Once all the necessary aspects of your van build are planned, it’s time to start thinking about van accessories that will make van life even more enjoyable. In this lesson, we’ll cover add-ons and exterior van accessories you might consider and some things to keep in mind, including:
- Van roof racks and ladders for your van
- Safety add-ons like backup cameras and an in-dash GPS
- Air Compressors
- Van awnings
- Swivel seats for your van
Van Roof Racks & Ladders
A van roof rack needs to be planned out before you install anything else on the roof, like solar panels and a fan. It will need to work around your solar panels and fans or be custom-built to do so, so as you’re planning your solar installation you should be simultaneously planning the rack to accommodate the panels.
Think about what you’ll want to use your roof rack for when deciding what type you want. You may want to use it to hold your solar panels, to store gear, or to have a space on the roof to sit on. One thing to consider is that roof racks add wind noise and make the van less aerodynamic which can reduce gas mileage so keep that in mind.
A ladder rack for your van may also be an accessory you’ll want to consider, especially if your van of choice is a Sprinter or other high roof van. Ladder racks make it easier to get up onto the roof to store gear, check on your solar panels, or simply to enjoy the sunset.
Your van might come with a roof rack, but if it didn’t there are many aftermarket companies that make high-quality racks. We link to som eof these down in the Resources section. I also recommend consulting your local metal fabricator to inquire about custom fabricated locally made racks. If a conversion company is converting your van, talk to them about roof and ladder rack options.
Van Backup Camera
Another van accessory you might want to consider is a backup camera. Consider this an essential item if your van is long and/or if you don’t have rear windows. They’re pretty inexpensive aftermarket, but can also be installed by your dealer or conversion company.
If you do a lot of off-roading, an air compressor is a valuable resource to have in your van. When driving through sand, letting air out of the tires provides more surface area to navigate otherwise tricky sections, ditto for driving on dirt roads, but then you need to refill once you are back on pavement. Having a compressor on board allows you to do this and makes it more feasible to comfortably tackle this type of terrain.
Air compressors can also come in handy for topping off bike tires and for vehicle recovery. When we were off-grid in southern Utah, our friend had a serious flat tire on her van. We were able to use our compressor to blow up her tire enough so she could drive to our campsite where she put on her spare.
You can get a small, compact air compressor for less than $100.
Another one of the handy van accessories you might consider is an in-dash GPS. At first, I didn’t think this was necessary, but now I love having it.
In this van, I replaced the entire factory stereo with an after-market one that has built-in GPS and Apple car play. The navigation features work when we’re out of phone service, although we still like to carry paper maps as well. It’s also much easier to navigate or change the music without having to look at your phone.
The new Sprinters have a better dash system than the older ones, so if this is your van of choice maybe you’ll find one that comes with a nice screen. If it doesn’t, there are tons of aftermarket products available, but make sure it will fit your van’s make, model, and year.
Awnings can be an awesome addition to your van. They create extra floor space, like an outdoor patio, and provide shade on a sunny day. However, most of them are not made to withstand high winds and heavy storms so you need to be careful about having it set up in these conditions or it could get damaged.
Most awnings attach either above your sliding door or to the roof of the van. Installation is a little more involved if you don’t have a roof rack, but it’s still doable. The preferred awning styles for most vans are lightweight and easy to set up. They come in different lengths, so you can choose how big of an outdoor patio you’d like. Some even have wall attachments to screen in your added living space.
Awnings can be electric, manually operated via a crank handle, or set up with a pole and tie-down system.
Electric awnings can be opened and closed with the push of a button. While most awnings can be added after the fact, if you want an electric awning that is wired to your battery system, you’ll want to install this during your conversion. The advantage of an electric awning is many of them have wind sensors, and they will automatically close if the wind gets too strong. Manual ones don’t have this feature, so you don’t want to leave it open if there is any chance of a storm blowing through. Electric awnings are more expensive and can be prone to motor burnout, so they are typically found as premium options on RVs.
Awnings can be expensive – some of them cost more than $1500 (even more if you’re looking to go electric), but you can find used, refurbished, or discounted ones if you’re not in a hurry. You can even make one yourself.
