Stealth Camper Van

Sometimes you need to sleep where you’re not supposed to. In this case, [MisterE] wanted to cut the costs associated with his climbing trips. He took a 2001 GMC Savana cargo van and turned it into a stealthy mobile living space. The project is from back in 2008 and we almost waved off from featuring it. But when you start to look at all of the creative space-saving solutions in the hack we think you’ll agree it’s worth a look.

Since he’s a climber that means time in the mountains, which can be quite cold. The sides and floor of the van were insulated to about R19 before the build work itself started and there’s a small wall-mounted heater. For comfort, a fouton was a must for sleeping but also for its double use as a sofa. For style the only choice here was bead-board to cover all of the walls. There is a small kitchenette that is mainly just a sink (we’ve seen running water in vehicles before). A couple of extra batteries power all of the electronics: audio, laptop, etc. When asked, [MisterE] confirms that he added hidden storage areas for his more pricey gear. Total cost on the project came it at $11,500. About nine for the van and the rest for improvements.

He mentions he blew an inverter because of grounding issues while starting the van. As long as he turns it off before start-up he’s fine. Shouldn’t there be a better way to build protection into this? Please leave a comment after the break and let us know what you’d do differently.

[Thanks Mac]

84 thoughts on “Stealth Camper Van

      1. i don’t imagine a zener diode would be the ideal part for that. sure on a small load they protect pretty well. but when you huge copper wire connected to lead acid batteries, I’m pretty sure it would just blow up on a fault.

    1. That should not be enough to damage the inverter. The vast majority of inverters purchased go in cars and trucks (every trucker has one) and they are not normally damaged by starter motors. He either has a defective inverter or his starter/ignition system in his car is faulty.

    1. What’s the matter with TIME, bad comment !
      I’m impressed of the craftmanship involved here
      Not compareable to any camper around / there is none with so much personality / the bookshelfes, the pictures, flower, skiboard …. and last but not least wooden panels at the wall
      Damn it… Good Job and have fun with it

      if you got problems with old posts, watch this and say afterwards 1937?? really ?
      it’s like saying of this music is so bad because its alomst a year old

  1. “In this case, [MisterE] wanted to cut the costs associated with his climbing trips…Total cost on the project came it at $11,500.”

    What? Where was he staying when he went climbing, in the penthouse suite of the Ritz Carlton?

    1. Also, if he spent 100 nights on the road in over the course of 2 years (that is not unreasonable, some of the climbers i know climb in a remote location every weekend) you would pay off the build, as the average hotel cost is ~$113 a night in the US. Also he can have this near the sight, in remote areas where hotels don’t exist.

    2. If he’s a Mountain Man like many of us are in Colorado, there’s no Ritz or even a Motel 6 near your favorite spots. When you want to climb a mountain early in the morning to do some back-country snowboarding, you want to minimize the drive it takes to get up there. This way, he won’t have to use a hotel, or lease an expensive cabin/condo at one of the resorts.

        1. Ever try to set up a campsite in the dark? I’ve done it on a known site, in a known area, and it isn’t exactly my idea of a great way to start a long weekend.

          If he /is/ an active climber, he’s likely to be going places he’s never been, places where camping is allowed wherever you find a good site. Even using a good, bright headlamp, finding a nice site can be hit or miss. Sometimes good campsites are marked, but more often they aren’t.

          Campers/RVs are nice, but parking one in a parking area that’s twenty minutes or more off the nearest “paved road” can be an invitation to the less scrupulous individuals among us. If the vehicle doesn’t “look” like an RV, it is less of a target.

          THIS sounds like a good thing. You can drive in, late on a Friday night. Relax in comfort, get a good night’s sleep, and be able to start out first thing in the morning, refreshed, well rested, and (more likely) alert.

          1. What is your camp setup? I have setup camp in the dark in wilderness that I have never been to and was fine. I mean sure I saved some things for the morning, but my tent (and/or tarp sometimes) and sleeping spot were just fine. Sure finding the spot was the hard part, but fairly doable with a even a crappy head lamp.
            Now don’t get me wrong, I would have rather had this van. Just wondering what would lead you to say it’s a bad way to start a weekend.

    3. With this van he can use it as a daily driver as well as camping. No reason he could not take it to the store or even drive it to work as well as use it as a camper. He could probably have bought a used RV for less but they are not good for daily drivers.

  2. If people are carping about this being an old project or something out of line with HAD’s usual parade of geekery, take note of the fact that the builder milled his own maple boards for the interior among other things. Well done!! We need to see more big vehicle hacks here.

    A few thoughts: get a CO detector (those little catalytic furnaces can be bad if they’re not properly ventilated) and a fire extinguisher just because. Also a master battery switch by the battery box for the 12V side as well (I’m more used to boat work, but it’s still a good idea).

    Something like this would tempt me to put in a fireplace type marine heater…no more dangerous than the catalytic one (other than needing a charlie noble out through the top of the cabin) and you get a fireplace for cold winter nights.

