A Look Inside Our Sprinter Van

Photo: Amber L Photography
Photo: Amber L Photography
Photo: Amber L Photography

I’ll admit: I didn’t get the whole “Sprinter van” thing when my now-husband first introduced me to the idea. We were living in California and I thought the beat-up minivan we were driving to Yosemite and to the beach every weekend was paradise on four wheels—why mess with a good thing? Back then, there wasn’t a #vanlife hashtag. No one we knew directly (or indirectly) had lived in a van, but he saw the value of having a dependable vehicle that could function as both a mobile home, a gear hauler, and a pick-up truck.  He’d already been searching for years for a Sprinter van, one that was reasonably priced, had low mileage, windows, and no hidden rust issues.

This is Sasquatch. He's big, a little stinky, and often found lurking in Walmart parking lots.
This is Sasquatch. He’s big, a little stinky, and often found lurking in Walmart parking lots.

Then we found it: A grey and black Sprinter. We constructed a bed frame out of scrap wood and strung up some curtains with wire, but that’s where our modifications stopped. The Sprinter’s main function was transporting our surfboards and friends to the beach every other weekend. Throw in a few Tupperware bins and we were set.

Then we found Sprinter number two. It was three feet longer and had served the majority of its life as a taxi for an old-age home (hence the wheel-chair lift we had to remove and sell for a few hundred bucks). For the first two years, the new Sprinter lived with basic rubber flooring, two curtains hung on a shower rod, that basic wood bed frame, and some pads we took from a school bus conversion (my husband and his cousins bought a yellow school bus when he was 14 years old and they converted it into a mobile home. We actually took it on a cross-country road trip a few years ago, but it broke down and we had to leave it in a junkyard in Colorado).

We didn't install a shower, but a solar-heated shower (or a dip in the lake) works just fine.
We didn’t install a shower, but a solar-heated shower (or a dip in the lake) works just fine.

I tried to decorate a little, but mostly just become frustrated that I lack decorating skills. Eventually we bolted in a giant dresser we found on Craigslist, outfitting it with a pump sink and some storage for pots and pans. That year, we bought a house (a real one), then immediately ditched it for four months to travel the country working remotely from the Sprinter, traveling through Colorado, Utah, New Mexico, Texas, New Orleans, the Florida Keys and back up the East Coast to Maine.

The next spring, we decided we finally had some extra money and time and would give the Sprinter a proper conversion.

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Rowdy was as scared of the gutted van as we were!
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We ended up using thick foam insulation board for the roof and fiberglass stuffing on the bottom, all covered by a vapor barrier and all-weather tape.
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Lesson number one: label everything, then label it again. It’ll save you so much time and so many headaches
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We decided to fill the unused headspace above the front seats with a doored shelf. Construction experience necessary (thanks Marlin!)
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We found this amazing dry sink unit at a thrift store for $10. Right? I didn’t know what a dry sink was either. We really wanted to use as many second-hand components as we could, but the paneling we ended up having to buy brand new.
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We saved a lot of time by having Home Depot make some of our big cuts for us, like the wood sectionals on the roof. See those bare white sides? They used to be covered in vinyl. I spent four days just scrubbing off adhesive with every formula known to man. Hint: get yourself some Goo Gone!
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We’re still using our original bedframe, which Marlin built so that the sides can flip up for easier access to the gear underneath.
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Here I’m installing Boom Mat to reduce road noise. Some small rust issues here, but nothing we shouldn’t be able to fix.
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Marlin built a small fold-up shelf for our camp stove when the weather is nice. We want to install an awning for rainier days.
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Cutting a hole in our roof for the ventilation fan…scary! Measure five times, cut once!
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A friend’s parents donated their old pop-up camper for us to pick through—I pulled these old foam mattresses and cut them to fit the bed, so that they’ll fold up with the sides. Side note: we may have gone overboard on the lighting.
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Installing our curtain tracks. I taught myself to sew for these babies—and it only took me four hours and two temper tantrums.

The build out involved a few heated discussions, multiple dance parties, lots of gummy worms, and no shortage of mistakes. There’s no guide or manual on how to do any of this, so it’s a lot of trial and error and—while I hate to be negative—I wouldn’t suggest trying it yourself unless you or a close friend has plenty of construction experience. My other advice is to make a budget of how much time and money you’ll need, then double it. You’ll want to do it all right the first time, so don’t start unless you have all the tools, planning, time, and funds available to do it! For more cautionary tales and great advice, check out this article!

