Van Life Without the Fancy Conversion:
Despite what social media would like you to believe, van life does not require a $30,000 startup fee. It’s not cheap but you definitely don’t need the latest cabinet finish, or that $1000 composting toilet you've seen online. A comfortable place to sleep, a way to keep perishable food cold, and a reliable vehicle are the basics. Just like your home now, you didn't move in fully furnished, everything as you like it, ready to go. It was built over time, with your lifestyle.
When you start your van life conversion it’s important to know what basic activities you’ll be scheduling for yourself. This will help you better know what items are necessities for your adVANture. For our van “conversion” we planned on staying mostly urban, lots of boon docking. We do day hikes often, but we usually don’t stay in rural camping areas. Our van life family consists of myself, my hubby, our 3 year old son, and our 60 lb dog Kaya.
Our vehicle, “Hercules Mulligan” (Yes... I am a huge fan of Hamilton. In fact, it’s officially, unofficially, the soundtrack to our adVANture) a 2002 Dodge 3500 Maxi Van. 15 passenger. All white. With a conversion top it makes the standing room inside exactly 6 feet. We have 2 captains chairs in the front, and one bench seat (the second to last row) intact.
We bought our van for $3200 on Craigslist after months of searching, and manifesting of the perfect vehicle to fit our needs. It had 92,000 miles on it. The exterior, where the conversion top was added, was pretty rusty so we spent another $1700 on a paint job. It wasn’t the best paint job available so we will probably need another one in a year or so. Also we have one small leak by the door from the conversion top install as well. We’ll need to patch that before the major rains start, but it’s been great for summer because it allows a little extra air flow when we sleep :). We opted to not install vents in efforts to remain as stealth as possible.
After the van was painted we had new tires put on for $600. We also had belts and hoses replaced, along with brakes and an oil change. There were no major mechanical issues so we were pretty excited about that.
Onto the inside:
The Fridge - A 3-day Coleman. We originally added 2 bags of ice with each fill up of fresh fruit and hummus and such, but we learned that if we bought less food at a time we could buy one bag of ice and keep everything sufficiently cold. We keep all our food in rubbermaid containers inside the cooler to keep it from getting waterlogged as the ice melts. We buy a 10 lb bag of ice every other day. The price of ice adds up, but we didn’t have the extra cash for a Yeti cooler. Until we upgrade the Coleman works great. *Link to this product on Amazon HERE
Electricity- Bestek 300W Power Inverter. It plugs into the lighter. We used velcro to keep it attached to the front console. We originally had it just sitting on the console, but it kept slipping and wires were getting tangled. This device has been wonderful. It charges quickly. We can leave it on to charge our laptop without draining the battery, and it doesn’t need to be turned on to charge via USB. *Link to this product on Amazon HERE
Stove - We have 2-burner Coleman portable propane stovetop. In 43 days on the road we have used it about 6 or 7 times. We bought 2 small propane tanks and have used half of one. The stove is great for having a hot meal, but prep, and clean up make it more of a daytime accessory. It gets food cooked super quick, and doesn’t take up much space. We store it in an under bed plastic storage bin. We keep all our kitchen supplies (pots and pans, bowls, plates, etc..) in a separate under bed storage bin with the stove. *Link to this product on Amazon HERE
Toilet - We have a 5-gallon bucket with lid. This potty is only for nighttime emergencies when we are already in our sleeping location and don’t want to open the doors and draw attention to ourselves. We put a trash bag in the bucket, line it with kitty litter and we’re good to go. We haven’t had any leakage problems or smell issues. If it gets used at night we dump it the next day. Clorox wipe the bucket and reset it. Definitely don’t want pee in the van! It’s not the most eco friendly so we try to keep it only for emergencies.
Water - We bought a water pump off Amazon. It attaches to a 5-gallon water jug. This was one of my favorite purchases. It makes refilling our personal water jugs, the dog’s bowl, or cooking super easy. The directions say you have to boil the pieces prior to using it to ensure proper fit. We didn’t do this and have not had any problems with leakage or with creating a tight seal for the pump to work. *Link to this product on Amazon HERE
The Bed - We started with camp flooring that we bought at Dick’s Sporting Goods. That was horrible. Not comfortable at all. We knew that sleeping was going to be important to ensuring that we enjoyed van life. When the camp flooring didn’t work we bought 2 foam mattress toppers from Target, but those on top of the camp floor still sucked majorly. Thankfully Target has a great return policy so we were able to return the toppers. We decided to keep the camp flooring because it created a nice floating floor for our living area. We wanted a bed that could be out of the way during the day, and we really didn’t want to build anything. From what I’ve seen the bed takes up the most space in vouses (van-houses) and empty space is super important to us. We literally found the perfect solution and I would recommend this option to anyone. We got a full size tri-fold memory foam mattress from Amazon. It’s lightweight, takes up hardly any space during the day, can function as a couch or daytime nap spot, and is more comfortable than we were expecting. When unfolded it fist perfectly in our living space between the front seats and the back bench. Because the mattress sees so much action during the day we bought a nice mattress cover to protect it. We keep the pillows and bedding in our overhead storage area. We will usually set up the bed in a store or shopping plaza parking lot before we drive to where we’re sleeping. In the morning we pack it up before we start opening doors and starting our day. Our dog sleeps on the back bench next to our son’s carseat.
The Closet and Pantry - We have (2) 3- drawer organizers behind the back bench that we use for storage. One hold our non-perishable foods and spices. The other holds our clothes. We each have one drawer for clothes. We also have a large red rubbermaid tote that we use for our misc items (towels, jackets, merchandise for shows, etc…). Lastly, we have an over the door coat rack hung up for drying towels and keeping my hubby’s guitar off the floor.
That’s pretty much it. We have dog food bowl that has its own storage for the dog. I have my own box for my office, and Bishop has a special bag for all his art supplies, toys, legos and dinos. We also have truck bed net that hung along the back row above our clothes storage that holds random stuff we use often like our gym bags (a necessity that will keep you van life and not homeless), Clorox wipes, my 420 stash, a road atlas, and a couple books. For dirty laundry we use a black trash bag, nothing fancy, and it’s only ever as big as the dirty clothes. For trash we use paper bags from the grocery store.
Things we haven’t done yet, but need to do sooner than later - Curtains. We have dark tint on our windows so people can’t see in during the day, but during the night if we have any interior light on people can see right in. I highly recommend curtains!! I’ll update when we get it done so you can see what we used. I also bought some bug screen to line the windows with so that we can sleep with the side windows open at night without bugs getting in. We haven’t installed it yet because we’ve been so consumed with just living (a blessing for sure), and haven’t been down south yet LOL. I know once it becomes necessary we’ll get this one done quickly. I do not want to deal with late night mosquitos!
If you have any questions about our “conversion” or want to share your ideas I would love to hear from you in the comments section below. Also, don’t forget to follow me on social media to see even more BTS of our adVANture.
**NOTE*** I tried to be as authentic as possible with my photos to allow you a real look into what van life can look like. Each of these photos is unstaged. Van life can get super unorganized. Try to keep just the necessities so that you can spend less time organizing and more time living.