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Prison Break Part 3: How to Move into a Van with Little Money and No Skills

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This is the third and final post in a series about making a Prison Break. Part 1 described the prison Part 2 gave you details on how to move into a car if you have very little money. This part is how to move into a van with very little money.


I think this is a classic example of moving into a van with next to no money. She found a remnant scrap of linoleum at Home Depot and threw it on the floor. She bought Reflectix for privacy and uses cardboard boxes, plastic drawers and plastic totes for organization. The fan cools her off. It’s simple, cheap, elegant and a wonderful home that she truly loves!

I get letters all the time from people in near despair because their lives are an economic disaster. Often they’ve lost their job and just been given the final eviction notice to their home. Many of them saw this coming so they sold everything they could and bought a van. But now D-Day is just about here and they have to actually move into the van. They’ve seen all the really cool conversions that people do on their vans but instead of filling them with hope it discourages them all the more because it just reminds of what they don’t have:

  • They don’t have the carpentry, electrical or plumbing skills to do any of the things they see.
  • Even if they had the skill, they don’t have the tools to do it with.
  • If they had the skill and tools, they still don’t have the money to buy the parts.
  • Even if they had all that, they don’t have the time! They have to be out of this place NOW!

In this post I want to encourage you that even if you don’t have any of those things, but you do have a van, you can move into it and be pretty comfortable and create a pretty cozy home!. There is hope! You can move into a van with almost no money, skill or time and still enjoy it.
If you didn’t read the post on “How to Live in Your Car.“ you need to go read it first. Much of what you need to do in a van is the same as living in a car so I am not going to repeat it here. Let me repeat one word of advice though take full advantage of Thrift stores, garage sales and craigslist. That will stretch you dollars as far as they can go.

How to Build A Bed

There is lots of info on the web so I am not going to go into details. I recommend a 4×8 sheet of plywood across the back of the van in front of the back door. That gives you plenty of storage underneath. Even if you are tall, chances are very good you can sleep across at a diagonal and have plenty of room. Home Depot will make two cuts on the plywood for free—which is all you should need. Here are some ideas of how to support the plywood.

  1. I have a friend who found some cheap end tables at Ikea for $10 each. She measured them and three of them fit perfectly across the back of her van and were just the right width for her bed. She bought and assembled them, put them in her van, and then went to Home Depot and got them to cut the plywood to just the right size for free. Be creative there are some very simple, cheap and easy ways to make a bed if you are willing to think outside the box.
  2. Get milk crates and just lay the plywood on top. Or any type of plastic organizers will work as long as they are strong. The key is to have lots of them underneath so the weight is spread out.
  3. Build a frame out of 2x4s.


How to Get a Mattress

Hopefully you already have one, or you can find a cheap one at a thrift store. But if you can’t here are some ideas.

  1. Upholstery shops will sell you a piece of furniture grade foam cut exactly to fit your bed.
  2. Walmart sells memory foam bed toppers. Buy a size twice as large and cut it in half to double its thickness.
  3. Buy lots of cheap sleeping bags at a thrift store and pile them up. Add your own extra blankets from home as more padding.
  4. A backpackers sleeping pad.


How to Organize!

You can’t just pile all your stuff in the van and expect to be happy. I’ve known so many people who started out without any organization and hated living in a van because of it. Constantly digging through it all and moving it around becomes extremely tedious. You need to have a place for everything and everything in its place. Here is how to do that:

  • Cardboard boxes from the grocery store. Don’t laugh, they work extremely well! I especially recommend apple and orange boxes because they are very strong and very easy to find. If one wears out, you just throw it away and go to the store and get another one. Best of all they are FREE and easy to get it at most grocery stores!! Get a variety of sizes to find which ones will fit where. Write on the outside what is in each box. You can stack them up to use more vertical space. Hold them in place with bungee cords or ratchet straps.
  • Plastic totes and Drawers. Cardboard boxes aren’t permanent, but plastic totes and drawers are. So if you have the money they are a perfect choice. Many are clear so you can see what is in them and they are very light so it doesn’t weigh the van down.
  • Duffle Bags. You can store things in duffle bags and stuff the Duffle into any spare corners of the van you can find. They are light, cheap and breathable. Hang some hooks from near the ceiling and you can hang them saving all that wasted space.
  • Used Furniture. I can’t recommend this to you enough! Sometimes they are beat-up looking but usually they are structurally sound. Two of your best choices are desks (especially roll-top desks) and dressers. Both give you a countertop to use as well as lots of organization.
  • Cheap Used 2-Drawer Filing Cabinets. These will give you lots of organization. You can even cut a piece of plywood to fit and make two of them into a desk.
  • Remove Your Passenger Seat or Turn it Around: You will be amazed by how much space you gain by taking out the passenger seat. But you will be even more delighted by what an outstanding recliner it turns into if you turn it around. Suddenly spending time in your van will be a joy and not pain! It isn’t that hard, but even if you have to spend some of your small savings to get it done, it is still one of the best things you can do!

