How to Convert Your Car into a Home on Wheels in 48 Hours or Less
Do you like the idea of escaping the 9-5 grind, waking up to a different view every day, and traveling the world with freedom and ease… but don’t want to drop $40k+ on a new camper?
Since COVID, #vanlife and camping are growing ever more popular for those of us looking for an escape from the ordinary and a simpler way of life. But it’s still a big investment, especially if you’re not sure it’s the life for you.
Fortunately, there’s a way to test drive van life before overcommitting. And I’ll show you how I did it firsthand.
Read on to discover how to convert your car into a camper van this weekend using easy-to-find parts and some clever hacks I’ve picked up along the way!
Hi, I’m Justin! When I’m not writing about cars or riding my motorcycle, my other half and I travel the country in our own home on wheels: A converted wheelchair van we call “Smokey Da Van.” That’s us in the picture above.
But long before we built Smokey, I had a starter van, the Black Pearl, that I took on weekend trips. While Smokey has countless modifications, the Black Pearl pictured below had very few. Everything it did have could be removed in about 10 minutes, with no specialized tools or equipment needed.
I call this the “no-build” van build. That’s exactly what I’ll be teaching you how to build in this article. So sit back, strap in, and get ready to picture yourself parked in front of a desert sunset, beach, or beautiful mountain vista, courtesy of your new home on wheels.
Choosing a Vehicle
It’s entirely possible to just hop in whatever you drive now and go sleep in it for a few nights. It might not be the most comfortable bed you’ve ever slept in, but it’ll work. If you decide you like this sort of thing and want to do more of it, you may want to consider buying a vehicle just for it. There are many considerations to keep in mind.
How Much Space Do You Need?
Not want — need. Even a large van is going to feel quite small by the time you get all of your stuff loaded into it, so just accept that it’s going to feel a bit cramped. If you’re a minimalist, or just going away for short periods of time, you can get away with an SUV, minivan, or even a small car, especially if you already own one.
Will You Tow a Trailer?
Trailers open up a wide variety of possibilities. You can simply hook up a pre-built camper and take it along for the ride. Others convert cargo trailers into living quarters, since they’re built much stronger than campers. Or, you can use your vehicle as your living area and tow toys like kayaks, motorcycles, or whatever else behind you.
If you have no need for extra stuff, or if you’re not comfortable towing a trailer, there’s your answer. You absolutely do not need a trailer to do this.
How Far Off the Beaten Path Will You Go?
If you truly want to get away from it all, you have to get away from where everybody else is. A four-wheel-drive pickup truck with a cap on the bed will give you the off-road capability you need, as well as a place to sleep when you get there. You wouldn’t want to drive an RV back there. If you’re happy staying in more civilized areas, though, an RV or camper van will do just fine.
What Did I Do?
I got a good deal on the 2003 Dodge Ram conversion van you see throughout this article. I like to stretch out a bit, which means having enough room to stretch out in bed, as well as headroom to sit up comfortably. My Subaru WRX didn’t have this, so I bought a cheap van for the job.
This van could tow a trailer, which is how I sometimes brought my motorcycle with me. I didn’t feel a need to go too deep into the middle of nowhere with the van because my dual-sport motorcycle is equally comfortable on and off the road. Plus, the bike can take me places where no van or truck can go. I did put all-terrain tires on the van so I could tackle dirt roads when I wasn’t towing the trailer and get at least a little bit adventurous. The right tires make a huge difference in slippery conditions.
Designing the Floor Plan
Now that you know the size and shape of the space you’re working with, you can figure out where everything is going to go. At minimum, this means a place to sleep and a place for your stuff. It can be as fancy as you want, with extras like the solar panels and composting toilet I have today, but these are not required, especially for a basic “no-build” build.
Start by measuring the size of the biggest item going into your van, which is usually your bed. This could be nothing more than a sleeping bag in the back of your SUV. You can roll it up, put it away, and use the space for other things during the day. Measure everything! Every inch counts, even in a big conversion van like the Black Pearl. I designed my bed to be high enough for my plastic storage bins to slide underneath. I looked up the bins’ dimensions before I bought them and designed my bed around them.
The idea here is not that you’re living in your vehicle, but living out of your vehicle. Unless it’s cold and raining, you’ll likely be spending a great deal of time outside, which vastly expands your living space. Another good idea is to have multiple purposes for different areas. You can put away your bed and turn your sleeping space into your kitchen during the day, for example.
Building the “Build”
This is where it all comes together. The saying “measure twice, cut once” applies. Even if you’re not cutting anything, you want to make sure everything you plan to take with you will actually fit where you want it. Here’s where you put it all together and see how it works.
As much as possible, try to use things you already have around the house. If you already own a sleeping bag, there’s your bed. I used a small folding table that I already owned as a general purpose flat space. It was my kitchen, my office, and my amateur radio station, depending on the time of day.
Chances are, your best laid plans will not work perfectly the first time. That’s fine! Even people who have been doing this full-time for years are constantly moving things around and finding better ways to use their space. I still do, and there’s no reason why you can’t, too.
If you’re not a talented craftsman or woodworker, don’t worry. Neither am I! You don’t actually have to build anything in order to do this. That’s why I call this the “no-build” build. I did build a wood bed frame that expands into a full-size bed, and retracts into a sofa during the day. It’s not great, and it only lasted for the year I used it, but it worked well enough. A cot would’ve worked just fine, too.
Adding the Extras
Once you have the basic build complete, you can put in all the other goodies. This is the fun part. Once again, none of these are required, but depending on your wants and needs, maybe some of them are, in your case.
