old three-way fridge (operating on LPG/Propane, 12V or 240V), but we replaced that one pretty early on with a 12V compressor fridge. Those ain’t cheap by any means but the three-way fridge drew too much power in its 12V setting and LPG just didn’t cool the items reliably (sometimes our food was frozen, sometimes not cool enough).
When it comes to cooking, consider whether you will cook mostly inside your vehicle or outdoors – and thus whether a portable or fixed stove is more suitable. Apart from an induction cooktop (which draws way too much power in our opinion), you’ll probably end up with some form of a fuel-using stove:
In New Zealand, LPG stoves need to be installed by a professional gas fitter, and LPG bottles need to be in an airtight compartment separate to the main cabin. Other countries are more relaxed / rely on carbon-dioxide monitors.
These include Butane stoves (cheap to buy but not very environmentally friendly, given one cartridge only lasts for a few days) and stoves running on Methylated Spirits/Denatured Alcohol or Biofuel.
(Water) Heating and Cooling
Our campervan came with a 240V electric (water) heater, but if we fitted out a van in the future, we would fork out the cash for a diesel heater/hot water cylinder.
It seems most recreational vehicles in North America have an air-conditioning unit installed. Our campervan didn’t, and even in the height of summer in New Zealand, we never needed it: our side window and ceiling skylight had insect screens, and both of them being open overnight, always created a nice breeze. Air cons (like electric heaters) use a lot of power, so consider the climate of the places you plan to visit because it’s not just the cost of the unit but also the cost of additional solar capacity or the need to stay in campsites for mains power you need to factor in.
Equally important as any heating or cooling devices are good insulation and window coverings (the latter also for privacy).
Toilet and Shower
Having an accessible toilet on board is one of the requirements to be considered self-contained in New Zealand. Toilet options range from (inbuilt or portable) cassette toilets to composting toilets. Even a simple bucket (with a lid) may be okay for some van dwellers/countries (though not for self-contained vehicles in New Zealand).
Just after we purchased our campervan, the existing 20-year-old toilet failed, so we had to get a new toilet system. To match the existing wet room size, we went with the Thetford C402C Toilet at a total installed cost of NZD838.36.
A solar-heated shower is an inexpensive option during the warmer months: Open your back door/s and affix a shower curtain – voilà, you have an outdoor shower (just make sure you use environmentally friendly soap/shampoo). When buying a solar shower, look for quality material, a sturdy design (including a reinforced handle), an easy on/off shower nozzle, and go for black over any other colour as it will heat up faster.
Not keen on outdoor showers? Why not install a wet room in your vehicle (if you have space) or stay at campsites with bathrooms?
What’s your setup?
I wrote this van life essentials article based on our own experience.Do you live on the road full-time? Is there anything you would recommend that we’ve forgotten to mention?. If you liked my article and tips and found them helpful, I would appreciate it if you could share them with your friends and family via the Share buttons below. Even better, link to the page from your personal blog or social media platforms.