How to Build a Travel Van on a Budget
Nick Uthe & gang resting with an incredible view of the Canadian Rockies.
Facing challenges head on is a surefire way to get closer to your dreams. Through this practice, you will notice they’re more attainable than you ever could have imagined. Over the years I've tried my best to practice this discipline and when I eventually found my mind drifting into the #vanlife space I knew another challenge was afoot. I had never owned a van let alone a conversion van, so constructing my own from scratch was going to take a lot of thought, time, and effort. By not over thinking and just jumping in you're really just skipping the non-productive, worrying, and self-doubt stage. If you’re an established working professional and in need of a luxurious feature rich Sprinter Van, this article is not for you. This was my first conversion van project while working part time in college. I had little to no budget for my van but I desperately wanted to travel North America. If you're like me at the time, spontaneous, in need of travel, have a love for the outdoors, and a thin wallet, this guide will get you on the road faster than you can imagine. A life on the road is special. I could argue enjoying new experiences and places with people you love is what life's all about.
Our mission today is to break the stereotype that travel needs to be expensive. Growing up with few material possessions molded my mind in a way to be creative and fortunate for the things I did have, and thoughtfully pursue the things that I still desired. Depending on your circumstances, and what you want out of your travel experiences, it’s important to scale your lifestyle according to your current financial reality. I truly believe you can get the same cultured experiences whether you’re car camping or flying to Singapore to have brunch with the Prime Minister. When I started out, I didn't need plane tickets, five-star hotels, or expensive dinners to be happy. All I needed was my rusted 1992 Honda Accord, some tunes, and an open mind to drive off into the sunset with. This is attainable for the majority of the population and I recommend it for any young travelers out there. I’m going to walk you through my first conversion van build, how much it cost me for the vehicle and upgrades, how much time it took, and what I would do differently next time. I didn’t include the cost of tools because my family had access to much that I needed, but through minimal networking effort you most likely could get the tools you need for free as well.
Explore GrandTaiga’s About Page to engage with our journey that came after this conversion van was completed. See all the stops and hear personal accounts from the people aboard.
Step 1: Purchase a Van
$3,000 + 20 Hours of Work
First let's run through the most important questions to ask yourself. What's your budget and how many people are going to be traveling with you? I knew from the start of my build that I would have at least two other people with me so many of my decisions were based on that prioritization. I knew my trip would be fast paced and I’d have a lot of extra camping and camera gear so I knew it’d be best to keep the cabin space open with a focus on in-out accessibility. Another key item on my list was the vehicle's reliability rating over 150,000 miles. I remember searching vigorously for which vehicle manufacturer people had better luck with and after sifting through all the noise my research pointed towards a Chevy Express. So, from that point on I decided to focus only on those specific models. After some considerable digging on craigslist and searching for used cars online, I found a local plumbing business that was selling a 2004 Chevy Express 3500. It came with a complete repair log, had only 180,000 miles on it (this was considered low mileage within my price range), little to no rust on the exterior, the cargo space still had stock shelving (this is important because I knew I’d be able to sell the steel units for a good chunk of change), and a few more items I couldn’t pass up. At all times during the purchasing process, it's important to remember you’re going to be driving this vehicle all over the country and you need to feel confident it won't break down on you. So, if you’re nickel and diming at certain price points, it’s generally a better idea to shift extra funds into the vehicle up front rather than be hit by a stressful repair while on the road. The van was posted for $3,500 and after some negotiation I proudly drove it home for $3,000. It took about two weeks of searching online every day. If you have any mechanic friends, reach out to them and let them know you’re in the market for the right van at the right price, this could save on time. In comparison to the entire build process, acquiring the van on a budget was most likely the hardest part because it was so time consuming to do the proper research, consult with experienced mechanics, and to make sure I walked away having made a great decision.
Just last year, Taiga Team Player Jacob Johnston got a 2012 Mercedes-Benz Sprinter for $12,000 but he got a loan with no money down for $200 a month, which he pays in lieu of paying rent. The Benz was a good fit for Jake because since he lives in it half the year, it accommodates his queen mattress which he “needs'' and is tall enough for him to stand up in, which is important because he hates hitting his head on things. In comparison to similar sized vans, the deciding factor for the Benz was that it was the only comparable make that had the option of 4 wheel drive which Jake knew he would need for his level of adventuring. The lesson here is that everyone is different, and there are so many different vans, there's a solution for everyone if you look hard enough.
