Inexpensive DIY Camper Van
Low Cost Self-Contained Micro RV Setup Fits in a Minivan.
No Construction Required.
This web site explains how we built a Town & Country minivan RV that can travel and sleep 4 people, with a comfortable bed, toilet, sink, shower, water heater, electric clothes dryer, refrigerator, 2 coolers and additional dry food storage, indoor electric oven, solid fuel stoves, outdoor grill and other cooking equipment, a large indoor work surface and activity area, 12 gallons of fresh water storage, wardrobes for year round indoor/outdoor use, air conditioning, heat, ventilation fans, outdoor table, chairs, changing/bathroom tent (in addition to the complete indoor bathroom facilities), separate lounging and sitting areas inside (in addition to the bed), all necessary tools, electronic equipment, lots of comfy pillows and blankets, etc. The van is totally self contained, so no external hookups are required to operate any of the water, HVAC, or electric systems. We only need 150ah of house battery power and we can use an optional 120 watts of packable solar to run everything. The automated electric charging system is completely sustainable, even when all electric devices are used full time. We keep the van packed with many additional amenities. For entertainment, we carry 2 ultralight pack boats and a full complement of hiking/camping equipment (enough to sleep 4 more people outside), indoor and outdoor games and toys, a guitar recording/practice setup, multiple extra batteries for computers and small devices, fire safety equipment, etc. and lots of empty space to store and/or haul additional varied items inside. All essential systems have redundant emergency backups (power, water management, heating/cooling, cooking, sleep systems, etc.). We keep the entire exterior of the vehicle available to carry bikes and other big items on the back, and the roof rack remains totally free for a large removable carrier or other bulky equipment.
The entire setup cost less than $9000, including the vehicle, and we have more functionality, comfort, and mobility than you'll find in most $100,000+ class B RVs.
This web site and the accompanying videos show exactly what I purchased to create our unique micro camper, and how you can do the exact same thing, without any previous knowledge or skills. This project took months of planning and testing, following years of previous experiences living on the road and in unusual/small living spaces, and then more trial and error refinement in use, to come up with the current setup. It's been a fun and rewarding undertaking. The possibility of getting complete livable functionality into such a small space is much better than we'd ever expected. The resulting RV has been a regular part of our lives since it was put together. It provides tremendous lifestyle freedom, it's totally comfortable and convenient to use, and it travels as easily and fuel efficiently as a car.
One of the biggest benefits of our camper setup is that it requires absolutely no construction or modifications to the vehicle, and can be entirely taken apart in less than 10 minutes, leaving the stock vehicle exactly as it was purchased. I put together our current RV setup in a minivan, but it can be moved between vehicles as desired, in a matter of moments if I want more space to move around, to carry special equipment, more people, etc. I use the current vehicle for regular daily commuting and hauling. It drives just like a car, and even with the full camper setup installed, I can haul a huge pile of equipment in the available interior open space. The pre-owned Town and Country vehicle I purchased was inexpensive, and can be easily put to work as a passenger van for 7 people when needed. I can swap it out with just about any other minivan, van, trailer, or even a cabin or other permanent structure of any size and type, whenever and wherever I want a tiny completely self contained living area.
It should be noted that, although I'm comfortable with "camping" and living in unusual ways, my fiance is not. The goal of this project was to create a space that is 100% "domesticated female approved". The result is close to being as comfortable as home, and feels/works absolutely nothing like traditional "camping". For us, the setup we've created is far more convenient and pleasant than staying in hotels. We both prefer to have our own bed, shower, toilet, etc. which hasn't been pre-shared with strangers. The vehicle is always conveniently ready to go, whenever we want to travel somewhere fun, or even when we just want to have the comforts of home available at a nearby local event (it gets used constantly that way). The vehicle requires no special parking or storage space, no special handling skills, and no more maintenance than a typical family car (none of the winterization or other special servicing required by RVs).
We wasted a lot of money trying different items to find the best solutions to every problem encountered in building our micro camper - often the devil was in the details of each specific product choice. This web site is the result of lots of time spent using
the solutions we've come up with, and every effort has been spent here to point out the most important features and reasons for choosing the best specific products for our needs. If you find this information helpful and want to support some of the work that's been done, please use the provided Amazon affiliate links
to purchase any needed items, if you decide to buy something. Doing so won’t cost you anything additional, and we'll earn a small percentage, even if you choose to buy unrelated items.
In this text and the related videos, I cover a lot of minute details about how we choose to organize our space and the most used components. Hopefully, this will give you some ideas about how to make a small living space work. However you choose to prioritize and organize your own setup, it's important to realize that those minute details make all the difference when you're staying in such a tiny space.
Disclaimer: I'm not a professional regarding any topic described here, and anything I say or describe could be completely incorrect, dangerous, or potentially deadly. Don't try anything I recommend on this site or in my videos, without first researching everything to be sure it's safe. Get the help of a qualified professional before attempting any potentially dangerous endeavor.
The first thing you need is a bed. Over the years, I've spent a lot of time in unusual living situations, traveling on the road, camping out at work sites, backpacking, etc. I've stayed for extended periods in RVs, on inflatable mattresses, sleeping pads, hammocks, futons, etc. For this particular project, the quality of the bed was very important. For health reasons and because we needed to satisfy specific physical requirements, our sleep solution needed to be basically as comfortable as the bed at home.
In order to fit in a minivan, we couldn't use any bed size larger than a twin. We did extend the size of the bed surface later with some simple pillow additions on top of other equipment which sits beside the bed, achieving the equivalent of a full size mattress space. We are thoroughly pleased with the solution!