    1. My uncle had a van like this, and he made no toilet arrangements either. Any workable solution is going to take up a lot of room and require a lot of maintenance. It’s also not going to work out very well in extremes of temperature (you don’t want a toilette in a van that’s been sitting all day in the sun).

      My uncle’s van was a Corvair Forward-Control with the Greenbriar package. He modified it extensively with 110AC outlets, running water, sound, and television. This was back in the early 1970s, mind you. The handcrafted wood in this build reminds me very much of my uncle’s old van.

  3. I’m not sure how you’re getting inductive kick from the starter all the way back to your inverter. Your starter motor is disconnected via the solenoid the instant you release the key, and your battery should be clamping any reverse current. If you were getting some kind of weird spike coming back, you’d blow the ECM before you blew the inverter. I’m almost positive the death occurred because the inverter was under a load, and the sudden change in the supply DC torched the MOSFETs. I’ve never blown an inverter in any vehicle i’ve owned by starting the car while it’s on. Always run direct leads of sufficient size directly to the battery (both ground and positive) and fuse the leads at the battery. Has never failed me. Currently running a 2KW inverter in an F250 7.3L Diesel (dual battery) and has worked flawlessly for coming up on 4 years.

    1. That’s what I was thinking too. Starting the engine will cause the battery voltage to drop significantly, which means that when the inverter is under load the input current drawn will increase (which will cause extra voltage drop and thus still more current, especially when the hookup cables are a bit thin-ish). Could well be that one of the chopper mosfets or a PCB trace inside the inverter diddn’t agree with that.

      1. Did he say it was under load as it blew? Cos then your explanation sounds good. Thinking about an inverter, most of the stuff inside shouldn’t complain about a little voltage spike, but then we’ve seen marvels of Chinese engineering on this site, where it looks like they’ve taken parts out til it stops running, then put the last part back in.

        Maybe a capacitor decoupling it would help, the wiring to the battery would act as a low-value resistor. Or an inductor in series, again, just coil the power wires. Or even one of the anti-surge protector things you get in mains surge protectors. Or just a reverse-biased diode for back-EMF.

    2. I wonder if wiring the inverter with a less insanely over-size bit of copper might help too, add a little resistance to large transients. From the photo if the wire was any fatter it’d snap the terminals off the inverter.

      1. Nope. You want a low resistance connection from the inverter direct to the battery (both plus and minus leads — no using the chassis as minus).

        I vote for buying a much higher power inverter than you need. Keep the loads turned off during engine start (because a low input voltage will mean the inverter tries to draw a lot of current, dropping the input voltage even lower…)

        1. Or, if there are loads that do not like to be switched off and on within a short time: power the inverter off a second battery, which you detach from the car circuit the moment you turn the key to start the engine, and reconnect after the engine has been running for, say, ten seconds or so.

          1. That could easily turn into a second project, add a leisure battery to power the habitation part, charging from any overspill from the main battery. You can buy charge controllers that handle this. Not a good idea to just connect 2 batteries in parallel, unless they’re kept connected all the time. Otherwise very large currents flow from the more-charged one.

            I can’t think of any loads that wouldn’t like being switched off for a while. He should have a cutoff switch for all habitation power anyway, in case of shorts and emergencies. It’s standard for boats and caravans. Have it near the dash, so he can just switch everything off before he starts the engine.

    1. Noit sure if you’re kidding – but that’s the view out of the open doors and into his garage, where the washer and dryer are. There’s a reverse angle version of that, shooting back into the van from the garage, further back up.

      1. No, no, no, no!

        You have that wrong.

        That is the Tardis module which he got from Dr. Who.
        It allows the inner space of a container to be expanded
        without having to deal with the negative affects that the
        additional mass would cause in the case of a larger
        overall exterior container.

        That’s why he can have a washer and dryer in the back
        of the van.

  4. Where are all of the “illegal comments”?

    When someone unlocks a scope to run 200Mhz and not pay the factory, people here scream bloody murder in favor of crippled hardware. This van is in effect the same principal. He wants to camp places where it’s prohibited by law. He is not giving hotels money. How is this hack any different than unlocking crippled features?

    1. I’ve never seen _anybody_ complain that an unlock is stealing from the manufacturer. What I have seen is people point out (entirely reasonably) that binning by performance is common, and that there is no guarantee that your “100MHz” signal is accurately represented.

  5. The real trick here is the white cargo van. It’s gotta be white cause white is cheap like some fly-by-night lone contractor buys . They are in common attendance at truck stops and go by unnoticed and without charge. So common a vehicle for local to medium distance transport at a fee that they are left unmolested and uncharged for a night’s parking… yet the Taj Mahal may exist inside. They LOOK innocent on the outside….

    1. The number “3” on the rear quarter panel makes it look like a fleet vehicle as well.

      I was thinking maybe having something like “Alpine Ascent Research Institute”
      painted on the side as well could give it a look of legitimacy.

