We have all seen the Instagram model shots of those beautifully converted Sprinter vans with their white cabinets, wooden floors, and 13 throw pillows. We begin to imagine ourselves laying on that bed, back doors open to some impressive mountain glacier, red rock canyon, or surfable ocean wave, just soaking in the scenery with our vans being another beautiful oasis. How dreamy …
You simply fall in love with the idea of #vanlife. So you head over to Google, search for your own Sprinter van, see the cost, and immediately close your browser. Defeated.
What if I told you that you don’t need that Sprinter van to have a successful and fulfilling #vanlife experience? Would you believe me if I told you my first van conversion was a 2001 Kia Sedona minivan?
That’s right. I was not going to let the immense cost of a Sprinter van stop me from fulfilling my dreams of getting out on the road. My husband took to Facebook Marketplace and found this old minivan for less than $2,000! (This was 2018, way before the current inflation and car shortage).
When we got our minivan, we needed to check over the necessities of its safety and functionality. The only thing that didn’t work was the air conditioner. A few hours later, we found the problem and she was ready to go!
PRE-CHECKLIST FOR CONVERTING A MINIVAN
If you are not mechanically savvy, be sure to have someone who is or someone who is qualified to check over your van. Here is a small checklist of big ticket items you will need to ensure are ready to go.
Inspect Your Suspension
- Always be sure that your van has good tires. Balding tires can be dangerous on slick or wet roadways. Underinflated tires make for poor gas mileage, can warp the rims, and lower your cargo capacity. If your van has the option for a stow-away spare tire, use it! We had more than one nail puncture on our road trip.
- Check on your van’s brakes and brake pads. This should really go without saying, but brakes and brake pads are a huge safety concern. Mountain driving is already hard on your van’s braking system, so be sure that it is up to par. I recommend getting new brakes before heading out on your adventure. Remember that front brakes will wear out 2-3x faster than rear brakes.
- Get an alignment. Take your van to a mechanic for a 4-wheel alignment and tire rotation, if need be (make sure the tires haven’t lost any balancing weights!) Ask your mechanic if they noticed any loose play in the tie rod ends and ball joints? Or any damage to the CV axle boots? Or any grinding from the wheel bearings? If they say yes, you need some suspension work done!
Inspect Your Powertrain
- Change all the fluids and be sure to keep up on proper engine maintenance. Van life obviously involves a lot of driving, and obviously engines are vital for your van. You do not want to be stranded in the middle of the Arizona desert with the closest big town over an hour away when your alternator goes out (yes, there is a story here. See the What Happened To Me section below).
- Replace all your automotive fluids: engine oil, coolant, transmission and differential fluid, brake fluid, and power steering fluid. Refer to your Owner’s Manual for maintenance mileage intervals.
- If you’re driving a high-mileage vehicle, inspect the condition of the serpentine belt, spark plugs and ignition coils, alternator, starter, and battery. These parts are easy to change on most vehicles and will stop more severe problems before they have the chance to start!
Double-Check the Legalities
- Legalities like car insurance, title, license plate stickers, and registration all need to be up to date. Keep copies of everything easily in reach within your van. Usually the glove box is a great space to keep all important documents. Plus, glove boxes sometimes have locks on them.
Once your van is sound enough to drive long distances, let’s get into the conversion!
ORGANIZATION TIPS FOR VAN CONVERSION
You don’t t need a fancy, Instagram-worthy home-on-wheels to have a successful van. In fact, we DIYed our 2002 Kia Sedona very simply. Think about what you absolutely need and what you feel will be convenient for your travels.
Below, check out these three tips for a simple DIY van conversion.
Make Way, Make Way!
We removed all the back seats in the van to make room for living space. Our minivan had stow-and-go seating, so if we wanted to simply stow the chairs away, we could. We decided to remove the seats altogether so that we could use the space that would have stored them as extra storage. Since we removed the back seat instead of stowing it, we were able to keep the deep trunk space which was perfect for storing our cooler, suitcase “closet”, and our bedding during the day.
- Remove unneeded seats to provide extra living space within your van.
- Do not take unnecessary items. This should go without saying, but space in a van is pretty limited. Maximize your space by taking only the necessities
- Remove center consoles if possible. My minivan had a center console between the front two seats which we were able to remove making it easy to move between the front and back of the van.
Utilize Three-Dimensional Storage
In addition to using the stow and go spaces as extra storage, we added hitch and rooftop cargo carriers. The hitch cargo carrier was a perfect size for a gray tote (the ones you store your holiday decorations in) and our firewood (locally sourced at each spot of course). We stored our tent and outdoor gear in the tote and secured everything with ratchet straps for safety.
