Converting your vehicle into a camper

So you want to turn your vehicle into a camper/campervan/motorhome (call it what you will, ‘camper’ is a good generic term although in the UK the legal term is actually a ‘motor caravan’) but where on earth do you begin the process?

Well I reckon the best place to start has to be where they make the rules for such vehicles – government legislation – otherwise if you don’t meet all the relevant criteria, you’re up the creek without a paddle as it will be impossible to register your pride ‘n’ joy as a camper. Obviously every country will have its own standards that have to be met, but for the purposes of this article, I shall concentrate on UK legislation.

If you live in the British Isles, there are certain minimum features required to qualify as a camper. Without these your vehicle can’t be reclassified as a ‘motor caravan’ on the V5C log book.

 

FIRST AND FOREMOST, WHAT CONSTITUTES A ‘CAMPER’ ACCORDING TO THE LAW?

A camper means a special purposes passenger car constructed to include living accommodation which contains at least the following equipment:-

  • seats and table
  • sleeping accommodation which may be converted from the seats
  • cooking facilities
  • storage facilities
  • this equipment shall be rigidly fixed to the living compartment; however, the table may be designed to be easily removable.

 The interpretation applied to this definition is as follows …

(a) a door that provides access to the living accommodation. 

(b) a water storage tank or container, either on or in the vehicle. 

(c) a bed, which has a minimum length of 1800mm or 6 feet – this can be converted from seats used for other purposes during the day but must be permanently fixed within the body of the vehicle.

This must be an integral part of the living accommodation area, either beds or a bed converted from seats (to form a mattress base) secured as a permanent feature, with base structures bolted, riveted, screwed or welded to the vehicle floor and / or side wall – unless the sleeping accommodation is provided as a provision over the driver’s cab compartment.

(d) a seating and dining area, permanently attached to the vehicle. 

The table may be detachable but must have some permanent means of attachment to the vehicle. It is not good enough to have a loose table. 

These are required to be an integral part of the living accommodation area, and mounted independently of other items.

The table must be capable of being mounted directly to the vehicle floor and / or side wall. The table mounting arrangement must be secured as a permanent feature, (bolted, riveted, screwed or welded), although the table may be detachable.

Permanently secured seating must be available for use at the table. The seats must be secured directly to the vehicle floor and / or side wall. The seats must be secured as a permanent feature (bolted riveted, screwed or welded).

(e) a permanently fixed means of storage, a cupboard, locker or wardrobe.

Storage facilities must be provided by a cupboard or locker. The facility must be an integral part of the vehicle living accommodation, i.e. mounted independently of other items, unless incorporated below seat/sleeping accommodation or the cooking facility.

The storage facility must be a permanent feature, (bolted, riveted, screwed or welded). The storage facility must be secured directly to the vehicle floor and / or sidewall, unless a storage provision is provided over the driver’s cab compartment.

(f) a permanently fixed cooking facility within the vehicle, powered by gas or electricity.

Cooking facilities must:

be an integral part of the vehicle living accommodation and mounted independently of other items

be secured to the vehicle floor and / or side wall

be secured as a permanent feature – bolted, riveted, screwed, or welded

consist of a minimum of a 2 ring cooking facility or a microwave in either case having a fuel / power source

PLUS …

If the cooking facility is fuelled by gas having a remote fuel supply:

the fuel supply pipe must be permanently secured to the vehicle structure

the fuel reservoir must be secured in a storage cupboard or the reservoir secured to the vehicle structure

(g) At least one window on the side of the accommodation.

 

NOTE: If the vehicle has all of these features present, permanently fixed and installed properly, then it is a legal requirement to have it reclassified as a motor caravan on the V5C.

So, now you know what criteria has to be met, you can forget converting your 1957 BMW Isetta 300 bubble car into a camper, as tey as you might, a 6ft/1.8m bed just isn’t going to fit. Same goes for most micro cars, however on the upside, it also means that virtually every other vehicle regardless of how large they may be can be transformed into a mobile living space. The possibilities therefore are endless!

WHAT VEHICLE TO CHOOSE?

This is about as basic as it gets … but if it passes all the regulations, then yes it’s a ‘motor caravan’.

This is like asking, “How long is a piece of string” – it’s an impossible question to answer as everybody’s needs and requirements are different. Some will stick solely to tarmac thus two-wheel-drive is perfectly adequate, whereas others will want to explore off the beaten track, in which case four-wheel-drive can be a life-saver (I should actually say ‘all-wheel-drive’ as 6×6 and even 8×8 vehicles are options).

Personally I would opt for a small 4×4 such as a Land Rover or Toyota Land Cruiser, or slightly larger Mercedes Sprinter-size vehicle, as they all possess a good degree of off-road capability, are not too heavy, wide or high, fufill the basic needs like a bed, cooking facilities, loo and shower. Then again I’m not intending to drive across vast continents for years on end – in this scenario a Unimog or expedition truck  may well be a better option.

Perhaps it’s best at this stage to hand you over to one of the experts in this field. Last year (2016) a new book was published entitled Build Your Own Overland Camper by Steve Wigglesworth*. Not only does it include designing, building and fitting out vans and trucks for overland travel, the author also covers the subject of choosing the base vehicle.

Here follows a passage from said publication about that very subject, what vehicle to choose …

An honest assessment of actual needs

“If you’re decided to undertake a self-build or a conversion project, then it would prove wise to temper enthusiasm for a little while and spend some quality time in honestly assessing your actual needs. This process will be a little easier if you’ve done a bit of travelling before, especially by motor caravan. It doesn’t matter if you haven’t though; you just need to turn your mind to the important issues of what you ultimately want from the vehicle, how you’ll use it, where you are likely to go and when you are likely to get there.

