Adding A House Battery Powered Radio To A Camper Van.

One of the best parts of adventuring in a van is that you can camp anywhere, including isolated BLM and national forest land. Unfortunately, this often means you are boondocking in less than ideal cell coverage places. Even when using a cell signal booster, it is not uncommon for me to have a single bar, and that signal is only present when I’m seated in the van’s cab area.

Luckily, there is a fantastic fallback for information and entertainment- radio. I have never been in a location where I couldn’t receive multiple AM and FM stations. Of course, I have a car radio, but I don’t use it when the engine isn’t running as I have fallen asleep in the past while listening. I don’t need the hassle of waking up with a dead car battery 20 miles from the nearest town.

I converted my camper van in 2018, and my previous solution was to carry a portable radio with me. This option works great when used outside the vehicle, but reception is impossible inside the van’s signal-blocking metal cabin. 

I have left my cargo door open and placed my portable radio half in and half out of the van. At other times I have precariously perched my radio next to the driver’s side window to eke out a scratchy signal. Neither solution is ideal.

Yesterday I installed a better option, a secondary car radio that runs off of my house battery. High-end aftermarket car radios are expensive, but basic models are surprisingly cheap. Over the last few years, radios have been redesigned where almost all of their circuitry can be placed on a single IC chip. This has reduced their price, and it has also allowed fancy features to be built in at no additional cost. These features include large station storage presets, loudness compensation, equalization controls, and the ability to play MP3 files from a flash drive. Most of these inexpensive radios feature Bluetooth, so you can stream from your phone. Many also have a remote control option (either a little RC or a phone app).  

You can buy these radios for under thirty dollars. In addition, you will need to buy a second outside radio antenna. Small speakers complete the setup and can be repurposed or purchased. The photos below will outline my simple DIY process.

This is the inexpensive radio that I purchased on Amazon. It has Bluetooth and it also came with a little remote.
This Dual brand has good reviews and can be purchased for less than $25 from Walmart. It uses a phone app for a remote.
I liked this all-in-one solution from Amazon, as the speakers are included. It was suggested by someone on a car stereo forum. However, it only receives FM and I wanted a radio that could also receive AM.
You will also need an external antenna. There are many choices on Amazon, eBay, and
Lastly, you will need some speakers. These are small and inexpensive. They are 8 ohms and most car radios have a 4-ohm output. It is OK to use a speaker with a higher impedance, but your volume may be reduced. It will still be fine for most purposes. It is not OK to use a speaker that has a lower impedance than the rated output as this can overdrive the radio’s amplifier. You can also repurpose other home speakers if they fit into your design. Old rear channel surround speakers are small and may do the trick.
You could also use an inexpensive set of car speakers which are 4 ohms. You won’t get monster sound, just nice audio. If you go this route you will need to come up with some sort of a mount for the speakers.
Installing the antenna only involves using a drill with a hole saw. I’m always afraid to drill on my van so my friend, Tom did the drilling for me. Buy an antenna that has the coax attached to make your job easier. The length of coax will likely be long enough, if not you can buy a short extension.
The antenna fully attached. This antenna can be attached as a side or vertical mount depending on your needs. I was concerned with the height of the antenna, but it is a “rubber ducky” type and flexible.
I had this switch left over from a different project. It allows me to cut all power to the radio when desired. My radio pulls around 2 watts when off. When on it uses around 5 watts at moderate volume. If I’m conserving my house battery power I can eliminate the small 2-watt loss if desired with the switch. Any switch that will break the circuit will do. This is a DPST (double pole single throw) switch, but an SPST (single pole single throw) switch would also work. Since I use a Solar Generator I connected both the + and – to my fused break out-box (instead of connecting the negative to ground as you would do with a car battery).
I found these connectors on the Crutchfield website. There were very cheap and worked very well. However, you can use whatever method that you want when connecting wires to the radio’s pigtails.
As an aside, buy a multimeter and keep it in your van. I used it to make sure that all of my radio connections were solid and that I was delivering power to the radio. However, this is a device that has a million and one van/home uses. You can check for broken wires, battery strength, and so much more. Mine is pretty old (I know, it looks crusty) and probably cost around $10.
Here I’m connecting wires to one of the radio’s pigtails. This radio had a pigtail for audio and another one for power. Some radios may combine both functions with one pigtail, so read the manual that comes with the radio. When it comes to power, you will likely have one negative and two positive leads. One positive is for continuous power and the other is designed to be active only when the car’s ignition is on. The continuous power is there so that the radio can retain data like station presets. I just connected both positives together. When the power is switched off to the radio you will lose your presets, but that isn’t a big deal. If you have enough solar you can leave the power on to your system and set local stations. Note that I’m using those little Crutchfield connectors to attach my wire to the pigtail.
Here you can see the radio set up on the shelf above my bunk. I attached it with sticky pads and reinforced the system with bungee cords; it is staying in place well. However, you can attach your set-up any way that you choose. It was easy to run wires behind panels due to my Wayfarer buildout.
A close-up view. The system is very compact and sounds surprisingly good.
A quick demo. Yes, I’m lounging on my bunk… perfect, don’t you think!