If you’re here for the very first time, welcome! We’re Kevin and Taylor and absolutely love to travel! We created our DIY Camper Van over the course of 12 months while working full time and put together a 45 van build video series for you to enjoy.
On July 26th, we took a leap of faith and decided to fly to Michigan to check out a 2015 Mercedes Sprinter Van. After inspecting it and giving it a test drive, we decided to buy it. That same day we drove it back to New Jersey and started converting it right away.
We documented our entire Van Build journey turning the van into a true home on wheels and plan to share each step with you along the way.
Our Van Build Journey is broken down into 3 main sections below. If one section appeals to you specifically click the link below and jump right to it!
Why Van Life?
The desire to own a van started when we lived in the Pacific Northwest in the fall of 2017. We were driving out to Mt. Hood on a search for a natural spring when we first saw folks living out of their vans and it made us curious. Then we stumbled upon the #vanlife hashtag on instagram and the realization of what van life offered as an alternative lifestyle striked us.
It took sometime for Taylor to get fully on board but she was more and more open to the idea, after camping in Crater Lake National Park at the end of September. It was 28 degrees outside and we were sleeping on top of the snow. That camped next to several converted vans and we knew the night would have been much more enjoyable if we had a warm cosy van to sleep in.
From then I was hooked even more and continued to do more and more research. One thing for sure is that the idea of being out on the road intrigued me deeply. The ability to take your home with you would enable so many more opportunities and we could see the continent at a rate that would otherwise be pretty difficult.
So almost two years later from first seeing a converted van, we finally purchased a van of our own with plans to convert and explore North America to see experience more of its natural beauty. ,
Common Questions About Van Builds and Van Life
- How much does it cost to build out a van?
- We get this question a lot, which is why we created a video about it. Our van costs us roughly $22,000 and we have a high-quality van with expensive components/wood. Typically you will find DIY builds ranging in price from $8,000 to $35,000 depending on the electrical setup, external tune ups, air conditioning, and so on.
- What is the best van to live in?
- The best van to live on is dependent on your use case, needs and desires. Do you want 4 wheel drive? Do you want a high roof? These are the questions you need to ask yourself. Jump to the section below to find out which van is the best one to live in. Atleast our opinion on the matter!
- How do you design a van?
- The best way to design a van is to first determine what you want/need in your van. Once you have desires listed, design your layout and put it on paper. Think about the size of your components, how wide is the fridge, how much room do you need for a shower/bathroom (if you want one). One of the biggest lessons learns for us is prioritizing convenience over everything! So when creating your layout, think about things that you will use/need every day and place them in a location that’s easily accessible.
- Is living in a van cheaper than renting? Is living in a van cheap?
- It certainly can be! The most expensive part on van life is your fuel and the van build (obviously). So if you reduce the number of miles you drive your obviously safe money. If you have a healthy battery bank where you’re not dependent on shore power and you can live completely off the grid then you do not have to pay for formal campgrounds, also reducing your cost of living.
- Is a Sprinter van worth it?
- We may be a bit biased, but we think so! The reliability of a sprinter van far outlives the other vans on the market and has a very high resell value. This is the main reason we decided to go with a Sprinter Van for our Van Build
For many van owners, the question comes down to what is my price point and what’s the best van or vehicle for me? If you’re looking in the cargo van category there are three popular options available.
- Dodge Promaster
- Ford Transit
- Mercedes/Freightliner Sprinter
I will write a more in depth blog post as to what van is right for you, but here’s a quick summary for why we chose the a Mercedes Sprinter van. This is soley based on our opinion since some of the pros for us may be cons for you.
- Relatively Inexpensive
- Widest Van
- Gas Engine – Cheap to repair and maintain
- Gas Engine – shorter life span
- Shortest in length
- Relatively new so reliability is unknown
- Minimal value retention
- Relatively Inexpensive
- Tallest Van
- Gas Engine – Cheap to repair and maintain
- AWD compatible
- Gas Engine – shorter life span
- Relatively new so reliability is unknown
- Not as long as desired (for us)
Mercedes Sprinter Van
- Best resell value
- Diesel engine – most reliable
- Most conversion accessories are compatible
- Best body design
- 4WD Compatible
- Most expensive to maintain
- Diesel fuel is more expensive
Based on the pros and cons listed above for each van, we really prioritized the best resell value and most reliable vehicle we could find. We know van life isn’t going to be forever and there will be a time when we want to sell our van. So the Mercedes Sprinter made the most sense for us and we were fortunate enough to find one with only roughly 15,000 miles on it without breaking the bank.
Van Build Episodes
So now that you know why we chose to buy a van and why we chose a Mercedes Sprinter van, it’s time to get into our van build journey. We’ve been documenting our van build via blog posts and youtube video tutorials to help share the knowledge we’re learning through this process. By no means are we experts in this matter and welcome any feedback from the community on best practices, and what to do vs what not to do for particular projects!
