Converting a Cargo Van to a Home on Wheels

Wheel of the west van diy rv

By Billy Ulmer

I once mentioned the tiny house movement to an outdoor guide who remarked, “Oh, I’ve got a tiny house! It’s called a campervan.” And he’s right, in a lot of ways. Vans outfitted for camping or living have quite a lot in common with tiny houses on wheels. I’m learning this every day now on my own new project to convert a standard cargo van into a little home.

I’m not as tough as Dee, who can live in 50-84 square feet full time. I own a small conventional home as well. The van is a supplement to my house – a home on the road for trips for a couple days to a couple months, and an office and spare bedroom in the driveway for the rest of the year. It’s the second home I always dreamed of but could never afford – except it won’t be stuck in the same old spot.

I’ll be documenting my van build here on PAD’s site as I progress, but first I’ll just introduce the van and how I chose it.

Meet My Van

Wheel of the West Van in Shop
The van in Derin’s warehouse

Maybe you already noticed that the van has a pretty sweet hairdo – that’s the custom high top. Derin from Shelter Wise designed and built it, with some help from a local metal fabricator. The high top turns a standard-height cargo van into a spacious interior you can stand up in, and hang shelves on. After a lot of hunting, we realized that what we wanted and could afford weren’t coming together in a conventional vehicle, so we decided to get creative.

My partner and I identified a Chevrolet Express as our preferred van after a couple months of discussion. We wanted something with a lot of space that we could take onto rugged roads and drive through snow, but we were also on a budget. Four wheel drive vans are somewhat rare – the main options are compact campervans like Toyotas or VW’s that were too small for us, or Sprinter vans way out of our price range. The Chevy Express is about the only standard cargo van with an all wheel drive option, which made it a good compromise been size and adventure-readiness.

The only hitch was that we really wanted to stand up inside. We’d seen some custom hightops on vans and wanted to go that route, but neither of us were confident in our ability pull that off ourselves. Lucky for me, I know a great tiny house builder who moonlights on fun projects like campers and vans. I’ll spend a whole post on the high top later on, but for now I’ll just say that getting Derin onboard was the key our van shopping puzzle. We could have a good sized, all wheel drive van with full head height and a unique look – some assembly required.

Why A Van?

Wheel of the West van DIY RV ceilingA few different ideas converged in my head before I got serious about the van project:

  • I’ve been working in tiny house world for years, and climbed inside more than my fair share of weird structures. I wrote a whole book about people who designed and built their own tiny houses, but always knew that wasn’t the right path for me. I already liked the house I owned, and as a hobbyist carpenter, it felt over my head (so to speak) to build the weatherproof, highway-proof exterior shell of a home.
  • I thought seriously about converting my home’s entire basement to a separate apartment, but that didn’t feel right or pencil out financially the way I wanted. It would have been a huge investment that wouldn’t have changed my life much for ten years or so. If I was going to go into debt and take on a huge project, I wanted immediate gratification.
  • My partner and I saw a beautiful, custom high top van at a music festival, and then met the owners and followed them on Instagram. Then we followed a whole bunch of van-owner Instagram accounts, debating which layouts we liked best. We both wish we could be on road trips about 50% of the time, and are great car campers. When we realized we could build out a van like a miniature tiny house and travel semi-long-term without hardcore roughing it, we both felt committed to taking the plunge.

Van vs Tiny House

I’m excited that I finally found a project I’m as passionate about as all the tiny house builders I’ve been working and hanging out with for years. It’s exciting and satisfying to participate in the design and construction of the home around you. I’m reading a couple different books related to DIY home construction right now, and this quote from Dwelling: On Making Your Own by River really hits the nail on the head:

“I believe that making a personal living space can be one of the highest and most profound creative experiences of life. We have cheated ourselves too long of this experience, allowing professionals and experts, developers and businessmen, politicians and bureaucrats to determine for us the very shape of our living space.
At great personal cost (for huge corporate profits) we have given away one of our greatest potential gifts: the creation and expression of ourselves in the form of our shelters. It seems time to reclaim this right, this energy, this adventure.”

In my case, I’m happy to have some hard parts out of the way, like the roof over my head. Building the entire structure wasn’t necessary for our plan, and would speed up a process I wanted to keep moving. But I’m also excited to have a somewhat clean slate to work with, and be able to really shape my surroundings – an excitement I know tiny house folks certainly understand.

But also like a tiny house, it’s already clear to me how much work is ahead of me, and how I already wish the work were simpler than it is. I spent several hours reading conflicting opinions about van insulation choices today, and this quote from The Vanaglow resonated:

“It’s become increasingly clear with every stage of the conversion that the more time you spend researching online, the more contrasting opinions and information you will find. It gets to a point where you just have to make an informed decision and stick with it – we’d still be in the rust removal stage if we listened to everyone on the internet!”

Right now I literally AM in the rust removal stage, and it’s a phase I’m eager to move through, so I interpret this quote as encouragement to sort through the conflicting information, embrace the unknown elements of the outcome, and get something done.

You can follow our van home build out on Instagram at @WheeloftheWest, and stay tuned to PAD’s website, where I’ll be reporting out regularly on the van build out as we go!

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