After some trial and error, we settled on this bed: (links
At the time of our purchase, the bed above cost $174, but it's currently priced at $143, and I've seen it go as low as $99, with the frame, pad, and even a big storage bag. There are several reasons this item satisfied our needs better than any other on the market. First, it's a true 38 inch twin size setup, as opposed to the more common 32" cot size. Anything smaller than a true twin would have made sleeping 2 people virtually impossible. Two thinner sized camp cots side by side would have fit the minivan, but having support bars in the middle of two cots is just not comfortable at all. Second, the 14" mattress height of this particular bed frame was perfect for storing containers underneath. The common 12" Sterilite and other brand storage containers slide in and out underneath it perfectly (we'll discuss that later in depth - it's critical to our setup). Third, the frame of this unit is stronger and more comfortable than those of typical spare bed "cots". Most cots use springs around the perimeter of the frame to support a piece of cloth which acts as the main support for your body. This type of support tends to sag and force you to sink down uncomfortably after periods of use, and for 2 people, the effect is to be constantly pressed together. Unlike a cot, the full metal construction of the frame in this unit creates a strong and supportive flat surface. Fourth, this unit is foldable, which makes it possible for us to travel 4 people when needed, and also makes it easy to store and move the unit whenever we want. We based the entire camper setup around this bed because it fit perfectly as the centerpiece of our tiny design. It's a cost effective and quality piece compared to other options.
In order to be completely comfortable, we needed to add this 2" gel memory foam topper: (links
) With that addition, the bed is truly as comfortable as most normal home mattresses.
The twin size bed is very small for 2 people, so I put pillows on top of a cooler and other items which are the same height, and which take up the entire space beside the bed. The pillow surfaces end up being the exact same height as the bed surface, so this extends the bed perfectly to the full width of the van, giving us all the room we need to spread out in complete comfort.
My previous experience using futons for extended sleep arrangements proved to be nowhere near as comfortable as this bed setup. We also tried several versions of stacked sleeping pads, hammocks, and other solutions, but everything else was far from being as natural feeling or relaxing to sleep on. Don't make the mistake of skimping on your sleeping solution. Those convenient looking futons, pads, hammocks, and other lesser solutions really don't cut it. You simply won't enjoy anything about the experience if you don't have a truly comfortable place to rest. A real bed like this does the job, and helps make the space instantly feel more like home.
The space under the bed is our primary storage area in the little RV. We use these containers: (links
We initially used much bigger containers, but they were difficult to move around, and became easily cluttered. Smaller containers can be shifted about and accessed easily. This size container also enables easy organization of items, and intuitively encourages the use of space saving pieces of equipment. You're less likely to think of including unnecessarily bulky equipment in your storage area, if you use reasonably sized containers. Everything we need fits nicely into categorically separated bins. Clothes get their own bins, electrical equipment, tools, heaters/fans, games/toys/entertainment, "camping" equipment (hammocks, tarps, fire building stuff, saw, etc.) - everything is neatly organized according to purpose, and each bin is placed where it's most accessible for it's intended use. The outdoor equipment bins that only get used at a camp site, along with other separately packed things like the outdoor table, chairs, sun shade, pack boats, etc., are immediately accessible from the rear hatch back door of the vehicle. We can back up to a camp site and have everything needed to set up outside, all right there, without having to dig around or move things inside the van. The bins which are most used while we're in bed at night and in the morning, live directly underneath the most accessible outside perimeter of the bed frame. This principle holds true for the placement of absolutely everything in the van: lights, fans, food, etc. Everything that we need while driving is immediately handy while we're on the road. Everything is literally within arm's reach, and we don't want to have to shuffle around boxes, open multiple doors, or rifle through multiple containers whenever we're involved in a single activity. One area of the vehicle is set up to handle all our water management needs, and everything related to using water (soaps, toothbrushes, electric razor etc.) are all contained in a basin in that area.
After several incarnations of the RV which used various storage solutions, bins under the bed ended up providing far and away the largest, easiest to organize, least expensive, simplest, least troublesome, and most practical way to get the most functionality into a small space. It's easy to be tempted by more complex options, but we have more accessible storage in our little minivan than you'll find in most commercial class B RVs.
I've spent a lot of time in RVs, and situations related to RV sewage management have been no less than psychologically scaring. RV black water systems can cause distressing trouble. At best, when everything is new and working well, they're just a little gross to manage. When things break, or even just get old, the situation can quickly become totally disgusting, and turn into a real health hazard. If you ever have to live with the smell and trouble caused by a broken or improperly functioning RV black water system, you may never want to see an RV again.
We chose to use the smallest and simplest toilet possible: (links
The unit above is sturdy, contains no moving part but the lid, and requires no running water. It uses a gelling chemical power which can be purchased from several manufactures (links
). The gel ensures that liquid is immediately trapped, so that spills are virtually impossible. The gel also helps to eliminate smells and speed the breakdown of waste. The gelling powder is contained in a bag which simply sits inside the bucket, and the bucket is covered with a normally shaped toilet seat and lid. You can buy pre-made bags which contain the powder and include a second sealable surrounding bag which is used to totally contain the waste bag (and usually some toilet paper, sanitary handy wipes, etc.). You can also choose to use any brand of quality 13 liter plastic bags, and buy the chemical powder separately. We found the pre-made bags for $100 per 100, and the powder for $69 per 120 scoops (you can also use other environmentally conscious products such as those based on shredded coconut husks):
When you are done using a toilet waste bag, it gets twisted up and then sealed up in the second zip locked container bag, which can then be immediately discarded in any garbage receptacle. At first the idea sounds disgusting, but it's dramatically simpler and cleaner than dealing with a black water sewage system, or god forbid, with a "porta-potty"/cassette system. With the bag system, your waste never touches any other surface but the bag itself, so there's really nothing to clean except the toilet seat. We regularly wipe down the whole unit, but we never have to clean up black waste like you do with any other solution. Try cleaning up a portable flushable potty a few times, experience what it's like to manually dump the waste from a cassette system, fix a broken sewage seal on an RV, or deal with splashing or leakage at public dumping stations, and you'll very quickly learn to appreciate the brilliantly simple solution which the Luggable Loo provides.
