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What you need to know before converting a van to a campervan

Many tradies and handy-folk have built their own campervans and motorhomes. Here’s a guide to the process, so you can see if such a project is right for you.


The starting point is working out what you really intend to do with the finished vehicle. For example, there’s little point building a Taj Mahal on wheels if you want to access the Victorian High Country or Cape York’s Telegraph Track.

A two-wheel drive campervan or motorhome has very limited touring ability, so a 4WD one makes much more sense. There are many roads and tracks that need 4WD traction at times – particularly if you get caught in a sudden downpour.

However, a large, truck-based 4WD motorhome is limited by its sheer size. Some tracks and camping access roads are narrow, with overhanging branches and a large vehicle can’t negotiate them without risking expensive damage.

An alternative is a large motorhome, towing a small 4WD wagon behind it. You camp in a secure area and journey to remoter spots in your 4WD.



What can go where


For trip planning purposes it’s important to note that Highway One in its various guises is a bitumen road that runs right around Australia. The bitumen Stuart Highway runs north-south from Port Augusta in South Australia to Darwin in the Northern Territory.

There’s bitumen from Sydney, Brisbane, Rockhampton, Townsville and Cairns through western Queensland to the Northern Territory.

There’s bitumen from Darwin to Kakadu National Park and to Broome in Western Australia.

Most of the major tourist sites around Alice Springs can be reached on bitumen roads.

Major gravel roads are the Gibb River Road in northern Western Australia; the Great Central Road that links the Western Australian goldfields with Uluru (Ayers Rock); the Plenty Highway from Boulia to Alice Springs; the Tanami Road from Alice Springs to Halls Creek in Western Australia; the Birdsville Track that’s a major part of the link between Port August in South Australia and Mount Isa in western Queensland; the Savannah Way between Mataranka in the Northern Territory and Normanton in northern Queensland and the Oodnadatta Track that connects Marree and Marla in South Australia.

A large 4WD motorhome based on a medium truck chassis can handle all this.

If you intend to visit more demanding areas, such as the Sandy Blight Junction Track; the Gary Junction Road; the Bungle Bungles; the easier sections of the High Country and many Great Dividing Ranges national parks, size and manoeuvrability become issues and a smaller vehicle is preferred – maybe a light truck or large van.

For extreme adventures: the upper High Country; the Telegraph Track; Simpson Desert; the Len Beadell ‘bomb’ tracks and the Canning Stock Route you a need small truck or van and relatively light bodywork.



Who’s driving it


Having picked the desired performance level of your project vehicle, it’s time to focus on vehicle specifics.

What licence categories do the intended occupants have? Some blokes’ partners are happy driving a large vehicle, but many are not.

The demarcation line across Australia is 4495kg gross vehicle mass (GVM), at or below which a car licence is fine, but above which you require a light rigid truck licence, up to 8000kg GVM.

Beyond the LR licence a medium rigid licence (MR) permits you to drive any two-axle vehicle weighing over 8000kg GVM. Next step is a heavy rigid licence (HR), covering three-axle vehicles.

All truck licence categories allow towing a trailer weighing up to 9000kg.



How big


If your plan is to travel in as much comfort as possible and stick mainly to major bitumen and gravel roads, size doesn’t matter so much. However, weight does matter. You mustn’t exceed the GVM rating of the vehicle, with its bodywork, full water and fuel tanks, people and all gear and food on board.

Most people greatly under-estimate the weight of bodywork and necessary fluids and kit.

Caravanners and ute owners with slide-ons can sympathise with this position, because many of them have been pulled over for overloading their tow vehicle and van. Authorities have no sympathy with GVM excess and heavy fines apply. Also, your insurance becomes invalid.

The only flexibility with the truck maker’s GVM rating is in the case of some 4495kg-rated vehicles that have optional higher ratings. It’s possible to have the truck re-rated to the higher level, if you have the appropriate LR licence.



Keep it legal


There’s no point going ahead with a project and finding out at its conclusion that you can’t get it registered for its intended purpose,
because it contravenes engineering and manufacturing codes of practice or standards, Australian Design Rules, electrical installation regulations or LPG laws.

Topics that need compliance include height and width dimensions, rear overhang, seats, seatbelts, child-seat anchorages, driver’s vision, rear vision, ventilation, fire control, TV location, grey and black water plumbing and venting, glass, door opening and wheels and tyres.

The list of compliance requirements is extensive and there are differences between sub-4495kg vehicles and larger ones.

For sub-4495kg vehicles, compliance requirements and a check list are spelt out in: https://infrastructure.gov.au/roads/vehicle_regulation/bulletin/pdf/NCOP6_Section_LH_Body_and_Chassis_01Jan2011_v3.pdf

For heavier vehicles, the reference is: https://www.nhvr.gov.au/files/201603-0305-vsg5-converting-a-vehicle-into-a-motorhome.pdf

Plan well and…good luck!
















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