The Vanifesto

Here is a data dump on van stuff.

Our van isn't that crazy and has not been expensive (probably 5-6k$ - "real" money, but not if you have looked into having a van "upfitted")…

Most of the products mentioned below are in this amazon list:

*Check to be sure the prices are the best ones before buying anything.

I made a public folder on dropbox with some of my favorite ideas for layouts and furnishings. Not all will be applicable to you:

The 3 files that have “original_layout” in the title are our van in its infancy. I liked this layout with some slight exceptions and would not hesitate to recommend it. The key feature is the conversion between “sleep” and “eat”. The central “hall” is covered by 3 plywood panels that form the expanded bed. The central panel is removed and a leg attached forming a table. The other 2 panels for 2 bench seats.

General Thoughts:

1) Make a list of "systems" or tasks that the van needs to support, and then further define the fundamental features of each category:




Gear storage


Electrical power (lights, fan, fridge, usb/12v charging)

Eat/Work (sitting at table)

2) Make a list of "must-haves" - you may be fine without an interior toilet, your partner may not. We love our arb fridge, others may be fine with a cooler.

3) Generate a short list of "van rules" and try and ensure your design helps support them. You will find that one person in a van is way different than 2 people in a van. Our rules are:

(1) Everything in its place. (You will "lose" things if you don't put them back in the same place every time!)

(2) Rig to Flip. (Everything loose in a van is a potential missile in a crash. It will shift, rattle, or possibly kill you. Tie it all down!)

(3) Stay out of the fucking way. Two people in a van will always be moving around each other. Make it easy to not be in each others way, and try to be considerate.

4) Make a budget and prioritize your needs.

5) Find a dimensioned drawing online, or make one yourself so you can sketch layouts to scale.

6) You may hate Amazon, but building a shopping list there is easy since you can get 90% of everything you need through them.

7) Don't get worried about saving weight. With a simple build you have nothing to worry about. More important is putting weight over the rear axle to balance out the ride. These vans were designed for cargo and the ride sucks without weight in the back. Wash-Board roads are awful!

8) You can't have enough insulation or ventilation, including window shields.

9) It is amazing how quickly your van will get dirty inside. Don't make it hard to sweep/vacuum out.

10) If you find a product made for your van that you like, try and look for alternatives made for regular home (or boat) use. Vans are popular and prices for van stuff are inflated. Example: a screen door for our Sprinter would have been 300$, I bought a large one for a patio door and some rare-earth magnets for 50$. I have seen some furniture from IKEA used effectively in vans…. etc.

11) Keep it simple and spend some time using the van. Keep a van log with notes about what works and what doesn't. Then solve the problems you identify.

Our setup:

We have a 2016 Sprinter, low-roof, 144" WB, 2WD, 2.1L Turbo diesel. This configuration is temporary, we had some water leaks which resulted in me "de-modeling" the van to remove all the soaked insulation.

1) Insulation:

Walls, Doors, Ceiling are 3M Thinsualte SM600L. Floor is a layer of 1/4" Minicell in between the stiffening ribs with a 3/8" layer of minicell over the entire floor. We then use 1/2" heavy rubber "horse stall" mats over that (the rubber is waterproof, durable, and damps vibrations. The mats are available at "farm stores" like Tractor Supply. The Minicell and Thinsulate were purchased from: Before I insulated I put mass-damping material (FatMat) on any large un-stiffened sheetmetal panel. Large panels act like "drum heads". The Thinsualte is expensive, but it is a good insulator, doesn't shed itchy particles, does not absorb water, and is a reasonable sound absorber. It is easy to work with. We use reflectix (mylar coated bubblewrap) only for window shields. For the back windows I also added a layer of 1/4" minicell on one side. At night I face those out to act as light blockers to reduce our "signature" as campers. Condensation control: I have chosen to control condensation by letting the van "breathe" that means I am not isolating the insulation from the interior with a vapor barrier (at least I'm trying not to). I actually plan on installing a very small wood stove for heat/dehumidification/ambiance. The wood stove means I will need to allow outside air inside, but we aren't camping in really cold weather a whole lot. As a side note, I run the A/C often to help remove humidity. Van heating options are expensive and complex to install. Propane options need to combust outside (or vent) Water is a byproduct of propane combustion. The best system I have seen is a gas (or diesel) powered hydronic unit. The unit is outside the van and heats a fluid which is transported through tubes through the floor to a radiator with a fan. It is not cheap!

We run 2 roof vent fans. The one towards the back of the van is wired to pull air "in" and the one just behind the front seats is wired to pull air out. I have them wired together with a motor speed controller so they operate together. I have much more control over fan speed and can run them at very low speed with no noise. It is great!

