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Picture of How to insulate a camper van
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We just bought a new Mercedes Sprinter Van (2013, 144" with high roof) and are starting the conversion towards a winterized camper. We live in the Pacific Northwest and love to ski - our goal is to drive the sprinter around ski resorts and camp out in the parking lots, ready for the next day powder! The construction of this van is for us the start of uncountable adventures discovering the area around here. We are outdoors enthusiasts, love to do backpack camping and backcountry skiing, but we also want to have a bit more comfort, specifically in the winter. The first step was, of course, to insulate the walls, the floor and the ceiling of the van to keep the warmth in.

After reading multiple blogs and info sites about Sprinter and van conversions, we decided to use metallic bubble wrap, fiberglass insulation, and a plastic vapor barrier.

In total, it took us about 2 days (6-7 hours a day) with 2 to 4 people working on this to finish the insulation process. It cost us about 300$ for the materials (although we got the fiberglass insulation for free from a friend).

DISCLAIMER: This is the first van conversion we are doing, so this is certainly a process of trial and error! We tried to describe at every step the reasons why we made the choice materials we made, so hopefully you can see that we used common sense to design this process. I am an industrial designer and design researcher and my boyfriend is a landscape architect with some knowledge in wood working. We see this project as an experiment and as a wonderful place to try out some ideas about design, materials and fabrication.

UPDATE: Since then, we have made some progress on the van. Here are the next steps: Storage platform, Cedar panel walls, Bed-Table-Benches unit, and the cushions for the bed/benches!


For an overview of the work we did, take a look at our timelapse videos!



 
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Step 1: Materials

Materials:

You will need:
  • Reflectix metallic bubble wrap (we got 150 sq feet and it was just enough for the floor and the walls)
  • Fiberglass insulation
  • Tuck tape (2 rolls of 66 meters)
  • Vapor barrier (we got the smallest roll, and it was way too much!)
  • Spray glue (2 bottles) (we tried Lepage and Nashua. Nashua worked better for us.)
  • Spray insulation (2 bottles of "GREAT STUFF Big Gap Filler Insulating Foam Sealant" 454 g)
  • Foam boards (2 sheets of "DUROFOAM DuroFoam EPS Rigid Insulation" 4 x 8, 1 inch thick).

Step 2: Tools

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Tools:

You will need:
  • Safety first: Goggles, gloves, masks - particularly when working with the fiberglass insulation
  • Scissors
  • Exacto knife
  • Measuring tape
  • Screw driver and allen keys

Step 3: Preparation

Picture of Preparation
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The first step to insulate the van is to get it ready to accept the insulation.
  1. Take out everything that is inside the van.
  2. Remove the existing floor with a screw driver or allen key, depending on what attachments you have.
  3. The result will be a metallic surface all around in the van.
  4. Close off the driver's cabin with a plastic sheet to prevent having fiberglass all over the seats.
  5. Set up a go pro if you want to do a timelapse video!

Now you are ready to start the hard work!

Step 4: Start with the floor

We decided to start with the floor since once it is done, you can stand on it and work on the rest of the van.
  1. Unroll the reflectix bubble wrap on the floor. Use the exacto or scissors to cut it to the appropriate length.
  2. Secure the bubble wrap in place with the red tuct tape. You don't have to glue it all around, just enough to make sure it won't move once the flooring is put back on top.
  3. Once you have done the middle piece, work around on the edges by placing the bubble wrap down and cutting it to size. The goal is to cover the whole floor before putting back the top on.
  4. Put back the top onto the bubble wrap. Remember the order you took things appart. For us, we had to take out the piece closer to the front benches first and then remove the back one. So when placing them back, we started with the back piece and then the front one.
  5. Where there are holes for the inserts to hold down the plywood, use an exacto knife to make a X shape hole. This way you can find the screw hole under and get ready to screw back the insert.
  6. Place back the insert piece under the foil and then add the black metal piece.
  7. Screw everything back in place!

