I went with a used RAM ProMaster. This is the only front-wheel drive van you can buy, and that's nice if you're going through the snow, mud, sand, whatever.
At 18' long you can drive it around town easily, and park it in any ordinary parking space.
There's a community where you can learn anything you want to know about modifying these vans.
This is the so-called "low-roof" model. They make a "high-roof" version in which a six-foot tall person can stand up straight. You might think I would've chosen that, but some day I'd like to install a pop top, and you can only do that with the low-roof version.
The van belonged to U-Haul before I got it. They installed the partition -- i.e. the big metal wall between the cab and the cargo area -- as well as the racks in the side walls.
The first thing that has to go is that center panel in the partition wall. Oh, and the rubber mat on the floor too.
Of course now the floor has all those bumpy ridges in it. Not too nice to walk or sit on. So we'll need to install a floor. But we'll come back to that later.
First let's think about those racks in the side walls. Each one consists of three vertical steel bars riveted to the van's walls, plus two horizontal wooden slats.
To begin with, I decided I wanted to build a platform for the bed running side to side across the back of the space. The interior dimension from outer panel to outer panel is a whopping 78", which is adequate room for me to lie down flat and sleep. Surprising.
However, this meant that the lower slat and center bar of the each rear rack had to go, in order to reclaim those crucial few inches on each side and make sleeping comfortable. The bars came out easily enough with a hacksaw.
U-Haul also installed a "mini rack" above each wheel well, consisting of a single horizontal wooden slat, and these were at the perfect height to serve as the supports for the bed platform.
Meanwhile I got in touch with an RV repair guy, having decided I wanted a professional to take care of a few things.
To begin with, you want a roof vent. This is a little hatch in the roof, with a built-in fan. Installing this means sawing a one-foot-square hole in the roof of the van. Okay, so I chickened out. Better someone else go sawing through steel than me.
You also need a "house" battery. Unlike the van's own starter battery, this is a so-called "deep cycle" battery. The starter is only meant to give a big burst of current for a short time. On the contrary, the house battery is meant to be able to supply moderate current for many hours on end. This is what you'll use to power the roof vent fan, your computer, and any other electronic gadgets you might want to take with you. For example, an electric blanket, which I've found is indispensible on those nights that get down into the 40s and 30s F.
I installed a wooden board at the rear of the space, as the surface on which to mount the battery box, fastening it down using some existing bolt holes in the floor of the van.
Lead-acid batteries generate small amounts of hydrogen gas when they are recharged, and therefore they have to be installed in a special box with a hose ventillating it to the outside. This again means sawing a hole in the side of the van, and again, I decided to let the pros handle this whole thing.
Above the battery you can also see a breaker panel I had them install.
The battery ventilation port is barely visible on the exterior.
While they were installing the house battery I had them connect it to the starter battery with a solenoid switch in between, activated by the van's ignition switch. This means that when the key is in the ignition and the engine is running, then the two batteries are electrically connected, so that as I drive down the highway the alternator can recharge the house battery. However, when I'm parked and the key is removed, then the two batteries are electrically isolated. This way even if I run the house battery all night, there's no chance of me accidentally running down the starter, and finding myself needing a jump.
I got all the ideas for the electrical system from this guy, who has truly done a stellar job. If you want to make a nicer RV than mine, you should follow his guide instead. If mine has an advantage, it's that it's cheaper.
Finally I could do the floor. I used two sheets of plywood, and a jigsaw to cut them to fit around the wheel wells. Making it a snug fit was a painstaking process involving as much measuring and planning as possible, but inevitably just as much (or more) trial and error. Once they were in place I attached a 3" mending plate at each end of the floor, where the two boards meet.
A word of advice: I used PureBond plywood. It is the top-of-the-line plywood that you can get at HomeDepot or Lowe's, and it is a fair bit more expensive but absolutely worth it. PureBond uses a non-formaldehyde glue. If you use the cheap stuff, the air inside your RV will be stinking and even irritating your nose and throat. (Trust me, I learned the hard way. Yup, I did the floor twice. Oops.) Buy the good stuff. Even then there is some odor, but it will go away in a few weeks.
I picked up some self-adhesive vinyl tiles to make the floor a bit nicer.
