Vanlife insights & a detailed Van Conversion with Jayme & John
This is the story of Jayme, John, Nymeria, Crow, and Gnomie. Our little family of vagabonds. Together we have gone from the mountains of New Mexico to the woods of North Carolina to the sands of upper Michigan. And there’s plenty more places out there beyond the horizon.
But we weren’t always this way. Not too long ago, we were landlocked in suburban St. Louis, working 9-5 jobs, living for the weekend, and longing for more than two weeks vacation so we could fulfill our love of travel and adventure. We had already seen the eastern half of the US, and gone to Southeast Asia and Ireland. But then we settled down, bought a house, fell into “secure” jobs. And we woke up one morning and realized we were trapped in a life we didn’t want or enjoy.
We dreamed of quitting our jobs and going on an epic backpacking trip through Europe or Asia. But then we got our wonderful puppy, Nymeria, and our lives completely changed. We wanted her to experience the world with us, so we decided to explore our own backyard. Around this time we also took in Crow, Jayme’s childhood dachshund, so we needed an escape where we could bring two dogs with us.
The original plan was to buy a small SUV, rent out our house, put our belongings in storage, and camp/Airbnb/WWOOF our way around North America for a year or so. That is, until a friend told us to checkout #vanlife on Instagram, and we saw what was truly possible. The idea of living the van life - of traveling wherever we want with total freedom, of being able to sleep wherever we happen to be because we brought our house with us, of becoming part of this awesome community of people doing the same thing - seemed incredibly liberating. And we just knew we had to do it.
Finding the Perfect Van
Immediately we dove into looking for a van and researching all the different options. VW vans are iconic and inspiring, but it seemed like we would need to be prepared for frequent mechanical issues unless we did a complete rebuild. Sprinter vans are top notch and have a ton of space, but the ones we found were way out of our price range. Cargo vans are cheap and blend in well for stealth camping, but just didn’t have enough headroom for John’s 6’2” frame. Our goal became finding a high top conversion van, which we thought had the best combination of reliability, affordability, and space.
We also began the long process of selling everything we owned, unloading an entire house-worth of items via Facebook buy/sell/trade groups, Craigslist, and yard sales. We made our first sale in May, and the last item (our awesome couch, one of the first things we bought together) walked out the door just before Christmas. Getting rid of everything was difficult at first but it quickly got easier, and we didn’t even notice that most of it was gone. That’s how you know you have too much stuff.
After a couple months of searching, we finally found the perfect van. It was a gold high-top conversion van with a wheelchair lift, and it had been sitting on Craigslist for a month. After driving three hours to check it out, some back and forth with the seller, and an inspection by a mechanic, we finally took it home near the end of August. Here are the details:
Year, Make, and Model: 1996 Chevy Express 1500
Purchase Price: $1500
Purchased From: Craigslist
Initial Mileage: 101,000
Name: Gnomie (and sometimes Tiara)
After some new tires, mechanical work, taxes and registration fees, our van cost us a total of $3,670. Converting it into our new home - including building materials, appliances, and electrical components - cost about $6,600. So in total we spent $10,270 buying and building our van. We have a detailed breakdown of our costs on our blog.
Turning Our Van into a Home
Once we got the van home, we immediately gutted it and took out the wheelchair lift. We insulated the ceilings, walls, and floor. We installed gorgeous laminate wood flooring, plywood walls, and beautiful cedar paneling on the ceiling so our van looks and smells like a log cabin.
Pro tip: making cardboard templates of oddly-shaped areas (and in a van, everything is oddly-shaped) helps a lot when you’re cutting your materials. And the templates you make for your insulation you can reuse for your walls, floors, etc.
We also began planning out how we wanted to build out the interior, figuring out the functionality of each piece and how everything would fit together. This is one of the most important aspects of any van build. Since space is so limited, almost everything needs to have more than one purpose or be easily storable and convertible into something else.
In our van, our couch converts into a queen-sized bed at night. Our kitchen counter doubles as support for our bed frame. We built a storage box on our side door that has a flip-up table allowing us to work on our computers or just sit around it for meals. We attached fabric shoe racks to the back of the seats to hold random odds and ends, and we turned every nook and cranny into some kind of storage.
