Sunday, May 9, 2021

Home, Sweet Home: The Van is Done!

For years, I've been curious about living in small spaces. The curiosity began with tiny homes. I fell in love with tiny houses long before they became a fad. Then I became interested in sailboats. And then vans.

These curiosities have led to various aspirations. My curiosity in sailboats dovetailed nicely with the opportunity to live aboard with a beau a number of years ago. Living on a sailboat has been one of my favorite living experiences. I've toured numerous tiny houses over the years, wetting my feet to the idea of someday living in one. You can make a solid bet that a tiny home is in my future; I'm just not quite there yet. I've aspired towards van living, too. A van, after all, would be a nice complement to my traveling lifestyle. 

I find it fascinating how aspirations evolve. They often sit and simmer -- sometimes for days, sometimes for months, sometimes for years -- while aspirations are tried on for size and feel. Hesitancies abound and obstacles intimidate. After all, it can be challenging to muster the momentum required to give aspiration flight.  

And then something happens. All the sudden -- sometimes with reason and sometimes just because -- an aspiration is granted commitment. As soon as I commit, all hesitancy fades, and as Goethe would say, providence moves. The next thing I know, my aspiration is a reality. That's how it was with piercing my nose. With quitting my job. With going home-free and later car-free. And that's how it was with my van. 

Home, sweet home.

On October 12th of last year, momentum rallied itself. How am I going to build a van? Where am I going to park the van when I travel overseas? Do I really want another vehicle when I have relished in being car-free the last few years? On that day, these questions shrank in size. They became distant specks in my rearview mirror.

On that day, a Monday, I found myself looking for vans. Like, seriously looking. I had done my homework. I knew what I wanted. I had weighed the pros and cons of Sprinters versus Transits versus Promasters, and I had decided on a Promaster. I was hoping to buy a used vehicle, but there were few on the market. The ones that were available had taken heavy abuse from rough beginnings in commercial applications, and the used vehicles I was coming across weren't that less expensive compared to new vans. I had committed to buying a van, and the only way to do that was to switch my search to new vans. 

I reached out to 23 (egads!) Ram dealers in the Pacific NW. The pickings were slim, as I wasn't the only one doing a van build as a "Covid project." I found a new Promaster that suited my needs. When I discovered that multiple dealers were offering to sell me a single van, all with the same VIN, I had multiple dealers arm wrestling with each other, competing to offer me the lowest price. Three days later, I had myself a van -- a 2020 RAM Promaster 2500 Hightop.

Given how challenging it was to buy a van in the pandemic-induced world of shortages, I anticipated it would be challenging to acquire all the materials required for the build. Sure enough, numerous components were nearing out-of-stock status. I put my head down and dedicated the next two weeks to compiling a massive materials/appliances list -- insulation, a ceiling vent fan, a fridge, a sink, solar panels, an inverter, circuit breakers in multiple sizes, etc. I then glued myself to my laptop and purchased everything I needed for the build. 

The van was merely a shell when I started the build. It wasn't much more than a box, four tires, two seats, and a steering wheel. 

This is what the van looked like pre-build...

I gutted the van, removing the factory-installed panels and floor. From there, I proceeded to build the van from the bottom up. With a snap of the fingers and the passage of five and a half long months, the gutted van was converted into a living space.

...and this is what the van looks like post-build.

I had neither the know-how nor the tools to build the van myself. More importantly, I wasn't interested in spending time or energy to acquire these. Had I let that get in the way, there would be no van. Fortunately, I had a vision, and I had wonderful friends who helped bring my vision to fruition.

Alex helped me with the first part of the build.
He established the framework for the van,
constructed everything in the garage, and was the
brains behind my power plant.

Doug cut a hole in the roof and installed the vent fan.

Chris was my master craftsman.
He did an immaculate job with all the woodwork.

And then there was Mom.
She provided expertise in creating my cushions and privacy curtain.

A million thanks to Alex, Doug, Chris, and Mom. Without you, I'd be living in a barren and not-so-homey van.

And now for the grand tour:

This is my garage. The whole van was designed around
the ability to carry two bikes. There is plenty of space
for other adventure gear, too. 

The bikes are mounted on a sliding drawer,
which enables for easy loading and unloading.

This is my bed, as seen from inside the van. It is full-sized,
with the head at one wheelbase and the foot at the other.
The cabinets above the bed store my clothes.
There is a reading light and a wall-mounted fan above the bed,  
as well as a ceiling-mounted fan for optimal circulation.

Below the bed is my closet,
with space for hanging clothes and storing shoes.
Inside the closet, to the left, is my electrical system (aka "power plant").

To the left of my closet is my seating area.

Beneath the seating area is plenty of storage space.

Behind the bench is a fold-down table.
This is where I use my Instant Pot,
my only means of cooking in the van.
I have an inverter, which enables me to have AC power.

Across from the bench is the kitchen space.
Here is the transition from the bedroom to the kitchen.

