It is no secret that Van Life comes with its unique ups and downs — just as any other lifestyle does. I’m certainly no expert on life on the road, but through a combined two years of the lifestyle I’ve found myself learning through many a difficult experience. Running out of water and having a trip cut short — lucky to not get swallowed by sand on the way out. Being forced to live off snacks due to rotting food, and being stuck in a mud storm having no choice but to sleep in the driver’s seat — without access to my food supply. As with every challenge life brings, each of these experiences had helped me grow into a stronger road tripper, if not a stronger human.
Through moments of struggle from the nomad’s life, I have found that personal, emotional, and spiritual growth are the greatest rewards of this alternative lifestyle. Embracing the adventure is to carry yourself through tribulations — from my years of the road life, I’ve learned what works for me on the road — knowledge that I will dispense in this third chapter of my Van Life Guide.
As I discussed in my last piece, Boondocking is a valuable tool for Van Life… or to use a more appropriate phrase — mobile living. Not everyone can afford a van; many setups you see on social media cost well over $100,000. From Earth Roamers to Honda Elements, the road is a full spectrum of living situations. If you’re not ready to pay the same price as a beach house on your camper build — there are plenty of more reasonable options to consider.
The first step is to assess your needs as a road warrior. Are you planning on staying in town? Driving across the country? Do you need a permanent adventure wagon, or something more temporary? A setup that you can swap out for weekend warrior expeditions? You are stepping into a life of adventure, so take pride in your budget restrictions; look at yourself as a creative engineer, and don’t forget — less is more when you are living for the experience.
No matter where you find yourself on the build-complication spectrum, the keyword is utility. Most people aren’t contractors — nor can they afford them. Unless you are looking to drain crucial finances, it would be best to stop thinking about the beautiful vans; with beautiful people; in beautiful places. Remember the grit that life on the road requires, and plan accordingly.
I went with a permanent conversion for my 2011 Jeep Grand Cherokee. To the average car owner that sounds like a terrible idea — but with many miles and an open-ended timeline on my road trip agenda, it made the most sense. I had a mental blueprint of my needs, built on lessons learned from a combination of my extended campervan adventure, weeks boondocking in the Black Rock Desert for Burning Man, and years of an atavistic camping addiction.
As any mattress advertisement will tell you — “We spend a third of our lives sleeping.” It’s hard to believe advertisers — I know — but they’ve got a point with this one. With this in mind, setting up my sleep situation was the logical first step in my buildout. The goal was to have a queen size bed in the back of the Jeep — splitting the rear compartment in two, vertically — the bottom half for storage and the top for sleep. This meant pulling out the rear seats… and pretty much everything else from the rear interior.
The goal was to create an adventure wagon ready for mountains in winter and deserts in summer alike. Proper insulation is the difference between shivering and waking up covered in sweat — don’t underestimate its usefulness. With the seats removed from the rear of the Jeep, I laid a fully encompassing layer of Reflectix insulation onto the floor and roof of the sleeping area. This is the same material used for most windshield sun shades — I used two massive 48" X 25' (yup that’s feet) rolls to cover the inside of the Jeep and create sun shades for every one of the Jeep’s six windows.
With the insulation done, I began building the bedding platform — leveling it out at window level to allow for sufficient room underneath for a massive storage drawer, a pullout desk, a refrigerator, and a hygiene station.
It was overwhelming, so I made a mood board:
There’s a special beauty in the sound of a buzzsaw cutting the wood for your new home, and I was thankful to my Dad’s friend, Ref, for bringing his. Ref also helped with making accurate measurements — word to the wise: Measure twice, cut once. In the absence of a friend with a saw, bring precise measurements to your local home improvement store and they will generally make the cuts for you, or offer tool rentals if you want to do it yourself. Using plywood and two-by-fours, we built out the interior foundation using the same screw holes from the rear seats — making it rock solid.
Though Ref helped me with the physical foundation, my best friend Matt came in clutch as well — always making sure I had a beer in my hand and a smile on my face while helping with some of the heavy lifting and alignment tasks on the Jeep. The conversion of your camper is just as much a part of the trip as the expedition itself, those moments of camaraderie are some of my most cherished memories — and very useful to recall in the inherent moments of loneliness that come from a solo adventure.
To cover the wood I went with marine carpet — the same carpeting used by boat makers. This gives it additional rugged durability and guards against odor — never underestimate the amount of filth that comes with camping! While at the carpet store I couldn’t help but fall for some fabrics, feeling the urge to be unique by bolstering the style of the Jeep.
I have always been a big proponent of naming cars. It’s hard to live and drive in something that doesn’t have a little personality. My old van was dubbed ‘The Spirit of the West’, and I named the Jeep Cochise — after the legendary Apache chief of Southern Arizona. His uprising forced a treaty in 1872, in which he was relentless — avoiding capture many times. He is an inspiration to fight for what you believe in, the perseverance for a cause. Even with all the Van Life hype all over social media today, people will always have some level of judgment for a car-living person — ignore it! If the lifestyle calls to you, don’t let naysayers get in the way.