So as you can see there are ways to move straight into a van even if you don’t have any handyman skills and have very little money and still have a very nice home. Oddly enough, not until I was done placing all the pictures in this post did I it dawn on me that that every single one of these vans is owned by a woman. The only exception is the milk-crate bed which is owned by me. I think the message here is that women are more practical and more of a true minimalist than men (and maybe that I am in touch with my feminine side?).

Here is another cheap desk from a thrift store. She measured them carefully to make sure they would fit over her wheel-wells. Not wanting to wast e any space she put plastic drawers under the desk in front of the wheel-well.

Here is another cheap desk from a thrift store. She measured it carefully to make sure it would fit over her wheel-wells. Not wanting to waste any space she put plastic drawers under the desk in front of the wheel-well.

This is the most organized vandweller I have ever met! She found these office organizers at Staples and loved them so much she had to have them in her van. She has a high-top conversion van so their height isn't a problem for her.

This is the most organized vandweller I have ever met! She found these office organizers at Staples and loved them so much she had to have them in her van. She has a high-top conversion van so their height isn’t a problem for her.

This is a friends Astro minivan. Inside the doorway you can see a cheap drawer unit and through the window you can see a cheap microwave stand she found at a thrift store.
This is a cheap way to secure furniture to the floor. It is a simple


  1. Calvin R

    I have made a milk crate bed, a 2 x 4 bed and a PVC-framed bed. They all work, but the PVC one takes more planning than I did to be sturdy.
    Please encourage folks to think about how to keep things in place. This is easy with the milk crates in a bed, but anything that is stacked or has drawers will need bungee cords or something to hold it in place especially when driving.

    • Bob

      Calvin, that is a good reminder. I do mention it in there but not very much. I have to be honest and say that things flying around has never been a problem for me so I just give it casual mention. Roll overs do happen but not very often.

      • Calvin R

        I wasn’t thinking about rollovers or anything like that. I just remembered driving with things unsecured. They tumbled on curves, fell on stopping and generally moved around much too much.

        • Bob

          Calvin, I see. I have not had much problem with things moving around. I just use reasonable precaution and things mostly stay put.

  2. Lenora

    Thanks so much for this helpful series of articles. I especially enjoyed the pictures.

    • Bob

      lenora, thanks! I am a very visual person. With me 1 picture is worth more than 1000 words, so I try to communicate with pictures whenever possible.
      I’m glad you are finding it useful!

  3. Marshall

    Nice encouragement!
    I remember when we first “took off” years ago. We thought we were the bomb with a full size bed, food pantry and propane stove. We even took our small file cabinet and microwave!
    Wow! How things change! All that is left from those beginning days is the bed and pantry. EVERYTHING else has changed! If I had a dollar for every thing that did not work for us we would be rich. Seriously. We gave away so many things and some were expensive on our way to the perfect van for us.
    Now we have 240W solar system, 20″ TV and a refrigerator. My mantra is that if I don’t use it once a week its gone. Many things have more than one use.
    The main thing is to just get out there and be flexible. Start with next to nothing and add what you need. Don’t overload yourself and then have to give things away or throw them away. A bible, bed and stove are enough to start with.
    Just like life money comes and goes so you can add on. You will find creativity and live with common sense. Everything will mean something.
    Don’t freak. Start easy. Add as you need it. Carefully weigh your options. Thrift stores, Harbor Freight and discount stores are best. You can throw away what doesn’t work without losing much. If you just take care of your basics everything is easy after that.
    Things will change so much on the road. What once had great meaning is now trivial waste. Even all our papers went digital and hard copies are at a friend’s house. We are always in a warm climate so jeans and other long pants…gone! We tell people if we have to go to a funeral its in shorts or sweats!
    The main thing is to just get out there. You won’t stop breathing and walking. You won’t get killed.
    You MUST make use of all resources available to you. Parks, water, libraries, ect.. We use Planet Fitness for showers. $21.45/mo. for two nationwide and they are everywhere. If one is not nearby we have a hose and showerhead for parks or solar shower in the forest.
    Have fun and move.
    Thanks Bob!

