Jess (34) and Shawn (41) are from Colorado and purchased their 2019 RAM Promaster van in August of 2019 and spent 8 months on the build. While working full time jobs, they spent evenings and weekends on this project to make their dreams a reality. They currently live in their van full time and have been doing so since May 4, 2020.
Previously, Shawn was a mechanic for high-end triathlon bicycles and Jess was a manager for a hair salon. Now they create content for brands through social media as well as travel to others who are looking to live the lifestyle. They bring their 5′ x 8′ trailer full of tools for both metal and wood working for anyone who needs help with a van build of their own. They bring their experience along with them and love meeting others while still getting to travel to new places and enjoy climbing areas nearby.
Jess and Shawn define #VanLife as a mindset as well as a way of living. Vanlife typically means that you’ve chosen to live in a vehicle instead of a house. It gives you the freedom to live somewhere stationary or to be mobile and travel around.
There is flexibility to stay in an area for however long you want. You streamline everything in your life to use less and create more. You focus on the things you truly enjoy doing and you build your living space around that.
You have more freedom to travel and decide how you want to spend your days. When you’re living in a home and working full time to pay for all of your bills, you’re too busy to focus on yourself and what you truly want in life.
Jess and Shawn got started in van life after evaluating their hobbies. They are climbers and their desire is to be outside surrounded by nature. They found themselves working all week and trying to rush through the days to finally get the chance to enjoy the weekend.
It didn’t feel right to spend five days working for only two days of fun. They wanted to flip that around and have five days of fun with only two days of work! Doesn’t everyone else want the same?
FIND THEM ONLINE!
The Van Setup
Jess and Shawn bought a brand new 2019 RAM Promaster 3500. They built it themselves so it has everything they felt would be functional for them and not sterile or without personality. They love the fact that after all their hard work in design, it feels like a home inside. Their goal was to include everything they used in a regular home and make no sacrifices.
They went and test drove a couple of vans to weigh the pros and cons of the most popular options of vans. They knew they wanted to purchase a new van in order to know the vehicle history and not worry about having any problems coming up too soon. These fleet vehicles get used and abused so the thought of not buying new was worrisome.
They wanted a cheaper option as far as repairs over getting a Mercedes. Ultimately, Jess and Shawn chose the Promaster over the Transit because the Promaster is front-wheel drive and the living space is a little wider for sleeping side to side. Plus the side walls are a little bit more vertical for building it out. They went with an empty shell without any windows to help them with insulating their living space.
The Van At A Glance
|Van||2019 RAM Promaster 3500|
|Van Build Cost||$12-$15,000|
|Unique Features||Bulkhead protection of driver and passenger seat, bathroom and shower behind driver’s seat|
|Bed Setup||Murphy-style bed|
|Bathroom Setup||DIY toilet|
|Shower Setup||32” x 24” indoor shower|
|Kitchen Setup||Located next to the shower on the driver’s sidewall. Has a Blanco bar sink, Pfister faucet and a Dometic stove/oven|
|Refrigeration||Dometic 75DZW cooler style fridge|
|Heating||Propex HS2000 propane heater|
|Power & Solar Setup||Goal Zero Yeti 1400 solar generator & two Renogy 160-watt solar panels|
|Water & Plumbing Setup||20-gallon freshwater tank|
After purchasing their 2019 RAM Promaster 3500 brand new for $34,500, they then put about $15,000 into building it out with the primary expenses being their:
- Dometic R32 cast iron stove oven ($500),
- Dometic 75DZW refrigerator ($1,300),
- Goal Zero Yeti 1400 Solar Generator with two Renogy 160-watt solar panels and Goal Zero Yeti Link Module (charges while you drive from your alternator) ($2,100-$2,500)
- Propex HS2000 propane heater and Manchester ASME horizontal 25lb propane tank mounted under the van with remote refill kit and tank monitor gauge inside the van ($2,000)
The van has a Murphy-style bed that folds away into the wall to create a more open floorplan. The larger bench is 20” deep by 58” wide and stays in position and holds their freshwater tank system and heater inside.
