Couple Travels In Compact Van Conversion With 2 Housecats

This DIY renovation features simple and smart solutions.

Vambo van conversion by Lee and Sarah Vanlife interior

Lee and Sarah Vanlife

When life takes an unexpected turn, sometimes the best thing to do is to trust life and to go down that unknown path. Perhaps that's why there has been so much interest in full-time travel and in van and bus conversions during the last several years.

Based out of the United Kingdom, Lee and Sarah recently took the opportunity to convert their first van into a comfortable home on wheels during the COVID-19 pandemic, with the intention of traveling around locally when lockdowns eased there. They've since sold it and are upgrading to a larger van conversion. But there's a lot to learn from Lee and Sarah's build, which they cover in a video tour over on their YouTube channel, Lee and Sarah Vanlife:

Built out of a short wheelbase Vauxhall Vivaro that was purchased in 2019, the couple's van is affectionately nicknamed Vambo. Both Lee and Sarah work for U.K.'s defense sector, with Sarah contributing design ideas and Lee leveraging his training as an engineer to create simple but smart solutions to maximize a tiny space, and conserve resources like water. The couple says life nudged them toward their decision to plunge into van life:

"We originally became interested in van life in 2017 when we watched several other YouTubers living a freer lifestyle and exploring this wonderful planet. We became hooked, and wanted to convert a van ourselves especially after having two holidays cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and having two house sales fall through -- it felt like the path for van life was being carved out for us."

The van's exterior incorporates a retractable awning that helps to provide shade and extend the usable space outdoors.

Vambo van conversion by Lee and Sarah Vanlife exterior
Lee and Sarah Vanlife

The van's stepwell has been covered with a custom-cut piece of wood that has been stained and distressed, lending a nice personalized touch.

Vambo van conversion by Lee and Sarah Vanlife step well
Lee and Sarah Vanlife

Right at the door, we have a storage unit behind the driver's seat that functions as an extra place to prepare, cook and store food. There is a hinged lid that flips up like a small school desk to reveal a small camping stove inside. There's a cut-out at the bottom of this unit for storing blankets, and it also serves as a resting place for the pet food bowls of Tommy and Arthur—the couple's two adorable cats.

Vambo van conversion by Lee and Sarah Vanlife entry and shelf unit
Lee and Sarah Vanlife

In addition, the couple's adjustable Lagun table arm is mounted here, creating a small dining or workspace when the tabletop is mounted and when they are seated on either one of the two upholstered seats nearby.

The upholstered seat behind the front passenger seat also works as a place to hide the cats' litter box.

Vambo van conversion by Lee and Sarah Vanlife table
Lee and Sarah Vanlife

The other upholstered seat pulls out from under the platform bed and can either be used as a place to store a portable toilet. Or, as in the case with the couple, they chose to use it as a storage space. Instead, they use a collapsible bivvy that is designed as an ultra-slim toilet for their needs.

Vambo van conversion by Lee and Sarah Vanlife more storage
Lee and Sarah Vanlife

Along one side of the van, we have a multipurpose counter that holds the kitchen sink and some integrated storage, as well as some shelving above.

Vambo van conversion by Lee and Sarah Vanlife shelving and storage
Lee and Sarah Vanlife

The van's DIY sink is made out of a lovely copper vessel, and the faucet out copper piping. The couple says that they chose to use a foot-operated pump over an electric pump system as it's better for water conservation, and for more easily gauging their water usage.

Vambo van conversion by Lee and Sarah Vanlife kitchen sink
Lee and Sarah Vanlife

To maximize space in this short van, the couple's bed is a slatted design that pulls out to expand.

Vambo van conversion by Lee and Sarah Vanlife slatted bed
Lee and Sarah Vanlife

Once the slats are extended, the mattress can be unfolded completely to fill up much of the interior space.

Vambo van conversion by Lee and Sarah Vanlife bed open
Lee and Sarah Vanlife

Besides using efficient touch-activated LED lights, the couple chose to go with a super simple shower system made of a pump sprayer (typically used for gardening) and a wooden deck tile. This is stored in the storage space underneath the platform bed, along with the van's 140 amp-hour battery, a diesel heater, and other miscellaneous camping gear.

Vambo van conversion by Lee and Sarah Vanlife back of van
Lee and Sarah Vanlife

Both Lee and Sarah loved their first few trips traveling in Vambo with their housecats. Buoyed by the success of those experiences, they sold Vambo to a nice couple living nearby, and have since been working on converting Ragnar, a Citroen Relay with a high top and a longer wheelbase, mostly because they wanted to travel comfortably for longer periods of time.

The couple says that the biggest challenge with converting a van is getting past the "van burnout" phase. For them, it was the period just after finishing the all-important insulation process. Their advice for would-be van-lifers:

"Research as much as possible, but also just go for it, there is a lot of people in the vanlife community who are always happy to help and give advice. We found that planning layouts often change several times during the build, so do try and think about everything you really need and want carefully. Other than that, have fun with it, and enjoy the process, as it’s a huge accomplishment to do as a couple or family. Then, once it’s done, you have something completely bespoke to you. Take your time finding the right van—that’s the most important tip."

To follow up on Lee and Sarah's progress in transforming Ragnar and their future adventures, head on over to Lee and Sarah Vanlife on YouTube, and on Instagram.