Step 5: The ceiling

Picture of The ceiling
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The ceiling of the Sprinter van is separated by about 6 ribs of about 2 inches wide. In between each set of ribs, we placed durofoam foam boards to do the insulation. We decided to use this material for the ceiling since it is easy to place and can hold in place without too much trouble.
  1. Measure the distance between the ribs for each casing.
  2. Cut with an exacto knife the foam boards to the appropriate size.
  3. Place the boards in place (ask a friend to help you!).
  4. Use tuck tape to secure the boards to the ribs.

Step 6: The walls: first layer is the bubble wrap

Picture of The walls: first layer is the bubble wrap
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The most time consuming part of the insulation for the van was to work on the walls. We had to use 3 different materials all around, so this means a lot of time. The three layers are bubble wrap, fiberglass insulation and vapor barrier. The first layer, the bubble wrap, is to cut off the cold coming from the outside metal panel. The second layer, the fiberglass insulation, is used to create a larger thickness of air to keep the warmth inside and the cold outside. Finally, the third layer, the vapor barrier, is used to prevent the moisture coming from the inside of the van (think of melting snow from skis, stinky and wet feet, and boiling water and cooking) to go into the fiberglass insulation and create mould.

Remember, a van is not like a house, the materials don't breathe as much and moisture can really be a problem inside. (We did not use the vapor barrier on the ceiling or floor since there are almost no risk of having mould on the bubble wrap itself or on the durofoam on the ceiling).
 
  1. Unroll a part of the bubble wrap, measure approximately how much you will need.
  2. Cut with scissors to the dimensions.
  3. Use spray glue. Read well the instructions on the one you get. With the LePage and Nashua, you need to spray on both surfaces (the bubble wrap and the wall) and let it sit for 2-5 minutes before glueing it together.
  4. Place the bubble wrap to the appropriate surface on the walls of the van. Apply pressure everywhere to make sure it is well glued.

For the smaller sections (between the ribs), we made sure to cut out little wings to fit on the ribs and behind the ribs when possible. For the even smaller sections (in the ribs), we were sometimes able to add a rectangle of bubble wrap without glueing it in place. The fiber glass insulation will hold it in place.

 

Step 7: The walls: second layer is the fiberglass insulation

Picture of The walls: second layer is the fiberglass insulation
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SAFETY NOTE:
Use gloves and masks for this part of the work.
Fiberglass insulation is not the nicest material to work with, however we got ours for free, so we did not complain.
  1. Approximate the size of the pieces you need to cover each piece of bubble wrap.
  2. Use scissors to cut to size.
  3. In the small sections surrounded by ribs, shove the insulation into place.The ribs should be enough to hold it in place. Don't compact the insulation too much, as it is the little air parts between the fiberglass that creates the insulation.
  4. For the larger sections, we used tape to hold the insulation in place. Since we know that there will be the vapor barrier and the final paneling, this is a good enough temporary solution!

Step 8: The walls: foam insulation in the beams

Picture of The walls: foam insulation in the beams
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SAFETY NOTE:
Use gloves and goggles for this part,
as this stuff is really sticky on the fingers and would definitely not be good to have in your eyes.

There are still gaps behind some of the beams that are not possible to attain with bubble wrap and fiberglass insulation. For those, we used foam insulation in a spray can. We read only later that you are supposed to fill in only to 50% of the gap with the foam, since it will expand afterwards... So we had to cut out the excess!

Step 9: The walls: third layer is the vapor barrier

Picture of The walls: third layer is the vapor barrier
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The final step is to add the vapor barrier to seal everything. The goal here is to have no air coming from the van to the fiberglass insulation.
  1. Start by cutting an approximately good size piece of plastic for each section. For sections, we used the large beams already on the walls to dictate where we were going to separate the sections.
  2. For each section, start by using tuck tape on the top part of the piece to secure it in place.
  3. Then make sure to cut out space for the wheel for the bottom piece. Make sure the size is ok all around.
  4. Then tape down the bottom, and finish with the sides.