    • McBeef

      I go to Planet Fitness too. Signed up before I found myself living in my car. Turned out to be one of the best investments I’ve made in a while, lol.

      • Bob

        McBeef, I checked them out and they look like a really good deal. Here in Arizaona they a bunch of clubs in Phoenix and some in Tuscon, Yuma and Prescott. Those are all places I travel so it would even work for me. Good find!

    • Bob

      Thank you, Marshall, for another great comment!
      You and I think exactly the same way on this. Just go!! You can solve the problems as they come up. That’s exactly what I did. I bought a box van that afternoon, that night I threw down a sleeping pad and sleeping pad and it was home. And that was a rocky start of something truly wonderful!
      Thanks for sharing your story! Very inspiring!

  4. Tom

    Great post(s) Bob, if I could add one more thing. As many of you make the move, I hope you’ll consider your mind set. Some of you will be thinking how difficult this is as you have already lost so much, a job, apartment or house, sold or lost personal possessions. You may be tempted to feel sorry for yourself.
    But I have lived in a van, and less. If you feel bad, don’t. Feel bad for those that have so much stuff, that is their prison. Think about how far a person must travel in their mind when they live in a four or five bedroom, three bath house. Maybe they have a boat or even have so much stuff they need a storage locker.
    These are the people that have a very long journey ahead of them,,, a very hard road to travel to a place where many of you have already arrived.

    • Desert Rat

      What a really pertinent and wise comment. Thank you.

    • Bob

      Very good point Tom. I started out with a bad attitude. But before long I started to see advantages and then it just grew on me until I loved it. For people who are forced into it they should remember that it can be turned into a positive if they will adjust their thinking.

  5. Martin Hamilton

    I have a question Bob. I have the plywood and foam for the mattress however the bottom of the foam where it lays on the plywood tends to get damp and molds. I don’t know how to prevent this. I guess my body heat permeates the foam and creates the moisture. Should I elevate the foam with a box spring or just go back to my cot?

    • Bob

      I used a closed cell foam backpackers sleeping pad to solve that problem. It provides a little comfort but mostly it keeps the cold out so hopefully the warm moist air from your body doesn’t hit something cold and drop it’s moisture.
      Here is an example of one from Amazon, but Walmart should have it in it’s camping aisle.
      For more comfort you could use a Therm-a-rest self-inflating pad.

  6. CAE

    You’re doing great work here. Very good advice!!
    First thing I’d tell most people is to get rid of all the crap you really never use or don’t need. Then go van shopping for something cheap…like a Previa or Astro in the 10 year old range. Head to Goodwill and Craigslist for used stuff. And even cruise the upper middle class areas for stuff left on the curb or front yard.

    • Bob

      Thanks CAE! And that is all good advice from you as well! usually the first thing I tell people is to start getting rid of their stuff because it takes longest and is the hardest thing to do. But these posts were written for someone who had to leave right now! So I skipped over it.

  7. Sameer

    This is all great advice. I wanted to add my 2 cents. Get rid of everything you are not going to use. Have a yard sale or a ‘house sale’ and sell it. Your 3 or 90 day ‘wonder’ is someone’s treasure. A ‘wonder’ is something that 3 or 90 days later you ‘wonder’ why you bought it. You don’t need as much as you think. In time you will not miss your treasures. Your treasure will be your New Freedom. Include ‘One good outfit’ in your wardrobe. It will allow you to attend Church or Mosque or Temple and not feel out of place. I went to the Opera in San Antonio last Winter and saw a production of Turandot for 16 bucks and felt dressed appropriately. Quit smoking for no more than the ‘stink’ and extra money. You can wear the same clothes for many more days and only change your sox. Hahaha! Track every penny! That Coke and Fried pie snack will get you a box of Kraft Mac and Cheese and a can of Chili making a better meal. If you can, ahead of your adventure Practice staying clean. It is a daunting task. Hardest of all! Your attitude and perception of yourself and your circumstances is most important. It will make or break you! “Feel like a winner!”

    • Bob

      Sameer, that is all very good advice! Thanks for adding it.