If you do prefer a flush toilet, a little porta potty is certainly a possible solution, but even the smallest flush potties require more space, quite a bit of water, a place to dump waste, much more disgusting cleanup activities, and they make possible the potential horror of spilled waste storage tanks, etc.
If you're going to live in your RV full time, you may want to look at a composting toilet. They're a great long term solution, but for our needs they're a bit too big, unnecessarily expensive, and they require more installation and maintenance than we saw fit. Composting toilets do require some modifications to your vehicle's body.
If you're worried about dumping bagged gelled waste, be aware that municipalities generally allow for it without reservation because of the need to dispose diapers and adult incontinence products.
When we're not staying in the van, we cover the Luggable Loo in a big nylon bag, so that there's not an obvious toilet sitting out in plain view for people to see. We keep a large supply of chemical powder bags, toilet paper, some extra plain powder, wet naps for cleaning the toilet lid and bucket, etc. stored inside the bucket. It takes 30 seconds to set up the toilet, and just a minute to clean up and put everything away neatly for travel.
In normal use, the loo sits ready to use near the main entry behind the driver's seat. We don't have any special enclosure around it, as that would take up more space than we're willing to devote to it. We do use a curtain to privately separate the front seat area from the cabin, which also completely hides the back area from outside view. The way we utilize the system, waste bags are never used for more than a day. If a situation arises in which smell could become any sort of problem, we immediately throw away the waste bag and open windows for a few seconds. That has never been a problem, and we generally choose to use our toilet setup over public facilities (some RV owners only use their black tanks as a last resort ... which seems like a ridiculous situation, for anyone who wants to stay in an RV). I like to travel in the van, even locally, whenever there's a chance that public facilities might not be pleasant. I'm a performing musician, so the van gets used a lot for transporting equipment, and the on board toilet is a nice amenity to have in any performance situation.
The entire toilet setup is as portable as can be. When camping with a larger group, we've chosen to move it to a shared outdoor pop-up tent (the type used for showering and changing (links
)). In situations like this, the loo can be moved in and out of that tent whenever people want to use it for showering, changing, etc.
Shower and Water Management System:
I like to take a shower every day. For a period of 4 years, I traveled to and "camped out" at various spots around a work site which I owned (permanent residence was not allowed there according to zoning requirements), and showering was a big problem. I've used publicly available showers, truck stops, etc., and that's not something I will ever do again.
Normal showers require lots of water, and lots of power to heat the water. Overcoming these obstacles was one of the biggest hurdles in building a fully self contained tiny van.
To get an idea of how much water and power is needed for showering, the average American typically uses 17.2 gallons. For several of the years at my work site, I used a tiny 6 gallon residential water heater, and was able to take somewhat satisfying showers year round, but only if I stopped the water from running whenever I wasn't actively washing or rinsing off.
My first self contained camp shower used this USB chargeable battery powered shower head: (links
) It could get the job done with 3 gallons of water. The best way I found to heat 3 gallons of water was with this bucket heater: (links
) That heater requires 1000 watts of power, so it's only usable if you have a generator or a hookup to mains AC power somewhere. I wanted my camper to be fully self contained, without any need to stay at a powered camp site. For me, the ability to boondock, "stealth camp", etc., was a primary requirement, and I didn't want to need a generator - they're bulky, loud, smelly, require fossil fuel, etc. I do still carry the above USB shower head and bucket setup in the van, to use in some instances when unlimited water and power are available. It might be nice when camping with kids, for example, when an outdoor shower tent is set up (we carry one of those all the time in the camper too, though it's only ever gotten used when weekend camping with a group). Be aware that keeping a solution like this dry and clean takes some time and effort, and the unit does require regular charging of the batteries.
I've also tried this shower unit: (links
) It provides very hot water and good water pressure without the need for a battery operated pump, but it does require propane, and again is really only practical for outdoor camp site or cabin use. This particular product has a very fast flow rate, so despite its volume, you need to be really quick to take your shower or the water will run out, and you'll need to wait at least 10 minutes for more hot water.
For my final solution, I choose to use this awesome little device, which functions as both a portable sink and shower head: (links
) We use this device indoors and out, and it's one of my absolute favorite items in the entire van setup. I consider it one of the few uniquely essential pieces which made the camper van possible, because it reduces our water and power needs so dramatically, and cuts down on the needs for so many other pieces of equipment while still providing thoroughly comfortable functionality.
I've tried many other shower solutions such as various incarnations of solar showers (links
), bottle shower devices (links
), sprayers in the same category as the one above, both bigger and smaller (links
), sponge bath setups, foot pump units, etc., and nothing comes close to the capability of the sprayer unit above. You'd think that something like a bottle shower or sponge bath would use less water, but that's not the case, and even with more water, they don't clean or rinse as well. The item above provides the most perfect balance I've found between functionality, effectiveness, comfort, ease of use, size, water and energy efficiency, etc. I've spent thousands of dollars over the years trying out virtually every possible showering option, and in my experience, for my needs, this stupid simple solution is the best thing that exists, when water, energy, and space need to be conserved.
Using the sprayer above, I'm able to take a thoroughly effective shower, wash hair, face, and body completely and comfortably with less than 2 liters
of water! I don't ever feel rushed or uncomfortably pressed to conserve water. In fact, with it, I've never used even 3 liters of water to take a shower, no matter how leisurely the pace. The sprayer is easy to handle, it's small, simple to clean, doesn't require batteries, and provides running water for every need inside and out. For outdoor use, it can also be used in a shower tent. For washing hands and other items at a camp site, I hang it from the van's roof rack with a piece of cord and a carabiner (or just set it on a picnic table, when one is available). Inside, for use as a sink, we simply position it to spray into a 20 quart pot (links
) which resides inside our large plastic shower basin. The sprayer can be operated manually, and when you push the lever in, it operates in hands-free mode, so you can use both your hands to wash. That's one of the most important features. The sprayer is also simple to clean. The "sink" pot inside the shower basin provides a large used water catchment/container which can be easily transported and emptied anywhere, and the shower basin provides a deep surround which ensures that no spillage or spray gets anywhere else in the van.
