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The best way to travel New Zealand is without doubt by campervan! Not only is it your means of transport, but also your accommodation. There is so much to see and do in this beautiful country, that the freedom of your own vehicle will allow you to do as much as possible! If you are in New Zealand for any longer than a few weeks, I would highly recommend buying a vehicle here to travel in instead of paying extortionate prices for a rental. If, like us, you are also a little bit daunted by the crazy thought of building things, keep reading for our tips for a New Zealand van conversion.
HOW TO BUY A VAN
Before you can think about converting a van, you will of course need to buy one first. Which can actually be quite a daunting task in a new country! First, have a think about what you are looking for in a van. Do you want it to be somewhat already converted? Do you want it to be self contained? We were looking for vans that had already been converted by backpackers. This meant most of the work was already done for us, we could just tweak a few things to make it right for us.
For a complete guide to buying a van, make sure to read my post Ultimate Tips on Buying a Van in New Zealand. This will give you all the tips you need on how to find a van and what to look for when viewing one.
The three images below are the interior of the van before we did any work to it. As you can see the living/sleeping area is the main part of the van with the kitchen area accessible by the boot. It was completely liveable for travelling the country, but we wanted to do some work on it to make it a little more special. One job we were pleased not to have to do ourselves was to install the floor, which everything else gets screwed onto. The previous owners would have had to measure this exactly and make sure it was level throughout the vehicle. If you are buying a van that hasn’t been converted, you will need to install this too!
STEP 1: TAKE MEASUREMENTS
Before you do anything, make sure you take measurements of absolutely everything! For us this meant measuring the boxes that made up the living area as this is what we wanted to change the most. If you are starting from scratch you would most likely need to gut the van first and then measure!
STEP 2: MAKE A PLAN
As we bought a van that had already been converted and was liveable this made it a lot easier for us. The base was already there and all we wanted to do was make a few changes to take it to the next level. We figured out that the layout the previous people put in place was the best use of the space for the size of the van. With the sleeping/living area just behind the drivers seat and the kitchen area at the rear, accessible by opening the boot. You might have a bigger van than ours, in which case you might be able to build some more storage or be able to build your kitchen inside. If you are starting completely from scratch, head to Pinterest for layout inspiration!
We made a list of changes we wanted to make which included widening the bed to the full width of the van, putting holes in the lids of the boxes, re-doing the kitchen etc!
STEP 3: EMPTY THE VAN
You’ve got your measurements, you know what you want to do inside, now empty it! We unscrewed everything that had already been installed so we could get to work. However this did mean living with all this wood in our apartment for quite a few months whilst we only had a few days off every week to work on it!
STEP 4: CLEAN!
We made sure we gave the inside of the van a good clean, as the owners before had been living in it 24/7 travelling the country. So as you can expect crumbs and dirt had accumulated in corners that we wouldn’t have seen if the van wasn’t completely empty. At first we didn’t bother with the outside, as we knew it was going to get dirty from sawdust and whatnot in the next few months.
STEP 5: BUILD/MAKE ADJUSTMENTS
So then we started with the hands-on stuff! Before we started we were actually quite daunted at the thought of all the work we had to do. And neither Jack or I had ever really done any sort of woodwork before! But luckily Jack has an eye for detail and he is quite practical, we actually surprised ourselves with how easily we managed to do everything.
The previous owners did leave some tools and screws for us that they didn’t get around to using, but even so we still had to get a lot more supplies. The two main DIY stores in New Zealand are Bunnings and Mitre 10, both are similarly priced and there should be a few of each in the main cities! We actually decided to buy our own electric drill, we didn’t fancy screwing in everything by hand, and even though you can rent tools we thought having our own would be easier. And there is always the option of selling it after!
Adjustment #1 – The small box just behind the passenger seat didn’t reach the full width of the van, meaning the sleeping area was only just larger than a single bed. We knew we wouldn’t be able to stand the small sleeping area for two/three months so we extended this box right to the sliding door. This meant the sleeping area would become the full width of the van, and is now the size of a double bed. Now we can both comfortably sleep with space to move around!
