Interested in vanlife? Here's what it's like building your cozy camper van.
Vanlife. By now we’ve all heard of it. It was the hottest travel trend of 2020 and, likely, 2021. But unless you have the budget to burn on a ready-made camper van, getting your vehicle road-ready is a lot of work.
Vanlife had been a notion in the back of my mind ever since I scrolled past my first Westfalia pic on Instagram. I envisioned sleeping comfortably under the stars in national parks and the freedom of the open road. But finding the time (and space in my teeny-tiny neighborhood) to search for and convert a van seemed impossible.
That’s not to mention my complete lack of experience. I hadn’t attempted to build anything more complicated than Ikea furniture, and sometimes even that didn’t go well.
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The better part of the past five years had been spent abroad with a backpack slung over my shoulder. But when all international travel was suspended and I returned from India after getting stranded in the country during COVID, I was presented with the perfect opportunity.
Free time, and lots of it. So, I seized the opportunity to pursue a dream and converted a cozy campervan with my bare hands.
Finding a Van
I spent four weeks scouring the internet, learning what to look for in a used van and where to find them. I hadn’t ever purchased a vehicle before, especially not from a private seller, and I knew that if I bought the wrong thing my dream of national park-hopping would be stalled before I could even start building.
Two things became immediately apparent in my search: Craigslist and Facebook Marketplace had the most options in my budget range (around $4,000), and vans go quickly.
The van I got was a mess. As the mechanic inspected under the hood, I reminded myself that the musty blue velour seats and stained carpets would all be torn out anyways. Under the hood was all that mattered.
The mechanic gave the all-clear. I had found my van.
Designing My Van
It was no $100,000 luxury Sprinter van, but it was mine and I jumped into the design phase immediately.
Before the build could begin, it was time for some tough decision-making. What did I feel comfortable constructing? (Nothing.) Do I need a kitchen? Bathroom? Shower? Solar-powered electrical system? An electrical system at all?
The truth is, there are no set “must-haves” for vanlife. Some long-term van-dwellers make do with a simple mattress on the floor and cooler for food. Others have a tiny home complete with a composting toilet, heated shower, and enough off-the-grid electricity to keep them Netflix’ing in the wilderness for weeks.
With a budget of $3,000, I wanted something in between. A comfortable home on wheels with space for cooking, lots of storage, and a bed that could convert into a table for daytime use. A van I could “comfortably” travel the U.S. in and spend months at a time in while on the road.
Building a camper van involves a lot of forward-thinking. You need to consider what you’ll be using the van for primarily. Will you be living in it for years? Long-term traveling? Or just quick week-long jaunts to national parks? Whatever the answer, your van needs will be different.
The Physical Build
Enter the six weeks of back-breaking work phase. This is the part many YouTubers and van-lifers gloss over. Doing it yourself costs a fraction of the price of ready-made models, but for those of us without experience, it will be endlessly frustrating.
Starting every morning at 7 a.m., I spent the next eight to 10 hours working away in the summer sunshine. Obviously, the build could have been done slower. But I had plans to hit the road in September and join the leaf peepers in Maine. I got a lot of help through the YouTube channel of Two Wandering Soles, as well as the build-out guides created by Gnomad Home.
Let’s go through my van demolition and van build step-by-step.
Gutting the Van
It’s not quite as simple as taking out the seats and removing the carpet. You unscrew every single screw and bolt inside until the van is nothing but a metal husk. Ripping out the cheap wood interior was very satisfying.
Ventilation is key to prolonging the life of a van. Imagine—oh so carefully—cutting a hole in the fiberglass rooftop of your precious van. Terrifying but necessary.
Picking the shade of faux hardwood to install might have been one of the most fun parts of the build.
I wanted enough juice to power two outlets, four overhead lights, and a mini-fridge. Solar-panel kits were way out of my price range, instead, I bought two deep cycle batteries and hooked them up to the main car battery and alternator so that they would recharge while I drove. About three hours of driving allows me to relax for three days in the wilderness.
This was, without a doubt, the most complex and technical part of the build. But, like many parts of the build, YouTube walked me through it.
It keeps the van cool in the summer and toasty in the winter. For the most comfortable van, good insulation is key.
Framing & Walls
This is where the back-breaking labor really starts to come in and where my used conversion van was at a major disadvantage to the new box-shaped Sprinters and Ford Transits.
My van isn’t square. Its curved walls allow for more room inside the cabin…and I wanted to keep it that way, which meant I needed to curve my log-cabin walls to fit the contour of the van.
My unskilled craftsmanship showed in the end, but I’m able to sleep lengthwise in the van allowing more room for my kitchen, which seems like a fair trade-off.
Cabinetry & Furniture Construction
Some vanlifers buy ready-made furniture to install and some, like me, build it all from scratch. From a bed that converts easily into a U-shaped bench/table to the kitchen unit, it’s all 100% hand-crafted.
This is where the foam mattress cutting, curtain sewing, and all the decorative stuff comes into play.
The Final Product
I named it Phoebe the Van and it ended up far prettier than I had dared to envision. And the whopping total cost of the build ended up ringing in at $2,980.
Paired with the added joy of living in something I built with my unskilled bare hands, I couldn’t be happier or more proud.
Vanlife is an adventure and I soon found that, just the like build, it’s not always as easy as social media makes it look. But, since hitting the road with Phoebe I’ve traveled over 18,000 miles to more than 20 national parks. Looking back on the entire process, I gained so many new skills and ended up with an adventure wagon that will carry me to new destinations for years to come.