Vanlife — how to turn a tiny van into a minimalist home on a small budget

Last time I was in New Zealand I spent five months walking and living in a tent. This time it would be different since I came back to take up vanlife together with my nomadic partner, and longtime vanlifer, Scott. So my home for this trip would be “the Beast”,  a super tiny beat up 1994 Toyota LiteAce van. A tad scruffy but a reliable little diesel that just won’t quit. Hence the name.

While we are proud to call the Beast home, we decided he needed a little bit of love in order to better suit two people. Oh alright… to better suit me… lol. Since our objective at the moment is to save money, and lots of it, for our next adventure, we had to do this on a very tight budget! We managed to source most of the building material for free. Most of the remaining stuff came on the super cheap from op shops (thrift shops). You can score some amazing finds if you are willing to put in the time. We outfitted our entire kitchen for under $20! I love the idea of repurposing stuff anyway, so it worked out great!

We started by ripping out all the old stuff to start with a blank slate. Then we spent about 3-4 days putting it back together again. We tried to keep it as simple as possible. It is such a small van after all, so there are limitations to what you can fit and weight is always a consideration. Our focus was a bed, storage, and a kitchen and it all came out great! Just what we need, and nothing more pretty much. We even made the bed so we can easily turn it into a sofa for daytime. This is something I really appreciate since I am also using the van as my office during the day.

The most time-consuming part of the whole rebuild turned out to be the curtains, believe it or not. The fabric is fab, purple of course, but it was a bear of a material to work with. We really would not have been able to pull it off with our sanity intact without the help of some very nice friends! Thanks a million Karla! In the end, it was all worth it though. The curtains look great and block out the light beautifully. They only cost us $10 per meter ($30 in total) which still made them the most expensive item we bought for this build.

Storage is always a concern in small spaces

The Toyota LiteAce is a wee little thing for sure, and for us, this meant sacrificing headroom for storage room under the bed. Adventure gear take up a lot of space! So while you cannot sit straight up on the sofa, you can comfortably recline a bit to make it work. We split the mattress into three pieces. The large piece becomes the sofa seat and the two smaller slices make a perfect backrest leaning onto the kitchen backboard.

It is interesting to realize how little you actually need in terms of things to be happy when you choose to live small. In our case, minimal space is allocated for personal stuff as we prioritize lifestyle. In the 6 storage bins under the bed, we have one smaller bin each for our personal things like clothes. The four big bins hold our food and kitchen stuff, the outdoor clothes and boots, hiking gear and finally one for all the climbing and mountaineering gear.

To use the kitchen, all we have to do is open up the back hatch. Very convenient and the hatch also makes a perfect awning when it is raining. A nice gas cooker with two burners, a 10L fresh water tank, and a small simple beach cooler, a pot, pan and a prized steamer insert (best $1 I have ever spent!) plus a few utensils makes for a minimal, but a very functional kitchen.

We even have a small hanging garden!

Two hanging pots, made out of paint buckets, make a home for “the Beatles,” Paul the tomato and strawberry-fields-forever-John. We originally planned to have them grow hanging out from the bottom, and while John adapted beautifully to this, Paul was not having it, so now he is growing out the top. Can’t say they love life in transit or being sandblasted on some beach… but all in all, we will have fresh fruit and veg in the van this summer!

It is great to have your home with you wherever you go and we freedom camp whenever possible. We love parking up by the ocean, out by the river or up in the mountains. When in town we park up with friends or use public facilities when needed. This minimalist lifestyle really suits me. It is still pretty luxurious compared to last time I was here and carried everything I needed on my back. It is a simple life, not cluttered with things, with more time to spend outdoors doing what we love to do.

Personally, it is quite nice to spend yet another winter in the southern hemisphere, doubling up on daylight for the second year in a row. Fantastic! I really love New Zealand, the South Island in particular. It is such a beautiful country with wonderful people and what better way to experience it than being mobile?

We love our van!