It’s time to start planning out your van build. You’ve imagined the wooden planks you will stain, the type of cabinets that will hold your precious few belongings, found the perfect bedspread even. Night falls and your van is pitch black, whoops you forget about the lights. Campervan lighting may not be at the top of your to-do list but it’s an important task to get started on early as wiring should be something you do early on in your build.
Interior lighting can make a huge difference to your van. Get it wrong, and you could end up with an extremely dark space that remains uninviting or somewhere that is so bright you need to wear your sunglasses regardless of the time of day. After living in a van for four years, I can confidently tell you that campervan lighting matters.
To help you through campervan lighting options and campervan lighting ideas, I have created this guide to make things easier for you. Read on for lighting ideas and installation.
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Things to Consider for Lighting in your Campervan
You are ready to begin looking at lighting but might have no idea where to begin. If you are like us, picking out and installing lighting in any kind of space was a new venture. There are a few things to consider when choosing lighting for your van build. It’s not as simple as picking out a lamp and moving on, you live in a time home with limited space and electricity.
What will you use the lighting for?
Before you begin to plan out where you want your lights or how to install your new fittings, you need to be certain of the purpose of each light fixture.
Most campers have limited natural light and small campervan windows that will further limit the amount of sunlight. You need to consider what you will be doing daily and tailor your lighting accordingly. Will you be working in your van? What about sufficient lighting for reading? Do you want a brighter light when cooking?
Will there be areas in your van that need brighter lighting or perhaps dimmable lighting? Would you prefer a soft, warmer lighting effect when relaxing or watching a film in the evenings? Although bright lights are great when working, it’s nice to have the option of warmer lighting.
Lighting also affects the way your van will look aesthetically. You need to consider whether you are going for a sleek, modern look or have a desire for more traditional living space and whether you wish to add mood lighting.
How are you going to power your lighting system?
If you are going to have campervan lighting, you need a way to power them. Many vanlifers use solar panels and batteries, which can easily power 12V campervan lights. LED lights in particular use very little electricity and if you have no intention of having a campervan solar system or a generator, you will need to consider portable lights or battery-powered lights.
Installing campervan lights can be a labor-intensive job. In our vans, we installed them into the wood which requires a hole saw and some knowledge of wiring. If you aren’t feeling up to the task there are other options such as strip lighting and battery-powered lighting that require little effort to get up and running.
Living in a van means you have to consider what kind of electricity you have available to you. Even with a solar system, you want to use LED lighting so your power draw is very low. LED lighting in campervans tends to run on 12v, making them energy-efficient and affordable. They also last longer (some can last around 50,000 hours) and do not radiate any heat, which is a bonus in a small space. We have used LED lighting in our campervans, and after a few years, we still have not had any lights go out on us.
Campervan Lighting Ideas
Once you have decided how you will power your campervan, you can dive into the fun stuff; picking out your lights. We have you covered when it comes to your campervan lighting ideas from LED lighting, fairy lights, and solar-powered portable lights.
1) 12V LED Recessed Lighting (Our Pick)
We recommend, along with most van conversion specialists, 12V LED recessed lighting because, firstly and foremost, they are energy-efficient, attractive, and do not take up much space. It’s important to consider how much your lighting choices can take over a space in your camper van.
These lights, also known as downlights or puck lights, slide easily into the holes in the ceiling and are held in place with spring-loaded hinges. You do not need to worry about unsightly screw heads or whether the adhesive glue you are using will hold over time.
12v recessed lighting is also extremely energy efficient. When paired with dimmer switches, it can offer the flexibility to change the strength of the lighting as you desire or even switch it off completely. We used a dimmer switch in our second van, which really added to our home’s ambiance.
Remember, you will ideally decide to use this type of lighting before you start or at least before you finish the ceiling; if not, you will have to go back over work already completed, which could lead to more costs.
2) 12V Strip Lighting
While recessed fixtures are ideal for overhead lighting, they take up a small amount of space if you use them under cupboards or shelving. Or perhaps you are not comfortable with the wiring process through the ceiling.
Strip lighting, however, could be a perfect choice. Strip lights are flexible lengths of lighting fixed within waterproof plastic suitable for use around kitchen areas, mirrors in bathrooms, or under cupboards.
They are often extremely easy to install – all you have to do is peel off the backing paper and attach it to the desired surface using the adhesive glue provided. The wiring is often simple, normally powered with a flex and plug.
However, this type of lighting is generally not as powerful as recessed lighting and you will see this as a supplement to the main lighting in most van conversions.
This lighting style is appealing to many because the colors and options are vast, allowing for different mood settings.
3) Battery Powered Lights
While battery-powered lights may not be as bright as other lights, it is important to remember the space you are trying to illuminate. A 100-watt bulb may be required in a house to gain the optimum lighting, while in a van, you may only need 40 watts, in which case battery-operated lighting may be more suitable.
These are often easy to install, so this may be the best option for you if you are concerned about wiring and electrics. As long as you remember to carry extra batteries, you have no fear of running out of light because of a solar issue!
4) Campervan Fairy Lights
Come on, admit it, everyone loves a bit of fairy lighting, and rightly so. Fairy lights offer something that other lighting options don’t – a statement.
