Planning out a Sprinter camper van conversion

Posted on Wednesday, Jan. 06, 2016 in Van Building

In short, there was no plan. I wasn’t sure I was even going to buy a van until the day I committed to this one. From there, I rushed to buy a one-way ticket from Las Vegas to Connecticut and drove my way back across the country on a hope and a prayer.

I guess it’s not true that there was no plan – there just wan’t a formal one. That drawing you see above, I retroactively drew that months after I built the van out in preparation for some kitchen modifications. There were a lot of ideas in my head from dozens of other build-outs I’d seen online.

Mashing all these designs together in my head, I’d come up with a few requirements for my own van:

This was my basic mental list of desire features. However, time was short until my summer travels began, so I was uncertain how much I would actually complete. I wanted the van to at least be livable for a three month period with a place to sleep, eat and cook.


A few of the above points deserve a little elaboration…

Inexpensive

I didn’t necessarily have a budget in mind for this project, but I just wanted to keep it reasonable. I generally lead a low budget life life and work only when necessary, so keeping the van price low was top priority.

Secondly, I wasn’t sure if this was all going to play out as planned or if I would even like owning a Sprinter. I thought it best to not spend too much on this grand experiment.

I ended up scoring big being able to pick up the van in the condition it was for just $6,000. I was expecting closer or over $10k. This bought me a lot of headroom for the build-out and any potential mechanical repairs.

Stealth

A big chunk of my travels, whether transiting for leisure or for work, unfortunately, take me into cities. I need to be able to slip into the shadows at times and not be noticed. This was easy to do in my Ford Escape, but in a Sprinter Van, this might take a little extra effort.

In the Escape, any residential street could easily become home for the night. In the van, I knew this would be difficult. People don’t like seeing big white panel vans rolling down their streets.

I wanted to keep the exterior as clean and unmarked as possible – no side vents, no drains, no windows, no racks. The roof vent and solar panels will be the biggest issue for me. Both are necessary, but hopefully only the skillful observer will take notice. And even then, hopefully they’ll assume it’s work equipment on an ordinary work van.

Interior

A large bed was important, but I didn’t want to consume the entire interior with it. A lot of people have luck sleeping crossways in the newer NCV3 sprinters as they are a few inches wider. But the T1N models, it would be tight. I may have to build some sort of folding bed system, but I would wait until construction time to think about this.

I wanted to be able to prepare food and drinks inside the van. This would require a sink and a stove. The sink was easy to source on Amazon. I wanted to keep the grey water system simple, so I planned on two five gallon tanks under the sink.

For the cabinets, I figured I could just pick something up from IKEA and hack them to shape. When it came time to do the kitchen, it seemed this method would be a ton of work and it’d be easier to build them from scratch.

Most van build-outs I see don’t have any sort of dining area. I assume most people sit on their bed to eat, or swivel the front seats around. But after traveling with some friends of mine who own a Casita trailer, I learned to love being able to sit everyone down around a table to eat and socialize for the evening. I wanted a party van! Okay, not really. I just wanted a place to sit with a table in front of me. I’d also be working off and on from the van, so I wanted a place to setup my laptop for some grown up duties.

For food storage, a fridge would be great, but I’d traveled for years with just a cooler. I had accumulated a number of REI coupons and gift cards, so I planned to splurge on a YETI cooler. (Later, I would grow disappointed in the YETI, sell it, and work on finding a new alternative.)

Lastly for the interior, I wanted it to look nice. I knew I could go cheap and build out your typical dirtbag van with plywood and cardboard, but I wanted something I could look forward to returning to after a hard days climb and kick my shoes off to relax.

Gear Storage

For both stealth and security, I wanted all gear stored inside the van. When traveling for weeks or month, I did not want bicycles hanging off the back of the van taking the brunt of the weather, ruining my stealth and begging to be stolen. A few layouts can be found where people have built a gear trunk under the bed at the rear of the van. This was my plan. I wanted to travel with a couple bicycles and all of my climbing gear. If I hung the bikes on the back of the van, I could save a huge amount of space on the interior, but that just wasn’t for me.


It took me about a month and a half to build the van out to a travel-ready state. I think most of that time was spent driving back and forth to Home Depot and researching parts and ideas. If I built a second van, I bet I could finish it in a couple weeks since I now know what to buy.