DIY Camper Van Build: Converting a Passenger Van into a Basic Camper

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When our friend Amir told us we could use his passenger van and convert it into a camper van, I was beyond excited! Having lived out of a professionally converted camper van, I was ready to take on our own DIY camper van build.

In this post you’ll find:

  • 1. Passenger Van Specs
  • 2. Essential Components Added to Van
  • 3. Basic Van Conversion Step by Step
  • 4. First Trip in the Camper Van
  • 5. Future Modifications

Bear in mind, this is a basic DIY camper van build for short term camping adventures. To convert a van for long term use, make sure to reference the Future Modifications section.

DIY Camper Van Build

One of the most important decisions for a DIY camper van build is choosing a van. There are many considerations such as gas vs diesel, usable interior space, interior height, overall length, GVWR, the list goes on. Read Joe’s post on the Top 6 Van Chassis for Your Camper Van Build.

With this van build, the chassis choose us, so let’s dive in!

1. Passenger Van Specs

The van is a 2002 GMC Savana 1500 passenger van with a 135″ wheelbase. You can meet the van, appropriately named, “The Beast” and our friend in the video below.

This GMC has a 5.7L V8 gas engine with automatic transmission, rear wheel drive. With over 200,000 miles, most of the components are still in working order. With the rear passenger seats removed, the van can be used to haul gear like motorcycles or better yet, it can be converted into a camper van.

2. Essential Components Added to Van

This is a list of essential components used to convert the passenger van into a camper. We kept most of the components portable so we can easily make modifications as we use the van.

Our goal was to build a basic camper van that we could use until we find or build our permanent camper.

Platform Bed – 73.5″ wide x 75″ long, solid wood

  • We used 4 2’x3′ and 12 1’x4′ wood planks to build a platform. The bed is situated front to back instead of side to side due to Joe’s height. At 5’11”, there isn’t enough room for him to stretch out and sleep comfortably side to side.
  • We sleep on a 3 inch Memory Foam Mattress Topper, which makes for a comfortable firm sleeping surface.

Portable Lithium Battery

  • The Dometic PLB40 has a 40Ah capacity and powers all the electric components in the van, including the fridge. Having a small portable lithium battery gives us flexibility to move it around the van and easily find a place to put it.
  • The battery is recharged while driving by plugging into the additional 12 V Power Adapter Joe added to the van.

Portable Refrigerator Freezer 

  • The Dometic CFX-75DZW is a dual zone portable fridge with a 75 quart capacity. With its low power consumption, the portable lithium battery is able to keep all our food and beverages chilled.
  • The Dometic Slide Mount secures the fridge under the platform bed when we’re driving. Once we’re parked, we can slide the fridge out from under the bed to grab a drink or a snack.

Storage Under the Bed

  • Repurposed cardboard boxes. I used several heavy duty cardboard boxes to turn the space under the platform bed into two storage areas. The giant box on the driver side easily slides in and out for access everything inside.

Portable Propane Camping Stove

USB Powered Fan

  • The OPOLAR USB Fan is quiet and draws very little power so we can run it all night to keep the van cool and the air flowing. The cord is long enough that we can plug it into one of the USB ports of the battery and move it to different areas of the van.

LED Lights

  • The Solar String Lights has to be our favorite feature in the camper van. The vintage bulbs add a feeling of warmth and comfort to the van.
  • There is a Battery Tap Light secured to the ceiling of the van by the entrance of the double doors. A second one is kept in the storage area underneath the bed.

Portable Camping Toilet

  • The Floor Plate secures the portable toilet under the platform bed when we’re driving. For us, this was a better option than building a permeant storage area for the toilet.

Portable Power Inverter

  • The 150W Power Inverter plugs into the portable lithium battery and inverters DC 12V to 110V AC. This allows us to charge our laptops and Joe to run his coffee grinder.

Privacy Curtains & Window Shades

  • We used the leftover material from our DIY Window Shades for the last camper van for windows that open in the passenger van.
  • We cut Blackout Curtains to size to create privacy curtains for the fixed windows and used a set as a divider between the driving area and the living area.

Motorcycle Hitch Carrier

  • We added a Joe Hauler motorcycle carrier to the rear hitch of the GMC van in order to carry the Suzuki DRZ400 dual sport motorcycle.
  • This motorcycle carrier can carry up to 500 pounds and is Made in the U.S.A.

Disclosure: battery, carrier, fridge, toilet and solar lights were provided for free for the camper van build.

3. Basic Van Conversion Step by Step

The basic DIY camper van build took the two of us a total of three days. The video below shows the steps we took to convert the passenger van into a camper.

