One of the best ways to get started in any pursuit in life is to find someone doing it successfully and follow their advice. So, when 55-year-old Gerald Long starts talking about what it takes to leave an everyday life behind and start living in a van, you listen. He’s been wandering the southwest deserts under some pretty tough conditions, while living out of the back of his customized van “dry camper”.
Gerald Long’s converted GMC in its natural habitat.
His first suggestion? Shoot for what works with the resources you have. That sounds like pretty good advice for anyone starting a minimalist lifestyle of any kind. So, what did Gerald have to work with?
His “mullet van” (as he calls it) started from a 2002 GMC 3500 Extended Cargo Van with only 148,000 miles on its V8 engine and heavy duty cargo suspension. The vehicle provided a good canvas for developing his RV the way he wanted it.
Two design concept sketches and the working floor plan for the conversion.
First off, Gerald was aiming for a bedroom on wheels, deciding that putting a kitchen or bath in the van would be far too inconvenient. Unless you are pretty short, or add a pop-top to these vans, they do not have enough head room for standing to cook, or do – um, other things.
Since his travels would keep him in fairly warm climates, he determined that spending as much time outside the van as he could was best, such as cooking over a campfire. The van would be adequate for quick overnights and an added tent for socializing outside would work well for extended stays.
Van stripped and insulation going in.
To avoid the dreaded “project in progress” van that so many van dwellers end up with, Gerald talked to his woodworking whiz nephew, Gabriel, and scheduled a week when he and his dad would be available to help Gerald get the bulk of the work knocked out in one big chunk.
The cedar siding boards going up, note the plywood subfloor.
They started by gutting the van and removing the flooring, side panels and trim. Gerald decided that all trim and hardware should be saved, since it might be useful in finishing the renovation. Great idea.
They started with insulation: ¼ inch foil backed radiant barrier for the floor, ½ inch stiff panels with slits to allow it to fold on the walls, and 1 inch thick panels over the windows. Double sided carpet tape worked well for holding foam in place until paneling could be installed.
Laminate flooring being installed first.
For gaps in the insulation, a roll of fiberglass insulation worked for areas that tufts could be stuffed into and minimal expanding spray foam worked for other voids they could not get to. Wooden boxes over the wheel wells provide both insulation and reduce road noise.
Gerald Long at his nephew’s while converting his van.
The walls were paneled with a combination of planed down rough cedar (much cheaper to buy than smooth cedar, but essentially the same stuff) which gave the van a pleasant, woodsy smell, and Lauan plywood panels for the office section that was then painted.
The sub-floor is ½ inch plywood, with a light gray laminate on top. The light gray was a design choice to make other colors pop, while the laminate was an economy measure. Rather than pour all of his resources into the van, Gerald wanted to make sure he wouldn’t have to live in it – if he didn’t enjoy life on the road – simply because of his investment.
Office storage ready to go in.
Gerald upcycled the bulkhead that had separated the cabin from the cargo compartment, cutting it into sections and mounting in on the wall for attaching hooks and other utilitarian uses.
Another upcycling project is the textured wood desk, built by Gabriel. It’s made from South American lumber recovered from pallets. Since it was built before the van was on site, it had to be adapted to get a good fit.
Bed platform as seen from the rear doors, note batteries in lower left corner.
In projects of this nature, there’s almost always some compromise and one area that suffered a bit on this van was the bed. The original plan drawing shows a hinged platform, with access to storage underneath from under the mattress.
Because of the tight one week schedule, the hinges were scrapped and the bottom was left open to use storage under the bed from front or back.
The bed is positioned crosswise in the van to save space – a choice Gerald wasn’t too sure about, since it only provided 71 inches of length.
Gerald’s office as viewed from the side door.
They found that a jigsaw worked best for cutting through the van wall to install an electrical cord. Low voltage lighting from Ikea made it possible to operate off of two deep cycle batteries and a 100 watt inverter. Gerald’s system is simple, with a standard 120 volt battery charger for recharging the batteries when hookups are available.
All in all the simple design provides a livable space for not a lot of time or money. Since cooking and other “necessities” would be done outside the van, all Gerald needed was a bed, office and storage. Choices were made first, based on utility, then cost, but not without considering design. If you are going to live in a space, it’s always best if it’s a space you like.
For more photos and information about Gerald’s van conversion, visit his website.