The Ultimate Chevy Express Campervan Conversion
When you look on #Vanlife Instagram, most of the conversions you see are Sprinters, Promasters, and Transits. We’ve never been ones to follow the crowd so when we were deciding on a vehicle to turn into our dream campervan, we landed on a Chevy Express campervan. Our vanlife journey began after becoming enamored with the lifestyle on YouTube. We took a three week trip to Costa Rica in 2019 where we rented a rooftop tent. That trip was our breaking point, we knew we needed a home on wheels to call our own. The freedom of being able to camp wherever and have everything we needed with us was a game changer for travel. We returned home and purchased our Chevy Express a month later. There are so many reasons why we chose a low roof van. We love that we have lower clearance, a lower price point, stability, and stealth factor. This post will focus on the details of our van and all the elements contained in our build out. If you’re planning on Chevy Express van conversion, be sure to keep reading for a PDF of our van build layout.
Chevy Express Platform for a Campervan
Our van is a 2012 Chevy Express 2500 Extended Wheel Base. We weighed the pros and cons of every potential rig for a while before we settled on the Chevy Express. We decided on low roof for a few reasons, it provides us with clearance to be able to get down forest roads, and we are able to park in garages. The price point was more accessible than a high roof. Finally, it forces us to live OUTSIDE the van, which is the entire point.
We test drove the Ford Econoline and the Chevy Express and honestly, there is no comparison. Our Chevy Express campervan is a BEAST with its 6.0 LS motor. We’re pretty sure that if Chevy made a high roof van, that would be our ultimate rig (come on Chevy!). We got extremely lucky to buy our van from a small business owner rather than a fleet vehicle. It came complete with an alarm system, power windows and locks, cruise control, and an Eaton locking differential. If you’re looking to purchase a Chevy Express, we recommend trying to find one with the G80 Eaton locking differential. Our locking diff has saved our butts many times when we were in slippery or off road situations.
Chevy Express Campervan Build Process
We spent 8 months taking our van from a cargo van to a tiny home on wheels. Throughout the build we were working full time so we hustled on nights and weekends. We estimate that we have about 1,500 working hours into the build process. Eric studied product design and woodworking in college which helped immensely in the build. You can check out our van build gallery to see snapshots from the construction. We purchased the van for $12,000 and estimate that we have about $12,000 into the build. Our goals with our build were to be able to be off grid for a week without resupply and be completely off grid with our electrical system. A big priority was to have enough storage space to fit all our hiking gear and maintain an open and minimal aesthetic. We can proudly say we accomplished our goals and have been incredibly happy with our van.
Chevy Express Campervan Layout
We spent hours sitting in our empty cargo van shell planning our layout. We made drawings, taped out layouts on the floor, and mocked up cardboard furniture to ensure we were maximizing space, comfort, and ergonomic function. After living in our van for some time now, we are confident that we designed the best layout for a low roof campervan. Our layout features plenty of countertop space, storage space, and a convertible bed. Below are the blueprints to our Chevy Express campervan layout. Feel free to download the PDF for future van planning. If you’re doing a Chevy Express campervan build and use any of our layout, be sure to tag us on Instagram, we love to see fellow Chevy builds.
Chevy Express Campervan Build Features
Our Chevy Express campervan is insulated with 1.5 inch rigid foam insulation on the walls, 1 inch rigid foam on the ceiling, and spray foam everywhere else in between. While spray foam is effective, it is also a pain in the butt and we will be happy to never see another can of it in our lives. Our insulation has paid off massively, our van stays much cooler in warm weather, and stays warm longer in cold weather. In the future if we did another van build, we would likely opt for professional spray foam on the entire interior. If you want to read more about the options for van build insulation, click the button below.
Our Chevy Express campervan has 3x 100 watt solar panels + 2x 100 amp hour Renogy lithium ion batteries. Renogy 20A DC-DC charger. 1000 watt Go Wise inverter. Victron MPPT Solar Controller. Victron Battery Monitor. We love how much power our system gives us. We are able to cook with our Instant Pot, use our electric kettle and hotplate, charge laptops, run our lights etc. The flexibility of having a DC-DC charger to be able to charge off the alternator while we’re driving on a cloudy day is awesome. We have had days in the Pacific Northwest where our solar has not been able to keep up and our DC-DC charger has saved the day! If you’re planning your own van build, we highly recommend investing in lithium batteries if your budget allows. If you want to learn more about van build electrical, we have an entire series walking you through wiring, batteries, solar, inverters, and more! Be sure to click the link below for more information.
We have tons of options for lighting in our Chevy Express campervan. There are four overhead puck lights that span the van. We also have LED light strips above our counter-tops as well as a reading light in the back. The overhead lights and LED strips are on a dimmer switch. We love the dimmer switch for changing the brightness and mood of our van. The puck lights are on a 3 way switch that allows us to turn them on and off at the entrance of our van and while we’re in bed. And of course, we couldn’t be without fairy lights which run on a separate battery pack. Having so many options for lighting has been awesome depending on what we’re doing in the van.
