DIY stealth campervans

DIY Stealth Campervan

If you saw the Independent film “Nomadland,” and you’re part of the RV Community, you know what the main character meant when she said she was “houseless, not homeless.” For those that need a little more explanation, the main character lived in a stealth Class B motorhome. Join us as we define this subcategory and show you why people enjoy the stealth campervan lifestyle.

Nomadland is based on a true story, and her stealth campervan conversion has many features you’d see in real Do-It-Yourself (DIY) Class B motorhomes. If you’re interested in building one, you’ll learn what to look for and some great strategies to keep costs down. We’ll also discuss how to navigate through urban stealth camping and the challenges you need to prepare yourself for when it comes to maintaining your home on wheels.

What Is a Stealth Campervan

In the RV World, a Class B motorhome is an RV built inside a full-size van. Today’s Class B motorcoaches use the European-styled Dodge Ram ProMaster, Ford Transit, and Mercedes Sprinter. Some RV manufacturers use the classic American versions with the wide cargo box like the Chevrolet Express, Ford E-450, GMC Savana, or Nissan NV.

You’ll see exterior additions like roof caps that add headspace, various hatches for utilities, storage bays, and other features that add to the RV experience. A new Class B motorhome can run between $60,000- $250,000 depending on what level of luxury you want. 

Stealth campervans are different. Owners start with a standard cargo van and add the features they want in the cargo space. The van looks like a typical van that would blend in with commercial or industrial van fleets from the outside. Stealth campervan interiors have multi-use features with sleeping space, table surfaces, storage, cooking devices, and other amenities.

The majority of RVers that choose this lifestyle use full-size versions for their stealth camper van build because of the space advantage. Some will use mini-vans. It’s not as popular, but some will design a stealth camper truck utilizing a cap on their pickup truck. 

People who choose this subcategory of Class B RV love the fact that they can design their unique coach. A significant portion of those living the stealth van life will tell you their van still needs work. To you, the interior may look finished, but in their mind, there’s always a new feature or design that may inspire them to change something.

What Should I Look For in a Used Van?

A used van parked on the campsite

Most of the time, people build stealth campervans from used vans. It keeps costs down, and many of these vehicles have a lot of life left. Classic American Vans like the Ford Econoline, GM G-Series, and the Dodge CNG Fleet were built primarily for commercial and industrial use. While their exterior panels may show their age, the chassis and automotive parts are still good.

When choosing your van, don’t worry too much about how many miles vans last. Typically, full-sized vans are rated for 300,000 miles or more when they’re taken care of properly. As long as you keep up with the preventive maintenance, you’ll be okay. The more critical issues are the squeaks, creaks, and other alignment indicators. It’s always a good idea to have a certified auto mechanic inspect the vehicle.

In the film, Fern used a 2001 Ford Econoline that she purchased from the asset auction. Before the company that owned the mining town went bankrupt, that particular van was a utility van either on the mine site or secondary (the town) services. Even though she lost everything when the mine shut down, we can only speculate at the incredible deal she received for the van.

Besides bankruptcy auctions, you can find great deals at used car dealerships, rental car dealerships, private sellers, and other sources. The best van to convert into a camper is one you can buy outright and doesn’t need any repair work.

Financing your van isn’t the best idea because if you look at the contract, there’s certain things you can’t do to the vehicle. Drilling holes to run wires or other features could put you in breach. If something happens where you can’t make the payments, you will lose all that hard work.

How to Convert a Van Into a Campervan

If you ask people that live the stealth van life about the process and costs of converting a van into a campervan, they’ll tell you it can be cheaper to build your own campervan versus buying a traditional Class B motorhome. It all depends on how elaborate you want your RV to be. The first thing you want to do is determine your overall design.

You’ll find many DIY campervan conversion plans online. Some stealth campers have written books about their experience and include campervan layout plans. You want to do your homework first and have a goal in mind. Some want a simple construction, while others may wish to have an eco-friendly design. 