In my current van, which I live in full-time, I have a large battery bank charged from the engine, solar panels on the roof, and that I can plug into a wall socket for even more power. I work online, so electricity is my primary requirement besides a roof over my head.
You don’t need anything this sophisticated. In my first van, I ran everything in the “house” off a Jackery Explorer 240 battery pack. It has outputs for USB devices, a 12-volt socket, and even a 110-volt power inverter to run the same appliances you use in your house. You can charge it from your car, from a solar panel that just plugs in, or from a wall socket in your house, exactly like I’ve set up in Smokey. Depending on your electrical needs, you could charge up the Jackery before you leave and use it all weekend. For longer trips, you can charge it while you’re driving. It’s as simple as that.
We all have to eat and drink. Eating out all the time is an option, though it’s expensive. You can also pack a cooler and bring a small camp stove with you. Cookware for camping is easy to find, though it can be rather expensive. You can also just bring cookware from home.
One thing you will want to have with you is water, for cooking and cleaning as well as drinking. I used an ordinary 5-gallon water bottle like you’d put on top of the water cooler at work. It sat on the floor, and a cheap electric pump sat on top of it, working like a faucet. If you don’t have space for a large container, a case of bottled water works just fine.
Heating and Cooling
The weather doesn’t always cooperate, and you may want to make adjustments along the way. Your car’s built-in heating and cooling systems are good, but you don’t want to leave the car on all night to keep your temperature. (An exception would be the Toyota Prius, which runs the climate control system on battery power, only occasionally running the gas engine to top off the batteries. You can safely turn it on and let it “run” all night.)
Because I lived in New Hampshire, where it gets cold at night throughout much of the year, I bought an Olympian Wave 3 propane heater and mounted it to the wall of the van. Be VERY careful with propane in an enclosed space. In addition to the obvious fire hazard, you also need to leave the windows a little bit open to ensure a fresh supply of oxygen for the combustion process. With a few basic precautions, though, it’s perfectly safe to use a heater like this. They’re designed for it.
For summer, I had a couple of rechargeable fans. One was a desk fan, while the other, designed for a baby stroller, clipped on pretty much anywhere I wanted it. You don’t need to cut a hole in your roof and install a proper RV fan like I did on my current home on wheels. The only issue is that air conditioning requires a great deal of power to run, more than even my current battery bank can handle. Without a big noisy generator, you’ll likely have to go without this luxury.
Hygiene and bodily functions are another consideration. Some people just use what they can find on the road. Truck stops have showers you can use for a fee. Many van lifers join national gym chains for access to showers anywhere they go. For potty emergencies, you can get a seat and lid that snap onto the top of a 5-gallon bucket. Put in a trash bag containing some kitty litter, and you have a place to do your business in a pinch.
Taking the Trip
You’re all set to hit the road! For your first trips, I’d suggest staying close to home and keeping them short. If it doesn’t go well, you can always throw in the towel and go home. As you gain experience, you’ll figure out what works for you, become more comfortable and confident, and can take longer trips farther from home. The best part of the “no-build” van build is that nothing is nailed down, so you can change your setup any way and anytime you want until you find what’s right for you.
If the campgrounds are full, where do you park? This is a hot topic in the van life community, and the answers are always changing.
Sometimes the journey is about the destination, living and sleeping in a beautiful place. Other times, an overnight stop is just a means to an end, a place to sleep before going to my real destination the next day. In these cases, “Chateau Walmart” is just fine, if not the most scenic place I’ve ever spent the night. You’d be surprised where you can get away with legally parking overnight for free, though. This beautiful scene is one of those places.
If a simple legal parking space is all you need, there are some good options. In the past, Walmart generally welcomed anyone to stay in their lots overnight. Some people have abused that privilege, though, and some stores have banned overnight parking while others still allow it. Walmart is still a good option, but you should check with the particular store you plan to stay at to make sure it’s okay. Other stores that commonly allow overnight parking are Cabela’s, Bass Pro Shops, and Cracker Barrel restaurants. It’s polite to give these places some business when you use their lot overnight.
Highway rest areas often allow you to park overnight, but check the signs to make sure. Some may let you park but lock up the bathrooms overnight. Others don’t allow it at all, while still others have no problem with it. You may also be able to simply park somewhere and hang out for the night. Again, check for any signs prohibiting overnight parking, but if you don’t see any, you may be good. My most successful time doing this was at Hampton Beach, New Hampshire, where we parked on a side road in front of an unoccupied rental house for the night. We could hear the ocean, and we even had free WiFi from a nearby house!
There are some great apps to help you find legal overnight parking. The ones I use include iOverlander, RV Parky, and Boondockers Welcome. FreeCampsites.net is also a good website to check. If you’re willing to spend a few bucks, Hipcamp is a great way to find places to camp on private land. A Harvest Hosts membership hooks you up with wineries, breweries, and other interesting places to spend a night in exchange for partaking of the local products. I’ve stayed at places ranging from a North Carolina distillery to car museum to a monkey rescue in Florida.
Some people spend tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars to buy an RV or convert a camper van into a temporary home on wheels. Some people spend thousands, or even tens of thousands, of dollars to build a camper van, but you don’t have to do that to get started. This article showed you how to convert any vehicle into a camper with just a little bit of planning and a free weekend.
How would you outfit your homemade camper to suit your particular needs?
Recovering autocross and track day enthusiast. Once turned a VW Jetta into a pickup truck. Lives in a van down by the river. Dream car: 2001 Subaru WRC rally car.