Whether a small Land Rover/Land Cruiser sized vehicle or an expedition truck, Steve Wigglesworth’s brilliant new book is essential reading if you’re about to build you own campervan.

Put quite simply, if you build a large truck-based overlander weighing in at 18 tonnes or so, then you may well run into trouble when crossing some of the world’s very weak and rickety viaducts. Likewise, it may seem obvious, but tall vehicles will not fit under low bridges. Conversely, vehicles untroubled by low bridges may suffer from a lack of ground clearance and spend a great deal of time stuck in ruts. It’s fair to say that there is no one-size-fits-all solution, and it would be useful, at an early stage, to grasp the reality of unavoidable compromise. The objectively perfect overland camper is impossible to create; all suffer from some shortcoming or another. What is possible is to balance the inevitable shortcomings in such a way that they do not affect overall performance as it relates to you too significantly. In other words, compromises are unavoidable, but the trick is to ensure that these are made in such a way that your overlander competently achieves everything that’s most important to you for most of the time.

And so, the process of brutal assessment begins. It’s very pleasant to court an image of yourself lounging on the roof of your camper lazily watching big game over a serene savannah, but if the harsh reality is that your vehicle will – in all probability – see most of its action north of the Arctic Circle, then the requirements for the base vehicle, equipment, systems and layouts are likely to be very different indeed. It can’t be stressed enough how important it is to try and establish exactly how you intend to use the vehicle, when, where and what exactly you require it to do. Time spent at this stage can save a great deal of frustration and disappointment further down the line. Think it through, let ideas ferment, do some research, read this manual, think it through again … it will all pay off in the long term.”

Absolutely Steve, I agree totally. Like I said previously, choosing the perfect vehicle as the base for your camper is impossible, compromise it what it’s all about.

Ex M.O.D. Daf trucks awaiting life in civvy street. Photo: Simon Newey

VALUE FOR MONEY

Assuming you don’t already own a vehicle you’re about to convert, when purchasing a base vehicle the obvious places are the Classified For Sale sections of print publications such as newspapers or motoring magazines. Web based selling or auction sites (e.g. Gumtree, ebay, etc.) are other obvious options, but another interesting alternative is ex-military sales. Just type Military Vehicle Sales into any search engine and a host of resource and company websites will appear – Milweb is a good one, as is the site of the M.V.T. (Military Vehicle Trust) – both of these are in the private sector. Here it’s possible to bag a bargain, as ex-Services vehicles sell for a fraction of their original government purchase price, and in the main they’re low mileage and very well maintained. This is particularly true of M.O.D. (Ministry of Defence) reserve stock, for when sold they can be a quarter of their true worth. Starting at £500 for an absolute basket case, prices can rise up to ????? There is no such thing as a top price, it’s what you’re willing to pay and what the company can squeeze out of you – fair enough. Decent examples start at £5,000 – £6,000 which is still very good value. However, now the work really starts!

A very good resource for information and advice is the Facebook page entitled Leyland Daf 4 Tonner Enthusiasts aka The Duff Club, very handy when you consider how many DAF T244 trucks are being sold by the M.O.D. these days. This is a relatively new page but growing rapidly. 

Away from the military theme, four more Facebook pages I’d highly recommend are:-

The Map Room at the Adventure Overland Show 2016. Run by volunteers of Overland Sphere, pictured here is a presentation by Emma Smart & Andrew Smith of Around the World in 800 Days. They will be back at AO`17 with advice aplenty!

Overland Sphere – Run by Martin McGowan and friends (it now boasts over 7,000 members!!!), this is also a font of knowledge and general information about all forms of world travel. They also run a free resource at the Adventure Overland Show at Stratford-upon-Avon Racecourse weekend of 23-24 September 2017. Entitled ‘The Map Room’, it features up to date information on navigation, acquiring visas and assorted documentation, border crossings, advice on trip planning and preparation, ferry crossings, shipping, travel insurance and what to take on your trip … and importantly, what not to take!

Self Build Campervans – This of course is a far more general page as if covers all forms of conversion in all types of vehicle from cars and vans to coaches and trucks – hence the fact it has over 80,000 members! Again, a great site as it’s specific to what it implies – self-build campers.

Self Build Motorhomes and Campervans – A much newer page, although this too is packed with relevant information on self builds.

4×4 Overland Campers and Adventure – Once your camper is up and running, here is a very good page to discuss destinations and suchlike. Again, run by an enthusiast who is extremely proactive when it comes to building 4×4 campers and actually using them in the wild, it’s a new up and coming page (so new it only began 25th June 2017!!!) that’s worthy of mention.

 

ONE FINAL WORD …

I mentioned about the Adventure Overland Show (AO`17) at Stratford-upon-Avon Racecourse coming up in September. It is worth noting that new this year there’s a section entitled the “Campervan Conversions Show”. Here it won’t matter if the vehicles have three or eight wheels, all are welcome. So if you have a particularly interesting vehicle you feel the show’s visitors would like to see, then take it along as a Display Vehicle. Email the organisers to tell them what you have, you may even qualify for free entry; email address can be found in the CONTACT  section of the event website.

 

* Build Your Own Overland Camper by Steve Wigglesworth – Haynes Publishing – ISBN 978 1 78521 076 1


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Tom McGuigan