Somebody once asked, “What mistakes did you make when building your van?” My answer was, “Literally everything.”

Building out a van is hard. Things will go wrong. For me, it felt like everything went wrong. What makes the difference, though, is how we react to those mistakes. It’s easy to admit defeat or become discouraged during the process. Personally, I had zero experience in woodworking, plumbing or metalwork. But through plenty of research and even more trial and error, I was still able to build myself a dream home-on-wheels. Dreams are not synonymous with perfection though. These are the five largest mistakes I made in the build-out of my Sprinter van:

The Color of the Van

In case you didn’t notice, my van is dark gray (or as the great minds at Mercedes-Benz prefer to call it, “Tenorite Gray”) But why I went with gray has nothing to do with the actual color. Like many, when choosing a van to purchase, there a ton of decisions you have to weigh. This particular van, at the time, was on sale for $8k cheaper than its white counterpart.

Van build color
My girlfriend, Lauren Horne, sitting on “the porch” in Yosemite.

Looking back, I probably should have just paid the eight grand so I wouldn’t have to worry about absorbing so much sunlight. I know, eight thousand dollars is a LOT of money. But living in a (damn near) black metal tube in the desert is a lot of issues too. Keeping the van a couple degrees cooler can make all the difference. Cooler van means less use of the fan and fridge, which then correlates to less energy used, and less energy needed. Efficiency is key to the van life.

The size of the bed

My bed is five foot, eight and a half inches long. I am five foot, nine inches. Yes, I purposely made my bed smaller than I am. It seemed like a great idea at the time. And honestly, it was. However, shortly after I started living in my van, the unplanned happened. A woman came and snuck her way into my life.

Van build bed
A picture of my van in one her final stages. The window addition may have bumped the bed to a full 5’9 now that I think about it. Joshua Tree Mural by: Tamar Nachson

Sleeping by myself is a non-issue in Frieda. I fit quite comfortably sleeping diagonally with just me and Achilles. Adding my girlfriend to the equation is kind of problematic though. Yes, she may only be 5’4 and 105 pounds, but my bed was only designed for one. Even though we make it work, given the choice, I would go back and make some changes. I wouldn’t change the fact that I sleep width-wise though (I love the extra room), I would just make the bed a foot or so wider.

Type of Insulation

If you’ve read my post on van insulation, then you would already know that I don’t care for the Polyisocyanurate Rigid Foam Insulation Board that I used. Given the choice to do it again, I would fork over a little bit of extra cash and go with 3M Thinsulate. It has a great R-value, sound dampening, and its easier to install!

The only other type of insulation I would consider is probably sheep’s wool. Sheeps wool performs equally or even surpasses 3M Thinsulate. However great sheep’s wool is though, it just still isn’t as tried and true as 3M Thinsulate. I have heard good things from other van dwellers, and I know some companies use it, but I have personal experience with Thinsulate and am a big fan.

Quarter inch wood paneling

This one may come as a shocker to most people, but believe it or not, I absolutely hate my paneling. After the insulation, I lined the walled with quarter inch ribs which I then attached quarter inch tongue and groove cedar panels. Aesthetically speaking, it looks great! But a mobile home is a LOT more than just aesthetics.

Van build paneling
An earlier phase of her life. No window, different stove, no jingle jangles everywhere.

I recently helped a friend with his Sprinter build out using half-inch tongue and groove panels directly to the frame, and what a difference! We used self-tapping wood to metal screws and secured them directing to the metal ribs. Where my walls feel like they are going to break in half, his are sturdy and load bearing. Anytime I mount something on my walls, I ensure to go through and mount directly to the frame. It’s a pain in the buttocks. Both systems also take up the same amount of space. The only downside of ½ tongue and groove is that it’s a tad more expensive and heavier.

Organization of wiring

Holy smokes did I go wrong here. Not only is ALL of my electrical system mounted on my battery box, but the wiring is just a pure mess. I mounted my batteries under the bed behind the driver side wheel well. When doing so, I boxed them in and mounted my DC circuit breaker panel, inverter, and charge controller on it as well. Batteries don’t last forever, and I’m going to have to disable the majority of my electrical system to change them out.

Van build stove install
LOTS of trial and error…

When I started running the wires, I was super organized and meticulous. Slowly but surely, I became impatient and rushed, and I started slacking a bit. Whatever you do, don’t do this. “Behind the scenes” in my van is a messy, messy place. It’s JUST good enough that I don’t fear it will randomly go up in flames. I do still have a fire extinguisher though. Safety first, you know?

In retrospect, it’s easy to see where I went wrong and how to fix it. But hindsight is 20/20 and the past is past.

The main reasons I made the majority of the decisions I did was because I was already living in my van during the building process. It was a tough gig. I was balancing a professional job while living in a half-built van (my only form of transportation) and trying to find to the time to build it too. A lot of my build was done by headlamp at night or on extended weekends at a friend’s house. I wouldn’t recommend this method to anyone. It forced my hand on many of my decisions. But the past is past and I still have a dream home. I love my van. I love the entire experience I went through. I love the road that I still have ahead of me. And I love helping people make their own dreams come true. Feel free to comment below with any questions or concerns!

Justin Wallace in Yosemite
What the vanlife is all about to me. Freedom.

8 thoughts on “5 Ways I Went Wrong in my Van Build and What I Recommend.

  1. Good question Eric, and it seems to be a popular one (I’ve had multiple direct messages.) It’s actually quite simple. We used Teks Phillips Flat-Head Self-Drilling Screws specifically for wood to metal installation. The sizes you’ll need will vary though. Thanks a lot for the input, I think I’ll add this info to the main post.

  2. A few ideas; insulation, you could also look into aerogel. It’s a bit more high tech and a dusty material but you can get it in versions that are adhesive and have foil backing. Thinsulate is also great, granted. As far as wall covering, I’d personally consider just plain plywood, and not very thick plywood at that. You don’t need wood paneling which adds a lot of weight. And finally, for fastening anything to the van, there is one superior method – pre-bulbed plusnuts, and mechanical bolts.

    1. Thanks for the input! Those are all great ideas. I love the variety that can applied to vans. Personally, I love the tongue and groove plank look and find it’s worth the extra weight.

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