Everyone's worst nightmare when it comes to converting a camper van is finishing your build and finding out you're weigh (excuse the pun) over the 3.5 tonne weight limit. Going over this limit means a) you'll need to upgrade your driving licence to a category C/C1, to enable you to drive vehicles bigger than 3.5T, and b) you will also need a GVM (gross vehicle mass) upgrade, which involves upgrading the suspension of your van.
Both of these are quite expensive. To take your category C1 test, you need to have had at least a few hours of lessons as you will be doing your test in a 7.5 tonne lorry, so this will cost you upwards of £515 (£50/hr for lessons and £115 for the test) depending on your experience level. A GVM suspension upgrade can cost anywhere from high hundreds for a DIY spring suspension to several thousands for a professional fitted air suspension upgrade!
If you don't go through the process of upgrading your licence and vehicle with your van over the weight limit, you can run into all sorts of issues such as invalidating your van insurance, not being allowed on the Eurotunnel, and you can also be pulled over and fined by the police for not having the correct licence. Therefore, it's really important to try and make sure your van stays under that all important 3.5 tonnes - including everything inside it, including you!
How much does our Mercedes Sprinter camper van weigh?
The all important question...how heavy is our camper van? We recently took Ringo to a weigh bridge, and he came in at a healthy 3.25 tonnes. We were really pleased, as we have a few items that had us slightly worried (our 30kg belfast sink, and our 360Ah of batteries aren't light either!). However, throughout our build we made a lot of choices and decisions to try and cut weight from our build, and that paid off.
When working out the max weight for your van, you'll need to work out your kerb weight and also your vans payload.
Our kerb weight
The kerb weight is the base weight of your van before anything has been added. For a LWB Mercedes Sprinter is 2.3 tonnes, which leaves you 1.2 tonnes for your entire build and payload. For smaller vans, your kerb weight will likely be lower which will give you more weight to play with in your build.
The payload of your vehicle is the combined weight of everything you'll put in your van (so yourselves, a full tank of diesel, water, and all of your stuff). Below is a breakdown of our payload.
There were a few items already in our van when we had it weighed (pots and pans, plates, cutlery etc so they are not included in the above). Our total payload not including these items is 255kg, which means we're pretty much bang on 3.5 tonnes all in. We also have a few mods planned to cut some additional weight so we're not too close to the line, including removing our rear metal step which weighs approximately 25kg.
It's worth noting that the authorities generally a tolerance of up to 5% before they hand out a fine, but this may not be the case for insurance companies, so it's best to try and stay under 3.5T if you can.
Weight saving tips and ideas for your camper van build
If you're worried about weight as you're building your van, we've come up with some van conversion weight reduction tips and ideas:
Construction / materials
The first item that falls into this category is your cladding and flooring. Most people will clad and lay their floor as one of the first job in their van build, so they have a finished empty shell to work with. Although this looks great for photos(!), it means a lot of extra weight where you'll never actually see it. We only clad up to where it would be visible, stopping just after where the kitchen cabinets and bed would start. This means you don't have cladding, and crucially extra weight, where it will only be hidden anyway. We did the same with our flooring, only laying it to just underneath the kitchen cabinets.
The second area where you can potentially save well over a hundred kilos is the material you choose to build your van with. Opting for 18mm MDF vs 12mm or even 9mm ply will add a significant amount of weight to your build. MDF is much more dense than ply, so choosing a thinner ply will save you a lot of weight.
Another good idea is to build your own kitchen rather than installing one from IKEA, as these are double thickness 18mm MDF. If you build your own out of single thickness 12mm ply, you can save loads of weight - we did the calculations and we saved 35kg by building our kitchen!
A good way to save weight, if you have welding capabilities, would be to make your bed frame out of a lightweight metal such as aluminium rather than wood. Although aluminium weighs more than wood, because it has a higher tensile strength which means it's stronger, you can use much less material to achieve the same strength within your structure.
Fixtures & fittings
The obvious ridiculous item in our van is our Belfast sink. This big ceramic sink weighs a whopping 30kg. We justified putting it in through the weight we saved in not installing an IKEA kitchen, and it was one item we just couldn't bare to not include, as we love them so much, but for those looking to cut weight, choosing a lightweight metal sink might be a good option.
Although this might be an area you don't want to make sacrifices in, it's worth considering as batteries are very heavy. Make sure to work out how much energy you think you'll need, as if you're planning on spending a lot of time on campsites with a shore hookup you'll need much smaller batteries than if you're planning on spending days off grid. Our two 180Ah flooded lead acid batteries weigh almost 100kg which is not an insignificant amount at all!
Lithium ion batteries weigh about half as much as flooded lead acid, but they are about 4 times the price so it's an expensive saving to make!
Gas & water tanks
The bigger the tank you buy, the more both it and its contents will weigh. You need to balance capacity and how long it will last with the weight - we have a 70L water tank and a 25L LPG tank. A 70L water tank will last you a few days if you're careful with water consumption, but bigger than this just means much more weight.
It's worth remembering that a window weighs a lot more than the metal panel you're chopping out to replace with it. If you think you're going to be close, this could be an area of your build where you could save a few kilos. A weight saving option would be to use the plastic motorhome/caravan style windows.
Any extras you add to your van such as a roof rack, a ladder or an awning may look cool and feel useful, but they also weigh loads! Ask yourself if you really need them - an awning weighs around 20kg and the average roof rack weighs a whopping 50kg!
How to weigh your camper van
Once you've finished your conversion and you're ready for the big weigh in, you'll need to find a weighbridge. We found the easiest way of finding a local weighbridge was just to google "the name of your city + weighbridge". We're based in Bristol and used the one at Lye Cross Farm which is free to use, or £2 if you wanted a printed receipt with proof of the weight of your van.
Thanks for reading, if you have any questions feel free to drop us a message on here or via Instagram!
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