Yes, other lights can have fun colors, but only fairy lights can really affect the mood in your vehicle. They can soften the look of any space and offer dim lighting when watching a movie or relaxing outside in the evenings.
Often these are paired with other lighting options and can be found artistically placed in jars, around beds, or over mirrors. We had fairy lights in all of our vans and found them so pleasing to use in pictures and when relaxing with our doors open at night.
For me, fairy lights are a great way to change the mood of a campervan and at very little expense. After all, who doesn’t like a bit of dream lighting occasionally?
They are flexible and easy to install because you can drape them, use holders, that can be nailed in, or tape them in place. Bonus: because they are LEDs; again, they last forever.
5) Portable Campervan Lighting
Think back to your tent camping days, when you had a battery-powered lantern that sat in the middle of the table at night or hanging from a cord if you needed to make that midnight dash and it was dark outside. These lights, while not essential to campervan life, are extremely handy.
They are portable, and they can either charge via a power socket or use batteries, which is the perfect solution when trying to conserve power. Many lanterns today are also solar-powered, so you can harness the sun’s power and throw it in the dash while driving.
There are many designs available and if you feel creative, you could use solar-powered lanterns to create a whole different vibe while sitting outside in the fresh air.
At this point, I think it is also important to flag the trusted headlamp.
With so many now on the market, you don’t necessarily need to splurge on a top-of-the-range Petzel headset(although we recommend it-buy it once and it lasts forever). You could instead opt for a more affordable budget make if you wish.
They are so versatile and compact they can be used either inside at night when attempting to stealth or are a lifesaver when you pop outside when you have to pee in the middle of the night. Powered by batteries, it may also be a lifesaver when things start to run low.
How to hardwire 12V lights in your campervan
With so many options available, it is easy to see how a simple lighting choice can become a massive consideration, and of course, most vanlifers will tell you that they use a mixture of all of this lighting. Therefore you are, at some point, going to need to hardwire lights into your camper. Ideally, wiring for lighting will be one of the first things you do inside of your van build but it can be done afterward but you will likely have to take down your ceiling.
Before embarking on any electrical work, it is important to remember that you should outsource this work if you are not comfortable doing this for yourself. There are many guides online that can make the process easier.
Just remain calm and follow these easy steps.
- Electrical wire (usually 12 -18 AWG)
- Wire cutters
- Wire crimpers
- Drill and hole saw to create the space for your lights if you are putting in recessed lighting (we recommend 12v recessed PUK lights)
- 12v standard switch or dimmer switch
Step 1: Find the right light placement
First, let’s decide how many lights you want in your campervan and where exactly you want them to be put.
Think about how you will use the space inside your van to determine how many lights you need and where to locate them. Our 144’ van had 8 recessed lights in the ceiling and two under kitchen cabinets for cooking, plus once in each cabinet under the couch. Once you have done this, mark out on the ceiling or cupboard where you want your lights to be. This will allow you to move things around until you are happy.
Once you make that cut, it’s impossible to move them without replacing wood.
Step 2: Light and switch install
Next, you will have to drill holes in the ceiling or cupboards depending on where you want the lights to go using a hole saw. Also, you need to drill a hole for any switches you will be using.
Once you have done this, insert the PUK lights and use the spring-loaded clips to hold the lights in place, and fit the switches ready for wiring.
Step 3: Run positive and negative wires from the fuse box to the light switch
Next, you will need to run the wiring inside the van. Measure the length of the wire you will need by either a tape measure, string, or your electrical wire but do not cut the wire until you’re sure you have the correct length and leave some excess just in case you need it.
Run the wire through existing conduits, if you have any, and behind ceiling cladding to hide the wires, hence why we said it is better to complete this ahead of finishing a ceiling, for example.
Remember where your wiring runs if you need to drill holes through the ceiling later. You do not want to cut through any wiring, then have to replace it.
Leave the wiring unconnected for now; you will finish this later. You should now have the lights, light switches, and the wiring for the lights in the same place according to where you marked the locations earlier.
Step 4: Connecting the wires
When you are ready, you will need to connect the wires to your lights, combining all the red wires into one connector creating one remaining wire.
Start by wiring all strips or strings of lights together. Lights will have a pair of red and black wires coming from them, and because everything is already 12V, you want to wire them in parallel.
All of the red wires are connected to run to the switch. All of the black wires are connected. Red is normally positive.
Step 5: Connecting to the Switch and Fuse Box
Once you have your single red and black wires, connect them to your light switch.
The switch will have three connectors; one for your negative wires, one for your positive wires, and one for a live wire connection to your fuse box. Combined, this completes a circuit.
Step 6: Place fuse in fuse box
For safety reasons, never place a fuse in the fuse box until you have completed everything else, and it is safe to do so.
Before Installing Fuse:
- Check all connections on the circuit
- Check the continuity of the entire circuit
- Use an earth tester to make sure there is no short on the earth wiring
- Connect wires to the fuse box\
- Insert the fuse once happy
- Open the switch
- Check voltage levels and make sure they are no higher than expected
It may sound like a lot, but realistically each step is very simple when broken down; however, if you are unsure of anything, please seek professional advice. Just remember, you may be converting a van for yourself, but no one said you had to complete the whole van conversion yourself.