December 08, 2020 6 min read

Here at the Van Lifer Blog, we have a real problem. We just can’t seem to get enough of the voyeuristic thrill that comes from watching other aspiring van lifers dive into their conversion builds. Something about it is just so addicting! Not only can it be entertaining, but it’s also incredibly educational for anyone planning their own builds to get comfortable with the process and learn some of the pitfalls in advance to avoid expensive and time-consuming mistakes. 

Today we’re shining the spotlight on22 year old YouTuber Kaia and her $900 off-the-grid camper van conversion. Kaia, with a lot of help from her handy stepfather, Robert (a carpenter by trade), took 11 days to finish the buildout of her 1999 Chevy Express 1500. To be a truly off-grid solution, her van will have to have its own power supply to generate its own electricity (as well as a battery to store the power) and some type of running water, but can this really be accomplished for only $900? Let’s find out as we get into the steps it took Kaia to complete her dream home-on-wheels and the materials she used to do it.

Kaia’s 11-Day Van Conversion Timeline

Day 1

The first day of Kaia’s build began as most van conversions do - with demolition. Before you can add all your custom flourishes, you first have to strip away whatever was there to begin with, which usually means stripping out old interior seating, paneling, and carpeting. Be sure to sand down rough areas and remove any old glue or accumulated gunk to achieve as consistent a surface as possible. PRO TIP: while it may be tempting to start yanking and smashing old panels, take care that you don’t damage any internal wiring for important lights or bend/warp parts of your frame. 

In this case, Kaia completed her demo over the course of a few days because she wasn’t in a hurry, but in most cases it shouldn’t take more than a day to prepare yourself a blank canvas to work with.

Day 2 

Once the old interior was pulled out, it was time to cut into the metal and install a fan/vent combo in the roof. It’s important to ensure that any additions you make to the van’s exterior, such as a fan vent, are watertight and weatherproof to prevent leakage and provide proper insulation. They used weatherproofing epoxy putty strips, but there are plenty of other options. Day 2 of their build also saw the installation of a 100W solar panel, which was also secured to the roof and weatherproofed. 

Estimated costs: Solar panel, connectors, and charge controller (~$150), fan/vent combo (~$150).

Man installing solar panels on roof of a van

Kaia's stepfather Robert installs 100W solar panels on her Chevy Express 1500 van (image taken from 'How to Convert Van Into Off-Grid Camper in 11 Days and $900')

Day 3 

With exterior details taken care of, they then moved on to framing out the bed and under storage structure in the back of the van with simple wooden 2x4s, Gorilla glue, and wood screws. Kaia's stepfather Robert may be a skilled enough carpenter that he can build this kind of without plans in his sleep, but for the rest of us mortals, we highly recommend thoroughly sketching out your plans for these types of structures so you can make sure your designs are structurally sound. Get really detailed, down to the fastenings, cut angles, etc. Your sketch can also act as a schematic, so you know exactly what materials you’re going to need on hand to build. 

Day 4

A little work still needed to be done to finish the framing of the kitchenette lower cabinets on day 4 before they could turn their attention to the floors. Kaia chose a Toasted Bamboo flooring that is low cost, durable, and attractive. If you’ve ever installed hardwood or laminate floors in your home or apartment before, the process for installing them in your van is pretty much exactly the same. However, you’ll want to take into account the specifics of the space and make sure you’re able to cut some custom shapes with a jigsaw to conform to the floorplan of your van - especially for the areas around doors, steps, or wheel wells. 

Estimated cost: Toasted bamboo flooring @ $1.99 sq/ft (~$200).


Day 5 

By day 5, the floorplan of the van is all set and surfaces start to become visible as plywood is laid down for the kitchenette countertop and the bed platform. Most van lifers choose to use the space under their bed platform as additional storage, so installing hinges in the platform can make the area accessible from inside the van while remaining discreetly hidden beneath the mattress whenever it's not in use. 

Once the kitchenette countertop plywood was cut to size it was time to make the cutout for the sink basin. In this case, Kaia upcycled a vintage metal bowl to add a little personal flair to her sink’s design - a clever idea that seems to have worked perfectly.

Installing a custom upcycled sink in van conversion.

Installing a custom sink basin made from an upcycled vintage bowl. 

Day 6

About halfway through her build, Kaia’s van is starting to move into the home stretch. Day 6 sees walls being framed and some of the siding finally starting to be applied. This process typically continues in sections over a few days as you built out different areas, so expect this to be more of an ongoing process.

Day 7 

With the lower cabinets now framed and finished with paneling, the upper cabinets for the kitchenette can now be framed up and finished next. On the same day, Kaia also had an exterior ladder installed on the back door to allow easy access to solar panels and any other hardware on the roof using the same general techniques used in day 2's solar panel installation.

Man creating wooden frame for cabinets in van.

Building a wood frame for kitchenette cabinets.

Day 8 

And finally, after days of work, the finish line starts to come into sight with one of the most satisfying parts of any remodel; the installation of tiles on the kitchen countertop. With a big project like this, it’s sometimes hard to see the forest through the trees, but once you start putting the finishes on, it all starts to come together and it feels like you’re finally making some progress.  Some people like to use granite or fabricated stone for their countertops, but tile can be a great low-cost option as well, which is what Kaia went with. With any countertop, be sure to choose a material that meets the right water solubility requirements. 

Estimated cost: wood framing materials, siding, plywood, tile (~$200).

Day 9

The ninth day of Kaia’s build saw the finishing of much of the wiring for the electrical work. We recommend hiring (or at least consulting with) a professional electrician for this step, as the last thing you want is your van going up in flames due to faulty wiring. 

While Robert worked on getting everything wired up, Kaia added insulation into all the nooks and crannies of the van’s body and behind the walls before installing paneling over it to increase energy efficiency. PRO TIP: While fiberglass insulation is most commonly used, you can save money and decrease waste byrecycling old jeans to create your own denim insulation.

Day 10

With the final design now fully in place, day 10 was spent finishing up cabinet paneling, installing energy-efficient LED lights and slotting Kaia’s water solution into it’s cabinet space. She chose to go with a very simple gravity-fed bucket and spigot system, which means she’ll still have to refill her limited water supply every time it runs out and likely won’t be using her van to shower. 

There are a multitude of different solutions for each type of build, with a wide range of price options, so be sure to research what you’re hoping to get out of your van’s water system, how you’d like to use it, and choose the option that best suits your needs. In many cases, you probably won’t need a top-of-the-line system, but if you’re the type of person who absolutely cannot go without your morning shower, you’ll want to make sure your setup can accommodate that type of use. Kaia's gravity-fed solution may not be compatible with most water filters - an item many consider to be an essential for van life.

This also marked the day the van officially went off-the-grid with the installation of a battery to store the solar power generated by the 100W panels. 

Estimated cost: power inverter (~$100), marine RV battery (~$100).

Close up of specialized battery for boats and RVs.
Specialized battery for boats and RVs to store solar power.

Day 11

Kaia and Robert’s eleven day conversion build came together beautifully in the end, with the only work left being the final touches; installing drawer fronts, knobs and handles, the sink drain pipe, cabinet doors, and molding.

For many aspiring van lifers, seeing video after video of sleek, glamorous designer van builds can definitely be a little discouraging if you’re not working with much of a budget, but Kaia’s unassuming build shows that van life can come in many shapes and forms. Clocking in at just $900 and utilizing the work of only one or two people, her build is both affordable and approachable. We've added up the estimated costs and while the $900 budget is a little tight, depending on where you shop for your materials, it's definitely possible, although you may push a little closer to $1,000 realistically. 

Want to see the finished product? Watch her full van tour here: 

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