I love to camp. If there is a theme for the recreational portion of my early retirement, it would be camping: RVing, car camping, backpacking. You name it, I’ll go. It’s the simplicity, the self-sufficiency, the scenery . I started camping with my Dad and Scouts when I was a teenager and never stopped. Now it’s a dirt-cheap way to chase adventure in a frugal retirement.
But my camping experiences are evolving as I get older. And late last year I added another camping mode. The concept had been percolating for several years, though it took me a while to pull the threads together. It started with the desire for a vehicle with less overhead than our well-appointed Pleasure-Way Class B RV, but more comfort than could be had car camping in our Subaru Forester — especially for solo road trips.
I’ve spent a number of nights sleeping in the back of the Forester with the seat folded down, but it’s claustrophobic and awkward. You have to wrap yourself around any other gear, and can’t even sit upright. Our Pleasure-Way, great as it is for longer road trips with the two of us, is a project: I figure at least a full day, often more, to get it fully checked out and packed before heading out, and then a half-day to clean up at the end of a trip. That’s a lot of overhead for short camping trips or me alone.
The solution crystallized while driving home from our final trip of 2019, late last October: I wanted a camping vehicle that provided a comfortable mobile bed and office, and would be quick to set up and take down. No tanks to fill or dump. Easy to drive. Maneuverable in small mountain parking lots. Safe for “stealth” camping along the road. Better gas mileage for solo trips. And common enough to get serviced anywhere….
My first thought was a used Mercedes Sprinter/4×4 cargo van. Right now, this is the hip outdoor adventure vehicle. It has efficient diesel power, can go just about anywhere, carries a big payload, and is very popular with the adventure travel crowd.
But when I started shopping last fall, even the used prices were shocking. There wasn’t much availability, and it was tough to find anything under about $70K. I could afford that, but it seemed like a lot of money to throw at a new toy I wasn’t even certain how much I’d use.
I was really hoping for a fully-equipped cost of less than $30K. A lot of money to be sure, but more reasonable. However, that clearly wasn’t going to happen with a Sprinter, unless I bought a very high-mileage vehicle which would likely come with maintenance issues.
Beyond that, I started reading mixed reviews about the reliability of certain Sprinter years. Then I started considering just how much space I really needed on my own. Finally there was my lack of appetite for a major construction project — renovating the interior of a large van. So, I began looking at more compact 2WD models…
I had noticed dozens of the white Ford Transit Connect cargo vans around town, typically in use as delivery vehicles for small businesses. We’ve owned many Fords over the years and have been happy with them, so that was my starting point. I test drove the Transit Connect and liked it. The specs for the long wheel base (LWB) model were good for use as a solo camper: cargo length more than 7 feet so I could fit a full-length bed, 50″ height so I could sit comfortably without my head hitting the ceiling, and a hefty 1500 lb. payload. I shopped used models, which were plentiful, but the savings were underwhelming. Then I found the exact options I wanted on a new vehicle at a nearby dealer, with end-of-the year pricing about $4K below sticker. So, I could get a brand new vehicle with full warranty in the low $20’s and start out well under budget for my project. I bought.
(Honorable mention also goes to the Nissan NV200 which I test drove during the process. I actually liked the way it handled a little better than the Ford. The cargo dimensions were slightly different, with a bit more headroom, but less length than the Ford. But I perceived, perhaps wrongly in retrospect, that there were fewer Nissans on the road and they might be hard to get worked on. I knew the Ford was a sure bet. So I went that way. Note: You might also investigate the RAM Promaster City if you’re in the market for a small cargo van.)
So, in late November, I found myself driving home a brand new, bare-bones cargo van. The cold steel walls, unfinished behind the front seats, gave little clue of the possibilities. Many questions were unanswered. What next?
Most people embarking on a camper van project are excited by the possibilities for creating a cozy home on the road with plush interior and all the amenities. See Bearfoot Theory for the possibilities of such a project.
But I’ve been there/done that. Our 2006 Pleasure-Way has most of the bells and whistles, and we’ve spent years customizing it for comfort on the road. I’ve already got a plush camping vehicle.
This one would be different. It would be much simpler and be much lower in cost. Further, there would be just the minimal conveniences for solo camping. Unfinished interior, no running water, minimal temperature control.
Rather than a beautiful trophy home on the road, I had in mind a cheap but functional rustic camping cabin on wheels. Maybe over time I would upgrade to more luxurious permanent fixtures. But this was an experiment. At the start I wanted a cheap and flexible setup, so I could optimize and make changes after I had used the camper more.
Due to that philosophy and a desire to maximize interior space — I couldn’t afford to give up a single inch in height or width — I decided early on against any insulation or finished walls. It was going to be an industrial look for me. Based on my reading and personal experience, insulation is overrated for occasional use anyway. It can be nice in the winter if you expect to spend many cold days in your rig. But in the summer it tends to retain heat and slow down cooling. At any rate, I would save myself some time and money by skipping interior work.