The rest of the bed that folds up measures about 51” tall by 58” wide. When folded up, the bed takes up 10” of space against the wall and reveals a 10” bench below it for more storage where they keep mostly rope climbing gear.
In the bathroom, the van has a glorified Home Depot bucket for a toilet. But Jess and Shawn created an aesthetically pleasing storage box for it so no one ever knows there’s just a bucket inside.
They attached a toilet seat on top and even have a little extra room inside for storing extra cat litter. For soaking up liquids and covering solids, they use mostly pine shavings, recycle all of their cardboard or paper by tearing it into small pieces as well as a sprinkle of Kool-Aid to help with odors.
For showering in the van, they built a 32” x 24” indoor shower located behind the driver’s seat. They have a ventless propane Excel instant hot water heater for the shower and kitchen sink.
There is a cabover storage space that can be accessed from inside the shower for things like towels and toilet fill. To save on space, they chose to create exposed copper piping for their plumbing and stick-on refillable shampoo soap bottles on the wall. They found tension rods to be very useful in the shower to hold towels, extra paper towel roll and extra toilet paper rolls.
As for the shower build, Jess and Shawn utilized a shower pan, Moen shower head, faux tile FRP board for all three walls and a Nautilus retracting shower door. They also have a facade wood door that closes in the shower with built-in storage on it, which helps keep the shower, cat litter box, toilet and the clutter of all of their toiletries hidden.
The kitchen is located in the center of the living space, next to the shower on the driver’s side. It features a Blanco bar sink, Pfister faucet and a Dometic stove oven. Jess and Shawn built a drawer under the oven with a sliding insert for utensils as well as a cabinet under the sink for pet food, trash bin, water heater, some tools and cleaning supplies.
The kitchen counter is a live edge blue pine that utilizes every bit of its size. Jess and Shawn put a live edge wood backsplash with tiles above it to match the entryway and they have options to plug the sink, cover the oven or put up a counter extension for added counter space.
The kitchen also features a Dometic 75DZW cooler-style fridge located in a drawer under the closet on the passenger side. With this style of refrigerator, it can be powered with 110 AC or 12V. It is a dual-zone unit with options to run as a fridge/freezer or any combination of the two.
To finish the kitchen, Jess and Shawn installed a Dometic R32 range with a cast iron grill and oven that runs off propane. The stove is fixed permanently in the kitchen next to the shower for cooking.
For ventilation throughout the van, Jess and Shawn installed a Maxxair fan centrally located in the front of their living space where it meets the shower. They also installed two small windows located toward the back sides of the van to provide airflow from back to front.
As for heating and cooling, the van is equipped with a Propex HS2000 propane heater located inside the large bench. There is also an accompanying remote thermostat in the rear corner of the van near their bed.
For their propane system, Jess and Shawn installed a Manchester ASME horizontal propane tank which is located under the van above the rear axle. The tank has a 5.9-gallon capacity which can be refilled from the outside on the driver’s side of the vehicle.
For their water and plumbing system, the van is equipped with a 20-gallon freshwater tank under the large bench. Jess and Shawn used pex pipe and shark bite crimp-on fittings for the plumbing leading to the kitchen sink and shower. And they have used both Seaflo and Sureflo water pumps with a Seaflo accumulator. They have a Pfister sink faucet and a Moen showerhead.
When it comes to the electrical system setup, the van is equipped with a Goal Zero Yeti 1400 solar generator which is an all-in-one unit with a lithium battery, 1500 watt inverter and a solar controller. It has a variety of output options such as USB, USBC, power pull, 120V and automobile auxiliary power outlet.
To keep the solar generator charged, the van has two Renogy 160-watt solar panels on the roof as well as the Goal Zero link expansion module to charge from the alternator while driving. Jess and Shawn also set up shore power with a three-way switch to be able to charge from the outside with an extension cord.
And for eating meals and/or working, Jess and Shawn tend to eat their meals in bed or sitting on either of the benches. They don’t typically need a table, but they do have a counter extension they sometimes use to eat on. It’s mostly useful for prep.
