A nifty, low-cost camper van conversion

I’ve long wanted a travel trailer or small camper, something Miss D. and I can use for weekend getaways, or even for a week or longer.  However, it’s been financially impossible for us, and looks like it’ll be that way for some time.

Nevertheless, I keep my eyes open for good ideas in that area.  I was struck by this article about a low-cost conversion of a 2017 Ram cargo van.  It’s filled with interesting touches and useful ideas, as well as lots of photographs.  Here’s an excerpt.

When we bought her, our immediate thought was to hire professionals to build it for us knowing how little experience we have in building anything! We called a few companies who builds camper vans and realized just how expensive it is. So we’re down to doing it ourselves as our only practical choice!

As I mentioned earlier, my husband and I have zero knowledge in building anything! Well, except for a few Ikea cabinets he’s assembled in the past! So we thought why not use Ikea in building our van?! Not only is it inexpensive but also easy to build and mount!

We had to figure out what we wanted to have in the van based on the lifestyle we plan on living. Aside from the obvious things like the kitchen and bed, we added a desk, shower, cabinets and drawers to our must-have list. We had to assess what things we’re bringing in the van and how much storage we really needed.

. . .

Most floor plans for self-converted camper vans will have the bed sitting on a high platform in the rear by the back doors. The best part of this layout is the amount of space under the bed where some use to install custom drawers and cabinets. For our floor plan, we’ve decided on placing the bed behind the cockpit purely because we didn’t want to have to build a platform. Unfortunately, because of the wheels in the back, a platform is necessary to fit a bed. As it turned out, this made the van seem more spacious with the kitchen the rear! Also, we’ve been able to take incredibly beautiful pictures with this layout! The spacious hallway (as I call it) gives room for incredible photos when the back doors are open! Similarly,  we’ve been able to take dramatic photos laying down in our beds when the side sliding door is open! Also, I really like that I can open 2 back doors in the rear kitchen while cooking! It helps aerate the van!  Lastly, our bed has the best vantage point whichever side the scenery is! While laying down, depending on where the best view is, we can open either doors to take it all in!

Initially, we wanted to have a small shower for when we are on long road trips but still have to decide if we really need it or not! The space where our fridge is placed is where we intended the shower to be in. So far, 5 months into van-living, we don’t have a pressing need for a shower. We mostly have gyms where we go and have taken showers outside our van using a portable shower when in state and national parks.

There’s more at the link.

The beauty of this conversion is, one can do it to almost any van, not just a more modern unit like the Ram (which I really like, BTW – I just can’t afford one!).  The article provides links to the furniture and accessories at Ikea, which was very useful.  (I had no idea that a tiny, compact kitchen unit existed until I read about it there.  I could build that into a writer’s shed outside.  Hmmm . . . )

This is also useful information if you want to put together some sort of bug-out vehicle for the family.  A decent-size van like the Ram (particularly a model with a higher roof, and/or in its 2500 or 3500 higher-capacity versions) could tow a 1-ton or 2-ton cargo trailer with no trouble at all.  This conversion, plus the trailer, would give you sleeping space for a couple or small family (a lot sturdier and more secure than a pop-up tent-sided camper), plus the ability to take essential supplies with you.  That’s not a bad idea at all.

Peter

11 comments

  1. The modern Euro-style full size vans are very nice. Especially the cargo versions like shown. They come in normal or high-roof versions.

    Ford or Ram, either one. Rams are front-wheel drive (yes, on a full-sized van) and Fords come either 2 wheel or 4 wheel drive (I think all-wheel actually.)

    The interior being plain helps. All that mounting room.

    A simple ‘camping van’ can be made out of any full size or medium size van by fitting the rear area with a bedframe that fits the area. Either queen size or full size. Put the frame on stilts tall enough to jack the frame up high enough to slide your favorite sized plastic tote (like those black ones with yellow lids) under it. Put a futon or a regular matress on the frame (with wood slats covered in plywood, or really thick plywood) and ‘voila’ you have an instant stealth camper. Soft stuff goes on top of the bed, hard stuff and coolers under.

    For years before I had to switch to a wheelchair carrying van, that’s how wife and I rolled across America. Set up a pop-up pavilion over the rear for cooking under and we ran our Econoline van to death doing that.

    Cheaper and less time intensive just using the bedframe and totes way. Though we always talked about converting it much like the one in the article.

    Seriously, if you can’t fit a full-size Ram Promaster (Make and model) try the Ram Promaster City (the Promaster’s little brother.) I’ve got one that if the back wasn’t fitted for an elevated dog bed (baby mattress on a raised platform, we store emergency equipment and such underneath) and behind that the storage for the power chair, manual ramp, and a bunch of those black stackable totes with yellow lids. If we didn’t have the wheelchair, we’d have a bedframe back there with storage underneath.

  2. Insulate (floor, ceiling, walls) or be VERY uncomfortable in either hot or cold. The OEM HVAC are insufficient to keep an uninsulated cargo area temperate. Two-inch styro board is (fairly) easy to work with, and not moisture labile.

    Ventilate. Moisture will increase from human respiration. A quiet 12 volt ceiling exhaust fan (Fan-tastic or Max Air) will work very well.

    Hygiene. Maintain it or suffer the consequences. A small-supply hot/cold water system is easy. Flat or shaped poly tanks holding 20-50 gallon are easy to work into a floor plan (think about creating a (removable) plywood platform floor above the existing floor with mechanical systems underneath of it). An external shower shelter and coiled shower hose system with quick attach/detach are standard accessories from RV equipment vendors. A high quality water heater that operates flawlessly on low flow, with excellent engineering is the Truma Aquago Basic https://www.truma.net/water-systems/truma-aquago-basic

    Having hot water for hand-washing is a basic hygiene requirement; for showers it will earn its weight in gold even for a “navy” shower.

