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Our Micro Camper: A DIY Ford Transit Connect Conversion Guide

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:

  1. 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.
  2. Design – Sketching out designs and crafting a cardboard mockup
  3. Build – Completing the final van build construction
  4. 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

Our Cardboard Mockup. Alt-Nomad

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.  

The final build design. Alt-Nomad

 

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

 

 

  1. Lance Russell says:

    When you fold up the bench seat, do you have access to your storage in the back? Also, can you simultaneously fold up the bench and fold down the head board without the mattress interfering?

    1. Mike says:

      Hi Lance, With the bench seat folded up there is still access to the rear storage as the seat folds above the drawers themselves. The mattress does have to be folded back in half toward the front cab when raising the rear bench and it can be done while the headboard is up or folded down. So you do have to get the mattress a bit out of the way to raise the bench. Once it’s up it’s quite sturdy.

  2. Matt says:

    Hi Mike, I am really interested in your design. Is it possible you have another picture of the google sketchup which shows the measurements for the base? Or maybe you are willing to share the sketchup model itself?

    1. Alt-Nomad says:

      Hi Matt, sure thing. I did have to do some changes to the original measurements from the sketchup design when I did the actual build. I think I have that file in my archive and I’ll put together an email to you in the next day or two with some details.

  3. blackfriarinsc says:

    Mike, this great. I’m really excited to see this. We rented a campervan based on a Transit Connect a couple years ago, and we’ve been planning to build our own ever since. There are a lot of great conversions online, but very few (that I’ve found) with a full-width bed, which is an essential design element for us. We don’t want cabinets and kitchens–just a basic tent-on-wheels, with good storage and electricals capable of running a fan and some reading lamps. So it was great to see what you’ve done here, and I appreciate the links to resources. Happy micro-camping!

    1. Alt-Nomad says:

      Best of luck with your conversion and that all sounds amazing! Share some pics or a post when you get things set up. I’m always looking for tweaks and new ideas and they can be hard to find.

  4. Caleb says:

    Hey Mike! How difficult do you think it would be to set rails on the bottom and split the legs in half and offset them on either side of the rail so they can slide? My idea was to split it in to 4 slats so that I can slide it up and create kind of a bench seat and instead of a headboard, I was going to get a big enough board to mount a TV on to.

    1. Alt-Nomad says:

      Hi Caleb, I think that could work. Do you have a drawing of your design? If you do, send me an email… I’d love to see it so I can fully understand your concept. I think it would be really neat to have a large board with a TV mount inside as well. That sounds awesome.

  5. Brian Donohue says:

    This was great – we are considering a similar conversion. But we are a family of four. Our plan would be to put a roof top tent on the top for two to sleep up there and then two can sleep inside the van. But the issue would then be where do two passengers sit while travelling. What does this setup look like when you flip up two seats in the back? There seems to be some comments about this in this thread that refer to the rear bench, but it’s not clear how this would play out.

    1. Alt-Nomad says:

      Hi Brian, a rooftop tent will be a great addition for this size van. I did research some in my early designs and they look amazing. The seats (bench) in our van is for the back and can only be used when the back hatch is opened up and we sit in it facing out the back with our feet dangling out. It’s super comfortable for sitting when we are parked somewhere but not useful while driving, so we can only fit two passengers total. One idea that you might want to consider is to leave the first row of passenger seats inside and build the bed structure as two parts so that you could fold the seats down when parked and lay a bed on top when you want to sleep. Are you planning to travel for weekend/short trips with minimal supplies/luggage? If that is the case, it could work. Let me know if you’d like to discuss further, happy to toss around some ideas. Enjoy your build!

  6. Tom Weber says:

    Hi. This is a great design and I’m seriously considering this route. One question, how much leeway do you have on the height of the bed? I see that the vertical supports you used were 11″ but I need a little taller storage space under the bed. Could that be increased to 18″? Or would that make it impossible to sit up in bed? I’m a traveling musician, thinking of getting a camper van to save on motel rooms, but I need to be able to slide my guitar amp and PA speakers in under the bed.

    1. Alt-Nomad says:

      Hi Tom. I think the height of about 11″ is just tall enough so that we can sit up in bed without hitting our heads. It worked out to be quite comfortable but I would definitely not go any higher (for comforts sake). I had originally designed the right storage compartment to house my acoustic guitar and some small gear (I’m a very amateur singer-songwriter) but it turned out to be too narrow by a few inches to fit. I would recommend possibly widening a compartment to fit more gear and if the height is truly an issue to consider getting a rooftop container. We got one and I stored a ton of gear in there and it was great to have. I could also envision a modified front section near the headboard that would let you store much more gear there. If you want some ideas send over an email and we can follow up. Let me know how it turns out!

  7. Cole T Gibson says:

    Hi. This is awesome. I’ll hopefully be getting my van this week (same one). I’m just curious as to how the base is secured to the van. It looks like you ripped up some of the flooring for access points where the second row seats would be. I’m very curious about this aspect. How did you know where reliable secure points would be beneath the flooring? Also, is it secured to the van in any other areas?

    1. Alt-Nomad says:

      Hi Cole, all I did was simply remove the two rows of seats and build the structure on top of it. I didn’t have to rip out any flooring as the area under the second row of seats does have some exposed parts. When I built the main structure it fit perfectly to the contours of the floor so it is very secure horizontally and heavy enough not to move at all vertically. If you want added hold you could easily secure it to the hooks used by the seat clamps or the exposed metal near the second-row seat area. Lots of options and best of luck with your build!

  8. Krystee says:

    I love this. If you are sharing your sketch up file, I would love to see that. We are looking at buying at connect to do something close to this. Great job on the build!

  9. Jess says:

    Hi! This is great! My husband and I are buying this same model this weekend, found a sweet deal on a used 2014 one. We went back and forth on the Wagon vs. the Cargo, and after we saw this post, we decided the wagon was totally doable and easier than building out the whole interior. Working on a budget. 🙂 Thanks for the inspo! We are thinking about leaving the middle row of seats in for future kiddos, and just building a two piece version of this that slides or folds onto itself in the back. Have you come across any build outs that keep the middle row of seats in? Or do you have any pictures of the bench folded up? I’m curious if i can use that as design inspo for folding the platform/bed in half for times when we want to have the middle row of seats up…

    1. Alt-Nomad says:

      Hi Jess, I haven’t seen one like that yet with the middle row of seats intact but I do think that could work well. I had considered it during an early version of my design. My van is a mess at the moment and in storage for a bit so I don’t have a handy picture of the bench up to show you. Good luck with your build and let me know how it turns out!

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