As for any improvements or things they would change, Jess and Shawn spent a long time planning and designing their home to be what they wanted and what would work best for them. The few things they’ve come up with that they would change are very minimal – such as moving an outlet or light switch.
There is one larger change that has developed now over time and that would be to somehow not have any cabinet doors open up into the living space. They tend to be in the way with both of them inside making it difficult because they take up the entire walkway. Jess and Shawn have a couple of ideas of ways to improve this possibly on this build – but for sure on a second build.
READ MORE: Check out this post on other great vans for camper conversion.
Living the Van Life Lifestyle
Previously, Shawn was a mechanic for high-end triathlon bicycles and Jess was a manager for a hair salon. They love bouldering and feel that climbing is what they’d rather be doing instead of working! Shawn also enjoyed building furniture as well as to incorporate woodworking and welding skills. Jess enjoyed thrifting clothing and accessories and making jewelry.
Jess and Shawn sold a lot of things as they downsized and planned on moving out of the house and into the van. Their savings account went way up from getting their deposit back from the place they rented, selling their bikes, cars, furniture and other items.
After moving into the van, they continued working full time for 6 months and rental-free so the majority of their paychecks went into savings. Jess and Shawn planned on not working for a year to instead just live off of their savings.
But that year has turned into 17 months and they’ve managed to make money along the way in various forms. They are still constantly finding ways to downsize and resell things such as clothes, shoes, and home goods. Jess and Shawn have tried out Instacart grocery shopping and delivery and have also started making money through working with brands on social media (mostly on Instagram).
We get to park almost anywhere we want to wake up in the morning. We are able to sleep in if we want—there’s no rules! We get to decide where we travel to next and how we want to spend our days. We’ve met the best friends we’ve ever had while traveling and living on the road.
To date, Jess and Shawn have tried to write everything in their budget down and come up with a flight estimate of how much money they spend so that they had an idea of how much they need to start making per month once our savings gets low.
They say that this might not totally be accurate as far as how much they absolutely need—but they are comfortable with knowing that they need $2,000 per month to cover their van payment ($500), RV and renters insurance ($100) and phone bills ($200) and leave the rest for gas and groceries, which vary every month.
So far Jess and Shawn say that the best and most rewarding part of van life is the lifestyle itself! Because they custom built this home themselves, they feel good and comfortable inside of it. They get to park almost anywhere they want to wake up in the morning. And they are able to sleep in if they want—there are no rules!
They get to decide where they want to travel next and how they want to spend their days. Jess and Shawn have met the best friends they’ve ever had while traveling and living on the road.
But they’ve been surprised by how pretty Idaho is! And how much worse pee smells than poop!
Other than that, Jess and Shawn would say the most surprising thing is how possible it all is. It seemed so out of reach and impossible for many years until they made up their minds and worked toward it. Then they realized how achievable it all is and now they don’t ever want to go back to a “normal” way of living.
When it comes to hardships on the road, only recently after a year on the road, Jess and Shawn experienced getting stuck in the mud a couple of times and once in the sand. Two out of three times they were able to help themselves and once they needed to go door to door asking for help.
They have also gotten the dreaded “knock on the door” in the middle of the night a few times to go park somewhere else for the evening. But they live and learn from those experiences.
And they think the worst part about living in a van is knowing that it is not always accepted and legal where they travel and that can create worry and anxiety. They are often looking to find allowed overnight parking, propane and water refills, which are not always easy and accessible. But they do love using apps like Sekr to find these or add the ones we have found to help others.
Downsizing their lives into a van was a bit complicated, depending on who you ask! Jess worked hard on taking photos, listing and selling things that filled a 4 bedroom duplex that they were renting, including a garage and backyard space as well.
This process took a year in preparation for a lifestyle shift. Jess and Shawn originally planned on building a tiny house on a 28’ trailer with a 7’ gooseneck… which now sounds MASSIVE! But they were eventually able to downsize and absolutely love life on the road!
And now that they’re on the road, Jess and Shawn can’t live without each other. They are so happy that they get to be together so often and live this close. Most people say they could never do it and they on the other end of that saying that they don’t ever NOT want to!
