Big Red Van




Introduction: Big Red Van

Big Red Van
I didn't want too much, really . . .
Just extra long, extra tall, low mileage, under $10,000 CAD
Whoa! Right there in (or some such), just what I was thinking of! Bonus windows on the upper sides!
When we went to see it it turned out to have a roof fan and battery pack/ inverter system with loads of outlets. (The batteries charge as you drive or could be charged by plugging into household current)
this was the very first van we had actually gone to look at, up until now I was just looking on the internet and giving every cargo van I passed the once over
Oh yeah, I'd only told my dear husband of this plan a few months before and had insinuated that it would be sometime in the future, like a year or more down the road. We're retired and I wanted a travel van. I didn't want anything too fancy or high tech, mainly something to haul our bed and gear on overnight adventures
to quiet the self doubts, we went to see some other used vans, including stepvans. Nothing quite compared, while the step vans had a bigger cargo area, there wasn't a proper passenger seat and the cab area was too bare bones to imagine long trips in. I also couldn't quite imagine driving (or parking) the bigger delivery vans. Back to the first place, after a test drive, we bought it with the condition that it pass the safety inspection, also negotiated a 6 month repair warranty, Sold! To the grey haired lady and her sweet husband!

The ladder racks and the spike in the front (for holding traffic cones) were removed by the seller, however, we still have the yellow strobe lights on the roof!

Step 1: Clean It Out

Amazing just how much dried mud and crud were in the van. There was a 6' desk/work table that we removed, also some metal cabinets. One of the metal cabinets was bolted through the van floor! ( We had some nice fellas at a nearby auto repair place remove that for us) the walls are mainly Rhinocladding, a series of heavy duty interlocking vinyl pieces. It only took about 3 rounds of scrubbing and rinsing to get the walls and plywood floor clean. Of course this was at the start of a heat wave, so when the temperature and exertion levels got me to the near faint level, I'd sit down in the van in my folding camp chair, sip something cool and try to imagine what was going where.
There is the large over cab storage area, but I knew we'd need more than that to organize our stuff on even short trips.
This van has a high roof, where the cap joins the original roof line, a shelf was built all around the van. It's only about 3-4"wide by 1.5"deep, but it is very handy for storing lots of small items. I screwed some coat hooks into the outside of the shelf along one side of the bed area. These are the his and hers closets. My husband prefers to store his socks and underwear in a small suitcase under the bed for the duration of the trip. I prefer to put my stuff in cloth pockets that are attached to the Rhinocladding with S hooks.

Step 2: Floor It, Baby!

This is another area of van renovation that has a wide variety of choices. I decided on vinyl flooring, the van already had a 3/4" plywood floor in place.
I used a plastic drop cloth to make a template of the van floor.
I taped the template to the vinyl, (also used some rocks to hold it down). Traced around the template with a sharpie before cutting.
Used the wicked looking linoleum knife for most the cutting. My handy kitchen shears for took care of of the smaller cuts ( especially for those areas that needed to have just a wee bit more shaved off here and there)

The vinyl fit so well we didn't use the vinyl adhesive, just rolled it out. (Returned the unopened adhesive and applicator to the store, because there's always something else we need for the van). I thought I might need to rethink the decision not to glue but 10 months later it still seems fine

Step 3: Stealth!

Yeah, I know. It's about 10' tall and a little bit longer than your standard mall parking space. Oh yeah, bright red with yellow lights on top. Whatta ya mean stealth?
Ok, so maybe it is a bit big ( and red), but when I'm talking stealth, I mean I don't want anybody to know that we're sleeping or dressing in the van.
I bought a pair of insulated, room darkening drapes. Using paper bags, flattened out and taped together, I made templates of the inside of each window. I cut each piece about 1" larger than the window itself. I lined the "shades" on the door windows with a cream coloured, light weight fabric. The right side of the drape faces out, the insulated backing faces inside the van. The light coloured fabric was used so it wouldn't look so dark on the inside of the van. I sewed seam binding around each piece. I used glue to fasten magnets along the outside edges of each shade. When not in use the shades get folded up and stored on the shelf above the side doors. They go up and are removed very quickly and the magnets seem to be hanging in there.
I used a similar method to cut out the shades for the long windows on the upper sides of the van, applied seam binding as well, but didn't line them as I didn't have enough of the light coloured fabric left. The van ceiling is a standard headliner, similar to the inside roof in a car. I made loops from some plastic lids that I sewed onto the upper edge of the shades, then used drapery hooks inserted into the headliner. I usually leave the top shades in place, just opening them halfway to let in light or breezes. When we sleep in the van on a residential street, we don't turn on a light inside the van unless all the shades are closed. We have a piece of the insulated drape that blocks the 'doorway' between the cab of the van and the camper area in the back. This is held in place by a bungee cord and some eye bolts, again, easy to put in place or stow away.

