When driving a car, most of us don’t turn on the interior lights. Not only can car lights be distracting, but they’re also not very useful — it’s not as though you’re reading, working or hanging out in your vehicle. Van life, however, is an entirely different ball game. When you’re living full or part-time in your van, you’re going to need a solid lighting system.
In this article, we’ll go over everything you need to know about vanlife lighting, from the different options available to how to install them. By the end, you’ll have all the resources you need to curate a comfortable, well-lit vehicle.
Table of Contents
Considerations Before Choosing Your Van Lighting Setup
Your preferences, as well as your van’s limitations, will determine which lights you can (or cannot) use in your van. Before we go over campervan lighting ideas, consider these logistical factors.
How Many Lumens Do You Need in Your Van?
The first thing to think about is how much lighting you want in your van. Rather than consider the number of lights, focus on how many lumens you’d like — this refers to the amount of light that’s visible to the eye. For instance, three light bulbs that produce 1,000 lumens each will provide less light than a single bulb that emits 5,000 lumens. To determine how many lumens you require, consider the following:
- The size of your van
- The areas in your van
- The type of activities you do
In general, your campervan will require around 500 lumens/square meter. For reference, a 100-watt, incandescent bulb releases about 1,500 lumens. The larger your vehicle is, the more interior van lighting you’ll need.
It’s also important to remember that certain areas of your vehicle will need more vanlife lighting than others. For example, if you cook often, you may need extra lights around your countertop space.
Finally, think about the activities you complete in your van. Do you read books, cook meals and host social gatherings? If so, you’ll need more campervan lighting than someone who lives in their vehicle part-time or is out for most of the day.
Van Lighting Installation Difficulty
The next factor to consider is how much time and energy you’re willing to spend on installing your van conversion lighting. Recessed lights (which are installed directly into your van ceiling) look classy, but also take the most effort to install. Hang lights may look less professional, but are fairly easy to work with.
To help decide, consider how important vanlife lighting is to you. If you spend most of your time in your van, putting in that extra effort for high-quality, good-looking lights may be worth it. However, if you only use your van for the occasional road trip, you can probably make due with simply hang lights.
Van Power Supply
When lighting vans, always consider how much power you have at your disposal. On average, recessed lights can use over 3,000 watts in a single day. Meanwhile, LED lights use just 10 watts. To determine how many lights your van can support, consider the following:
- Your electrical system
- The number of appliances you use
- How often you use lights
If you have a strong electrical system, don’t power too many appliances and don’t use your lights all day, you probably have the bandwidth to support strong lights (such as recessed lights). However, if you have a smaller electrical system, power major appliances (like refrigerators and air conditioners) and use your lights often, you might prefer a power-saving light, like LED lights.
Of course, not every van will have an electrical system. If this is the case, you’ll need van lighting that doesn’t require electricity, such as battery powered or solar-powered lights.
Van Lighting Budget
The final factor to consider is your budget. Recessed lights cost around $350 (which covers the fixture and installation). Meanwhile, fairy lights or mountable LED strips will typically cost you less than $50.
It’s also worth noting that, while recessed lights are expensive, they last longer than fairy lights or LED strips. While you may have to change a bulb now and then, you generally don’t have to worry about replacing the entire fixture.
Lighting Vans: Wired Lighting Options and Installation
After narrowing down your power, installation and budgetary needs, you should have a better idea of what lighting fixtures you need. However, if you’re still uncertain, it can help to learn more about the available options. Below, we’ll review some top camper van lighting ideas, as well as their installation processes. Keep in mind that you don’t just have to choose one — many vehicles use two or even three of these options simultaneously.
Recessed 12 V Puck Lighting for Vans
Recessed lights are conversion van interior lighting options that are installed directly into your ceilings (or sometimes walls). They consist of three elements:
- Housing: This hosts the electrical components and is hidden inside the ceiling or walls.
- Trim: This is the decorative portion of the light,
- Bulb: The bulb, of course, produces light.
These lights come in a variety of shapes and sizes. However, the most common type is recessed 12V puck lights (which resemble small pucks and can be powered with a 12V battery).