One of the best things about conversion vans is all of the storage options. Gutting the van revealed huge open shelves above the cab area and in the rear that are perfect for housing every day items. The storage area in the front we converted to a food pantry, while in the rear we built a closet that holds all of our clothes. The way the high top connects to the van body creates a natural shelf that is perfect for building out into more extensive shelving or cabinets.
Since we work on the road and need power and cell service, we made the decision to go big with our electrical system. We bought a 400-watt solar kit from Renogy, installed three panels on the roof, and rigged up the fourth on a homemade PVC folding solar mount so we can roll it out and connect it as needed.
To anyone out there considering doing their own custom van build, don’t be afraid to get started! We didn’t know how to do most of the things we did before we did them. We had no experience with electrical work. But there are a ton of great resources out there on the internet and on Youtube, and most people will be happy to answer questions if you reach out to them.
We’ve certainly contacted others for advice, and we’ve answered questions from fellow vanlifers as well. Don’t let lack of knowledge stop you from pursuing vanlife!
Life on the Road
We’ve been on the road off and on since April, and we just recently took off for good. There’s so much we’ve learned about our van, what works and what doesn’t, that we just couldn’t foresee before actually living in it for an extended period. We’ve had to modify things and change a few things around, but now our van is a whole lot more functional.
There are definitely challenges living on the road. One thing that other people always focus on is the bathroom situation, but that hasn’t been an issue. Public restrooms are plentiful throughout the US, and we’ve got a small shovel in the van for when we’re camping in undeveloped areas.
The biggest challenge for us so far has been cell service and internet. We’ve had several scenarios where we’ve found a beautiful place to camp in the middle of a canyon or 10,000 feet up on a mountaintop, but there’s just no service anywhere nearby. Since we need internet to work, we’ve had to make the choice between being productive and enjoying the beauty of nature (and let’s face it, nature always wins).
Now, if we’re camping somewhere undeveloped where we don’t expect to have service, we plan ahead and make sure we have plenty of offline work we can do. We also just bought a cell phone signal booster, so we’re hoping that will come in handy. We don’t want to have to leave an awesome location sooner that we’d like to, or not be able to get done what we need to get done, just because we don’t have service.
If you can, we highly recommend taking your van out for short trips here and there to test it out. That practical experience will give you a much better idea about what you really need and don’t need, and will give you tons of great ideas for improving your van so it works better for you.
How Do We Make All This Work?
When we tell people what we’re doing, the first question they always asks us is, how do we survive on the road financially? First, we worked our butts off to build up savings before we took this leap. We hosted Airbnb and became freelance writers on the side. And we made over $10,000 selling everything we owned. Right now, we cover about half of our expenses with income from our blog and managing other websites we own, and the rest comes from savings.
Our goal is to live like this for the foreseeable future, so we’re working hard to build businesses and increase our income. But, we know we always have freelancing as a fallback (Upwork.com is a great place to get started with this). Vanlife isn’t all travel and relaxation - we definitely put in a full workweek and then some. We just happen to do it while sitting by a mountain stream instead of in an office.
This seems to be the biggest mental hurdle for many to get over, that it’s possible to make a living without being tied down. The fact is, if you really want to live vanlife, you’ll find a way to make it work. There are people doing this who pick up odd jobs wherever they happen to be, or work seasonally in awesome locations and travel the rest of the time, or freelance online as writers, photographers, and web designers. There are options out there whatever your skills, and if you have the motivation and persistence there’s nothing that can hold you back.
All told, it took us nearly a year to sell everything we owned, rent out our house, find a van, and turn it into a mobile log cabin. The build alone took six months. But now, a year later, we’re sitting outside our van in a forest clearing, gazing through the trees at an awe-inspiring lake that stretches farther than we can see. This is our life now. We don’t have anyone telling us what to do, where to be, or when to get there. It took a year and a tremendous amount of work and perseverance to get to this point, but now the rest of our lives is an open road instead of a dead end street. And we couldn’t be more excited.
Follow along the adventures!