VanLife: If I could rebuild my van and do it over

Just like the #YourLead Van, my van is also home-built from the ground up. I’ve been living in mine for the past two years (between international travels), and the question I get most frequently from other people living the VanLife is, “If you could do it all over again, what would you change?”

The short answer? Almost nothing.

VanLife: If I could rebuild my van and do it over

Nailing it on the First Try

While researching builds and getting ideas, I came across A LOT of people suggesting you live in your van for two or three YEARS before permanently deciding on your layout. WHAT?!?! That sounds a lot like analysis paralysis. I am not about that life. I’m about action.

So after only a month’ish of research and becoming a Pinterest addict, I started building out my van with the help of my dad. Permanently. There was no going back now.

Despite never living or camping in a van before, seeing anyone else’s van, or even cutting out cardboard models to get an idea of size and scale, we still got it 95% right on the first try. The remaining 5% is just two things I would like to have done differently.


VanLife: If I could rebuild my van and do it over

The biggest thing I would change is the insulation. Don’t get me wrong, I insulated the crap out of it. I used reflectix, traditional fiberglass, spray foam, and rigid, foil-backed insulated board. It took almost a week to do everything we did, and the cost was relatively low. Roughly $200-$300 for materials.

But if I could do it all over again, I would pay a company to professionally spray foam the entire thing. I think all-in-all, after reading more resources after the fact, the R-rating of spray foam is as good or better than what we achieved using all the other types of insulation. The reason it took so long to do it ourselves is that we spent so much time painstakingly stuffing every nook and cranny we could find. But I’m still not sure if it was enough.

It would cost more than double to have a company spray foam it for me, but it would have saved time and I know I wouldn’t be laying in bed on a cold, 7 degree winter morning wondering, “Hmmm, I wonder if it would be warmer in here if I did a better job on the insulation?” With spray foam, in the hands of a professional, you can be sure it got everywhere.

(Disclaimer: The insulation still works; I can lay around in shorts and a t-shirt in the middle of winter as soon as I fire up my Big Buddy heater, but when it’s 7 degrees INSIDE my van, I still have to wonder if it could be better.)

Furring Strips

VanLife: If I could rebuild my van and do it over

Furring strips are the pieces of wood that are attached to the sheet metal of the van wall so you can mount shelves, cabinets, beds, and other things you don’t want flying around the van while driving. In residential construction, these are the framing studs of the house, and they’re spaced out every 16″. That’s probably a little overkill in any van, but the point is, they’re vertical and give you some pretty good flexibility of where you can mount things.

In my van, due to the contoured shape of the sheet metal, I didn’t have the option to attach multiple, vertical furring strips. I was stuck with three horizontal furring strips that ran the length of the wall: top, middle, and floor. The top furring strip was completely used up for insulation and construction of the ceiling. The middle furring strip was too high for cabinets or the bed, but was essential for the insulation. The bottom furring strip was really the only useful one. But as you can imagine, mounting a 2.5′-3′ tall cabinet to one little strip across the bottom wasn’t that secure. To get around this, all of my cabinets, bed, and refrigerator are also attached directly to the 3/4″ subfloor, but they still rattle and shake like a 1980’s washing machine on the spin cycle when driving down rough roads.

So how would I change this? I’m not real sure. I still haven’t come across any good solutions from other builders or Pinterest geeks, but I would take an additional day or two to think things through and see if I could come up with something else. Having vertical furring strips would make things more secure, less rattly, and even open the possibility of “overhead” cabinets and storage space.

My Dream Rebuild

When people ask me the what would you do differently question, it’s always assumed they mean to my current van. And the response above is the response I give. However, since the question itself implies time travel, why not make my rebuild as big as I realistically could?

For my dream rebuild, I would travel back a little bit further in time to when I actually bought my van.

At the time, I was a gainfully employed engineer and saving money hand over fist to fund this endeavor. I had given myself a strict and definite timeline: I was going to quit my job in December of 2014. That meant I needed my van by then too. So while I still made a great decision with the vans and money available at the time, I would have given myself another 2-3 months to save additional money and just bought a different van altogether.

A Sprinter is so cliché, but seriously, after living in my low-top E350 for two years now, the ability to stand up completely would be like heaven on earth. I would do it just for that alone, but with a Sprinter (or Ford Transit), it also comes with more storage space and the ability to really give it some touches to make it feel like home.

So if I could do it all over again, that’s exactly what I’d do: better insulation, a better way to secure things, and a new van altogether.

About the Author


David Sandel