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Down-sizing: 5th wheel, to Travel Trailer, to Truck Camper, to Van

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Fred-New van 1

Like Goldilocks, Fred finally found the rig that was just right for him.

 (Today we are going to have a guest post from my good friend Fred about his odyssey of finding the live-aboard vehicle that was just right for him. Thanks Fred!)
Bob asked me to write about my new rig, especially about my transition from large rigs to my current one, a short wheel base 1996 Dodge van (about 15-16 feet long).  I started with a large 38ft. 5th wheel, and while it was very comfortable with all the amenities, it was simply too big and certainly way too much for me.  I felt like I was in a large cavern that I could have played a soccer game in.
I sold that and got a 24ft. travel trailer that certainly was smaller but I wasn’t able to go or get into some of the places I wanted to go (no, not 4-wheel drive stuff).  I either wouldn’t fit into the space or wasn’t able to turn around in it.  The trailer was an improvement though since I didn’t feel like a beebee in a box car size wise.  It still allowed me to have too much unnecessary “stuff” crammed into nooks and crannies.  I was starting to realize that it was still way more room than I needed, plus I was the one who had to keep it clean.

In an effort to find the size of RV that would fit him, he tried this truck camper. Nope, still too big!

We tend to think of campers as small, but you can see that compared with  his van it's large and cumbersome.

We tend to think of campers as small, but you can see that compared with his van it’s large and cumbersome. Plus, he gets up to 18 MPG instead of 10 MPG!

Somewhere along the line I came up with the brilliant idea that I simply did not require a lot of room to be comfy along with the realization that I still had too much “stuff”.  So I then downsized to a truck camper combination.  It sure seemed like a good idea at the time.  Plus I had a cat and needed at least some room for the kitty box.  Finally I could get in some tight spaces on National Forest roads, but more importantly I still did not feel cramped at all.  And yes, I still had a lot of “stuff”. There’s that pesky little word again.
Living in a van solved Fred's feelings of having too much space!

Ahhhhh, finally, the perfect fit! Living in a van solved Fred’s feelings of having too much space.

I was still paying for a storage shed.  It was only $35/mo. but it was starting to really annoy me since I was just storing a bunch of “stuff” for no good reason.  And over a period of 3 years that was over $1200 bucks that I sure could have used.  I’ll use my “stuff” someday was a lame excuse for not getting rid of it.  Well, someday came in Nov. 2014 and I donated and gave away all but a very few select items.  Some of the “stuff” I had kept in storage I didn’t even remember I had because it had been so long since I had last used it.  Best of all, the truth was I really didn’t miss it.  What a relief…….  And now………..
For a lot of people, living in a space this small would be pure torture, for some of us, like Fred, it's heaven on earth.

For a lot of people, living in a space this small would be pure torture, but for others of us, like Fred, it’s heaven on earth.

Back to the truck camper.  It was certainly small enough but it still had things that I really never used, for instance, I only used one burner on a 3 burner stove and never used the oven.  It had a bathroom I didn’t use because since I went outside for both functions with the coyotes since I did not want to have to keep running to the dump plus buy and store the chemicals.  So the bathroom/shower was a storage room.  A big item also was climbing up and into bed, but more importantly climbing down at night to go to the bathroom.  Since mine was a large camper, the drop down from bed to floor, especially at night when I was groggy, let’s say at times was rather precipitous.  One memorable nighttime moment was the time in my hazy state I stepped on the cat.  Only some sort of minor miracle saved me from a 4 foot plunge to the kitchen floor.  My cat was major pissed as only a cat can be.  Gas mileage improved though to a whopping 10mpg.  Soooooooo……
But, with a small space comes the necessity of of using every square inch. Hee you can see the plastic drawers under his bed which gives him both great organization and easy access .

But, with a small space comes the necessity of of using every square inch. Here you can see the plastic drawers under his bed which gives him both great organization and easy access .

I finally took the final plunge hook, line, and sinker to get a space absolutely no bigger than I needed.  My cat had died the month previous so I sold the truck and camper and purchased a 1996 Dodge van which gets between 16.5 and 18mpg. Yea! .  It is a V6 engine which has proven over the years to be very reliable.  It was a commercial van that the owner had already had the bench seat removed.  I removed the passenger seat and gained lots more room.  What I liked about it was the fact that, since I don’t do stealth, it has windows all around, front. back, and sides.  It has 5 doors.  And it runs very well.  What I don’t like is that, even at 5’8″, I cannot stand up fully.  Fortunately, my arthritis is in my ankles not my back.  Since I spend a lot of time outside, but still can sit comfortably inside, it has not become too bothersome.  Yeah, it’s a little difficult to dress and stand up to cook, but with the new table I can use the stove facing inside or outside.  (See pics).
Fred did something unique on the passenger side of the bed. He built this box to clear the wheel well and stacked  plastic storage units on top held in place by bungee cords.  I love plastic storage untis: 1) they're cheap 2) they're easy to install. 3) they're light 4) they're easily changed.