Adjustment #2 – We made some small adjustments to the already made storage boxes themselves. We changed out the hinges for more heavy duty ones and also cut out holes on the lids so that we could open them easier. We also adjusted the lid behind the drivers seat, as it couldn’t open all the way without moving the seat forward. So we made the lid shorter so we wouldn’t have to move the seat when opening it.
Once we were happy with the benches we decided to paint them. Before they were just plain wood, which definitely didn’t look very pleasing to the eye! We headed to Bunnings and asked the paint department for advice, they recommended Dulux Aquanamel which is a lot more hard wearing than your average paint and can be wiped clean. We went with the colour Avonhead below for the boxes, and Kingston for the table. Much nicer than plain chipboard in my opinion! The price for the paint, primer and painting tools came to just under $180. If you are on a budget there are other cheaper paint options, or just leave it unpainted, but I think it really makes the interior look a lot brighter and happier!
Once all painted and dried, we re-installed the boxes into the van. Now that they were screwed down we could measure up for the piece of wood we would need to complete the bed. This ended up being quite a large bit of wood, which would have been frustrating to keep moving around in the day when not using it. So we ended up cutting it in half and putting a few hinges in the middle, now we can tuck it nicely behind the passenger seat and take it out when making up the bed! We also painted this in the grey colour to match the table.
STEP 6: MAKE THE CUSHIONS
Making the cushions was another task that completely daunted me! Whilst I have sewed some things in the past, I definitely would not say that I am skilled in sewing. So, with my lack of knowledge in how best to make cushions, and without the use of a sewing machine I was pretty clueless to start off with! But I took to trusty Google and eventually found this really helpful blog post which I followed to make them.
Before sewing we had to cut out the cushions, and luckily the previous owners left the foam mattress that they slept on in the van. This saved us $60, although we did end up having to buy another one to complete all the cushions. We used this to cut out the cushions which would sit on top of each of the lids as pictured in the first image below. Then we could use these to measure and cut out the last two cushions that would sit on the middle parts to make up the bed. We ended up cutting these two bits out a little larger than needed to ensure there wouldn’t be any annoying gaps in our bed that we would feel when lying down.
We bought our fabric from Spotlight, I think these stores are dotted around the country. You could also buy fabric from second-hand stores or buy some cheap sheets or duvet covers from Warehouse if you are on a budget. We decided to go with this thick, hard-wearing upholstery fabric from Spotlight and ended up buying around 8 metres in total.
In terms of the sewing instructions I will leave you to look at the blog post mentioned above, as they seem much more qualified than I! But I sewed all of these cushions by hand, this method was relatively easy and I think can be done by anyone. I think they turned out pretty well if I do say so myself! The total cost of the fabric, foam mattress, needles etc came to $289.50. We could have done this a lot cheaper, but I am so pleased with the final result and I think it has added to the value of the van.
STEP 7: BUILD THE KITCHEN
The kitchen was the last big project to complete on the van. It actually already had a kitchen built into it, which was perfectly good enough and if we were short on time we would have kept. But as we had the time, we decided to rebuild it. The main change we made was to use MDF instead of chipboard like the previous owners. It is much easier to paint, and the overall finish is a lot smoother!
We started by measuring and cutting the wood for the large back board, which acts as the base to screw all the other shelves onto. And then using that we could measure and cut out the rest of the shelves, making sure to screw them all in as we went. I took much more of a helping role with the kitchen, as Jack was the brains behind this section! But the kitchen was not finished there! We knew we wanted to paint it with the same colours we used on the benches. So once it was all fitted, we had to remove it to paint and then finally screwed it back in for the last time. This was much more time consuming, and definitely a step you can miss if you are in a hurry!
To be a self contained van in New Zealand, there are a few criteria that you have to meet. Luckily our van already had the self contained certificate, so we didn’t have to get it re-tested. But we did have to make sure to put the sink and water tanks back in. Not only is this required for the certification, but is super handy to have a supply of water to drink and wash with! We did buy two new water tanks from Bunnings, but we re-used the old sink and tap system.