2) Kitchen:

We currently use a military surplus cabinet (~300$) which has a storage "box" and a table with a shelf. Utensils are stored in high quality milk crates from the Container Store (10$ ea). The crates are secured with bungee cords. It is temporary but convenient. We try to cook outside to keep the humidity and smell down. This winter I will build a proper galley with a slide that will let us pull the stove out the sliding door. I'll try to get a current sketch together for you. Our normal stove is a Camp Chef that has an oven! We feel the oven did not work at high altitude (9500' or higher).

We wash dishes in plastic tubs with a drain built in (See amazon list - Joseph and Joseph" They are convenient as heck and we have a big one and a small one.

Water is from 2 Sceptre MWC (Military Water Container), so we typically have 10 gallons of water. We could use one for "grey" water if we needed to. I plan on getting 1 or 2 collapsable 5 gallon containers for added capacity when needed. We have a "whale hand pump" mounted on the wall near the galley with a tube running into the water can... it is fast and easy. I see no need for an electric pump. We carry 4 squeeze type water bottles for daily use and washing dishes... the squeeze action really helps wash and rinse efficiently. I also have a solar shower setup made with a 5 gallon beer keg that I can pressurize with a hand pump... we rarely use it though. I do plan to add a 12 volt heating element to it so I can divert extra power from the solar to that water. It is low-priority though. I would get a hand-pump style pesticide sprayer, paint it black, and use that for a solar shower.

We have an ARB chest style fridge. We love it and would not be without it. Well worth the cost. It is sturdy enough that you can sit on it and the height is perfect.

Garbage is/will be a plastic 5 gallon bucket with a "Gamma Seal" sealing lid. A duplicate setup is also a great low budget toilet for "solid waste" when combined with clumping kitty litter. You can "line" the 5 gallon bucket with a trash bag, put the gamma lid ring on, then have another bag inside that "receives" the waste. I pee in a dedicated nalgene canteen with the letter "P" boldly marked on it... to avoid any confusion.

I'm sure you saw my sliding door mounted work surface at the Roundup. Need to tweak it a bit but darn do I love that idea!

3) Solar/Power/etc.

Ok. Power. The reality: Electric power is the place where you can spend the most money and make the most mistakes. I would do one of two things: 1) Buy a Goal Zero Yeti 3000 and add-on solar panel(s) and be done with it, or brew your own system. I recommend spending the money for the self-contained system because: A) you don't need to learn a ton about electronics, 2) it is portable and can be charged in your house, or used in the home in case of emergency power outages. 3) it is phone-app enabled and easy to monitor. One thing I don't know is if you can charge the system easily from your vehicle alternator. (more on that in a bit).

I chose to homebrew a system because I enjoy tinkering and can't resist my engineering urges. I would probably buy the goal zero (or something similar) if i was starting from scratch. Our system is basically: 2x 160 watt panels on the roof, a charge controller and monitor, 2x 100Ah Sealed solar storage batteries, a small (300w) inverter so we can run a couple of AC appliances (hand blender, bluetooth speaker, and charger for our MAC laptops.) We also just installed a Sterling Pro Battery to Battery charger. When the "Starting" battery is full, it diverts current to the "House" storage batteries. This is a great way to charge (solar is too, it just takes longer). Many people use a "Automatic Charging Relay", but this requires running heavy cable from the Alternator to the "House" battery... This is a total pain! The starting battery in the Sprinter is located under the driver's feet so it was easy to run the cables for the Sterling.

A note on panels: You typically want to park your van in the shade, but your panels want to be in the sun. Mounting panels on the roof of the van is convenient, but not optimal based on actual use. I would not mount on the roof, but use flexible 160W panels and either set them on the roof when parked, or move them into the sun with extension cables. If I wanted to mount the panels I would still use the flexible ones. You can glue them directly to the roof and they are only 1/8" thick so will cause no wind noise and be invisible from casual observers (again making your van not look like a camper).

If you want to homebrew your own system I can provide more insight. It is very easy to put together something useful for not much money but hard to describe.

An alternate, and also easy solution is to buy a high capacity lithium-ion battery and the Sterling charger and only charge from the vehicle alternator. Batteries like the LifeBlue have built in bluetooth and an phone app to monitor their state of charge / health. Be aware that most Lithium batteries are not good below freezing (you can't draw much power, or charge them) Life Blue has a "low-temp" option which includes a heating element.... I plan on replacing our batteries with one (or two) of those.

We use a simple fuse block (made by Blue Sea Systems) to distribute the 12v loads. Really I just have a bunch of little led light bars, and several usb charging ports. I also hardwired in a propane leak detector

4) A note on cutting holes in your van:

You probably will have to, even if it is just some round holes for a cable or hose. Every hole is a potential leak. Anytime you cut a hole, be sure to prime the exposed metal with an "etching primer", and then seal the heck out of everything with Dicor Lap Sealant, Dicor tape, etc. Always clean the surfaces to be sealed or bonded with denatured alcohol to remove grease/oil/wax/silicones.

