If you’re into the whole #vanlife thing, you’ve probably seen some awesome DIY builds out there. We admit that the way we slapped a bed in the back of our Nissan NV200 isn’t all that impressive by comparison. Maybe you’re the type of person who wants a little more luxury — a van you can really show off and feel at home in when you’re traveling.
Well, sorry. Neither of us is handy enough to do anything like that. But fortunately, we have a friend who is, and he’s here to share his super fancy DIY Ford Transit Connect camper van conversion process from beginning to end!
Meet Justin Taylor, a fellow personal finance blogger and podcaster who shares our love of the great American road trip. He’s got a knack for extreme frugality, travel hacking, and getting stuff for free, all on the fast track to financial independence. Justin’s blog persona is Saving Sherpa, and you may remember him from our interview on his podcast, The FI Show.
You might think a van mod like Justin’s would cost a fortune, but as we mentioned, he’s an expert in the art of free stuff. Aside from actually buying the Ford Transit Connect XLT, the entirety of his essential camper van mods cost a grand total of $239. But don’t take it from us. We’ve invited Justin to answer some questions about this feat himself.
Note: We’re gonna include some links to products and services that Justin recommends throughout the article. If you click on one and make a purchase, we (or he) will earn a small commission at no additional cost to you (learn more). 100% of our affiliate profits go to charity.
How to Build a Ford Transit Connect Camper Van
Q: Alright, give us the breakdown. What all did you do to this thing to take it from a plain cargo van to a tricked out camper? Feel free to get into the technical details! Did it start out completely stock?
A: My particular Ford Transit Connect cargo van started out as a work vehicle. Keep in mind that this is the “Connect” model, not to be confused with its big brother that goes simply by “Ford Transit.” These vans are super common in big cities for use in a wide variety of professions, especially delivery.
The van’s complete exterior length is only 15 ft (4.5 m) long, making it extremely easy to drive. Little-known fact: These vans are built in Turkey. Ford utilized an import tariff loophole where they would ship them over with seats in the back so they could be classified as passenger vehicles. That resulted in lower fees. Then, once in America, the rear seats were pulled and recycled.
DIY camper van conversions are all very unique, but at the same time, most have a lot of similarities. In my breakdown today, I want to really focus on the costs and steps of the true conversion. You can experience big swings in pricing just from relatively minor things, like choosing larger or smaller batteries for off-grid power. But the reality is, you may not even need off-grid power. You probably will want storage, a bed, insulation, and a way to cook. I think I may have satisfied those basics in a fancy form factor as cheaply as anyone ever has.
This van started with a completely empty cargo area and a rubber molded layer on the floor. There was also a large metal cage divider between the cab and cargo area. This was installed to protect workers from having their tools fly at their head in the event of a sudden stop. It was an industrial blank canvas.
My first addition was actually more of a subtraction. I needed to remove that rubber molded floor liner so I could have a perfect stencil of the floor. I also needed to remove the large metal divider so that I’d be able to enter the camper portion without exiting the vehicle when stealth camping.
With the floor stencil, I was able to cut out rigid insulation that I got for free via a local “Everything Is Free” Facebook group where people get rid of stuff they don’t need any more. The stencil ensured that I had a perfect fit for my insulation and plywood subfloor. Plywood comes in 4 ft (1.2 m) x 8 ft (2.4 m) sheets. and these vans have a cargo area that measures a little wider than four feet wide and right at six feet long. This meant I would need to piece together multiple pieces of plywood to create the subfloor.
Thanks to my brother’s suggestion, I went with a notched design. By shaving down the bottom edge of one piece and the top edge of another, I created an interlocking joint which would make the subfloor structurally like it was one solid piece. If I left it as two or three individual pieces, they would move up and down and cause issues with my top layer of hardwood flooring.
I didn’t have many tools, so I just set the depth of my circular saw to about half of the thickness of my plywood. Then, I’d run the saw back and forth by hand until I had planed out a 1.5-inch (3.8 cm) wide section to create that interlocking joint.
Once I test fit everything, I put a hefty amount of wood glue on the joints and then ran screws down from the top side. I was doing most of my work in the winter in Boston, so I had to leave electric heaters running inside to have things dry effectively.
