Van Improvements Part 1 - Making it Livable

Before we talk van improvements, it's important to understand where we started and why we picked our van. When it came to choosing the vessel for our journey, we decided to look for a converted van on an American-made chassis. Our reasons were simple:

  1. It gave us a good foundation to start with, but we could still make it our own (we got onboard propane, water and power when we bought it…at a fraction of the cost if we installed everything new).
  2. If we break down, parts and labor are cheaper than imported vans (and easier to find on the road). 
  3. They don't carry an expensive price tag, so you get a lot for your money. 

The idea of starting a build out with an old cargo van was really appealing (especially since we love a good project and have a background in construction), but living in SF with no garage space made that too difficult. So, we found our match on Craigslist in Monterey, CA...a 1992 Ford e250 camper van that was converted by Sportsmobile.

 The first day with the van, cruising up Hwy 1

The first day with the van, cruising up Hwy 1

While we were lucky enough to find a van that suited our needs, there was still A LOT of room for improvement. The inside was full of old dusty upholstery, a microwave, a TV, and too much random clutter from the previous owner, Gary. Also, it wasn't nearly ready to be lived in full time. We found an outdoor parking space in a sketchy storage yard on Treasure Island (amongst old burner mobiles and school buses), and got to work. The first thing we did was rip out the TV. 

After the initial "get Gary out of the van" deconstruction phase, we began to plan more thoughtfully what our mini home would look like. We had lots of grand, silly and dumb ideas (onboard kegerator), but a month-long roadtrip across the southwest really set us in the right direction. Those few weeks were invaluable, and it gave us a good idea of what we needed (and what we didn't) for living in it full time. We owned the van for over a year before we departed, so we spent many nights and weekends making “van improvements” to get her ready for the trip, and here are some of the highlights that we thought others would find valuable: 

Roof Rack

We knew we needed to maximize our storage, and putting in a roof rack was our first step. This is actually really tricky on vans with raised hard-tops, and there are very few bolt-on solutions. After thoroughly researching all the options (including extendable rain gutter mounted racks), we decided that drilling the roof and mounting a custom track system was the best for our oddly shaped situation. This gave us the freedom to move the crossbars to whatever position we needed, and we could also use wider crossbars that extended beyond the narrow footprint of the van's roof. We went with a Yakima 54" Hardtop Track Kit and installed it ourselves…which saved us hundreds of dollars compared to getting it done at a shop.  This also meant that we made a surprise trip to the hardware store with holes in the roof when we found out the supplied bolts weren’t long enough. It’s all sealed up using marine epoxy and has been watertight ever since.

Solar Shower

During our test trip around the southwest, we realized that we needed one important thing...a shower. We didn't want to completely rely on campground showers or other ways to get clean, especially when you've gotta pay for them. After looking into heat exchanger showers (which are expensive and don't have the best reviews), we decided to keep it simple and build a solar shower. This way only cost us around $50, and it keeps our water storage on the roof (as opposed to keeping gallons of water inside the van). We found a great write up on WheresMyOfficeNow's blog on DIY solar showers, and we were set to get started. A lot of folks have asked us about ours, so we decided to include a diagram to show in detail how it's built (below). The whole unit holds about 5 gallons of water, and gets us about 3 or 4 showers. When it's time to get clean, we simply hook up a cheap 12v air compressor to the schrader valve, and attach a hose with a garden sprayer to the other! 

shower diagram.jpg
 Work in progress, about to epoxy the spicket and schrader valve to the end caps before gluing them onto the ends of the shower.

Work in progress, about to epoxy the spicket and schrader valve to the end caps before gluing them onto the ends of the shower.

 Solar shower or potato gun? Here it is freshly mounted on top. We know it's obnoxious, and we like it ;).

Solar shower or potato gun? Here it is freshly mounted on top. We know it's obnoxious, and we like it ;).

 The solar shower in action! We used it all summer as we traveled along the west coast and up into Canada.

The solar shower in action! We used it all summer as we traveled along the west coast and up into Canada.

Solar Panel/Roof Box

We needed a cargo box to store our outdoor gear, AND we needed a solar panel to charge our house batteries. Those two things can take up the entire surface area of a van roof, plus we had a vent fan to contend with as well. After researching and diagraming every possible configuration, we decided to go for it and mount the solar panel on the cargo box. 

