Rich and Robin are in their mid-50s and hail from Lake Elsinore California. For the past 3 years, they have lived mostly full-time in their 2014 Promaster 3500 van with the 159″ wheelbase, which they built out themselves.
Rich and Robin have a history of traveling and exploring. This started by tent camping with their kids, before upgrading to a Class C motorhome. More recently, before traveling in their van, they spent much of their time traveling between hotels and condos wherever they went.
Although Rich and Robin are now retired and living off of retirement savings, during most of their working years they took advantage of the opportunities that were given to them to invest in a pre-taxed retirement saving plan and invested as much money as they could each month. This has allowed them to retire earlier than most Americans and to enjoy the road without having to stop to work along the way.
Rich and Robin define #VanLife as the freedom to travel easily without the need for a set schedule. It is being able to travel as slow or as fast as you want and to make changes to your plans easily. They also find it much cheaper than traveling in an RV and van life has given them the opportunity to be able to explore more places than traveling in their RV.
Rich and Robin got started in van life after having owned larger class C RVs in the past and wanting to have a smaller vehicle that was easy to drive and park but also comfortable. They also wanted to build our own van so they could customize it to fit their wants and needs as travelers.
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The Van Setup
Rich and Robin have a 2014 Promaster 3500 159 wheelbase. They love the large farmhouse sink and the 24’ deep butcher block countertops, their fixed bed, and garage storage.
The Van At A Glance
|Van||2014 Promaster 3500 159 wheelbase|
|Van Build Cost||$7k|
|Unique Features||Futon bed made with steel tubing|
|Bed Setup||A fixed bed that also hinges like a futon to be able to have a comfortable seating area facing the back|
|Bathroom Setup||Cassette toilet|
|Shower Setup||27” x 24’ shower pan and a 4-gallon water heater for hot water. A 360-degree shower curtain hangs from the ceiling into the shower pan with two half walls on two sides to help keep the water in the pan|
|Kitchen Setup||Butcher block counters with a large farmhouse sink and induction stovetop. A 5-gallon drinking water container is under the sink and attached to a manual marine water pump|
|Refrigeration||110 Galanz dorm fridge with freezer|
|Cooling||2 Maxx Air fans|
|Heating||Knock off 2000 BTUs diesel/kerosene heater|
|Power & Solar Setup||3 x 125 amp hour AGM batteries with 5 x 100-watt solar panels on the roof, a 3000-watt inverter and an isolator that allows the engine alternator to charge the house batteries.|
|Water & Plumbing Setup||24 gallons of fresh water, a 4-gallon hot water heater and a 15-gallon gray water tank under the van|
Rich and Robin purchased their 2014 Promaster 3500 159″ wheelbase for $14,000. They then put about $7,000 into building it out with everything they wanted and needed for life on the road.
Like many van dwellers who opt for the Promaster, Rich and Robin opted for this model as it is wider and they were able to place their queen-size short mattress in the back and sleep sideways.
They like that the van has front-wheel drive, making it easier to drive and giving them better traction, which has been a plus for some of the areas they have traveled off the pavement. Rich is a skilled mechanic, so the ease to repair also made purchasing the Promaster a plus.
The van has a fixed bed that also hinges like a futon to be able to have a comfortable seating area facing the back. It also gives Rich and Robin the ability to have more storage under the bed that is easily accessed from the inside of the van.
In the bathroom, they have opted for a cassette toilet that they use only for #1. For #2, they use restrooms at rest stops, trailheads, gas stations, etc. In case of emergency, they rely on Double Doodie bags, which they say work great when needed.
And for showering the van, the van has a 27” x 24’ shower pan that drains to a 15-gallon gray water tank under the van. Rich and Robin have a 4-gallon water heater for hot water.
They use a 360-degree shower curtain that they hang from the ceiling into the shower pan with two half walls on two sides to help keep the water in the pan. When not in use, the toilet sits in the shower pan and they have an extra bench seat built over the toilet for extra seating. They also have an outdoor solar shower that they love to use while at the beach.
The kitchen has a butch block counter with a large farmhouse sink that Rich and Robin purchased at Ikea. They have a pull-out faucet that is connected to the 24-gallon water tank in the garage, with a 15-gallon gray water tank under the van.
For drinking, the van has a separate 5-gallon container under the sink attached to a manual marine water pump. There is also a soap dispenser built into the counter. Rich and Robin regularly use a blender, small electric skillet, induction stove top and occasionally a 3 qt Instant Pot.
The kitchen also features a retro-looking Galanz dorm fridge for refrigeration and an induction stove top and electric skillet for cooking. For grilling, they have a cast iron grill that they put over their gas fire pit.
