The 2nd in my series of Dream Tiny Home designs – A small van for part-time living.
This is what I’ve chosen for my current lifestyle – a vehicle I can sleep in at a moment’s notice and live in comfortably for a few days at a stretch without any planning, but that isn’t suitable for full time living.
A bigger fully self-sufficient van is useful for weeks on end in nature or an urban life in which the van essentially acts as a full time home. You can stand up in it and it has enough room for a wood burner.
Unfortunately it’s also easy to spot and invite hassle, on account of the chimney, long and difficult to park. Having such a low MPG, it could be prohibitively expensive to drive.
Alternatively, a moderate sized van can sleep two, may not have enough room for standing or for a burner, but will be as economical to run as a large car. It’s a better choice for a lifestyle in which long distances are covered, and cooking/sleeping in the vehicle fill the gaps between using indoor spaces. The money saved on fuel can be spent on the occasional cheap accommodation, or using coffee shops for office space.
The nightmare comes when you need a live-in vehicle that you can also drive long distances…I haven’t found a solution for that problem yet.
So, I’m currently running: a short wheelbase VW Transporter. It’s a squeeze. I’m continually pairing down my possessions. My pet gripes with this lifestyle are that it’s not possible to set up my studio speakers in a van so small, and I have to store most of my instruments in a friend’s cupboard. It’s too cramped a space to act as a useful practice room, so I’m sad to say I’ve practiced less since having a small van.
My dream small van represents how I’d upgrade my current van. To summarise, I’d double the cupboard space and buy more sports bags and packing cubes.
Over time I’ve come to love the simplicity of my current van furniture – one bed and one kitchen cupboard set. I wouldn’t do much to change it. At first I was frustrated with a few things but soon discovered they were symptoms of having a small van not design flaws in the furniture
- The bed is too low to fit boxes underneath, but if it were higher I couldn’t sit up in bed.
- The bed is too short (5ft), but I’ve got used to it now and lengthening it would only eat into the living space.
- There’s no bike rack, so I have to take my bike out of the van and lock to a lamppost literally every time I want to use the back space. But actually, a rack would cost £200 and then it would keep costing by decreasing the van’s MPG, so I won’t bother.
Other things that you may have to deal with in a small-van:
- No heating: The gas stove can be used in short bursts but that’s it really. Fortunately such a small space warms quickly, but having no wood burner can result in damp just from breathing – air your van regularly.
- Limited kitchen: I currently have no running water and no fridge, but re-fill water bottles whenever docking. If I started spending more days in my van I’d upgrade, but currently it’s better to have more cupboard space than to have a fridge sitting empty half the time. Most foods except meat keep ok in the kitchen cupboard and I don’t mind eating tinned food for when needed.
- No toilet: This hasn’t been a problem so far. In urban areas toilets are often available, especially when docking in a driveway. I’ve also a funnel and some piss-bottles (emptied when facilities appear). In nature, a trowel enables bears to shit in the woods.
- Low headroom: Bad weather during a trip can mean being shut in a tight space with no room even to stand up for days on end. Solutions are to buy a bigger van, just deal with it, or go to cafes. In an ideal world I’d get a pop-top – currently out of my budget at £3.5k
Having accepted all this, until recently I still found my van too small for all the stuff I needed to carry to make my life function. I pared down hugely, but was still stuck. Then I discovered the key – It’s not about how many cupboards you’ve got, but about what’s going on IN the cupboards.
Cupboards with stuff chucked straight in don’t work – once filled to only ½ their capacity, everything starts to fall out whenever you open a cupboard after a rocky drive. Boxes are better, but you lose a lot of space around the box since it needs to be smaller than the cupboard opening in order to get it in and out. Stuffing cloth bags in can provide more space, but it’s hard to see what’s in them.
Recently I’ve solved these problems using packing cubes – mini nylon suitcases with transparent tops so you can see what’s in them. Sounds pretty basic, but moving over to using a combination of sports bags and packing cubes has doubled the storage capacity of my van – yes that means I can keep twice as much stuff in the same space! To give you an idea, the majority of my clothes fit into 3 medium sized packing cubes, but I estimate that at least 50 cubes of the same size would fit under the bed.
When I first got my van, I started collecting rectangular nylon sports bags because plastic boxes were too tall to fit under the bed. I’d previously thought that boxes were best, but sports bags showed distinct superiority: they could be folded away if empty or squashed into a smaller space if only half full.
Whenever I stay somewhere even for just a night, it’s easy to take most of my possessions inside since all the bags have convenient handles and shoulder straps. Valuables come inside even if I only stay somewhere for an evening, but I never pack and I never unpack.
The main improvement I could make on my current van is to add another set of cupboards to the right of the bed that reach up to the ceiling, and a small set of cupboards to the left of the bed, high up (as shown in both drawings). With my new packing cube system, I don’t even need that extra space – it would just be for “visitor” luggage.
The Dream Yurt was 113 sqft (10.5 sq metere) and was about the right size for a modest living space. Designing a a small van will ultimately be a compromise – trading off features against each other because with less than 4 sq meters (43 sq ft) of floorspace, there simply isn’t enough room for everything. Rather have a short bed or a folding bed? Rather have a full kitchen or more cupboards for luggage? I’d rather be able to ride my bike than give it up for the sake of more space, so I’ve gone for packing my van to the brim and packing smart. This system really shines when I’m working. It’s wonderful being able to pull my portable amp out, strap it to my bike and go for a day’s busking, or to go to a country house with one bag and set up to shoot a https://www.youtube.com/embed/b07rbdJ-UpA” target=”_blank”>music video like this one.