One of the single most important (and tedious) step in starting your vanlife is properly insulating your new mobile home. Insulation will not only keep your metal tube of a house at a reasonable temperature, but it can also drastically cut down on outside noise. The second most important project you’ll perform is installing a fan. These are, by far, the most crucial factors to making a van more than just livable, but comfortable. Even a dirtbag climber van will rock a decent fan. Living the hashtag vanlife is more than just being in a van, it’s enjoying it too. So take your time, do it right, and email or comment below with any questions.

van insulation poly
Sprinter van with completed insulation and fan install

Sprinter Insulation: The First Step

My van, Frieda, was painstakingly insulated with Polyisocyanurate Rigid Foam Insulation Board and Great Stuff (spray foam insulation.) I have taken my van through the ringer. From sleeping at 10,000 of elevation to bearing down against the dry heat of the Utah desert and most of the terrain in between. She has performed admirably at every turn (with minor issues here and there, of course) so I really don’t have room to complain. However, if I was to do it again, I would not and insulate with poly foam.

insulating the van
Where it all started

The great minds over at 3M (seriously, these people are crazy) have a Thinsulate insulation that not only is about R6 at 1.75 inches but is also sound dampening. My good friend William Nicewonger lined his Sprinter with 3M Thinsulate and the difference is night and day.  I am in love with being inside his van. It’s not echo-y, you can’t hear people walking around outside, and it’s constantly about 3-5 degrees cooler than mine. It will take you about 50 linear feet to cover a Sprinter, Transit or Promaster. Sixty linear feet if you have a 170” WB or equivalent. For more info on the differences between vans, you can check out my post on Choosing a Van.

I still remember insulating my van and will probably never forget.  It was the first step towards a long but rewarding process for me. I sat cross-legged in the middle of my van with a kitchen knife, a ruler, and dreams bigger than I had room for.

It was a slow and demoralizing process, and though the van is built, I’m still steadily working on the dreams.

I can honestly say that the insulation of my van, next to my first ever lead climb, was a defining moment in my life. Not just because of the work involved, but what it signified. It was the first step in ending my career 6 years shy of retirement and stepping into the unknown. So yeah, do the insulation correctly, of course, but savor it. Savor every minute of your build, as much as you will come to hate it from time to time.

The most expensive cut you’ll make

Van in yosemite
Holcomb Valley (Big Bear)

Insulating Frieda was only one of the extremely memorable processes throughout our building phase together. Installing the fan is another. Frieda is equipped with a Maxxair Deluxe 12v fan. This is a 14”x14” fan that is installed on the roof capable of either blowing air in, or more commonly, pulling air out. This fan comes highly recommended from me. I would also recommend splurging and getting the fancy one with the remote. It may seem kind of useless now, but there are a lot of times I’ve had to pull over and turn off or close the fan.

What makes the fan memorable for just about everyone is the gaping 14” hole that you have to cut in the roof. If you purchased a brand new van (like I did) then this is probably the most expensive hole you’ll cut. The hole also needs to be damned near perfect. And as always, drilling and cutting anything into the roof of your van is intimidating due to water intrusion possibilities. (Hence why I decided to tape my solar panels on vice drilling.) Ensure that you measure 2-3 times, cut once, and use LOTS of sealant when putting it all together. Remember, it doesn’t have to be pretty; nobody is crawling on your van and inspecting it. Just make sure that it’s watertight!

A view with a breeze – add a window

So, we are now sitting in a beautifully insulated van with a 14” hole in the ceiling, ready to suck some air out. All we need to do to finish up is add some windows. I already touched base on the window fan situation in Living in a van with a dog. But I can go over it again real quick.

Fan in front with no window.  Not too smart.

First off, I did a year in a van without any windows. Dumb. I ended up self-installing a C.R. Laurence window on the driver side rear quarter panel and it changed my life. Frieda now looks and feels noticeably cooler. Obviously, if you’re going stealth you can forgo the windows. Just make sure that you install the fan in the back. For everyone else you can get away with a fan in the front or back, depending on your preference. I personally have the fan up front and window in the back.  When it’s warm I can open the window and get a nice cross-breeze over my body as the air gets sucked out.

Just make sure that the fan and windows are as far from each other as you can.

The more air circulation, the better. You can even cut a vent into the ground if you wish. Yeah, that’s some next level shit that really pays off. (The air under the van is the coldest after all.)

With the addition of windows comes the addition of sunlight, and the addition of sunlight is, you guessed it, the addition of heat! Either buying or creating window covers is paramount in the reduction of heat build-up in your tube-home. I originally created a set for all the front windows out of Reflectrix. It was rather hassle-free and extremely effective. I decided to splurge after a year and buy some insulated covers from a vendor on Etsy. However, the ones I created from Reflectrix are still in use by my aforementioned  friend, Will. The insulated covers are better in the cold weather though.

two vans in jtee
Zach Auvil (fellow dirtbag) and I loading up for a solid day of climbing

Wherever you park, it’s your home

Regardless of the methods, you use to cool your van off, don’t forget the most important thing about building your home; It’s YOUR home. Take all advice (even mine) with a grain of salt. Take chances, take risks, and take life by the horns. I’d love to hear about your decisions or ideas on it! Comment below!

6 thoughts on “Stay Cool: Van Insulation and Fan Installation

  1. Did u consider sheep’s wool insulation? I noticed this is used by Action Van out of Bend Oregon in all their builds Regards, peter

    Sent from my iPhone


    1. Good question Peter. I am a big fan of sheeps wool insulation! I personally reccomend the Thinsulate not only because it’s around the same as sheeps wool in performance, but such a breeze to install. Cut, spray adhesive, stick. Done. Sheeps wool is natural and renewable though, and I like that.

  2. My wife and i are very serious about joining the van life community soon. We were wondering what the cost estimate for doing these steps would be. We know builds start at around 30k and go wayyyy up from there.We are not wanting to cut corners but we are both very low maintenance people.

    Thanks in advance for your advice.

    1. Awesome Tyler! The community is looking forward to another traveler.
      It’s EXTREMELY difficult to gauge out the price per steps like that. It all depends on how you do it and what kind of van you have.
      Builds definitely start lower than 30k too. If you check out some of my blog you’ll see my van isn’t too ugly and it only cost be 8k to do it myself. With zero experience. It just takes some research and dedication.
      I’m sorry my answer couldn’t be more precise for you, but there are just too many variables.

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