How to Build A Cheap and Easy Camper Van for Weekend Trips
This is the first camper van conversion we’ve done. I suspect it will not be our last. My goal was to get a camper van ready quickly so we could start having adventures. This cheap and easy camper van conversion allows us to take enough stuff for 2 people and a dog on a long weekend. None of our items are affixed to the van, which was quicker to do than a more standard van build.
UPDATE: We’ve actually sold our van and now camp in a massive tent. We loved our trips in the van and still use many of the items from the van in our tent camping setup.
We have a 2009 Ford E350 XLT. The small dealer we bought it from had wired it with shore power, so it has a plug on the driver’s side, like an RV, to hook up to power. On the other side of the van there are two outlets that can be used externally. Inside there is a fuse box and another two sets of outlets. The top of the van has a Carrier air conditioning unit (also like an RV might have). Shore power and a roof top AC were big selling points for us.
Additionally, the van came empty without any seats in the back. The only thing we did to get started was remove the disgusting carpet and the spare tire that was being stored behind the driver’s seat. We figured [for now at least] we’d leave the ceiling upholstery and plastic side wall panels as is. The goal was to get the van usable for trips quickly.
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Prep & Subfloor
To begin our cheap and easy camper van we started with the floor. The bare metal floor had holes where seats had been removed, and there were a few rust spots around them. I sanded down the rust, sprayed it with Rust-Oleum protective enamel and covered the holes with waterproof Gorilla tape. This took an afternoon.
To fill the uneven floor, I cut foam board pieces the size of all the dips. (I used 1/2 inch R-Tech foam bought at Lowe’s, here’s the 1.5″ board.) A half inch was a little thicker that we needed, but we figured it would compress. This took another afternoon.
Next I made stencils of the floor using builder’s paper. I laid out sections of paper and pushed it to the edges of the van, marked with a Sharpie, and cut off chunks. This was a process. A lot of cut, try it, repeat to get along all the contours of the walls and wheel wells. I kept going until there were 3 big pieces of paper that covered the whole floor.
Using the paper stencils, my husband cut out floor panels from 5 mm plywood. We went thin so everything could fit under the plastic wall panels and to keep as much of the height of the van as we could. Only one of the 3 panels needed additional trimming when we test fit it. I sealed both sides and the edges of each panel with Minwax Polycrylic to provide some protection against moisture. With drying times on the panels, this took a weekend.
I found indoor/outdoor rugs at Lowe’s that I cut (with a carpet knife) to fit the van using the wood panels as a stencil. This is the top layer to our van floor. It took two rugs, and I cut one of them longer so it overlaps instead of butting up against each other. This overlap is under the bed frame and not a tripping hazard. We did this as a floating floor, where everything is just laid down and there’s no adhesive. Everything has stayed in place, except the carpet bubbles up some when we slide things around on it.
Our van is full of windows that need covers for privacy. The next step in our cheap and easy camper van was window covers. We ordered a reflective sunshade for the windshield. For the driver side and passenger side windows a friend sewed us some covers that have magnets to hold them to the door frame. I made covers for all of the other windows using the same foam I put under the floor.
Using the builder’s paper again, I made window stencils. I shoved the paper into the window, and attempted to mark the edges with a Sharpie. Then I cut off paper and test fit it until it was the right shape/size. I traced the shapes onto the foam, and cut it with a utility knife. I erred on the side of larger foam inserts rather than smaller because being a touch too big holds them into the windows. For all of them there were lots of test fits. Cutting the foam is messy; it gets everywhere.
I wanted the side of the inserts that would be against the glass to be black, so someone from the outside wouldn’t really be able to tell there was anything in the windows. I painted the white side of the foam with black spray paint. To finish them off, I sealed the edges with black duct tape to prevent foam from ‘snowing’ everywhere.
We hang a cloth shower curtain while in the van. The windshield sunshade has a gap above the rear view mirror, and the front part of the van loses heat on chilly trips. The curtain hangs above the driver & passenger seats on Command hooks to close off the cabin from the rear of the van. It covers the gap the sunshade leaves, and provides a little insulation from the cabin.
We did not build a bed from scratch into our camper van. The back is big enough to hold a queen sized bed, so that’s what we did. We bought a metal bed frame that would fit. I made sure there were no middle legs on the side of the frame because all the ones that had those would run into the wheel wells. The frame we bought is tall enough to clear the wheel wells, and to fit milk crates under. With the 6-inch foam mattress on top, it sits low enough that we can still sit up in the bed without hitting our heads on the ceiling.
Being able to use a standard bed size meant we didn’t have to cut up a mattress, build a custom bed frame, or deal with different size bedding. That made this van conversion a lot easier and faster to get adventuring. We use sheets and comforters we already own. I love my husband pillow for lounging in the van! With lots of windows that aren’t the comfiest to lean against, the husband helps the van be more comfy.
