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Cargo Van to Camper Van

April 8, 2014

If you are looking for a small, affordable RV, I hope this article detailing how my sister Gail built her camper van will spark your DIY enthusiasm.

This is not meant as a step-by-step tutorial.  It’s intended to show you how she designed a camper that suited her unique travel needs.

She wanted a van that she could overnight in without hookups one or two nights on the way to a destination.  But once she arrived at her destination, she would plug into shore power.  So a big battery bank and boondocking capabilities weren’t important to her.

You may well prefer to build yours differently.  But hopefully you’ll get some great ideas to use as a springboard for your own plans.

You can click the photos to enlarge them if you would like to see more detail.

Choosing the Cargo Van

Gail’s two most important considerations when looking for a

suitable used cargo van were inside standing room and an engine in good condition without excessive mileage.  A van that they couldn’t stand up in to change clothes, shower, cook — and just move around on rainy days — would become miserably confining.

It took her several months to find one that fit her criteria.  She almost gave up the search because the available used high-top vans in her area were all far too expensive.  But  one day she saw an advertisement on Craigslist — and that was the one!

The New Floor

After stripping the van of all the built in shelving, Gail put in the new floor consisting of a layer of fanfold styrofoam for insulation, covered by plywood.

She decided not to use laminate flooring over the plywood because it is easily damaged by water.  She rejected stick-on tiles because water could seep between them.    So she decided on a nice grade of sheet vinyl that won’t be subject to water damage and can stand up to heavy traffic.

Insulating the Roof and Walls — No Upholstery Skills Needed

The top of the fiberglass roof was insulated with a layer of Reflectix and two layers of 1/4″ fanfold styrofoam.  Because it was difficult to work around the roll bars, Gail cut the final layer of styrofoam into sections, covered them with vinyl, then screwed the panels onto a frame she made of 1″ x 2″ wood attached to the roll bars. She covered the screws with little button screw covers to make them more attractive.

The vinyl on the side of the high top is stapled to a wood lattice strip which is wired to the rollbar on the backside. It hangs freely, except for a few pieces of velcro used to stick it to the 1″ x 4″ wood strip at the bottom.The walls of the van are insulated the same way — fanfold styrofoam covered by free hanging vinyl stapled to another piece of 1′ x 4″ wood.

Making the Beds

Most people who build their own campers use excessively heavy and bulky wood.  If you look at any commercially built camper, you will find furniture framing built of 1″ x 1″ and 2″ x 2″ boards.

Gail built her bed frames of 2″x2″ wood.  She sized the height of the bed to accommodate large plastic storage bins underneath.  And she sized the bed leg spacing so the bins would fit perfectly between them.  Smaller bins were used in front of the wheel wells.

The bins are much easier to work with than vinyl drawer units, which can warp and stick.

For the mattresses, she bought a queen sized 6″ Spa Sensations mattress from Walmart and cut it to make two 28″ wide mattresses.

If you’ve ever slept on a mattress soggy from condensation drip, or from accidentally leaving a window or vent open in the rain, you will understand her reasoning in placing a waterproof liner between the foam and the fabric covering.

The plastic and fabric were then stapled onto a plywood base to finish the mattresses. Two 1″ holes were drilled in the plywood bottom to let air trapped by the plastic escape.   She made the mattresses 4″ wider than the 24″ bed frame.  This overhang makes walking more comfortable as you don’t stub your toes on the bed legs, and also keeps shoes out of the aisle at night.

If you prefer more padding over the foam, you could cut a mattress pad to fit and sandwich it between the foam and fabric.  Or you could use a quilted comforter instead of upholstery fabric.

Building the Kitchen

The kitchen cabinet is framed by 2″ x 2″ wood, and covered with 1/4″ plywood.  The decorative wood motif glued to the panel covering the sink base really dresses up the appearance of the unit.  The unit was sectioned and shelved to fit the refrigerator, microwave, storage bins, camp stove, and fresh and gray water tanks.  The stove can be used outdoors or inside with good ventilation.