Step 2: Clear out and Clean
$23 + 10 Hours of Work
With the van purchase out of the way it’s important to strip and clean the interior to start out with a fresh canvas. The van I purchased came with all the standard work van essentials like racks on the roof, three steel shelving units, and a steel door leading to the cockpit. Even with the help of my friend, Sam Axness, it ended up taking far longer than we expected. By the end of the day, it took us about nine hours to remove it all, as well as grind and scrub off all the rust and dirt entangled in small crevasses. Part of the reason it took so long was because many of the bolts that held the shelving to the ground were rusted into the frame so there wasn’t a better option other than bending and breaking the bolts to get them out. Bending small radiused steel objects without power tools is a literal grind! After having gone through this, I’d say look out for any excessive rust in the cargo space when considering purchasing a specific van, but it's really something you can't avoid if you plan to look at older vehicles. By the end of this milestone, the dent to my wallet was relatively nonexistent. We used old tools my family had lying around and for the entire cleanup we only needed primer, paint, and a metal brush to restore the rooftop storage racks. Polishing up the racks wasn't all that necessary, but I’m a photographer, I knew the racks would show up in photos and I wanted my new home on wheels to look sharp! Not only was it fun and cost effective to bring new life to them but we also needed them installed so we could mount our roof top tent to them.
Step 3: Electrical Updates
$350 + 15 Hours of Work
Now that your canvas is primed it's time to paint and create. Many traveler types like to shoot photography in some form. Whether your weapon of choice is a hipster Fujifilm, a luxurious 1DX, or Apple's newest iPhone, there is nothing worse than having dead batteries when you need your equipment to function. After all, I was preparing this build primarily for a large media excursion, so it was a high stakes priority to make sure there was adequate power to charge all of our electronics. This was another part of the build I was completely unfamiliar with so I tried to tap as many knowledgeable friends as I could and spend additional time researching myself. In the end I found a 400-watt power inverter and paired it with a hybrid boat battery. Boat batteries are lead acid batteries, meaning they work well for charging low voltage equipment. The hybrid battery is a good way to go because the internal makeup can handle frequent charge situations better than some of the basic options. Another great option to budget for are lithium batteries, they have many more benefits and will last much longer depending on your planned duration on the road. Again, at the time I didn't need top of the line equipment nor could I afford it. After making my decision, I tapped my mechanical friends for the installation and minor welding to stabilize the battery directly behind the driver’s seat. Another upgrade on my to-do list was fixing the broken overhead lighting in the cargo space. This ended up being a quick fix after simply replacing it with a basic ten-dollar fixture I found online. Lastly, music is so important on the road! I wasn't about to travel 10,000 plus miles without a proper stereo and speaker system! I replaced the factory system and upgraded to a mid-level pioneer stereo and 6.5” car speakers. The sound quality was more than I needed. The van was now ready for the many nights spent passing the aux cord back and forth!
Step 4: Seats & Accessories
$90 + 15 Hours of Work
This is a portion of the build that will vary significantly from person to person. I was bringing along two other guys, so our biggest priority was to be extremely efficient with space. Not only because we'd all be living in close quarters, but we also had a ton of gear to find storage space for. The front seats came in relatively good condition. The driver side seat had a big chunk taken out of it, but I was able to fix and fill it in by stuffing it with foam I picked up from a local hardware store. Since I enclosed the foam with duct tape, I also added seat covers for the much-needed aesthetic upgrade. Next, I installed a row of seats behind the cockpit gifted to me by my father-in-law. This was an epic addition considering they were brand new taken from a Chevy Suburban. I acknowledge this portion could have been a lot more expensive, but sometimes you luck out. After drilling a few holes in the frame and fitting large shock resistant steel bolts through the base of the seats, the back row was in place and by most standards, looking pretty sharp! Besides this installation, there were a few other issues that needed shaping up. The rear license plate plastic cap was cracked, and the interior rear door was missing some paneling. Luckily, Chevy van parts were abundant in nearby auto salvages. After a few calls I had no problem tracking down the parts I needed. The parts cost me less than $30 total.
Another item that required personal consideration is the type of privacy you’ll require on the road. Are you going to be sleeping in a campground or stealth camping? In our case, we planned to do both with an emphasis on the latter. Since we weren’t going to build out the interior with insulation and finished windows, installing shades to block the existing windows was the best route. This allowed us to catch some much-needed ZZZ’s during the day and feel that much safer sleeping at night knowing there was no possibility of prying eyes. For this quick fix my wife used some ingenuity by creating window covers from an old black sheet and sewing magnets into the corners so the covers could easily stick to the metal walls. This ended up being a very effective and efficient upgrade. Overall, we kept this section of the build frugal and only included the features we knew we’d absolutely need. It ended up taking a lot of time but we gained momentum and it was fun to see the van start to take shape.