With the subfloor complete, it was time to frame out the ceiling. I wanted to have three planks running the width of the cargo area in the ceiling. These would give me anchor points to screw my ceiling boards into and give me a gap for my insulation. I wanted to be able to camp year-round, so I went heavy on the insulation with this build.
These horizontal boards took a lot of test fitting to get as flush as possible. There are three common themes throughout this build. I didn’t have much experience, I didn’t have many tools, and nothing inside this van was square.
With the horizontal pieces in place, I was able to start adding in the foam board insulation in the roof. This was another freebie from my local Facebook group. The next step was my ceiling boards. I’d gotten ~100 square feet (9 square meters) of laminate hardwood planks for free on Craigslist. I decided I’d use them for the ceiling as well as the flooring.
From there, I would add a front storage box. This was done by extending a plastic shelf in the cab with plywood and adding a front face to it. After the box was complete, I cut out a hole and created a door. The door would lock in the up position with gas struts. The gas struts are important because they keep the lip from falling down on your face when putting things up, and they also lock it down so there isn’t any rattle when driving.
With the overhead storage solved, I decided to work on the walls. I wanted to add in a lot of insulation and add some thin plywood walls. The thin plywood is great because it can flex a little. I used more of the rigid board insulation where I could, and spray foam in all the smaller gaps.
Remember that nothing is square or easy inside the Ford Transit Connect XLT. So, to give the walls some semblance of being straight, I added in additional insulation and planks in the middle. It wasn’t pretty, but it would eventually all be hidden by thin plywood, often referred to as “luan” or “underlayment.” You’ll probably want a jigsaw to make all the small cuts for a nice fit.
I also made boxes around the wheel wells utilizing a pocket hole jig for more insulation. These are large, thin parts of the body and thus really bad for heat retention. It also gave me a flat, sturdy surface that I would eventually be able to screw the bed into.
Speaking of beds, that’s the next thing up. I obviously wanted a bed, but I also wanted to be able to work from the van in a normal fashion. With that in mind, I decided to make a convertible bed couch. I found a method that allows for a sliding slot design and didn’t require any complicated hinges.
When sizing out your bed, keep your personal use cases in mind. For me, that meant considering how high my head would be when sitting on the bed, how wide the bed would be for two campers, and how much room would be left for my dresser.
Since this is an extremely low-budget build, I was creative with the dresser. I found it at our neighbor’s house on the street for trash pickup. Unfortunately, I didn’t take a picture of its original form, but it had multiple different levels, it was too deep, and it would need the drawer tracks altered.
With the proper alterations, it fit like a glove — hugging around the wheel wells and fitting right up against the wall. For anything like the dresser that has drawers, think about how you’ll keep them closed when driving. There’s a few methods here, but for the dresser, I went with magnets. How much weight will be in the drawer will determine how many and what strength you need.
The free Facebook group came in clutch again with a wood topper. This topper is laminated wood, but it gave the cabinet a really nice look and a little contrast compared to the original white top.
I later went on to add a little topper box out of some leftover luan board. This was built so I could run power outlets and USB port extensions for easy access.
At this point, I had just been placing things like the bed and dresser into the van. I hadn’t actually locked them in place permanently. The reason for that was so that I could mock up placement without scratching up the hardwood flooring that I’d eventually install. This hardwood flooring was the same free Craigslist find I used on the ceiling.
The next piece was my girlfriend Leslie’s favorite part — painting. I’d done all the work solo up until this point, but she was happy to lend a hand with this. Fair warning: It’s pretty easy for fumes to overwhelm you in a small camper van like the Ford Transit Connect, so grab a fan.
After that, the neighborhood trash gods would smile upon me once again. Another dresser got placed out at the road before garbage day. This one was much uglier but had some really well-built, solid wood drawers. I added a front piece of luan to the bed to structurally tie the bed together and avoid warping.
To do this, I put a solid rectangular piece across the front side of the bed and then cut out sections so I could still store things under the bed. Those cutouts gave me a great idea on how to incorporate the drawers: I took those cutouts and replaced the original front faces of the drawers, meaning they’d fit perfectly into the bed.
