Convert a Van Into an Off Grid Camper
Living on the road is the ultimate expression of freedom. If you're ready to take on this lifestyle, know what to expect before embarking on your DIY journey.
Choose Your Van
The type of van you choose will ultimately depend on your budget with respect to the space you need. Each has its pros and cons.
The VW Vanagon is a good choice for those who value its cultural status. It's also for those who are handy tinkerers since it can be a bit finicky. The Sprinter van can be customized and has a high profile which is great if you're tall. It's also reliable, but is also expensive, and parts aren't cheap either. Old school cargo vans are for those interested in stealth camping, but there isn't much headroom, and it can be hard finding one with low mileage. A high-top conversion van can be found used at a good price, but are difficult to customize, nor are they very stealthy.
Nomadic living doesn't have to be in a van. It can be an old school bus, an out of use ambulance, or even a box truck. Choose the one that suits your personality and budget.
Plan and Design
This can be tricky as you design a space for ultimate small space living. Plan the layout with regard to the number of people living in it, your height, desired storage space, whether or not you want to cook or a place to sit and work (or both,) room for any large items like bikes or surfboards, and your preference of windows. Also determine whether or not you are comfortable with public bathrooms and burying your own waste, and using public showers at state parks or gyms.
There are a variety of common layouts. Choose one comfortable for you, or adapt and design one that suits you better. The new layout should keep the weight distributed evenly. You don't want to site heavy items like batteries and water storage on the same side of the van. Also, try to design components to have multiple uses. Being able to turn a dinette into a base support for a queen sized bed with storage underneath is a clever way to save valuable space.
Draw your layout to scale on graph paper to figure out which components will fit and which ones will need adjustments. After sketching out the plan, block out the pieces inside the empty van using painter's tape. A mock up made of scrap wood or cardboard will help determine any issues that need to be addressed before building starts.
You're living off the grid, but you'll probably need electricity for a fridge to keep your food from spoiling or to power your computer if you need to work remotely. You can either build your own solar system or if you have the money in your budget and no time (or interest) in wiring the setup yourself, purchase a self-contained system. Either way, you'll also need to install solar panels on the roof, secure them, and run the wires inside where you'll connect it all together.
Install the Necessities
Energy efficient LED lighting will keep the interior illuminated when you're stopped for the night so you don't have to bust out the camp lantern. Insulation on the walls, ceiling, and floor will help you stay warm in the winter, while reflective window coverings will give you some relief from the sun by keeping your van cooler during the summer. Use either sheep's wool insulation or foam board. Stay away from fiberglass insulation. It may be less expensive, but it doesn't insulate as well as the other two products, takes up more space, and is dangerous particles are released in your breathing space.
A vent fan is an essential for van-living. It will keep you cool, provide air circulation reducing condensation, and help suck out cooking odors when using your kitchen. You'll have to cut a hole in the roof for the vent fan. Other than that, installation is simple.
The fridge is a valuable component of the kitchen and will give you freedom from stopping for ice for you cooler every few days. Isn't freedom the whole purpose of this type of life? Portable fridges are sturdy and don't need to remain on a level surface like a mini-fridge. They're also efficient, can run on 12V power or 110V. Unfortunately, they're also expensive, but the convenience may be enough to help you make a decision on this one.
Cooking inside will be a pleasure when you're rained out and can't step outside to cook a meal under the stars. Many people go with propane stoves, but in such a small living space, there's too much at stake. Another option is a stove that uses denatured alcohol for fuel. It's cleaner burning, emits less fumes, and is not stored under pressure like propane. The downsides are it doesn't burn as hot as propane, and it's harder to control the flame. Regardless of which one you choose, it's still a good idea to install a CO2 detector for peace of mind.
A water pump system is a convenience you can't do without, especially if you plan on packing it up and leaving civilization for a bit. Install a good water filter so you can also drink from the tap. A manual pump and faucet can be placed under the sink for washing dishes, hands, and veggies, and they're not too difficult to manage. Or install an electric pump, but on-demand running water can lead to waste, requiring more fill-ups or a bigger tank.
Make it Comfortable
Use laminate or cork flooring, install a shag rug (if you're feeling nostalgic for the 70s,) upholster bench seating, and bring in cosy bedding, your books, kitchen tools, and the emergency kit. Be prepared for anything. Van living is freedom, so make it your own!