In our last post, “Van Camping Makes Us Happy”, we explained why we chose to convert a cargo van into a camper. In this post, we’ll go over why we chose a Ford Transit for our van and describe the steps we took in building our camper van to make it into our happy place.
Why an Empty Van?
Let me start by staying it is possible to buy a camper van already tricked out. There were two reasons why we didn’t go this route.
- Cost – They’re costly – more than we wanted to spend on something we thought we’d like but didn’t know for sure.
- Design – We didn’t want the same situation we that we’d had with our campers, trying to make someone else’s design work for us.
We wanted our van to fit our likes, our needs, our lifestyle. In a nutshell, us! We also wanted flexibility with equipment and gear as we still occasionally tent camp.
Why We Chose a Ford Transit
We looked at four different types of vans: Ford Transit, Dodge Pro-Master, Mercedes Sprinter and Nissan NV Cargo Van.
We immediately eliminated the Nissan as we felt is was too small for our needs (although Carl was intrigued by the high horsepower engine).
Although the Mercedes Sprinter is very popular and has great reviews, we eliminated it for 3 reasons:
- Cost – They are very expensive new (way way more than we wanted to invest). Used ones are still pretty costly and are hard to find with under 100,00+ miles on them.
- Gas (or should I say diesel). We weren’t happy with what we were reading about required additives to meet emission standards.
- Maintenance – Besides being expensive to maintain, only a Mercedes Sprinter certified mechanic can work on them (without nullnulifying your warranty) and they would not typically be where we travel. *If this has changed since we did our research, please let us know so I can update this information.
We went back and forth between the ProMaster and Transit, test driving each several times and seeing what others had to say about them. Although we liked the wider cargo area and straight sides of the ProMaster, we decided against it for basically three reasons:
- The rear straight axle. The design and clearance of it would greatly limit where we could take the van.
- Drivability – When we test drove the Pro-Master, we felt like we were driving a bus. The driving position was such that it forced us into a forward, over the steering wheel position. This might simply have been due to our height and arm length, but it just wasn’t comfortable.
- Although the front wheel drive would make driving in inclement weather or mud easier, we wouldn’t be able to convert it to four-wheel drive if we decided we wanted to.
That left us with the Ford Transit. Although it wasn’t as wide as the Pro-Master, it was wide enough to fit our needs. The sides weren’t quite as straight as the Pro-Master, yet they were straight enough. And, although the cost between the Pro-Master and Transit was comparable, there were several things we thought were advantageous with the Transit.
- It has rear differential that has higher clearance.
- The fact that it’s a rear-wheel drive means we can convert it to 4-wheel drive.
- It was very comfortable to drive, very similar to driving our Toyota Tacoma.
- The transit came in 3 different roof heights. Although we could stand up in the mid-roof, we chose the highest roof with a clearance of 6 feet 7 inches– and we’re happy we did as it allowed us to raise the bed frame higher, giving us more garage space.
- It was quieter when we drove it (over the Pro-Master).
- AND, we found a used one (36,000 miles) for a great price.
Learning from Others
Since we’d never done anything like this before, we took full advantage of learning from those who had already converted their own vans.
Our favorite blogs to go to:
Gnomad Home is probably our favorite of the blogs. It is a blog by John and Jayme, who live full time in their high-top conversion van. They give very comprehensive information on every aspect of a van build, including what type of van to consider based on your needs and skill level.
Far Out Ride is a blog by Isabelle and Antoine who built out and live full time in their Transit van. We found their blog especially useful since we were also converting a Transit.
Fun Life Crisis is a blog by Laura and Joel, full time travelers in their Promaster van. They have great blogs on the conversion of their Promaster van, complete with pictures that were very helpful when we installed the vent/fan in the ceiling.
VanLife Adventure is a free online magazine that covers all sorts of topics related to converting and living in a van. We found lots of great tips on this site.
Starting with an empty slate was both exciting and intimidating. Thought after thought raced through our heads:
Where to begin?
What should we include?
What if we mess up?
Should we do the work ourselves or hire someone?
On and on the questions went. To calm our racing minds, we decided to just put in the bed and take the van out. Maybe some time in Happy would calm our runaway minds.