Fred did something unique on the passenger side of the bed. He built this box to clear the wheel well and stacked plastic storage units on top held in place by bungee cords. I love plastic storage units: 1) they’re cheap 2) they’re easy to install. 3) they’re light 4) they’re easily changed.

Here you get a better picture of the storage units

Here you get a better picture of the storage units.

The new place allows me to do the things that I enjoy, hiking almost everyday, reading, playing games on the computer, fitting into a normal parking space, getting into tight spaces on forest service roads.  I have a Thule “attic” on top that carries some gear that I don’t use very often such as a large tow strap, a winter coat, extra pair of hiking shoes, some tools kits, some wiring and nuts and bolts, etc.  I still need to carry around a ladder to get into the Thule however, so that is annoying at times.  Also, I have to get a tire carrier for the rear door since the tire is now on the roof.  So, there are a few things that need to be adjusted or fixed but this mode of transportation seems to be just right for me.  I have a bed, enough storage for just about everything and within easy reach, a Mr. Buddy heater, a stove to cook on, and plenty of light at night since I switched out the regular inside bulbs to LED’s.  The computer table, bed, cooking table, and the support for the shelves were all built from scratch.  The pics are below.  In addition, I carry all the solar panels and supporting stuff upright against the shelves, held up by a bungee, inside without any problem at all.
For power, he has Renology flexible panels that he sets up outside.

For power, he has Renology flexible panels that he sets up outside.

To save every inch of space, he took out his passenger seat and put a 12 volt fridge in it's place.

To save every inch of space, he took out his passenger seat and put a 12 volt fridge in it’s place. 

This has been my 3 year transition from large to small.  I am very comfortable in my limited space and realize it is not for everyone.  The hard part was getting rid of all the “stuff” we buy, store, keep, and never use.  The real hard part was the mental aspect of it, but once I got started in earnest, it was a lot easier than I thought.  I am certainly a lot happier because of it.  If you have any questions about the build out or the solar, please feel free to ask or see me at the RTR.
This is an idea that I think is very creative. Fred built a shelf that folds up and down in front of the door. You can see the hinge for it to the left of the shelf. It's hinged to the box on the right. He can drop the drawer and cook on it from the inside during bad weather, or outside during good weather. It fold up nicely when not being used.

This is an idea that I think is very creative. Fred built a table that folds up and down in front of the door. You can see it’s hinged to the box on the left. He can drop the drawer and cook on it from the inside during bad weather, or outside during good weather. It fold up nicely when not being used.

Fred-Table in Van 3 up position

The table folds up and completely out of the way. The leg is hinged so it also folds away easily. The bungee on top hold the table up, the others hold the shelf units in place.

Containers 2
Fred-Cookstove and outside table
He had to find room for his barbecue!

He had to find room for his barbecue!



  1. Ariel

    I admit that I really like this simple, functional conversion! Nice job, Fred.

    • Fred

      Thanks Ariel. I thoroughly enjoy it as well.

  2. lucy

    W O W !!
    Wonderful conversion, easy, simple, light & economical !
    It looks nice & cozy, I love it !! I would love to have a van just like this, in my case though I will need to have one with @ high top due to back problems.
    My regards, Lucy.

  3. Fred

    Thanks Lucy. It is only a 6 cyl. but most of the stuff I carry is not heavy except for the cans of food and best of all is within easy reach.

  4. Tony Rutherford

    I liked the story and it was interesting. I think I would prefer to stealth camp though because one will be in the urban zones and staying overnight will come up from time to time. I have been thinking about a truck camper to a van and have all but decided the van route will be better for me however I think a conversion that I can stand up in would better fit my needs. Thanks for sharing!

    • Douglas

      Look for the old medical transport vans, some have the high top conversions.

  5. JD

    Great job, Fred! We have the same Edgestar and are also very happy with it.
    Where is your house battery stored? And did you remove the rear seat belt harness/hardware and the metal plates for the seats?