  8. LaVonne

    Fifteen years ago, I was working two part-time jobs to make ends meet and not having any time to spend with my 10yo son. It occurred to me that if I just cut my expenses to the bone, we could live on one part-time income. So I did that and quit one job. It wasn’t easy but eventually, living frugally became such a habit I didn’t even think of it until I noticed someone else living very differently. Now, I’m so glad I’ve already made that leap so that moving into a van feels like a luxury to me, not a sacrifice. I will be living the same simple life I already do, only out in beautiful nature going wherever I like. I can’t wait!
    Thank you all for these wonderful suggestions!

    • Bob

      LaVonne, I think you were born to be a vandweller! You must have been a Nomad or Gypsy in a previous life!

  9. Patrick

    Help! I’m thinking to buy two 208 AH 6v Deep cycle Batteries from Costco for $90 each and serial connect them and throw in back of my van. I wonder if it ‘s risky to put two wet cell batteries in the van without vent. Any body has experience with it, what ‘s your opinion on it? Thanks

    • Desert Rat

      Why not build or buy a battery box with a lid with a hole in it and vent the batteries outside using a piece of flexible tubing?

    • DougB

      Risk is relative. There is a risk, which is why the disclaimers and cautions about them. As far as I’ve noticed, very few vanners bother with vented battery boxes and seem okay. However, keep in mind that an unsecured 60-pound battery will insist on continuing on forward should you hit something.
      The flammable acid vapor produced tends to stay low. If you spend a lot of time closed up tight or store clothing or fabrics against a typical battery, you may want to sleep above floor level, open up before doing anything with a flame or spark, and wear that clothing a lot before the vapor starts disintegrating it. My experience with them is that damage tends to take a long time to first appear, then goes quite rapidly. Proximity is everything. My opinion: The goal is to get some diluting airflow near them. Leave a couple of windows barely cracked open (as possible) if your batteries live with you. If they’re in a sealed container, vent that generously to the outside, especially if the container material facing the battery isn’t plastic. If you’re not using a forced air intake (which is a rarity) then there is no minimum vent size to use, especially if hose is used. Be generous.

      • Bob

        Doug, thanks for an extremely wise answer!
        being generous on safety is always a good idea!

    • Bob

      Patrick, I have 11 years experience with it. I have always kept wet-cell lead acid batteries in my rigs with me and have never had a problem with them. please understand that they will out-gas a dangerous, explosive and toxic gas. The danger is real and serious!
      However, I have decided that for myself it is a small risk so I take it. I can’t recommend you do. But I will continue to do it myself.

  10. Marshall

    I do not vent my batteries. Over three plus years now with the same Trojan T-145’s and absolutely no problems to us or our cats.

  11. Patrick

    Desert Rat, I don’t have enough space in the van to do that. Plus I have to close it tight and vent it out side. I don’t know how big venting hole have to be to be effected.

  12. Curtis

    Wonderful post Bob!
    The pictures really help me understand how to go about it, thank you.

    • Bob

      Thanks Curtis, yeah, I find pictures essential when I am trying to learn something. I take pictures of lots of rigs knowing someday it will illustrate just the thing i am trying to say. Maybe one of these days it will be of your rig!

  13. Mary

    Good post! Interesting that you picked the women in vans for the examples. There are men (Glenn of To Simplify) who are good at organizing too. Of course his resources are greater than your target audience.
    I think you could do one more post in this series on how to do daily hygiene with nothing more than a car or van. When I first started thinking about options for vagabonding, that was the first thing on my mind: how do I safely keep clean and eliminate. Doing a bed and storage is nothing compared to figuring out the basic hygiene. As a woman, being safe is an issue so I prefer to be able to do my thing inside my van. The problem of hygiene without the full RV accoutrements is what a lot of people can’t understand and camping to them means being dirty and not bathing – a non-starter if you want to live in a vehicle. That’s the section I went to first when I found your site a few years ago. Solve that problem, and the rest is fairly easy as you have outlined so well.
    I came from a camping/backpacking experience so the van seems like a real luxury to me. I ended up buying a class B but only after I mapped out how to do it myself and what I would do for each thing one needs to live. Some of the things I would do if I had not bought the van is rig up an inside shower in a basin/ shower curtain, and spray with a warm water source. There are several creative ways to make it work and you don’t end up with a lot space taken up for a bath.