As for heating and cooling, the van has 2 Maxx Air fans and Rich and Robin occasionally use a plug-in fan when needed. The only propane in the van is a portable tank that they connect to their gas fire pit.
For their van’s water and plumbing system, the van has 24 gallons of fresh water for the sink and shower with a 4-gallon water heater. There is a separate 5-gallon water container for their drinking water and they bring an extra 3-gallon bottle as well.
There is no need for a black water tank. But Rich and Robin do have a 15-gallon gray water tank under the van.
When it comes to the van’s electrical system setup, the van is equipped with 3 x 125 amp hour AGM batteries with 5 x 100-watt solar panels on the roof. Rich and Robin use a 3000-watt inverter and have an isolator that allows the engine alternator to charge the house batteries when driving.
And for eating meals or when working on projects, Rich and Robin sit outside, on their bench seat or front swivel seats with a small table that swivels from the bench to the front seats. Or they like to sit on the futon-style bed facing the back to enjoy a view and get things done on the laptop.
As for any improvements or things they would change, Rich and Robin only have a few. With the dorm-type refrigerator, they would add another inverter that would be dedicated to just the refrigerator, probably a 150-watt inverter. They would also have used a different rack for the solar panels so that they could get them closer to the roof.
READ MORE: Check out this post on van options for your DIY conversion.
Living the Van Life Lifestyle
During the beginning of the pandemic, Rich and Robin were able to work remotely and do a little traveling. Since then, they have both retired and are living off their retirement savings. During most of their working years, they took advantage of the opportunities that were given to them to invest in a pre-taxed retirement saving plan and invested as much money as they could each month.
To date, Rich and Robin are still working on getting a stable budget as they have been retired for less than a year and have done more traveling outside the van than in the previous years that they owned the van.
So far Rich and Robin say that the best and most rewarding part of van life is meeting fellow travelers, learning from their experiences and sharing new adventures with them as they become friends.
Traveling in a van has given us a lot of freedom to just get up and go and stay at places we would have never stayed before
But Rich and Robin have been surprised by the vast amount of areas where they can stay spontaneously. They were also surprised at how much they would love van life in Baja, and it is now one of their favorite trips and where they have spent the most time in the van.
When it comes to hardships on the road, so far the only hardship has been the fact that they bought a high-mileage van that has required more repairs and maintenance than a newer van. Thankfully Rich has the experience and knowledge to do most, if not all, of the work and maintenance himself.
And Rich and Robin think that the worst part about living in a van is sharing such a small space with someone when one or the other needs to go #2 in the middle of the night and you’re sleeping somewhere that has no facilities. Otherwise, van life has treated them well!
Downsizing their lives into a van was a mixed bag since Rich and Robin still own a stick and bricks home. They had to downsize for the van. But they can travel knowing that they still have all the comforts of home at their home off the road.
And now that they’re on the road, Rich and Robin can’t live without their fridge, shower and toilet. But they both agree that it is nice to have a home base to come home to when they want. So they are never too far away from the comforts they seek on the road.
In their spare time on the road, Rich and Robin like to hike, kayak and hang out with friends when they can meet up. And they’ve learned to really enjoy cooking. They like to keep things simple when cooking, so their favorite meals on the road are burgers on the fire pit grill when camping.
Rich and Robin want people to know that traveling in a van has given them a lot of freedom to just get up and go and stay at places that they would have never stayed before – like when they road-tripped down Baja two different times this year for a total of 10 weeks.
Top Mobile Apps
Rich and Robin rely almost exclusively on these apps to help them find everything they need on the road:
READ MORE: Learn more about 20+ mobile apps for van life.
Most useful items
Every van dweller has their favorite go-to things in their van. Here are the top 4 items Rich and Robin could not live without in their van.
- Double Doodie bags – for #2 emergencies
- Water Bandit – to be able to get water from spigots that don’t have a tread
- Large gray water tank – so we don’t need to dump as often
- 5 and 3-gallon drinking water jugs – easily filled at a Glacier or other water fill station
READ MORE: Read this post to learn more about other great van life essentials.
The Van Build
Rich and Robin built the van themselves with a little help from a friend to build the futon bed and their son to help build the cabinetry. They purchased the van for $14,000 and put just over $7,000 into building it out.
For a breakdown of what they spent, check out this table!
|Kitchen – counter, sink, faucet, sink base||$727.90|
|More Misc Receipts||$728.49|
|Wood and Supplies||$495.78|
Rich and Robin are incredibly proud of their futon bed. They had seen only one or two in various van builds and they wanted to do something similar. Most of the examples that they had seen were made out of wood. But they built theirs with steel tubing, as a unique feature of their van.
