Okay, some may think we went overboard designing the layout for our DIY Camper, but this is a serious investment of time and money! We wanted to make absolutely sure we had a design that worked for both of us before pulling the trigger on buying a vehicle. We used two strategies to figure out our Camper Layout, both were invaluable:
DIY Camper Layout Design Strategy #1: Real Life Mock-up
- Mark out your DIY Camper Layout using the actual items and painter’s tape and go sit in it, walk around in it, lay down. Hang cardboard / string / or a blanket to indicate the roof line – know what you’re getting into here. This is easier to setup than it sounds if you have the space and gives you a much more realistic sense of the space you’re designing. That said, David’s a sucker for 3d Models..
DIY Camper Layout Design Strategy #2: Google Sketchup:
- Google sketchup is a surprising powerful free 3d modeling program with access to a huge library of prebuilt models (“3D Warehouse”). It allowed Belle and I to quickly try out different DIY Camper Layout configurations and, eventually, model the minutia of finding homes for everything on our extensive gear list.
- For the sprinter van model I was able to find a pre-made sprinter model. For the truck i had to either tweak existing models or build things up from scratch. From scratch really isn’t a big deal for modeling interior space, it’s just a big box. Please let us know if you have questions about using sketchup, we’re not sure if it’s worth creating a dedicated section with tutorials.
Gross Vehicle Weight and Load Distribution
Your personal camper layout is going to be uniquely your own, otherwise you’d just be buying something prebuilt like everybody else right? The only limiter here is safety – look at the sticker on frame inside the driver’s side door and see what your gross vehicle weight is, then subtract the curb weight to figure out cargo capacity. Plan out your load so you do not exceed that number, or you risk poor handling or even braking and structural issues, not to mention huge liability risk. After making sure you’re below GVWR, you need to make sure your load is roughly symmetrical and is centered around the axles. Our truck is rated for 1350 lbs of payload with 4 passengers, but if you put 1000 lbs on the edge of the opened tailgate you’re going to have problems.
A note about vehicle weight ratings – they’re all over the place. Not only do different manufactures push the limits of safety to different degrees, they even calculate it a fundamentally different way. Not only is Toyota extremely conservative with their ratings, they base payload capacity on every seat having a 150lbs person in it. That difference of a few few hundred pounds made slide-in campers out of the question for us, we just weren’t comfortable with the liability risk of being over. American half tons tend to have spectacular payload capacities, look towards them if you have your heart set on a slider.
Keeping Refining Your Camper Layout!
We found that we kept coming back to this step as we’d learn more about a particular area. For example we almost bought a Yeti cooler off craigslist, but then decided on a 12V fridge. Same interior footprint, but it meant adding another solar panel which changed up the rack configuration. If you think you’re going to do several iterations of planning, then having a 3D model to play with can be really handy. (And it looks cool.)
Here are some of your future conversion camper design decisions that might impact your layout:
- Electrical: You can’t really say you’ve got your DIY Camper Layout “designed” until you’ve figured out your electrical system – at least to the point that you understand where the big pieces go. Especially batteries.
- Cold Food Storage: We like backpacking food as much as the next person, but for health and happiness it was important to have staples (like bacon and hummus) available while we were living out of the truck. We ended up being really disappointed in how much money we had to spend to get something that made sense. How’s that for an enthusiastic affiliate rec :).
- Water Storage: 8.3lbs a gallon adds up fast. Check out this post for how we did our math.
- Kitchen: Permanent? Sink? Vent Hood location?
- Awnings / Tents: Some fancy 270 degree awnings only mount on the driver’s side, does that match your primary door? Does it interfere with you door swings? (It does on Kris’ FJ Cruiser:( )
- Shower: Do you need one? How easy does it have to be to use? How reliably hot?
- Toilets: Do you need one? How horrible can it be to use? Cause that’s really the question in this case.
- Sleeping: How much room, what kind of mattress, how much work to setup?
- Security/Visibility: Are you going to feel secure with canvas walls where you plan to camp? What about a van with no windows? Can you access the driver’s seat and drive away if you need to? Do you want to build a DIY motion activated light and siren system?
- Tools: If you’re doing this yourself you’re probably also the kind of person that likes to have at least a few tools along. Tools can take up a surprising amount of room in a camper layout. And whether you want to or not, if you’re out in remote areas it’s important to be able to handle some basic problems that might arise, like charging a dead starter battery with your house battery by bypassing your isolator. Sound crazy and intimidating? It’s not that bad, we do our best to explain the whole thing in our post on alternator charging. It’s something you should absolutely know how to do if you’re going to be in remote areas.
- Off-Road Ability: We want to spend most of our time in parks and BLM land, so we’re going to be taking a lot of dirt and gravel roads. Realistically even Belle’s Mini could probably handle every road we’re going to drive, but it’s lot nicer to know we’ve got good clearance and 4WD when we want it. We’re also considering taking some recovery gear, some of it is pretty cheap and really nice insurance to have if you’re traveling in remote areas. But it also tends to be big and heavy, which may impact your camper layout.
- Gas Mileage: We’re going to log 14K miles this year, at least a third of which will be in Canada with much higher fuel costs. This was a big consideration as we looked at older american full size vans and larger trucks. The frustrating thing here is that if you spend a bunch more money on a newer car you save a bunch on gas. We were actually ready to, the v6 ecoboost 150s was a pretty cool option, but it just couldn’t fit both a 6’2 and a 5’2 frame comfortably (and felt like driving a uhaul next to an old Tundra).
- Number of passengers: I’ve seen some solo van conversion camper designs where they rip out the passengers seat or permanently mount it backwards. On the other end of the spectrum most non-cargo vans have mounts in place for seats. For now we’re unbolted the back row of seats from our Tundra doublecab, giving us the height to put the fridge up front AND the water AND still let the front passenger mostly recline. If we ever want to take more than two we’ll need to load stuff on top of the mattress in back while driving – not great, but not bad at all.
- Type of passengers: If only we’d bought a long bed our canopy layout design would have been a lot easier. But a long bed only comes with an “access” cab, and an access cab can’t accommodate a rear facing child seat, so we had to go with a double cab and it’s 6’2″ bed. Not as big a deal if you’re doing a slide-in camper with overhang, but nearly insurmountable obstacle if you want to sleep a tall person comfortably.
- RV Park Access: Some parks only allow RVs, other parks only allow cars. Some conversion vans are able to apply with the state and get their vehicle reclassified as an RV, giving them access to parks that would be unavailable to a more “rustic” canopy camper. Getting it reclassified may also significantly lower your annual vehicle registration fees. We’re not really worried about being turned away from RV parks, we want to be in the woods. The only disappointment has been a network of wineries that offer free camping that our vehicle won’t be eligible for. If this designation is important to you then it will have a huge impact on your DIY camper Layout.
- Outdoor Equipment: We still can’t decide if we want to take bikes. The only place we’ve really got room for them in our camper layout is on a front hitch. It would make us that much longer, be pretty insecure, and it means we bring a whole bunch more bike gear and tools. Inflatable Kayak? No room. We can live with those decisions, but if you can’t you’ll need to go bigger.