The beloved #vanlife certainly wears the patina of modern adventure nicely. But though it seems like an endless vacation, most people we talk to are quick to explain that it’s also a hustle. Even the effort to transition into a couple of hundred square-feet of wanderlust in vehicle form is enormous. How do you lay everything out? How do you get the most home for your hard cash?
We spoke with John and Jayme Serbell (two of the vanlifers we recommended you follow on Instagram) about various aspects of the build, and they broke them down for people on small, medium, and large budgets. As the duo behind the website Gnomad Home, the Serbells certainly know what they’re talking about.
“If you have the desire to go live a nomadic lifestyle,” John Serbell says, “you can get out there and see the country, see the world, explore the nature, and live the life you want. You really don’t need a whole lot to get started.”
Read through what they have to say about getting started with the vanlife and see if you aren’t cruising Craigslist for vans shortly thereafter. We sure did.
John: The first category is the van itself. You can spend just a couple hundred dollars, and you can spend many thousands of dollars on a van. If you’re on a really tight budget, we think the best option is a high-top conversion van. That’s the one we have, and we got a very, very good deal on it. The reason why they’re great for low budgets is because most of the ones you’ll find out there were primarily used as once-a-year road tripping vehicles, and they weren’t typically daily drivers; it’s not very difficult to find conversion vans that are in really good condition, really well cared for, and have relatively low mileage (a hundred thousand miles or under) for not a whole lot of money.
Jayme: There are also cargo vans that are a really good option. They’re really good for scout camping, but a lot of the time those have much higher mileage because people get them for work and run them into the ground. As far as small- and medium-budget options, we would suggest the high top conversion and the cargo van. For the higher-budget people, there’s the obvious Sprinters, the Ford Transits, the Dodge ProMasters.
John: The Sprinters, Transits, and ProMasters tend to be newer vehicles. Sprinters especially have much higher mechanical costs than something like an older Chevy or Ford will have. We typically don’t recommend those types of things unless you have a higher budget.
John: One of the biggest questions we get is “How do you set up a whole electrical system?” You need electricity these days. You need to run your computer. You need to charge your cell phone. Oftentimes, you’ll have a fridge or something like that in the van and lights. A lot of people are intimidated by an electrical setup, but you don’t need to spend a ton of money on something like solar and a big expensive battery and all this if you’re just getting started. If you’re on a small budget, we recommend getting something called a battery isolator, which allows you to charge an auxiliary battery from your vehicle’s alternator while you’re driving. If you pair that with a couple of golf cart batteries from Costco or Walmart or whatever, you can charge them up while you’re driving. That should cover really basic needs like a utility light string, and USB outlets or 12-volt outlets that you can then use the charge from. That’ll take care of your really basic needs.
If you have more resources, you can start adding on solar. If you’re like, “I need more power,” you don’t need to just go out and buy a whole ton of solar. You can start with one panel and you’ll build from there as your needs evolve. For the higher budget, you can add on a whole solar kit with 2-4 panels, and then, you can upgrade your batteries a bit.
Jayme: Moving on. For plumbing, let’s talk about your kitchen situation, or your kitchuation, as we call it. The smallest budget would be just getting a 5-gallon water jug and putting a Dalton hand pump on it. You can buy these water jugs and fill them up at any Walmart, the grocery store, et cetera. Then, it’s just a little hand pump attachment that you put on the top. Boom. You have a water plumbing situation.
John: You have a means of having drinking water or washing or what-not.
Jayme: The medium budget would be having a sink where the faucet has a hand pump, so you can have one hand under holding the cup and then you have the other hand hand-pumping it for the water to come out.
Then, for the highest budget, there are foot pumps, which is what we have. You can use both of your hands while you’re using the sink, and then, you just step on the foot pump which makes the water flow out of wherever your water container is coming from. Another high-budget option would be an electric pump, which is comparable to what anyone has in their kitchen in their house. You turn the sink on, and the water flows. You turn it off, and the water stops.