Step 4: Peeing in the Van

So if you're a guy, you're thinking, what's the big deal? I can pee in a jug or . . .
well, I wasn't talking to you sir, I was talkin' to that lady over there . . . So any fellas can go away til the next step

Yes ladies, this is for you, anyone of you who envied the ease with which those guys can pee anywhere, without getting undressed or wetting their clothes or shoes?!

Ok, a simple device and a bit of practice and you too can pee in a jug or on the trailside, making so many more adventures possible

You could buy a female urinal on line or maybe even one of those fancy sports equiptment places, but hey, this is INSTRUCTABLES, girlfriend!

To make your peepee device ( aka PPD) You'll need:
   an empty shampoo, or lotion or sunblock bottle, 8-12 ounces, about 7-9" from base to top of neck of bottle, base should be  oval, not round (base approx 1 1/4"-1 1/2 " x 2 1/2" x2 3/4") Cap removed
   A sharpie
   Kitchen shears and steak knife or exacto knife
   An empty laundry detergent jug with cap (to hold the pee until you can responsibly dispose of it at a rest stop or other toilet.)
Draw an oval on the plastic bottle. See photo 2. Note the little flap at the end of the oval near the neck of the bottle. Cut on solid lines, Fold on dotted line Do not detach the flap; bend it up to form a guard.  See photo 3. ( flap seems to help prevent spillage during use). Cut out the oval, flip up the guard and let's go practice. This device is meant for use in a standing position
First few tries, I'd recommend you remove your clothing below the waist, but it's up to you. Position your PPD with your knees slightly bent and apart, hips tipped slightly forward, pointing the opening toward the toilet or into the open top of your laundry detergent/ pee container. 
Practice makes perfect! After a few tries you'll be able to keep on your clothes ( and shoes). A few more practice runs and you can use the PPD by just opening your fly, ( open the snap and zipper, but leave belt on) sliding down the top edge of your underwear, positioning the PPD and pointing the open end into the collection jug, while assuming "the position'. If you look temporarily bow legged, hunched forward, and all your clothes remain dry, you've done it!
After using the PPD, dry the PPD with a tissue, and stow it back in its plastic bag. (We keep hand sanitizer in a central location so we can find it even in the dark)

**Please be a responsible traveler, and empty all urine and grey water in a toilet, (not on the road or any where else) if you have a bland grocery style tote to put your urine collection container and grey water jug  in, no one even notices if you carry them into the rest stop bathroom for emptying**

How to remove easy pour insert from laundry soap jug for use as urine container
1.5-2L is a good size jug, you'll also need a knife or kitchen shears
Note the little hole in the inner spout
Put blade into this hole, press the tip of the blade upwards to pop the inner spout out
Rinse out all remaining soap before use, or you'll be trying to flush a whole lotta bubbles!
CHECK that the outer cap still fits snugly! Some containers won't close completely once the inner spout has been removed

Step 5: Road Trip!

How else to know what you'll need? We took our first road trip a few weeks after getting the van. The van had been scrubbed, the floor laid and the window coverings mostly completed. (The upper window coverings weren't hemmed and they were pinned to the headliner). Our bed was a queen size futon ( had been our couch up until then), we just heaved it on the floor where it almost fit between the wheelwells. Our cooler and backpacks slithered around if I made a sharp turn. We only slept in the van 2 nights on that trip but it helped clarify what steps we wanted to take next. I'm glad that we did it this way rather than trying to get every little thing organized before pulling away from the curb, besides summer was ticking away
My original van vision was using it for extended boondocking adventures. . . . that hasn't happened yet. Our trips so far, even the February Toronto to Florida jaunt have mostly been to visit family at some point along the way or overnights within a few hours of home. We have a trek to Santa Fe in September that'll have some opportunities for boondocking

Step 6: You Don't Have to Buy Everything at Once!