We had some more delicate cutting outs to do around the ceiling studs, and around the back anchor for the door. With some patience and good scissors, everything can be sealed out properly!

YOU ARE NOW DONE! The insulation for the van is complete. If you want a super extra good job, you can also add some insulation in the panels of the doors. We did not get to this part yet. You can also insulate around the wheels, but this has to be done in conjuncture with whatever you want to build around the wheels.

Once this is done, the next step will be to cover the insulation with a 'pretty' finish so that it is nice and welcoming to live in the van. Some people use thin plywood, some use plywood covered with fabric or rug. We are thinking of using thin cedar tongue-in-groove slats for a very nice finish. This will come in the next instructables tutorial!

As I said in the intro, this is the first van conversion we are working on. We do not claim that this is the best way to insulate the interior of a van, however we believe that we have done a thorough research of online resources and what we present here is a nice summary of the best options we have seen out there, considering our budget, our skills, our schedule, and our future use for the van (winter adventures!). We welcome all comments or questions, since we are curious to see how others have done it.

Questions? Comments?

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AdamG101 month ago

My Ford E350 cargo van developed several small holes below the factory rubber floor which developed into surface rust everywhere on the floor. I painted over hard rust with POR-15 and put a breathable outdoor carpet from home depot over the metal.

Almost every Sprinter I see on the road today has rust weeping down the sides.

Have you run into any issues with rust on your Sprinter?

AudreyDesjardins (author)  AdamG101 month ago

Hi AdamG10,

We have not run into rust problems yet as the van is a 2013 (so it is not that old yet). Also, we live in Vancouver, Canada, so our winters are really not that bad and there is not much salt on the streets in the winter time.

powderstash4 months ago

Has anyone experimented with expanding foam?

AudreyDesjardins (author)  powderstash3 months ago

Hi powderstash,

We have used a bit of expanding foam for the beams where we could not add other types of insulation. Look at step 8, we describe it there. What we learned is that it does expand quite a bit! (about twice if not more in volume). I have heard stories of people putting some expanding foam in the doors of their van or car and if it expanded too much, it actually deformed the door... so be careful if you go that route!

TomAtWEG4 months ago

Hi Guys,

I am looking at implementing a similar insulation scheme for my camper for an upcoming sabbatical. Unfortunatley for me time is short, so I was wondering if you could give an idea of how long each stage takes.

Ideally I could calculate using your awesome time lapse, what was the time delay on each photo?

Any info would be appreciated.

Regards

AudreyDesjardins (author)  TomAtWEG4 months ago

Hi TomAtWEG! Great to hear you are starting a similar project! Super exciting! For the timelapse videos, we set it up to take a photo every 30 seconds. Overall, it took us about 12-14 hours to finish the insulation. We always had 2 people at least working, sometimes 3 or 4. Also, not part of the videos is the time to calculate how much material we needed, the time to go and buy it, and the time for setting up the tools and such. But once you get going, it goes pretty fast!

Good luck on the project and have fun!

MikeH145 months ago

Nice job. This really is a complete and proper job with the vapour barrier as that wool can hold moisture. I recommend using tongue and groove like you say - it's easier to fit than cutting bit sheets of ply. This is how I insulated and cladded my van: http://vandogtraveller.com/fitting-wooden-cladding-van-interior/

AudreyDesjardins (author)  MikeH145 months ago

Hi MikeH14, Thanks for the comments! We decided to go with tongue and groove cedar : http://www.instructables.com/id/Cedar-paneling-for... and it worked great! We have been traveling with the van on and off for a year now and it is holding up pretty good!

Your van looks awesome!! Hope the travels are good!!

Killerspec7 months ago

Was wondering if you still around do you have any shots of the complete van once you finished all the layout?