The fresh and gray water tanks are simply 6 gallon Reliance

water jugs with clear vinyl tubing.  The 15″ round bar sink uses a hand lever to pressurize the water system.

To conserve water, Gail uses a pump spray bottle of water mounted on the over-cab shelf.  She prefers using that to using the faucet on the sink as it uses less water and the pressure is better.

She elected not to permanently mount the sink to the counter.  Unless they are parked completely level, the water in the flat-bottomed sink will not drain completely.   So since it just sets into the hole in the countertop, she can tip it to drain all the water.

After taking a couple of trips, Gail was happy with her setup except for one thing.  It was inconvenient having to dig through bins to find small items like kitchen and shower supplies.

She built the shelf unit in the photo which organized her supplies and made them much more accessible.  An added bonus was that it made a headboard for the bed on that side.  Now each bed has a place to prop pillows and lean against when reading, watching DVD’s, or surfing.

The Bathroom

Although there are several options for toilets in a van, Gail chose the Porta Potty.  It flushes like a home toilet, there is no odor, and it’s easy to find places to dump.  Dump stations, toilets at rest areas or campgrounds, pit toilets at primitive camp sites, or a home toilet are all possibilities.

The Thetford Porta Potty with the built in pour spout makes dumping as neat and hassle free as it gets.

For showers, a shower curtain is attached to clips on the ceiling.  A plastic pan serves as the shower base.  Originally Gail used a plastic curtain, but had problems with it not drying.  She switched to a fabric shower curtain/liner that dries a lot faster.

She uses a plastic jug, fitted with vinyl tubing and a shower head, placed on the shelf above the cab to hold hot water for their showers.  The jug is painted black, so if it’s a sunny day, she can set the jug in the sun and let it warm the water.

When the sun isn’t out, or if solar heating isn’t convenient, she uses a 25 cup coffee maker to heat the water.

She bought a battery operated camp shower to try.  While it does give more pressure than the solar shower setup, it also uses twice as much water.  The gravity setup uses approximately 1-1/2 gallons per shower while the pump operated shower uses around 3 gallons.  So she decided to stick with the solar/gravity fed shower.

When she is through showering, she picks up the shower pan and pours the water into the sink where it drains into the gray water tank.  Alternatively, she could use use the pump to transfer the water into the sink.  But since she uses such a small amount of water, that’s not necessary.

Curtains and Bed Skirts

Gail bought blackout curtain panels from Walmart for $10 each to use as curtains.  The 84 inch panels cost the same as the 53 inch, so she bought the longer ones to give her 1/3 more material for the same price.

Not only are these curtains used to divide the cab area from the living area and cover the back windows.  They also help hide the storage areas under the bed, and above the cab and the shelf above the back door.

She originally used her floral fabric to cover those areas.  But the bright pattern drew the eye and made the van look smaller.  When she replaced the patterned material with the dark blackout curtain material, the storage areas seemed to disappear and the eye is drawn toward the van’s front window.

So, counter-intuitively, using the dark material in those areas makes the van look a lot larger inside.

Electricity, Batteries and Appliances

After struggling with trying to understand complicated RV electrical systems, Gail decided to use a simple system that made sense to her.  A surge protector with several electrical outlets that plugs into normal shore power is her main electrical source.  The wire runs out of sight behind the walls.

When she has hookups, she can use her refrigerator, microwave, and freestanding room air conditioner/dehumidifier.  In cold weather, she uses a small electric heater.

For overnighting without hookups, she uses camping gear designed to run from 3 different power sources.  For instance her fan and lantern can run off internal batteries, regular AC power, or be plugged into a cigarette lighter and run off the van’s battery.  A Coleman Black Kat catalytic heater provides heat using disposable propane cylinders.  A small DVD player runs off batteries.

When they are traveling, or are overnighting without power, they keep perishable food cold in a cooler that fits between the van’s front seats.

In Conclusion

Gail’s van is perfectly designed for her way of traveling and camping.  She doesn’t want a 3 way refrigerator or permanent bathroom.  Nor does she want built in closets that visually cut the van in half — nor a lot of other features that some would consider essential.

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