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How to Do Up Your Camper Van on a Budget (10 Steps)

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1983 Mitsubishi L300 Pop-top Camper-van.

1983 Mitsubishi L300 Pop-top Camper-van.

Tips for Buying and Renovating a Van on a Budget

Purchasing a camper van can be a very expensive event. You've either got a good amount of money to spend and can afford all the bells and whistles, or you're on a budget.

When you’re sourcing a camper van on a budget, your price range will limit your options to either a mechanically and structurally sound vehicle with no fit out, or the opposite—a neat fit out and a van riddled with rust. It would most likely be uninsured, therefore requiring pit-passing and dreaded mechanical issues.

The smart punter would most likely choose the mechanically sound, minimum rust, no fit-out camper van. Using a bit of imagination, anyone can renovate a camper van back to its former self and do it on a budget. You'll have the opportunity to buy equipment as you go, spreading the cost over a longer period of time and giving small relief to your pocket.

Engine Service

Even if you've got a good, mechanically sound camper van, a minor service will give your motor a fresh breath of life. Most of it you can do yourself. Change your oil and oil filter, check and change your air filter. Update spark plugs and points, replace all fuses. If you're not sure on anything search online; there are many tutorials on how to do basic auto maintenance yourself. Go to your local mechanic if you're not confident doing any of the jobs yourself.

Getting Started

Looking at the insides of your camper van and ask yourself a few questions, such as:

  • What came with it already?
  • What can you continue using?
  • What needs to go?
  • What can you use for the time being?
  • Can you refurbish any current furniture to improve its current condition?
  • Do I have the basics covered (i.e. sleeping area, cooking facilities and water)?

A few things always need to be considered when assessing any equipment for your camper van:

  • Does it fit in the camper van? Is it too big and bulky taking up too much room?
  • How heavy is it? The key to lower petrol consumption is weight.
  • Will it be useful or is it just a want?
  • Is the cost worth the convenience?
Strip everything out that is not bolted in.

Strip everything out that is not bolted in.

10 Steps to Fixing Up Your Camper Van

While it may seem daunting at first, breaking up the renovation process into a smaller series of goals actually makes for quite a manageable job. And trust me—the payoff is huge! Here's how I went about fixing up my camper van.

Step 1: Strip Out the Inside

Totally strip out absolutely everything you can pull out, unscrew or remove. Take out any cupboards you intend to get rid of, anything broken, falling off or filthy. Pull up old vinyl, carpet and underlay. If you vigorously rub a gloved hand across the underlay and it crumbles, the underlay's effectiveness has come to an end. Throw it away.

Step 2: Get Rid of Insects and Spiders

Let a bomb off inside, an insect bomb that is. Set up the can in the middle of the van, lift the pop-top up, and let it empty its contents. You'll be stunned, or dismayed, at what lives inside old campers.

Step 3: Deep Clean the Camper Van

Now it's time to clean. Your camper van will look renewed after a thorough scrub. Wipe all the trim down, vacuum every speck of dust, disinfect all the knobs, benches, walls and equipment. Sugar soap, dishwashing detergent and vinegar are generally readily available in the cleaning cupboard and not expensive.

Step 4: Wash the Annex and Pop-Top

After brushing off any dirt, cobwebs and vegetation from the campers’ annex and pop-top, you’re ready to wash all canvas. Using a soft-bristled brush, gently scrub with white vinegar. This needs to be done approx. 1–2 times a year and will remove any mould that may be growing. It is essential to do this on a day with no rain so the canvas can fully dry in the sun.

Examine all your canvas for any rips, nicks or tears. A small tear can develop into a huge hole in no time. Repair kits are available at most camping stores; you could also make your own patches by gluing and sewing a canvas square over the hole.

Go over the camper van inside and out identifying any silicone that looks tired, frayed, or likely to let moisture in. Before applying fresh silicone, wash and trim loose pieces with a sharp knife.

Step 5: Replace Old Cushions

Discard old, soiled cushions. Just think how many 'old men' or 'dirty lads' may have slept on them. The average person sheds a hell of a lot of skin cells and I am quite particular with whom I let my skin cells mix with. Not to mention pets that may have travelled in the camper-van, leaving any numerous mites or fleas infesting old foam.

If the cushions are in good condition and you’re happy with recycling them, a thorough cleaning, airing, and time in the sun are always recommended (again those skin cells.)