Now for all the stuff that we use on our trips that’s not in our “build’. I’ve sorted this into two categories: stuff that stays in the van, and stuff that gets put in for a trip. We don’t live in our van so we don’t leave everything in the van all the time. Many of our items go into milk crates that slide under the bed. The crates are easy to pack in the house and put in the van when we’re ready to go.
Stuff That Stays in the Van
The Camping Box
This is our junk drawer of the van with sunscreen, bug spray, newspaper for fires, a lighter, toilet deodorizer, rope, a knife, a hatchet, duct tape, solar lanterns, and a flashlight. Old food paperboard boxes help keep things organized. At least until my husband touches it. The solar lanterns hang on hooks in the van to give us light inside at night.
These items live outside once we make it to our campsite. My husband usually hooks the van up to power first thing with an adapter and extension cord. One of us hooks Gimli boy’s tether up to a tree. This allows him to safely roam around and keeps us from having to hold a leash. Gimli has a foldable dog bed to lounge on too. I usually set up our camping chairs and folding table.
Our van has pretty nice storage on each of the front doors, the center console, and a random cubby in the side wall. To keep this a cheap and easy camper van, I picked out ways to add storage without building in cabinetry. We added an organizer to the back of the passenger seat that gives us a place to stash random small items. Trash bags, grocery bags, toilet paper, a deck of cards, and a headlamp live there all the time. While camping it holds phones, chargers, keys, beers, utensils, etc. The back of the driver’s seat has two cargo nets instead. These are slimmer and take up less room. A small trash can keeps our trash in one spot. Lastly, a ratchet strap holds our toilet, fridge, and water jug in place when the van is moving.
Stuff That Gets Put in the Van Each Trip
Fridge + Food Crate + Breakfast Box + Basket
The fridge we use fits well at the end of the bed or in between the driver’s and passenger’s seats. The top is sturdy enough to sit on. It plugs in with a regular plug or into the cigarette lighter (careful of battery drainage). It cools down quickly and is well insulated like a nice cooler. The removable basket inside is handy for packing the fridge before trips. While pricey, this fridge is still significantly cheaper than a 12V one. We’ve been very happy with it!
For other food items, we have 2 crates and a basket. The basket contains dishes, a collapsible sink, a collapsible drainer, utensils, and any other kitchen-y items we need. I bought some cheap Corelle dishes at Walmart as Corelle is known for its durability. The utensils are our regular house ones, but I store them in a utensil pouch from Beego Homemade that I LOVE. It’s beautiful and keeps them from clanging around while traveling. The dish drainer and sink nest together when dishes are drying and keeps water from going everywhere. Those don’t fit in a milk crate, which is why all of this is in a basket. If we take our griddle, it nests nicely on top of the basket.
The food crate has all of our pantry items. The breakfast crate has coffee & tea supplies plus Gimli’s food and bowls. My husband makes coffee with a Chemex and electric water kettle. We grind coffee beans before we go. The water kettle is handy for making ramen, tea, or oatmeal. And it gives us some hot water for doing dishes.
For water we use the big 5 gallon blue jugs from the grocery store with a water pump on top. The water pump charge lasts forever (multiple jugs of water over several months). Mostly this is our drinking/cooking water. Since we don’t have solar or batteries, we stay at campgrounds that have showers & spots for doing dishes. We’ve used the hose from the water pump to refill the jug with our filtered fridge water. No integrated plumbing keeps this a cheap and easy camper van.
Sometimes you need to pee in the middle of the night, or don’t feel like walking to the bathhouse while imbibing by the campfire. That’s where a portable toilet comes in. Don’t forget toilet deodorizer and some toilet paper. I throw our toilet paper in our small trash can. This makes the toilet easier to rinse out after our trip.
Clothes Crate + Toiletries
A milk crate fits clothes for both of us for a weekend easily in warmer weather. Winter trips where we need more layers are harder. The smaller sizes of these compression bags help some. Coats get thrown on the bed while we travel, and in the front seats while we sleep. We shove shoes in the back somewhere or under the front seats.
There’s always random things that either don’t physically fit in the crates or will be put into the van’s existing storage (magazines, a portable speaker, a Switch, hats, etc). I put these in a paper grocery bag to take them into the van, packing an extra bag as well. The paper bag can hold laundry or recycling once the items in it are put away in the van. Paper bags also work nicely if we are having trouble getting a fire started. Stuff that doesn’t have a place fills up the tiny floor space or covers the bed. I’m learning to be better prepared with containers for things.
Overall we’re pleased with our camper van set up. While certainly not experts, we’ve figured out what works for us. If you’re looking to build a cheap and easy camper van, I hope these ideas were useful to you!