Hopefully you’ll agree this gave us a nicer look. The design is simple too — the drawers just slide on the ground. There’s no custom tracks to install. To keep them from sliding open, I attached some small bolt locks.
I utilized one of the drawers for storing my stove and heater, but I turned the other one into a custom cooler contraption. I took scrap pieces of rigid insulation and spray insulation to make a perfect mold around a slim cooler I had. Not many coolers are shallow enough to fit, and the one I used wasn’t very well insulated originally. After my upgrades, it would keep ice for several days.
Now that all the storage was figured out, it was time to discover how I’d make this thing comfortable to live in long enough to use all that storage. I’ve seen $60k van builds that use tiny little camping mattresses, and it drives me crazy. What’s the point of it all if you can’t sleep well?
So I found a queen size memory foam mattress for free on Facebook and cut it down to size myself. I struggled with several different ways to actually make the cuts, but I ended up on the simplest solution: A bread knife was the key to success. It sounds weird, but it works.
I cut the bed down to size, which was roughly 72” (183 m) long by 34” (86 cm) wide by 7” (18 cm) deep. I also refused to spend $100+ on custom slip covers. The only problem was, I also had no idea how to sew. I did get some fabric for free from my local Facebook group, and I got some ideas from YouTube. Instead of sewing, I went with a method where you glue a thin piece of luan to the bottom of the pad, wrap cloth around it, and then staple it into place.
If you’re keeping score, so far we have a bed frame, mattress, storage up front, dresser, storage underneath, hardwood floors and ceiling, all fully insulated. Those were the essentials. Now we start to get into the “nice to have” area. I’m sure Leslie got annoyed at my constant “I have an idea” moments.
The last structural add-ons from phase 1 were flip-up tables. One flip-up table extends by countertop to a full 6 ft (1.8 m). The other flip-up table can be used when the doors are opened up. That allows me to have a great cooking surface while standing outside the van. The key to both of these are the locking hinges. They allow you to have a strong tabletop when needed, and a low profile otherwise.
Finally, it came down to the window dressing. I’ve seen a lot of camper vans with cables and pulleys for curtains. I went with a much simpler approach. It seems obvious, but I just used a curtain rod. I screwed the rod holder into my wooden overhead storage, and it was good to go.
Q: How many man-hours do you think the project took in total, and over what span of time did you work on it? Was it a one-man job?
A: I bought the van in mid-February, and was done with what I call the “structural phase” less than two months later. Keep in mind, I was gone about 3 weeks of this time between our Vermont Yurt trip and our big California trip. That means it was closer to 4 active weeks. This was everything we needed to use it as a basic camper van, without the electrical components. I worked on it pretty obsessively, and I wouldn’t recommend that everyone take the pace that I did.
Everything but paint and the vent install was a one-man job. My brother helped me with cutting the hole in the roof and sealing it up — not because it’s a two-man job, but because he had a lot more experience. All in, I’d estimate 120 man-hours.
Q: Of the modifications you made to your custom Ford Transit Connect, which was the hardest or most time-consuming? Is there anything you regret or wish you would have done differently? Anything still missing?
A: As a general annoyance, the worst part is that nothing in the van is square. So it’s nothing like building a house with lots of easy angles. You have to do a lot of mock-up pieces with cardboard, and a lot of sanding to make things fit just right.
One area I could have saved a ton of time on is knowing when to just buy something instead of trying to make it myself. I tried for so many hours to build something that would prop up my flip-up tables, and in the end, some simple and cheap locking hinges worked perfectly.
The only thing other vanlifers would say our build is “missing” is a sink. We never saw the need for one. Washing out our non-stick skillet was as simple as splashing a touch of water on it and wiping it off. Leaving out the sink also meant that we didn’t have to give up space to water tanks, or stress about leaks.
Making a DIY Camper Van Conversion Affordable
Q: So, when you say this whole van conversion process only cost $239, what do you mean exactly? Like, how is that even possible? Give us the cost breakdown. Is this repeatable (and if not, which parts were just random luck)?
