So you wanna live the vanlife but you have a super tiny budget and you need a quick turnaround? And on top of that, you don't have a ton of tools or experience with this type of campervan conversion?
Is this too much to ask?
Not at all!
We bought a van (that was in dire need of some TLC) for cheap, and transformed it into a livable home in less than one week of working time. Plus, this was our very first time doing anything like this and we had very few tools to use.
If we can do it, so can you.
In this article, we have laid out exactly how we built our DIY campervan fast and cheap so you can follow in our footsteps.
DIY Campervan Table of Contents: If you know what you are looking for, click the link below and jump down the page.
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Campervan conversion inspiration
Let me start by saying that our campervan conversion was not super luxurious. No wood floors or raised ceilings or skylights. We didn't have a bathroom, nor did we have a generator with electricity. (Ben quickly crushed these dreams of mine once he figured out how much they would cost and how much effort it would take.)
You can scroll through Instagram profiles of people who've spent years and thousands upon thousands of dollars to create super luxurious campvervan conversions. They are frickin' awesome.
Take a look at some of these, and you'll be floored by how people can transform a tiny space when given enough time and money.
Our campervan conversion was cute, functional, comfortable, and it felt like home. We made it fast and cheap with few tools. But luxurious it was not.
We were incredible happy with how it turned out and can't think of much we would change with the time and budget constraints we had.
Below is our finished product: Our beloved "Vinny the Van". Not as fancy as those pictured above, but not too shabby!
We had an incredible summer traveling with Vinny. We made it through 8 western states and even up to Canada. If you want more inspiration to build your own campervan, take a peak at our West Coast Campervan Trip Video below.
Campervan Road Trip Video:
For those of you who, like us, don't have tons of time or money, we are here to share exactly how you can make your own DIY campervan from square one in less than a week and on a tiny budget.
We're also going to break down exactly how much each of these steps cost us so you have an idea of what to expect. If you have ever thought of doing a campervan conversion (or know of someone who's thinking of making the plunge), you won't want to miss this!
Don’t have time to DIY your own Campervan?
If you don’t have the time (or interest!) in building your own conversion but you still want to give van life a test drive, we’ve got an idea for you! We’d recommend getting a rental vehicle from Escape Campervans. They have 10 different locations across North America and come fully loaded with all the gear you need for an epic road trip. Plus, their rates are fair and affordable.
BONUS: We’ve partnered with them to give you a 10% off discount when you use the code WANDERING10.
Step 1: Buy a van
Well duh, right? Hold up for a minute... there's a little more to buying a van than just shelling out some cash.
First, decide what your budget is and start searching right away! Even if you're not able to purchase a van right now, knowing the market and how quickly things sell is helpful. Get an idea of makes and models you like, and you'll also start to understand what is a good price for a van in your area. Each country, region and city is a bit different.
Don't be afraid to widen your search a little bit, too. We ended up driving about 3 hours from where we live to pick up our van because the prices are super high in our area.
We used Craigslist to find our van, but reaching out to friends and family is a good idea, too. You may be surprised at the connections you have.
Important things to think about when purchasing a used van:
Mileage and age of the car are both obvious things to consider, but here are a few other things to think about when buying a used van.
Tires: How are the treads? Will they need to be replaced? If so, use this as a way to negotiate price.
Air conditioning and Heat: Do they work well? Living in a space without AC or heat can be very uncomfortable and fixing these systems can be difficult and expensive.
Clearance: Check out how low the van is to the ground. There are some campsites and "off the beaten path" roads that will be difficult to navigate if your vehicle has low clearance. This is a good thing to keep in mind when purchasing a campervan or RV.
Noises: Listen to the engine as it's shifting gears. Any unknown noises can be a sign of a problem that'll need to be fixed.
Leaks: If the van has been sitting for a while, look underneath and search for any signs of leaks. Some leaks are easily fixed, but others can be expensive. You'll want to know what you're getting into.
Brakes: Make sure the pads aren't too worn down and that they don't squeak when pressure is applied.
4WD vs. RWD: This isn't a make or break, but it's a good thing to know before buying. RWD will not be the best come wintertime (if you're in places where it will snow). That said, our van was a rear wheel drive and it made it up many mountain passes in the summertime.
