11 Camper Van Layout Ideas and Tips

By: Travis Wild
/ February 26, 2020
When I started living in my van full-time, I was so stoked to hit the road that all I had was a platform for my bed and some minimal storage. 

“Vanlife” had yet to explode in popularity so there was minimal info on the net at that point.

At the start, it was just me and my 2006 Dodge Sprinter 3500, and I really had no clue what I was doing.

With a ton of spilled coffees, cold nights, drawers flying open, and now a community-curated by millions of posts on The Gram, I’ve discovered a lot of really great little things that make life on the road a whole lot easier.

Most of what I’ve learned comes from failure, in hindsight, but many are simple things that have brought either functionality or joy to Vanlife and life on the road in general.

A lot of Vanlife hacks come from pure creativity and need mixing together. There are so many possible solutions, and so many products or features that could just work a little bit better, you just need to figure out how to make them work in your specific build to fit your very specific needs.

Here are some of my favorites.

Surfboard: Up high — Ski station: Down low

Spending most of my time between the California coast and the Sierra Nevadas means having a lot of toys for all my time outside.

A couple of the paramount items are also the biggest hassle.

First, for summer fun, we’ve got the surf-board.  I’m not that good at riding a shortboard but couldn’t fit a longboard into the van so I compromised and got a Lost Bottomfeeder which is wide and thick enough to mimic a longboard and get you up on knee to head high waves.

You can stick it on the outside of the van, but then it runs the risk of being stolen, let alone faced with the outdoor elements. Another option is under the bed, but it takes up so much storage space with its size.

Instead, I opted for a small $5 pulley/winch rope system I found at Home Depot. I added an extra U mount to run the rope through to create a 3 point mounting system where the board sits snug against the ceiling. This utilized unused space while freeing up storage under the bed for my snowboard gear.

It’s also aesthetically pleasing which is a bonus.

Bed Height – do the math

This hack works like a 5th-grade math problem and is one that I totally botched right away.

I found a good deal for a bed online and decided to order it. When it arrived, I found it was too thick to sit up in bed without hitting my head on the ceiling while also fitting my bike underneath.


  • The floor to ceiling is 72 inches.
  • I need 32 inches to sit up in bed which leaves 40 inches.
  • My bike, dismantled, needs 30 inches of space below the bed.
  • So I had 10 inches for a mattress.
  • The platform supporting the mattress was 3/4 of an inch thick, so I had to get a mattress 9 and 1/4 inches thick or less.

My first one was 14 inches, but the second one I found was 8 inches. I gave an extra half-inch below and above the bed and had my 72 inches.

This will be a little different for everyone but doing it perfectly will make a huge difference with storage capabilities.

Get creative with your table

When van builds started popping up more and more, I kept seeing the tables you have to screw into the floor. This would mean storing the tabletop and post and building it up and down every time you wanted it there or not.

Some people don’t mind this and find the reward greater than the effort, like my buddy Scott from @comeswithaview. He talks about this some more in his van tour.

Instead, I built a dresser to fit under my bed and between the top of the dresser and bottom of the bed platform and put a table on drawer sliders.

Now, when I want a surface to work from or a place to eat, I just slide the table out. It takes up very little space and is super easy.

Make privacy easy and multi-functional

One thing a lot of van builders struggle with is what to do with the big area between the living and driving areas (aka the cockpit) of the van.

I found the answer to my problem at Home Depot. In their curtain section, you can order custom sun shades meant to go in big picture windows in homes. They roll down from the ceiling so they are unnoticeable when not being used.

They are meant to block out light but also work as temperature control by keeping heat from sunlight out in the summer and heat inside the home in the winter. It works the same in the van!

I got mine custom made for the height and width to run wall to wall, floor to ceiling. I built a couple of wood dividers to fit the curving sides of the van so I could have all my lights on in the van at night and you can’t see it at all from the front looking in… plus, it made what’s next possible.

Have a rad entertainment center

When you’re living full time in your van, you will eventually discover that you’re still just a regular person who enjoys the comforts of home. One of my creature comforts are movies and entertainment, so it was important to me to have a bigger screen that wouldn’t get in the way.

I found the solution in a projector going against my custom curtain which is basically a top-notch quality projector screen (which does such a good job blocking light you can’t even see the movie from the other side).

Pair it with my surround sound speakers (or a Bluetooth speaker) and it really feels like you’re at the movies.

Bring your books

The most obvious and popular part of my build is the giant bookshelf on the wall.

It’s big enough to fit 140 books. This is really important to me because they are my prized possessions.

No, it’s not minimal, but as a writer, they are important to me.

Those authors raised me, I have entertainment whenever I want, and they fit snugly against the wall under some storage cabinets in space that would have just been empty. They make it truly feel like home and are great for conversation and community.

Use the roof!

One thing I’ve noticed is that a lot of vanlifers fail to use one of the coolest features in their van… THE ROOF!

The roof gives you a prime spot to view all of the amazing places you visit.

Yes, racks can be expensive, but I found a powder-coated rack for my van (granted, not aluminum) for $750 and then built a full-on deck custom fit around my roof vents with $180 of wood, aluminum, and stain.

It’s by far the coolest place to hang out with friends, makes for a great “guest bedroom” and doubles my livable area.

My next build may or may not have speakers and a pop-up tent up there.

Use the space outside your door

This seems simple, but opening up that door and having a comfortable space is awesome. I did it all the time, but it wasn’t until I picked up a Gili Mat that the space outside really felt usable and comfortable.

Ayla and I now hang out on the mat all the time when we are in one place. I can lay down on it, work out, and have a picnic right outside without sitting in the dust of the desert.

The mat folds out to cover a huge area but is super space efficient and nice to bring with me to the beach as well. The material cleans super easy with a rinse or dip in a lake.

Bonus, it’s made by another Vanlifer after he wanted a simple solution to the same problem.

Be efficient and sustainable with your water decisions

This is something up for debate and I’m on the fence about it, but having a hand pump faucet vs automatic faucet means efficiency. With the hand pump, you’re only going to get exactly what you need.

I know it’s roughly an ounce per pump:

  • 12 pumps for a cup of coffee
  • 24 to fill up Ayla’s water bowl; and
  • 20 for enough water to boil pasta.

This way, Ayla and I only take up about 12 gallons of water a week which we fill up using two removable seven-gallon tanks.

Use biodegradable soaps and cleaning materials

For a long time, one of those seven-gallon tanks was for gray water which I had to empty somewhere. I realized I was storing toothpaste and soapy dishwater which was both gross and unnecessary, but I didn’t want to be dumping the soap water into the earth.

I started using biodegradable soaps which allows me to simply let the water run to the ground. I cut a hole in the floor below the sink and ran a pipe down to it, eliminating the need for a gray water holding tank and doubling my potable water storage which greatly simplified my life.

Lastly, utilize the best alarm clock and heater in one

Park with your windows facing where the sun will rise.

I love waking up to the light coming over the horizon. In colder weather, this also makes a huge difference in heating your van up faster.

This is a good start, but there are millions of other hacks.

Let us know what your hacks are and maybe we can make another article featuring all the things you guys have done to make Vanlife a little better!

Travis Wild
Wanderful Contributor
Writer, athlete, photo maker, friend. Equal parts empathy and adventure. Ayla is my boss.
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