- My partner and I bought a cargo van in fall 2020 and have embarked on renovating it to a camper van.
- The whole journey so far has been a learning process, from finding our van to starting renovations.
- It’s best to start by assessing your budget, needs, and skills before diving into a purchase.
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When traveling as we knew it came to a halt amid the coronavirus pandemic, my partner, Jowell, and I were two of many who decided to turn to road trips to keep the spirit of adventure alive.
In the summer of 2020, we planned to spend a few months backpacking in Thailand but were forced to cancel our plans. As we transitioned to working from home in the fall, we took on a new adventure that had been a lifelong goal for us both: buying our cargo van.
Transitioning to van life has definitely been a learning process, and there are a number of tips and tricks we’ve picked up along the way.
Read on for some of the important factors to consider while preparing for life on the road.
Before you do anything else, assess your budget
I currently work in information security and Jowell is a social-work student and Navy veteran, so we both came to the table with very little knowledge on van rebuilds.
Before taking the leap, we turned to the internet to learn the ins and outs of camper-van renovations and what to expect. Very early on we learned that no one van is the perfect fit for everyone, it’s entirely dependent upon your individual needs.
With this in mind, the first question we encourage everyone to consider is “What is my budget?”
We figured out that we needed to find a van in the $5,000 to $6,000 range to stay within our overall budget of $10,000 with renovations.
While continuing our research, we found that the average cost for an older van in our area was between $4,000 and $6,000 depending on the mileage, year, and overall maintenance – which pointed us toward the model we ended up going with.
There are lots of places to look for vans online or within your community
The best places we found to start looking for a van were Facebook Marketplace, Craigslist, and just driving around our local neighborhoods.
Some platforms, like Autotrader, even allow you to narrow your search down to vehicle mileage and highway/city miles per gallon – which are important factors to consider if you’re going to be living on the road.
Regardless of which platform you use to purchase, you want to make sure the sellers have a clean title and a completed emissions test. The test can confirm that the van is in the necessary condition to be registered in your home state.
YouTube has countless van-life vlogs and tutorials that can be really useful
During this process, YouTube will become your best friend. We jokingly like to refer to it as “YouTube University” because it’s where we’ve gathered all of our information, from deciding our budget and van type to maintaining power and warmth on the road.
Thanks to the many videos we’ve watched, we knew it was more than possible to completely renovate a van for under $10,000 depending on how intricate we decided to get with our custom build.
We also found it useful to create categorized playlists of helpful videos so we can easily return to for guidance.
Decide what you’re going to use the van for before making a purchase
The second question we encourage first-time van buyers to ask themselves before beginning the hunt is “How often will I travel in my van?”
Despite the gorgeous $60,000 conversions sweeping social media, minimalist vans that only include what’s absolutely necessary (like a bed and storage spaces) are very common.
Things like toilets, stove tops, and ovens can be avoided if you’re not intending to use your van for long hauls.
If you’re only planning on using your van for short trips every once in a while, you might be able to live with shorter ceilings or fewer add-ons. But if you’re trying to convert to van life full time, it’s important to check off as many deal breakers as you can.
Narrow down your deal breakers and start planning for renovation projects
In addition to figuring out what you’re going to use your van for, it’s also important to make a list of reasonable deal breakers.
We narrowed down our must-have list to include higher ceilings, fewer than 160,934km, and a long enough space to have a working area that’s separate from the sleeping quarters.
I’m about 1.52m-7, so finding a high-top van was a must for me to be comfortable on the road. Many people don’t take the height of the van into consideration until they realize they have to crouch to move around.
Additionally, more space may not be as important for people who don’t intend to work in their van, but it’s definitely something for digital nomads to consider.
Creating a deal-breaker list also gives planners, like me, the opportunity to start budgeting for tools and supplies they’ll need further down the line.
Making a list of things we were willing to do ourselves in advance helped us lighten the financial burden because we could buy things little by little over time.
There are a few red flags to keep in mind while looking for your home on wheels
When inspecting vans there are two major things you want to avoid like the plague: rust and extremely high mileage.
Rust is not only a safety hazard, but it can also cost you more money down the line when you might have to replace parts or fix leaks.
When you think you’ve found the van of your dreams, I highly encourage you to have a mechanic meet you before signing.
In the heat of the excitement, it’s easy to forget what to ask about or check in on simple things such as the horn and windshield wipers. A mechanic can help point out any major visible problems you might have missed.
Make sure you’re staying up-to-date on the travel alerts for your destinations
Even now that we’ve purchased our van and started the renovation process, the research doesn’t stop.
In order to be best prepared for life on the road, we’ve created a list of places that we’re planning to explore to keep track of travel updates and restrictions there.
Before you hit the road, you should also always do some research on where you’ll park and sleep for the night because not all parking is free or readily available. Keep a plan A and a plan B in mind.
The iOverlander app is really helpful for familiarizing ourselves with the destinations we have in mind. It provides information on campsites, beautiful hiking trails, and open restrooms.
We’ve also found the FreeRoam app useful because it provides van lifers with detailed lists of free campsites on public land.
As two women who will be traveling alone on the road, we want to ensure our safety and well-being is at the forefront of our minds.
Apps that allow user reviews are one of the most helpful tools for staying safe. Real-time reviews allow other campers to see current conditions, how busy a campsite or parking area is, and if there are any animals or potential threats to keep an eye out for.
Take your time, research, and most of all, have fun
The biggest pieces of advice we have to offer anyone considering van life are to take your time, do your research, and have fun.
No one wants to make the mistake of buying a lemon or jumping into a build without the necessary information to safely succeed. Not only can this cost you time and effort, but it will also seriously eat away at your budget.
Take your time in selecting a van – tour multiple and try to envision your future home. While you’re searching, look up what steps you’ll have to accomplish to achieve your build.
There are so many vans on the market, so you have to trust that your match will arrive. This isn’t the time to settle.
It was admittedly discouraging at times, but I wanted to wait for “the one” instead of settling for something that didn’t meet all of our requirements.
Lastly, don’t forget to laugh, have fun, and know that making mistakes is OK. It’s all a part of the learning experience.