Here are some basic features to think about to get you started:

Bathroom

Bathrooms can be the most challenging feature to figure out. There are portable cassette toilets, but you’ll need to be strategic with its placement since storage space is limited. Many stop at rest areas and make full use of the truck stops. You’d be amazed at how clean they keep their showers. 

Cooking and Electronic Devices

Cooking in the campervan

Microwaves are ideal, but surviving on microwave burritos has its limits. Portable propane stoves and small electric cooking devices store well. When secured well, setting up your crockpot on a travel day is commonly used by veteran RVers. When you pull over for the night, dinner is ready and waiting for you.

Even if you’ve sworn off TV and movies, keeping a bookshelf isn’t practical. Your laptop, 2-in-1 notebook, or tablet is a great way to store your virtual library. If you have your binge-worthy shows and movies you must watch, there are various tablet mounts you can choose from that connect to the roof or other places in your stealth campervan. If you want to watch a classic, “Long Long Trailer” with Lucille Ball and Dezi Arnez was released in 1953.

Gas or Diesel

The age-old question: Is gas or diesel RVs better? There are many opinions that experts and actual RVers have on this matter. It all boils down to personal choice. Generally, gas engine vehicles are more affordable to repair, but diesels break down less often.

Internet and Connectivity

Cellular technology has come a long way. Devices like WeBoost and Winegard can extend the connectivity range for your wireless devices. These products allow you to find a signal for your laptop and mobile device in some of the most remote places in the United States.

Pet-Friendly

There are travel-friendly litter boxes if you’re a cat person. Small and toy dog breeds adapt well in campervans. As long as your dog has some outside time to run out some energy, they make the perfect traveling companion. Make sure things at their level are safe and secured.

Power and Water

If you want to use a gas generator, you can put one on a rear cargo carrier that attaches to the van’s hitch receiver. The generator is noisy, they burn fuel, but the power output is excellent. Solar generators are a great alternative. These all-electric power sources are quiet, fumeless, and can be recharged via solar panels or plugged directly into an external source.

Installing holding tanks and water pumps can be expensive. The weight of water per gallon is 8.34 pounds. The more you weigh, the less fuel efficiency your van will have. Many use water jugs instead of installing a fresh and grey tank. A new technology called a closed-loop water system for RVs filter’s greywater turning it into drinkable freshwater. Closed-loop systems also extend your water supply.

Sleeping and Sitting Space

Sleeping space in the campervan

You’ll want some type of platform where you can place a comfortable mattress-like material to sleep at night. Do you want the platform to lift so you can store essential accessories underneath? Another option is to design it like a futon, so it jackknifes into a sofa for daytime seating. Do you want your bed to be big enough for two, or keep it twin-size to maximize space?

Storage

In the RV World, storage is as precious as gold. Living the #VanLife requires living a minimalist lifestyle. Yet you still are going to have things to store. There are strategic ways to maximize storage space. Make use of the area under the bed. Create drawers and cabinets under your countertop. Use a lockable plastic trunk on a hitch-mounted cargo carrier. “Borrow” the Happier Camper idea of using stackable storage cubes as seating.

Surface Space

You’d be surprised how many people forget to think about flat surface space. You’ll need a flat surface space to set up cooking devices, use as a table, desk, and other functions. Flip-up countertops, swivel tables, and removable pedestal tables are ideal.

Ventilation and Climate-Control

While your driving, your van has dashboard heat and air-conditioning. Once you’re parked, there are alternatives to leaving the engine running all night. There are small portable heaters and air conditioners that will run on your solar generator. On a nice evening, you can install a roof vent with a battery-powered fan. With the windows slightly open, the fan can create a breeze.

