Back in the summer of 2016 I was sitting around after work one day watching YouTube videos and came across some #vanlife stuff. I was intrigued by the idea of just living out of a car for free in really beautiful areas, in what looked like pretty comfortable quarters. A quick look around the Boston craigslist surprised me with how inexpensive these old vans also looked to be. Thus began my van story.
In the IAP break that MIT has throughout January, I began looking around for vans in the Boston area. My budget was $2.5k, maybe $3k, but I wanted to keep things down low as much as possible. I only shopped for about a week, looking at a bunch of different vans. I determined that the sprinters were probably well out of my price range, and I wanted to get something that could be reasonably stealth and comfortable, so not a little vw or a family minivan. It had to look super creepy.
What I settled on eventually was a 1999 Dodge Ram 3500 passenger van being sold for $2.2k by a guy up in Lynn. It was supposedly used as a church shuttle, though there was only one bench seat left, and a bunch of kids pencils around when I cleaned it out, so I don't really know what it did. This was my happy photo when I took it out flying with Matt for the first time:
Those hubcaps are from some sort of Toyota. Not sure why I left them on. I tore them off recently after realizing how bad they looked.
Then began the conversion. It was fitted with all the creature comforts of a passenger vehicle in the back, AC, seatbelts, rubber floor, wall panels, a fabric roof, interior lights, etc, etc. None of this was very homely so I was determined to get it all out. After doing that, I discovered a fairly minor rust problem:
The cleanout scenario, the fire extinguisher is because I had to angle grind out some of the seatbelt anchors in the floor to make it flat.
I had seen that there was some small surface rust when I inspected the vehicle before buying, but didn't really peel up the floor enough to get to where the white paint was a long forgotten memory. This was definitely the low point of the project.
This thing let in a lot of exhaust, making the vehicle slightly uncomfortable for travel in winter. I eventually sealed these mega holes with fiberglass.
The seatbelt bolts were no fun to get out. Definitely the hardest DIY job I have ever done, they seemed as strong as climbing anchors.
I ground away at the van, taking a dumpster load worth of crappy trim out before I had something reasonably clean and bare to start work in. Though I didn't take nearly enough photos, which I really regret!
Now I'm just going to press the fast forward button, because I don't have that many photos of the build out process, and show you where the van is at today. I took these photos parked up in Squamish, BC.
The front yard
Where the action happens, complete with classy Autozone seat covers from the previous owner.
To cover the basics of life, the van has a stove, water container and cooler.
The stove is a Coleman dual fuel, which is dope because it can run on car gas and the fuel costs essentially nothing. I still haven't been through a gallon in over a month, cooking twice a day. The fuel is kept keep in a red 1 gallon Briggs and Stratton can under the front passenger seat.
The stove sits on a piece of plywood that's hinged so it doesn't have to be removed when the backseat is in during the semester. There's also a fire extinguisher, necessary for everything not going up in flames when I inevitably screw up. The blue container is an office water cooler jug sawed off into a seat/trash combination.
The cooler isn't really used as a cooler, I don't keep any ice in it, but it's nice as a way to keep food in a compartment (necessary in Yosemite or otherwise one day you're going to leave a muesli bar out and get wrecked by a bear). I didn't want to have the cooler sliding around so I made a custom fit compartment for it, and some emergency car fluids (brake, transmission, engine oil) and bits and pieces are jammed in to fit it tight.
Cooler with the cooking closet next to it for easy access. Cereal and peanut butter is the key to success.
The water container I have a love/hate relationship with. It's a 5 gallon REI one, and it has a hole in one corner that it got basically immediately. It's super hard to find large water containers that don't have dumb shapes like a jerry can or Gatorade tower.
The water container sits neatly on the rear AC unit, next to the lockable storage cupboard for all the odds and ends.
A car's 12v system, especially in an older vehicle, just doesn't cut it for most stuff. You are always worrying about flattening the battery or getting enough charge out of short trips to have anything be comfortable. So from the start I planned to put in an independent power system to power all my stuff and leave the car's power for driving only.
On the roof I mounted a 100W solar panel with 3M VHB tape, which has somehow stayed on all the way up to 100mph.
The hole free roof mounting means I never have to worry about rust, and it only took 20 minutes to put on. This was the very first thing I did in the build out, because I was super excited when the solar panel came from Amazon. I drove around with a solar panel on the roof hooked up to nothing for two months.
The panel wiring comes in through a little hole I made in the side
The battery I chose was a simple 35Ah deep cycle SLA, which is just like a car battery but better at delivering capacity than power. For converting the 12V into useful AC, I used a 400W inverter. A WindyNation P30L solar charge controller, which came in a kit with the panel, linked everything up in conjuction with a very ghetto switchboard, that isn't actually that dodgy because it is 12V not 110V.
To feel a little bit more civilized, I put up some LED strip lighting on the roof which gives a nice glow at night.
I also installed a Maxxair fan which has been fantastic for cooking, keeping the van cool, and creating an artificial breeze in the front seat when eating on a warm summer night. This thing is amazing, though it was scary cutting the big hole in the roof for it. It even has a sensor that detects rain and closes the vent automagically!
When living in such a small space it's important to keep everything organized, especially big and dirty stuff like climbing gear or clothing. So from the beginning I thought a lot about gear storage and ended up with a reasonable solution that keeps most of the stuff out of sight. The one thing I still haven't cracked is a bookshelf, so there are books conveniently located in nooks around the van.
The kitchen cabinet is a milk crate that was being used to hold painting supplies.
The closet is a big wooden box in between the food and random stuff and the bed. The staples holding on the panels to make the box were a bad idea, should have used screws!
In the back I have my bed (a bouldering pad), and a big space for two home depot storage bins which carry all my climbing gear, tent, shoes, etc.
My gear was originally neatly organized in cutoff Soylent boxes. Those were the days.
You can see the subfloor underneath the storage boxes, it's half inch construction cladding, which I laid down before starting the build out so that I could anchor pieces to the wood instead of the car body. So the whole build out is actually just floating on these mega pieces of plywood, and if you go over a large enough bump sometimes things adjust a little.
That's about it for my van, it's pretty simple. My advice for anyone building out would be this:
- You should probably insulate even if you're just using the van for the summer. Going to bed with a t-shirt and waking up with a down jacket is weird. I'm definitely going to throw some foam on the roof and walls when I go back to Boston in the fall. A van can reach 105F when it's 85F outside, trust me.
- It's important to plan out your build or otherwise you will end up with dead spaces or not very ergonomic designs. I did this, but scrapped a lot of the original CAD in favor of winging it as I was having so much fun woodworking. This resulted in some dead spots that are never really used for anything, a waste in a tight space.
- Not being able to stand is a significant thing, especially when you're changing clothes. Though maybe there's some value in keeping it cozy as it forces you to get outside. Probably a good idea to pad stuff on your roof if you have a low van, I have bumped into my fan and door opening about a billion times.
- Don't worry about toilets or sinks unless you have really high standards of living. I have never once thought about how nice it would be to have those, they're just not that necessary.
- Read the manual for your solar controller. Just read it.
- MPG is super important and it's usually the second question van people ask after "so how much was she?". There isn't much point having a free hut anywhere if it takes 9 mpg to get there. Get an OBD reader before you go vehicle shopping, it will answer this question way better than the Internet, and you will be able to scan for fault codes on the vehicle's computer. A lot of people get bummed out when they finish their build and then discover that their roadtripping isn't as cheap as they hoped.
- Don't take the build process too seriously or go overboard with creature comforts, just have fun and enjoy building your own little home.