A: Here’s my complete build list, including the prices I paid:
Click to expand build list
- (12x) Furring strips – $15.40
- (2x) 8’2” x 3” planks – $2.00
- (3x) 4’ x 8’ luan – $48.00
- (2x) 8’2” x 2” planks – $4.00
- (4x) Spray foam – $4.00
- (2x) Paintbrush – $2.00
- Furniture pads – $5.50
- (2x) 8 oz white screws – $6.45
- 1” Poly insulation – $24.00
- Insulation tape – $4.00
- 8’ molding – $3.73
- Wood glue – $4.00
- Drawer magnets – $13.76
- Carbon monoxide detector – $20.00
- Ceiling light – $23.79
- (4x) Gas struts – $13.00
- Hinges – $3.00
- (3x) Drawer latches – $6.60
- (4x) Locking hinges – $35.80
- (7x) 6’ x 2’ x 5/8” plywood – $0
- Scrap wood – $0
- 80 sq. ft hardwood floors – $0
- 1 gallon white paint – $0
- Drawers – $0
- Dresser – $0
- Countertop – $0
- 48 sq. ft hard insulation – $0
- Queen memory foam mattress – $0
- 8 yd fabric – $0
- Dyson vacuum – $0
- Comforter – $0
- Pillows – $0
- Sunshade – $0
- Cell phone car mount – $0
- Hubcaps – $0
I managed to get a lot for free from local Facebook groups and Craigslist. This list includes everything it took me to convert the Ford Transit Connect into a suitable camper van. However, I’d be lying if I said I never spent any more than the $240.
In a second phase, I did add in a ventilation fan, a solar panel, and some battery storage, which added about another $900-1k, but those all more of a luxury than a necessity.
When asked if a build at this price is repeatable, my answer would be “it depends.” If you are willing to make some compromises with things like the wood grain of your floor, the style of your cabinets, the thickness of your insulation, etc, then you can have a lot more success sourcing free materials online and in your local community. For me, this was particularly easy because I live in a big city, where there is a larger community to source from.
When I first sat down and thought about everything I got for free, I actually questioned how I spent so much on this thing. As with all building projects, a camper van conversion can quickly turn into a death by a thousand cuts. Little things started to add up even though I got the bulk of my materials for free.
Q: Tell us more about the ventilation fan, solar panel, and battery storage. Which models did you opt for and why? Were these camper van accessories worth the money?
A: As I mentioned earlier, I really want to focus here on how people can make a very low-cost camper van that is plenty to get started with, or even make huge journeys in. Once you get into the non-essential components like these, spending can start to explode.
With that being said, I did end up putting another $1k into a phase 2 of the van build. Partially because I’m a nerd and wanted to, and partially for the legitimate added comforts of home.
I would recommend every component that I bought. I looked for value. Again, you can spend way more, but I don’t think there’s any need to do so. Here’s my list of recommendations if you want to take your van to the next level:
- Ventilation fan: MaxxFan 00-05100K (I actually found mine on eBay for $193)
- Solar Panel: HQST 100-watt (same manufacturer as Renogy)
- Solar panel brackets: Renogy Z-brackets
- Solar panel wiring: HQST cables
- Battery: ROCKPALS 500-watt (this one looks good; the exact model I bought is no longer available)
- Refrigerator: Alpicool C15
I’ll be writing a follow-up article or two for my own blog soon, detailing how all of this was actually installed and wired up as well, in addition to more technical details about what you can and can’t power (and for how long).
Q: How much did you spend on the van itself? Did you pay cash or finance it? Did you buy it new or used, and from where? How old was it and how many miles did it have? Is there a “sweet spot” for buying a Ford Transit Connect in terms of age and price?
A: The van was $4,700 cash. It’s a 2012 and had 107k miles on it when I got it. I bought it from a local shop that had just a couple vehicles for sale. The model I got was the XLT, not the XL. The XLT comes with a back-up camera and a better tech package that includes Bluetooth, hands-free calling, and voice commands.
The price I paid is definitely on the low end for these, and you could easily spend double on one. With that being said, I’d say $5k-$7k is very doable for a Transit Connect XLT of similar age and mileage. If you can find one that has already had the transmission replaced, that’d be the one I’d go with. It’s the biggest known problem with these vans.