Pros of Recessed Lights
Here are some benefits of recessed lights:
- Aesthetically pleasing
- Conserves space
- Versatile style options
If you’re looking for high-quality, durable lights that will illuminate your van for years to come, recessed lights are a great option.
Cons of Recessed Lights
Here are a few drawbacks of these vanlife lights:
- Difficult installation process
Recessed lights can be expensive and difficult to install, which isn’t ideal if you’re on a budget or trying to save time. Moreover, it’s best to select these lights before you install your ceiling — otherwise, you’ll need to take the entire ceiling apart and drill holes.
How to Install Recessed Puck Lights in Your Van
Once you’ve settled on recessed lights, the next step is to install them. The installation process is a bit burdensome — however, if you dedicate the time and effort into completing it properly, you’ll end up with a stunning van interior lighting set-up that you can enjoy years to come. Here’s how to install them:
- Choose your lights: Start by choosing your desired lights. Factors to consider include color, voltage and light type (such as xenon or fluorescent).
- Decide how many lights you want: Plan out how many lights you want and where they’re going to go.
- Measure your lights: Trace out your light dimensions by putting one on a piece of cardboard, then making a template.
- Cut holes for the lights: Attach your cardboard templates to the ceiling or wood planks (where the lights will go). Then, use a jigsaw to cut out holes.
- Attach and wire the lights: Using mounting clips or screws, fasten the lights into place. Then, connect the appropriate wires to the bus bar and light switch.
Once the lights are wired and in place, complete the van conversion by concealing the wiring within the walls and ceiling.
LED Light Strips for Vans
LED light strips are circuit boards filled with small LED bulbs. They come in a variety of colors and are highly flexible — you can bend them up to 90º. Every strip features an adhesive back, enabling you to place it wherever you’d like. In most cases, LED light strips are used for accent or decorative lighting. However, you can populate your van with them to create a more comprehensive camper van lighting solution.
Pros of LED Light Strips
Advantages of LED light strips include:
- Easy to install
- Good for highlighting items
LED lights are an effective, environmentally friendly lighting option that will save you time and money. However, they’re not the most powerful — thus, they’re best for highlighting certain areas (such as bookshelves).
Cons of LED Light Strips
Disadvantages of LED light strips include:
- Low lighting capabilities
- Susceptible to high temperatures
- Low lifespan
As mentioned earlier, LED light strips don’t have the strongest lighting capabilities. Moreover, they can get hot quickly and become unusable if the adhesive wears out.
How to Install LED Light Strips in Your Van
Lighting a van with LED light strips is fairly simple. Just follow these steps:
- Measure the area: Start by measuring out where you’d like the LED lights to go.
- Cut LED strips: Using your measurements, cut the LED strips to the desired length.
- Connect the strips to power: To use the lights, you’ll need to connect them to electricity (most use 12v or 24v DC). You can use a quick connector to wire the strips to the power source.
- Stick strips to the surface: Press the adhesive side against the wall to attach the LED light strips to the surface.
Once your wiring is complete and the strips are in place, plug in the power source and watch the lights shine!
Fairy Lights for Your Van
Fairy lights consist of decorative, small lights or bulbs attached to a string. You can choose from a variety of colors and sizes, from small yellow bulbs to brightly colored lamps. Then, just hang them up wherever you’d like. Most fairy lights are a bit dim, so you’re probably better off using them as a decorative lighting source. However, if you don’t need too much illumination, feel free to fill your van with fairy lights and enjoy the view.
Pros of Fairy Lights
Here are some top advantages of fairy lights:
- Easy to install
- Aesthetically pleasing
- Good for decor
You can find fairy lights with up to 50 LED lights for less than $10. Once you’ve chosen and purchased your desired lights, it shouldn’t take long to hang them up. They’re perfect for ambient lighting or for highlighting your favorite furniture.
Cons of Fairy Lights
Here are some of the negative elements about fairy lights:
- Low lighting capabilities
- Short lifespans
- Susceptible to falling down
While fairy lights are affordable and easy to install, they don’t provide the strongest light. Moreover, since they’re not installed directly into your van (like recessed lights are), there’s always the possibility they’ll fall down.