I've purchased a wide variety of specially made shower surrounds, but we ended up using these 90 gallon garbage bags: (links
) The bags are huge and durable, but lighter and more manageable than anything else we've found. They clip easily to the ceiling handles on each side of the van interior, and to the front passenger seat visor, providing a wide open space to sit in and wash up, without fear of touching the surround walls. The bag is positioned upside down, with the open end going down into the shower basin. I cut holes in the top of the surround to ensure than I never suffocate. It's inexpensive and simple to just recycle the bags at big box store drop-offs, if they ever they get ripped or dirty. We keep several extras packed, since they take up so little space, and could potentially be used as ground cloths or for other various purposes.
The shower basin is just a generic 30 gallon plastic storage bin which you can buy for less than $20 at any big box store (links
). It fits perfectly between the bed and the front passenger seat. Inside the bin, I keep a little folding stool to sit on while showering (links
). In a high top van (or inside a cabin structure, for example), the exact same setup can be used, and you can stand up normally while showering (the shower curtain bags are about 6' tall, and the basin edges are more than 1' tall). I keep my toiletry bag, the water heater setup, and a backup sprayer unit in two nested 3 gallon buckets inside the shower basin.
The water heater setup consists of the least expensive type of 12 volt DC submersible beverage heater (links
), and a 2.5 quart mixing bowl with pour spout, which you can find at most dollar stores for $1 (anything like this: links
). You can run the heater using the smallest 12 volt connection (car cigarette lighter, a small solar panel/battery system, etc.). This entirely eliminates the need for external AC power, generator, etc., and is extremely portable, simple, and fast to use. The small water heater setup is only possible because the sprayer is so efficient. I have heated a three gallon bucket of water with it, but doing so completely depleats a 100ah house battery (3 gallons is 6 times
the amount of water required by the little sprayer!).
We store all of our clean utility water in a thin 6 gallon container which you can find in the camping section of any big box store (links
). I keep a second 6 gallon container under the sink pot inside the shower basin, but it's generally not needed. With the sprayer linked above, 6 gallons of water can provide more than a week of showers.
To take a shower, we:
- Hang the shower surround
- Remove the bucket items stored in the basin and unfold the seat
(place the basin lid upside down on the bed and use it as a waterproof shelf)
- Fill up the water heater bowl and power on the water heater
- Fill the sprayer with heated water (twice during the course of a shower)
- Take our shower normally
- Empty grey water from the shower basin and dry the shower curtain when convenient
This setup is easier and faster to use than many small RV showers, and there's more room to move around than in most Class B camper van showers (it's already been the envy of at least 1 class B RV owner). If you have a high top van, or any space in which you can stand up, it's 100% comfortable. The entire system can be just as easily used in an outdoor shower tent, but I actually prefer using the indoor setup, where there are no bugs, dirt on the floor, etc.
It's amazing to me that between our simple shower, toilet, bed, storage containers, electrical setup, and some gadgets, which together cost only a few hundred dollars, we have more functional, energy efficient, flexible, and pleasant to use amenities than you'll find in any expensive commercial class B RV. Our setup requires none of the special maintainance, winterization, or cost required to construct and keep up the complex fixed systems found in those vehicles. If I wanted something with more space, I would simply trade up to a larger vehicle. I have used and owned various sized campers and RVs, and would never go back to wanting any such vehicle.
Work Surfaces and Logistical Layout:
It should be noted importantly that the lid of the shower basin provides the largest flat work surface in our vehicle. It's sturdy (supported by the sink pot and other items inside), and big enough to accomplish all the chores we've come across. This space is a convenient generic 'place to put things' in the van - it's constantly in use when we're working on any generic activity and moving things around, much like a kitchen counter.
For activities which require lots of space to spread things out , such as folding clothes, organizing paperwork, setting up or handling large pieces of equipment, etc., the bed does double duty as an activity area most of the time when we're not sleeping. There is plenty of clearance for an average man to sit completely upright at the foot of the bed, and there are about 20 square feet of usable surface on the bed. This provides more than enough area to work on just about anything that will fit in the van. In the event that we ever need more work space, the folding table which we keep for outdoor use can also be unfolded inside and set up over the bed (links
The front seats are always available, and they provide a space which feels like a separate 'room', especially when we close off that area with a curtain. I can use the passenger seat to practice guitar with headphones on, while my fiance reads in bed. With the curtain up, we can even use the bathroom in private while the front driving area is occupied. We've had 4 people hanging out in the vehicle simultaneously for extended periods, all engaged in separate activities, by using all the available seating and reclining area.
I do pack 2 ultralite reclining camp chairs, similar to stadium seats with back supports (links
), which can be used to sit and recline two people simultaneously upright on the bed, but they rarely get used. For extended sitting, I use one of the food coolers together with the front passenger seat chair back, and some pillows, for the most comfortable reclining. I'll describe this setup more in the section about food storage. This little impromptu recliner has been absolutely critical in the setup of our living space - it wouldn't be nearly as livable without it.
I also keep a lap desk handy, which gets used often when I'm alone in the vehicle (links
). It's convenient for doing paperwork, watching videos, holding my drink and phone, pens, etc. When staying alone, I typically recline sideways across the bed, with some pillows propped up against a side wall. This is exactly how I prefer to relax at home, and it makes the van feel incredibly spacious and comfortable. In this setup, I feel exactly the same as being at home. There's really no difference in my comfort level, ability to move around and adjust positions, spread out, get work done, etc.