Or keep the old cushion covers to make a pattern.

  • Simply un-pick or pull the thread out of the joins, being careful not to rip the fabric apart.
  • Take photos of each step and label all pieces as you de-construct the old cushion covers to assist in putting it all back together again.
  • Pin all the pieces of the deconstructed cushion covers to your new fabric.
  • Ensure the fabric is strong and durable similar to upholstery material. Spending that little extra on the correct fabric now will save you money in ht long term, due to the high wear and tear camper-van cushions experience.
  • Add 1–2 cm around the pattern as you cut it out for the hems.
  • As you’re sewing the pattern pieces together, check the sizing on the cushion repeatedly; you can always make small adjustments as you go. The best stitch would be a zigzag stitch so the fabric can stretch when sat on.
After repairing the tears car seat covers were sewn to save $$

After repairing the tears car seat covers were sewn to save $$

Making own car seat covers, curtains and cushion covers can save you $$

Making own car seat covers, curtains and cushion covers can save you $$

Step 6: Make Window Blackouts

Purchase enough silver sunshades to use as window blackouts. They will block out the heat in summer and retain the warmth in winter. Measure and cut out the exact shape of each of the windows, hem the edges using a zigzag stitch with a stiff ribbon to keep them presentable.

The shades come with suction cups to stick them to the window, so they'll be easily attached and removed. You could also cover cardboard with black plastic bags and fit them to your windows as a cheaper alternative to silver sunshades.

Step 7: Make Curtains

Add your own personality by making new curtains. Curtain material has a white rubber backing to block out sun and prying eyes. It should cost approximately $10 a metre, depending on the quality. the cheaper the material is, the less it blocks out. Again, use the old curtains as a pattern.

If there aren't curtains, measure the windows' length and width. Cut approximately 4 cm extra at the top and bottom, for the curtain cord to thread through. Double the width so the material gathers along the cord, opening and closing smoothly.

Step 8: Source Furniture

Caravan, camping and RV people, in general, are a friendly lot. The first guy I approached gave me a number of a mate of his that had "a couple of old pop-top camper vans in his back yard." Now this guy actually had nothing, but told me to call another guy, who told me to wait till this date and call that particular guy. So, it's not what you know but often who you know, that will get you success. You just have to ask.

There are shells of old campers that have been written-off or just discarded. Many of these still have functional furniture. Start with calling camper-van places that hire out campers; often there is a van rotting away in their yard. If you're fluky, you may get it for free (or for a 6-pack of beer in my case).

There are also car wreckers who salvage furniture or give you the option to remove parts yourself. Make sure you take a drill, wrench, screwdrivers and a fair bit of grit! Collect any brackets or screws you take off to reuse.

Another place to source furniture for campers is a caravan renovator. Often a caravan or motorhome will go in for a facelift, leaving at the service centre the remains of its insides.

Paint or cover with wood-grain contact any scuffed furniture. Add new handles and lights where you can. Use a product like WD-40 on any squeaky hinges or replace if broken or rusted. For as little as $25 you can buy a manual kitchen water pump, running water is a definite necessary luxury.

Step 9: Find Storage Options at Your Local $2 Shop

Attend your local $2 shop. These places are overflowing with containers of every shape and size imaginable. You will also find shelves and storage baskets that can be attached to the wall of the camper with suction cups.

Step 10: Install Floor Coverings

Vinyl is one of the most functional floor coverings available and is stress-free to install. The amount of dirt, sand and mud that finds its way inside when camping is best managed with a floor covering that’s easy to clean.

Vinyl off-cuts can be as cheap as $20; use underlay if the vinyl is thin and recommended by the salesperson. The salesperson will be a great wealth of information as to the best procedure to lay the chosen vinyl.


Camping or camper vanning has endless 'stuffs' you need to own, to make getting back to basics more comfortable. Right down to the kitchen sink. Often you will find those little extras at sites like eBay, Gumtree, your local tip shop, auction sites on Facebook and any other online store on the market.

Further articles to follow with a lot of the process steps pulled apart and detailed.

Camping in Style

For each question, choose the best answer. The answer key is below.

  1. What can't you do without when camping?
    • Toilet paper.
    • Electronic device such as TV or mobile phone.
    • Shower, either electronic or 12V

Answer Key

  1. Toilet paper.

© 2012 Anne