    All of this is doable; perform it in sequenced stages as the budget permits.

  3. I have my father’s wheelchair modified Dodge Grand Caravan, and am setting it up for travel. It’s much less ambitious than this setup. A bed, a cooler, some storage bins, a propane tank with a single burner stove and a camp shower bag.
    It’s only for one person, and my minivan is a lot smaller than that cargo van.

  4. I would be concerned about using typical IKEA furniture because they are mostly made from particle board with just enough fasteners to withstand normal household use. Mobile use requires the ability to withstand vibrations and impacts. I have toted lots of sound equipment for years in a trailer, and nothing beats E-track for securing heavy equipment in a vehicle. I would use at least 2 or 3 horizontal rows of E-track around the interior to hold everything in place.

  5. A neighbor (who was already quite “handy”) enlisted the paid services of a carpenter who had done contract work for an outfit that built food trucks to help with his conversion van. The expense was worth it in time saved, and by pitching in to help I learned a lot in the process.
    Thoughts:
    * Ceiling height is worth paying for.
    *Don’t ignore GOOD insulation and venting.
    * The roof needs to be sturdy enough to accommodate a roof rack for light bulk storage. It’s also where the AC needs to go, don’t forget long HD power cords.
    *Fold-up solar panels help a lot, and include lots of power ports to make “charging while driving” easier.
    *Never pass an opportunity to tour a boat, esp. sailboats (and everyone else’s conversion van). They’re full of proven ideas on how to make stuff fit into small spaces and still be easily usable. Steal good ideas wherever you find them.
    *WWII submarines had fold-up sinks to save space; tough to engineer cheaply, easier if you remember the drain does NOT have to be in the center and that ribbed hoses are flexible and stretch slightly.
    *4WD/AWD adds cost, weight and maintenance workload; RWD and a good set of reinforced chains can go almost anywhere 4WD can; make a “chain installer” – 3/4 plywood with 2X6 blocks spaced to match the chain crosslinks – lay chain on the installer, drive up on it.
    *Inboard fuel tanks for boats come in lots of sizes, he found 2 that fit perfectly between the frame and exterior bodywork to hold a total of 40 gallons of water.
    *Design the plumbing to have everything esp. pumps and connections easily accessible.
    *Brackets on the exterior for sun awnings, shower curtains, etc. are valuable. *Waterproof material on a window shade spring roller can be used as a water shield for showers.
    *A “Trucker’s GPS” costs more, but has a bigger display and provides a LOT more info about road/traffic and amenities than standard car GPS.
    *”Sitting and Thinking” is a productive activity.

  6. Theres a number of different ways you can go. My preference is tow vehicle and trailer. I don’t care for motor homes, I prefer the option of dropping the trailer and fleeing. At this time we have a 2013 Chevy traverse with 5200 lb. towing capacity and a 19 foot gulfstream “vintage” camper which weighs in at 3600 lbs. I absolutely am not touting this as an ideal rig but it was a learning experience. While I really like the chevy traverse, its an ideal everyday car for us, we use it for local driving, running back and forth to Detroit area with grand kids, dogs and cats and stuff ( 240 mi. Round trip). We use it for Michigan camping, we dont have to load up the trailer which takes us too close to max. Next vehicle will be a crewcab pickup wit 10,000 lb towing capacity. Another thing I learned was camping trailer companies tend to put the lightest axles and wheels they can get away with on camping trailers. You cant load a camper down like a work trailer, that was brought home to me last year in Georgia when a wheel blew off the trailer at 65mph. I also learned load leveler hitches and anti sway bars are good to have. We have taken the trailer to florida twice and its very handy to pull over in a rest area and have your own bathroom, kitchen and bed.

  7. We did a very quick and inexpensive conversion to an 83 Diesel VW Vannagon.

    The center and rear seats came out, we added a 2×4 and plywood platform flush with the engine cover, just big enough that we could toss a queen sized mattress on it. It was open to the front and door side of the van and had hinges and a prop so we could get to the space from the top too.

    Wife made curtains that went up with the pop-rivet screw inserts. I found a icebox to sit behind the driver’s seat and porta-potty that would fit under the platform. Total investment aside from the van and our spare-bedroom’s mattress was under $100.

    We took several long multi-day trips in it during nicer weather, the VW’s heat output was pitiful and it had no air-conditioner so we avoided inclement temps.

  8. For a fee you can always take a hot shower at a truck stop. At the Loves stations, the showers are cleaned after each use. Don’t know what it costs though.

  9. Suburban: The IKEA stuff the website specifies is bent-tubing furniture with metal flat surfaces. It’s surprisingly lightweight but sturdy. As long as the furniture is fastened well to the van’s framework (especially with some rubber gaskets between furniture and van) there should be no issue.

    Vibration is a serious issue with any conversion. I’ve always gone with weight and self-standing, rather than fixed fixtures. But I’ve always been able to remove my furniture and put it into a tent or stacked in the garage so I could use the van as a van for moving and picking up stuff from hardware store and such.

  10. Well-done project but I would not put the bed up front, it inhibits access from the seats to the rear.

    If you’re tall the bed has to go lengthwise not crosswise.

    Include the largest water tank you can fit under the bed, as close to the vehicle centerline as you can. Mine is 30 gallons.

    A roof vent with fan is necessary as mentioned in earlier comment. A second vent or openable window makes it safe to use a stove or propane heater (but do not use propane appliances when sleeping).

    Use a big ice chest with built in drain.

    The single-most beneficial mod is a swivel base for the passenger seat so it can be rear-facing.

    I camperized a Chevy G20 high-roof van for a little over $1k.

    Don in Oregon

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