Roomier than a car, but cheaper than an RV, a retrofitted van makes a cool inexpensive house. Once popular during hippie days, the ancient American tradition of modifying a van is undergoing a resurgence as rents continue to rise. More folks each year commute from work and then park their home, instead of parking in front of it. On this lovely free website, you can find inspiring examples of cheap nomads, detailed instructions for conversions, gear recommendations, and lots of advice for living in a low rent or homemade RV from “them that’s doin’ it.”
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And what about gas mileage? With a car you may get 50 mpg and with an RV you may get 5 mpg. Since we are living cheaply, this is a very important consideration. It’s hard to be too specific with mpg numbers. If you buy a 1975 1 ton pickup with a 454, you might get 6 mpg with a camper, but if you buy a 2005 diesel, you may get 20 mpg with the same camper. If you get a 1985 Ford van with a 460, you may get 6 mpg but if you get a 302 V8 you may get 22 mpg. Or, even better, get a Astro minivan, you could get 25 mpg.
STEALTH PARKING: After I bought the van, I didn’t know where to go with it. I couldn’t afford to pay for an RV park (and they probably would not have accepted me anyway since my van was pretty beat-up looking) so I slept in the parking lot of the store where I worked. No one even noticed me! The great thing about the box van was that when I parked in front of any large store, it looked like it belonged there. I lived in that van for 6 years and never once paid for parking anywhere and was never bothered for where I did park.
I have a cell phone, a loan payment, van insurance, and credit cards. One of the first things I did to handle this was go “paperless” – I now get all my statements by email and pay my bills online. I get wifi on my laptop, and many public libraries have computers & internet available.
This changed several times as I was building it. I needed pantry space, drawers, and fresh/gray water for the faucet/sink. The kitchen is positioned along the passenger side so I can open the doors when cooking on my camp stove. The counter is actual Formica with a drop down leaf to give me more room when cooking. I have 2 six gallon containers, one is for gray water and one for fresh. I use a hand pump for water, or use gallons of water from the store for cooking and cleaning more often now. I may add a small pump in the future. The microwave sits underneath with enough space in the pantry for about a week’s worth of food. The spice rack is a must have for me, because while the portions are smaller and more challenging to make, I still don’t sacrifice on good food! Under the pantry I store my pans, lids, and plates in a magazine rack from Ikea. The fridge is a standard dorm minifridge I found on craigslist for $20 but I only turn it on when driving or when plugged into shore power, as it can drain my batteries in two days. Most of the time I use it as a glorified icebox, as I tend to buy fresh foods the day I use them.
The Pee Bottle:
First and foremost, the pee bottle must be leakproof and unbreakable for obvious reasons! For all my adventures, I’ve used a 1 liter, wide-mouth Lexan bottle made by Nalgene. They come in a variety of colors – I’ve settled on the dark yellow one for my pee bottle so I don’t mistake it for my drinking water bottle. Similar, less expensive brands can be found in the sporting goods department at WalMart or Target, or experiment with plastic food product containers with tight fitting lids and enough volume.
Spill Proof – One fear I have in van or tent is fumbling and spilling the pee bottle before I have the lid screwed on all the way. To safeguard this, I made a wrist loop out of a piece of 1inch wide nylon webbing which I duct taped to the bottle (see photo). The wrist loop is loose enough to slip easily on and off and to hold the bottle with that hand, but tight enough that the bottle won’t fall if I loose my grip. Slip the loop over one hand, unscrew the lid, and away you go; just be sure to screw the lid on tightly before slipping out of the wrist loop. A piece of cord would work just as well as the nylon webbing – just get the loop the right size.
I keep two pee bottles in the van just in case I forget to empty one during the day – and on long, cold nights sometimes one liter just isn’t enough!
What vehicle to buy?
If gas mileage and stealth are most important: Chevrolet Astro minivan–great mpg and super stealth.
If room and stealth are most important: Full-size American van, especially the Dodge with a 318 V8.
If headroom is most important: High-top American conversion van.
For a couple, or if you need lots of room: Box van or Step-van, both with a diesel engine.
If you want to go further into the back-country: Pickup with a camper with 4X4.