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Van Life: Custom Builds, DIY Van Conversion and Conversion Kits

We recently wrote a post about How to Choose a Van for Van Life. In it we discussed a number of the questions that came up for us as we began the search for the perfect vehicle. In our quest to help people figure out which van to pick, we also realized we might be able to shed some light on the choices you face regarding the inside of your vehicle. If you are going to enter into van life, the interior of the van is arguably just as important as a reliable engine and rust-free body. In this post we discuss your options when it comes to conversion kits, DIY van builds and custom builds.

DIY Van Conversion

Custom Builds, DIY Van Conversion and Conversion Kits | Authentic Asheville

Hindsight is 20/20. Would you make the same choices in building out your van as you did the first go-around?

If you’ve been on any form of social media in the last few years, chances are you’ve seen some really brilliant DIY van conversions. Some of our favorites include @van_yacht, and @funlifecrisis. It’s really impressive that someone was able to take a van and an idea and turn it into something not only practical but beautiful. We entertained the DIY van conversion but only very briefly. The limiting factors for us was a lack of time and relevant skills. When we first got into the Promaster last winter (the start of 2018) we had to be in Arizona for a job in just a few weeks. Though Caroline has a good bit of experience in building things and using her hands, we both felt like converting a van would take more than the skills we had.

There are a few things to take into consideration if you are thinking about a DIY Van Conversion on your Ram Promaster or Sprinter van.

Do you have the tools?
Do you have the time?
Will you have a have a place to work on the van?
What about the skills and expertise? YouTube is a great source of information but the second you drill a hole in your van, well, you’ve drilled a hole in your van.

If you have the time to slowly work on your van, collect materials and learn as you go, a DIY Van conversion might just be the cheapest way to go. (Especially if you find repurposed materials).

Conversion Kits

Custom Builds, DIY Van Conversion and Conversion Kits | Authentic Asheville

The Wayfarer Conversion Kit for the Dodge Ram Promaster City

Another option for those of you wanting to get on the road and experience van life is to purchase a conversion kit. A conversion kit will help reduce the amount of time it take to build out your van. And because a kit already comes in “chunks” or “building blocks” it’ll reduce the amount of actual building you’re doing and focus more on installation.

There are a couple conversion kits on the market these days. We’ve had a positive experience with our Wayfarer Plug-N-Play Conversion Kit which is made specifically for the Ram Promaster City van. With Wayfarer, as with most of the other companies offering them, you can either have them install it or do it yourself. In some ways, a conversion kit can be a mixture of both custom and DIY.

In most cases a conversion kit is a bit more affordable than straight up custom. Most conversion kits are going to cost more than a DIY conversion. That said, they’re almost always more affordable than the next option: a custom van build. We have a lot more information about this kit on our Van Life page.

Some questions to ask when considering a conversion kit:

Will the conversion kit meet my needs?
Where do I have to take my van to get it converted?
How much will shipping cost if I end up doing the installation myself?
How long will it take to install?
Is there a wait list?

Custom Van Builds

Most people really love the idea of a custom built van. Why? Because you can tailor the vehicle exactly to your wants and needs. Solar panels on the top to keep your laptops charged? No problem. Bamboo ceilings for that perfect Instagram look? It can be done. Built-in storage and a toilet? Sure thing. There are several people who have started businesses around custom van build-outs. A little bit of research will put you onto some really amazing rigs. This is the most expensive option of the three but, like a well-fitting suit that’s tailored just for you, a custom van is going to meet most (if not all) of your van life needs. You pay more for personalization.

Two of our top picks for Custom Van Builds

During the process of educating ourselves in custom van builds we narrowed our interest down to a couple of companies: Vanlife Customs based in Denver, Colorado seem great. They’ve done some really beautiful work on Promasters, Sprinters and even Transits. We wrote back and forth a bit during the information gathering process before we realized we just couldn’t justify the money. (Maybe one day?!) They were easy to chat with and super helpful in explaining the process. We’d definitely be interested in continuing the conversation if the day ever arrives where we want a custom van.

We also really like SD Campervans. The women who own and run SD Campervans offer a starter package for those of you who just want to get on the road and spend a minimal amount of money. The prices for the starter package begin at $11,000. They also offer a standard conversion as well as a custom conversion. In addition, they offer two different standard layout options. They detail what you get on their website and also have options for upgrades.

If money isn’t a factor and you have your pick of custom builds, we recommend taking a look at Outside Van in Oregon. We really like some of the rigs they’ve designed and built. At the time this post goes live there are three for sale on their site. The only catch? The lowest price for one of them was $147,000. I know, many homes cost this much and more. But for many van lifers, that price tag is a barrier to entry. But give them a look and don’t rule them out if a limited budget is not a factor for you! Their rigs are sick! They’ll build out Promasters, Transits and Sprinters from 2007 or newer. In addition, Bearfoot Theory wrote a great piece on why she’s choosing them for her second van. You can check that out here.

