The diversity of do-it-yourself vehicle conversions out there never ceases to amaze. On one end, you might have posh homes on wheels costing tens of thousands of dollars, featuring kitchens, showers, toilets, custom-made bed platforms and more in them. But you can also do a conversion on the cheap, as author, filmmaker, health and foraging enthusiast Sergei Boutenko did with his Mercedes Benz Sprinter, transforming it into a minimalist home-on-the-road for only USD $1,200. Watch him explain how he went about it:
Boutenko, who is also a health food advocate, travels about half the time during the year to do workshops and book tours, and wanted to find a cheaper alternative to staying in hotels. His previous vehicle was no longer meeting his needs, so he decided to take the plunge, purchasing a 2013 Sprinter crew van for $38,000. He tells us:
The [first tour with the converted van] went off without a hitch and I discovered that staying in a van is not only economical, but way more enjoyable. My van is my turtle shell. It goes where I go and enables me to sleep in my own bed on my own sheets and I simply love this.
Here's how Boutenko was able to save thousands of dollars on his conversion. He first prioritized what he knew he needed in the van:
In converting my van, I chose to keep it pretty simple. First and foremost, I didn’t have thousands of dollars to spend on the build. Secondly, I needed a minimalist setup that could be assembled and taken apart with ease. A bed, a couple of boxes for storage, some cargo nets, and a power supply are all I need to be comfortable.
For his bed, he hired a friend to make a sturdy metal and wooden frame that can securely attach to the van itself, for $600 (instead of $12,500 as quoted by an outfitter). A foam mattress is strapped on top, and stuff stored in bins can be arranged underneath. Boutenko's camping kitchen kit is also stored under the bed. Best of all, this bed frame is removable, so it can make room for boxes of books to sell when he is on tour.
The walls of the van have been covered with plywood panels that Boutenko cut himself. These not only add a bit of extra sound insulation, but provide a surface to add some simple but clever ways to store things. He's added hooks and rods for hanging things, cargo nets, and a $60 aluminum track with O-rings and a LoopRope for clipping things and bikes onto.
For lighting, Boutenko has a set of remote-controlled, battery-operated LED lights that he can dim and don't use the car battery. For charging his computer, cameras and drones, or even lighting and heating his van, Boutenko uses Ankor PowerHouse battery as a "weekend warrior's" off-grid power source, which can be charged up at his home and at campgrounds. He also has a solar shower mounted on his roof rack, and may be considering installing solar panels someday.
Boutenko also has some tips for other owners of rear-wheel drive Sprinter vans in winter weather:
When I bought my van, the 4x4 version wasn’t available in the United States yet. I went ahead and purchased a standard rear wheel drive model. In November of that same year I hit a patch of ice while driving in the mountains and almost flipped my car. [..] Last winter I made a couple of discoveries, which have dramatically improved my van’s performance on snow and ice. The solution was pretty straightforward: Mounting studless snow tires [and] adding 500 pounds of weight in the back over the wheel wells. [..]
I started experimenting, loaded my van with kettlebells and sand bags, swapped the tires for winter tread, and voila! Problem solved. I now feel safe and confident driving on snowy roads when the temperatures dip. I assumed others would like to know about this topic too, so I made video about winter driving called: Winter Sprinter.
Boutenko is now a big fan of travelling and making his living thanks to his converted van, though he admits that he only "recently learned that conversions are a thing." He also recognizes that "cars by nature aren’t great for the environment," but Boutenko reasons that his impact can be offset by finding more fuel-efficient models such as the Sprinter and carpooling with friends, as he does with his van:
In the years following the book tour I’ve learned that the Sprinter has many other useful applications. I use mine as a production vehicle on various documentary projects, to crew ultra runners through desolate wilderness areas on 100-mile races, help friends transport heavy industrial woodworking equipment, and for surfing adventures. It also uses much less gas than my previous vehicle, so in this way too it’s a little less impacting on the planet. The Sprinter is by far the best, most versatile vehicle I’ve ever owned. Because of this, I don’t foresee myself ever going back to a car that I can’t walk through.
With more and more people becoming more mobile in their work and by extension, in their lifestyles, it will become increasingly important to find fuel-efficient options and ways to minimize the overall environmental impact of such a shift. While those solutions will look different for each person, it's vital that we make the effort to do it in a smart and sustainable way. To see more tips, books and videos on everything from van conversion tips to green smoothies and wild edibles, visit Sergei Boutenko and Boutenko Films on YouTube.