I am now a huge fan of using 3m UHB tape to attach things to the van. My solar panels are literally "stuck" to the van roof. No screws. I encapsulate the panel mounting feet and the tape with Dicor to keep water out and preserve the tape.

4) Sleeping:

After a bunch of trial and error we now use, and are happy with, (2) 25"x75" 3" thick "tri-fold" memory foam mattresses. Each one is 1/2 of a full sized bed. They fold up into a 25x25x12" thick foam block which is easy to get out of the way. Note: When you raise a bed off the ground (platform) the cold air really can chill your back. These are warm (but not too warm)

4) Building van furniture...

Wood/Steel/Aluminum. I kinda hashed this out on Facebook but wood is the easiest/cheapest but can be frustrating. Aluminum is fine if you weld stuff up but very expensive if you use the 80/20 style aluminum extrusions. Steel is great, but again you need to weld it. Once my design is solidified I expect to weld up steel frames (.75"x.75"x.060" wall tubing) then attach 1/4" or 3/8" skins to them. For platform supports you can make very stiff (but light) "I-Joists". An I-joist in this case is either a 2x2 or 2x3 with a groove routed (or cut) into it. These form the "top" and "bottom" horizontals of the "I". A 1/2" plywood web is cut and then bonded into the groove with construction adhesive. A 100$ "palm" or "trim" router will do this. Bonus, with the router you can also round-over or chamfer all the edges to avoid splintering and protect you and your gear. I have three I-Joists supporting a bed platform. The platform is high enough that I can slide standard storage tubs into the cubbies. The platform is secured to the van using turnbuckles (absolute must!). Since your van has a high roof you will probably have a different layout. I also made a "gear hammock" to hold light stuff up close to the roof. We put bedding and soft stuff up there... it worked fairly well.

5) Keeping it clean.

Constant battle. We have a long handled broom and dust bin and a small hand brush/bin for nooks and crannies. I will be getting a cordless blower/inflator soon. I tried a cheap cordless vacuum but it is very weak. Remember that we often travel with Leon the Cat, so keeping tracked litter to a minimum is paramount.

6) Awnings: We have and really are happy with an ARB awning. Anything that helps keep the van cool and increases usable space is great. Especially in the desert. It looks like Thule has a new awning that people really like:

7) Storage:

We use a combination of totes with latching lids, bins, and duffles. Stuff that we rarely use but still need goes in totes with latching lids, things that need some sort of organization tend to go in the milk crates, and clothes and gear go in duffles. In general, things stored under the platform are not lashed down. The back of the platform is closed by the rear doors, the front has a simple cord running across it to prevent things from moving forward, and the platform itself is secured using turnbuckles. I recommend duffles for clothes and gear since they are easier to move in and out of the van - we pack inside the house and then move to the van. Mesh river rafting style duffles are good since they breath (we need to get some).

8) Fastening things to the van:

Fastening. For any lashing point I try to use an existing hole in the van sheetmetal. I use at least a 1/4-20 threaded eyebolt or eye nut ( I run a plain hex nut up to the eye, then add a fender washer. That goes through the hole in the van and is backed by another fender washer and a nylon-locking hexnut (to prevent vibration loosening it). This can be difficult to install and there are some tricky tools you can fashon to help reach places that are just out of hands-reach. For eye nuts you use a bolt and fender washer from the inside, fender washer and eye nut outside, and use silicone caulk on the eye nut threads to prevent loosening.

I also have used “rivnuts”. This installs like a “pop-rivet” but leaves a threaded hole. They are a bit difficult to install, or at least to see if you have clinched them enough. I don’t recommend them unless you invest in a 120$ install tool.

Lots of folks just use self-tapping sheet metal screws for lightweight stuff. They are convenient but can vibrate loose leading to rattles. Use sparingly and apply a silicone caulk to act like “Loctitie”.

Another good option is a well nut ( These provide a good seal and damp vibration, but are not as strong as rivnuts. 200lbs for a 1/4-20 when installed in the thin sheetmetal of the van.

As for material, I tend toward mid strength steel (grade 5 or better) but admit to using whatever I can find or already had. I make up for lack of certainty over what materials were used by using a larger quantity. Our platform is held down in 8 places with 1/4-20 hardware. As soon as you move to true structural stuff the price goes up considerably (non-structural turnbuckle = ~5$, Structural = 25$) I do plan on swapping out at least 1/2 of the crappy ones for structural ones. Our lives are worth 100$!

One note on platforms and other things than span the interior walls. Be careful not to “pull the walls together”. You want the platform to be sized so that it fits snugly, and the fasteners just pull the walls against the “spacer” that is the platform. I can draw a diagram if needed.

tom wetherell