Related Post: How to Find Free Campsites
Our Chevy Express campervan has two MaxxAir MaxxFan Deluxe 5100K fans. These fans are crucial for living in a van. Having two fans allows you to push and pull air to develop a cross breeze through the van which helps so much to keep the van from getting too stuffy. Our model allows you to keep the fans open during the rain. One downside of having 2 fans is that they can be a big source of lost heat in cold. We made insulated covers out of rigid foam and batting that attach by magnet to help solve this problem.
We have a 20 Gallon water tank and 5 gallon gray tank in our Chevy Express campervan. Our entire water system is in board. We decided not to externally mount our tanks so we didn’t have to worry about our tanks freezing. One of our big dreams is to travel to Alaska so this was huge for us. We did a ton of research to find a tank that fit all out needs and ended up purchasing a custom made tank from plastic-mart.com. Our gray tank is not large which allows us to carry it by hand and empty it in a toilet rather than have to be pumped out. Having a small gray tank also forces us to conserve water when doing the dishes (Ashley is still learning how to wash dishes conservatively). We’ve installed an alarm on our gray tank with a small float switch that buzzes when its full, we learned the hard way!
We have the Camp Chef Everest Propane stove in our Chevy Express campervan. We opted to have a movable cooktop as opposed to a fixed cooktop. This gives us the ability to cook outside or inside. We are so glad we made this decision because we find ourselves cooking outside all the time as long as weather allows. For our propane tank, we chose a 5 lbs refillable tank instead of a BBQ tank. While you cannot exchange them, they are simple to have refilled. We generally get them refilled at U-haul. Our propane tank is small which allows us to store it in our external storage box. Having our propane stored outside of the van makes us feel safer. In addition to our camp stove, we also carry an Instant Pot, Electric Kettle, and an electric hotplate. We have ALL the options for cooking, which may seem a little extra but we enjoy the flexibility.
Related Post: Boondocking Safety, Security, and Privacy
Our bed system is convertible. In a low roof Chevy Express campervan, space is at a premium, for this reason, having a convertible bed was a no brainer for us. We absolutely love the design. We can easily convert between couch and bed mode with just one person. There are two sets of sliding slats that lock into a french cleat on the closet side of the van. The bed is divided into two cushions. We opted for 3 inches of high density foam and 2 inches of memory foam. Honestly, it is more comfortable than our bed was at home, we sleep like babies! Ashley sewed covers that are able to be unzipped and easily thrown in the wash. The entire bed is on a piano hinge which allows us to lift up the slats and access an ample amount of storage under the bed, our battery system is also housed here.
Dometic CFX28 12v Electric Powered Cooler, Fridge Freezer Dometic has many different size options, ours is the CFX50. As a top loading fridge, the Dometic CFX is super efficient. It is also the perfect size for about a week worth of food, plus a 6 pack of beer. We have a sliding platform that locks closed so that our fridge tucks away under our kitchen counter. This fridge hasn’t missed a beat and has always kept our food cold. It is incredibly efficient having a minimal draw on our power system. We love Dometic because they are a company who has been building gear for the road for a long time. Their components are build to be rattled on roads and we can say we have put it to the test!
All our cabinetry in our Chevy Express campervan is made using ¾” plywood. In hindsight this is probably overkill, but it’s solid as a rock. Most everything is attached with pocket screws which makes everything really sturdy. We highly recommend using pocket hole screws in your build. For a more finished look, we used iron on edge banding. There are cabinets in our kitchen area, upper cabinets above our counters on both sides of the van, and a large wall of cabinets on the passenger side. On the driver side is our convertible bed with storage underneath. All of our cabinets are painted white with shaker style cabinet fronts. The cabinet fronts are stained wood with a mandala pattern laser etched into the surface. One of our favorite features is our pull out counter across from our convertible bed. It is a great surface to do work, eat, and play games. When we’re not using it, it just closes up into the cabinets. If you want to learn all about van build cabinetry from a woodworker, click below for more information.
We ended up installing an inexpensive Chinese Diesel heater. While we debated getting a more expensive heater like the Webasto, we decided we could have multiple heaters fail and still end up spending less money. While it has proved to be finicky, it is still keeping us warm! One huge tip for Chinese Diesel heaters is making sure you get your altitude settings correctly. There is a great facebook forum that provides tips and allows you to ask troubleshooting questions. If you’re looking for a hands off heater option with customer support, a Chinese Diesel Heater is probably not for you. If you are willing to put the effort in however, a Chinese Diesel heater can be a really good budget option.
We chose a Moonshade Awning for our van. We love how simple, compact, and lightweight this awning is. It requires minimal to no install depending on the anchors you choose, ours integrates perfectly into our roof rack. We are able to set it up in less than five minutes providing shade in the outdoor space and keeping our van cooler. This awning is a great option for a low roof van as it’s easy to put up and take down due to the low height of your van. Use our code ROADSHOW for $30 off your purchase.
Overall we couldn’t be happier with our Chevy Express campervan build. It is incredibly cozy and has just the right amount of space to store everything we need on the road. Have you built out a van or are you planning to? Any questions or anything you would do differently? Drop it in the comments below. Be sure to subscribe for more vanlife and travel content. As always, get out there and Create Your Own Roadshow!
*This post contains affiliate links. As an Amazon Associate we earn from qualifying purchases. Any earnings go towards staying on the road longer.