Tips for designing a functional, comfortable camper—without spending all your savings
If you have enough money, it’s easy to buy an incredible adventure rig. (Just check out some of our favorites, most of which cost upwards of six figures.)
Building a camper van, on the other hand, is trickier but a helluva lot more affordable. You can either go the cheap, bare-bones route or opt for the nicest amenities around, but I prefer an approach that strikes a balance between the two.
I spent less than $15,000 (plus the vehicle) retrofitting my Sprinter cargo van, including items like a stainless-steel fridge and a full electrical system with solar. Some people fully devote six months to a build-out, but mine took about four months of part-time effort. (I’d rather mountain bike than build stuff.)
Whether you’re retrofitting a used Ford Econoline or a new Mercedes Sprinter 4x4, here’s a framework to guide your decisions.
Should You Buy a Finished Vehicle?
First, a contradiction: Do you really need to go the DIY route? If you’re looking for a custom vehicle for frequent road trips (or a new lifestyle), DIY is great, but think hard before embarking on the journey. You don’t want an incomplete project rusting in your driveway. Maybe you can multipurpose the family minivan by buying a great tent or look for an older, less expensive but fully outfitted camper.
Make Your Travel Buddy Happy
Unless you’re traveling solo, have an honest discussion with your partner regarding van features. For example, my wife wanted a nice bed, a bright interior, and a fridge with room for fresh produce. Mountain and touring bike storage was a priority for both of us.
Stay minimalist, but bring a few comfort items. A hammock, French press, guitar, or art supplies can transform a trip.
Research—and Cardboard—Are Your Best Friends
Google “DIY camper van” like it’s your second job. Mock up layouts using tape and cardboard, then install prototype beds, cabinets, and gear drawers. Go on weekend testing trips.
Your personalized build will turn out far better if you design and implement things in stages. Design to your needs.
Focus on Value
Lots of camper van components cost more than $1,000. They’re not worth it. Chances are you can get by with a few clever hacks.
Trade the expensive hydronic hot-water system for a pressurized solar shower and $35 water boiler. Why install a $1,500 diesel stove when a Coleman costs $80? Custom bed platforms cost $2,000; I built ours for $125. By keeping it simple, you’ll minimize both up-front costs and ongoing maintenance.
Forget generators. Put solar panels on the roof instead. Two hundred watts and two batteries will power a fridge, a fan, outlets for electronics, lights, and a pounding stereo. I opted for an affordable kit from AM Solar, which was preferable to piecing a system together.
Engage the Community
Big DIY projects are intimidating, and many aspects of van build-outs require a specific tool or skill. Don’t despair. There’s likely someone who’s been in your shoes before.
Ask a friend with a powerful table saw for help cutting birch countertops, or call your engineering buddy before starting a fire with faulty wiring. Preventing shooting sparks is just a phone call away. I also used the online resource Sprinter-RV.com and found DoItYourSelfRV.com and BuildaCamperVan.com to be useful.
Once you finish your van, you’ll feel a strong pull to head for the hills. Fair warning that the office will feel confining. Embrace it. You didn’t dig yourself a financial hole by buying a giant RV, so you can afford days off work. Hit the slopes or trails, kick back in the van, and repeat.
Adventure awaits, and you built the rig to find it.
Dakota Gale is a traveler, writer, and small business owner who’d rather explore the world with his wife than sit in the office. They recently traversed the western United States in their DIY camper van and bicycle-toured 7,000 miles through 14 countries. Follow their blog.