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Van Life

The Beginning 

This is my new Ford E350, extended far enough to make a cozy home and far enough to make parallel parking impossible. Long story short, I've wanted to live in a van for a while and for a number of reasons. I was in transition, moving to Breck to learn Emergency Medicine and I wanted to own less and do more and pay less too. No one answered my Craigslist emails for actual rooms so I moved into the van, starting life anew as a modern outlaw. So far, a good decision!

Anyway, this article will simply show you some of my build process. I will submit other articles as life happens to me in my new home as well. So far I haven't had many issues finding suitable parking spaces or making the basics work out. I thought it would be more difficult; I hope I don't jinx myself by saying that. The essentials are pretty easy to come by: shower at the gym, use the toilet anywhere there is one; and maintain a sense of humor that can overcome any obstacle. In many ways life is the same, just old complications met with new simplicity. The first few days that I stayed in the van were rough. We had not finished out the build and she was just a cold white shell. I put my sleeping bag down on the floor and slept surprisingly well for that first week. I did panic for about an hour, realizing what I had committed to. I started to question my motives as I drove around looking for a parking spot for the night. I pulled in to a residential area and parked at one of the many open spots. I crept into the back, trying to pinpoint the feeling that I was having. It struck me that the feeling was one of consciousness and presence; I could not simply ignore life and float around unconsciously, as I had before.  In the act of finding a new spot to sleep every night I was becoming more conscious of my life and my priorities. At first, it was a little jarring, suddenly feeling like I had bitten off more than I could chew. This was a new feeling, one of fear and hope.

More to come on actual vanlife. For now check out the build!

1. Tear It All Out

As a starter, I recommend tearing everything out of your van. I had securing beams and a divider in mine, complete with rusty bolt: so rusty in fact, that when we went in with a breaker bar all but one bolt simply sheared off from pressure. There was also a sizable diamond pattern aluminum strip that was riveted into the floor. The easiest thing to do is to drill these out. I hope you don't have rivets because they leave a lot of holes. Regardless, you will want to pull everything off of your floor and walls. Make sure you have a nice tool set, including a good drill (and lots of bits/drivers), a breaker bar and ratchet with sockets and some wrenches in the same measurements as your sockets. Why? Well, often times you may have to use you ratchet and your wrench at the same time and in the same size. These are tools that any man should have, especially any man with a van.

The direct follow-up to this is to make sure you patch your holes and address any serious rust issues you may encounter on your floor, ceiling or van exterior. Rust is an insidious, slow moving poison to metal. Basically you need to grind/sand it off or chemically strip it. If there is a large hole caused by rust, you will need to fill it with epoxy or bondo and paint over that with the correct shade. My rust problem was localized to the roof, where two large holes had once housed what I have to assume was the worst venting system in the world. I sanded the rust off and used Rustoleoum White Enamel to paint over it in two coats. Using primer before hand is always a good idea when painting metal.

I'll address other smaller holes in #3...

 
This is a rivet: drill it out! Sorry about the picture quality.

This is a rivet: drill it out! Sorry about the picture quality.

 

2. Insulation

Insulation is a gigantic subject of contention in the van community and there is a lot to say. Read my article here: Van Insulation

3. Flooring

No holes in the floor! You can epoxy them shut with coins or like me, hammer cheap cabinet knobs through the holes and then epoxy them to the floor. If you have holes that are beyond a coin size, you could take sheet metal pieces and weld them or epoxy them over. Again, if you have a significant rust problem, get rid of it and repaint it with Rustoleum. We chose to go very simple on flooring. We bought thick rubber 2x3 foot mats and cut them into a template, which fit the floor really well. They serve as basic insulation and as a cheap under flooring. We could have cut out some plywood and most people do just that, but we chose to go simple. From there I cut out a rug to the exact area from where my bed began up to under the seats. We chose black to make sure that dirt didn't show up. The overwhelming benefit of this choice is its simplicity. It doesn't create the most even walking or kneeing surface since the matts were patterned, but it was cheap and I did it all in two hours of work! Plus it can be easily replaced with one trip to Lowe's.

 
New Black Rug Floor

New Black Rug Floor

 

4. Bed Frame

We built the bed frame out of a thick 3/4" maple plywood, 2x4s, decorative screws and cabinets. My preferred layout was a lengthwise bed that was at least 6.4 x 4 feet. If you can, you should consider going across your van in the back to have even more space, especially if you have a shorter van. I am 6' 2" so I needed the extra space. Besides, the most important thing in the van is your sleeping comfort, in my opinion. Storage space is important too, so I have a full bed to sleep on and a full storage area beneath. The process was really simple - put the forward cabinets in place and then place one plywood board over it, support that with a 2x4 temporarily and then add the other plywood board. My measurement was kind of shoddy so we ended up having no movement in the very rear of the van; the maple boards were exactly three feet across and would only come together evenly, if we pulled them up and closed them together like a bridge of cards. It was a blessing in disguise because it added extra support while we built the rest of the structure. Next we screwed 16" 2x4s together and put those along the under side of the frame, down the middle and up the sides.  

