Great Van Conversion to Live in a Van
This is a very old post that I originally posted maybe even 10 years ago. It’s still one of the best conversions I’ve ever seen for people who want to live in their van. It’s so good, I’m going to re-post it today. All the text and photos are by Steve, but I’m sorry to say I have lost touch with him and can’t put you in touch with him.
In 2008 my friends and I were living in a house that was up for auction, and we realized as soon as it sold, we had to find a new place to live. I was doing temp work at the time, and was the only one who wouldn’t be able to move in with other friends or family. I had a beat up Chevrolet Astro, and one day I just had the idea…” What if?” I had heard about people who had converted and lived in their vans, and the seed was planted.
I did a lot of research online and even went so far as to draft up plans for the Astro, unfortunately it died before anything could be done to it. I kept the idea in my mind, and when the house sold I was able to find a 1985 Dodge B series cargo van from a donation yard. It was truly a blessing, and only $800. Mechanically, it’s perfect except for the standard things on a 25 year old van.
To get started, you really need to figure out how to downsize. There are several major decisions to be made before you even start building. For example: how functional do you want the van to be? Do you want it to be permanently converted or do you want it to function as a normal van for hauling cargo? How will you cook? How will you sleep? Do you want a bathroom? Are you going to have access to shore power or will you need to boondock for a while? These are all questions that need to be answered before you even start building.
I knew what I wanted in the van. I wanted an actual bed and not an air mattress, I wanted an actual kitchen area where I could prepare and cook food. I needed fresh and gray water storage. I was undecided about getting a porta-john, but figured I could leave room in there for it if I needed it badly. I needed 110V power, so that meant an inverter and batteries. I wanted a refrigerator as well, and a place to store my clothes. I moved in with my mom for a few weeks while I was building the van, and I was living out of boxes anyway.
This was something I did a lot of research into before I settled on what I wanted. I saw a sale online for an inverter from AIMS that was also a battery charger when plugged into shore power, and bought it. I am very happy with it and can’t recommend them enough! Two group 29 batteries sit in a box behind the driver’s seat, with the inverter mounted up on the bulkhead. The 110 is wired just like it is in a house. The two plugs for the inverter go up to the switches above it, with each switch controlling a specific outlet in the van. The furthest right switch was going to be for my desktop computer but instead went to the box fan so I can turn it on when driving; the middle switch controls the refrigerator outlet, and the left switch controls the microwave outlet. There are 3 more outlets in the van that are always “hot” if the inverter is turned on. The gray outlet box on the side of the van leads to a 110v receptacle, so any extension cord will give me power. The batteries also charge while I’m driving. I bought a battery isolator, and wired it up to a switch in the dash. When I’m driving, I turn the switch on so the alternator charges the house batteries, and shut it off when I park so the starting battery isn’t drained. In an emergency, I can also start the van off of the house batteries, something I wouldn’t be able to do if I wired up the isolator to work automatically.
I’ve seen three ways of laying out the sleeping area in conversion vans online:
- The bed is a permanent fixture in the back.
- It’s behind the driver’s seat lengthwise.
- Or it’s an afterthought involving moving a ton of stuff around and moving cushions every morning and night.
I had toyed with the idea of putting the kitchen in back so I could open the back doors to empty out my water tanks, but I would have had a really narrow bed or would have had to design something like in commercial RVs. I didn’t want that because it would have been very limiting. Finally, I decided on the first choice, the bed permanently across the back. The bed base is 2×3 lumber with a particle board surface covered in carpet, and the mattress was cut down from a queen sized foam mattress I already had from Ikea. A big advantage of having it in the back is if I’m in an area where I don’t care too much about being seen, I can still get out of the back door or even leave it cracked open for more ventilation than the windows provide. It’s quite comfortable, and wide enough where I can angle across the bed since I’m really tall. It’s wider than a twin, and can sleep two people if a friend comes camping with me.
This changed several times as I was building it. I needed pantry space, drawers, and fresh/gray water for the faucet/sink. The kitchen is positioned along the passenger side so I can open the doors when cooking on my camp stove. The counter is actual Formica with a drop down leaf to give me more room when cooking. I have 2 six gallon containers, one is for gray water and one for fresh. I use a hand pump for water, or use gallons of water from the store for cooking and cleaning more often now. I may add a small pump in the future.
The microwave sits underneath with enough space in the pantry for about a week’s worth of food. The spice rack is a must have for me, because while the portions are smaller and more challenging to make, I still don’t sacrifice on good food! Under the pantry I store my pans, lids, and plates in a magazine rack from Ikea. The fridge is a standard dorm mini-fridge I found on Craigslist for $20 but I only turn it on when driving or when plugged into shore power, as it can drain my batteries in two days. Most of the time I use it as a glorified icebox, as I tend to buy fresh foods the day I use them.
The wardrobe was on the driver’s side in the original design. A series of plastic shelves held my shirts, underwear, and socks, but this didn’t leave much room for any clothes that needed to hang. The shelves above the fridge were added after I was on the road, doing the work in a Home Depot parking lot…they LOVE me there…
Upgrades and improvements
After living in the van for a while, you learn to make changes and improvements to it as something that looks great on paper or when you build it doesn’t work too well after you have a chance to use it for a while.
I had seen many different ideas on how to add an air conditioner for a vandweller, and most concede that you either want to mount an RV roof unit or hang one out the side window. This kills stealth, which is something that concerned me a lot. When I saw an older Montgomery Ward air conditioner on Craigslist for $20 I decided to find a way to make it work.
The wardrobe bulkhead on the driver side was removed, and a huge hole was cut in the side of the van to vent the air conditioning. The AC is surrounded by a wooden shroud that isolates it just like a window would, and it only works when plugged into shore power. The shroud also had the added bonus of being a desk and nightstand for the bed, which was a lot more open with the new design. The clothes were moved to under the bed for foldable stuff, and hanging stuff was moved to behind the driver’s seat since there was empty space there. The new design works great, and the AC was a lifesaver this summer!
I plan to add some permanent tanks for fresh and gray water, but no idea when I’ll get around to doing it.
I’m not quite sure if I have any Romany/Gypsy blood in me, but I’ve really enjoyed my new lifestyle which has cut down on my stress considerably. I shower and shave at the gym, and spend a lot of time at the beach. The van is stealthy enough where I can park it almost anywhere as long as I’m smart about it. You develop a sixth sense about where to park, but it does take time. The only thing I can recommend when it comes to parking is listen to what other people tell you, until it starts to become second nature. I have about fifty places in my city where I know I can park unmolested, and when I drive I always try to find more.
My social life really hasn’t suffered beyond finding out who my true friends are. I still get together with my friends, family, etc. All that’s required is a little more advanced planning to get together since it can be difficult. My bills are paperless, and anything I need mailed to me, I use my grandparent’s house. There’ s no reason anyone needs to know or find out about my living situation unless I choose to, and that has also included employers.
Vandwelling is definitely a niche. Some are forced into it like I was, some decide to do it by choice, but for the general public, once they find out they either find it fascinating, or they just don’t get it. I’ve had reactions from disgust to even hatred. A good friend of mine is a magician, and a quote he gave me about magic applies to vandwelling truer than anything I have ever heard:
For those that believe, no explanation is necessary.
For those that don’t, no explanation will suffice.