Wheelchair-Friendly

Yep, some convert their full-size wheelchair van into a stealth campervan. We met a part-time RVer that added camping features to her van to live the RV lifestyle. As a person with paraplegia, she has a bed, makeshift toilet, and portable kitchen features. She continues to enjoy her favorite active outdoor activities like mountain biking, kayaking, and camping.

Can You Sleep Anywhere In a Campervan?

A couple of adults sleeping in a beautiful campervan

Some wonder if stealth camping is illegal. Certain cities and counties have created laws making urban stealth camping illegal within their incorporated limits. The laws are part of their crime and homelessness prevention campaigns. Lawmakers who support this legislation believe that allowing RVers to boondock (park overnight in their RV) contributes to these two issues.

Opponents of these laws argue that there is a big difference between an RV and a homeless situation. If you are going to dry camp in an urban location, we advise you do your homework first. Your first thought might be to find a parking structure, a group of vans, or other places in the city. If the police knock on your door, there are fines and consequences. It’s better to find 

It’s better to find RV-friendly locations to rest for the night. Use mobile device apps that help you find boondocking commercial parking lots. Generally, if the company owns the building and parking lot and near the highway, the chances are high that they allow boondocking. When you pull into the parking lot, look at the light posts. There will be posted signs that tell you if they don’t allow overnight parking. 

Here are some popular companies that allow boondocking:

  • 24-hour fitness centers
  • Bass Pro Shop
  • BLM public land and National Forest areas
  • Cabellas
  • Casinos
  • Costco
  • Cracker Barrel
  • Home Depot
  • Lowes
  • Meijers
  • Sam’s Club
  • Target
  • Truck Stops (Flying J/Pilot, Love’s/ TA-Petro)
  • Walmart

If you try to sleep in a campervan on a residential street, make sure you’re not the only one. Rest areas on highways allow you to stay overnight in most states. You’ll want to know the state laws ahead of time.

How Long Does a Campervan Last?

The stealth campervan lifestyle

As we mentioned above, the average full-size van has a 300,000-mile rating. Your particular van may last longer or less than this rating. It all depends on what the vehicle went through and how the previous owner kept it up. That’s why you want a certified mechanic to inspect it before you buy the van.

If you plan on living the full-time RV lifestyle like Fern in “Nomadland,” there was an important plot point you must never forget. When her van broke down, she had to take a bus to her sister’s home because she needed money to pay for the repair. Full-timers in every RV category are susceptible to this situation.

An excellent stealth camping tip is to have a repair fund set aside for incidents that come up unexpectedly. The stealth campervan lifestyle is the cheapest motorhome category to start in and has the lowest monthly expenses. Yet when something significant breaks, it can leave you stranded. Having a repair fund is the best way to get you back on the road.

Another way to keep your campervan healthy is to learn how to perform the maintenance yourself. You’d be surprised how easy an oil change, battery replacement, and other automotive fixes are once you complete it the first time. 

Start Your Journey the Right Way With RV Troop

If you feel that the stealth campervan lifestyle is right for you, become an RV Trooper by bookmarking the RV Troop website and keeping current with the latest articles on all things RV. You’ll learn the best tips and tricks from expert RVers and gain insight from experts in the RV industry. We also feature the best accessories that will make your stealth van life the best experience possible.

While you’re shopping around for your van, why not try it out first. Peer-to-peer RV rental websites like Outdoorsy, RV-Ezy, and RVshare have great deals on stealth campervan rentals in your area. You’ll rent from owners who’ve built their campervans. When you pick it up, they’ll walk you through the van and show you how to operate everything. 

Not only will you gain firsthand experience, but you’ll also gain inspiration on what features and layout you want in yours. The rental companies have RVs in every category if you want to get your inspiration from other sources. 

Once your campervan is built, and you’re ready to go, get ready for the adventure of a lifetime. Whether you stay close to home or travel far and wide: you’ll experience the world in a whole new way. 

Welcome to the RV Lifestyle!

DIY Stealth Campervan – Practical and Simple Build (Video)

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