Thanks a million for the tutorial looking at vans at the moment for travelling around Europe on vacations for the years ahead.

AudreyDesjardins (author)  Killerspec6 months ago

Hi Killerspec,

Sorry for a slow response! We are still working on the van. We decided this was going to be a slow process, so we could still go travel with the van as we are building it. As of now, we are done with the walls, we made a platform for storage in the back and we build a table with benches and a bed. You can find all those tutorials here:

http://www.instructables.com/id/Storage-platform-f...

http://www.instructables.com/id/Cedar-paneling-for...

http://www.instructables.com/id/Bed-Table-and-Benc...

I have another one drafted for the cushions of for the bed, so stay tuned! Next step is to build the kitchen unit :)

Thanks for getting back to me good luck with the rest of the project and I look forward to seeing the fruits of your labour in the near future.

Esmagamus7 months ago

Did you make sure there are no access covers for the fuel pump or rear axle mounts that go throught the bottom of the van?

If access to the fuel pump is through a cover in the bottom, you'll have to have the flooring sawed to fix the fuel pump, clean the strainer, etc.

Veewee1111 year ago
Hi,
Fiberglass (and most any foam) insulation is bad news. Take it out now and avoid the rust problem that follows. Seen way too many VW buses over the years with the nasty results. Sealing it with plastic will make it load up with moisture even worse/sooner. Only way to make that work would be to cut the sides of the van and install vents to allow out the condensation like as done to houses.

Veewee111...Hi...I was thinking the same thing about the condensation. Starting a van build now and wondered if you had any solutions to the moisture issue...

Thanks!

Sent the below to a fellow who Pmailed us about this problem. Have added some more to it to post it here.

There are two catagories to insulating a camper or any other structure, short term or long term.

Short term like a few days to a few weeks then you could insulate the walls when camping in temperate weather, but need to allow moisture to get back out of the walls back to the interior to be let out of any venting window. We have side windows and a roof vent that can be slightly opened on sunny days, that really helps.

Long term for months and especially in artic conditions one would need to insulate with vapor barrier and cut vents in the outer walls to let moisture vent out all of the time. VW did this to the pre-1968 non-walk thru panel buses with a panel sealing off the cargo area from the front bench seat, by punching vents in the upper rear corners of the rear cargo area to prevent moisture build up.

Image looking forward to the panel behind the bench seat of non-walk thru panel bus.
http://images.thesamba.com/vw/gallery/pix/267582.jpg

Here is an interior shot of a special order walk thru panel with the upper cargo area vents in the body. These vents were usually only in the non-walk thru panels.
http://images.thesamba.com/vw/gallery/pix/1116625.jpg

Here is a post on a VW website we have weighed in on about the subject for short the term.

http://www.thesamba.com/vw/forum/viewtopic.php?t=153837&postdays=0&postorder=asc&highlight=insulation&start=0

Thinking of using thin 1/4" (6 mm) styrofoam glued to the mylar coated bubble wrap. Neither of these insulation materials will sponge up moisture. Insulation needs to be thin enough to not be packed tightly in there against outer sheet metal when paneling is in place. Want a bit of air space so air flow can pass thru and get out the moisture from behind the 1/8" (3 mm) plywood. Having the mylar coated bubble wrap with the bubble side against the outer sheet metal will allow air to dry out any moisture that gets in between the insulation and sheet metal. The wood unlike plastic will breath back out the moisture when heated up in the sunshine or a heated garage. Will use velcro in places to hang the insulation from drooping down and at same time allow air flow around edges of the insulation. That way insulating panels stay in place, but easy to remove for body repairs or inspection.

Was in the USAF and got to handle the insulating panels used in cargo aircraft like the C-130s. Blanket type material with velcro at edges. Very cold at 30,000 feet over the North Atlantic with temps down near -50 F. Would pull back a panel, and slip in a 1 liter bottle of Moutian Dew for fifteen minutes. Pull the bottle back out and shake up for slurpies. Yum!

