Our Ford Transit Connect conversion cost us less than $2500, about 30 hours of labor, and a whole lot of planning to get us there. Living on the road has been a huge challenge and an amazing experience all the same. It’s amazing how far we’ve come and before we ever left town on our digital nomad we had one first, simple goal: we needed to get a van.
We had considered driving one of our cars but the whole fantasy of #vanlife was on our mind. We wanted it all– our version of a “home base” during travel but something light enough to take (and park) almost anywhere. We were looking for a van that had:
- Space to sleep 2 adults
- Storage room inside for daily essentials like snacks/water, first aid kit, books, electronics, shoes, etc.
- Power for 2 laptops, phones, and accessories that could last a few days between charges
- Seating space for two when the back hatch is open
- Enough extra storage to fit a guitar and extra seasonal clothing
- Accessories and items to sleep comfortably in relatively temperate weather (32-75 degrees F)
- Good gas mileage
We planned to do a combination of camping, staying with friends and family, and AirBnBing, all while working remotely.
Selecting the Right Van For Our Needs
It’s an exciting time to embark on the van life, considering there are so many great vehicle options out there. One of our favorite things to do now while camping is to walk around and see everyone’s rigs. During our campground stays, we’ve observed quite a few RVers having trouble pulling into spots because their vehicles were too large for the site or, in some cases, just too tough to maneuver. We’ve also seen our fair share of Sprinters that look amazing on the inside but were later circling busy streets in cities and towns looking for a suitable place to park.
For our needs, a micro-camper setup was ideal– it gives us adequate sleeping/storage space while still granting us the flexibility to park in any standard spaces. The Ford Transit Connect was a perfect choice for us in terms of price point, gas mileage, and space.
Once we settled on the make and model, it was time to choose between the pre-2013 model (extra height of about 6-8″) or the 2014+ version (shorter but with an option for a long wheelbase LWB). The Transit Connects come in two separate models: 1) passenger (wagon) version with two rows of removable seating and standard car interior finish and 2) a commercial (van) version which has minimal cabin hardware, no seats, and typically comes in white.
We had our eye out on used car lots and found a 2015 passenger LWB wagon in a tan color that was discounted since it was missing the last row of seats. Perfect for us since we were taking ’em out anyway!
Our Ford Transit Connect Conversion
Being a chemist by trade and an all-around obsessive “details” guy, I couldn’t resist adding some structure to our camper conversion plan. These were the major phases of the project:
- Brainstorming – Considering different camper conversion guides to get ideas to incorporate into our design. Some of my favorite resources are the great work at Cheap RV Living – A nice, detailed 2013 Ford Transit connect conversion. Build a Green RV – Lots of guides for small camper conversions. Defying Normal – Inspiring build of a Chevy van from the ground up with lots of helpful pictures.
- Design – Sketching out designs and crafting a cardboard mockup
- Build – Completing the final van build construction
- Road Test – Taking it out and making any modifications as needed
VAN DESIGN ELEMENTS
- Layout – There are really only two major layouts possible in this small space: 1) a lay flat bed design with storage underneath or 2) a design with a bed on one side and small kitchen setup on the other. We chose the lay flat design to maximize the sleeping area.
- Floor/Ceiling/Windows – We used the existing van ceiling, flooring, and windows with no further modifications.
- Insulation – Keeping the standard passenger van insulation was fine for our needs since we planned to follow temperate weather at all times.
- Storage – We wanted storage underneath the bed with access from the two sliding side doors, back of the van, bed area, and the front.
- Bed – We planned to use a futon mattress for sleeping cut to fit the space and have a headboard that included storage and electrical hookups.
- Electrical – We decided on a GoalZero Yeti 400 system for our battery which can charge a laptop 4-5 times and phones about 20 times from a single charge. The single charge also powers two small fans we installed for airflow– we can keep them going for up to 100 hours!
- Curtains and Shades – We planned to install a curtain to separate the main cab from the front cab, get a visor for the front windshield, and cut Reflectix window inserts for all of the back windows
- Internet – The Verizon unlimited plan was just announced when we started and proved to be perfect for our needs. We received a wireless hotspot upon signup that worked well for the times when we didn’t want to drain our phone batteries.
- Roof Rack – Our passenger van did not come with the Ford factory-installed roof rack and it can’t easily be added after. So, we purchased a Rhino-Rack package with tracks, mounts (RTL600), and crossbars (VA137B) with installation from Rack Outfitters in Austin. You can see a video of our van here. We added a Rhino 550L Cargo Box up top which was perfect for storing a guitar and additional items, like seasonal clothing.
There was other stuff to consider like kitchen space inside, solar, plumbing/sink, etc., but we decided to focus on cooking on fires or an electric griddle outside the van or use the kitchen facilities where we were staying. At the end of the day, it ended up being a light and streamlined setup.
Creating a Mockup of the Design
Joshua Thiede, a woodworker, graphic designer, and good friend of mine, created a design concept illustration in Google Sketch-Up using the published van storage dimensions from Ford. We talked through how each part of the design would be accessed and used, making small tweaks along the way.
Our goal was to make sure the dimensions were right, so Josh flew out to visit me in Austin and we took exact measurements of the van interior. A cardboard mock-up helped us ensure what we designed would work.
This was an extremely valuable step (I got the idea for it here) as having the cardboard inside to see how it would feel in-person led to numerous tweaks and a much stronger final design.
Our final Ford Transit Connect conversion design included a fold-down headboard near the front seats and a fold-up bench in the rear.
Time To Start Building
With final design in-hand, we drove our Ford Transit Connect from Austin to Indiana to complete the conversion there. We had only evenings and weekends over a timespan of two weeks to finish it, so we ended up allotting about 25-30 hours of total labor. For the van’s interior, we chose ½” Birch plywood for a good balance of price/durability and used basic 1-1½” wood screws and hardware.
Ready to start making some cuts! We kicked it all off by framing the base of the front section under the headboard using short 4×4 posts.
Then we built the entire front base section, deviating slightly from our drawings to make the cuts a little simpler. That said, the basic function remained unchanged.
This photo above is showing the front section to the left with the main bed area detached to the right. We built the bed area by setting up vertical slats braced by 2x4s for added support, as shown below.
Followed by installing a single large wood board to make the top.
Next, we built the headboard and attached it with hinges to the base, followed by a second top layer that would act as a folding bench for the back seat. We used a piano hinge for the main bend (it is under the wood in the picture below so it can bend upwards) and two standard hinges of smaller size for the other bend closer to the headboard. This picture shows how it looked after install.
From there we built the two drawers for the back storage area.
And we were done! We did varnish the wood to seal it and then added our futon. I had a lot of great help from Shari King who led this construction–couldn’t have done it without her. We finished our Ford Transit Connect conversion on time and within our budget.
We’ve been making some improvements on the way after some time on the road and we’re always trying to adjust our setup.
Let us know what you think! And post any questions about the Ford Transit Connect conversion below and I’d be happy to answer them.