In the meantime I had also built the bed platform. Here you can see a bit of the underside. I ran three 2x4s across from one side of the van to the other as supports. On top of these I placed a sheet of plywood, which I ripped in half in order to make it easier to put in place. I also attached "stops" to the outer 2x4s to keep the plywood sheets and the mattress from sliding off.
With only one way to charge the battery, namely off the alternator while the van was running, I was failing to take advantage of two resources: (1) shore power at campgrounds, and (2) the sun.
I wasn't going to need much power, so I ran a simple 15-amp extension coord through the wall of the van and out beneath the rear bumper, connecting it on the inside to a power distribution panel that I built. This is my shore power connection, and the external plug simply tucks into the plastic covering for the rear bumper when not in use.
Similarly, I ran a connector for a solar panel out under the bumper too.
The negative terminal on the power panel is a shunt to which a battery monitor can connect. I mounted the monitor up front in the main living area. This tells me how much charge is left in the battery, and the instantaneous current flow, in or out.
I went with a portable solar panel. Many people mount them on the roof, and in the future I may try that. One advantage of the portable panel is the ability to point it toward the sun, or even to place it in the sun while the van sits in the shade.
The panel has a built-in charge controler, which regulates the output voltage and current, in order to recharge the battery properly.
The solar panel outputs DC power, which is what the battery needs, but of course shore power is standard AC like in your wall socket, so we need a battery charger (upper left in the photo on the right) to perform the necessary conversion.
We also want to be able to run AC electronics -- namely a laptop and a computer monitor -- off the battery, so we need to be able to go in the other direction too, i.e. from the DC battery power to AC. For this I installed a 300W pure sine wave inverter. I built a shelf over the wheel well for this, and mounted it there.
And speaking of a computer monitor, I needed a place for one, so I installed a wall-mount arm on a remaining section of the original partition wall.
After running a bit of wiring to get power from the outlets at the back to the electronics at the front, I was done with the electrical system.
The other major utility is of course water. I decided to keep this extremely simple. I bought a steel sink, cut a hole in the top of a storage bin, and dropped it in. This turns out to be a very ergonomic height for the sink if you are seated, which is how I planned to use it.
Beneath the sink, inside the bin, is a simple bucket. You take the bucket out and empty it every one or two days, and you're all set.
I decided my water supply would come from standard five-gallon water jugs, which you can trade in for refills at places like Home Depot, Lowes, and Walmart -- in other words, just about anywhere in North America. They make simple pumps you can put right into these jugs. Here you see an electronic one powered by two D-size batteries. I eventually switched to a hand-powered one that I liked better because the electronic one is quite noisy.
There's room for three additional water jugs at the back. I found a jug lasts 12 or 13 days, so in total I can carry about a 7-week supply. There's also plenty of cargo space under the bed, including a place for the solar panel when not in use.
I found that the easiest way to hang curtains was simply to run bungee coords between any of the many holes in the interior van walls.
And here we are, fully loaded, on a trial run to Salisbury Beach State Park on the Massachusetts coast. As you can see, I saved room for a folding bike behind the bed platform.
Hanging on the right is an organizer that people ordinarily hang in a closet to hold shoes or something; I used it as a place to store my clothes.
Rolled up at the top you see the screening that I installed. I did this for the sliding door on the passenger side too.
With the screens down and the doors wide open you get great air flow, and it's like being in a big tent. Here's the views out the back and the side:
Back on the interior, here's the kitchen/office area. I hung a cup hook or two, and made those U-Haul racks into shelves by simply attaching a wooden plate underneath each slat, using the brass angle brackets that you see in the photo on the left. Behind the lantern is a 12-volt DC outlet, which is useful for gadgets like the electric blanket.
On the right you see the paper-towel holder, more stuff in the shelves, a couple of towel racks on the partition wall, and the Coleman folding tables that I bought. Set up like this, I can sit and get some work done. When I'm finished I can stow the monitor, fold the table, and have plenty of space to move around, cook, whatever.
What you can't see is that I moved the sink underneath the monitor wall-mount, and set it atop a small platform I built, into which slides a camp stove when not in use.
I guess that's about it. The thing gets great milage for an RV: 19 or 20 mpg on the highway; 17 or so overall. And it's your ticket to wake up to sights like this: