“We did a DIY renovation on our camper van for $45,000. Now, van life saves us thousands on travel”

“We did a DIY renovation on our camper van for $45,000. Now, van life saves us thousands on travel”

Dan Fletcher and Emily Langer’s sprinter van used to transport bikes. Post-reno, they can live in it for weeks at a time

Emily and Dan standing in the door of their sprinter vanDan Fletcher, a 30-year-old media server operator, and Emily Langer, a 28-year-old youth worker, bought a 2014 Ram ProMaster on Kijiji in 2022. When they got it, it was filthy and completely empty. But, with some help from friends and YouTube tutorials, the couple renovated it themselves, cutting out new windows and installing their own plumbing. Then they lived in it for six weeks while road-tripping across the western US. Here, they tell us about their DIY van conversion, hacks for more-comfortable van-life experiences and how they make their relationship work in such close quarters.

Emily: Dan and I met working at Young People’s Theatre. I ran youth programming, and Dan was the head electrician. We became friends, and then, in March 2020, all the company’s programming went online. Dan came over to help me hang shelves in my apartment, and while he was there, we learned of a Covid exposure in our friend group. So Dan never left because, by law, he wasn’t allowed to. We had a blast quarantining together, and our friendship turned into a relationship.

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Dan: During that time, Emily brought up the idea of buying a van.

Emily: I’ve wanted a camper van since I was 12 years old. I remember being on a summer trip in North Carolina and seeing an older couple travelling around in their van. It looked so magical. They were kind enough to give me a tour, and when I came home that summer, I told my mom I was going to buy a van one day.

Dan: Like everyone else in Emily’s life, I quickly got sick of hearing about it. So I said, “Let’s buy a van then.” It was kind of a put-up-or-shut-up moment. It wasn’t that crazy of an idea to me. I had always been drawn to tiny homes and enjoyed living in small spaces. I love watching YouTube videos about how people live in shoebox apartments in New York.

Emily: I thought having a van would be a great way to travel and go camping. We live in Toronto full time, but we love to get out of the city on weekends. We started to shop around for vans online, and by April 2020, we’d found a 136-wheelbase 2014 Ram ProMaster on Kijiji for $17,000. We met up with the seller in a parking lot and came home with Goose.

Emily and Dan standing outside their sprinter van

Dan: Goose is what we call the van. It’s kind of an inside joke because we have a habit of calling ourselves silly gooses.

Emily: The van was previously used to transport bikes, so it was completely empty. It was also full of dirt, which was pretty gnarly. It took me a couple of days to clean it out.

Dan: Then we started the van build. As a kid, my dad taught me how to build things. Plus I went to school for theatre production, so I’m pretty handy.

Emily: I had zero experience with renovation. I think I had used a drill twice in my life. To learn, I watched a lot of YouTube videos. We also had a couple of friends help us out.

Dan: We tackled the framing first, along the outer walls. Then we installed a ceiling fan and cut out some windows.

The interior of the van

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Emily: Basically, to cut a window, you use a cardboard template for the shape and cut a hole into the van using a jigsaw. Then you add a wooden frame on the inside so that you can screw the rest of the framing into it—but the wooden frame has to adhere to the van’s metal walls. The first window went well, but the second one did not. The adhesive we were using couldn’t cure because it was so cold outside. We had this giant hole in the van and didn’t know what to do. I definitely shed some tears mid-project.

Dan: We ended up using two-part epoxy, a stronger form of adhesive, which we blew a hair dryer on for about 45 minutes. It worked like a charm.

Emily: From there, we spent a lot of time building a bench area and a table that doubles as our bed. We knew we wanted space for four people to be seated, so we didn’t have room for a bed that would be in place all the time.

Dan: The movable bed provides us with a lot of space during the day. When it’s time to sleep, we pull cushions down over our table. There are two rails on the sides that hold everything in place.

A closer look at their bed set up

Emily: For storage space, we have a garage in the back of the van as well as space under the bench seats. That’s where we store our camping gear, yoga mats, tools and laundry bag. Next to the kitchen, we also have a full closet, where we store clothes.

Dan: Underneath the bench is where we store the electrical equipment—a 2,000-watt convertible charger and a DC to DC charger, which connects to the vehicle’s alternator and the solar panels on the roof. All of this ties into our 200-ampere-hour lithium battery, which is the main power source.

Emily: We use the 200-watt solar panels to charge our phones, laptops and kitchen appliances. Once the bench and bed were installed, we could see how a kitchen counter and sink could fit in.

Dan: It’s hard to plan the measurements ahead of time because the walls of the van aren’t straight—they’re slightly curved. So we really had to make decisions as we built.

Emily and Dan's kitchen inside the van

Emily: The kitchen took us about four days. We put in a 65-litre fridge, which fits about five days of groceries. We also have four cupboards and a pantry for our dry goods. Our Instant Pot is our most-used appliance. We make soups and stews in it all the time.

Dan: It took about a day to build our sink unit. We drove over to a nearby Home Depot and did the plumbing right in the parking lot—it was the most efficient way to pick up any last-minute parts throughout the day. For water supply, we have two 10-litre freshwater tanks and a grey-water tank to hold waste. All of that gets stored behind the sink.

A look at the water tanks underneath their sink

Emily: We knew installing a toilet was a necessity for us—we want to be able to go camp in urban settings and not worry about finding a bathroom every time we need to go.

Dan: I did a lot of research on which kind of toilet we should get. We ended up buying a chemical porta-potty toilet because it’s super easy. It uses AA batteries to flush.

Emily: The toilet waste goes into a holding tank that’s stored underneath it, which has chemicals to break things down. When it’s ready to dump, there’s a lever on the back to take it out and empty it. We installed a drawer for it that slides in and out, so we can hide it when it’s not in use.

Dan: We very quickly stopped caring about using the toilet while the other person was in the van. We did have some challenges with it, though. It’s leaked three times. We still don’t know why, but we’ve learned to be very careful about locking the compartments properly.

Emily: We don’t have a shower. Instead, we find campsites and hostels to shower at every once in a while. We do have a spraying hose on the back of the van that we can use to rinse off, but we don’t have a water heater, so it’s pretty cold.

Dan: When we’ve been on the road in the US, we aim to shower once per state. It’s not as bad as one might think. We’re quite low-maintenance.

Emily: We stay clean with deodorant and baby wipes.

Some of the storage underneath the bench in the van

Dan: To keep the van smelling fresh, we have a rechargeable oil diffuser. It’s great to turn on after cooking dinner or coming back from longer hiking trips.

Emily: We also use magnetic hooks that can hang anywhere in the van. They’re good for clothes, keys and our projector screen, which we use to watch movies in bed.

Dan: We spent around $40,000 to $45,000 on fixing up the van, renovations and all.

Emily: We finished up in November 2023 and hit the road for a six-week trip. We travelled around Colorado, Utah, Arizona and New Mexico. We hiked, camped, and visited museums and galleries. For most of the trip, we paid for campsites overnight and could park the van there. Sometimes, we’d park on city streets overnight. Luckily we didn’t have any issues with parking enforcement.

Dan: On our first day in Arizona, the van got stuck in the sand for about 24 hours.

Emily: We spent about 12 hours trying to get it out before we accepted that it wasn’t going to work with just the two of us. So we called in a towing company. It took them four and a half hours to free the van. It was a crazy day.

Dan: We’ve lived together since the pandemic, so we’re used to being roommates. Emily is definitely cleaner than me. I love a mess. Luckily, the van is small, which encourages me to be intentional about where I put stuff. Everything has its place.

Emily: There’s also so little space that any mess can be cleaned up in ten minutes.

More of the van's storage options

Dan: We do this thing we call Ten Minute Taylor, where we put on the ten minute version of “All Too Well” and start cleaning. Usually it turns into 45 minutes of cleaning and listening to Taylor Swift songs. We highly recommend it.

Emily: The division of labour in the van came pretty naturally for us. There’s nothing I hate more than doing laundry, so that’s Dan’s job. But I love cooking, so I make our meals.

Dan: I also handle the electrical tasks and the gross things like emptying the toilet.

Emily: Van life gives us an accessible and easy way to travel. We’re both homebodies, so we created a home on wheels that lets us be comfortable anywhere we go—regardless of whether we’re in a massive city or the middle of the woods.

Dan: There’s a real satisfaction to having built the van from the ground up. We can look around and remember how we did it all together. Plus, being able to travel and not worry about booking accommodations gives us a lot of freedom.

Emily: We’re big campers, and the cost of booking sites can add up. With the van, we save money by just paying for gas and insurance. Plus food, of course, but we’d buy that no matter where we were. Overall, we likely save about $4,000 by travelling in the van for longer trips.

A look at the entrance to the van

Dan: The van makes it so much easier to go away for the weekend—there’s barely any packing. We haven’t done a ton of travelling yet, given our busy schedules, but we’re planning to do more weekend trips when the weather gets warmer. Emily would love to visit Sleeping Giant Provincial Park and other places in Northern Ontario.

Emily: It’s also our primary vehicle. We get our groceries in it and park it on our street in the Annex when we aren’t using it.

Dan: We’d love to start going down to Baja, Mexico, for the winters, if we’re both working remotely. We don’t yet have a diesel heater, though, so we’re not prepared for a long drive to Mexico in the cold weather. That will be part of a future renovation.