Some questions to ask if you are considering a custom build:

How much is it going to cost?
How long will it take to build?
Is there a wait list?

Van Life: Custom Builds, DIY Van Conversion and Conversion Kits Recap

The good thing about outfitting your van is that you have options. As with most things in life, fast ain’t cheap and neither is quality. The first step to getting into van life is most certainly finding a vehicle that checks all the boxes: reliable, safe, affordable, etc. (More on that HERE). After that, it’s a matter of figuring out how to turn that vehicle into a home on wheels!

We’d love to hear your thoughts on this topic. Please leave a comment and share your thoughts!

Authentic Asheville is a team of two. We are freelance photographers, writers and web designers. We’re currently accepting projects for 2019! Drop us an email at hello@authenticasheville.com to get in touch!

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How to Choose a Van for Van Life

Ready for a new adventure? One that involves travel? And possibility living out of your van? We’ve spent many, many hours discussing, processing, debating and learning about how and what kind of van we should get for van life. In this post we discuss some of the questions we’ve wrestled with ourselves. Answering them should help you narrow the decision making process and get a van that suits your needs: How to Choose a Van for Van Life. Already picked a vehicle? Head on over to our thoughts on outfitting the inside of your home on wheels.

What’s the best van for van life?

Best Van for Van Life | Authentic Asheville.jpg

Who doesn’t love the look of this van?!

Is it a vintage VW? A mini van? A cargo van from the 90’s? The long and short answer is that the best van for you might be the worst van for someone else. (We’re making the assumption that you’ve decided to actually live in a van and have already ruled out school buses, RV’s, truck campers, etc.) Vehicle choice is a personal decision and one that is going to take a good bit of time to figure out. For starters, though, we’ve found that the following questions are good jumping off points for figuring how to choose the best van for van life.

How much money do you want to spend?

The answer to this question is one of the most important when it comes to figuring out how to choose a van for van life. Your budget is definitely going to impact your options. You might be lusting after a 4×4 Mercedes Sprinter van with clearance, a hitch, a bamboo ceiling and all kinds of internal wiring as well as solar BUT if you can’t afford it, you can’t afford it. Figure out how much money you have (or want to spend) on a van and go from there. There are so many options these days that figuring out your budget is going to be one of the first steps in narrowing your options.

In addition, a new van is likely going to be more expensive than a used van. That said, if you have the experience necessary to fix up a used van, you might be able to save a lot of money by buying a vehicle someone else has given up on. We’ve had two vintage vehicles but we will never go down that route again. Lesson learned! We dumped way too much money into them and ended up abandoning both.

Also, when it comes to money, think about gas mileage. Our Dodge Ram Promaster City gets pretty good gas mileage. It averages about 24 miles per gallon. If you think you’ll be doing a lot of driving, this might be a question to really ask yourself when trying to decide which van to choose for van life.

Starting prices for our top three van life vehicles are below.

Will you be living in the van full-time?

This is another one of the critical questions to ask when deciding which is the best van for van life. Part-time adventures mean you can have a rig that maybe isn’t the perfect fit  but it’s close enough because you can problem-solve relatively easily. For example: the van is missing a shower but you’ll mostly be staying at campgrounds so it’s not a big deal. Or, it’s lacking electrical wiring but you’ll only be using it on weekends so you can bring most of your gear fully charged.

How many people and pets will be traveling?

Space needs will be different based on how many people and pets you plan to travel with. The fewer the people and paws, the less space you will need. Space needs include seats, seatbelts, sleeping spaces, food storage spaces, gear storage spaces, etc … all of which expand as you add more bodies to the trip. We traveled with a dog for a while in our 1976 Toyota Chinook but it was tight. For the last year it’s just been the two of us. We’ve managed to cut down on how much space we’ll need by decluttering (more on that HERE) and making sure that almost everything in the van has at least two purposes.

Do you need to stand up?

What's the Best Van for Van Life | Authentic Asheville

We drove across the country and back in this van and are thankful for good gas mileage!

At first I wrote, ‘Do you want to stand up’ but then I realized, almost everyone is going to want that. It’s one of the main reasons we have outgrown our van (pictured above.) Most of the time being able to stand up isn’t an issue but it really gets the best of us when the weather is bad and we’re cooking and making coffee outside. But purchasing a high roof van is going to impact how much it costs. There are different options for van height but, basically, the taller you go, the more it’s going to cost. That goes for both the cost of the van as well as gas mileage. That said, if you’re only going to be weekending or taking short trips in your van, you might not need the extra height.