    • Fred

      Hi JD, The house batteries are stored behind the drivers seat. I removed all harnesses except for the drivers side as well as the plates for the seats. I kept the connection on the passenger side for the seat belt (the one attached to the roof) because it makes a good spot to grab on to when getting in the van.

  6. Calvin R

    I have a great deal of respect for that level of simplicity.The setup on the passenger side is especially brilliant. It serves many needs well, but it’s so simple that I could build it.
    Fred, what are the dimensions of the cargo area? I’m curious whether it’s bigger than the Grand Caravan minivans I’ve used for traveling.

    • Fred

      Calvin, the cargo area is 5ft. wide and 10ft long if you go right down the middle of the van up to the doghouse. BUT, you have to subtract out space for the driver’s seat and for the refrigerator. So, taking this into account, I have about 42-44sq ft of usable floor space.

      • Calvin R

        The minivans were 9′ x 4′ from the driver’s seat back, so that’s a little smaller, but not a lot. Thanks again for the great ideas. Your setup is down the middle of what I need to work toward.

        • Douglas

          The full size has a bit extra head room.

  7. joe

    Fred, sorry to hear that your cat passed away. Did you step on him again?

  8. Ming

    another lesson in simplicity. What elegant and thrifty solutions to a comfortable living space! Thank you for the tour.
    How old are your solar panels and are they holding up? Technomadia was looking at them and found them not durable enough yet to be permanent outside panels. Your usage may be ideal for these panels which I believe are very light?
    What solar/batt capacity are you using to run your fridge and lights?

    • Fred

      Hi Ming,
      So far the panels are holding up just fine, I bought them about 3 months ago. I sent Renogy a couple of shortcomings on these panels that need to be improved. My usage is for my fridge, computer(about 6-8 hours, internet, music, and reading (I use the Kindle program for PC instead of carrying around a lot of books), charging my cell, charging my internet mi-fi, and powering my 1000w inverter.
      My panels are 3×100 watts for a total of 300 watts supplying 2 12v 150amp hour AGM batteries in parallel for a total of 300 amp hours. Last week in Phoenix with that cold front that came through I basically had no appreciable sun for 3 days and still my batteries never ran out of juice. I have a 50amp 500w MPPT controller and it is plenty for my needs.

      • Douglas

        How much did you spend for the solar system?

        • Fred

          Hi Doug,
          $200 ea for the panels, $200 for the inverter, $250 for the controller. Misc wiring and nuts and bolts about $75.

  9. Naomi

    I love the simplicity and the clever use of space and bins. My condolences on the loss of your cat. Thanks, Fred

    • Fred

      Thank you Naomi.

  10. Laqueeta Lynne

    This looks great! Is it possible to make a van work for two people?

    • Fred

      Hi Laqueeta,
      Sure it is. There are several vans here that have two people. Just make sure you give each other space and time when needed and that you both get along REALLY well and know each others boundaries.

      • Rvnutty

        Check out the young couple living in a van on you tube called Exploring Alternatives. I’ve been following them from their beginnings, and learning
        with them as they go. They house-sit and do some computer work for income.
        They offer very good advice on downsizing and then how to make the most of
        their space in the van.

  11. Marie Watts

    Awesome job, Fred! Imagine my surprise when I saw “MY” van! I have a 1995 green Dodge van that is a twin to yours! I have mine set up for van dwelling, but. Because I’m almost 70 years old, I’m a little nervous about venturing out alone. Good luck Fred!

    • Fred

      Hi Marie,
      I am almost 68 and and I understand your reluctance to go it alone, especially as a single woman. I can tell you from my experience though whenever there has been any doubt as to whether or not to park or not, I always trust my gut. If it’s uncomfortable, move on. You say you have already set up your van for traveling. Why waste all that energy?
      I find the vast majority of people I meet quite friendly. After all, they are doing the very you want to. Give it a try a few miles from home and slowly venture out. I think you will love it as much as so many of us do. Don’t regret or “wish” you had. You CAN do it.

    • lucy

      Marie, hi !
      On the subject of traveling alone most of us female feel sort of insecure ( until we build up our confidence ). Suggestions:
      1) Check with Bob Wells he’s the wizard / guru behind the van dwelling phenomenon.
      2) E-mail rvsueandcrew for pointers, she’s a nomad been solo x 3 years.
      3) Check escapees club.
      Good luck !