The upper cabinets hold my Instant Pot and food.
A shelf to the left of the counter holds my books.
I have a sink, with is operated with a foot pump.
Below the counter are my fridge, storage
for 14 gallons of water, my 5-gallon bucket toilet,
and plenty of additional storage space.

The table slides out from underneath the kitchen counter.

The van turned out exactly as I had envisioned. I love that my van enables me to be self-sufficient. I love that I can carry everything with me -- my bicycles, my backpacking gear, my packraft, my electric toothbrush, everything. I love that I can close the doors and have a safe, comfortable, and private space in which I can be me. Although it is a relatively simple build by design (there is no shower, no flushing toilet, no heat, no electrically-pumped water), it feels luxurious to me. Especially since I have been without my own living space for more than eight years. And double-especially since I have spent many of those last eight years traveling by bicycle, living out of panniers, and sleeping in a tent.

Many have asked whether I would document the van build in detail. There are plenty of individuals out there who have established a solid presence in the social media space with their van build and van lives. My interests lie elsewhere. My van is not my end goal, but rather a vehicle I will use (no pun intended) to live my life. I will, however, leave you with a few photos from the build.

Cutting the plywood underlay for the floor.

Mounting the solar panels on the roof. 

Chris's workshop, with every tool imaginable.
There was plenty of space for the van in the shop,
which was helpful when working on the build in the middle of winter.

This my favorite photo from the van build --
six cabinet doors being held hostage by an army of clamps

And finally, me in my build get-up.

Yeah for bringing the van aspiration to fruition! Now it's time to get on with living!


  1. Wow, Sarah! Great read! I enjoyed seeing every little detail. It’s compact yet has everything you need. Congrats and many happy voyages in your new van!

  2. That is amazing!!!!! Can't wait to see where it takes you and the bikes! Look out world!

    Very proud of you lady!

  3. Sarah, it's absolutely gorgeous and wonderful. Just perfect for you. I'm so impressed with your ability to bring together the people and vision necessary to bring this into reality. Well done! If you drive to the Northeast, please come and visit us in Ithaca. You are always welcome here!

    1. Thank you, Josey! I very well may be passing through Ithaca this summer. I'd love to see you and the kids, especially after riding with Andy in July. Hugs!

  4. That’s fascinating, Sarah! I loved reading every detail of the process. You are a talented writer. I look forward to following your next journeys. Best wishes and love from Mary Jo

    1. Thank you, Mary Jo! I'm so glad you're still following my blog after all these years!

  5. Such fun to get to observe your process and your latest endeavor!! Beautiful job. Really is a tiny house on wheels. Bravo!!

    1. Thank you! It is indeed a tiny house on wheels. :)

  6. Excellent! A good choice, more versatile than a fixed tiny house (built one, sold it). We're in the midst of "rapid prototyping" our second van project, having rattled around the last four years in an ancient and unreliable van with a narrow sleeping platform wedged in beside our tandem. Our expanded machine isn't a live-aboard setup, but suitable for extended tours, and convertible from bike-hauler/camper to cargo-hauler in a jiffy, as it is now our only vehicle (besides the tandems). Love your blog, follow it eagerly for the next chapter.

    1. Thank you for reaching out. A van build-out is a very personal thing. We all have our specific needs and wants and quirks that makes each van unique. It's great that you'll be able to meet both bike-hauler/camper and cargo-hauler needs. I'm curious: How would you summarize your experience with your tiny house, beyond just "built one, sold it"? Perhaps the 5,000 ft summary instead of the 10,000 ft summary? 🙂

    2. We built a tiny house on concrete posts in '99, in Montana, near Judy's sister's summer house. We started with a plan from Mother Earth News and adapted it radically to suit the climate, available building materials, and our needs. Later that year, I got a job in Montana, and the "cabin" (224sf) became a weekend retreat. We moved back to Washington in '09, electing not to retire in Montana, but still visited family and friends and continued to work on finishing the cabin, a gradual process that was never completely done. Two things: Judy's sister died in '11, and I had heart surgery in '14 and didn't renew my business contracts in Montana, so we decided to sell. We have discovered the van life suits us much better, as we are nomadic: our last self-supported bike tour, in our early 70s, taught us that we tour to enjoy places, not to just put in miles, and we aren't able to put in the miles we used to. The van takes us between "bucket list" bike routes and trails. We basically did what you did: jacked up our bike and drove a van under it, designing the van around the bike. We continue to be inspired by you and our many other long-distance touring friends we've met through Warm Showers.

    3. Thank you for your follow-up, Larye. Projects evolve with changing intentions and life circumstances.

      We "jacked up our bike and drove a van under it." Ha, what a brilliant way to describe the building of a bike-centric van! I'm so glad that you and Judy have found a way to make a tiny home on four wheels happily complement your life on two wheels.

      So glad you've kept in touch after all these years. :)


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