Step 5: Building the Interior
$100 + 10 Hours of Work
Building the interior can be an extremely comprehensive task depending on your intended use. As I mentioned above, I was sure it wasn’t in our cards to insulate or upgrade the living space to that of a manufactured camper. My goal was to make it comfortable, sleepable, storage accessible, and able to power electronics. For added comfort be sure to reinvest the money you save into low temperature sleeping bags. Prior to purchasing the van, one of the first things I did was grab a piece of paper and a pen and began to sketch out exactly what I had envisioned the van living space to look like. After a few days of oscillating thought I decided it would be best to build a wooden single sleeper bench behind the Suburban seats and then focus on storage shelving.
"If you’ve reached this point on the checklist, you're doing great and you're almost free to hit the road! Not to mention you've gotten much farther than a lot of people that have had this dream in mind."
If you don't personally own hand tools this is where you'll need to reach out to some friends that do, if you’re kind, many people will be more than willing to offer their help. It’s important to remember to send the postcards while on your adventure, to all the people that helped you. Once I designed the space, I got the dimensions for the furniture, then it was time to pick up the supplies. I went to our local home improvement store, and purchased plywood, screws, light walnut stain, and some clear gloss polymer. As I started building, I changed some concepts with my initial design, I suspected this would be the case. One of my last-minute changes I was happy with was to add end caps to the rear facing side of the bench and shelving units. It purposely made the furniture look like one unit and gave the overall design a much more finished feel.
Final Cost and Hours Spent
$3,563 + 70 Plus Hours of Work
The above list is everything we did to the van, other than jam-pack it full of food, bags, and camping gear. It was neither complex, nor luxurious. I didn’t want it to be either. With the help of friends and family, we ended up creating an adventuremobile that could be ready on a moment’s notice. We didn't have the funds to deck it out with running water, stoves or other privileges but hopefully after checking out the story on our About Page my point is clear. You do not need an abundance of money to make your great ideas a reality. You don’t need to go in on every gear release, you don’t need all the cool new gadgets to have an extraordinary time. You just need to embrace whatever challenge presents itself to the best of your ability. Our van build was extremely minimalist when compared to others you might see online or on the road, but it was all we needed to put together a legendary road trip across North America and Canada. Sure, we had our struggles, as every great adventure should have, but we made it work and in the end it was more than we could have asked for. I hope more of you are able to expand your travel ideas, so you can be free to travel more. Society is constantly setting unattainable standards. If we all looked at what we really want to do with our time rather than what we think we should accumulate with time, more of us would be on track for happiness. We accomplished this exact sediment. Our goal was to be practical with this build but to also have a fun and cozy interior to enjoy.
What I’d Do Differently Next Time & Cost of Repairs On the Road
In an effort to help you learn from our mistakes, if we had to do it all again, we would make a few changes to this basic build. We would have invested more time picking a better placement for the battery and installing additional 12-volt plugins. The placement we chose took up too much footroom and every square inch of your van matters when living in close quarters. We actually had so much gear (cameras, batteries, accessories, laptops, phones, etc.) that needed to be charged that we had to stop at coffee shops more than we would have liked to get us back to equilibrium.
Our stereo system worked wonderfully, but the LED lights on the front were extremely bright for night driving. On top of that, the actual installation of the unit was the least fun portion of the entire conversion, so much so that I’m planning on never having to do it again. It involved ripping the entire dashboard off and contorting my body in ways it was not meant to go. If you don’t know what you’re doing when it comes to switching out stereos, I’d recommend outsourcing it if you can!
Since we ended up using the rooftop tent far less than we should have, all three of us rotated our sleeping locations from the cabin space bench, to the Suburban seats, to shotgun up front. Knowing this was going to be our routine, I would have built a custom fitted box to go at the end of the Suburban seats and brought a foldaway mattress to extend our leg room.
By the end of the 50 day trip and 10,000 miles later, we’d made three stops at mechanic shops and dealerships to address mechanical issues. Our power steering went out, read Stranded in Quebec for the full backstory, this was entirely our fault. We had a scary ball bearing burst momentarily sending us into oncoming traffic. The last big repair we had to make was replacing our alternator. In total the repairs did not cost us more than $1,500 dollars.
10,000 miles later, we faced and conquered so many challenges together, and are stronger for it. We sacrificed a few months of our time leading up to live a lifetime of adventure. That’s a trade-off I’ll always be interested in making. If you’re interested in vanlife, it’s entirely attainable no matter your financial situation. No matter what stage you’re in the process, keep going, and keep searching for resources like this. There’s many solutions for many different people. Don’t let anything get in the way of living your dream. See you out there!