But Shawn would say that he really misses having a place to build things and have his tools all set up. There were tools he sold that he wishes we could have held onto. They have a 5×8 trailer full of most of the tools they used to build their van and hope one day to have some land to store that trailer with some building space, even a canopy would work!
Jess and Shawn also miss having a pet door and the ease of letting their animals come and go when they had outdoor space with a fence around it. They also miss having a climbing gym nearby that they can be members of to train and create friendships. Although they know that they can visit gyms as they travel, the day pass fees add up and cost way too much.
In their spare time on the road, Jess and Shawn are climbers that love to boulder mostly over rope climbing. They typically look for climbing on an app called Mountain Project. If they aren’t climbing, they are going on short hikes, nature trails with their animals, soaking in hot springs, chasing waterfalls or seeking out cool footbridges.
And they’ve learned to really enjoy cooking. Shawn has a lot of dietary restrictions so they make all of their own food. Jess was a vegetarian for 5 years and decided to shift to eating meat again in order to eat all the same meals together in the van. They do have a few meals that they rotate between such as spaghetti, pork fried rice, Mexican rice with shredded chicken, peanut sauce noodles (Jess’s fave!) or stir fry.
Jess and Shawn want people to know that Van Life is a choice and how they enjoy living their lives. It’s not for everybody—but the principles should be held with high regard: Living within your means, not holding an attachment to material possessions and just being aware of your impact.
For example, how much water you use and how much litter others leave behind and not choose to clean up. It’s overwhelming when you submerge yourself in beautiful nature and realize how little so many others seem to care about keeping the earth clean and instead choose to be careless and destructive.
Van Life With Pets
Jess and Shawn travel with two elderly chihuahuas (about 13 years old) and a grey tabby cat (this is the second cat they’ve had in the van and he is just under a year old). They are thankful for having more time with the dogs in their later years instead of being away at work all day and only spending a short couple of hours in the evening together.
With their cat, they are able to monitor the time he spends outside exploring and playing. Challenges of having pets in a van are always going to be temperature control and visiting places where pets are not allowed, such as most national parks.
Top Mobile Apps
By far, Jess and Shawn rely on these two apps to help them get around:
READ MORE: Learn more about 20+ mobile apps to make life on the road better HERE.
Most useful items
And when it comes to things Jess and Shawn find most useful, these are their top suggestions:
- Collapsible things – a collapsible bucket that they use for under the van when needed, a collapsible bowl for enjoying popcorn and shows and a collapsible tea kettle for boiling water each morning. These items tuck away so easily and don’t take up much space at all.
- No-spill Lumo Leaf pet water bowl – that has made driving their home with animals stress-free. They don’t have to worry about putting it away or wasting water when they move around!
- Magma nesting pots – fit together into a small space and have removable handles.
READ MORE: Read this post to learn more about other great van life essentials.
The Van Build
Jess and Shawn built their van themselves from an empty shell and did not outsource any part of it to anyone. They are very proud of their ability to learn and figure out how to do the things they needed for this process. Shawn has always felt if he could hire someone to do the job, he should be able to figure out how to do it and teach himself.
Jess and Shawn put $5,000 down on a brand new van that they purchased for $34,500 and are paying $500/month. They spent somewhere between $12,00-$15,000 on the build, but it’s hard for them to say because they kept buying more tools and upgraded from corded tools to cordless. They were also selling almost everything in the house so they were making money as they were building and spending the proceeds on building the van out.
Jess and Shawn found that they have a handful of cool features. One unique feature that they haven’t seen anyone else do in their van is the facade storage door that they have covering their shower.
For insulation, Jess and Shawn chose to insulate with Havelock wool (sheep’s wool). They also used a 1” polyiso board for insulating the cab wall and two small window plugs.
The van’s flooring is a Lifeproof snap lock flooring. But Jess and Shawn did not put flooring underneath everything because that felt wasteful. Instead, they built the benches and kitchen cabinets and then put in the flooring with a ¼” gap to allow for flexing which driving and swelling with temperature. They covered that gap for aesthetic reasons with a trim piece.
