In spring 2017, my husband Rhody and I were aching for a change. Renting an apartment was swallowing most of our paychecks and we were both tired of hustling all the time just to break even.
We’d been toying with van life for years after a two-month stint in a basic Chevy Astro van and a few months in a Ford Econoline E-250 with a bed platform in the back. So, we decided to jump into the DIY campervan conversion game.
But where to start?
People with six-figure incomes showing state-of-the-art Sprinter camper vans had me disheartened about hacking it full-time.
Theirs were all polished wood, custom futons, and beautiful cabinetry. I hadn’t touched a power tool since shop class in seventh grade. How could we outfit our old $4,000 Ford Econoline into a livable DIY campervan?
I hadn’t touched a power tool since shop class in 7th grade. How would we turn our van into a home?
By May, we knew we either had to give it a go or sign another year lease we couldn’t quite afford. We wanted to do a budget van conversion on our Ford Econoline camper and were pumped to learn how.
So with only a few thousand dollars and a few months til our lease ended August 1st, we went for #van life.
In this guide, we’re going to show you just how we built our Ford Econoline camper conversion on the cheap.
Prepping, gutting and cleaning our Ford Econoline camper
Keeping the front cab intact, we started our Ford Econoline camper conversion by gutting the old van, pulling up carpeting, wall upholstery, and the old bed frame in the back.
The foam and carpeting were really tough to pry up in places, so it took a lot longer than we thought.
With our limited woodworking know-how, we didn’t kid ourselves that we could build new walls and turn our Ford Econoline into a camper before our lease was up in three months, so we decided we’d salvage it.
For now, we set it aside to tackle the next few steps that turned our old van into a little dream home.
Adding shore power to our Ford Econoline camper conversion
When we started our Ford Econoline campervan build, we agree that solar was a must. Denver gets plenty of snow, however, and there’d be days where panels just wouldn’t do the trick – especially if we wanted to use a space heater while parked in a friend’s driveway.
The solution? Shore power.
Rhody bought an RV shore power outlet that allowed us to plug an extension cord in from the outside that could power our appliances and lights.
I’d been really freaked out by the idea of cutting a hole right into the side of our Ford Econoline camper, but I’m so grateful Rhody just went for it. Shore power was one of the most vital upgrades in our entire DIY campervan conversion.
How we insulated our Ford Econoline camper conversion
When we built our Ford Econoline campervan on the cheap, we did it with Colorado in mind, where it gets down to 0 °F in the winter. We knew there were no cutting corners with our campervan insulation.
When we pulled the walls off, we found fiberglass insulation in good shape, which we set aside to reuse later.
Before putting the fiberglass insulation back in, we lined every part of our Econoline camper conversion with Reflectix, a double-reflective insulation, that we glued down with 3M Hi-Strength 90 Spray Adhesive.
As you can imagine, the glue was harsh, and we had to use masks. In the two years since, I’ve grown a lot in my relationship to sustainability, and I wouldn’t recommend these insulation choices again.
Next time we’d use more sustainable and environmentally-friendly insulation options.
Instead, there are plenty of more sustainable (and even affordable!) options that can be an excellent way to keep your van warm without hurting the planet.
Since we wanted to stay warm, we packed the fiberglass insulation tight and supplemented it with a combo of cellulose insulation from Home Depot and secondhand fiberglass insulation from Resource Central.
For the floor and ceiling, we opted for rigid foam insulation, and that was the first time it hit me how tiny our living space was about to be.
Our van was so small that we only needed one panel for the floor and one for the ceiling of our Ford Econoline camper conversion.
Once we got the rigid foam wedged into the ceiling, we were ready to get to work on the floor.
Adding flooring to our Ford Econoline campervan
Before getting anything else in, a solid ground was a must. We planned to anchor furniture to the floor and knew the wood floor had to be strong and thick enough to handle potholes or slamming on the brakes.
At Resource Central, we were stoked to find a slab of wood that was over half an inch thick and large enough to fit our entire Ford Econoline conversion.
To make sure we had the right cut, we made a stencil of the floor using red rosin paper, then traced it onto the wood, which we cut with a table saw and jigsaw.
Once the wood was in, we screwed it into the raised ridges of our van bed, spacing screws every few inches and being careful to check under the van and make sure we didn’t accidentally hit anything crucial.
Our Ford Econoline camper’s ceiling and walls
Time was not on our side – and neither were our skills – so we were set on reusing the walls and ceiling that came with the Ford Econoline conversion, even though foam from the upholstery clung to it in pieces.
Using a grinder, we shaved off as much remaining foam as we could, but it still wasn’t looking pretty. We’d originally planned to paint or stain the walls, but the tackiness from the stubborn glue left an awkward texture.
Instead, we decided to upholster the walls and ceiling with new fabric.
Our friend Catherine is a wonderful seamstress and helped us pull it off without a hitch. She measured the width and height of the walls and ceiling, leaving plenty of room on each side.
