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
- The Coleman Classic Propane Stove is compact and easy to stow when we’re driving. This stove has been in my family for longer than I have been alive. If we didn’t already have this stove, we would opt for a single burner propane stove that takes up less room.
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.
- Special thanks to our fellow van lifer friends WhereIsChrisNow and The Ovabz for the recommendation!
- 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 Thetford Porta Potti has a flush tank and five gallon portable black tank. Check out the cassette toilet post, a popular alternative to a traditional camping portable toilet, to learn more about dumping the tank. The two systems are very similar.
- 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.