Mine appeared to be in really great shape aside from some rust on the exhaust, and it came with a 30-day warranty. I’d looked at so many under $5k, and they always sold before I could test drive them, so I bought this one the day we first saw it.
Q: Why did you choose the Ford Transit Connect XLT versus a traditional RV, or versus other van models? Was money a big factor?
A: I love all types of vehicles, especially unique ones. I currently own a 1988 Suzuki Samurai, for example. I was looking for Jeep Wranglers until I came across one, and then I knew instantly I had to have a Samurai. That’s the same way I felt about the Transit Connect.
I looked at so many form factors before I came across the Transit, and then I knew. Other factors were the stealth camping piece (it doesn’t obviously look like a camper), gas mileage, and super low cost. Stealth camping was originally a huge piece of why I liked the van form factor, but I later realized that there’s little need to be stealthy thanks to sites like Boondockers Welcome.
Enjoying the Camper Van Life
Q: How long has it been since you finished the project, and what have you done with your Ford Transit adventure van since then? Got a favorite trip?
A: I finished the van in April of 2020, and I actually sold it in August of the same year. The story behind why I sold it and some of the things along the way will require a separate article (or two) to fully explain. I do not regret buying a Ford Transit and would do so again. I just wouldn’t buy one from the northeast with so much snow. Rust ended up being a bigger issue on my van than expected.
I bought the van for $4,700, put $239 into it for the structural build out, put another $1,000 into it in the second phase with solar panels, batteries, etc., and ended up selling it for $12,500. So I think that’s a great example of how converting vans can be a very lucrative side business. Unfortunately for me, I also had to install a new transmission, exhaust, and some hoses on the van during the time I owned it. This meant I didn’t really make any profit on the van, but I had an amazing time with the build and the trips we got to take.
The mechanical issues actually aren’t the reason we sold it though. The main reason we sold it was an amazing opportunity to move to Austin. That move was financially and personally very smart for us, but it did mean only having one parking spot. We decided to keep our daily driver and let the van go.
So that’s the short version of why I don’t have it anymore. Even though it was short-lived, we did get some awesome trips out of it!
To name a few, I did a solo trip to North Mississippi from Boston. And while down south, I took it on a couple trips into Tennessee. Then, my girlfriend and I drove it from Boston to the Notre Dame campus, Chicago, Iowa, all across Colorado, Austin, Mississippi, New York City, and back to Boston. We also had some trips across New England, including Cape Cod and New Hampshire.
Q: When you’re out on the road for a long period, what are your go-to sleep and shower spots, and why?
A: Boondockers Welcome locations are our go-to sleeping spots. I can’t over-emphasize how amazing this community is. For $50 a month, you can stay across thousands of locations with no extra cost. After being a member for 7 months, I decided to become an affiliate with them, so if you use my link to sign up, I’ll earn a little extra travel money.
Every spot I stayed at was so nice and safe. Why worry about a cop asking why you’re parked somewhere when you can stay with permission and also get to meet some great people along the way? If you have a “fully self-contained” rig, this will be your favorite purchase of the journey.
On our trips, we mixed in some stops with people we knew personally for showers, but there are so many other options too. Love’s Truck stops and Planet Fitness would be my go-tos in a non-pandemic environment.
Q: Are there any must-have gadgets or accessories you bring with you on every trip? Anything you’re planning to buy along those lines?
A: I think this really depends on how electrified your van is. If you have solar, one of the most useful Ford Transit Connect accessories might be a 12-V refrigerator. With these, you don’t have to worry about ice or things getting soggy. They use almost no electricity either.
If you don’t have solar, then I’d recommend a few portable battery banks for your phone. A good butane stove was also a must-have for us.
I got a lot of random things like window shades, battery banks, cell phone chargers, etc. for the van for free myself. I just used a site that allows you to leave honest reviews in exchange for free stuff on Amazon.
Q: Any other random tips or tricks about modding a camper van or about enjoying van life in general?
A: It will probably take time and experience to figure out, but setting up your storage so that you can reach what you need at night is really important. It’s a small space, and you don’t want to have to try and fold the bed up while inside it just to reach a cable or something you need.
Also, do a practice run close to home to make sure you’ve thought everything through, and so nothing goes flying around while driving down the road. Have fun!