Oh, I know you've been obsessing over the thought of a van for months, years maybe
you've read up on all the things you think you'll need, reading product reviews, vanner blogs, getting to know a bunch of folks through their you tube videos
my advice is, before you buy anything; wait

no I probably wouldn't have listened to such sane advice either, but there are a bunch of things I thought we just absolutely had to have, so I ordered them all at once from Amazon ( within a few days of buying the van)
We've never yet used the privacy tent, shower,or propane stove. ( more on the stove in the "cooking in the van" step)
We've used the chemical toilet once, and it was a real pain to empty, so although we cleaned it all out and reinstalled it, it'll likely just function as seating and a "use only in cases of extreme emergency", emergency device. I refer to the toilet as a measure to combat bathroom insecurity. In practice though, it isn't a big deal to use the facilities at rest areas, libraries, public parks/beaches and restaurants, but, the one time we needed it, we really needed it. I'm considering other alternatives, something along the lines of a luggable loo ( yes, I think I've read every instructable on the subject)
Somethings that you might need are:
a cooler, we got ours at Walmart, but could have gotten something a bit smaller, without wheels. If you're outfitting a van, might as well just use your old cooler for a while until you know what you'll need
Carbon monoxide/ smoke detector - I got a small battery operated one that I can lie on the shelf in the van ( I took it inside in the winter when we weren't using the van)
Water container- got it on Amazon, holds 5 gallons, has a handy spigot, we have a second one that we could bring along on a longer trip
In the optional, but we wouldn't want to go without category
Rag rugs- we have 2 small multi colour ones that help mitigate the coldness of the floor in the winter, they also are more effective at sweeping out the van than the dustpan and brush I bought. They also come in handy for absorbing small spills, although we have a separate bath mat for use during sponge baths
Hangers with clips for drying stuff/ airing out clothing

Step 7: Making the Bed

After a long day of travel, a comfortable bed is a must for us. We aren't small people, so it has to be strong, we also wanted to keep as much room as possible for storage under the bed. I liked the idea of a bed that could be "compacted". I read up a lot on this on the web and the bed of Ian and Mad Mumsie was a definite influence as was the post by vandogtraveller. Both of these designs were way beyond what I came up with because. . .

I'm not really handy with power tools. (my husband has no power tool abilities and even less interest)
I know, how embarrassing is that?
An electric drill is about the extent of of my personal power tool library and the limit of my capability. I decided to use two flat pack twin bed frames to create a queen size frame that would 'slide' into a smaller foot print. This worked better in theory than in real life. While the finished bed can be maneuvered into a smaller configuration, it's a pain in the neck. It's relatively easy to slide the bed without the mattress on top, but once the mattress is in place, two people are required. As it works out, we haven't needed to compact the bed much anyway, maybe on extended trips? (If I decide I really want it to compact more easily, I can put some casters on bed #2, and raise the risers on bed #1 to compensate for the caster height. Probably should also afix some straps to the back of the futon for easier mattress positioning)
So how did I do it?
I ordered the frames from Amazon, one twin, one twin extra long.
I pretty much just assembled the extra long frame (leaving off the leg that would be where the hump of the wheel well is) this bed is on the passenger side of the van.
Then I assembled metal components of the second bed frame. I used a piece of 2x2" lumber along each long side of the bed frame. The 2x2 is held in place with a few long bolts that I used like pegs to go through the 2x2 and into the pre-drilled holes in the metal frame. The 2x2 takes up the first and last holes that were meant to hold the "slat holders"( plastic end caps that the slats fit into). If you look at the diagrams it should help.
Then I raised the first/passenger side bed frame on bricks. I slid the second bed frame under the first bed frame and marked (on the 2x2s) where the slat holders would go, so the slats on the passenger side bed would alternate w/ the slats on the second bed.
Cue the electric drill! That's a lotta holes! But somehow it ( mostly) works,
remember the line from the Beatles song
"now I know how many holes it takes to fill the Albert Hall"