We used the rooftop cargo carrier to store our homey things, using those adorable and convenient reusable plastic bags you can get at Homegoods, Marshals, or TJ Maxx. They were the perfect size for what we needed since they are soft and collapsible. They provided us with the flexibility to store them where we needed them.
- Adding a small hitch cargo carrier can increase storage options and is a great place to store firewood and other outdoor items.
- A rooftop cargo carrier provides out-of-the-way storage. Rooftop cargo carriers usually have a lock on them, making it safe to store some of your more important gear or utensils in.
- Adding nook-and-cranny storage inside the van is a necessity. Fruit and produce nets, plastic pocket organizers, and small plastic containers that slide under the front seats all keep the van neat and tidy while keeping your most used items within reach.
Use Bins and Bags for Organization
We used one bag for our cooking supplies: pots, pans, utensils, plates, mugs, and our portable stovetop. Another bag was used for our hiking shoes, sunscreens, bug sprays, and the likes. A third bag held our tools, oils, and other van-related necessities. Inside the van, we had a cooler for cold food items and our groceries stored in the deep part of the trunk, where we also stored our bedding and clothes.
It is important to not overpack, especially in a van as space is so limited, it can get super disorganized very quickly. Try to keep things that are used together stored in the same spot. We put our phone chargers, laptops, and laptop chargers in the same bin as our notebooks, roadmaps, and camera and stored this bin under our passenger seat for easy access.
- Using dedicated storage bins or bags for each activity helps keep things in order. For example, our kitchen bag had all of our kitchen supplies in one spot so no need for fumbling through lots of bags or boxes when we wanted to make dinner.
- Keep things in spaces that make sense. Phone chargers should be kept inside the van, for example, not in the overhead carrier for easy access. Try to keep things that will be used together in the same storage container to limit the amount of bags or containers you will have to go through.
IT DOESN’T HAVE TO BE PRETTY TO BE FUNCTIONAL
While it’s easy to get caught up in what we think our van life experience should look like, how often do fantasy and reality line up? That’s right, almost never. Was my minivan Instagram-worthy, absolutely not! – but it did serve its purpose.
How to Convert a Minivan Kitchen
Since our van did not have a proper kitchen, we utilized picnic tables at campgrounds or rest stops when prepping our food. We had a bag stored overhead that had all our kitchen gear: from pots and knives to cooking oils and spices. We kept our vegetables in the cooler and using a portable stove, we cooked almost all of our meals outdoors.
I have found that even when my van has a proper indoor kitchen, we still cook outside! I mean isn’t that the entire point of #vanlifing, being you know, out in nature?
- Portable stove tops and extra 1-lb propane canisters are important when traveling in a van. You can get these items at any camping or even some big box stores, like Walmart.
- Remember that 1-lb canisters are generally not refillable! If you don’t have room for a full-size 20- or 30-lb DOT tank, get a smaller 11-lb tank.
- Limit the number of pots and pans you bring. We brought one medium-sized skillet, one saucepan, and one deeper pan. I would also bring a dutch oven or croc pot with a lid to make stews over the fire. Try to find some one-pot recipes that sound appetizing and enjoy not washing as many dishes.
- Remember, aluminum weighs a lot less than cast iron!
- We used a bucket for dishwashing. Since we have limited water while camping on BLM land, you will want to be extra cautious when using water to wash dishes. We would use a wet dish towel with soap to clean the dishes from visible food and then rinse the dishes in a dish bucket.
- Check out plant-friendly soaps and detergents that are approved for use in greywater lawn irrigation systems.
- Create a pantry system. We stored our food in clear storage containers. This allowed us to see what was inside of them, protected our snacks from the dog, and efficiently stored the food in “bear lockers” where needed.
How to Convert a Minivan Bathroom
Now, I know what you are thinking, how do you shower in a minivan when you cannot even stand up in it?
Well, you can’t. Nor did we want to try to mess with adding a shower or a toilet to our minivan. We purchased an outdoor bag shower, but we never used it. In theory, you hang the bag from a tree and let the sun warm the water, then you can use the nozzle and give yourself a nice hot shower at the end of the day. We found that most of the campsites we stayed at had showers or we found a nice truck stop along the way. A truck stop shower costs about $12, but you can shower together (if that’s your thing), and the hot water never stops!