Building the Bed
Given the size of the van, we decided we wanted the bed to be multi-purpose. A place that would offer us a good night’s sleep (taking into account that our dog, Gobi, sleeps with us when we camp) and provide a comfy place to hang out, read, write, and relax.
We chose to use the entire back end of the cargo area for the bed. This would give us an almost king-sized bed with plenty of room to sleep and hangout (for us and Gobi).
Attaching the Bed Frame
One thing we learned about commercial cargo vans is they have two layers. An inner and outer frame. The inner frame has pre-drilled holes for attaching shelves , drawers, and workstations to the van without having to drill any holes in the van. Due to this, the frame of the bed was pretty simple. Carl bolted four 1 5/8″ Unistruts to the sides of the van using the existing the holes and steel cross nuts. To make things easier, we purchased the hand wrench designed for the nuts.
On top of the frame, Carl attached 2 sheets of 1/2″ plywood.
A Great Night Sleep Starts in a Comfy Bed
We wanted the bed to be super comfy so we bought a king-size memory foam mattress and trimmed off 6 inches on one side to make it fit.
To top off the luxury feel, we decided to go with a down comforter. And, we are so glad we did! Then, to finish things off, we grabbed blankets from our camping gear and large pillows that we had thrown around in the family room.
The bed is so comfy that we joke it’s better than the one we have in the house.
*Note on the bed size: We are 5.4 and 5.6 so we fit perfectly cross-wise in the bed. Anyone taller might need that extra 6” that we cut off and would probably need to sleep lengthwise in the van.
The Bolt System
We can’t express enough how much we loved these and how the cost was worth it. This system allowed us to anchor everything we needed to the van using the anchor holes that the van was already equipped with for commercial outfitting.
One Thing We’d Do Differently
We stopped the edge of the bed about 6” from the back door which created a gap between the bed and door (our pillows would disappear down this gap which is why we now sleep width-wise). Eventually we plan to add a pull-out shelf to the underside of the bed frame to close up this space and give Carl a place to sit things on that side of the bed. On our next van, we’ll take the bed to the door to avoid this situation.
Update on the gap by the back door
To fill the gap between the bed and the back door, Carl fashioned a shelf that goes partially under the mattress. Not only does it keep things from falling through the gap, but it makes a great place for water bottles, phones, etc.
While Carl was building the bed, we started researching what to do with the floor of the van. Commercial cargo vans have raised grooves on the floor to allow items to be anchored. Not only does this make the floor uncomfortable to walk on, it adds an additional challenge for covering it.
We really wanted something simple on the floor (especially since most of the floor would be under the bed and have gear, coolers, and boxes dragged across it).
Knowing the floor would get dirty and take a lot of wear and tear, we chose to go with a BedRug cargo mat that is made specifically for our van and has insulated cushioning that matches the grooves in the van floor.
And, best of all, it took all of 2 minutes to install!
Since we only have the windshield, side windows, and rear door windows, achieving privacy was pretty easy. For the windshield and side windows, we purchased insulated sun shades that are made specifically for our van.
We wanted to be able to see out the rear windows while driving and parked in the van so we didn’t want to put up something that would block the view or light. We also wanted something easy to use. Our solution was to purchase a package of insulated room darkening panels, size them to fit the windows, then sew a flat magnet into the top of the curtains.
This allows us to simply slap them onto the door (which we kept metal) and then pull them off in the morning. They aren’t fancy yet they work great for us.
We store them in a bag on the door which makes it easy to get to them whether the door is open or shut.
Update on curtains
Although the magnetic curtains worked well, we decided to try something that we could open without taking it down. We bought an adjustable curtain rod and hung the curtains from the rod. So far, it’s working great and we like that we can push them open, or tie them back with ease.
After a few weekends in Happy, we decided we needed more ventilation. There were three areas we needed to address. The roof, the windows, and the doors.
To keep things in the van cool, we need to move air through the van. To achieve this, Carl installed a MaxxFan in the ceiling. We went with a MaxxFan as the design allows it to be open and running even in the rain.
Gotta admit, I couldn’t watch this. The idea of cutting a hole in the roof of the van made me nervous. Thank goodness Carl felt good about it and had the support of our dear friend Steve (and a beer before they got started).
For additional ventilation, we bought bug screens for the front windows. These are great as they allow us to have the windows lowered and still keep unwelcome flying visitors out. The are easy to put on and remove and bunch up small enough that we are able to store them in the side pockets of the doors.
