Starting Out With The Vanlife: The Build Out

The Escape Pod
The Escape Pod

Thirty-five off and mostly on years of camping and living the vanlife is no joke. I never really thought about how long it has been for me living in my pods until I noticed that on twitter and youtube the vanlifers seem to take pride in how long they’ve been able to sustain living in their nomadic vehicles.

It’s a thing now, this vanlife. This nomadic existence.

I had always thought that one of my missions in life would be to teach people how to live in vans, off the grid, once the shit hit the fan. Given the climate, the economy, our political situation, and the seemingly devolution of humanity, I didn’t think that this would be too far into the future. But it seems that the future is now.

As our climate changes, and the poles shift, and the next mini ice age comes upon us (no kidding, all of this is happening as you read this) the people who are well adjusted to a nomadic lifestyle are going to be the survivors. People are going to have to move with the seasons to find food, and sustainable weather.

I was thinking of actually doing in person workshops, but the youtubers beat me to it. There is no end of youtube videos about living the vanlife – build outs, day to day stuff. I even made a couple myself, but I haven’t really gotten into it. It didn’t seem like what I had to put in a video was all that important. I’ve got vanlife down. Nothing really changes. It’s difficult to know what people want to hear.

Plus, I’m better at writing.

It seemed most appropriate that I start off a vanlife series with considering a build out – the layout and materials used for turning an empty van into a home.

The first thing you want to consider is your simplicity or complexity factor. I’m all for keeping things as simple as possible, at least in the beginning. You can always add as you go along. I’ve done more than a couple of build outs and nothing is more depressing than when I realized the design in my head, the one that I built, doesn’t really work for the day-to-day living experience.

Start out with considering your bed positioning. In many vans this is almost a no brainer, given the width and height of most vans. But even so I made my first mistake with my first bed install. Considering the inside of a VW Bus tin top, I built a single bed platform that I installed along the wall, with my head right behind the driver’s seat. What was I thinking?

The obvious place to build a bed platform in a VW bus is over the engine compartment, with the head at the back hatch door. This means that because the engine compartment will be supporting half of the bed, you can use lighter plywood (I think I used 1/4 of an inch), and that you can put a single bed on it and use the extra platform as a base for shelving or storage. Or you can use all the platform space with a double bed.

The weight of wood that is used in a build out is important. Wood is heavy. But it is our standard material for building. The heavier the wood you use for your build out the lower your gas mileage will be. This is why tongue in groove knotty pine, while being really pretty, is probably not a good choice for flooring, walls, or ceiling. There is a reason why RVs use a lot of particle board in their buildouts – and while particle board is really cheap (in all meanings of the word) stuff, it is lighter in weight than solid wood. So think about what materials you can use for your build out that won’t add a lot of weight to the vehicle.

Instead of thinking “This Old House” remodel, think NASA.

When I think about getting a new cargo van and building it out into a more sustainable nomadic home, one that I can stand up in, I think about what alternative materials might work … Instead of plywood wall panels, why not masonite? It’s thin, strong, durable, can be painted, and if it’s just varnished, it’s a really nice chocolate brown color.

Do you really need permanent flooring? In my VW bus I have the original metal floor, with the original rubber mats (or at least they were the mats that came with the bus when I bought her in 1996), and on top of that, I have a bamboo mat that makes it seem like I have a bamboo floor – but it is removable should I ever want to switch it up. It also only goes between the cab area and the bed frame. Underneath the bed is just the rubber mat which is just fine for the plastic storage boxes to sit on.

One thing you really don’t want is carpeting. It traps dirt, moisture, and bugs.

I am based in California and never do snow travel so the lack of floor insulation is not a problem. If the floor and my feet are cold, I put on my slippers.

Considering environmental issues. I tend to like to be as environmental and eco-conscious as possible. Even though my house uses gas to run, I park and walk as much as possible. I try to use recycled materials or hand-me-downs if I’m building something. I go for quality over cheapness.

The order of building things is up to you. I put in my bed first, so that I could start living and traveling in the pod immediately and then added things as I went along. But I haven’t added much. I think it took me two years before I bought a cooler and a camp stove. My space is pretty much just a rolling bedroom.

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