Hope this info helps!
AudreyDesjardins (author)  Veewee1117 months ago

Wow Veewee111!! This is quite the response! Thank you so much for sharing all this information. I think this should help other folks figure out what they need for the usage of their van. I think a key point that you shared is the need to have air circulation between and around the insulation. In our build, since our cedar panels are almost floating in front of the metal wall, we were able to have about half an inch of air circulation. This should definitely help.

smidGe7771 year ago

Ah that's sweet as! Nice job!! Did you find out about the temperature difference? And have you had any problems with the setup as of yet I.e rust, dust, ventilation, condensation or anything else? I am looking to carry out the same to my Mazda bongo to live in the winter months whilst at work! So very curious on how it's going? :D enjoy!!!

AudreyDesjardins (author)  smidGe7771 year ago

Hi smidGe777! Thanks for the comments and sweet that you are starting a similar project! We have had the van since November 2013 now, and finished installing the insulation and wood paneling walls (instructables to come...) in December 2013. We have used it to camp in the winter, spring and summer. Up to now, we have not had any problems with it :) We are pretty happy with how things are working for us and it seems like there is no condensation happening in the walls (although it is hard to see because most of it is now covered in cedar panels). We did not do a serious comparison for the temperature difference, however, we spent nights at -10 or -15 celsius and we were fine. We use a small propane heater (made specifically for indoors environments, and with the ceiling vent open) and it has kept us warm enough. For ventilation, the ceiling vent is crucial, and even in winter time it is important to leave it a bit open at night, to let the humidity get out. We have also definitely noticed that the windows and the side door were conducting the cold from outside, since they were not insulated. For the front and back windows, we made curtains. For the side door, we are in the process of adding a window, and eventually curtains as well. We used a light wool for the curtains.

Enjoy the project!

Nice one! Glad your happy with your project! And thank you for your wishes and advice :D
timaldiss1 year ago

Wow, so very jealous. Great work. I particularly liked the hands-in-the-air moment in day one!

I did a complete conversion myself some time ago and wrote it up with a few photos here: http://loftsites.co.uk/campervans/vw-lt-camper-conversion.html

AudreyDesjardins (author)  timaldiss1 year ago

Hi Timaldiss! Thanks for the comment! Yes, it was almost like a dance with everyone's hands in the air! Nice work on your conversion. We will soon start on making a seating area and a table. How did you brace the different plywood panels? Did you just glue them together or nailed them as well? I think I saw some angled braces as well, did you put those everywhere? Thanks!

I used quite thick heavy ply which in some cases I did screw together, yes, but in the most part it was right angle brackets.

I used Sikaflex to bond all the wood panels to the metal bracing in the van - this is key to stop rattles.

Have fun :)
hi, great job. I had an older VW van with insulation much like yours - except the builder (not me) had forgotten the vapor barrier. My point here would not be mould, but rust. When my van started to show brown dots in the outside seams of the sidepanels it was too late - it had rusted from the inside.
Could this be a problem with your floor and ceiling? Condensation could occur if vapor is allowed to pass to the metal panels.
best rgds
Martin
AudreyDesjardins (author)  MHaakansson1 year ago

Hi! Thanks for the comment. This is a good point, we will have to see with time. I think that the metallic bubble wrap as well as the foam for the ceiling are less likely to hold and maintain humidity over time than fiberglass wool... is that possible? Assuming this is true, rust (or mold) would be less likely as well...

mbog11 year ago
What do you think about: http://kore.koskisen.com/ ?
Really neat project you have here. :)