    • Bob

      Mary, what a great idea!! It’s a done deal, expect Part 4 on Hygiene next week! Also, tomorrow I have a guest post from a single woman on staying safe.
      I didn’t deliberately pick women for the post, I picked simple, cheap and easy conversions and only when I was all done did I realize that it was all women. I think there is an important message in that but I’m not sure what it is and I am a little afraid to explore it. But what they heck, we haven’t shied away from controversy here so why start now? Here are my thoughts on why so many women have such simple vans:
      1) Their fathers didn’t teach them how to use tools. I blame this on civilization. Every civilization that I can think of has turned women into second-class citizens and most turn them into little more than cattle.
      2) Women are by nature more inclined to minimalism. This completely refutes the stereotype of women as shop-a-holics. It’s easy to see why they turn into that when society tells them they are only good to run a home: barefoot, pregnant and in the kitchen.
      3) Women are more easily satisfied with life (more normal, sane and well-adjusted?) than men. By far the happiest vandwellers I have run across have been the women.
      So there you have my ramblings on women. Let the howls of protest begin!

      • Anita

        You know what they say: Bigger boys have bigger toys…

        • Bob

          You are so right Anita! My goal is to never grow up!

          Little Boys and Girls Rule!! YEEEEAH


  14. Mary

    Other ways to secure drawers include running a stick thru the handles and securing the stick with a bungie. I used those French door slider locks with an L bracket to slide over to secure my drawer – easy and works well. Wood drawers in my van have a slight cut out at the front to drop down a bit so opening requires lifting up a bit. You can also use an L bracket with a bit of a loose screw so it can be moved in front of the drawer to secure and swung to the side to open. I also put a hook in just about every screw on the walls and find being able to hang things invaluable for tidiness and convenience. I also find the mini bungee cords to be really useful for all kinds of things where the bigger ones don’t work.
    And yes, the just do it attitude works really well. You are in a vehicle, you can go to a store to find things you didn’t think of. There’s nothing in there can’t be undone or redone. And anybody can live thru a day that doesn’t work really well.

    • Bob

      Mary, thanks for all those great tips! I wish you and your furry friends the best! And a full recovery for each of them.

  15. Kevin Anderson

    Hi Bob,
    Excellent post. I like the bed crosswise in the back as well. A few things that I’ve done that I feel adds comfort to that setup is to have a wall of storage bins between my bunk and the back doors. They come up a little higher than the bunk and give me a handy ledge with quick access and easily removable storage and a convenient place to set my laptop etc. while in bed.
    I built a kitchen cabinet kind of thing that runs along the drivers side wall with shelves and sliding doors (that won’t pop open when making a left turn) that’s turned out well. It was easy and cheap to use 2 plastic drawer units with 3 drawers each for storage under it and having about a 12″ area of counter top along the upper left side of the bunk gives another handy place to pile stuff up as well 🙂
    Just wanted to chime in for all those contemplating their layout possibilities.

  16. Patrick

    Thanks for your input. I will take the risks since I don’t have space back in my mini van. I will put in open space in the back and leave the windows open when I drive and park. Hope toxic gas vent out. Thanks again.

    • Bob

      Patrick, I have never worried about it and it has never been a problem for me. I have almost always kept mine under my bed but right now I have them behind the seats in the van.

  17. Kris

    Thank you so much for all the info.(and comments) A year ago I couldn’t even imagine living in a van but reading your blog has been a huge eye opener. looking forward to part 4. Kris

    • Bob

      Thanks kris, I’m delighted to play some small role in your following your dreams! Sometimes all we need is a little nudge and then suddenly the light comes on and we can see a whole new way!
      Wishing you all the best!

  18. Patrick

    Bob, Thank you very much.

    • Bob

      You are very welcome!

  19. Gennifer

    I love thrift stores and Craigslist, but I would suggest taking a creative look at what you already have before going out and buying furniture for your van, especially if you are on a tight budget. We were able to use a wooden bed frame we already owned by simply cutting a few inches off the legs to lower it. We stuffed our couch cushions into sleeping bags to make a mattress. We were also able to use a couple of small bookshelves we already had by attaching them to the floor with L-brackets. We found a bunch of wine boxes that were being thrown away by a restaurant, so we used those as “drawers” on our bookshelves. Great post as always, Bob!

  20. LilNomad

    The duffel bags if stuffed with clothes/soft items can also be used as a pillow or back support while sitting up in bed. Im not a van dweller..have a travel trailer but love all the tips/articles and the info is very applicable to any type of mobile dwelling.
    solo female rv’er

    • Bob

      Thanks LilNomad! I’m afraid I am not the best blog for most RVers, because I know almost nothing about RVs–I’ve never owned one! But there is enough overlap that I think my blog can still be of some use. I’m glad you are getting something out of it! That’s also why I try to include guest posts so they can fill in some of my gaps.

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