    2. Besides the phoney company name/logo; back door ladder; and contractor’s roof rack that others have suggested, the only other thing I can think to add would be an after-market hidden shackle padlock on the back door. Obviously, he would no longer be able to exit through the back door when the lock is in place but the driver side and passenger side doors would still be there and it would definitely look like a business van.

      1. Oh, just thought of another one. Besides the Police Benevolent Association style sticker he’s already got, he could also pick up one or two Union stickers for the bumper (ex. “Earwax Cleaners Local 502”). Of course, this assumes its possible/allowed for a non-union member to get and display those stickers and that he makes sure to match the specific union mentioned to the company logo he puts on the side of the van (It’d look a little weird if “Mom’s Catering and Old Country Bakery” employed a full-time member of “Plumbers Local 431”.

  6. We do a great deal of high current DC installs.
    We usually have the inverters and computer systems driven from a deep cycle battery or bank, with the ground tied back to the main vehicle battery ground.
    We rarely use more than 200A battery isolators because the OEM alternators cap out at 130-150A in most vehicles.

    And I agree with those who guessed a cheap inverter.
    We have seen a great deal of cheap Wal Mart and Canadian Tire “house” brand inverters die, and they all seem to have a lack of sufficient protection circuits on the supply inputs. It spells an early death when mixed with 100A.

    Poor grounding, and poorly maintained power cabling are always suspect as well.
    Most of the dead and dying equipment is usually attached to heavily corroded or macguvered connections. We do most everything with 4GA welding cable. It is fairly common, decently priced, and it is easy to terminate, route, and handles enough current with short runs.

  7. A good isolation circuit would be composed of a relay with a normally open primary circuit and having it’s secondary circuits tied to the side of the vehicle fuse box that is off until the vehicle is running..

    This would allow the vehicle to be started and the inverter engaged after the vehicle starts.

    One problem with this, and the wisdom of the switch is that the switch allows the inverter to remain on when the engine is off. One could however, wire the two in parallel keeping the switch in the off position until the inverter is needed when the engine is not running. But you would still need to turn the switch off before starting the van.

    1. what’s commonly done is to just use two or even three large batteries in parallel, and possibly upgrade the alternator. The issue is that you are drawing more electricity than was intended, so you simply increase the capacity. This solution is simple and doesn’t involve any jury-rigged wiring. The big batteries are very heavy so you will want to distribute them in the vehicle.

    1. Forgot to add, most people use Trickle chargers, Leasuire batteries (Specifically made to be slow discharge batteries made for RV/Camper Van’s), Alternator dualy wired to charge both but the main as a primary and the leisure as a slow charge and a solar charger

  8. I like this build. If I had the money I might even try something similar though with thinner wall insulation if possible so I could have some space to use for wall mounted screens/computers/etc or to keep cabling out of sight, perhaps even get a look underneath the fleer to see if I could add some small storage compartments.

    The only suggestions I can think of (that wouldn’t result in a complete tear down and rebuild) ranging from simplest to most complex is to add some tie down points/loops/hooks to the wall of that counter (in case you ever find yourself seriously lacking storage space), if you could add a thin metal sheet to the top of the table and magnets to the undersides of cups/etc so they would mostly stay in place if there isn’t any level ground to park on (or if you don’t want to mess with so many magnets you could use a rare earth magnet or electromagnet to temporarily magnetize the table surface so metal cups/etc would stick to it), perhaps some simple camera’s to keep an eye out for wild animals sniffing around the vehicle while your away or even people, maybe some solar cells could be useful for supplementing the power from those batteries.

    1. On boats it’s traditional to have a small barrier around the top of any table or shelf. I like the magnet idea though! Perhaps a metal sheet for the table, with a rough cloth over the top for friction. Alternately, to keep things from sliding about, have several magnets under the table, and glue metal nuts or something underneath each cup. That way you’d have lots of loci to stick to, instead of a sheet to slide about on.

  9. Systems like this need a starting battery, split charge relay, an optional inverter and a auxiliary/deep cycle battery. The split charge relay allows the auxiliary battery to be charged by the vehicle’s system, yet not participate in engine starting. It also prevents the starting battery from being run down by your equipment when the engine is off.

  10. To solve the Inverter issue, contact a company that builds Ambulances. twin 165 amp alternators power that mini hospital and they not only have outlets to power iv pumps and charge other equipment, but the have a separate real heat/AC tons of lighting and btw, this stuff has to work without fail every time forever. The also have shoreline connections which are real helpful as well. I think Kussmaul makes them. No one will know more about electrically powering a van than those folks. I recommend Braun, AEV, or Wheeled Coach as the top brands to deal with, but there are many others. I am about to start my first stealth build in the next year……

  11. This is so cool! I don’t think I would have done anything differently since I don’t have much of an idea about van conversions! I do however, know a little bit about design, and wouldn’t have gone for that choice of carpet ha ha.

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