Design

This guy built a $1,200 DIY campervan, and here’s how he did it

Sergei Boutenko – a Russian health food advocate, author, and filmmaker – shows us that vehicle conversion need not be expensive. In fact, you can do it for the low, low price of US$1,200 (AUS$1,500).

Spending half the year traveling for work – usually doing workshops and book tours – Boutenko found that staying in hotels was too expensive. So he set out to find an alternative.

Enter his 2013 Mercedes Benz Sprinter. Boutenko bought the car for US$38,000 (AUS$47,800), then started working on it. To be cost-effective, he decided to do the renovations himself, rather than hiring someone else. Boutenko noted the most basic things he looked for in a campervan, and started building.

Some of the features he included were bins for storage, cargo nets and hooks on the walls for more storage, a power source, a solar shower on his roof rack, and a bed that can be removed for whenever he needs to fill the van with his books.

Boutenko and his van

In the video above, Boutenko goes into greater detail about how he went about with the conversion.

We also had a chat with Boutenko to know more about his minimalist campervan, and how others could replicate his work. Read the interview below:

Please tell us more about yourself. How did you get into conversions? Did you have any experience prior to buying your 2013 Sprinter?

“My name is Sergei Boutenko. I’m originally from Russia, but have been living in the United States since the age of five (roughly 28 years). I’m self-employed and spend the bulk of my time making films and writing books. Over the last few years I’ve produced three feature length documentaries:

Powered By Green Smoothies, I Want Abs: A documentary for regular people who want to get in shape, but don’t know how to do it, and Common Weeds And Wild Edibles Of The World.

“I also wrote a book about foraging, which is titledWild Edibles: A Practical Guide to Foraging, with Easy Identification of 60 Edible Plants and 67 Recipes.

“When my book hit the shelves, I decided to go on a book tour to promote it. Having toured with other books in the past, I knew how quickly lodging adds up so I decided to take the plunge. So I bought a Sprinter van and reduced tour costs by sleeping in the van instead of hotel rooms.

“In July of 2013, I became the proud owner of a new Sprinter van. Up to that point, I had zero experience with Mercedes vehicles. I purchased a 2013 crew van (2500) because it could seat five people and still had heaps of room in the back.”

Boutenko storing a bike in his van

How long was the conversion process? What were the biggest challenges in transforming the van?

“The conversion process was fun and experimental. Since I didn’t really know what I wanted out of my van or how I was going to use it, I tried a few super low-budget setups before spending any real money on the build. Basically, I goofed around and tired lots of different things. Some things worked and some didn’t.

“For example, at one point I had a bed that spanned the entire width of the back of the van. This turned out to be an epic fail for my lifestyle. I got sick of having a huge vehicle that I couldn’t put anything into.

“Now I have a smaller bed off to one side, which give me an aisle. Not only does the aisle make it much more comfortable to climb in and out of bed, but it also enables me to stash things in the back of my car: a bike, lumber, a couple 11-foot paddleboards, and whatever else life throws at me.”

Storage areas

What was your initial budget, and were you surprised at all that you only spent $1,200 (AUS$1,500) for the entire project?

“I didn’t have a set budget for outfitting my van, but it was much, much smaller than what I was quoted by name-brand outfitters. I won’t name any names, but one company quoted me US$12,500 (AUS$15,700) for a basic three-panel bed. No thank you!

“After that quote, I scrapped the idea of getting someone else to convert my van and took it upon myself to research and construct my own conversion. A quick disclaimer here, the setup I settled on is a minimalist one and it’s not for everyone. There are a lot of folks doing cool stuff with their cars online and I’m getting more fanatical about checking out their projects every day, but in converting my own van, I chose to keep it pretty simple.

“A minimalist setup can be assembled and taken apart with ease. There are times when I need to pull everything out of my car and receive a shipment of books on pallets. Because I only have a bed, a couple of boxes for storage, two cargo nets, and a few other miscellaneous items, I can pull everything out and have any empty van within 20 minutes.

“As for being surprised about only spending US$1,200 (AUS$1,500), I wasn’t. Things cost less when you do you it yourself. Isn’t that an IKEA slogan?”

Boutenko unloading a bed

Boutenko loading boxes of books

Which places have you taken the van, and where are you headed next?

“I’ve driven my van across the United States and Canada. I’ve gone on surfing adventures, snowboarding trips, I use my van as a production vehicle on various video projects, to crew ultra-runners through desolate wilderness areas on 100-mile races, help friends transport heavy industrial woodworking equipment.

“I used it to move my girlfriend and I from Southern Oregon to Northern Washington earlier this month. Most recently, my girlfriend and I took the van on a ferry ride to the San Juan Islands. I don’t have any plans to take any big road trips in the foreseeable future, but this can easy change.”

Storage areas

As a fitness and food expert, is it difficult to prepare healthy food in such a small space?

“I don’t prepare much food in my car. My girlfriend and I have a house. I usually do a big meal prep at home before I hit the road. Then I load up the cooler and go. I like to think of the house as the space station and the van as the rocket. We fly to the house, dock, resupply, then launch off again and explore new territories.”

The total cost of renovations

What’s the best advice you could give to those who are just starting in their conversions?

“That’s easy, figure out what you want before you spend any money. I know several folks who dumped thousands of dollars into their vans only to realize they didn’t like their new remodels. I suggest honestly assessing your lifestyle and habits and then tailoring your vehicle to meet those needs. Yes this can take months or even years, but in the end you’ll be so much more satisfied.”

Boutenko's van

If you’d like to learn more about Sergei Boutenko and his work, you can visit his website.

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