Another thing we did not bring with us but could be a necessity for you was a composting or cassette toilet. These are easy to use and store fairly easily. In our current van build-out (check back later), we are adding storage for a cassette toilet to allow us to go off-grid. But in our minivan, we found it simple enough to use campground or rest stop bathrooms or find a nice bush.
- Purchasing an outdoor shower could be for you if you plan on dispersed camping most of the time. We also recommend a tarp or cover to attach to your van for privacy while using it.
- We played with the idea of bringing along a cassette toilet and placing it on the hitch cargo carrier, but ultimately decided against it. These toilets are lightweight and make a great addition to your van if you want a simple solution.
- You’ll have to streamline your morning routine. Here’s a helpful article on beauty hacks while living the van life.
How to Convert a Minivan Bedroom
Since we removed all the back seats from our minivan, we had the perfect amount of space for a full-size futon mattress. The futon mattress was great because it rolled up and stored easily in the trunk space during the day when we weren’t using it.
We also brought along our tent, which we did not utilize as much as we thought we would. I mean, why waste time putting up and tearing down a tent when you have a comfy van already ready to go?
Another great option is an air mattress. I would recommend this more for solo travelers, as with two people you may end up either smooshed together in the center or falling between the air mattress and the van doors (there isn’t much room in the minivan with a full-blown air mattress).
Camping cots could work as well, but storing them during the daytime could be tricky.
- Choose a bed situation that works for you. Futon mattresses, air mattresses, and camping cots all make for a comfy bed. Avoid temper-pedic mattresses, which harden in the cold!
- Bring enough blankets and pillows for you to be comfortable, but don’t overpack. It was late October when we were out, so it got pretty cold at night.
- Battery-operated camping fans make a great addition to the space. We hung ours from a ratchet strap stung between the two handles on the ceiling in the back of the van. (See photograph in the Things to Consider section below).
THINGS TO CONSIDER – WHAT HAPPENED TO US! (A CAUTIONARY TALE)
Van life is adventurous in every sense of the word. Whether you are chasing waterfalls or climbing mountains, the views you can find in your van are to die for. But here is a little story about why it is important to keep a close eye on your van’s engine while traveling.
We were just outside of Arches National Park camping on BLM land: the Middle of Nowhere, Utah. We had spent the night staying up to catch some great night sky photography shots as the clear sky was absolutely stunning. After enjoying a sleep-in and french press coffee, we loaded up and set sail for Arizona. After we crossed the border, we realized something was wrong.
Our radio and air conditioner had stopped working. Turns out, our alternator had broken a few days ago somewhere while exploring Utah! We had been playing Russian roulette if our van would actually start every time we tried to turn it on – and we didn’t even know it!
After about an hour of driving, we found our way to Page, Arizona, and an auto parts store. Luckily, my husband is very good with engines. Unfortunately, we had to order the part we needed and were stuck there for a few days. Once the part came in, my husband went into stealth mode and fixed the alternator in the back parking lot of the hotel we were staying in.
Pro tip: Always bring your own tools with you on trips and learn basic mechanic skills. Some mechanic shops may take advantage of the fact that you are a tourist and not mechanically-minded. YouTube is a great place to start learning and they even have step-by-step videos on how to fix almost anything!
If you want to dedicate a good portion of your time to #vanlifing, it is important you understand how your van works. You can slash thousands of dollars off your lifestyle costs!
REALLY, YOU CAN DO THIS!
You really do not need the latest model converted Sprinter van to have a great time living the van life. You can get the same functionality from a converted minivan- and I mean, come on, the novelty of taking a cross-country camping trip in a converted minivan is second to none. With simple steps like making room, organizing your space, and adding the amenities you can’t live without, you can take a simple minivan and turn it into your dream camper van!
Be sure to check on the safety of your van before embarking on a cross-country journey (or a journey to the local grocery store, for that matter). It is important to keep checks on the van’s tires, engine, and brakes as well as any legal paperwork. Bringing along tools and a spare tire is a good idea, too.
Do not let the too-good-to-be-true Instagram photos deter you from fulfilling your #vanlife dreams. Vanlife is all about getting outside and enjoying nature, not sitting in a pretty van, so take what you got and modify it to what you need. The world is waiting!
Sara Sabharwal is a modern digital nomad exploring the world one road trip at a time. She splits her time between North America and India and has yet to find a place that she didn’t fall in love with. Her favorite destinations include dark sky parks and forested mountain ranges. My dream is to live in a van down by the river, which I luckily get to do 3-6 months out of the year.