The Best Kitchen Setups for Van Interiors and Exteriors

by Vera Lawrence | LAST UPDATED November 1, 2021

a woman eating
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A kitchen is one of the essential additions to any van build. Aside from the bed and maybe the toilet, being able to cook for yourself will be the most important factor when it comes to living on the road.

There is not a single all-in-one build for camper van kitchens that’s better than the rest, and there are plenty of different ways to approach this topic and end up with a kick-ass kitchen setup.

However, we’ll cover all sorts of kitchens you can have in your van, and we’ll also make sure to explain which items we would use and how we would place them. Hopefully, you’ll have a better idea of how you’ll want to organize your own camper van kitchen space by the end of this article.

Back of The Van

Kitchens at the back of the van are installed near the rear doors, and you need to open these same doors to cook anything. You’ll need to be careful of the width since your bed will also be located in the back. Getting a kitchen that’s too bulky may require you to build your bed frame a bit further into the van than you were planning.

Installing a kitchen unit in the back of your van has a few advantages, the biggest of which is that you’ll be able to save quite a bit of space in the van itself. Having your kitchen area be in what is technically the trunk of the van also means that you won’t have to worry about airing out the interior if you decide to cook something stinky like fried fish. Seeing as how a standard van doesn’t have the best air circulation even with the doors and window open, cooking anything inside the van will inevitably result in everything you own smelling like grease for at least a few hours.

The downside of this placement is that you’ll need to go outside your home and open your rear doors anytime you want to use the kitchen. Additionally, since the kitchen is in the van and you’ll be standing on the ground outside, you may need a step stool to reach your countertop unless you make your cabinets intentionally shorter.

Blocking your largest exit point is also a bit of a problem. However, most vans do have side doors on top of the driver and passenger doors at the front, so you’ll easily be able to get in and out. But, if you ever need to clean your mattress, for instance, you’re going to need to fit it through narrow doors.

Behind the Driver’s Seat

Kitchen cabinets that are designed to fit just behind the driver’s seat and those that fit in the back of the van have pretty much the same dimensions, which is to say—anything narrower and shorter than the back entrance itself.

Similar to the previous entry, placing the cabinets parallel to the front seats means that you’ll have a bit more legroom in the back. A bonus is that you’ll also be able to cook inside and not have to put on any shoes or go outside just to fry some eggs.

The only real problem with this placement is that it essentially divides the van into a front and a back. Since the kitchen cabinets will be placed right behind the seats, they’re going to block access to the front of your van.

Using the side door to get to the driver’s seat is hardly the longest walk in the world, but it can get annoying after a certain time. Regardless of how cold it is or how horrible the weather is, you’ll still have to go outside to move from one side of your van into another.

There is a simple solution in the form of removing a cabinet section. What we mean by this is that if the kitchen cabinet was initially supposed to have four doors, then remove a single section and split it into two separate cabinets.

If you’ve removed a section and split the cabinets right between the seats, then you should have no problem squeezing through and gaining easy access to both parts of your van home.

On the Side Doors

Having your cabinets mounted on the side door/s of your van isn’t exactly your standard kitchen setup, but it’s pretty convenient.

As all of the kitchen essentials are mounted on the door/s, you can either keep them closed, or you can open them and essentially bring your kitchen outside with you. This method allows you to cook both inside or outside your van, so you won’t have to worry about bad weather anymore.

The placement also means that you’ll have access to the front of the van. However, the cabinets will need to be measured and designed very accurately, or you won’t be able to use your doors properly. They might just snag when you try to open or close them. 

Limiting the length of your cabinets to make them fit on the doors may also result in them being a bit on the smaller side.

Speaking of the door(s), if you have a Ford Transit with a sliding side door, then this kitchen layout is off the table for you. This setup is only an option for vans like the VW Transporter or any other vans that have doors with hinges. We should mention that you also have the option to simply remove your sliding doors and install hinged ones if you’re really interested in this particular kitchen layout.

And lastly, you’ll also want to keep the weight to a minimum. Van side doors are pretty durable, but they weren’t intended to hold kitchen appliances, so adding too much weight could result in the hinges either bending or breaking entirely.