And the ceiling is a pine tongue and groove that runs front to back with solid panels. They just loved the look of these when they had seen them in photos and it didn’t cost too much to do.
Plan, plan, plan and PLAN some more. Don’t start anything until you have everything planned out. The first thing you install,such as your wiring will lead to the last thing you’ll install, such as a light switch—so you must know every little detail ahead of time!
Jess and Shawn built all of their cabinets inside the van so they would follow the contours of the walls and be the most space-saving and custom to our needs and wants.
And with lighting, they installed 12 puck lights throughout our van. There are 7 in the main living space, 4 under the upper cabinets and 1 in the shower. Except for the bathroom light, all the other lights are set up on 4 dimmer switches to really customize lighting up the space.
Jess and Shawn later added some LED strip lights that a friend gave them under the upper cabinets and are able to change the colors and even have the lights sync to music to really have a party!
When it comes to storage, Jess and Shawn created a facade door over the shower that has three cubby shelves to store a lot of toiletries, vitamins, hair trimmers, a collapsible bucket, a broom and so forth. This hides the clutter from being seen most of the time when it’s closed.
They also have storage in the above-cab area that can be accessed from inside the shower for towels, toilet fill supplies, a collapsible water jug and other knick-knacks. They got creative with tension rods and use them inside the shower to hold toilet paper rolls, wet wipes, towels, large toilet fill pine shavings and extra paper towel rolls.
And for additional lighting, Jess and Shawn installed two rear-side windows to create airflow between them and the roof fan. The windows slide open and have a screen. In a later build, they say that they may choose different windows that pop open just for the times it is raining so that water cannot blow inside through the screen.
Outside, Jess and Shawn have not added any outside storage boxes yet. They did build a roof rack and added a deck on top for sitting, laying and just enjoying the views! They have considered the idea of adding a storage box at a later time if they feel they need to. And they have added a no-drill rear ladder door for easy access to the roof deck and solar panels.
Jess and Shawn are most proud of all of the craftsmanship that they put into their home. They did everything themselves and created a feeling of “home” inside. They are also proud that it’s been almost two years and nothing that they built has broken or fallen apart!
And if they could change anything, there really isn’t anything that comes to mind. Overall they are pretty happy with our set up. In retrospect, they may have chosen slightly different windows and/or installed a second fan for improving ventilation and to avoid needing to open windows when it is raining.
They would also come up with a different door style on their closet to not have them open into the space because it’s difficult with two people as someone is always waiting on either side. Having doors that slide back to the sides or bi-fold would work better and might be an upgrade that they do to this build at some point.
Jess and Shawn’s least favorite part of building out the van was building out the van during Colorado winter. Although they tried to enjoy every part of the process, it was a test of patience and they were grateful to have a house they could rent with a full garage to be able to make the build happen.
And neither Jess nor Shawn are proficient at sewing. So the construction of their cushion covers was pretty difficult and a struggle. Plus they changed their color scheme and had to make them TWICE!
Jess and Shawn believe that a van build feels like it’s never finished and it’s always evolving. But everything was functioning and ready to live in when they moved in. They did a trial run while still renting and moved into the van in the driveway for a week to make sure.
They weren’t sure how they wanted the rear doors to look so they had the sub wall attached and later added a shiplap look to them while parked outside a friend’s house.
When it comes to giving advice to anyone considering building out their own van, Jess and Shawn would say plan, plan, plan and PLAN some more. Don’t start anything until you have everything planned out. The first thing you install, such as your wiring, will lead to the last thing you’ll install, such as a light switch. So you must know every little detail ahead of time.
The best resources Jess and Shawn used were various YouTube videos that covered a variety of topics. For electrical projects, they loved a channel called Explorist Life—DIY Campers and DIY Solar Power with Will Prowse.
Jess and Shawn have also had some issues with a lot of their appliances one year later—so knowing how to install, adjust, troubleshoot and so forth is very helpful. Make notes of when and where you’ve purchased appliances such as fan, stove and water pump because you will need to know this information when you call in for a warranty replacement. Then it’s helpful if you know how to replace this item when you receive it!