This article is about the whys, hows and whats of my "Van Life" experiment - to live in a van!

WHY

For quite a while I've been interested in sustainable living (off grid living, solar, aquaponics, vegetarianism).

Earthship

Building an Earthship one day felt like a dream. I think I originally found out about them from the TV show Grand Designs.

"Australia's first Earthship" on The Nate Max Project

Image (above) of "Australia's first Earthship".

An Earthship is a type of passive solar house that is made of both natural and upcycled materials such as earth-packed tires, pioneered by the architect Michael Reynolds.

An Earthship addresses six principles or human needs: 1) Thermal/solar heating and cooling, 2) solar and wind electricity, 3) contained sewage treatment, 4) building with natural and recycled materials, 5) water harvesting, and 6) food production.

Earthships are intended to be "off-the-grid ready" homes, with minimal reliance on public utilities and fossil fuels. They are constructed to use available natural resources, especially energy from the sun and rain water. They are designed with thermal mass construction and natural cross ventilation to regulate indoor temperature. The design is intentionally simple, for example single-storey, so that people with little building knowledge can construct one.

Source: wikipedia.org

Seven Directions - Big Sky Earthship is an incredibly beautiful Earthship in Montana, USA.

Earthship | New Solutions explains Earthship processes and components.

Earthship Design is an Earthship shown on "Grand Designs".

Tiny House

A few years ago I discovered the Tiny House movement which was exciting. It felt like a more achievable potential step toward sustainable, more affordable living.

The Odyssee From Baluchon

Image (above) - The Odyssee From Baluchon

Super High Spec Professionally Built Tiny House is a video from New Zealand YouTube channel Living Big in a Tiny House.

Escape Vista is a nice example of company offering quality Tiny House builds.

#VanLife

I think I stumbled upon "Van Life" via The Cinder Cone tree house and their Ute Camper. It was another exciting moment - seeing what people had done with vehicles for camping and even living permanently.

"Van dwelling" kind of clicked for me as something that could actually really work for me in the near term future - even with the initial negative "guy who lives in a van" perception of most people.

  • High house prices (especially in Auckland, New Zealand).
  • I don't want to slave away for 20+, 30+ years paying a mortgage.
  • I don't want to continue to pay for someone else's mortgage (rent).
  • More sustainable living (solar power, energy efficient appliances).
  • Minimalist living (re-evaluate what is important, de-clutter).
  • Semi off grid / partly-independent.
  • Can travel, explore, adventure, live anywhere!*.

*= probably not anywhere.


HOW

Van References

I've spent quite a while looking at different examples and gathering van references to draw inspiration and learn from.

4x4 Sprinter Van Conversion - Full Camper Van Tour is an awesome Sprinter camper tour with kitchen bench, shower, storage, sofa bed.

The Vanual van beauty shot

Image (above) - The Vanual is a beautifully finished low roof van with full sized bed and a kitchen bench. The website is well designed and documents each step of the build.

Custom T6

Image (above) - Custom T6 is a beautifully finished low roof van with bed, storage and kitchen.

Camper Conversion Sprinter 4x4 is a tour of a really nice camper with a layout I really like: full size permanent bed, seating and table area that expands to seat four when driver and passenger seats spin around, shower and a kitchen bench.*

Sprinter Van Conversion Tiny House Tour with same layout as video above but on a much older van.

Renault Goulette - New Mexico

Image (above) - Renault Goulette - New Mexico

"The Ultimate Adventure Vehicle" is a crazy impressive custom made "all season 4x4 RV" built on a ex-military chassis.

RAM ProMaster Stealth Adventure Van Tour is a fairly similar layout but extended length and bed-lift but no shower.

RydaVan is a camper where everything folds away for weekday work hauling.

Pompiiiii details a couples budget van build for traveling made with recycled materials.

Rickvanman is a DIY camper build out with shower, kitchen and small sofa bed.

Nate Murphy explains "How to convert a Van in to an Off-Grid Camper in 17 Days!" in a DIY overview video on a full height Transit.

Further inspiration and references at van-life.net, and an active Reddit community at /r/vandwellers.

Build a Green RV is an excellent website detailing a full RV build with pros and cons for different options at each stage of a build, explaining what he chose, why and if he would do anything different on a new build.

Cargo Van Conversion is similar to "Build a Green RV" above and walks through a DIY Ford Transit conversion.

Van Options

I decided I wanted an extended/full-height roof which would allow me to stand up. Considering my intention to live in the van full time I think having a low roof, and having to crouch all the time would be an annoying problem.

I knew I wanted a "stealth van" meaning that from the outside, the van would look like a plain and normal working van. No garish camper stickers on the outside, not even any vents or doors if possible, tinted/blacked out windows and a stock cabin. The goal being that since the van won't look like someone is living in it, there will hopefully be a little more freedom with parking options.