How to Hang Fairy Lights in Your Van
Compared to recessed and LED strip lighting, fairy lights are definitely the easiest to install. There’s no construction needed — simply hang up them up along your walls, then (depending on the power source they use), plug them in or turn on the battery pack. You can hang these lights using the following methods:
- Thumb tacks
- Command hooks
Tape and putty are the easiest, least intrusive ways to hang fairy lights — however, they’re not the most secure, which means your lights may fall down sometimes. Materials like thumb tacks, nails and hooks, on the other hand, can help ensure your lights stay on. Of course, you must be willing to install them into your walls.
Alternatively, you could use furniture to support your fairy lights. For example, you can wrap the strings around shelves or run them along cabinets.
Other Van Lighting Options
There’s no denying that vans with lighting are more desirable than vans without it. After all, you don’t want to be stuck using your cellphone when nighttime hits. Unfortunately, there’s always the possibility that you’re not satisfied with your lighting situation.
Perhaps your wired lighting isn’t giving you enough illumination, or maybe it’s not as decorative as you’d like. Whatever your reasoning is, don’t worry — there are plenty of supplemental lighting you can incorporate for some variety.
Solar lanterns are small, portable lamps that rely on solar panels, batteries and charge controllers. They’re powered by solar energy, which is converted into electrical energy — some of this energy is stored in a battery, which enables you to use the lanterns at night. Most solar lanterns use LED lights and can be found in many different sizes, shapes and patterns.
Pros of Solar Lanterns
Pros of this vanlife lighting option include:
- Environmentally friendly
- Little to no maintenance
You should consider solar lanterns if you want to save on HVAC costs and support the environment.
Cons of Solar Lamps
Cons of solar lamps include:
- Low brightness levels
Compared to other lighting options, solar lamps are not the most bright. Moreover, if the weather is poor, you won’t have much battery charge. If you live in a rainy area, you should look at other lighting solutions.
Battery Powered Puck Lights
As the name suggests, battery powered puck lights resemble hockey pucks. Like recessed lights, they’re small, round and can be placed directly onto your wall or ceiling (using adhesives or screws). Most of these lights take AA batteries and can be controlled using a remote.
Pros of Battery Powered Puck Lights
Here are the top advantages of this lighting option:
- Can be installed anywhere
- Energy efficient
- Strong lighting capabilities
You can find battery powered puck lights with fairly strong lighting capacities. Furthermore, since they don’t use electricity, they’re environmentally friendly (which is helpful if you want to cut down on costs).
Cons of Battery Powered Puck Lights
Here are a couple of drawbacks to battery powered puck lights:
- Requires charging
- Remains in one place
- Possibility of falling down
Since they run on batteries, you’ll need to charge these lights (or replace the batteries at regular intervals). Moreover, if the adhesive wears out or the lamp isn’t screwed properly, there’s a possibility it will fall down. If you desire strong, secure lights and don’t want to worry about charging or replenishing batteries, this may not be the best option.
Battery Powered Reading Light
Battery powered reading lights are portable lamps that run on batteries. You can find them in a variety of sizes — some are small and can be attached directly to books, while others are larger and should be placed on desks or cabinets.
Pros of Battery Powered Reading Lights
Pros of these lights include:
- Don’t require electricity
- No installation process
Battery powered reading lights share many of the advantages found in battery powered puck lights — however, they have the added benefit of being portable. They’re useful if you want to move lights around your van.
Cons of Battery Powered Reading Lights
Cons of these lights include:
- Requires charging
- Possibility of breakage
Like any battery powered light, this vanlife lighting needs charging. Moreover, since they’re not installed into your van, the lamps can fall off furniture and break. If you have a lot of clutter in your vehicle, you’ll need to be extra careful with them.
How Will You Light Your Van?
As you start creating the ideal van set-up, it’s essential to consider your lighting needs. Aesthetically pleasing, functional vanlife lighting can make the difference between an uncomfortable living situation and a cozy home.
Whether you’re interested in wired lighting, supplemental lighting or a combination of both, our team is here for you. Feel free to contact us with any questions!