Below is the current status of our van build with an end goal of May 8, 2020 (June 1st, worst case)!
If you want to head straight to our van build video tutorials, then head to our van build series on youtube.
Youtube Van Build Episodes:
- Back Door Windows
- Backup (Rearview) Camera
- MaxxAir Roof Vent Fan
- Side Panel Bunk Windows
- CRL Sliding Door T-Vent Window
- Roof Rail Installation
- Truck Bed Liner
- 30 AMP Shore Power Inlet
- Grounding the Chassis
- Van Insulation – Foam Board, Reflectix, Greatstuff
- Framing the Garage
- Framing the Shower
- Plumbing the Van Pt 1
- Van Wiring & Garage Floor
- Pluming the Van Shower Pt 2
- Furring Strips and Foundation
- Upper Van Cabinets
- Dresser Cabinet
- Building the Shiplap Walls and Ceiling
- Kitchen Cabinet
- Diesel Espar Heater
- Swivel Seat
- Aluminess Side Ladder
- 12v – 3 Gang Electrical Switch
- Truck Bed Liner on the Roof
- 400 Watts of Solar on the Roof!
- DIY Window Frames
- Building the Closet
- Upper Cabinet Doors
- Butcher Block Counter Tops
- Plumbing Testing for Leaks
- Building the Platform for our Bed/Benches
- Building our Benches
- Electrical System
- Lithium Battery Isolator Manager
- Lagun Swivel Table
- DIY Camper Van Cushions
- Shower Bathroom/Shower
- Headliner Shelf
- Replacing a Broken Window
- Van Flooring – Installation Liteproof
- Finishing the Kitchen and Final Touches of Trim Work
- DIY Custom Van ROOF Deck
- Service A Maintenance – Oil Change and Fuel Filter Change
- DIY VAN TOUR – Shower, Roof Deck, and Convertible Bed for Full-Time VAN LIFE
Reader’s Tip: Use the tabs for each part of the van build journey to learn how we did each individual project.
Van Build Part 1 - Windows
Our van is a 2015 Mercedes Sprinter Cargo Van, which means it didn’t come with any windows. So the first project we did on the van was cutting directly into it and installing 5 windows!
Installing back door windows is an absolute game changer when it comes to driving. Having the ability to see out your review view camera is something I took for granted when we first bought this van and drove it back from Michigan to New Jersey
Check out our post, How to install back door windows on a sprinter van, to learn more
We installed side panel bunk windows to our van to give us more natural light and more ventilation throughout the van. This will help us sleep well at night with a cool breeze and constant airflow with out MaxxFan.
Check out the post, How to install side panel bunk windows, to learn more
My favorite window and the last one to get installed is our sliding door T-vent window. We love this window because it not only gives us plenty of natural light and extra ventilation, but it also gives us plenty of visibility when driving and merging/turning right. Before installing this window I found myself stuck with a blind spot not being able to see on coming traffic on the passenger side. Yes I did have the mirror to help but it’s much easier with the window being able to look quickly to see if there’s any oncoming traffic!
Check out the post, How to install a CR Lawrence T-Vent Sliding Door Window, to learn more.
Van Build Part 2 - Roof Installs
We built a custom roof platform deck for additional storage and a neat place to sit back relax and watch a sunset! The deck is built out of 8020 Aluminum Extrusions and PVC Composite Decking, which is really strong but still very light. This is a lot cheaper than the roof racks available for purchase.
The backup camera on our sprinter van makes parking so easy! I highly recommend installing a back up camera, especially if you get an extended wheelbase.
We ensured this was one of the first projects we completed for the easiest installation. Since you’re running wires to the back up your van, we wanted to get this done before installing anything inside the van.
Check out the post, How to install a back up camera on a sprinter van, to learn more.
One thing about living in a van that we learned when renting one in Portugal, is the importance of ventilation and air circulation!
That’s why we installed the MaxxAir Roof Vent Fan. We chose to go with the MaxxFan by MaxxAir over the Fantastic Fan due to the weather shield and the ability to open it while it’s raining outside. A time when ventilation is needed the most!
We placed our fan in the center of the vehicle’s living area so we can utilize the back bed area with our side panel bunk windows, as well as the kitchen area for the sliding door t-vent window.
Check out how we installed it and why we chose the location we did in our post, How to install a MaxxAir Roof vent fan.
If you want to have any type of roof rack, then it’s in your best interest to get roof rails. This makes your life when mounting your rack onto the roof allowing you flexibility in roof rack placement and modifications.
If you plan to install roof rails, make sure you install your roof rails during the early stages of your van build, especially before you insulate the roof or install cabinetry!
Check out, how to install roof rails to your van, to learn more!
Van Build Part 3 - Our Van's Electrical System
We wanted to have 3 sources of power for our home on wheels. The 3 sources include, Solar, Vehicle Battery Charging, and Shore Power.