For insulation, they used Reflectix, poly board, rock wool and expanding foam. Taking advantage of each of these three options where they would fit, Rich also chose these based on how well they would insulate and the price.
As for the flooring, Rich and Robin installed vinyl plank flooring. They chose it over wood flooring as it doesn’t expand and contract with weather and it is waterproof.
And the ceiling has 1/4″ plywood over the insulation and sound deadening. Then Rich and Robin made a shiplap out of 1/4” plywood and attached it to the subceiling with a nail gun. In between the bed and the living area they installed a faux wood beam to break up the space.
Do some research on how others use their van and if those layout might be a fit for how you would live. Also we highly recommend seeing vans in person at a van meet up etc. to stand in and walk around a van build to see how it fits you. We also recommend doing at least some short trips in your van as you build it out to get a feel for what you need and what you have a priority for.
For cabinets, Rich and Robin bought one pre-made cabinet for the sink base and adapted it for the farmhouse sink. They also bought a base cabinet with a drawer and removed the drawer but then used the slider with the shave at the bottom of the cabinets to have the ability to roll out the water bottles that they store under the sink.
Robin and their son build the upper cabinets from scratch using 1/2” and 1/4” plywood and inexpensive 1×4″ whitewood. Robin built the bench seat using 1×4″ whitewood and 1/4” plywood and they built two drawers with a slider for a step to the bed with 1×4″ whitewood and 1/4” plywood and 500lb slides for the step. The last thing Robin built was the shelving unit between the refrigerator and the bed that has 4 shelves, with each shelf holding a basket for storage items.
And with lighting, Rich and Robin installed LED puck lights. Rich liked the low profile, the ability to dim the lights and the low power consumption. They have a set of lights over the bed and a set of lights in the living space on two separate dimmer switches that gives them the ability to control the lighting under all circumstances. And for additional lighting, luckily the van came with a slider window and two back windows.
When it comes to storage, the bed pulls up like a futon that gives access to storage under the bed where Rich and Robin have extra kitchen storage and extra items that they do not use often. The bench seating also doubles as storage. Part of the inside of the bench stores the batteries and inverter and the other part of the storage holds the microwave, induction stove, cast iron griddle, toaster, pots and pans and other small kitchen items.
Rich and Robin are most proud of the plumbing since Rich had no experience with plumbing and they had heard many stories of plumbing leaking. Rich was surprised at how easy it was to install and they have been fortunate not to have any leaks. They are also really proud of how the whole build turned out and that almost everything has held up over time!
And if Rich and Robin could change anything, they feel that they over-engineered their bed and would have made it a little lighter to make it easier to go up and down like a futon.
Since completing their build, they have learned a lot more about electrical systems and would do some things a little differently. They used Romex house wiring when they did their build and now their friends and many others are using a stranded extension cord that is more flexible and better for moving environments.
Rich and Robin’s least favorite part of building out the van was the cabinet builds. Though the upper cabinets were hard to build, it was also one of the most satisfying parts of the build, along with the drawers with sliding bed steps that they built.
And Rich and Robin thought that the shower was going to be hard but it went in pretty easily even though it was the last thing that they added (almost 2 years after they built the van) and had left the space for the shower pan in the layout.
Getting the curve of the ceiling for the upper cabinets was also one of the hardest parts for them. Though once they had that completed, Rich and Robin have since done the same curved cabinets for two friends with fewer complications.
When it comes to giving advice to anyone considering building out their own van, Rich and Robin advise you to do some research on how others use their van and if those layouts might be a fit for how you would live. Also, they highly recommend seeing vans in person at a van meet up, etc. to stand in and walk around a van build to see how it fits you. Rich and Robin would also recommend doing at least some short trips in your van as you build it out to get a feel for what you need and what you have a priority for.
The best resources Rich and Robin used are a lot of YouTube videos and following many vanlifers on Instagram to see how they lived and what their layouts were. They took all the things they liked from many different people to make their layout that they still enjoy to this day. Rich is a part of multiple Facebook pages such as Promaster Build, Ram Promaster Owners and Promaster Van Build.
In January 2019, the month before Rich and Robin bought their van, they went to a Vanlife meet-up in San Diego on Fiesta Island where over 200 vans were available to look at and see in person how their layouts might fit their needs and they were able to ask a lot of questions from those that had already built their vans.
Christopher Harvey is the founder and primary content creator for Called To Wander and Van Life Movement. He lives and travels full-time in his RV with his wife Lindsay and their two Australian Cattle Dogs. Passions include helping other people understand how to life a nomadic RV lifestyle and studying and planning an epic van build to drive the Pan American Highway in 2023.