To allow us to keep the windows cracked when it is raining, we installed rain deflectors on both front windows. They were amazingly easy to install and have worked great.
For the rear door area, we bought a 64×80 mesh bug screen that we attached with heavy duty velcro. The side sliding door is slightly smaller so we ordered a 60×80 mesh bug screen for it. Our original thought was that we’d be able to remove the screens in the winter when we thought we wouldn’t need them but it turns out we need them year round here in Arizona.
After 2 to 3 weekends in Happy, we came to the conclusion that we needed to insulate. The temps were getting pretty cool at night and without insulation it was like an icebox inside the van.
We did our research and found the best advice for insulation on Gnomad Home https://gnomadhome.com/build-your-van/#insulation.
For the roof and large areas, we used Owens Corning FOAMULAR 150 1 in. x 4 ft. x 8 ft. R-5 Scored Square Edge Rigid Foam Board Insulation which we found at Home Depot.
For cracks and crevices, we used 3M Thinsulate Acoustic/Thermal Insulation AU4002-5 (10′ x 60″) and
We prefer to climb, hike, and cycle in more moderate weather. So, although we insulated the van as much as we could, we weren’t overly concerned with insulating every nook and cranny as we don’t camp in extreme conditions.
Speaking of not insulating everything….
Why We Chose to Leave Some Metal Exposed
If you google “van life” or “DIY camper vans”, you’ll find tons of links to blogs on living/camping in a van. Most folks who camp or live in a van cover all metal surfaces with wood or some other material. We love the look of these vans, yet didn’t feel something so finished was right for us.
We really like being able to move things simply by moving a magnet and the ease of hanging things up without having to stress over putting nails or screws in our beautiful wood walls.
I grew up in a military family and we moved almost every 2 years. Over my life, I’ve gotten used to my environment changing and still have this uncontrollable urge to change things every once in a while. Carl would rather I not put nail holes all over the van (like I do our house), so magnetic hooks, lights, key holders, etc. work well for both of our peace of mind.
Finishing Out the Walls and Ceiling
We decided to finish out the ceiling and walls in wood to give the van a warm feeling. Needless to say, I love the way they turned out.
The Walls by the Bed
We did something unconventional with the walls beside the bed. Most van builds that we looked at made the walls flush by paneling over the 4” deep wells on the sides of the van.
We didn’t want to lose the 4” on each side so we chose to insulate the outer wall then cover a large piece of insulation with fabric and attach it to the wall.
The main reason we chose to do this was we wanted to create a comfortable headboard to lean against when sitting on the bed. So far this is working well for us and it will be any easy change if we decide to do something different at some point.
Behind the Dresser
We wanted to utilize this area for additional storage but didn’t want to attach cabinets to the van. After looking at ideas on-line, we elected to mount a peg board over the insulation in the depression behind the driver’s seat. We bought small pegboard baskets and use these to hold items that we tend to use everyday or quite often. So far, this has worked great for us.
The Ceiling – in a nutshell
Carl’s pride and joy. We used 3 1/2″ pine tongue and groove planks that we stained light pine. Carl first bolted furring strips to the crossbeams on the ceiling then used a nail gun to attach the strips to the furring.
We love the way it turned out and and feel it adds warmth to the van. Far Out Ride has a great blog on installing a tongue and groove panel ceiling.
To finish out the look of the ceiling, we ran 3/4″ hardwood boards along the length of the van. We also used these boards to mount the shelves above the bed and the storage cabinet.
Interior of Sliding Door
It took us a while to figure out what to do with the inside of the sliding door. We finally decided on a dry-erase board for notes and reminders. After insulating the door, we cut a piece of white board and attached it to the door with liquid nails and white duct tape. Not fancy, but works for us
We need this area to be large as everything goes under the bed, with the exception of the bikes. As in the rest of the van, we want the storage area to be first-order as much as possible. We made this area large enough to hold our coolers, food, kitchen boxes, and all our gear without having to stack everything on top of each other.
Updates to storage
1. Curtains to hide garage storage
We added a removable curtain to the front of the bed to cover the garage area. I used magnets to hold the curtains to the bed frame but am thinking of fitting them with Velcro instead. We added the curtains for two reasons:
- It just looked better. The curtains (same ones we used for the door) hide the coolers and other items from view.