We generally never feel cramped in the current camper setup, with 1-2 people. Without ever having to shift around any furniture, there's always plenty of room for several people to be involved in separate activities, and for one or more people to get work done/stay occupied while another person or two rest, relax, or sleep. I'll describe the 4 person sleep/travel configuration in detail below.
Heat and Air Conditioning:
During the winter we carry a Mr. Buddy heater (links
), an AC powered space heater, and two small DC heaters, but they generally don't get used. We also have a removable window air conditioner unit, but we've never used it at all. We keep several powerful DC fans (links
) hanging in the summer time, and have additional small USB powered fans (links
), which can be easily positioned directly wherever we want them. All of the fans require minuscule amounts of power, and can run for days using the batteries we have in place. We've stayed in the summer with the windows closed when the lowest temperature was 85 degrees at night. I've seen the numbers
, and it's actually cheapest and most effective in the long run, to simply use the car air conditioning and heat when it's needed. We know that idling is potentially hurtful to the engine, but I know of people
who live full time in similar van RVs, who've been doing this daily for years without any problems. We consider our vehicle to be just another one of the replaceable parts of the entire setup. I tend to purchase only inexpensive used vehicles, and since none of our setup is permanently installed, we can exchange vehicles in an instant. I'd much rather chance potentially causing some (fixable) damage to the engine of a replaceable vehicle, than go through the enormous trouble, expense, vehicle modification, potential for water leakage, lost space, etc. which would be needed to install a separate air conditioning unit and the enormous power system it would require. The truth is, we're normally 100% comfortable with the fans running on all but the absolute hottest of summer nights, and in the one instance that wasn't the case, we simply ran the car AC to cool down. In the beginning, I had a complicated screen setup used to keep the windows open and bugs out, but with good fans that's no longer necessary either. Now we just keep the windows shut to keep the bugs out, and with fans running we're totally comfortable. It should be stated that I'm the sort of person who is never comfortable in the heat, so the temperature really does need to be nice for me to be happy.
The Town and Country has dual zone heating and air conditioning, which is designed to handle the entire rear passenger area separately. If you want to set up your RV in a cargo van which doesn't have climate control in the back, you'll need to use something like a propane powered Buddy heater for warmth. And if you want air conditioning, you can purchase a free standing AC unit, but you'll need LOTS of battery power (1000+ amp hours!) and/or a generator, which can't be used everywhere.
In colder weather, we have a number of blanket options to keep warm when we're in bed. In coolish shoulder seasons, we often choose to sleep in a hooded jacket. I have a collection of synthetic puffers (links
) dedicated to sleep use, which were inexpensive and which are easier to clean than blankets. They fold into themselves when not in use, and take up very little space. We also each have separate 30 degree mummy bags (links
), which we keep unzipped and use as quilts. The foot box on the bags, along with the open zipper makes for really cozy sleeping in a variety of temperature ranges. The bags are light weight enough to be easily washed, although that's rarely needed. We have an additional extra large square 0 degree sleeping bag (links
) which we keep unzipped and use as a pullover blanket when temperatures go below freezing. Together, this set of light weight packable layers can be combined as needed to keep us completely toasty in every temperature range, without ever feeling confining.
It can be nice to take the chill off when it gets really cold, and again for that purpose we choose to use the automobile heat. It's simpler, less troublesome, safer, and much more effective at saving space and cost in the long run. We do keep a working carbon monoxide alarm (links
), as well as a fire alarm (links
) and mini fire extinguishers (links
) in the car all the time. The Buddy heater does travel with us when it's below freezing, but just in case of emergency.
We currently only need a single 100 ah 12 volt house battery to run everything required to make the van fully self contained. We use a typical AGM lead acid battery
, which is sealed and never needs added fluids or servicing, and is generally safe for indoor use as long as it's charged properly and kept in a normally ventilated space. Our battery is simply kept on the floor of the van interior, inside a ventilated group 27 battery box, for extra protection (links
). We have a duplicate battery (and space for it) which can be moved into the RV at any time, if we ever need additional power.
We keep a Schumacher 3/12 amp battery charger (links
) always plugged into an inexpensive AC inverter (the type which plugs into a cigarette lighter type power receptacle (links
)), so that main battery is always automatically being charged whenever the vehicle's engine is running. The Town and Country minivan we use has a powerful alternator and three cigarette lighter type power receptacles (they're not really "cigarette lighters", but proper fused 15 amp power circuits). The inverter is plugged into one of two sockets in the front seat area. It has a 2.1 amp USB socket, into which we plug a 4 port USB hub, so that several phones and devices can be charged and used at the same time while we're driving. The socket and the inverter are both separately fused for safety, and the inverter is well within the power rating of the socket.
The primary use for our house battery is to run the refrigerator constantly when we're staying away from home for extended periods. We've found that running the vehicle engine for just a few short periods several times a day is enough to keep our fridge running indefinitely. This is fantastic for when we go camping for longer times, especially in wooded locations where solar power isn't available. In fact, the way we use our camper (more driving than staying put for days at a time), solar power is never needed. Because our power needs are so small, the vehicle alternator and little inverter setup eliminates the necessity to carry a generator. Even when taking short overnight trips, with as little as 45 minutes of driving each way, we're able to keep the battery topped off without solar power or any extra running of the engine!
If you want more power in your house battery system, you can install a relay system relatively inexpensively. Such a system will automatically charge your house battery directly from the alternator, whenever your vehicle battery has been fully charged. This provides much more charging power, and doesn't waste any energy in the inverter stage. To install a relay system, you'll need to make alterations to your vehicle, and the installation should only be performed by a knowledgable professional. For me, the best solution has always been to instead reduce my overall power requirements by choosing to use only extremely efficient electric devices and systems in the RV. Lighter total energy draw requires only a lighter, safer, and simpler overall power system.