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The first conversion was mostly just insulating and outfitting the van with wooden paneling, lighting, and wiring. We also installed a fan for venting, and overhead storage over the front seats. This was how it used to look.

This spring, we had a bit more money and time and a looming four-week trip ahead of us, so we decided to make some adjustments for functionality. We replaced the peeling Ollie’s laminate flooring with a more durable, scratch-resistant paneling.

Marlin built a side bench with divided storage, which has worked out so much better than using bins under the bed. When in use, it has sections dedicated to climbing equipment, camping gear, cameras, and clothing. When not in use, it makes great seating and doubles as an extra twin bed for guests.

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Next, we installed a custom-made sink cabinet. We searched Home Depot for organization solutions, and eventually decided on heavy-duty wire drawers on sliders. Since they can come dislodged during driving, we secured the doors with a simple bolt lock and that keeps everything in place. The next step was committing running water instead of a pump sink, so we ordered parts off Amazon and—a few days later—had running water connected to both clean and waste water storage.

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Finally, Marlin worked with his dad to weld together a custom adjustable bed frame, which means our bed can be positioned flat on the floor, pulled up all the way to the roof (in case we want to transport tall objects like furniture or motorcycles), and includes a few adjustment points in between. It’s sturdy, sleek, and definitely the pride and joy of our conversion.

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What it offers us is flexibility. We looked at other conversions that were gorgeous and functional, but a lot of them are meant to be lived in full-time. We had different needs since we use the Sprinter as a surfboard wagon one day, a mobile home the next, and a work truck the following. That’s why we made sure everything we installed could be removed easily if need be. We kept the back bench seats in case we have kids one day, or just want to transport a few more friends around, and can install that in minutes. We also got the van retitled as an RV, which has saved us a lot of money on insurance (and got a porta-potty so we can be self-contained).

Overhead storage is where we keep food supplies and jackets.
Overhead storage is where we keep food supplies and jackets.
Magnets from the different states we've visited.
Magnets from the different states we’ve visited.
A look into the back of the Sprinter from the front seats. We use an Igloo Sportsman cooler and keep a grate in there for dry storage.
A look into the back of the Sprinter from the front seats. We use an Igloo Sportsman cooler and keep a grate in there for dry storage.
A flat wood panel slides out of the sink area for additional counter space. There's a flip-out counter in the back of the van for outdoor cooking.
A flat wood panel slides out of the sink area for additional counter space. There’s a flip-out counter in the back of the van for outdoor cooking.
Our co-pilots: R2 offers moral support. Herman always our "should we go?" questions with a resounding yes (he was built that way, though).
Our co-pilots: R2 offers moral support. Herman always answers our “Should we go?” questions with a resounding yes (he was built that way, though).
A look forward from the bed. There are usually a few more pairs of shoes scattered everywhere. It was a clean day.
A look forward from the bed. There are usually a few more pairs of shoes scattered everywhere. It was a clean day.
My favorite place. Photo: Amber L Photography

If you’re thinking about committing to life on the road or investing in a van, just remember that there’s no one-size-fits-all build out or living situation. If you don’t have experience, there are companies who can help you design and build your van. If you don’t have the money for a van right now, get inspired by our friends at Fresh Off The Grid, who have been traveling the country in their car. If you’re ready for an adventuremobile and aren’t sure which is right for you, check out She Explores for plenty of ideas and advice.

Note on cost: It’s not cheap to convert a van, but it’s a LOT cheaper to do it yourself. However, if you don’t have experience or help, it might be more cost efficient for you to hire a company to do it for you. It all comes down to what works best for you and there’s no “right” way to get it done. Since we used mostly donated, borrowed or Craigslist/yard-sale sourced materials and tools, our cost came out between $600-900 over the course of five years. So, not cheap, but not outlandish, either.

My best advice is to avoid committing to a design until you’ve lived in the van for a bit. It will give you an idea of your specific needs and help you avoid building flaws, in turn saving you lots of money. Happy Travels!

We want to see your vans, cars, buses, etc. Link to your blog posts and Instagram photos (or just tell us about them) below! 

 

 

 

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