 Scale diagrams of different layouts of our roof with the cargo box, solar panel and vent fan.

Scale diagrams of different layouts of our roof with the cargo box, solar panel and vent fan.

We looked for long/skinny cargo boxes on Craigslist for months, and eventually the perfect one popped up: a Packasport 60. It only cost us around $150 (plus we had to replace a few parts) so we saved a lot of money versus buying one new. These boxes are made of fiberglass (super sturdy compared to ABS plastic) so we could securely drill holes for the solar mounts, and the top is very flat and smooth for a better mounting surface. We used a total of 6 “L” brackets to secure the panel to the cargo box lid, along with lock-nuts, rubber washers and epoxy to keep things tight and waterproof. The solar panel cables are routed through the box and out through the bottom to minimize exposure to weather, and we added quick-disconnects below the cargo box so we can quickly remove the whole box/panel in one swoop. We use a Renogy 100w solar panel, which runs wiring down to a Renogy charge controller, and then onward to our three 12v deep cycle batteries.

We’ve put over 15,000 miles on this setup…and even through heavy highway winds and washboard dirt roads, it hasn’t cracked or weakened (and if it did, we’d just repair it with fiberglass epoxy anyhow 😉 )

Guac Table

After a fruitless search for a folding outdoor table that would fit in our van, we had to get creative.  We realized that if we attached the table to the van, then our storage problem was solved!  We saw something similar on an RV, but needed it to be more flexible for all the uneven campsites and roadsides we’d find on our trip.  We decided to mount it to the door so we can swivel the table to the best position, and used a folding adjustable table leg to make sure the table was level on any surface.  We secured the hinges to the metal door frame using self drilling sheet metal screws and keep the table folded up with a simple gate latch. This has been one of our favorite additions to the van, and whenever the weather’s nice, we eat every meal out there.  It’s also our go-to spot for our favorite treat: guacamole! 

Bed/Crash Pad

We knew we wanted to go bouldering on our trip, but there was absolutely no room for a crash pad in the van…unless we integrated it into our bed. While lots of people sleep on their crash pads, there aren’t many that can fit two people.  After researching how to make our own (and finding that surprisingly costly), a friend ended up telling us about the largest one on the market, a Metolius Magnum.  This baby is 6ft x 4ft, and happened to fit almost perfectly in the back of our van.  The van came with a “booth” setup that converted to a bed, but it was horribly uncomfortable so it was an easy decision to rip it out.  Then we made a flat bed platform, put down the crash pad, and added a few inches of memory foam to make it super comfy. Here’s how we use it when we’re at a climbing spot: 

 Progress shot. Taken just after we finished cutting down our memory foam pad, so it clearly shows how it sits atop the crash pad.

Progress shot. Taken just after we finished cutting down our memory foam pad, so it clearly shows how it sits atop the crash pad.

Night Light

One of our last minute additions was a “night light”, and it has proved to be a valuable piece of our little home. If someone needs to get up in the middle of the night, it’s nice to not blind yourself and your partner if you need to find your shoes so you can go take a whizz. The red light doesn’t affect your night vision, so you can go right back to sleep afterward. Also, we found this light to be invaluable for stealth camping. Turns out you can’t see the red light from the outside, so we can keep it on while we get settled before bed without worrying about getting a knock on the window. We found these 12" light strips for just a few bucks on Amazon.

Party Lights

The absolute last thing on our to-do list turned out to be the most fun. Some cheap LED light strips we ordered online turn the van into instant party mode, best paired with funk music. Also, when some over-zealous person decides to tailgate us at night, Sarah likes to flip the lights on…which usually makes them back off real quick ;) . Click play on the video below to see how they work!

Thanks for reading through all our van improvements, and leave us a comment or send us an email if you have any questions. We hope this was able to help some of you out or spark a new idea for your van. Our next van improvements post will be about "Making It a Home", and include all the little details to make our space more cozy and secure. Cheers!

FYI: This post contains links to some of the gear we use everyday, and purchasing them will give us a small commission to help fund our travels at no cost to you. Thanks for supporting our journey!