We keep a single 15 amp 12 volt socket attached to the battery (links
). When running the water heater, we simply unplug the fridge for a few minutes. If we want to plug multiple devices into the house battery for more than a few minutes, we attach a socket multiplier (links
). This is rarely needed though, as we tend to charge bigger items like computers directly from the alternator sockets while we're driving.
I do keep 2 foldable 60-65 watt portable solar panels (links
) in the vehicle all the time, together with micro charge controllers (links
). I also have a larger 100 watt flexible panel with a higher capacity charge controller that would allow me to add up to 300 watts of additional solar panels (links
), but that big panel always stays at home these days. It's simply never been needed. The smaller panels fold up tiny (about 10"X8"X3"), and live in one of the Sterilite storage containers under the bed, along with a collection of various chargers, AA and AAA rechargeable batteries, USB power supplies, USB cables, DC power splitters, and some other low power electrical gadgets which cover all our power needs. They can be unfolded and instantly attached to the roof rack of the vehicle using the included carabiners. I made a carabiner attachment for the 100 watt panel, but despite being flexible, it's just too large to keep inside the van comfortably, and I don't want to attach it permanently to the roof of the vehicle. The little foldable units are so tiny, and together provide 120+ watts. They're small enough to take on a picnic or even backpacking, and we can charge not only USB devices, but even large 12 volt devices and 18 volt laptops directly from them, without any other charge controllers or equipment needed. They are very practical for our needs - far better than a bulky solar suitcase.
In addition to the house battery, we have several other significantly sized battery power sources which are extremely useful. The Maxoak 50000 mAh lithium battery (links
) is used to charge all our phones, run the fans and other small-mid size devices. The charger for that battery is always plugged into its own little inverter, so it also charges whenever the engine is running. It charges much more quickly than most smaller batteries that I've owned. It has two 2.1 amp and two 1 amp USB connections - enough to charge all our devices in one place. It also has a 12 volt output, to which we connect a cigarette lighter type socket (links
). We use that to run our bigger DC powered fans. It also has an 18 volt connection for charging laptops and other high voltage devices. It comes with connectors for most imaginable devices, stores more power for its size than any other similar type of battery I've ever seen, and it charges extremely quickly. This unit saves us so much space and trouble, it's another uniquely useful and indispensable item. Without it, we'd need to take up much more space with batteries, run more long wires, etc.
We do carry a lithium jump start battery (links
), which can be used to power a variety of items in a pinch, including even our fridge, for a while. We have a collection of USB power bricks, rechargeable batteries for lights, and a variety of additional power items such AC extension cables, jumper cables, a 2000 watt pure sine wave inverter, power strips, etc., which all get stored in one of the Sterilite storage containers. They rarely get used.
Refrigerator and Food Storage:
For a while, I used coolers to store refrigerated food, but I've never looked back after purchasing a DC powered fridge (links
). It sits directly between the two front seats, and offers one of the most important conveniences of home. It uses very little electricity and is quiet enough to be virtually unnoticeable. The top loading fridge door opens back toward the living area, so it can be just as easily accessed from the living area as from the front seats. I keep a full pack of plastic spoons and forks inside the utility tray in the fridge so that they're accessible whenever I want to eat something in the fridge.
Directly behind the fridge we keep a 28 quart cooler (links
), which makes additional food and water storage just as accessible. Very importantly, this cooler functions as an additional seat in the living area, separate from the bed. I place a thin pillow on top of this cooler and another thick pillow against the passenger seat back rest to form a comfortable recliner, with the loo acting as an optional ottoman. This setup provides two comfortable living areas within the tiny space of the minivan, without requiring any additional furniture. One person can be lying down or sleeping, while the other is relaxing comfortably in the recliner. I use the driver seat back as a perch for my phone when watching videos in the recliner. Little details about usage such as this make an absolutely tremendous difference in how functional the space is. Without this little recliner setup, our tiny space would feel dramatically more confined and less versatile.
We use an additional 28 quart cooler to store bottles of water. This cooler stays in our house, ready to go at all times. I stand up newer bottles inside the cooler, and place older bottles on top, on their side, so that they can be regularly rotated. When it's time to leave somewhere, I just fill the utility water container, grab this cooler, and some food. That process takes only a few minutes, and is the only chore required to prepare for a trip. The second water bottle cooler is placed right next to the bed, completely filling in that space, and forming the main bed surface extender. A pillow on top of this and our clothes dryer provides much appreciated extra sleeping surface.
We keep one additional Sterilite container filled with freeze dried meals (links
), some canned meat, survival ration cookies (links
), extra vitamins and things like a Sawyer water filter (links
), plates, aluminum foil, etc., related to food. There's plenty of room in this container for extra dry food storage. It's nice to have several days worth of freeze dried meals on hand, in case of emergency, bad planning, or laziness. I sometimes eat the freeze dried food just for variety.
4 Person Configuration:
It's very rare to find travel seating and/or sleeping space for 4 people, even among the largest commercial Class B RVs (camper vans), but I wanted our minivan to have this capability. After trips, we occassionally wanted to pick up additional passengers, and drive all of us back home safely. The Stow and Go seats in the Town and Country minivan work perfectly for this purpose. Absolutely no structural changes are required to fold all the seats down in this vehicle, providing the totally empty and very flat rear cargo area, 8 feet in length, and 4-5.5 feet in width (thinnest at the rear hatchback), which forms the cabin of our RV space. It takes literally a few seconds to pull any of the seats back up, so that they're ready for travel. This capability was my main reason for choosing this particular vehicle (plus it's nice to drive).