Parallel to the Walls

This might not be the best campervan kitchen design, but it’s the one most people favor for DIY van conversions.

Placing your kitchen parallel to the walls and opposite the side doors lets, you keep your van build as simple as possible. You won’t have to think about modifying doors or worry about blocking access to the driver’s seat. You won’t even have to consider going outside your tiny home in bad weather to get some cooking done.

Unlike the other kitchen placement options, simply placing your setup parallel to the walls means that you can make it as wide and as long as you need it to be. However, we still recommend carefully considering the small space that you have to work with. Make sure that you have enough room for your bed and other items before you pick out how big you want your cabinets to be.

The final thing that we’d like to mention when it comes to this placement option is that you’ll have to do all of your cooking inside of the van. We won’t go over the positives and negatives of this again, but we’d like to add that you can still cook outside as long as you bring along some equipment.

Other Options

Speaking of outdoor cooking equipment, the last kitchen placement option on our list makes it possible for you not to have a kitchen installed at all.

The way you go about this is simply by getting something like a Coleman Gas Camping Stove and using it instead of the standard built-in propane stove that you find in most campervan kitchens. Most models of these portable stoves are made out of alloy or stainless steel, so they’re pretty durable while also being light and easily packed away.

The twin-cooktop burner stove can also reach pretty much the same temperature as any other van life kitchen cooktop that you could install.

The downside of foregoing a more standard setup in favor of this DIY campervan kitchen is that you won’t have the other amenities such as a sink, but more on that later.

You’ll also need to get yourself a portable trail kitchen set up so that you can use your stove outside without having to place it on the ground or needing to improvise a temporary table for it.

What You’ll Need

two people sitting on a camp site

Now that we’ve gone over the placement options for your kitchen, the next step is to round up all of the necessary kitchen items that you’ll need. The list is relatively short, and all that’s required for you to have a fully functional kitchen are the following:

  1. Kitchen cabinet;
  2. Stove;
  3. Faucet and sink;
  4. Mini-fridge.

Kitchen Cabinet

There are plenty of different kitchen cabinets that you can find on Amazon or your local shops that could be a good fit for your van. Unfortunately, we can’t give you any specific recommendations on this topic since we don’t really know the dimensions that you have to work with or the type of kitchen that you’re going for. However, we can give you some general tips.

Back of the Van and Behind the Driver’s Seat

Most standard vans are 5 to 6 feet wide at the back doors and have around the same average height as well. For example, most Mercedes Sprinter van models are around 5,5 feet wide and around 6 feet high, while a Ram Promaster high roof van is around 6 feet in both height and width.

While the dimensions of your van might vary slightly, you’re going to want to stay below 6 feet in both length and height because this will allow you to fit your kitchen just about anywhere, and it’ll give you enough space to fit in everything that you need. The width is slightly more flexible, but going overboard can still take up unnecessary space in the van, so keep that in mind.

The space behind the driver’s seat and at the back of the van is identical, so the same measurement can be applied to either kitchen cabinet regardless of where you wind up placing it.

Parallel to the Side Wall

While a kitchen that’s parallel to the sidewall doesn’t have such a strict length requirement, installing anything that’s longer than six feet is likely going to get in the way of any other campervan conversions that you’re planning to make.

Additionally, you don’t need to get anything bigger since all of the essential elements you need to have a fully functional campervan kitchen can easily fit into a cabinet that’s 6 feet long.

Side Door

The side door kitchen option will require two separate elements that aren’t connected to be put on both doors so that you can get in and out of your van after you install them.

You’re unlikely to find a cabinet with the exact dimensions of a single door, so you’re going to need to take some measurements and place an order for a custom job. While you can design them however you want, we’d recommend putting the sink and the water tanks on one side and the stove with the propane tank on the other.

Keep in mind that this only applies to double-door style vans and that you don’t need to split your kitchen layout in two in the single side door models.

A Few General Tips

We’d recommend getting a cabinet with three or four sections, all but one of which will just be your average cabinet doors, while the last one will need to have the door removed to make room for the mini-fridge.