- During one of our colder camping trips, we realized it was colder under the bed than in the living area of the van and the insulated curtains help hold the cold under the bed.
2. Table storage
To make it easier to store and get to the table, Carl built a shelf for us to simply slide the table into. So much nicer than putting it under everything and having to dig it out each time.
3. Storage for yoga mats
Looking for a way to store our yoga mats and down blankets that would keep them out of the way yet still be easily accessible, we doubled a cargo net and hung it under the clothing baskets. So far it’s working great.
We had a space between the bed and the driver’s seat that I envisioned installing a cabinet that had drawers, doors, and a flat surface to make morning coffee on.
While scrolling through our local marketplace on Facebook, I came across a dresser that looked like it would fit the bill. I fell in love with it at first sight. All I could think was “please, oh, please, let it fit!”
The measurements seemed right, so we arranged to get it. We met the seller with the van (just in case). Long story short, it fit! And with 2” to spare!
I love the many spaces to put things and how easy it is to set up and store when it’s time to move.
We actually gave a lot of thought of what we wanted to do with our shoes. We wanted to get to shoes easily and keep the dirt form the shoes from getting everywhere in the van. A quick solution that works great for us are stacking plastic drawers. One for Carl and one for me.
Update on shoe storage
The plastic bins worked for awhile, yet we found them to be too limiting, especially on longer trips where we might need more storage space. To keep our shoes easily accessible and give us more space, we attached a hanging shoe organizer to the back door. We keep a small rug outside the back door to give us a clean place to stand when swapping out shoes.
With our bed spanning the width of the van, we had space at the bottom of the bed for storage. This seemed like the ideal place for our clothes. They’d be out of the way, yet easy to get to. We found a simple solution in a shelf on the wall with collapsible storage boxes. We use a simple bungee system to keep these from falling off when on the road.
Above the Pegboard
We found there were a few things that we wanted handy but not out in the open (garbage bags, dog supplies, my overnight bag, and hand towels). We were able to create a storage area for these by installing a shelf and using small storage bins held in place with a bungee.
Heating and Air Conditioning
We chose not to install an air-conditioner in the van for two reasons. First, if it’s hot enough for air-conditioning, we don’t camp there and second, we didn’t want to have to build a system to power an a/c unit. Yup, that means we chase the weather when planning our weekends and trips.
Update on air conditioning
Did we install an air conditioner? No, we still prefer to chase the cooler temperatures but have found that we sometimes need something to help cool the van down if the day gets a little warm. We found this portable evaporative cooler, which works great for adding some coolness to the air while waiting for the sun to set.
Unlike air-conditioning, we did feel we needed heat. Even on warm days, the desert can get pretty cool at night. After reviewing the different heating systems that others had done, we opted for something that we could heat the van with and also use when tent camping. We first bought the Little Buddy propane heater. It worked pretty well, but as we began camping in cooler and cooler weather, we decided we needed a more powerful one. We upgraded to a Mr. Heater, which heats the van up great and has the added advantage of having a pilot light which we can leave on overnight to add a little warmth to the van.
*This is where the side bug screens and rain deflectors really help as a window needs to be cracked when using these heaters.
Since both of our stoves and the heater require propane gas, we wanted a way to run them without the need to purchase disposable propane tanks. We found this refillable propane tank kit and refillable propane tanks at REI.
IMPORTANT FOR SAFETY:
To be safe from carbon monoxide poisoning when using propane in the van, it’s important to have a carbon monoxide detector.
Most of the blogs we looked at installed some form or another of solar power in the van. Our advice on this one: really look at how much power you need. We decided we’d need some power (to run the overhead vent fan, power our computers, charge our devices, and eventually run our indoor lighting).
We found what we needed in the Goal Zero Yeti 400 Lithium Portable Power Station. The generator provides all the power we need and, just like other gear, it is portable and can be used when we tent camp.
We normally charge the generator when we get home, yet also have a fold-out solar panel for when we are on the road for longer than a weekend. For now, a 60W Solar Panel Charger works for us, but as we spend more time in the van, we’ll most likely upgrade.
We chose not to wire our van for electrical. However, if that is something you feel you want, these blogs offer some great advice: Far Out Ride Electrical Guide, Gnomad Home Epic Guide to Van Build Electrical, Power Van Life on a Budget, Parked in Paradise Wiring Your Van. And if you want electrical, but aren’t comfortable doing it yourself, we’d advise seeking out a professional.