In normal use, we typically travel either solo or just 2 of us together. So the camper stays set up in 2 person configuration nearly 100% of the time, with the bed ready to sleep in, and everything ready to live in comfortably. It requires absolutely no setup, except a clean water fill and food in the fridge. We can be ready to go at a moment's notice, and even without notice, we can pick up food and water on the road and stay anywhere. In this configuration, the only travel seating available is the front driver and passenger seats.
To switch to 4 person travel configuration, we fold the mattress in half and stand it upright beside the bed. Next, the bed frame slides up and out over the storage containers and folds in half around the mattress. The compression strap built into the bed frame squeezes the mattress into a compact volume. After that, the storage containers all stack up against the hatchback, and any other loose items are moved toward the back of the vehicle (most of the big outdoor items such as the pack boats, table, chairs, sleeping bags, etc., are already stored back there and don't need to be moved). With this done, there is plenty of open space for the two front-most rear passenger seats to pop out easily. The entire process takes about 3 minutes, after a couple practices.
The switch to 4 person sleep mode requires reversing the process above, and moving a section of the storage containers into the front seat area. We can clear enough space under the bed for one person to have half of that area completely free. Diagonally, from one side of the middle bed frame support, to the area where a person's head lays (near the driver's side sliding door), this provides approximately 6 feet of sleeping space length, with lots of side to side clearance. We always carry several ultralight sleeping pads (the type used by hikers) in the van. We can pad the space under the bed so that it's comfortable, and then use another pad and pillows to form a second sleep area at the foot of the bed, over the water containment area, cooler, and battery box. The second area is a bit longer than 5.5 feet, so it's only usable by short adults. In practice, when camping with the family, we've chosen to simply set up a tent for the kids, which is always carried in the van. I'd also prefer to have adult friends use a tent during campouts. The 4 person interior sleeping arrangement won't be used intentionally, but it's nice to have a temporarily usable safe option in case of emergencies such as severe weather. If you look at the few class B RVs which offer sleeping for 4, you'll see that the 3rd and/or 4th temporary sleeping areas are typically only big enough for a child. The setup we have in the van actually offers more space than the commercial class B setups which I've seen.
If I wanted to regularly sleep 4 people in a van camper, I'd opt to set up bunk cots (links
), and use a much taller and larger van. Cots would severely reduce the amount of storage space underneath, so drawer units would be needed to replace that storage capability. In a slightly larger van, this wouldn't be a problem since the rest of the setup could be kept the same, and would take up a trivially small space in a large cargo van.
We originally used curtains on all the windows to keep people from seeing in, but in such a tiny living area, the curtains actually took up too much space and made it cumbersome to get to everything we needed.
I used a light material similar to Reflectix (links
), cut to fit exactly into every window in the back of the van. The cut outs can be removed and reinserted instantly if they're precisely cut to fit, but I added a bit of gummy adhesive to ensure that they stay (I initially used duct tape - don't do that, it's a mess to clean up!). The window inserts are still just as easily removable, but I like the feeling that we won't accidentally knock them off while sleeping. I typically leave the inserts on the windows all the time, even when driving, because the front windows and mirrors provide the same visibility as if I was driving a cargo van. I think the Reflective material helps to keep the van cooler in the sun, and I prefer to keep our van stuff private from the view of passers by. I remove them when carrying kids or other passengers, to ensure better safety and a more pleasant view.
For the front windows, we keep 4 large sun shades which completely block out the view of the van interior. They are foldable, but we just stand them up between the bed and our utility water container, where they've never gotten in our way. The sun shades look fairly inconspicuous when we're stealth camping, and they give us complete privacy in every area of the van, including the front seats. Having every inch available inside such a small space really makes a difference. If we really want to go into stealth mode at night, we can block out light from inside the van by also putting up a curtain in front. With the shades and curtain together, even with lights on at night, it's hard to see that anyone is inside, even when standing directly next to the van.
We do keep a single curtain handy to close off the front seat area from the back living area, for when we want to stop for short rest breaks, or to go to the bathroom in privacy, etc. The curtains are made of ultralight material which don't let light through, but which pack down to the size of a fist. We use thin metal clips which attach easily to the strong structural trim along the van's interior ceiling. We keep the clips on magnets on the back of the front seats. Those clips are also useful for hanging our little USB fans around the cabin. Hanging the curtain takes about 5 seconds, and can be easily done from the front or the back seats.
Clothes Washing System:
The 30 quart pot which we use as a sink basin also serves double duty as a hand clothes washer. I don't mind washing items by hand, but drying takes too much effort and time, so I bought this little spin dryer: (links
) It requires only about 80 watts, so it can be powered by either of the 2 little inverters which are always plugged in to charge the DC batteries described earlier. We don't wash clothes often, but I have washed pillow cases and ultralight towels several times. It's nice to have a quick and simple way to get things clean. If I was to travel full time in a van, I'd likely want to have a tiny washer/dryer combo (links). Along with our drinking water cooler described earlier, the dryer also serves as one of the surfaces upon which pillows are placed to extend the width of the bed.
Some Other Things:
We keep a little container filled with our most commonly used items, directly behind the passenger seat, on top of the closed shower basin, where it's immediately accessible from anywhere in the van. Paper towels, hand sanitizer, soap, first aid kit, the curtain which closes off view to the front seats, etc. go in it.
We keep a folding table next to the bed (links
), mostly for outdoor use, but it does fit nicely over the bed if we need a large work surface inside. Next to the table, we store the pop-up shower/changing room tent. Next to that, we keep a laundry bag full of folding chairs, a large ultralight folding sun shade, a tarp with carabiners, cordage and tent stakes which fits our roof rack perfectly for use as an awning, along with some additional outdoor "camp" items.
The rest of the space next to the back of the bed is filled with our sleeping bags and blankets, along with a fire extinguisher. The thick 0 degree bag is one of the bulkiest items in the van. In the summer it stays compressed in a stuff sack. In the winter we like to keep it spread out on the bed like a comforter.