For comfort atop the bedding platform, I purchased a 3” memory foam mattress topper and hand-sewed a zip-off cover for it. Pinpricks by the dozen, let me tell you! The intent in a mattress topper vs an actual mattress was the combination of comfort and mobility. I wanted something that could roll up to increase storage ability, that would also fit in my tent when necessary — effectively serving as a giant sleeping pad. The extra touches of the fabric, and additional effort of sewing, came to mean a lot to me when the loneliness sank in. Reminiscing over the time invested on a build leaves you with a special sense of nostalgia and pride for accepting the road life and making it your own.
Using 36” heavy-duty drawer slides from Solid Wood Worx, Ref and I aligned the pullout desk and pullout storage drawer. These are both rated up to 250 lbs., making the desk sturdy enough to sit on; alleviating all heavy storage concerns. The storage pullout was decluttered by four small plastic containers for food and a wooden wine box for cooking supplies.
As I would learn in Grand Teton National Park: Keep your food storage closed, even when your car is closed. I had the exquisite experience of having to scare a mouse out of my food storage area; even more, fun to clean up after the little guy.
Behind the passenger seat, I installed an ICECO refrigerator, which is powered with a 240w portable power station by Jackery that charges with a foldable 60w solar panel bank. The refrigerator came in clutch; especially in the desert — and could store two weeks of food.
Just behind the driver’s seat I installed a smaller drawer that stored my toiletries and cleaning supplies, with a slot below for a 5 gallon water jug. This easy-access water source is handily stationed by where I keep my toothbrush and body wipes — yet another crucial tool for life on the road.
Above the hygiene station, I installed a Yakima Road Shower — a worthy purchase. The shower’s tank holds seven gallons and is painted matte black so it heats up in the sun. There is a valve for pressurizing the tank — ensuring consistent water pressure. With a tire inflator or an old-school bicycle pump, you ensure a steady stream — though filling from the bottom via a garden hose builds enough pressure to work as well. The Yakima comes with a spray nozzle hose on one end and a port on the other end. I added a 4 ft shower arm and got a pop-up shower tent that allows for a proper shower experience.
Across the roof rack I placed a RhinoRack batwing awning — an essential purchase for the sun and rain. With a living space so small, it is important to expand where you can — that’s why I went with the Batwing style, which gives 270º of protection around the vehicle (the two main styles are regular or batwing). On my trip it came in handy countless times, keeping out the sun, rain, and snow alike.
It is important to pick your battles for your build: certain things are worth splurging on when you look at the allotted time vs budget. But do not be discouraged, there are many do-it-yourself options — or as the cool kids call it, ‘DIY’, to help keep costs down. Depending on your ability and time there are ample options for both of these essential utilities. In regards to the awning, it comes down to the level of the complication you are prepared to endure.
As I touched on in my boondocking piece, a roadside emergency toilet is a very useful purchase. It alleviates the strain on a toilet-less camping location from excessive ‘hole digging,’ and makes the entire process much more simple and sanitary. It is crucial to think over your bathroom requirements when planning a build because obviously, you’re going to have to deal with it while camping. Always try to bring biodegradable toilet paper with you!
Never discount the need for storage. In my experience, it has always been surprising how much is really necessary. For my Jeep’s roof rack, I acquired three Plano heavy-duty storage boxes to carry my camping supplies and extra dry food. There are plenty of creative ways to install more storage, a common practice is to get a hitch storage unit or roof rack but as always there are ample DIY options. Just as most people do when backpacking, I generally layout all my needed items near the storage setup and meticulously go through it — making sure all needs are met and all items fit.
This build allowed me to cover over 5,000 miles across eleven states, through four months on the road. I saw twelve National Parks, covering the full gamut of environments; deserts, mountains, and plains. I left for my trip in July of 2020; in the midst of the Covid pandemic — this made for a very interesting social background. Before the pandemic began I had a South American backpacking trip planned. Since international travel was out of the question, I channeled my wanderlust into the Great American Northwest — an area I’d explored previously, but never with such a level of depth. Next year I plan to take the same treatment to the American Southwest.
Living in my camper was a great way to pass the time through Covid — the natural social distancing of the lifestyle was important to my peace of mind. It is valuable to bear in mind that van life isn’t always socially distant — in 2020 I saw more campers than any other time. There is always a special camaraderie amongst people on the road, and I got to enjoy that even during a pandemic, chatting with people in each state I visited. Nothing gets a fellow van lifer more excited than to see someone else’s set up, it is appreciated like an art… well, it is an art.
Creative engineering, road trip playlists, and adventure planning; embrace the art of the van life and enter a new life of adventure — just be sure to wave at your brethren of the road; and smile — even if you’re wearing a mask!
2011 Jeep Grand Cherokee Camper Conversion:
Quick Reference Guide with links — build your own!
- Insulation: Reflectix (2x 25'x48" rolls)
- Drawers: Solid Wood Worx (36" heavy duty drawer slides)
- Carpet: Marine carpet
- Mattress Topper: 3” memory foam
- Refrigerator: ICECO (VL45)
- Portable Power: Jackery (240w station)
- Solar Panels: Jackery (60w foldable panels)
- Shower: Yakima Road Shower
- Awning: RhinoRack batwing
- Toilet: Cleanwaste roadside emergency toilet