One thing about finishing the interior, keep in mind the weight of the wood. You might be surprised how fast it adds up and that will kill any mpg in a hurry. Indoor/Outdoor carpet is made to get wet and dirty, so it cleans up fairly easily plus it's cheap. Less than .50 sq ft in my area(Minnesota). Carpet will also help keep dust down when everything does dry out. I've done a few van conversions back when I was much younger and so far you've done great IMHO only other thing to be careful of is after running your wiring try not to run any fasteners into them (really sucks when the back speakers stop working out of the blue LOL).
Wishing you best of luck on your adventures to come :)
Thanks for the comment! (and the advice hehe!)
On my own van, I originally planned to use bubble insulation like Reflectix which includes foil to block radiant heat. I'm having second thoughts after googling Reflectix and learning that its real R value is just about 1, and that radiant heat transfer isn't relevant to most real-world situations. Maybe I'll try closed-cell foam, as used for camping mats. It doesn't absorb moisture, and should also add sound deadening.
mugget1 year ago
Good stuff - love Sprinters!!

I don't know if fibreglass provides more effective insulation than polyester, but poly is another option for people who are turned off fibreglass. Poly is so so much easier to install.

BTW do you have a forum thread or anywhere with regular updates on your fitout?
AudreyDesjardins (author)  mugget1 year ago
Hi Mugget,

Thanks for the comment! We don't have a forum thread anywhere for now. This was only the first step and we are thinking about adding more here, as Instructables is easy to manage and show pictures.
M.Ploeger1 year ago
Very nice.
Love it! This is awesome! One question I have, for everybody, is how to manage condensation inside? I've slept plenty in the backs of vans while traveling and have noticed on the well used ones that they often have a musk about them that is unfortunate. Any thoughts, aside from leaving doors open, on how to avoid this? In the winter, cracking a window or door doesn't do much to evaporate the mug. Thoughts?
Great comment! This is something we are really aware of and are curious to hear about how others deal with condensation. Our strategy will be to have good air circulation. We had someone install a roof fan for us (The FanTastic Vent: http://www.fantasticvent.com/products/model_4000/model_4000.html ). Even in the winter, we will try to sleep with it open (at least a little bit) in order to have new air come in and our own humid air go out. We are also thinking that a little bit of heating before going to bed and in the morning will help with this. Anyone has other thoughts?
heating only moves moisture into the air as hot air can contain more moisture than cold. When it hits cold surfaces it'll condensate. Ventilation is the only way to deal with it, which of course has the double effect of removing the heat as well.
The space is too small to use a heat recovery (feel free to show me something that does!) so you'll be stuck with being a bit cold.

I can't breathe through my nose, so as a mouth breather the amount of moisture I generate is several times higher than most.

If you're installing ventilation I'd install it down low as you'll only be getting rid of the coolest air. Trouble is by installing it low, you risk gusts coming in.

Very much catch 22.

I'd work on the basis of using it at night and ventilate well in the morning.

Carpet of course won't condensate so much and will absorb some of it. You can then air it in the morning with the hope it'll dry out before the evening!
Circulation, circulation, circulation! You can also get a dehumidifier to run for a couple of hours, along with some small fans to dry out the insides really well. The fans push the air around, and the dehumidifier sucks the water into a pan or a bucket. Just remember to empty it!
przem1 year ago
It looks like simple, yet effective solution!

But let me give one advice - just in case: route any wires you need (power, audio, additional lighting etc.) and maybe some spare ones, before covering all with that very nice cedar :-)
AudreyDesjardins (author)  przem1 year ago
Thanks przem! Very good advice, we will indeed pass all our wire before finishing all the walls. We were also thinking of keeping one slat easily removable, where we would hide all the wires behind in order to have quick access.
Also, make a "Wire Map" where you have a sheet of paper with the outline of each panel and where each wire is run, and where they split and whatnot. Pictures help, but having a paper sheet can also help a TON!

The more detailed you make this wire map, the more it will help you when you need it most.
AudreyDesjardins (author)  Spokehedz1 year ago
Thanks for the advice!
Great Job, I wish we had the time and money to do something similar!
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