We keep the Maxoak battery in the shelf ridge compartment next to the bed, so that we can plug in our phones easily at night. I also keep some pepper spray handy there (although I've never been scared - being locked inside a closed steel vehicle which can drive away in an instant feels just as safe as home). We keep some other handy little tools, tissues, hand sanitizer, USB cables, headphones, and doodads next to each side of the bed, and still have drink holders and separate compartments free to hold the items in our pockets while we sleep. This level of organization is absolutely necessary if you want to stay comfortable in such a small space.
Tools and other utility items are kept under the front passenger seat. There's a separate Sterilite container under the bed which contains bigger tools such as a folding shovel, tire pump (this has already saved the day once), rope/cordage/webbing, etc. which doesn't need to be used regularly, but which I don't want to be without.
We keep LED lights everywhere in the van, so that there's always one within arm's length. We never use the car battery to provide light. The 2 brightest lights are hung from the clothes hooks built into the vehicle, and they can swivel in every direction. We typically only ever need 1 light at night, but we could keep the interior bright as day if we wanted. All our lights use rechargeable AA or AAA batteries, of which we keep a big supply.
In the small space between the back of the front passenger seat and the water containment basin, we keep a bag of Walmart bags which we use for trash. It's easily accessible while driving, and when stopped, we hang a bag from the passenger side clothes hook, so it's accessible from everywhere inside and out, but doesn't interfere with any movement. Little details like this make an enormous difference in a tiny space!
We don't cook much, but I do keep a DC oven in one of the Sterilite storage containers (links
). This unit draws very little power, and can run comfortably from our single house battery, or from the alternator sockets while driving. Despite the low amp requirements, it's powerful and efficient enough to cook meat all the way through. We also have an Esbit stove (links
) packed inside a separate large steel cup, and a folding grill (links
) which we can use to boil water, cook burgers, etc. over a camp fire. I keep a folding saw in our camping equipment, which is perfect for quickly cutting fire wood (I build a fire every time I go to a camp site). I also keep half of a commercial fire log in with the camp items, but I've never needed/wanted to use it.
We keep 2 Sterilite storage containers filled with clothes for year round use. I have extra puffer jackets, gloves, thick socks, rain suit and poncho, convertible pants with zip-off shorts, several pairs of jeans, sun shirts, nice pants and shirts for dressing up, underwear, an extra pair of shoes, etc. Many of these items came from equipment that we used for hiking and traveling light, so they pack very compactly. I typically keep several changes of seasonal clothes and undergarments for daily use, so that I never need to worry about packing before going away. When traveling for work, performing, etc., these clothing items have come in really handy.
Our ultralight pack boats (links
) are kept in sturdy laundry bags, which we use as light weight backpacks, along with ultralight folding paddles (links
), air pump, ultralight life preserver belt packs (links
), water shoes, dry sack, etc. They're kept in the back of the vehicle, easily accessible from the hatchback.
I also have a small folding guitar setup (links
) with a mini 8 track recorder/effects processor/drum machine (links
), cables, tiny amp (links
), picks, etc., so that I can practice, write, and record music anywhere. It stores neatly beside the sleeping bags in the back.
A bag of games, toys, balls, frisbee, tiny folding fishing pole/lures/line, playing cards, slingshot/ammo, binoculars, and other fun items are stored in one of the Sterilite containers near the camping equipment. It's important to have plenty of indoor/outdoor entertainment in our van, since one of it's primary purposes besides work is traveling and camping for fun.
I keep a couple other commonly used items like my hiking/walking hat and umbrellas behind the front passenger seat, and some little tools, twist ties, pens, lighter, etc. in the front driver and passenger door compartments.
The only things that are strapped down in the vehicle are the cooler beside the bed and the luggable loo. Everything else wedges together into the space perfectly, and has never moved unintentionally. To keep the two items beside the bed from moving or tipping over during travel, I use a 1 inch stap and buckle which goes through the heavy steel Stow and Go seat latch on the floor, around two bed legs, and then around the cooler and potty. The buckle takes less than a second to secure and undo, and keeps everything in place when braking hard.
Whatever solutions you choose for your minutia, you'll find that having a place for everything, and always keeping every single little thing instantly available in the handy place where it belongs, is what makes the difference between happiness and frustration, if you want to be comfortable in any sort of ultra small space.
Empty Storage Space:
Finally, it's hard to stress enough the importance of leaving empty cargo space free. You'll regularly make use of storage areas which don't interfere with living space in the vehicle. With everything I've described in this text constantly in the van, we still have enough storage space under the bed to pack several full size guitar cases and a small PA system, for example, without using the bed or any of the living area. When traveling alone, the front passenger seat and floor provide quite a bit of additional space to haul big things. If we expect to need additional storage, we bring a waterproof roof rack carrier (links
). When traveling or engaged in remote activities, you'll always find a need for extra storage. Whether it's because you need to bring along special equipment for a particular event, want extra food and power for a long boondocking trip, feel like going shopping at a destination, etc. When using the vehicle like we do for daily work and activities, having room for work paraphernalia, groceries, odds and ends that travel for business, etc., that storage is golden. During certain periods of the year, I perform at musical events several times a week, and being able to haul my gear, while still leaving the living space untouched, is priceless. Of course we're able to haul an absolutely huge amount of equipment when we're not staying in the vehicle (the bed alone provides for far more storage than you'll find in most cars), but being able to stay anywhere, anytime, in complete comfort is why we built the RV in the first place
. If you can't reside in the RV living space just because you're hauling normally anticipated items, the whole setup becomes pointless! However you set up your rig, be sure to always leave a large unused space available, so that you can access all your vehicle''s amenities comfortably, with nothing in the way. You'll find that you always
have some stuff that needs a place to stay.