Sprinter Van Buildout: A Pseudo How-To
Photography and Words by Kris Holbrook
I bought a van last February because it was too good of a deal to pass up. I had wanted to get rid of all my things and live in a van for about 2 years before that. It was my dream model, had solar panels on top because it was formerly a mobile bike shop, and had a diesel engine. I had good freelance work that I could do from anywhere, didn’t have a lot of possessions to get rid of to start with, and kind of ran out of excuses not to do it.
Step 1. Clear out the van. Get rid of back seats, old insulation, cabinets, peg boards, anything at all. Clean out what you can. Disconnect solar power and accidentally let deep cycle battery slowly die over time.
Step 2. Read a lot about different types of sound proofing, insulation and vapor barriers. Realize that everyone disagrees with each other on everything, and choose whatever sounds best to you. Use Rattletrap on the metal surfaces and wheel wells, denim insulation in the open pockets, aluminum bubble wrap over that, and plastic sheeting.
Step 3. Understand that there is no set of instructions on how to complete a build-out specifically for your needs anyway, and make lots of messy sketches, measurements, and look up tons of other vans. Wing it. Built parts of a kitchen cabinet at home, in a school wood shop, in a parking lot, etc. Polyurethane it forever. Strip lots of screws.
Step 4. Realize that it is beyond your skill set and lack of workspace to cut/install floors. Hire good friend to do it. Spend hours upon hours coating your new floors with polyurethane once you get it back. Cut giant holes in your future home and install windows with help from very patient friends.
Order the wrong size window due to incorrect info on the manufacturer’s website. Work on your van in random locations; on residential streets, in climbing gym parking lots, a client’s warehouse, temporary studio space, etc.
Step 5. Fret over how to panel your van for as long as you can. There are no straight lines in a Sprinter, and no flat surfaces on the sides or ceiling. Be determined to do it yourself even though you don’t have the correct tools, space, or experience.
Step 6. Decide that you need to get a move on because this is taking too long. Design and build a platform in a hurry with help from a really good friend, and move out of your apartment and into greatly incomplete van in order to motivate self.
Paneling still doesn’t figure itself out. Life becomes really difficult without a kitchen or bathroom, or electricity, trying to work in various coffee shops. Struggle a lot but don’t admit it to yourself until later because your ego is in the way.
Step 7. Be thankful for your friends that let you come over to their place. Give in to the fact that you can’t do the paneling yourself, and hire same floor carpenter friend to do it for you, helping immensely. Spend at least 700 hours coating paneling with polyurethane. Accidentally break a rear window backing into a tree branch at night. Get really good at removing window adhesive with a pocket knife. Become incredibly close to your friends whose apartment suddenly has a room open for rent. Try to let go of your ego.
Step 8. Move into said apartment and fall in love with your friends even more. Realize that there are more ways to be open and connect with your friends, discover something that you didn’t even know you were looking for. Struggle immensely to work as much as possible and find time to work on the van, and motivate yourself. Become incredibly fragile and feel raw all the time. Realize your friends are your chosen family, and never feel more like yourself in your whole life.
Step 9. Be open. Go on a trip with your chosen family to the desert for your first van build test-drive. Discover you need more storage space. Become stressed and sad because you don’t see the point anymore and this is hard. Find that you really really love your friends a lot and it already hurts to think about leaving them.
Step 10. Spend a couple more build days on the van with great help from woodworker friend to create cabinets. Meet an incredibly kind stranger who takes the time to help set up the solar power and teach you about it.
Bask in more love from your friends. Cry a lot because you don’t even know why you want to live in a van anymore, you have so much right where you are.
Step 11. Live in a van anyway.
Rediscover that it’s not about the end goal, it’s the now – the process, everything that’s happening. Learn that people can add to your life in an immense way that you never felt before – the difference between just sustaining life and actually living it, feeling it, enjoying it.
Re-realize that you are capable of anything, and that there’s more out there to discover that you may not know about now. Pay attention to how you’re feeling. Suffer as much as you can and know that you can get through it. Enjoy your new converted van.