To fasten the bed to the van, the bricks were replaced with sections from a 2x4. Each 2x4 section/riser has a circle of screws that surrounds the base of the bed leg. ( this way the bed can be lifted out of the circle if it needs to come out of the van completely)
The legs's risers ( of the passenger side bed only) are nailed through the vinyl flooring into the plywood subfloor. The second bed isn't on risers, each leg sits on one of those furniture glides
Although there is a "bow" to the surface of the bed slats, you don't feel it once the mattress is in place. The slats give a nice springy feel to the bed. The bed itself is quite sturdy and comfortable.
The bed hasn't shifted, the risers nailed into the floor has kept the bed in place for over 10,000 km so far.

Step 8: Let There Be Electricity! and Heat! and Maybe Some More Insulation?

As this was a working van, it already had the electric system installed. There were fluorescent strip lights that we had removed. I didn't like the idea of all that fragile glass over my sleeping area. We get by with 2 clip on lamps that plug into the electric system. They both have led light bulbs, I decided against the compact fluorescent bulbs as they can release mercury if the bulbs break. These leds have a plastic diffuser, so there isn't any glass to break. When the shades are opened, there is a lot of light during the day.
Ah, heat! Such a necessary luxury ( for at least 4 months out of the year). We wanted to get a portable electric heater, but weren't sure how many watts the battery pack/inverter could manage. We took it back to the place that had outfitted the van for the cable company with the electric system originally. That's when we found out that this van has a gas fired heater that works off the gas tank! Apparently most of the cable splicer van fleets in Ontario have this so workers can work year round, works for us! We've stayed overnight in the van in temperatures down to -25 degrees Celcius. The only downside is that there is no thermostat, it's on or off. Not hard to work around, if we wake up and it's too hot, we shut it off; too cold? Fire it up!
Insulation? This van has a single layer of reflectix, covered by the Rhinocladding. This is pretty much the bare minimum. As the insulated window covers were quite effective at keeping things cool, I decided to use more insulated drapes to cover the walls around the bed. I bought some nice thick ones in a boring design. I used an indian print bedspread and sewed it over the boring drapes, then attached small plastic drapery rings about every 8-10" along the top. I used clothesline (with the metal wire inside) held up by eye bolts to string the drapes up. The drapes can be pulled back to get to the hanging clothes or the drapes can be closed to hide the clothes from view. I didn't take any temperature readings but it does seem warmer with the drapes
Of course, it does get hot sometimes, for this we have the roof mounted fan as well as a desk type oscillating fan that sits on the counter.
I made some window screens for the front windows ( not for stealth settings), we tried them last weekend and they kept the mosquitos out.

Step 9: Cooking

So I bought this nifty little stove and we haven't used it yet. I keep planning on doing a test of the stove on the patio, but it hasn't happened. Blame it on propane insecurity and the fact that we're pretty adept at arriving at someone else's house in time for dinner, also strategic use of picnicking and eating out.
We did get a crockpot at goodwill and made some yummy meals in that in the van. Nice to have the food cooking while you drive. I put the crockpot on a tray with shallow sides. I put two tile trivets on the tray under the crockpot. The crockpot was held in place by bungee cords ( bungees hooked into holes in the rhinoclad wall, also used some of that rubber mesh stuff that keeps rugs in place under the tray).
We also have a small microwave, that is bungeed in place in the back of one of the shelves. We've used that to heat up soup and frittatas
We've used the cappuccino maker in the van, we also have an electric kettle, hot water for washing as well as tea. ( the kettle lives on the counter and has a bungee cord tethering it to the wall)
There's a small hibachi that resides in a plastic bin under the bed (along with a bag of charcoal and a few grill implements) we've used it once and plan on doing it again.