Is an awning worth the cost?
It really depends on how often you use it and how often you set up and settle into camp. On my first van, we used it occasionally when camping with friends, but most of the time, we get to camp later in the day and leave in the morning to go do something. After two summers in that van, we decided that we didn’t use it enough to justify the cost of an awning on my current van. Also, (not that my van is super discrete either way but) awnings are a dead giveaway that you van is a camper if you plan to stealth camp frequently. If you are deterred from a permanently installed awning for these reasons, here is a more budget-friendly alternative.
Budget-Friendly Van Awning Option
Moonshade is an affordable, versatile awning option that just came on the market. We recently got to test it out, and this is what I will be using for shade when we hit the road in our van this year. I like the Moonshade for a few reasons:
- It takes less than 5 minutes to connect to your vehicle and set up using a set of magnets
- It stows away in a compact storage bag and packs down to the size of a folding camp chair, so it doesn’t take up much room in your van
- It works on any vehicle. This is especially handy if you have another car you take camping sometimes and want to be able to use the same awning on multiple vehicles.
- It also keeps the van more lo-pro since the awning is only visible on the outside when it’s set up. When it’s packed away, your van will look less like a camper in case you ever need to go stealth.
- It’s a fraction of the price of other van awnings (save $35 with the code BEARFOOTTHEORY)
Many companies make awnings, and I’ll link to a few more options in the resources section at the end. Keep in mind your roof height when choosing an awning. While this isn’t an issue with the Moonshade, an awning that works for a jeep or E-series Ford van might not work on a high roof Sprinter.
You can always add an awning later down the road unless you want an electric one, so this isn’t as urgent of a decision as some of the others are in your conversion process.
Van Swivel Seats
Another item to consider including in your van build are swivel seats. These are a great way to maximize the living space in your tiny home. Swivel seat adapters go between the seat and base. They swivel the captain’s chairs around from forward-facing to backward-facing. Suddenly, your cockpit used for driving becomes an expanded living space with two more chairs in your living room, office, or dining room.
I highly recommend van swivel seats especially if you’d like to be able to host people in your van. If you have a shorter van, you can use the swivel seats in lieu of dining seating to save space – just pop in a table between the two seats.
Most people hang a curtain behind the two front seats for privacy, but if you swivel you won’t be able to use the privacy curtain at the same time. With that in mind, you’ll want a curtain or window covering that covers the windshield and two front windows. We prefer the ease of a hanging curtain, so I’m happy we don’t solely rely on our swivel seats as our main seating area in this van, but we do use them if we’re going to be parked somewhere for a few days with friends – like at a festival.
One thing to note is that adding a swivel seat adapter to your van does increase the height of the driver and passenger seats, which affects the driver more than the passenger. There are several different companies that sell swivel seat adaptors and each of them varies in height, so it’s a good idea to look into this before deciding which one is best for you and your van.
Many vans, including the Sprinter, have a swivel seat option from the factory. However, if you choose to add swivel seats as after-market, be sure to verify the exact make and model of your van so they’ll fit.
There are a couple of other add-ons you might consider for your van, like outside cargo boxes or a bike rack (I link to some recommended brands below). Think about how you’ll be using your van on a day to day basis and what items will help.
Recommended Racks, Ladders, Storage Boxes
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Explore more about van conversions in Module 2
- Lesson 1: Determining Your Layout Priorities
- Lesson 2: Van Payload & Weight Considerations
- Lesson 3: Walls, Insulation, Sound Dampening & Infrastructure
- Lesson 4: Van Flooring
- Lesson 5: Van Solar & Electrical Systems
- Lesson 6: Van Heating, Cooling, & Temperature Control
- Lesson 7: Van Bed Styles
- Lesson 8: Van Bathroom, Water Storage & Plumbing
- Lesson 9: Van Kitchen/Galley
- Lesson 10: Tables, Cabinetry, & Storage Ideas
- Lesson 11: Van Upholstery
- Lesson 12: Racks, Ladders, Awnings & Accessories (current lesson)
Are you installing any fun accessories on your van? Share your questions, tips, and experiences down in the comments, and make sure to sign up for course updates here.