Next, she sewed panels of the fabric together to create single pieces large enough for each wall and ceiling, then ironed the seams flat.
When the fabric was ready, we pulled it taut across both ends of the wood, then used a staple gun to attach it to the backside.
How we put together our Ford Econoline camper’s ceiling
Installing the ceiling in our Ford Econoline camper came first. Originally, it had fit snug between the roof and the pantry above the cab, but the rigid foam had lowered the ceiling, giving us far less space to squeeze the ceiling in.
We used a jigsaw to shave off the tighter corners at the top of the pantry, and with the help of friends, we managed to squeeze the ceiling board in while aligning the A/C hoses that the van came with.
We screwed the ceiling back into its existing drill holes, cut Xes for the A/C vents and lights, and screwed those back in as well.
Roof in, we were ready for the walls in our Ford Econoline camper conversoin.
We were one step closer to moving into our campervan!
How we put in our Econoline camper’s walls
The existing walls on our Ford Econoline campervan were thin and frail, so we strengthened them by attaching two-by-fours that ran down the sides and along the center.
While Catherine was sewing the pieces of fabric together, Rhody cut shelves into the walls, as well as a large hole to fit a medicine cabinet we’d found secondhand.
We upholstered our Econoline campervan’s walls the same way we had the ceiling. We left the fabric intact over the holes Rhody had made for shelves, cut an X in each, and tucked the fabric behind a beautiful panel of birch that backed the shelves.
For the medicine cabinet in our DIY camper, it was even more simple. We cut a large X into the square he’d made, slid the cabinet in, and screwed it securely into the wall.
When we went to install the walls in the Ford Econoline, we realized the bolstering two-by-fours made a large gap between these walls and the metal walls of the van.
Rather than letting it be a problem, we seized that opportunity for extra storage by building cabinet doors that hinged upward to store extra things below each window.
When closed, they made perfect bookshelves and side tables, but we could open them to access storage and electrical wiring.
- A 378-page step-by-step guide to building out a campervan.
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- Fifty pages of information on designing an electrical system and wiring your campervan conversion
How we dealt with our Ford Econoline campervan’s wheel wells
With the walls and ceiling in, the wheel wells ensconced in Reflectix stuck out like sore thumbs on our Econoline camper.
Using secondhand wood, we constructed basic boxes to cover them. Like so much of our wood, it was ugly, and painting it or staining it was out of the question.
So, straying from any other, more traditional choice we could have made, we went for astroturf. This is another one of our choices that I wouldn’t do again as my relationship to plastic has evolved. At the time, we thought it was cute (and I still stand by it as an aesthetic choice).
The astroturf was easy to clean, added a pop of color, and was a great way for us to cover up the unsightliness that came with our inexperience.
For anyone curious about other ways to cover up their own mistakes or uneven wood tones, consider cork flooring.
It’s cheap, harvested without killing the tree, and has an R-value of 1.125 (about the same R-value as Reflectix) making it a good insulator.
For us, the astroturf did just fine, and we ended up using it to accent several other places along the way.
Adding flooring to our Ford Econoline conversion
Just as we started our project, a neighbor gave us a roll of Marmoleum, an environmentally sound linoleum alternative. It was a beautiful maroon and influenced our entire color scheme.
Once we had the walls in and were ready to beautify the floor, we unrolled the Marmoleum excitedly…only to find we were about two feet short.
As always, we used that to our advantage and picked up a small stretch of black-and-white linoleum that we used to create a different vibe for our kitchen area. For a smooth transition between flooring, we installed a simple brass seam binder. The result was quirky and bright.
To attach the flooring, we used our same glue we’d used for the Reflectix.
All in all, installing the linoleum and Marmoleum in our Econoline DIY campervan took less than a day altogether.
Our Ford Econoline campervan’s solar setup
Up until this point, we’d spent a few hundred dollars on wood, fabric, insulation, and astroturf, but we knew we were heading into the most expensive part of our DIY van build.
Nowadays, Rhody works in the solar industry.
He retrofitted our current truck camper with a solar system and it works like a dream.
At the time, however, both of us knew virtually nothing; Rhody packed sauerkraut, and I taught English, so anything involving electricity was downright terrifying to us both.
Although we felt overwhelmed by DIY campervan solar for our Ford Econoline, we also knew it was a must.
That’s why we opted for the easiest setup we could find – which was hands down the most expensive part of our build, coming out to around $1700 altogether.
We chose the Goal Zero Yeti 1000 battery, which is a self-contained portable power station that holds enough power to run everything we needed, even an Instant Pot, blender, or induction plate.
To charge it, we decided to use two Boulder 100 panels. We mounted them on top of the van using brackets.
Rhody then drilled a hole in the back of the van to slide the cords through, which we caulked shut.
The nice thing about the Goal Zero setup and other solar generators is that all you have to do is plug the panels directly into the battery, rather than buying separate converters and inverters, making it easy for people as inexperienced as we were.
