2012 Chevy Express Van Build
In May of 2020, we hit the road to be full time Vanlifers. This move had been a long time coming! We have known for a while that we wanted to prioritize travel, live tiny, and ultimately find a place that we felt we could put down roots. Moving into a camper-van checked all those boxes for us. In April 2019, we bought our van Casper and began her refit. It took us 8 months to complete the build out, at the end of which we took a 3 week “shake down” road trip across the United States. We. Were. HOOKED. We love the freedom we feel of being 100% flexible and self-contained in our travels. It wasn’t long before we were paring down our possessions and preparing to move in full time. We spent a lot of time and energy making sure our rig was comfortable and fully equipped, so let’s dive into some of the specs of our build out.
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. Below are the blueprints to our van layout. Feel free to download the PDF for future van planning.
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 is a BEAST with its 6.0 LS motor. 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 G80 locking differential.
Casper is insulated with 1.5 inch rigid XPS foam insulation on the walls, 1 inch rigid XPS 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. Check out our comprehensive post about insulation if you’re thinking about building a van.
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 not even come close to depleting our batteries, though we’re excited to put them to the test this summer! To learn how to build your own DIY electrical system, check out our posts about wiring, batteries, solar, inverters and how to design your wiring diagram. USE OUR CODE RENOGYSOLAR10 for 10% RENOGY PRODUCTS.
We have tons of options for lighting in our van. Four overhead puck lights span the length of the van and two sets of LED light strips above our counter-tops light up the kitchen. There is also an LED strip above the rear door that serves as our reading light. 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, Ashley couldn’t be without fairy lights which run on a separate battery pack.
Across from our couch that converts to the bed, we have a pullout table. It’s super easy to instantly convert the space for dinner or working. We also use it to fold laundry or play board games. We love how much counter space we have in our van.
MaxxAir MaxxFan Deluxe 5100K 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.
20 Gallon water tank/5 gallon gray tank. 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. We plan to travel during the winter so this was a must for us. 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.
Camp Chef Everest Propane stove. We opted to have a movable cook-top as opposed to a fixed cook-top. 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 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.
Convertible. In a low roof van, 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. We have a full post dedicated to the details of our pull out bed if you want to learn more.
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. We have been super happy with it so far.
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. Time will tell…
Overall we couldn’t be happier with our van 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!
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