Do looks matter?

What the van looks like really comes down to personal preference. For the longest time I really wanted to get a VW van. I just love the way they look. But when it came time to choosing a van, the practical side of things took over. I wasn’t willing to sacrifice reliability for something that looked really great on Instagram. Maybe you are? (Especially if you’re handy with tools and love a good project. In all honestly, I’ll probably always love the way a VW looks but will never own one because I’m too afraid of the costs.) One look at Pinterest will show you that the sky is the limit when it comes to van life aesthetics. That said, often the most affordable rigs are really, really ugly. (A quick scan on Craigslist is bound to turn up all kinds of examples.)

What are your van life needs?

How to Choose the Best Van for Van Life | Authentic Asheville

Making coffee in the rain is one of the drawbacks to a smaller van.

Some van lifers can get by with fewer amenities than others. We have traveled for over a year without a bathroom or running water. There are lots of different hacks to staying clean on the road but if you can get away without a bathroom, you’re going to save yourself money and valuable space.

Another question to ask yourself is whether or not you’ll want a sink, or electricity, running water, a bed that you don’t have to break down or not. The answers to each of these questions is going to impact the amount of space you’ll need and therefore the size of your vehicle.

Conversion kit or DIY van life build?

Another super important question to consider when trying to narrow down which van to choose is whether or not you’ll be using a conversion kit or doing the build yourself. A conversion kit will take a lot less time to install (this means getting on the road faster) but it can potentially cost more money than doing it yourself. A DIY build, however, requires having the skills to do the work or learning them. In addition, building your own van out requires time, tools and the space to do it.

There’s plenty of options when it comes to custom builds but if you’re trying to keep costs low, you can pretty much cross this option off your list. The minute you go custom, the costs start skyrocketing. We’ll post more about the interiors of different vans and their options. For now, we’re going to just stick on the vehicle itself.

Gas or diesel?

Ah, the debates for this one seem to go round and round. Especially on reddit. Personally, we’re big proponents of gas engines. The main reason for us isn’t actually fuel economy or torque (we’re not going to be towing anything) but it’s that we don’t want to have to stress about being able to find a diesel mechanic if we break down.

So, what’s the best van for van life?

Since you made it this far you probably guessed we were going to say “it depends” when it comes to choosing the best van for van life. It’s really all about your needs as van lifers (or weekend users) which are different from one person to the next. But we’ve narrowed our top picks to three:

Dodge Ram Promaster City

This is what we’ve been traveling in for about a year. You can read a ton more about it by checking out our Van Life page. It’s got a Wayfarer Plug-N-Player Camp Conversion Kit in it. It’s great for people who are on the smaller side (especially if there are two of you traveling). It is also great if you are wanting a daily driver (meaning that your van will double as your regular vehicle) and want to still get fairly good gas mileage. It’s also the most affordable option of all the ones listed below. It’s starting price new? $23,995

Dodge Ram Promaster 1500 with a high roof

This is the bigger sibling to the Dodge Ram Promaster City. You can stand up in this van and spread out a bit more (it’s got a super boxy shape to it.) If you’re wondering why we like this one over the Ford Transit, it’s mostly because the base models come with more things than the base models of the Transits. In addition, we like the look of it a tad more than the Ford, it has a few more inches of roof height and we can get a Wayfarer kit for this van. It’s starting price new is $32,695. Again, this is for a high roof. The standard sized roof Promaster starts at $29,295.

Mercedes Sprinter Van

We never really considered buying a new Mercedes Sprinter van because it’s a big jump up in price from the Dodge. Not only does the cost go up for the vehicle itself, but it also prices the conversion kits and van life builds in a much higher group. Rising costs = rising panic. That said, if you can find a used one that hasn’t been in an accident and has low mileage, you might have found a winner. We think it’s a great vehicle and it makes the list because, even though it’s out of our budget, it’s still a great vehicle. New Mercedes Sprinters start at around $36,495.

All of the above vehicles we mentioned above are at the 2018 models.

How to Choose a Van for Van Life Recap

There’s obviously lots to think about when it comes to figuring out which is the best van for van life. Hopefully the information above helps you in choosing a vehicle that fits your needs. If you’ve already picked a great van for van life, hop on over to our next post in this series about Custom Builds, DIY Van Conversion and Conversion Kits.

Please let us know if you think this information was helpful. We’d love to hear from you!

In addition, be sure to check out the full list of van life posts HERE.

Authentic Asheville is a team of two. We are freelance Squarespace web designers, photographers, writers and content creators.

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