MPG: I'm going to be blunt and tell you that you're not going to find a campervan -- no matter how new or expensive -- that has great gas mileage. When you're driving your home, the miles per gallon are going to be lower than with a typical car. But it's good to ask the previous owner what type of mileage they were getting so you have an idea of what to expect. As a benchmark, our 1994 Chevy G20 got between 15 - 18 miles per gallon. Certainly not great, but there are worse out there.
How much does buying a used van cost?
We paid $2,000 for our used van. It is a 1994 Chevy G20 Van with 85,000 miles (super low!). We also had to pay $310 for the title transfer and registration (Washington has notoriously high fees for this service).
As mentioned above, the market for this type of van will vary depending on which area you're searching. Prices may be a bit higher or lower, but this should give you an idea to start with.
Step 2: Gut and clean
Chances are that if you are buying an inexpensive used van, there will be some initial work to do to get it all cleaned out.
Gutting: We actually took on a pretty big project when we bought our van because it came with a preinstalled wheelchair lift that we had to remove. Unbolting all the parts took both of us working on it for a full day, and it wasn't the most glamorous job. The good part was that we were able to sell the lift and the reclining bench seat for a combined total of $260. If there's anything to remove from your van, do this first.
Tip: Try selling any valuable items on Craigslist - you never know what people around you may be searching for!
Cleaning: When we bought our van, the interior wasn't much to look at. The carpet was covered in a layer of dog hair, and mold had started to form in the windows after sitting unused by the coast. And let's just say the smell wasn't great...
We used Arm & Hammer carpet cleaner, a vacuum and a hard bristle brush to get the smells and grime out of the carpet. Then we used Simple Green to deep clean all the van's hard surfaces. We bought a small air freshener and left the doors open for several hours, and it smelled brand new!
How much did the gutting and cleaning cost?
We bought a couple cleaning products, totaling $7.83, but since we sold the wheelchair lift and bench seat, we actually made back some money here. This may not be the case for everyone though.
To give you a better estimate, we did not take into account the money we earned on these sales.
Step 3: Take measurements
The next step is to measure everything in your car: length, width and height obviously, but also take measurements of the wheel wells and the windows. Also, many cars bow out slightly so the width will vary from the floor, to the center, to the ceiling. Getting all the measurements will the next steps as simple as possible.
Step 4: Make a plan
Now it's time to make a plan. Ask yourself what is important to you in a campervan:
storage for adventure gear
space for a pet
a desk to do work on
a "nook" space to relax in
Once you know your top priorities, you can start thinking about the space each element can take up and where it should go. It is like putting the pieces of a puzzle together when you're working with a small space, so don't get frustrated if it doesn't work out right away. And know that you'll likely have to make some sacrifices. Play with a few options, and choose the one that works best for your situation.
Start drawing out some basic plans using the measurements you took in Step #3.
Step 5: Build the foundation
This is where you'll get to work with your hands (and get them dirty, if you're doing it right!).
With the measurements of the van, we created a bed platform using plywood, 2x4's and 2x6's. Ben also made a kitchen counter that holds a stove, cutting boards and our functional sink.
Project #1: How to make your own campervan bed platform
We wanted to make a platform that not only supported a full-size bed, but also had tons of storage space underneath for all our gear. We are sharing our step-by-step instructions so you can build your own bed platform.
How much did our campervan bed platform cost?
We had some wood laying around our house, but we paid about $35 for all the plywood and 2x4's at Home Depot. Also, we were lucky enough that a friend had a full mattress she wanted to get rid of, so that part was free for us.
Tip: If you can't find a real mattress that's in your budget, you could always look for futon mattresses or thick foam padding.
How long did it take to make?
We had to come up with a custom plan for the bed frame to fit exactly in our car. Once we had the plans and the lumber, Ben measured, cut and assembled the bed frame in about 4 hours.
Project #2: How to make your own campervan kitchen
We love to cook, so having a kitchen -- however tiny -- inside our campervan was a huge plus. We (aka Ben) built a simple countertop that held a Coleman 2-burner stove, a small cutting board, a working sink, and a water container. Plus, there's plenty of storage space below!
How much did our DIY campervan kitchen cost?
How long did it take to make?
We put a lot less thought into the kitchen counter compared to the bed frame, because it basically is a flat table with four legs. The only tricky part was getting the sink hole to fit the sink nice and snug. in total, it took about 2 hours. Take a look at our step by step tutorial on how to make a campervan kitchen.