Step 1: Measure the interior space to determine the layout for the van build. Having a comfortable place to sleep was the most important item on our list. You’ll notice our layout centered around the platform bed.

Step 2: Figure out components essential for the van build. Lights, fridge, toilet, battery, fan, stove and storage were essential components we wanted in the camper van. This allowed us to figure out where and how to incorporate it all around the platform bed. For example, we wanted to store the fridge and toilet under the bed, which meant we had to measure the height of each item to make sure we built the platform bed with enough height clearance.

Step 3: Go Shopping and start the van build. The most extensive part of our build was the platform bed. Everything else involved securing components to the van so it didn’t move or fall while driving down the road.

Step 4: Take the camper van on a shake down trip.

4. First Trip in the Camper Van

After we finished the van build, we took The Beast on a shakedown trip to see what worked and what changes we want to make. Watch the video below to see the camper van in Slab City USA.

5. Future Modifications

Since this is a basic DIY camper van build intended for short term use, there are modification that can be made to make it more comfortable for longer adventures.

  • Swivel Seats to turn the driver and passenger seat around to face the “living area” of the van
  • Roof Vent for increased air flow and a way for hot air to escape when its warm
  • Solar Panels on the roof to charge the battery when the engine is not running.

There are more extensive modifications that would make this a much more involved van build. From installing a high-top roof and adding insulation to having a fully built out kitchen with running water and storage cabinets. We’re not ready to take on that kind of a DIY camper van build.

Until we find our next camper, we’re glad to have The Beast and a wonderful friend who let us convert his passenger van into a camper.

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5 thoughts on “DIY Camper Van Build: Converting a Passenger Van into a Basic Camper”

  1. Several things I want to express and ask. You were the first nomad video my wife and I watched almost three years ago! You inspired us to begin the process of nomadic loving and traveling. We did a DIY conversion on a cargo van (Ram Promaster) and began short trips to acclimate to this lifestyle. We are currently in Wyoming and when we return to Arkansas mid August, we will begin the process of selling our sticks and bricks to become full time travelers! We are currently enjoying your summer series with Joe’s mom! What an awesome summer! Cherish those mom moments!! So thanks for the inspiration and guidance you provide my wife and I. Sincerely Jerry and Tina (Calla’Ventures)

  2. Was going to ask you to remove my comments as I found the info I needed, and it looks like it was, so thank you and not repost, it, I found out the info I need, but can you please (If you don’t want to post this comment) private message me and tell me, why you moved from your Hymer B van to your DIY van conversion.

  3. Hi Joe and Kait, been watching you for a while on YouTube in the UK.
    Interesting seeing the differences and similarities using RV’s/Motorhomes/campervans, especially equipment and accessories.
    Watching your live stream tonight the section on gross vehicle weights struck a chord. Here it’s the drivers licence classifications which changed in the 90’s for younger drivers, and our age limit requirements on reaching 70 years, especially if we have certain medical conditions. 3,500Kg or less can be driven by anyone with a standard car licence here. Between 3,501 Kg and 7500 Kg is a different class which came with your standard car licence pre the 90’s licence changes, so many younger drivers don’t have this licence class known as class C. They now require a special driving test for this class. Everyone driving anything 7501Kg or more takes a large goods vehicle test, and these tests irrespective of health have a medical test requirement and subsequent medical re-tests. Many drivers over 70 with certain medical conditions can’t have a class C, and others who have other milder conditions require a medical each time your drivers licence is renewed post 70, every 3 years for most.
    It’s just affected me, I still have my class C at 71 years with a minor medical condition, but decided to drop to 3500 Kg from a 4500Kg to avoid the hassle with medicals at the next renewal.
    Staying in that 3500 Kg limit has been a nightmare. With everything in for a weeks travelling mainly using sites with full facilities, left us with 35Kg spare. That is travelling with only essential fresh water, 20 litres, instead of a full 120 litres. 4.5 litres to a UK gallon. I did have a full fuel tank.
    Over here we have a system called WIMs (Weigh in Motion) on our major roads operated by our Transport Ministry officials. Sensors on the road screen your axle weights, at the same time that an ALPR system reads you number plate and checks against the axle weights on your vehicle licensing data. Over a certain percentage higher than it should be in this screening process and you will be pulled further down and takin in to a full facility examination centre which includes an authorised weight facility. Fines are heavy if you are over a certain percentage overweight on any axle or gross weight.our vehicle was 3,060 Kg leaving the factory in France – Rapido 696F.
    Good luck with your hunt for a new home on wheels, it’s out there, it’s just finding the right combination of specifications.


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