Want a camper van to live the #vanlife, but don’t have the money for a fancy Sprinter setup or a Volkswagen Bus / Vanagon?
Here’s how I turned an old family mini van (a 1990 Toyota Tarago, also known as a Previa or Estima) into a budget camper for our Australian roadtrip. We bought this van on Gumtree for $2500 AUD ($1700 USD), and did the conversion for less than $100. Taragos are a really good option for backpacker vans, because they are extremely cheap / plentiful in Australia, and they’re super reliable – often driving as much as 500,000k+ without major problems. They have that Toyota reliability. You can do a similar build with just about any mini van… like an old Ford Windstar or a Chrysler Town and Country, you name it.
We’ve been driving this van, “Magnolia” aka “Maggie” all over Australia for the past few months, and have been having an awesome time! It’s not as big as the more expensive vans, but we’ve got enough space to do everything we need.
-This conversion doesn’t involve any permanent modifications to the van – all of the pieces are basically like furniture and not physically attached to the floor. That said, they’re heavy enough and fit really well into the space, so they don’t move while driving. You could take all these pieces out of the van in a few minutes, giving yourself an empty van to move cargo. Win/win.
-This gives you the option of having 5 passengers ride in your van. We decided to keep the back bench seat so that we could have more than just 2 passengers in the van, for situations where we make friends on the road or pick up hitchhikers. 🙂 A lot of people ditch all the seats, but it’s nice to have the flexibility to have more passengers ride with you, with legal seatbelts.
-We use a big floppy foam mattress for the bed surface. It is very comfortable, but also allows us to fold it up when we have passengers. Another good option would be an air mattress. (If you use a normal “stiff” mattress you obviously won’t be able to fold it up completely!)
-Putting the kitchen in the back hatch is really clutch…you can basically cook off of your tailgate anywhere you go, even in a busy parking lot. It also keeps a really low profile, and you don’t need to set up any tables to cook with. I looove cooking in the back of the van. 🙂
-We used Reflectix (basically bubble wrap sheets with reflective aluminum on each side) to cover our windows, rather than the normal curtains that you often see in camper vans. We cut pieces that were slightly bigger than all of the windows, and used Velcro to stick them on to cover the windows at night.
There are several benefits to Reflectix over curtains:
-It’s fully opaque and doesn’t let any light in / out. The van basically becomes a cave inside once you cover up all the windows.
-It reflects the heat out and keeps the van cooler.
-Curtains are a dead giveaway that someone is sleeping in a vehicle. Silver Reflextix panels are a lot more stealthy — they’re the same material that people put in their windshield when they park to prevent their vehicle from getting too hot. If you’re sleeping in an urban area, I feel that Reflectix panels are a lot less conspicuous…you look more like an industrial van and less like a backpacker van.
-They go up really quickly, possibly even quicker than drawing curtains. Definitely use Velcro (or in some cases you can wedge them in to the window areas using the existing parts of the van like seatbelt attachment points).
-During the day, we just stack up the Reflectix panels on the bed area for storage.
Building The Van
Here are the materials / measurements we used:
2x pieces of heavy plywood, 240 cm x 120 cm
3 long 2x4s cut into legs
One other piece of wood for the stove kick stand
Timber Screws (one box of 100 should be enough)
Shorter Timber Screws that are slightly shorter than your plywood is thick (for mounting hinges, etc.)
Various steel “L” brackets and pieces of hardware for putting together the kitchen shelf and reinforcing the legs
Velcro for the kitchen kick stand
Plastic countertop self-adhesive paper to give yourself a nice countertop
An automatic screw driver / screw gun
Sandpaper (sand off the rough plywood edges before you start using the van, it makes it so much nicer)
Circular Saw OR just get the wood cut at the hardware store (Bunning’s or Home Depot) like we did!
Measurements & Basic Instructions
Three plywood pieces 120cm by 80cm (Cut one full 120x200cm piece of plywood into thirds)
One plywood piece, 120cm by 43cm (width of the back seat for hinged slide out portion)
9 legs, 32cm tall (cut from lengths of 2×4)
3 legs, 34cm tall (for the slide out section – should be slightly taller than the bed platform)
-Make a “sandwich” box for the main bed platform and screw it together with the 9 legs spaced evenly
-Put the slide out pieces of plywood together with hinges, and have the legs free hanging. Reinforce them with some L brackets so the they don’t get bent.
(Measurements specifically for the curved trunk area of a Toyota Tarago – you’ll have to measure this to fit your own van)
Two pieces of plywood 55cm x 120cm (full width)
6 legs, 36cm tall
The little stove shelf is 30cm x 40cm, made from 9 pieces of plywood cut 30x40cm with the remainder of the plywood… this is something you should customize to fit your stove and whatever you need to store
120cm is just about the perfect width for the Tarago — the full size of the interior space is really around 150cm, but it gives you a bit of clearance on both sides which actually means more storage…wedge things in the side spaces, and the sliding door area you have a small standing area to sit on or leave your shoes on when you’re sleeping.
Let me know if you have any questions! And post pictures of your results here.
MUSIC: “Raising Ukuleles” by Carter Burwell, from the “Raising Arizona” soundtrack