Update on solar panels
Since our goal is to spend more and more time in Happy, we took a week-long “working” trip to put our generator and solar panel to the test. We discovered on this trip that although our current panels charge fast enough for our normal light use, they were inadequate for heavier charging (more use of our IPads, recharging of a lap top). After spending more and more time in Happy, we decided we needed stronger solar panels that could handle faster re-charging.
We replaced our fold out panels with Goal Zero Boulder 100 Solar Panel Briefcase and have been amazed at how quickly they charge the generator. We used them for a slightly longer trip using our computer and IPads and were able to keep the generator charged to 100% on a daily basis.
We decided not to install overhead lighting in the van as we wanted to keep things simple. Right now we are using a combination of different battery powered lights but have plans to upgrade to a Goal Zero 12V light chain that will allow us to eliminate the use of batteries and provide more light.
I do, however, love our magnetic pug lights as I can move them to where I need them. If I want light outside, I can simply grab one or two and stick them on the outside of the van
Update on lighting
Although the puck lights work great for low lighting in the van, we discovered we needed brighter lighting during winter camping. To keep things simple (and versatile), we added Goal Zero Light-A-Life 350 Lanterns to the van. We like that they have to levels of lighting and are portable so we can use them in the van or outside under the canopy.
The van came with small street tires (it was, after all, a delivery van). We replaced the tires with BF Goodrich All-Terrain which gave us more clearance and better traction. AND, they made Happy look much beefier.
We do a lot of combined trips (climbing and cycling) and wanted a way to bring the bikes and still easily get into the back door of the van. For the trailer hitch, we went with the CURT 13193 Class 3 Trailer Hitch, 2-Inch Receiver for Ford Transit and the Kuat Pivot Swing Away Extension, which allows us to swing the bikes out of the way of the back door. To keep the bikes clean while on the road, we invested a bike cover.
Why We Didn’t Add a Bathroom or Kitchen
We see our van as a luxurious hard-sided tent on wheels and want to keep it as simple as possible.
Our campers had kitchens and I hated the mess that cooking in the camper left behind and the cook usually found him/herself separated as everyone else would be outside by the campfire.
Our goal when we camp is to be outside as much as possible and that includes when we cook. Instead of spending money on designing and building an indoor kitchen, we invested in a good camping stove, amazing coolers from Canyon Cooler, a portable table, and Eurmax 10’x10′ Ez Pop-up Canopy (with zip-on walls).
Another bonus of investing in a portable kitchen set-up is that we can also use everything when tent camping.
We gave a lot of thought to a compostable toilet, but decided our Luggable Loo had worked well for us so far, so why change?
For privacy, we bought the Ozark Trail 2-Room 7′ x 3.5′ Instant Shower/Utility Shelter. It’s handier than a single shelter in that one side is perfect for the toilet and the other side is a shower with a fabric door that can be zipped closed between the two areas. We don’t use it in locations that are private but is sure comes in handy in crowded areas and inclement weather.
Many van conversions install DC operated refrigerators but in keeping with our desire for simplicity and function, we elected to go with two Canyon Coolers. Not only do they kick-butt when it comes to keeping food cold, but they are rated as high as Yeti coolers, are bear-proof, pack perfectly in our van, and are easy to carry – even when full of food. So that we don’t have to worry with ice packs, we use Cooler Shock Zero°F Cooler Freeze Packs.
For Fun and Convenience
Sometimes it’s the little things that can make camping more enjoyable. Below is a list of items we discovered store great, work great, and make our time in Happy more, well, happy.
Magnetic Cup Holders
One of the many reasons I like having some exposed metal. With the Magnetic Cup Caddy, we can have a cup holder anywhere we need it. A plus for Carl since he sleeps on the door side of the van and doesn’t have a shelf to place his drinks on.
It’s nice to know the indoor temperature of the van, especially if we need to leave Gobi in the van. The AcuRite 00318 Indoor Outdoor Suction Cup Digital Thermometer not only tells the current temperature, but also the highest and lowest temperature in the last 24 hours.