Finally, we’d also recommend not putting in a silverware drawer since you’ll want both cabinet doors not to have any obstructions above them. The main reason for this is that one of them will need to be used to connect your stove and propane tank, while the other is used to connect the water tank and the faucet, as well as the kitchen sink and the kitchen sink greywater container.

Stove

The first thing you’ll need to do is create a hole in the countertop that’s the same size as the stove you’ll be using. 

The stove will need to be connected to a propane tank, so the best option is to place the stove directly above a cabinet section with a door to have easy access to the tank in the empty compartment below.

The next thing you’re going to do is connect the propane tank and the stove and fasten the stove into place above it.

After you’ve done all of that, all that’s left to do is regularly top off your propane tank to make sure that you have enough gas and start using your new stove.

We should also mention that many camper van kitchens forgo the standard propane stoves for something like the Cusimax Portable Electric Stove. They do this because these items can be used without the need for any propane tanks.

In all honesty, this seems like the worse option to us. Propane tanks aren’t as big or cumbersome as people say that they are, and they’re much easier to fill up than something like the car battery that you’ll need to use for the voltage-powered electric stove.

Additionally, since you most likely won’t have access to a steady power supply in your van, you’ll still need to place a car battery and a charge converter in the same cabinet where the propane tank would have been, so it’s not like this stove is saving you space.

And finally, while the electric stoves don’t need to be built into the cabinet, they still take up counter space, 

Faucet and Sink

Installing the faucet and sink is going to require you to make another hole in your countertop. The sink itself can be made out of any sort of material, have any sort of shape and be any color that you’d like. However, we’d caution against using porcelain since it’s easy to crack and weighs quite a bit, both of which are unideal qualities to have in a campervan that moves around a lot.

After you’ve bought your sink, you’re also going to need to buy a length of hose and a small water tank. It’s your choice if you buy an actual greywater tank, a simple water storage cube, or a military water container, as long as it can fit under your sink.

After you’ve gotten all of these items, you’re going to go ahead and install the sink just before you place the water container beneath it and connect them both using the length of the hose. And as easily as that, you now have a functional sink with a functioning water system that stores the used water in a container until it’s time to throw it away.

The faucet is obviously going to need to go over the sink, so you’re going to need to make a small hole where you can attach it. After you’ve placed the faucet in the hole, you’re going to go ahead and connect it to your freshwater container (placed near the greywater container) by using another length of hose.

The faucet will need to be a hand-operated water pump like the Valterra - RP800 so that it can draw the water from the container underneath the faucet. There are alternatives to this sort of faucet, but this is by far the simplest and easiest method available.

Mini-Fridge

The mini-fridge is the simplest appliance to install but the most troublesome one to use due to the electricity requirements.

As far as the installation procedure goes, all you’ll need to do is take out a door in your kitchen cabinet and slot the fridge inside. This will obviously require the fridge to be smaller than the cabinet section itself, but it’s relatively easy to find a refrigerator with any sort of dimensions, so you should be fine when it comes to size.

Before you place the fridge, you’ll want to make two large holes or several smaller holes at the back of the cabinet. One of these holes will be used for the power cable, while the other(s) will serve as ventilation so the appliance doesn’t overheat due to temperature buildup.

After the fridge is placed, you’re going to need to hook it up to your van power supply. If you don’t have running electricity in your van, then you’re going to need to get a car battery and an AC/DC charge converter where you can plug the refrigerator in.

Alternatively, while fridges like the Dometic CD-50 are small and use relatively small amounts of power, you can also get something like a simple cooler or even a propane-powered refrigerator and circumvent the need for a power supply entirely.

Conclusion

a man lighting the stove

There are several types of camper van kitchens that you can go for, and all of them differ by the placement in the van, the dimensions of the kitchen, and even how many drawers the cabinet has and what sort of appliances you’re using.

Regardless of the sort of design that you go for, there are plenty of ways and ideas that you can use to place a fully functioning kitchen on your van and still be left with enough room to move around comfortably in your tiny home.

Vera Lawrence
Vera is a part-time van lifer after spending nearly four years in her 1990 Ford E350 (named Fred). She currently lives in Utah and takes extended weekend trips into the desert with her two dogs. She is an ice cream fanatic and avid runner.

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