Using the Goal Zero is an easy solar setup for beginers.
Now that we’ve learned more about solar, there’s a lot we could have done to save us a pretty penny, but this battery was incredible, and I still miss using my Instant Pot now that my current build can’t handle it.
Choosing the right bed and couch for our Ford Econoline camper
By this time, we were coming right up against the end of our lease without a place to sleep.
We really wanted a campervan bed design that could become a couch as well. That way, we could have the emotional separation of daytime and bedtime, as well as a little extra room to stretch on the floor.
But making a sleeper sofa in our Ford Econoline campervan conversion required time and expertise we just didn’t have.
Most futons need to be pushed back from the wall when they are turned into a bed, which wasn’t an option for our narrow cabin, and the other design plans were way too complicated for us.
On the night our lease ended, we had a bed to sleep on in our campervan.
So, with the crunch of time hurting more than the crunch of our budget, we sprang for an IKEA couch that converted into a bed without needing to move out from the wall.
When the couch was pulled open to become a bed, there were two deep storage wells underneath.
To make even more space, our friend Houston helped us raise this couch for extra storage, and on the day our lease ended, we built a frame to elevate the bed by about eight inches to slide boxes underneath, which we used as dresser drawers.
And so, on the night that our lease ended, we had a bed to sleep on in our Econoline campervan.
The bed was in, but our work was still cut out for us.
Our Econoline campervan conversion’s kitchen
We were grateful to have a place to sleep, but we still needed a place to cook, brush our teeth, and wash our faces in our Ford Econoline camper.
Thanks to our solar and battery rig, we already had a working minifridge we’d picked up from a yard sale. It was small enough to fit between the front seats and was an excellent armrest for when we drove, as well as a place to put the cutting board.
We needed a counter that would fit a sink and house our battery securely; at the time, it was just sitting behind the driver’s seat.
Luckily, we found an old cabinet from Goodwill that was the perfect fit and had plenty of space for everything we needed for our campervan kitchen.
We cut a hole in the wood countertop and popped in a collapsible sink, which we caulked into place. I then mosaiced the bottom to make it pretty, and Rhody figured out how to give us running water with a submersible pump and faucet specifically designed for RVs.
After popping the battery in, we separated it from the water system with a sealed wall, then secured the counter by bracketing it to the floor.
Finishing our Ford Econoline camper conversion doors
Once our necessities were taken care of, we could focus on aesthetics like the doors. For the past few months, they’d been covered with Reflectix, but now it was time to put wood on them.
To make wood pieces that molded to the doors, it took a lot of measuring (and remeasuring). We made stencils on red rosin paper, traced it onto wood, and cut it to fit.
Once we’d finally gotten the pieces right, we had to bend them to the awkward curves of the doors. To do that, we soaked the wood in hot water for several hours, then clamped it to the door and let it dry in place. Once that was done, we glued them down and screwed them in.
This wood was also secondhand and had some old paint splatters on it. To cover them, we used no-VOC paint in a soft yellow to open up the space.
Final touches on our Ford Econoline: The fun stuff!
With the doors done, it was finally time for the cute stuff. We hung a vintage curtain for the pantry, installed some cute storage containers above the sink, and put our trinkets in those shelves Rhody had made.
Most importantly, we had blackout curtains made for our windows. These were essential for stealth camping and privacy, as well as much-needed insulation for our van, which had windows on all sides.
If I could do my Ford Econoline camper conversion all over again…I would…
- It would have been smart to gut and insulate the front cab of our Ford Econoline camper conversion as well, or find some other solution to help keep us warm. Although we had a floor-to-ceiling insulated curtain, the cab sucked out a lot of the warmth in the winter.
- I would install a roof vent. We used a small fan and vented out a side window, which worked, but a roof vent would have made gas cooking an option and been wonderful for hot summer days.
- I would be more environmentally conscious. While many of our materials were secondhand, there were places that time, budget, and limited skills got the best of us. Totally zero waste conversions are tens of thousands of dollars (if not impossible), but in my next build, I hope to make wiser choices where I can.
Our van changed our lives and helped us save enough money to buy a truck camper with a bathroom, an oven, and a four-burner stove, which we’ve lived in full-time since January 2018.
Van life changed our lives. Everyone deserves to be set free from rent.
Van life and RVing don’t have to cost thousands and thousands of dollars, and we all deserve to be set free from rent.
What’s your budget like? Do you have van goals? I’d love to hear about it in the comments!
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In 2015, Nikita and her husband traveled for several months across the country in Bonnie, a 2004 E-250, bathing in nature, exploring sleepy towns, and selling herbal body products at the flea market. In 2017, they renovated Bonnie on a budget and lived in her full-time for five months before upgrading to Doug, their truck camper, where they’ve lived since January 2018. When she isn’t writing articles, Nikita can be found working on her novel, exploring, taking film photos, or cooking up a storm. She also writes for ethical.net.