After many requests it was about time for this post: Here’s how I went from no carpentering experience to a self built van setup and what inspired me.
Some of you probably have seen Kirsten Dirksen’s interview with me already. Back then I was still in Barcelona, Spain, going South.
Some things have changed since then. But the video should give you a basic impression about what Hermes’ furniture looks like. It makes it blatantly clear, that it’s a slightly unusual van setup.
But let’s go even further back in time. After a long period of shooting the material for my very first Kickstarter campaign to fund a van for my future adventures, my mum surprised me for my birthday.
After drawing a few sketches, I slowly started to realise, that the dream of a small kitchen in the van setup wouldn’t become a reality anytime soon. Not with this van anyway. Hermes was simply too small.
I should add, that especially Hermes’ size has become very helpful when it comes to staying undercover in cities.
Before I get started about the actual van setup build, I want to mention one more time, that I didn’t have any carpentering experience whatsoever and the last time I built something remotely close to this was a little hut in the woods together with my friends when I was about 10.
Hermes has by far not got a perfect van setup and there are many things missing due to experience or financial means. I will tell you about these as well, so you can learn from my mistakes.
So let’s get started.
It took me quite some time to figure out how to lay out the furniture in this little van. I had a few things that were of great importance to me:
After a lot of research I finally found a van setup that seemed pretty much perfect. It appeared in one Youtube video only. Nowhere else could I find it.
Even in this stage I was hoping to be able to build a kitchen in there. After all, the video shows one too. But never mind.
So, since I couldn’t find any plans for this sort of van setup, I had to start and draw one myself. For somebody like me, who faces mathematical challenges with pretty much the same expression as a deer, about to be hit by a car, this was tough.
Finally, I came up with this plan of my van setup. I would put three boxes inside the van. The two big boxes would be accessible from the top, the smaller one from the side. Furthermore, I had to design the big boxes in a way, that I could open them, but also unfold them to become the bed.
One more challenge I was facing with this van setup was, that the Japanese genius who came up with the Nissan Vanette D2.3 had decided to put the emergency wheel under the engine bonnet. That was good on one hand, since it saved me lots of space in the living area, but the consequence is, that most of the engine is situated, spread out under the entire van.
That wouldn’t be so bad, if the opening for checking and replacing the engine oil wasn’t one of the parts that can’t be found under the bonnet anymore. Instead you have to flip the entire driver’s seat back only to check the oil.
This in turn meant, that I had to be able to remove one of the big boxes completely. Therefore I had to find a way to fix it to the floor in a way that made it possible to remove it.
(A little note: After the first, tedious time of checking and refilling the engine oil, I found out, that you can actually do it, without removing the box. It takes a lot of strength – at least for me – and dexterity, but it works)
I was really lucky with this one. As mentioned above, my grandfather is architect and builder – specialised on proper insulation. For houses of course.
Nonetheless, despite his misunderstandings for my choices in life he decided to support my plans anyway and gave me the insulation material he thought would fit best for the van setup for free: Styrofoam.
By now, I know that there are better materials to insulate a van – or at least to use in addition. But at the time this was the best I could work with and I am still very grateful for my family’s help on this.
I actually made a time lapse video about the insulation part for my personal Youtube channel:
I censored Rasim’s face in the video, since I wasn’t sure if he would like to be seen. But I want to add that he helped me a lot with the walls, ceiling and flooring of the van, after we met that day.
Just a few minutes later he brought me reflective foil that he has used for the insulation of the camper van he fitted for his family.
Rasim was heaven sent when it comes to these basics. I have no idea, how I would have gotten the wooden ceiling board screwed up there if it wasn’t for him. he also provided a lot of screws for that task. The wood, covering the walls was from the backside of furniture he had collected.
Before we put the wooden floor in, he also provided me with… well, I don’t even know the name in German, to be perfectly honest with you. It’s some sort of black, sticky paint – I suppose oil based – that keeps metal from rusting. We spread it evenly all over the floor of the van, after we pulled out the original rubber floor.
After that, we actually decided to put the rubber floor back in and keep it under the wooden floor. It would only provide one more layer of insulation.
Rasim also helped me, cutting the floor to the right size. After all, we had to make it work around the wheel arches.
The wooden board I used for the floor had to be quite heavy since I was going to screw the boxes to it. Thicker wood also provides more warmth. But at the same time I wanted to make sure the van wouldn’t get too heavy so my travel costs wouldn’t skyrocket too much. A middle way was found in the end.
After we put in the light wood, I was stunned about how bright the van looked all of a sudden. The black rubber floor has been eating up all the light that got in there so far. All of a sudden it actually looked really nice.
Despite that, I decided to cover the original wooden floor with a fake, plastic parket, that was a little darker. I was going to travel through various countries with this van and would most likely ‘camp wild’ at some point too. I needed possible stain removal to be as easy as possible. The rough structure of wood would just soak dirt up immediately, as Rasim’s oily fingerprints, that are on the ceiling to this day, prove well.
This is one part I’m especially proud of. Most of my calculated measures were accurate and so we only had to return to the builder’s store twice (we had the boards custom cut there. One of them I actually haven’t fixed to this day and so I always have to open the smaller box in order to be able to unfold the bed…)
Also, I built the boxes completely by myself and I’m very happy I thought of small details like the unpretty pillars on the front side of the big boxes (to hold the unfolded bed boards secure) as well.
The back of the boxes on the side of the van we cut to size as well, so they would fit around the wheel arches.