      • Marie Watts

        Thanks for the help, Lucy. I camped a lot with my husband before he died 2 years ago, so I know some of the basics. It’s the “70 years old” part that concerns me. Not much I can do about it though – either I get out there and do it, Or I don’t.

        • lucy

          Marie, Sooo by what U say it seems to me that U have experience on the field, thus if you are healthy you’ll be OK. You can do it, go girl GOOOOO !!!
          My regards. Lucy.

  12. joe

    I like the dodge vans that v6 is the wa y to go it will run a long time I thought about getting one but I.m stuck with a astro van awd for now not great fuel mileage u will like the dodge it will serve u well also I.m the guy with the 83 scamp trailer I have thought about selling it to replace it with a cargo trailer 6+12 ish size but just have not found one I like yet any way I’m sure u will be pleased with your set up enjoy it

    • Fred

      Thanks Joe. It took a while, but it seems to be just the right fit.

    • Penny Taylor

      Joe, I have a 10′ (+ tongue) cargo trailer with bed, dinette and kitchen, but I am looking for an Astro and Scamp trailer instead. Maybe….???

  13. jonthebru

    Fred, your story makes an important point. You went through three different RVs before this one. You were able to be flexible and honest with your needs allowing the changes. I would imagine most beginning RVers, including myself, select a type of RV and think that will be it. But many owners move to different vehicles for many reasons. Upsize, downsize, better fuel economy, etc. An infinite number of reasons. Bob has gone through three I seem to remember, The technomadia couple had two other RVs before ending up with their vintage chariot. There are tons of examples of this fact around.
    Really good post.

    • Fred

      Hi jonthebru,
      Your right, you just have to keep on looking till you find what fits best. The trick is to not give up on it and realize there is nothing out there that fits everyone.

  14. Joanna

    Fred, congratulations on your determination to find the right fit for your needs. I admire the frugality of your set-up.
    You say you don’t do stealth and going without a front seat grants you more territory, but identifies you as a van dweller to anyone looking through the window. How hard was that decision?
    Also, what size is your fridge?

    • Fred

      Hi Joanna,
      Bring identified as a van dweller is no big deal to me. First, it often opens a line of dialog with the person and second, very, every, few people look in the windows unless they plan to break in, in my opinion. As far as those who would try to look down on me for living in a van, I simply pay them no mind at all. They aren’t open minded enough to bother with. My fridge is an Edgestar 43 quart.

      • Fred

        First word is being. Sometimes I get fat fingers.

  15. Ken in Anaheim

    Fred, looks down right livable !! Nice job. Do those storage drawers under the bed run all the way back to the wall ? If not, can you access the space between the drawers and the wall ?

    • Fred

      KinA, The bed is 31″ wide but the drawers underneath are 17″ deep, so yes, there is space behind the drawers of a foot or so. I put stuff behind there that I hopefully do not need to use very often as it is a pain to drag the drawers out and reach wayyyyyy back there especially if your arms are short like mine.

  16. DougB

    Thanks for the account of your changes in rigs, Fred. I’m assuming that you camp full-time. I especially like the combo of telescopic pole and bungee cords to what I assume are stakes in the ground? Also, when you’re on your laptop at its table, what do you sit on?

  17. Fred

    Hi Doug, I do camp full time. There are indeed stakes in the ground across the bottom of the panels to avoid the “sail” effect as well as stakes in the back with bungees to keep each end at the top from collecting to much inertia and letting the panels have their way in the wind. I sit on a small cheapie chair that I bought at Walmart for about $13. If you get one of the bigger “regular” chairs, it takes up too much room.

  18. theminimal2

    Good to hear that less is more. We started small and have no interest in going bigger, despite what the mainstream think. We have had so many people ask when we are going to get something bigger!

    • Fred

      Just more stuff to accumulate. Smaller makes you think if you really need it and where are you going to put it. Wise choice theminimal2.

      • Douglas

        Stuff just ends up tying people down. It has done that to me. I know people who have half million dollar homes with at least that much stuff in it.

  19. Man On Run

    Thanks for showing me around your van Fred. You reminded me that I needed to do something about my own wheel so I raised the night table with a stool and secured it with a bungee cord. Was a blast meeting you and Bob and Judy.

    • Fred

      Man on Run,
      Glad I could help. Sounds like your on the right track.

  20. Lynnzie

    Hey Fred,
    Nicely Organized, Makes me want to take out the Metal Storage Shelves in my van and just have storage drawers like yours. How did you secure the door table to the floor of the van?

  21. Lynnzie

    Also Fred, what size propane bottle is that little one? And where do you store your batteries? Thanks.