Note: Depending on the type and construction of the plywood you use, you may have to build a beefier frame. For example, check this out: 

http://www.instructables.com/id/Build-a-Bed-in-the-Back-of-your-Van/

 
Notice the basic 2x4 construction.

Notice the basic 2x4 construction.

 

I chose to use pre-made finished cabinets from Lowe's. The benefit is that they are sturdy, already finished, relatively cheap and will save you a lot of time. We supported the bed frame with two of them in the front, in between the wheel wells. Looks good huh? More on the finished look later. As far as material goes, I chose to use the maple plywood because it was super thick and it didn't smell like toxic fumes like some plywood does. You should definitely consider the health implications of everything you do in your van and buy the good stuff meant for indoor use even if it is more costly! The maple also looks nice; you can probably find it in most Lowe's stores. The 2x4s were cheap but strong and the screws I used were square drive finish screws. Final note, when making your bed, measure well and overbuild.

 
The cabinets in the front

The cabinets in the front

 

5. Storage

So, the big boy storage can be found under the bed frame. I chose to make the bed sixteen inches high because it allows me to fit a full sized storage bin and still have room for a snowboard to ride atop them. Any higher, I would lose the comfortable feeling of space when sleeping. Any less than 16 and I would be under-spaced for storage. Figure out your own needs. More space is generally good. If you have a high top or a sprinter van you can get away with a very tall storage area so utilize your van's capabilities. 

6. Walls and Ceiling

So by now you're asking why I haven't discussed the walls. The bed was too large to fit across and meet any new walling so we had to build the wall system around it. I wanted wood so we chose twelve foot cedar beams and installed those as you can see in the two previous pictures. We cut the planks out roughly with a jigsaw and screwed them in with self tapping screws. Make sure to screw into your ribs and not your outer shell! Unfortunately, we also tried to finish the cedar with stained Oil based Polyurethane. Bad idea. I was excited to get it all done since we had been on a roll. But soon after applying some of the finish, I could tell it was going to look pretty bad when stained. It was also really uneven due to our application. Most importantly, Oil based Poly off-gases toxic fume for months! Don't use it inside. A water based finish or something like boiled linseed oil is a better choice and will likely look better too.

In any case, we had to remove the old cedar and replace it with pine siding which looks just as cool and it was really cheap too. Seen below and in the cover picture:

 
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7. Cabinetry

Along with storage underneath your bed, you will want storage around the room. The bed cabinets are a big plus in this case for utilizing space effectively. My bed was around 6 feet across, so I chose to put cabinets on top of the bed frame along side my mattress. One problem, is that my mattress blocks them from opening fully, so I may raise them or alter the doors later on. The bed is still four feet wide with them up there, perfect for a full sized bed or a Magnum Crash Pad (my future plan). Secure them with basic screws technology.

 
On the left, bed cabinets

On the left, bed cabinets

 

8. Kitchen

I also needed cabinets to contain my Yeti cooler, camp stove and sink situation. We made this kitchen from Lowe's in just a day. We found a cabinet that could house the cooler and cut it down a little bit so it wasn't so tall. We then took another cabinet as seen on the left and made it into the grey water container for the sink. As you can see, a full Yeti 65 fits in there perfectly with stoves and gas. We secured these cabinets into the van's metal walls by using 2x4 spacers and three inch screws. So far nothing has brokenand they are as sturdy as ever.

 
 

The sink we chose is just a simple basin. We drilled a large snug hole for the piping and screwed the sink into the faux granite top through the wood of the cabinet. The securing rings of the drain actually hold the basin with no extra fastening! This basin is for washing dishes inside mainly even though I have to do it with cold water - a goddamned nightmare. I also don't have a water source yet so I use a gallon water jug.

 
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9. Doors and Windows

For your window insulation, your best bet is to use Reflectix. If you really need good heat maintenance inside, then you could potentially put styrofoam insulation in the windows and cover it all up. The Reflectix works well to keep excessive heat out of the van on hot days. I used the remaining pine paneling to cover the lower part of the doors and secured those with self tapping screws, an easy, hour long job for all 4 doors.

 
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10. Style Points

My original dream was to be able to fit my music equipment in the van which is why I bought such a long van. After a little finesse and rearrangement, I was able to install two full sized stereo speakers laying horizontally on the bed frame. I then put my record player and a guitar amp inside of the kitchen cabinet. It all fits pretty well, but with two concessions: my bed is no longer four feet wide, it is now three feet wide, and I can't store the cooler inside the main cabinet because that is now the home of the record player and amps. The cooler was a pain in the ass to open inside of that cabinet anyway so those are small sacrifices, considering that I can now play music at well beyond reasonable levels of volume and play along with an electric guitar and 40 watt amp. Totally worth it.