One of the things I didn’t think about too much was, that the van walls bend inwards a little and the ceiling is just not as broad as the floor. Luckily this didn’t change much about the original plan. However, there are small gaps between the side boxes and the walls now. Also, we had to cut the unfolding bed board of the box behind the drivers’ seats to size, so you could actually unfold the bed or open the box without opening the van door. Not a very pretty solution, but it works.
Something that I added shortly after Kirsten’s interview, was more storage on the walls. Especially when the bed is made, it’s impossible to get into the big boxes and particularly hard to get into the small box. So I kept the most important things in a laundry basket, that I have next to the entrance. However, since it gets a little annoying to dig into that basket every time I needed something, I was really happy to stumble upon these plastic containers on Barcelona’s streets.
If you’ve ever used one of the Ikea shoe shelves, that flip out their ‘drawers’, then you’ll quickly figure out, that these containers are exactly those drawers, their actual front facing the wall. I melted some holes into the position where I already had screws in the van wall and used these to fix the containers to the wall. At some point I had to add some strong double sided sticky tape to the back of them, to prevent the screws from ripping out of the wall while driving, It did the job. I’m also trying to fill the containers only with the most necessary stuff to keep them light.
Furthermore I covered one of the walls with a curtain (originally a throw-over blanket), to create one more insulating air cushion and a hide away for thin items like the foldable camping table (which I’ve never used to this day…) and the foldable reflector and greenscreen I keep with me for filming and taking photos.
I’ve lost one door that I never used anyway, but it looks neater and keeps warmth inside when it get’s colder outside.
Also I use a green Indian wall carpet (a big, thin piece of cloth) in a very similar way as slidable curtain in front of the entrance door.
One of the things that are really missing in Hermes is a proper setup for ventilation. When you live the vanlife, you will quickly learn, that air circulation can make or break the climate in the van. On the other hand, I have to mention, that usually people don’t even notice, when I have the sliding door open a little bit. In Valencia I had a policeman walk past it – centimeters between him and the vehicle – and he didn’t get it.
Integrating no ventilation window in the roof was neither mistake nor planned. It was a financial issue. And so, Hermes can get a little steamed up over night (especially in Winter) and quite hot during Summer days (usually when he’s not parked in the shadow).
Another problem I have encountered is the mattress mold. When Kirsten posted her interview with me, people went bonkers over this in the comment area.
No, I don’t enjoy sleeping with mold, so I tend to wash the mattress covers with vinegar acid frequently. By the way, the problem is not caused by the lack of ventilation, mentioned above. It’s due to the mattresses laying on solid boards. When we sleep on them, we heat up the upper side of them quite a bit. At the same time, physics bring the cold air inside the van down to the floor and underneath the solid bed board.
The result is condensed water between the mattresses and the board.
I have to say, that we got a hold on the problem for the biggest part by now. Trying to insulate on either side of the mattress helped a lot. Also we turn them over, during daytime, so they can ventilate a little.
A possible solution to this is to replace the foldable boards. I’m currently trying to think up a way to create a sleeping surface with wooden slats that slide into (or out of) each other. This way, there would be enough gaps to let some air to the mattresses and avoid the building up of moisture. Also, it would put an end to the tedious bed board folding that requires me to move everything on the bed around like crazy. That way, the bed parts would simply slide out of the boxes. I’ll keep you updated.
As already said, I really miss a kitchen (and the appropriate steam escape) in Hermes. I’d like to cook more and with this van setup most I can do inside is eat cold food. I do have a camping stove (On Amazon US, UK, DE – aff), but I can only use it outside the van, which rules out any parking in cities and takes a long time to set up before you can even cook with it.
The temperatures in the van can get extreme, even despite the insulation. Im happy I took plenty of blankets and a sleeping bag with me. Now that I’m not sleeping alone anymore, however, I don’t mind the cold nights much anymore.
As mentioned above, it can also get quite hot, if not parked in the shadow. Opening the van door just a gap can make a big difference, though.
Electricity is a constant effort. We use a foldable solar charger (Get it on Amazon US, UK, DE – aff) and an additional battery pack (On Amazon US, UK, DE – aff) to keep our USB devices, like phones or tablets charged, but my laptop needs more power than that. Working in Hermes is very limited. We usually work in cafés. One or more solar panels on the roof would solve that problem a little further. They would help us, produce our own electricity on the road. At the moment, the financial means are simply not a given, though.
And last but not least: It simply is really, really small. While it is possible for two people to sleep in there – maybe watch movies, read or even eat some cold things – it is incredibly small. It would be nice to have something where you can actually live and not just sleep. Therefore I am currently working on coming up with the money for a bigger van.
Things I’ve learned from this Van Setup
A few more little tips include:
But I’m coming to a point – especially now that I’m not alone anymore – where I crave something more like a mobile flat that might lose a little travelling conveniences but upgrades, when it comes to the living experience.
Well, let’s see where our finances lead us and if we can actually manage to get a bigger van with kitchen, room to actually stand up and solar panels anytime soon.
Until then, I’d like to know your thoughts about my van setup. Could you imagine living in something as small as Hermes? Maybe you already do? What is your van setup? Let us know in the comment area below.
My “vanlife neighbour” Mike from Vandog Traveller has written an extensive ebook about how he furnished his amazing van.
Seriously, my little Hermes was lovely, but Mike’s Van takes all of this to a completely new level!
Here you can find everything about kitchen, bathroom, electricity, gas and much more.
If you are serious about living in a van, then read on.
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