I sold the majority of my tools when we downsized years ago, and no longer enjoy a spacious garage for extended car projects. So I would contract out the difficult work, and do the rest myself with minimal tools.
I knew from the start I would need to add screened windows and a roof fan to my new little rig. We have them in our Pleasure-Way and they are absolutely essential to maintaining a comfortable environment in the warmer months.
Though I toyed with doing the work myself, cutting into my van’s sheet metal body with hand tools would require a great deal of time consuming setup and no margin for error. Likewise, while I could probably cobble together a solar electrical system like I did for our larger van, I wanted this one to be fully integrated and up to all the codes.
These seemed like jobs for a professional, somebody who does this kind of work all the time.
With some searching on the Internet, I located the right people for the job, an easy day’s drive away from me: Contravans in Denver, Colorado. They specialize in small van conversions. The prompt and detailed response to my email from Kurt, the General Manager, confirmed that I was in the right place.
Kurt worked with me over a period of several months and countless emails to custom design the ventilation and 12V solar electrical systems for my van. His knowledge was comprehensive, and he treated the smallest details like it was his own project. In addition to the windows and roof fan, we specified an electrical system consisting of a 100W flexible roof-mounted solar panel, 100 amp-Hour battery, PWM charge controller with BlueTooth, fuse panel, battery separator, battery box, alternator charging, and a 600W inverter.
I showed up for the install in the middle of a winter storm, but Kurt and his crew were ready to go to work. They accomplished the entire job, an amazing amount of work, in one day. They walked me through all the new systems and answered all my questions. The workmanship was first rate, like a factory install, and exactly as I had requested down to the smallest details. My van looked great and operated well. And the price was very reasonable.
Kurt and team at Contravans are one of the smartest, most capable, and most detail-oriented shops I’ve ever dealt with. These guys could probably be building jet airplanes, but they’ve chosen to specialize in small vans. If you need any kind of conversion work done on a small van, reach out to Kurt at firstname.lastname@example.org. You’ll be glad you did. (And no, we do not have any affiliate or business relationship with Contravans.)
My biggest do-it-yourself project for the van was to install two circuits of dimmable LED lighting, so I could illuminate the interior as desired 24/7.
Kurt at Contravans helpfully specified the parts for me. After a few days of part-time work, I had a tasteful lighting system installed, controlled by discrete dimmer switches mounted to an interior panel of the van.
One of the most important tips that Kurt gave me was to use automotive-style heat-shrink wiring connectors throughout. These are designed to resist vibration, whereas typical wire nuts would eventually jiggle loose on the road.
For mounting the LED lights to the unfinished ceiling of the van, I used Neodymium disc magnets with double-sided tape. They don’t damage the ceiling and so far have been holding the relatively lightweight lights perfectly in place.
Perhaps the most important function of this van is providing a safe and comfortable place to sleep. I could eventually build a permanent bed, but while still perfecting the floor plan, I decided to go with a foldable cot. After reviewing a number of candidates on Amazon, the TETON Sports Somnia Camp Cot seemed to have the best profile. The reviews are mixed, but I’ve found it perfect for my needs — lightweight and exactly the right height for sleeping or sitting.
Note, when choosing a bed for a van or truck, not only are you concerned with how it fits into the floor space and against the wheel well, but you must also think about the height off the floor, if you intend to sit on it regularly. Given limited headroom, you want it low enough that you can sit up straight without your head touching the ceiling, but you don’t want it so low that your legs are cramped.
I place a thick blanket and Therm-a-Rest sleeping pad on top of the cot to provide more insulation and cushion between me and items stored underneath. And I use a few pillows for back support when sitting.
Almost as important as a bed to me was having a desk arrangement, so that I could take care of writing and email chores in a safe, climate-controlled space while on the road. The Lifetime adjustable folding table meets my needs perfectly. When deployed toward the back of the van, it makes a perfect desktop, with me sitting on the cot. When deployed on the ground just outside the van’s sliding door, it makes a perfect kitchen/dining table, with me seated on the floor of the van, feet on the ground. When folded up, it stows in very little space, shock-corded to the interior side of the van.
To live and make effective use of any small space, storage is critical. Contravans and others provide beautiful built-in cabinetry for small van living. However, the price tag is high for such custom woodwork, and I didn’t want to lock in my floor plan just yet, if ever.
I lucked out in that the space under my cot is just the right size to fit six standard issue milk crates. These are hidden by the cot flap/pocket when not in use, then slide out relatively easily for accessing tools, supplies, heater, clothes, kitchen gear, and food items.