What would a climber’s van be without a fingerboard? We anchored a fingerboard to a piece of 3/4″ plywood stained the same color as the ceiling, then anchored the plywood to the van using the same bolt system as on the bed.
Everyone who camps has those things they just wouldn’t do without. These are ours:
Food / Kitchen Storage Boxes
We love these Plano Storage Trunks. They are the perfect size for storage under the bed, are waterproof, and have latches that keep the contents safe from critters. We use one to store food items and a separate one to store cookware. We also like that these are easy to “grab and go” when we tent camp.
Update on kitchen-ware storage
The storage containers worked great, but we wanted to see if we could reduce the amount of items being stored under the bed. I re-organized the dresser which allowed us to create a pantry and space for cooking pans and dishes. I also added a simpler way to store silverware, cooking utensils, and hot pads with a 3 pair wall mounted shoe rack.
Cast Iron Cookware and Dutch Ovens
Over the years, we’ve tried several different types of cookware. By far, the best for both cooking and cleaning has been cast iron. It’s heavier than other forms of cookware, but since we only carry 3 skillets and 2 Dutch Ovens, we find the extra weight isn’t an issue. A big plus is the ability to cook over coals or on the stove. Also, clean-up tends to be much easier and usually requires little to no water.
LOVE LOVE LOVE this! Carl ran across this video on how to make your own portable shower sprayer and immediately made us one. We use it for showers, rinsing dishes, and putting out campfires. It’s probably the handiest item in our camping supplies.
Collapsible Water Buckets
One thing we don’t waste when camping is water. These buckets allow us to capture our rinse and wash water to use on dousing our campfires. They are also handy for collecting kindling for fires and since they can be flattened when not in use, they are so easy to store.
We also have a collapsible dish pan for washing dishes that we love.
Single Burner Stove
On cold mornings (and rainy days), it’s nice to be able to make a cup of coffee without getting out “in the weather”. Not only does our single burner allow us to make coffee in the van, but it’s easy to pack for our out-and-back trips.
Having a wood carrying bag saves us from picking thorns out of our sleeves when carrying fire wood back to camp. It also allows us to carry more at one time as we can each take a handle and stack as much wood as possible between us.
Leveling Blocks and Stick-on Levelers.
These are a must if you want an easy way to level your van. We have a stick on leveler on the side rail of the bed and on the lip above the side door step. Using the stick on levelers and leveling blocks, we can usually have the van leveled in just a few minutes. These Lynx Leveling Blocks came in a handy carry bag which makes them easy to store.
Since we chose not to install a water storage system in the van, we use refillable, stackable water jugs for our water. We like these because they are easy to pack and easy to carry.
I love the exposed metal that we have in the van and the easiest way to make use of it is with magnetic hooks that allow us to hang items (and move them) when and where we need to. I chose strong, heavy duty hooks that we can use indoors or out.
Small Lanterns and Head Lamps
An absolute must when camping. We have several lanterns that we use outdoors in the kitchen area and pop-up bathroom and some smaller ones that we use indoors when we need added light. I especially love tent lanterns which can be hung from a hook or canopy.
Just for Fun
We added a few things to Happy just to make things “happier”. We’ve been asked by several folks where we found a few of the things, so we thought we’d go ahead and add them here.
What’s a camping van without a hanging chair? Carl placed a bolt int he metal roof beam before we installed the ceiling. This allows me to hang my sling chair up anytime I want. I love reading in it, especially on rainy days – and the view out the side door is awesome!
Of course, if we have a string chair inside, we need a hammock outside. We love that it can be hung between two trees. It’s so easy to hang and store in its own pouch.
In the Future
Except for a few more items, Happy is complete. In the future we plan to add an attached awning over the side door to make it easier to keep the door open in the rain. Right now, we are having a hard time finding something that we feel can hold up to the winds we get out here in Arizona.
We’d love suggestions if anyone has found something that is durable and wind hardy.
To give us a little more flexible seating in the van, we plan on adding a swivel base to the passenger seat.
And lastly, when our need for additional power increases, we plan on adding a roof solar system. We’re still unsure as to what system we’ll go with….that may be an updated post.
Hopefully this blog was helpful. Even though we had the van completed pretty quick, we are continually updating (we just raised the bed 2 inches to give us a little more height in the garage). If you are considering a van build, our advice is to have fun and do what fits you as above all else, it should be your happy place.
Be and Carl