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I live on a sailboat, but I’ve had a fascination with van life for awhile now, ever since one of my favorite bloggers, Kristen Borr of The Barefoot Theory, moved out of her apartment and into a camper van conversion. So, I dream about one day having a camper van of my own, a “land yacht” for exploring national parks and being in the mountains and trees.
Camper van conversions can really run the gamut, from a luxury Sprinter Van conversion done by a company that could cost you up to $150,000, to a simple DIY cargo van conversion that will only be $1,000.
The type of conversion you pick will largely have to do with budget and what type of van you want, so I decided to look into both types of conversions, from a fancy one to a budget one.
Hiring a Sprinter van conversion company
I caught up with Thomas Townsend, who’s been running Townsend Travel Trailers out of Santa Barbara, California for two years now, to ask him about hiring a company to do a camper van conversion.
He said his company almost exclusively works on Mercedes Sprinter vans, 2007 and newer.
“They are an asset because they don’t go down in value that much,” he told me. “It’s something you can use, get enjoyment out of and its low maintenance. The Sprinter is best in terms of engine and price, and the interior is designed in a great way to build upon.”
You first have to pick which Sprinter van you want. The shortest one is 144 inches, and the longest is a 170-inch extended. The shortest van has a living space that’s 11 feet long by 6 feet wide, and the longest one’s living space is 15 feet long and 6 feet wide.
How to choose your build
“Typically it boils down to how you’re going to use it,” he said. “How long you’re going to be on the road, what type of person you are, what type of gear you want to store. You may or may not need a bathroom and a shower. What type of galley, what type of heating, do you want hot water, things like that.”
He said their price range really runs the gamut. Many Sprinter vans cost between $45,000-$55,000 and the interiors can range from $30,000-$150,000.
“You want to maximize the space; you don’t want anything extraneous,” he said. “If you can get by without taking a shower, it’s best to eliminate that. If someone wants to live on the road full-time we focus on creating a Class C RV that’s compatible with an RV park, with gray water tanks, fresh water tanks, heated air and water. If you want to stop at an RV park, you can plug in, drain tanks, fill-up water and connect to shore power.”
The vans are also designed to last for two to three weeks off-grid.
“For water you’d have 30-50 gallons of fresh water on board that can last for three weeks. You then catch the gray water in a tank so you don’t have to dump it into the environment,” he said. “For power, we get power from solar which charges lithium batteries and the alternator. With on-demand power in the middle of nowhere, you can run blenders, and even heating systems that run off diesel. You can also have hot water….it takes 1 gallon of gas for 15 to 20 hours of hot water and air.”
The benefits of a custom van conversion
While the price tag for paying a company to convert a Sprinter van may seem really high, it does come with certain benefits.
Thomas said all his vans come with a 3-year, 36,000 mile warranty.
“Your van is also in compliance, we’re building a tested, quality vehicle. It’s an asset,” he said. “If someone builds it themselves and has no proof of concept it’s not worth as much. You’re almost devaluing your vehicle initially.”
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Townsend Travel Trailers mostly builds with aluminum, composites and powdered coating for finishes. Not water-based because they scratch too easily.
“That’s the difference between us and a DIY person. They’ll use standard home techniques and haven’t gone through the testing and applications that we have,” he said.
Also, if a van designed by Townsend Travel Trailers is side-swiped, for example, it’s built so the interior is broken down into pieces. The van can dismantle in 5 hours down to bare metal if you need to get in there and fix something.
If I had the money, I’d love to buy a Sprinter van and have it converted by a reputable company. They would know way more than me and would probably build a safer, more beautiful camper van. But, it’s very expensive, and I know I don’t, and many people don’t, have the cash for that type of conversion.
The DIY camper van conversion
A DIY camper van build-out is much more affordable, which is why Benjamin McConkey, 30, and Alison Westfall, 30, of HeyVoyager.com went the opposite route of a hiring a company to do a custom-build. They thought Sprinter Vans were too expensive, so ended up paying $5,000 for a white utility van that you see electricians and plumbers driving around.
“They are reliable vans, they are meant to haul heavy equipment or tools so we liked the idea that it was durable,” said Alison.
How they picked their design
The couple is from Calgary, Alberta and wanted a camper van conversion that would last them for a six month trip driving around the United States. They wanted simplicity, with just a bed, couch and storage.
Benjamin sent me an email with their design considerations:
- a table that faced the window so that we could enjoy the view
- a bed height where we had enough headroom while still maximizing the amount of storage underneath the seat.
- to access storage, the wooden slats are hinged at the back and can be lifted up.
- regarding our kitchen, we built a small side table in the side door purposely placed to be right next to our cooler and pantry shelves (white plastic ‘dresser’). When we don’t have a picnic table, we place our camping propane stove on the side table and have easy access to our kitchen items
- for bathroom needs we purchased a small emergency potty, which can be folded down to five inches high and fits underneath the pantry.
How they built their camper van conversion
They watched YouTube videos, read blogs, and relied on Alison’s father to help them with the build.
“Neither of us had an experience doing renovation before, so it was overwhelming at first,” said Alison. “My dad helped us quite a bit, guiding us when it comes to tools, how to install our flooring, the design, the insulation.”
But the two eventually put their van together, with a whopping price tag of only $1,000.
They even put together a guide on how to do your own custom van build, which you can check out here: Van Conversion Guide.Couple converts utility van into home for just $1,000. How they did it.Click To Tweet
So, they put together an e-book they hope helps others take the leap and do a camper van conversion.
“We don’t have solar panels, we don’t have a stove, no sink with running water,” said Alison. “We hope people will get that it’s not intimidating.”
Their biggest challenge
The couple said their biggest challenge into going into van life wasn’t necessarily the build.
“Making the jump to do this was the most challenging,” Ben said. “We’d been wanting to do a trip and build a van for a long time, so making that initial leap was the biggest challenge mentally. Then, it was the design. Just wanting to make sure we thought of everything.”
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Alison said it was hard to anticipate what their daily life would be like, and what it would be like living in a space so small.
“We really learned to work together,” she said. “The biggest thing aside from the actual conversion was that it’s the first big project we’ve tackled together. It really strengthened how well we work together and communicate. We learned a lot about each other.”
Living the van life
The two have done three months of their journey so far, traveling through the American southwest. Next, they are headed to the West Coast of the United States, to explore coastlines, mountains and valleys.
Alison said it was the perfect time in their lives to travel.
“We always had joked that we’d be this retired couple who travels, and then we didn’t want to wait until we’re retired!” she said. “Especially with the hiking and outdoors stuff, we wanted to do it now. It’s been such a nice mental break.”'We were going to be this retired couple who travels, but then figured, why not do it now?' Click To Tweet
As you can see, there are a lot of ways you can build out a camper van, from an ultra-luxurious custom build-out, to something cheaper that you can figure out on your own. Just like there’s no one way to live the van life, there’s no one way to build out your dream home.
I think seeing how people do it is so inspiring! Hopefully, I’ll get to try out van life one day myself.