I knew I wanted a manual as I much prefer the increased control of the vehicle and fuel savings - especially in such a large vehicle.

I preferred not to have a turbo as I didn't really like the idea of the increased complexity, and didn't require additional performance. This may be a misconception.

Living in New Zealand the vans options that met my requirements seemed to be: Ford Transit, Fiat Ducato, Volkswagen Crafter and Mercedes Sprinter.

The Ford Transit seemed like the obvious choice for me, they appeared to be very popular, decent priced and a trustworthy brand.

I was less keen on a Fiat Ducato being a European brand (assuming more expensive), seeming to be less popular (although very popular for full size RVs) and to a lesser degree: I didn't really like the look of it.

I was also less keen on a Volkswagen Crafter. Again being European I assume it would cost more to fix in New Zealand, it seemed to be less popular. Doing a bit of research I realized the Crafter's exterior was basically a Mercedes Sprinter but with minor Volkswagen changes. The motor apparently was also inferior compared to the Mercedes Sprinter's engine.

Also I initially ruled out a Mercedes Sprinter too. It seemed like it was less popular in New Zealand as a cargo van and more expensive compared to the Ford Transit (again European, but also the Mercedes brand).

Van Search

I started keeping an eye on Trade Me... and spent a lot of time looking at... Transits.

Building up a spreadsheet with all details possible and visiting vans helped give me a bit of a sense of what things were worth and what was a good deal. Due to the many facets of vehicles (make, year, odometer, engine etc) there doesn't seem to be a simple "cost per x" to stack vehicles up against each other like there seems to be for other things (insulation, fridges etc).

I know very little about engines so that side of things was my biggest worry - certain to get a professional mechanical inspection done on anything I was very serious about purchasing.

I found two Transits I liked at Turners and liked them enough to attend an auction.

Turners Auction

Image (above) - Turners Auction.

It was pretty stressful, even though it was fairly empty. I didn't bid at all as the van I was watching was bid outside of what I was willing to pay.

Elsewhere I test drove a VW Crafter and didn't enjoy it. It may have been because it was automatic but it felt sluggish, especially gear changes.

Anecdotally a courier I spoke to said that they "are all moving away from Transits and buying Sprinters" as they trust the reliability over Transits which they have had a lot of problems with - even brand new ones.

Van Comparison Spreadsheet

Image (above) LWB High Roof Van Comparison - 2016-01 - spreadsheet I made comparing available vans.


WHAT

The Van

I ended up finding a Sprinter that was in my budget. After seeing the van, meeting the nice family that owned it (courier driver) and taking it for a test drive I was pretty happy with it. It has several bits of exterior panel damage, and little bits of rust that needs fixing. It is a well used working van (245,000 KMs) with minor damage and wear to show for it, but drove well and was in good shape considering.

It seemed perfect to me.

The mechanical inspection showed up a decent list of things that needed to be replaced or fixed, but nothing major. I was able to reason the price down to help cover the work that needs to be done.

My Sprinter 1

My Sprinter 2

My Sprinter 3

My Sprinter 4

My Sprinter 5

My Sprinter 6

Next steps

Sleep phase

  • Strip out cargo space
  • Clean
  • Planning the build / layout
  • Make and install temporary curtains
  • Put mattress in
  • Sleep in and get a feel for the space

Camp phase

  • Fix mechanical issues
  • Fix rust patches
  • Install insulation*
  • Install flooring*
  • Install any vents, windows, fan(s)
  • Install walls and ceiling panels*
  • Make and install curtains
  • Camp in and test layout, see what changes / additions are required

*= insulation, flooring and paneling might change order or be installed in a temporary manor to allow for seat, shower, solar panel install.

Living phase

  • Install solar setup
  • Install seat
  • Install shower
  • Install bed
  • Install kitchen
  • Install cabinets
  • Finishing
  • Move in!

I do not want to wake up when I am old and regret not doing what I believed in.

Don't want to work hard in a job I don't like to pay for stuff I don't need because its the normal thing to do, or "everyone else is doing it".

In the end, we don't know when we will die. Doing more of what you enjoy, and less of what you don't seems like a logical thing to do while you are still alive.

While I have not made great strides in the goal... "Financial independence" always seemed like a smart thing to work toward. The way to do that is to increase passive income - money you make that requires no/little work/upkeep IE: interest on savings/term deposits, dividends on investments, freehold rental property income, selling completed digital goods (games!), Unconditional Basic Income (UBI) etc and decrease outgoing expenses. Doing this to the point that your passive income exceeds your living expenses means you are "financial independent" - completely free to spend all your time on what you think is important.

I don't know how long I will live in a van. I'd like to think I can manage for at least five years, but who knows. I might not even like it. Five years ago if you had told me I would be gladly living in a van I would not have believed you.

See what happens.