STEP 8: ADD THE FINISHING TOUCHES
So you’ve sorted out the sleeping area and the kitchen, the main things you ultimately need to live in your van. Now is the time to make your van feel more homely, after all you will be living in it for the next few months! I don’t know about you, but the biggest thing that annoys me about camping is not being able to see anything once the sun sets. We are always having to hold our phones up to use the torch, which would be less than ideal when having to do this every night! We had a look on Amazon and found a string of 200 fairy lights that are powered by USB. So no replacing batteries, we just make sure to keep a portable battery pack topped up and plug it into that every time we need light. We stapled them in a massive spiral to the ceiling of our van, and we never have trouble with needing more light in the evenings.
Another concern we had was how we were going to keep all of our devices charged, especially our phones and laptops. We decided to purchase a power inverter to tackle this problem, it uses the power from the van’s battery to charge whatever you plug into it. We looked online and discovered so many expensive ones on the New Zealand websites. But we managed to find this Bestek Power Inverter on Amazon, much cheaper than the other ones we had seen! Unfortunately Amazon products aren’t as quickly available as they are back home, you have to pay much more for shipping, and delivery takes at least two weeks! Luckily we had the time to wait for the inverter to arrive to us in NZ. After now living in the van for a few weeks, I can say that it works perfectly. Although we can only use it when driving along, so we don’t drain the battery and have to jump start the van!
For a good night’s sleep you will also want to install some curtains, that also come in handy when you want to get changed. We used the ones that came with the van, but I think they just made them out of a cheap black blanket. Also, the weather in New Zealand can be a little unpredictable, even in Summer, so make sure to purchase a few warm blankets and a duvet!
STEP 9: SHOP FOR THE ESSENTIALS
Now you will need to make a list of the items you will need to be able to cook and live in your van, some of the essentials include:
- Camping stove and gas
- Plates, bowls, cutlery etc
- Frying pan and saucepan
- Cooking utensils
- Camping chairs
- Storage boxes for clothes and small items
We bought most of our essentials from K-Mart, we were actually really impressed with most of the things we bought even though they were pretty cheap. Another similar shop you could go to is The Warehouse, or have a look around charity shops for unique items.
STEP 10: MOVE YOUR BELONGINGS INTO THE VAN
Trying to fit all of your possessions into your van might be a daunting task. But if you have been backpacking you (hopefully) won’t have too many things. I think the main bulk of our belongings were our clothes, all of the kitchen accessories and food! The benches that make up the bed in our van luckily all act as storage, there are three large ones and one small one. We bought three small storage boxes for our clothes, and two smaller ones for underwear. We made sure to put these in the most accessible place, as we would of course need these everyday. The kitchen is another area where storage is a must! I think we really made use out of the space here by hanging baskets in areas that otherwise would be wasted. As you live in your van you will definitely find ways to maximise the space and different ways of storing items.
Now we get to the big question, but how much did it all cost? The total we spent on the van and converting it came to $6833.82! Below is the breakdown of this overall total…
- $5200 Van
- $229.50 Fabric for cushions and sewing equipment
- $60 Foam mattress
- $176.91 Paint and painting tools
- $160 New rear tyres
- $529.01 Wood, screws, brackets etc
- $386.40 Lights, kitchen tools and other accessories
- $92.00 Power Inverter and adaptor
If you think the cost of conversion was quite a lot, you are probably right! We didn’t have a budget in mind, as we were both working at the time and completing the project over a few months. Instead of buying new items from DIY stores we could have gone to charity shops or looked on Facebook groups for second hand items. Or we could have just re-used all the items that came with the van when we bought it. And the great thing about owning your own campervan is that when you go to resell it, you will most likely make your money back! I believe we made improvements to the van that have increased its value, maybe not by $1600, but definitely by a little. And most importantly, we love our little van! As long as you feel comfortable in it, that is all that matters.
So there we have our van conversion, a bit of a mammoth post, but hopefully filled with lots of tips to help you! Let me know if you are wanting to convert a van to travel the country in. Also, I have been keeping track of all our expenses on the road. So if you are looking to travel New Zealand keep your eyes peeled in the next few months for an idea of the budget you will need.
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