  22. Fred

    Hi Lynnzie,
    The table is always held in the up position as shown in the pics with the top bungee EXCEPT when using it. It has a leg that opens automatically (its also on a hinge) in the down position. The leg sits flat on the ground and no securing is necessary but is never down while traveling. The small propane bottles are 1g bottles that I bought off Ebay (vendor name is americanfirestore1) and the bottles were recertified for a 5yr. period. The two batteries are Lifeline AGM’s and stored behind the drivers seat and weigh 94lbs.each

  23. Scott

    Great set up!
    We all (myself included) really tend to overthink, overwork, overdue, and overstress just about everything.I lived in a simple set up like this in my twenties with a woman and two dogs! Back then there were no computers or solar power to worry about. “Inside” Entertainment came from acoustic guitar… Lights came from a coleman lantern, and battery operated lanterns. We also had a tent that we set up to connect to the van doors which made everything much roomier. It sounds rough and primitive, but it really wasnt. It was some of the best times of my life (as many other van dwellers confirm).
    Kudos to you Fred. “wanna be’s” should be able to see how simple this really can be.
    Start with the basics:
    1. The Van (or vehicle)
    2. Add a bed:
    3. Some sort of storage for clothes and stuff.
    Thats enough really… but you can add:
    4. Maybe an additional power source (solar or tiny generator)
    5. then, stored power: Inverter and batteries
    Wanna cook?:
    6. A simple camp stove/bar b que
    7. Jugs of water and a wash pan
    Longer term stays? You may think you need a
    8. Porta Potty
    9. Some sort of shower facilities…
    The list just keeps growing, but I think alot of people might be surprised how easily this can be done with the most minimum of conveniences….

    • Fred

      Thanks Scott. I’m a simple kind of guy and for me, the simpler the better. The most difficult thing is remembering what is in each drawer…….lol

  24. Joe S

    Two homeruns in a row Bob! I really enjoy checking out the different rigs and the thought process behind each one.
    Fred – Great job. So minimal but complete.

    • Bob

      Thanks Joe!

  25. Fred

    Thanks Joe.

  26. Jenny Johnson

    Enjoyed the blog…. wondering if you have additional photos or if you have a blog of your own. I especially like the fold up table and all the storage drawers–

    • Bob

      Jenny, Fred doesn’t have a blog and I don’t think there are any more photos. I also loved the use of the plastic drawers, light, cheap, easy to install and cheap. Everything a vandweller could want!

  27. Getaway Jim

    Good looking, functional and inexpensive setup Fred. Very inspirational for the newby to see how easy it is. This lifestyle has so many directions a person or couple can get into it as long as a person keeps an open mind. I have been reading this forum for a couple of years and it amazes me how in spite of the different approaches to the lifestyle the end result is all that matters. I like the fact an average person of average means can get started without breaking the bank and through a website like yours Bob, can feel a sense of belonging with like-minded souls. This is very important for those thinking they might be reaching for the tin foil hat.
    I have been working on our 1988 GMC Getaway van for a couple of years and really enjoy the times when I get away and remove what stress there is. Certainly at 17 feet overall I really appreciate that I made the right choice ( for me ) first time out. The fact that it has not cost much to get started and is always fueled up ready to go at a moments notice, Getaway!

    • Bob

      Getaway Jim, I agree with you totally! Cheap and easy is a beautiful thing!

  28. Getaway Jim

    Well Bob I finally got my eureka moment after re-reading this article. Those plastic sterlite 3 drawer units are the best for a bare bones conversion. Not only are they light but also clean and transparent. Just love the interior of Fred’s, and the Pendleton blanket is the classy finishing touch and total stealth from the outside, Getaway!

    • Bob

      I agree totally Getaway, I’ve been a fan of plastic drawers for a long time.

  29. scrambler paul

    I just finished reading about Fred’s Dodge short wheelbase van . I fitting out a 2014 Ram CV that is windowless I put in a ceiling fan a bed for two with 10 inches of storage underneath and bought 2 plastic storage tubs 8x16x24 ,a suitcase potty,and stretch netting for the rear hatch and each side where the back windows would be . My wife would never be a van dweller ,but she will go camping in my minivan . We are going to Quartzsite in February for the Mineral and Gem Show . This would not have happened if it wasn’t for your blog Bob , thank you very much . I hope to meet you someday in the desert .

    • Bob

      Paul, it sounds like yo did a great job!! Have fun with your travels!

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