DIY: Convert Your Surf Wagon for a season of Surf

By Matt G – 12/10/2015 

If life’s given you the chance to drop all ties and take a season chasing the waves, you can’t let the opportunity slip away. And what better way to unwind from the everyday grind than to enjoy the coastline and progress your skills in the waves?

Of course, now you need to get yourself a suitable Wagon to make the trip. You may have a van already that you use as a weekend warrior, but it probably doesn’t cut the mustard when it comes to taking a full season on the road. Upgrades are needed, or a new van altogether. Since first getting behind the wheel, I’ve converted and upgraded a number of vans. I started out as a weekend warrior, moved on to seasonaire and am now living in a van, chasing the waves and waking up at the break every day. It’s been a steep learning curve with each new van and I can comfortably say that I know a thing or two about van conversions now.

The seasonaire style wagon is a tricky one. If you’re only likely to do one season then you wouldn’t want to build something costly and complex, which could make it difficult to sell at the end of the season. Chances are you’ll build such a bond with your new home. You’ll find it hard to let her go once you’re back home, in which case you need to combine the tips I’m about to give alongside the blueprint for building a great DIY weekend warrior’s wagon. Together they’ll a happy medium between the two.

Vehicle Choice
A long wheel base may be a wise choice for a full season. The only thing to be careful of is the ground clearance at the back, the more the back overhangs the rear axel, the more likely it is to hit the deck when you head off the beaten track. You can get coil spring spacers for your suspension, which could lift the back up a bit, but then you’ll have a stiffer ride. It’s also well worth going for a high-top van. The drag effect on fuel economy is minimal and the improvement in comfort is huge. Being able to stand up in the van shouldn’t be underestimated. It makes getting changed way easier and makes bad weather days slightly more manageable.

Of course, reliability is crucial. You’re likley to be running on a tight budget, so can’t fork out for a luxory new van, but it’s crucial to have something that’ll be reliable. There are some manufacturers to stay clear of, and some to stick with. You can’t go far wrong with an old Iveco or Mercedes. Those guys make trucks and their vans are built with some truck standard parts. They may use quite a bit of fuel, but they’re incredibly reliable, simple to maintain and will keep chugging along when you’re venturing across a country that has sub-standard fuel.

Conversion Tips
The first thing I’ll say is a fixed bed is a must. The last thing you want to do is build up a bed every night. Yes, it takes up a ton of space. But if you’re clever about it you can create some easily accessible storage underneath.

A solar panel and a couple of good batteries are also worthwhile investments. Having free use of energy to charge electrical devices, and being able to have decent internal lighting is great. On the lighting side, I’d only suggest using LED lights due to their longer lifetime and huge efficiency gains.

A solar panel and some extra storage on top of my old seasonaire. A well placed and useful investment.

Next up: to toilet or not to toilet. That is the question. Its answer really depends on how willing you are to squat over a bucket lined with a plastic bag, and where you’re planning to tour. Your space is precious in the van and consuming a load of it with a toilet can be a drag.

If you’re surfing somewhere warm, a solar shower will be perfectly suitable. Hang it on the side of the van while you surf and by the time you’re back, it’ll be a bearable temperature. If you do opt for a proper toilet, then it is of course worthwhile putting a little shower unit in there too. Make sure your plumbing connections are good and the joints are always accessible because you don’t want continuous leaks from all the piping.

Another worthy investment is a  dual hob cooker, since you’re likely to cook for yourself most days. You can have it directly over the gas bottle (7kg is a nice size) so it can be directly connected with a rubber pipe. Opting for a refrigerator will depend on your diet. If you’re a big meat eater and don’t want to visit a shop everyday to buy fresh meat, then you’ll need a refrigerator. But don’t even consider an electrical one because they will churn through your battery in a matter of days. The gas ones are great (Electrolux is the main one) and easy to find second hand. Their only problem is that you may need a flue system, and they only work when the van is flat. Should you install a sink? That will depend on whether you’ve opted for the toilet and shower. If you decide against toilet, then it’s probably not worthwhile fitting pumps, water heater and plumbing for a sink.

Captains chairs are an absolute lifesaver. On bad weather days or anytime you feel like just chilling out on your own, it can be nice to sit down somewhere other than your bed. By having the captains chairs (ones that can turn around), you avoid taking up heaps of space building fixed seats, or uncomfortable fold out seating. On my first season I was actually in a short wheelbase VW T4. There was hardly any room for me and all my gear so I removed the passenger seat to make space for a little fridge and cooker. The only place I could sit, apart from behind the wheel, was on a fold out camping chair. I soon wished I had a captains chair.

And finally, you’ll want to have some sort of dedicated in-van board storage. Leaving boards outside is asking for them to be stolen. And moving them around the van every time you move will drive you bonkers, as well as cover everything in sand. It’s worth sticking some straps on the ceiling to hold your boards up, or at least being able to store them across the cab, so you only need to move them when you drive.

It’s easy to forget all about the cab, but you’ll be glad for the time put in if you make a few upgrades. Arm resets are an easy thing to make and will make long motorway journeys much more comfortable. No need to make them too fancy. I just used some 2”x4” timber, wrapped with an old camping mat. One of those beaded seat covers can also be good. Chances are you’ll get pretty hot and sweat a bit when driving some of the time. The seat cover will keep some air between you and the seat, preventing the inevitable stink. They’re also great for if you’re in a wet wetsuit and want to just drive to the next break.

Hopefully these few tipis will help you with your next conversion and provide some fruit for thought. Enjoy the journey and chase the waves.

The spot where I piloted plenty of adventures, made to fit just for me.