Jayme: For refrigeration options, the cheapest possibility is to go into a Walmart and get a Coleman or Xtreme cooler. The medium budget would be to get a nicer insulated cooler, a YETI for example. The most expensive option would be a 12-volt fridge, and there are a lot of different kinds of these. There are some that you can open from the top. There are some that you can open like an actual fridge. There are some that have freezer options. There are some that have a fridge or freezer option.
John: The 12-volt fridge is what we have, and it’s great for storing food. You don’t have to deal with ice like you would in a cooler. But they are not cheap. You usually spend at least $500, sometimes a thousand or more on a fridge. You also will need to have an electrical setup. That’s where the low-budget electrical setup wouldn’t necessarily power a fridge, so that’s definitely a higher-budget option. But again, we know plenty of people that have been doing this for a few years with nothing but a Coleman cooler. While it can be kind of a pain to deal with the ice, it’s definitely doable and plenty of people are out there doing it.
Jayme: For stoves, the small- to medium-budget options would be a Coleman camp stove, which you can get at any Walmart. The higher budget option would be a denatured alcohol stove, which is what we have, or a nicer propane stove set-up.
John: Some people have built-in propane set-ups with cable lines and everything. That’s definitely more involved. Just the cheap $50 Coleman camp stove is also very, very common out there, and they work super well.
Jayme: The cheapest option is public restrooms or a little handy shovel. The medium option is going to be the Cassette toilet; it’s a chemical toilet. They’re very small, compact, and tuck away nice and easy. The most expensive option is going to be a composting toilet.
John: We go with the cheap option on this one because toilets take up space, which is kind of an issue. We’ve had zero problems finding any private or public restrooms anywhere. It’s really easy. It’s really not a problem. But there are plenty of people who don’t want to get out of their van to go to the bathroom. For that, the Cassette is ideal. I think they usually run about $100 for one of those, so they’re pretty affordable. Or you can get the composting toilet, or you can build one of those. The one that people tend to buy is a Nature’s Head Composting Toilet, and those run about $1000. Those are definitely a whole lot pricier, but I think they’re nicer, personally, if you like composting and being environmentally friendly as well.
Jayme: When you’re out on the road, you realize how little of a problem it really is, especially when we’re camping in the middle of nowhere. You’d be surprised how many pit toilets or outhouses there are when you’re on National Forest land and things like that. It’s not a fancy bathroom, but it is a little nicer than a Porta Potty.
John: We think there are too many downsides to having a toilet. Everybody has different opinions on that, so there are definite options if you want a toilet.
Jayme: We also have lighting. The cheapest option for lighting would just be Christmas lights or even headlamps and flashlights. The medium option would be an LED light strand that a lot of people put under their cabinets or something along those lines. The most expensive option, this is the option that we have, is puck lights that are inset into the ceiling and we have them wired up to dimmer switches.
John: The great thing about lighting, in general, is that none of it is really all that expensive. All of these options are fairly affordable. The more expensive option is a lot more involved as far as installing it electrically, but LED lights draw very little power.
Jayme: For showers, the cheapest option would be a river or public showers or getting a gym membership. I think Planet Fitness tends to be the most popular in that respect. The medium option would be installing a PVC solar shower or a road shower on the exterior of your van; it’s basically just a PVC pipe that’s painted black. You put water in it, and you pressurize it with like a bike pump; then, you attach a hose and nozzle to it, and you have a little travel shower or a solar shower. The most expensive option, some people have actually installed propane hot water heaters to have an on-demand hot water shower.
John: The last bigger category is your layout, your furniture. What do you actually put in your van? For a small budget, you can really just get a mattress or what have you and throw it in the back with some plastic storage drawers. We have seen plenty of people do that, and it works fine.
If you don’t have a lot of woodwork experience or you don’t have a budget, that works fine. You can always build more later down the road, which is the great thing about this. You can always put in more later. For a medium budget, you could get some lumber, 2x4s, and make a very basic shelving scenario and a very basic bed platform. Again, we have plenty of friends that have raw builds with 2x4s in their van.
Jayme: And the perk of a raised platform bed is that you have storage underneath the bed as well.
John: Yeah, it definitely opens up your options quite a bit. If you have a higher budget and more resources that’s when you can really get into the custom woodworking, or you can find some prefabbed cabinets at Home Depot or IKEA or what-not and install those in your van.