Step 6: Make your own curtains
We love natural light as much as anyone, and the big windows in our van were something we were super excited about. But when you're living in a van, you'll want some privacy. Trust me. You'll also need curtains to keep out the lights when you're trying to sleep. Making your own curtains can seem like a daunting task, but it's not all that hard. (I speak as someone who had to look up a tutorial to operate a sewing machine!)
Project #3: How to make your own campervan curtains
After a bit of trial and error, we kind of perfected the process and we have put together a step-by-step DIY tutorial so you can make your own campervan curtains too!
How much did our DIY campervan curtains cost?
With the thrift store sheets, thread, picture wire, screws and velcro, we spent a total of $26 for all our curtains. This cost will be higher if you get your fabric from a craft store.
Step 7: Don't forget about the basics
When you're living in a campervan, there are some things you'll want to think about before hitting the road. Here are some things to consider:
1. How will we get power to charge your electronics in the van?
We did a lot of research and landed on the Bestek 300W Power Inverter. We usually had our devices plugged in while we were driving so they'd be charged by the time we parked for the night. And if we were ever really in a pinch, we would plug it in for 10 minutes with the car off, then another 10 minutes with the car running until it was sufficiently charged.
If you have more time and a higher budget, why not consider adding solar panels to your campervan!
2. How will you light your campervan at night?
We bought a pack of battery-powered push lights that lasted 3 months and are still going strong.
We have a solar powered lantern, Luci, that we left on the dashboard while we were driving. It inflates and gives off tons of light at night. Perfect for the campervan and brining on any backcountry trips we did along the way.
We also had small, LED powered fairy lights in the back of our campervan that gave off a nice glow if we wanted to read or watch a movie at night. (And did I mention, they're super cute?!)
3. How will you wash clothes in your campervan?
Over our 3-month road trip, we went to 1 laundromat and washed clothes at a few friends' houses.
Most often though, we washed our clothes by hand. We either washed them in our sink, which conveniently has a drain stopper, or we took them into restrooms when we showered and washed them then.
We use Dr. Bronners as laundry detergent and dish soap. It has tons of uses, is biodegradable and lasts a super long time.
We made a laundry line by stringing up a clothesline and fastening it to the ceiling. We bought clothespins to secure our clothes. This worked wonderfully because we could wash a few items in the morning and they'd be dry before evening.
4. How will you keep cool on hot days? (Or warm in the wintertime)
We were traveling in the summertime, so we only had to worry about how to keep cool. (Though there were quite a few chilly nights in Washington where we had to bundle up at night!)
We bought two fans, each with a different purpose:
USB fan: At night, we set this beside us and plugged it into our Anker charger. It would run all night and keep us cool.
Chargeable fan: We had a small handheld fan that is more portable and if charged, doesn't need to be plugged in. We found that it didn't last as long though, so it was nice to have both as backups.
Step 8: Go shopping for all the essentials
Now that most of the hard work is done, you're going to need to make a list of all the essential items you'll need to make your campervan a livable space. We have a complete list of all the items we packed inside our campervan, but here are some of the basics:
Coleman propane (you can find a 2-pack for $6 at Target or Walmart)
Check out our ultimate campervan packing list for even more ideas of what to bring.
Money-saving tip: Try shopping at thrift stores and you'll be surprised by how many of these items you'll find for super cheap. And if you want to buy them new but are on a budget, try Target or Walmart. (As much as I hate to admit it, Walmart actually does have a pretty decent selection of inexpensive camping gear.)
Step 9: Find a place for everything in the campervan
Without organization, living in a van can feel cluttered and chaotic, so you'll want to make the most of your storage space. This is a good time to make sure you've paired down your belongings to a reasonable amount and to make sure everything has a place. (As a former engineer who loves making things as efficient and optimized as possible, this was Ben's favorite step!)
Here are some of our favorite campervan storage tips:
1. Underneath the bed is a great spot for clothes, camp chairs and all other big things.
Make the best use of this space with clear plastic containers:
We used the containers from a 3-tiered drawer to store toiletries and pantry items.
We used one large but shallow plastic container (minus the lid) to keep our clothes. We put all of our clothes into packing cubes first to keep them better organized and compressed, then placed them into the container for easy access.
2. Use a behind-the-door-organizer to hold kitchen supplies, like spices and oil. Hanging this on the back of the driver's seat will maximize your space.
3. Make the most of your vertical space. We hung a laundry bag for dirty clothes and hung a shoe rack from our ceiling.
4. Get creative about your storage space. We turned a cheap laundry bag into a double level produce holder. Here are the simple steps:
I started by sewing in a line completely across the bag. (I sewed in the shape of a slightly concave arc instead of straight, and reinforced it a few times.)
Then I made a horizontal cut in one side of the bag near the middle.
Lately, we hung it from the van's ceiling.
It's as simple as that! We were careful not to put too many vegetables or fruit inside at once so that it didn't tear, but it was a nice place to store fresh produce!
Step 10: Make it feel like "home"
This was the step I was most excited about, but Ben kept telling me to wait until everything else was done. And he was right, of course. Since we were working on a small budget, we frequented the thrift stores near us to find lots of little touches that make our van feel like home.
I found a cute set of pillows for $1.50 each, a mirror for $1.25 and seat cushions that worked perfectly in our "nook" for a total of $12. It's certainly not necessary, but I loved our $5 battery-run fairy lights that gave our back door a little personality! (Ben came around to loving them too!)
Cute, Easy and Cheap Mason jar storage project
One of my favorite projects was making a place to store our toothbrushes and other odds and ends using Mason jars, an old scrap of wood and hose clamps.
You can make this fun and practical addition in less than 20 minutes! Simply use screws to attach the hose clamps around the necks of the Mason jars to the wood (measure first so it fits the jars and inside your campervan). Make sure they're secure and you're all done!
Start small in this category, because as we've learned, keeping it simple and uncluttered will make it feel bigger and more like home.
What products do we recommend for a campervan conversion?
Campervan kitchen sink - This is the perfect size for what we needed and has a stopper drain. We bought it online at Bed, Bath and Beyond, but you can find it on Amazon too.
Coleman Stove - When it comes to camping stoves, you can't get better than a Coleman 2-burner stove. This stove make it easy to cook inside (with the windows open) or move it to a campground picnic table. Make sure to pick up the portable propane tanks.
Hanging shoe storage - Get some use out of your vertical space in your van and hang one of these bad boys from the ceiling so you can easily store shoes or other supplies.
Behind the door organizer - Hanging behind the driver's seat right next to "kitchen" makes this convenient for spices and oils. It's a great way to stay organized and make use of vertical space.
Ottoman with storage - Doubling as a coffee table, this ottoman comes in handy to store jackets, blankets and other puffy gear.
Packing cubes - We never leave home without them. In the van, you'll have to keep things organized and packing cubes work the best to keep your clothes compact and in one place.
Trashcan - You will definitely want a trashcan with a lid. Trust us. Choose a small trashcan so it doesn't take up much space, and you can use reuse plastic bags from the grocery store as garbage bags. Also, you'll want to empty it frequently to prevent your van from smelling, so the small size helps you keep on top of this.
Tip #1: We secured our trashcan to the kitchen counter using a bungee cord so it didn't move around while we were on the road.
Tip #2: If you are concerned about your trashcan smelling up your tiny home, sprinkle some baking soda in the bottom of the trash can. You can also keep a dryer sheet in the bottom before lining it with a plastic bag.
How much does a campervan conversion cost?
By now, you might be trying to tally up all our costs to get an idea of the grand total. Don't worry, we'll tell you how much it all added up to so you don't have to strain your brain.
Our grand total for the van AND everything it took to convert it into a livable space adds up to $2,900.96.
Here is the breakdown:
$310.25 Van title and tabs (in most states, this cost will be cheaper)
$58.31 Auto parts and fixes
$7.83 Cleaning supplies
$50 Lumber and screws
$32.68 Curtain supplies
$23.78 Kitchen sink
$408.51 Gear and miscellaneous (aka pots, pans, cutlery, camp chairs, stove, carpet, etc.)
Not too shabby, huh? While buying a new camper or doing a "fancy" conversion can cost a hefty sum, it certainly is possible to live the van life on a small budget.
Now you know how to convert your campervan, all you need is a travel partner. But before you hit the road, be sure to run these questions by that special someone to avoid complete breakdowns.
How much does daily van life cost?
We kept track of every single expense while we were on the road, from gas, to ice, to coffee. In this article we share those costs and the breakdown of all our expenses on the road soon so you can get an idea of what daily van life costs.