If we are ever in a situation where we need a quick charge but it’s cloudy and we do not want to run the engine for awhile, then we can plug into shore power and charge up!
Check out the post, How to install a shore power inlet on a sprinter van, to learn more.
The very first “electrical” project” of our van, we wanted to set a ground cable directly to the chassis of our van. This will ground our entire electrical system, which will be documented in a later blog post.
One of the first things you need to do when building out your electrical system is building a wiring diagram. This requires you to plan ahead and think through exactly where you want all of your electrical components.
Check out our sprinter van’s electrical wiring diagram to learn more.
The goal for our van’s electrical system when building our van was to make the van feel like home. We wanted to run household appliances like a blender, hot water for our shower, a hair dryer and more.
For this to be possible, we have 3, 100 Amp Hour Battle Born Batteries with 400 watts of solar on the roof and a 3,000 Watt Victron Inverter. We also have the ability to charge our house batteries via the vehicle’s alternator.
To learn more check out out our electrical system overview.
We are using a Lithium Battery Isolation Manager, also known as a Li-BIM by Precision Circuits. The beauty of this component allows us to charge our batteries at a rapid rate while driving our vehicle.
On top of the roof is our primary source of power for our battery bank, which is solar!
Our 4, 100-watt monocrystalline solar panels by Renogy provide our batteries plenty of energy throughout the day.
Van Build Part 4 - Soundproofing and Insulation
I do not know if I am completely sold on sound proofing a van, since we never drove a van without it to compare however we added it anyway. Our van, which is a 2015 Mercedes Sprinter 170″ wheel base, did have some soundproofing from the manufacturer already and we added more Rattle Trap sound proofing to further deaden the sound.
Insulation is a very hot topic in the van build community. Everyone has a different opinion and you need to do your own research and determine what’s best for you.
We used mineral wool insulation along with foam board, Reflectix and a little bit of spray foam. For the floor, we used Reflectix, which I know may not be the best solution, but it’s better than nothing! We also have a small layer of rubber between the plywood floor and the Reflectix.
I would have loved to put an inch of foam board down on the floor but since I am 6’1″ I have very limited head space and I want to be able to stand straight up without bending my head.
Van Build Part 5 - Truck Bed Liner
We added Truck Bed Liner to the lower section of our van’s body. We did this for a few different reasons, most importantly to protect it from the rough elements of the road. This will help prevent rust, scratches and chips from the paint.
We also love how it looks!
Check out the post on how to apply truck bed liner to your van to learn more.
Van Build Part 6 - Steel Stud Framing
We want a garage in our van so we can store our surfboards, snowboards as well as other out door gear inside the van without any worry of it getting stolen. Our garage will be underneath our bed/bench area next to our water/plumbing compartment, in the back of our van. We are using steel studs for our framing and foundation. We got this idea from Sara and Alex James and love the layout they call the “Outdoorsman Layout”.
A shower is a big priority for our van build and something that was an absolute must for Taylor! We plan to have hot water as well as a gray water tank housed underneath the vehicle outside the van directly underneath the shower pan.
There’s more to come on the shower build, as this is just the first part of the shower build starting with the steel stud framing!
Van Build Part 7 - Plumbing
We have a shower in our van and we couldn’t be happier. A critical requirement for Taylor to join the vanlife movement was a shower. We like to be clean before getting in bed and without having a shower in our van this would become a major challenge.
There are multiple options for building out a shower.
We used the following:
- Steel Studs – used for framing the shower
- HydroBan Foam Board – used for the foundational walls (best material for water areas and lighter than cement board)
- FRP board – used for the shower walls (lies on top of the hydroban board)
For our van we will have a full fledge plumbing system with a hot water heater, shower, and kitchen. We house our plumbing components in our “water compartment” which holds our 33 Gallon fresh water tank, hot water heater, and water pump.
Check out our post on, how we built our plumbing system, to learn more how we set this up.
Van Build Part 8 - Cabinetry
We built our upper cabinets with 3/4″ Birch Plywood.
Our dresser cabinet has 4 drawers built out of a mix of 3/4″ and 1/2″ birch plywood. We sanded down the cabinets using 220-240 grit sandpaper.
Our kitchen cabinet is built out of a mix of 3/4″ and 1/2″ birch plywood. It contains 4 sections.
- Kitchen Refrigerator
- Skinny Drawers
- Kitchen Sink
- Two-Burner Propane
We installed a headliner cabinet instead of just building a shelf. We wanted the van to have a completed feel and didnt want to see a bunch of junk thrown up on the shelf.
Van Build Part 9 - Diesel Heater
Van Build Part 10 - The Roof!
We installed 400 Watts of solar on our roof of the van building a custom DIY solar panel roof rack out of 8020 Aluminum that connects to our roof rails.