Step 10: Baby Steps to Organize

Pencil cases are handy things to have.
One case serves a the cutlery drawer, a few each, forks, knives, teaspoons, soup spoons
Tool kit, allen keys, adjustable pliers, bits of wire, S hooks, eye bolts, screw driver
Knife drawer, a few small sharp knives, kitchen shears, canopener w/ bottle opener
One bucket holds most of our cooking/serving utensils, bowls & plates
another bucket (over the cab) holds additional toiletries, shampoo, conditioner, bug spray, sunblock ( we each have a small toiletry bag for morning ablutions)
Dish washing stuff - small container of ultra dish soap & small scrubbee in little net bag, big plastic salad bowl. (Wipe used dishes with paper napkin before washing, you use a lot less water that way) dish towel, cloth for wiping counter
Hanging soap dish, cut from a recycled shampoo bottle, the neck of the bottle holds the bar of soap out of any moisture. We've found this keeps the soap where we both can find it
I upcycled an over the door organizer by sewing a fabric placemat inside and attaching a bunch of clips on the outside. The lined area holds 2 stacked drinking cups, two stemless wine glasses ( in fabric pouches to deter breakage), one coffee mug, toothbrush, toothpaste, rechargeable flashlight, paper napkins. The clips on the outside hold wash cloths, dish towel on hook on the side
I've used the tip of a paring knife to make holes in the Rhinocladding for S hooks and attaching bungee cords
Bungee cords, lots of them, did I say eye hooks? S hooks? Clips of all types?

Step 11: Where You Gonna Park That Beast?

We live within Toronto city limits and since we don't have access to a driveway, we pay for a street parking permit. In our neighbourhood, any vehicle needs a permit to park on the street overnight. As the original registration was as a commercial vehicle, we got it reclassified as Personal Use Only, or PUO which reduced the parking fee to that of a regular non commercial vehicle. ( as residents, we pay annually, visitors can get a short term permit on line) Check local ordinances!
When we stay on my son's residential street in Long Island, NY, we just park, put up the shades and go to bed. ( if he lived inside village limits, we'd need a permit from village hall). We've done the same outside other family & friends homes, but check in advance! My daughter in Portland says there's been a crackdown on people sleeping in vans there. There are a few ways around this, if you have the permission of the homeowner to park in their driveway, I think you'd be ok. I've considered asking around on craig's list, but some other options are
Boondockers Welcome-, there's an annual fee, but just a few overnights and it more that pays for itself. To use the listings on this site you must be selfcontained! Another argument for the chemical toilet, I guess
Free Campsites-, best to have a backup plan as some of these listings maybe hard to find or filled up, that said we have found some good ones
Get a book of free campgrounds! We got the Wright Guide to free and low-Cost Campgrounds, by Don Wright 15th edition, lots of good listings, some of the free campgrounds are amazing!
Check out "dispersed camping", Department of Environmental Conservation, State Forests, National Forests, Bureau of Land Management, Crown Lands ( Canada)
We haven't yet stayed at a Walmart, but it could happen sometime. (During a snowstorm we stayed overnight in a High School parking lot) Just keep in mind, not every Walmart allows this, so if you're planning on this, check in advance

Step 12: You Can Ask for Help You Know . . .

Some things are just not going to be done by me.
While I probably could have built the shelf myself, I decided to have the guy who was installing the automatic door locks and removing the fluorescent fixtures build it for me.
Grinding out the rust and repainting it are going to be done by someone else too.
Eventually I'll get around to insulating the roof and installing a new headliner . . . or I won't

Maybe we'll see you along the way

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    5 years ago

    Woman, I am so proud of you!! My husband and I rigged up a Dodge van in 1973 and drove all over the southern U.S. Now that we're retired, we want to do more of the same. You were so lucky to find a van with the inverter already installed! You've covered all the basics. Have fun, and "keep on truckin'"!


    Reply 5 years ago

    Woman, keep on keeping on! Look for fleet vans on line; as I said in the post, here in Ontario, the splicer/cable company vans are often equiped with inverters/ battery packs as well as the heater that works off the gas tank. Hope you get lucky!


    5 years ago

    Good article. Maybe some day I'll have my own, tall van. Thanks.


    Reply 5 years ago

    glad you liked the post, keep dreaming big (or tall) . . . I'm so very glad we did, today I'm knee deep in planning our sept Santa fe - Southwest tour, woohoo!


    5 years ago

    Great 'able! You have my vote.


    Reply 5 years ago



    5 years ago

    Pencil cases! Great idea for storing cutlery and small items.


    5 years ago

    Good on ya! And an excellent guide! Thanks for the information.


    Reply 5 years ago

    glad you liked it!