For shelving, I installed simple magnetic wire baskets and magnetic spice rack organizers. These attach securely to the back sides of the van, and hold small items well, requiring no modification or damage to the sheet metal.
For holding beverages out of harm’s way, I installed a magnetic cup holder.
And for hanging clothing, towels, and packs, I use sturdy plastic S hooks in the various factory holes and cavities at the tops of the walls.
For privacy and a dark sleeping environment, effective window coverings are essential for van living.
I made a single large curtain that covers the windshield and side windows up front. The fabric is a heavy room-darkening material — cloth on one side/vinyl on the other — that I found at Jo-Ann Fabrics. I use small stainless steel clip/hooks and nylon cord to attach the curtain to visors and grab handles, plus a bit of Velcro to secure them to the front insides of the sliding doors. This achieves a nearly light-tight seal that lets me sleep well under the brightest roadside lights.
For the back screened windows I use commercial sunshields to which I epoxied ceramic magnets. These install/uninstall easily over the windows, providing both insulation from the sun during the day and light blocking at night, while still allowing for air flow. They fold for compact storage when not in use.
Other than occasionally heating up water for a hot drink or instant meal, I do not cook inside this van. Space is limited and I don’t want the associated smells or potential mess.
I do have a very functional 16-quart portable refrigerator that runs off of 12V power. This technology has come a very long way in the last decade. The fridge easily keeps food cold, or even frozen if you want, and uses minimal power. As long as I’m getting a few hours of sunlight or driving a few miles every day, the solar battery system will supply plenty of power for keeping food fresh on an extended road trip. The compact unit fits perfectly behind the driver’s seat, at the foot of the cot.
For cooking, I have two options: gas or electric. When I just need a cup or two of hot water, especially when on the move, I might use my electric kettle.
For more involved meals, I’ll set up my folding table and cook outside with a propane burner.
Younger campers might forgo bathroom facilities in a van this size. But as a seasoned traveler, I find that having a toilet onboard is essential to comfort and safety, especially in times with public health concerns.
Thetford offers a range of time-tested models to choose from. Their Porta Potti 135 is simple to use and maintain, and fits perfectly under the end of the cot.
Having a partly temperature controlled environment is essential to my comfort and productivity when traveling in the shoulder seasons.
Though caution and prudence are required, it is possible to safely heat the interior of a small vehicle while stationary with certain properly designed portable propane heaters. I use the Little Buddy from Mr. Heater. On my last winter trip, I could work in comfort for several hours in the evenings, though temperatures plunged into the 20’s outside.
You do need to use the heat sparingly, or you will go through a lot of propane cartridges. And I can’t yet report on the long-term reliability of the Little Buddy. It began cutting off unexpectedly late in the season. Though a burner cleaning seemed to fix the issue, I haven’t been able to test it at length since.
If you are going to try heating a small living space with a portable propane heater, you must have proper ventilation. (Read the instructions for your unit.) I always leave a window or vent cracked, and I never sleep with the heat on. Also, two other pieces of safety equipment are highly advised: a combination smoke/CO detector and a fire extinguisher.
At this point, my little van conversion project is essentially complete. I don’t plan any more major new additions.
Having spent several weeks on the road in my van now, I have no regrets about not finishing the interior. Closed up, the van still filters out most road and campground noise, and holds heat well enough. I have seen a bit of condensation on certain cold nights, but it quickly dries out in the morning. This little van is not a full-time rig for me, or anything close. I might eventually try to spruce up the interior a bit, but, for its intended purpose, it’s perfectly comfortable now.
I had a 2″ factory hitch receiver installed by Ford, and currently use it for a bike rack. If I eventually need more storage, I’ll explore a hitch cargo carrier or roof racks. But, on my trips so far, I’ve had enough space for me and my gear.
The front-wheel drive Transit Connect is not as nimble as a 4×4 Sprinter would have been on rough dirt roads. I’d love a high-clearance AWD version of my van, if it existed. But taking a camper into jeep terrain is not something I enjoy much. And I’ve now driven the little van at least a hundred miles on dirt roads, including some high clearance ones. With careful piloting, it will get you there and back.
All things considered, I can report that my little rig is a joy to drive and camp in — fuel efficient (30 mpg+ on the highway), functional, and comfortable. It gives me a sheltered space and all the essential amenities for life on the road. And is much less overhead for short or solo trips than a full-size RV.
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[The founder of CanIRetireYet.com, Darrow Kirkpatrick relied on a modest lifestyle, high savings rate, and simple passive index investing to retire at age 50 from a career as a civil and software engineer. He has been quoted or published in The Wall Street Journal, MarketWatch, Kiplinger, The Huffington Post, Consumer Reports, and Money Magazine among others. His books include Retiring Sooner: How to Accelerate Your Financial Independence and Can I Retire Yet? How to Make the Biggest Financial Decision of the Rest of Your Life.]
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