Ah, life out on the open road… That’s the dream, isn’t it? Just you, your soul mate(s), an engine with some wheels, and endless miles to traverse. An adventurous lifestyle isn’t for everyone, but following months of lockdown, folks are becoming more accepting towards venturing out of our four walls. The best time to see the world is always here and now, which is why you need a box truck conversion.
A what? Don’t think for a moment that you need to spend your entire life savings on booking a fancy hotel here and there. Instead, why not bring your accommodation with you everywhere you go? The idea of motorhomes isn’t exactly new. Although, people have associated this side of traveling with big, lumbering, and expensive RVs. However, this is no longer the case, as backpacking can be easier.
Look no further than the #vanlife phenomenon, of folks converting minivans into a bed on wheels. Or, how about those putting entire mini-RV campervan suites on top of their pickup truck beds? We had the chance to look at these two before. For today, we’ll scale it up a bit, using a truck as the basis for our house with horsepower. Is a box truck conversion the best home-away-from-home concept?
- What Are Box Trucks?
- Why Convert Them?
- The Pros
- The Cons
- How Much Does It Cost?
- How The Pros Do It
- Final Thoughts
What Is This Box Truck That We’re Going To Do A Conversion With, Anyway?
For those that don’t understand the nomenclature around these vehicles, it would be prudent to take a closer look at what a ‘box truck’ is. They’re sometimes referred to as a box van, cube van, bob truck, or cube truck. Their name alone is a strong clue to what they are. In essence, they’re bare chassis cab trucks, with a large and enclosed cuboid-shaped container or cargo area in the back.
Think of them as upsized cargo vans, and these box trucks are the ones you typically see moving your furniture around. Sometimes, it’s easy to get cargo vans and box trucks mixed up, so here’s a trick to know what you’re looking at… A cargo van has a unibody design, meaning that both the passenger and the cargo area are combined in a single vehicle. In other words, it carries a one-piece design.
Meanwhile, a box truck is commonly built as a chassis cab, with the cargo box-slash-container area having been mounted on later. Thus, both the passenger space and cargo area are separated. Though, some box trucks feature a door that’ll let you cross from the cabin to the box. Here in the US at least, there’s another key distinction between box trucks and cargo vans. Notably, there’s the size.
A typical box truck is between 10ft to 26ft long. As for its payload capacity, box trucks can be rated at anywhere from Class 3 to Class 7 on the GVWR. That’s ‘gross vehicle weight rating’, and it describes the total maximum weight of a vehicle. For a box truck, the GVWR averages around 12,500lbs (Class 3) to 33,000lbs (Class 7). Albeit, the smaller box trucks do use the cab from full-size vans.
Why Use Box Trucks As The Basis Of An RV-Slash-Camper Conversion?
From hauling packages and furniture to now becoming a home away from home. Still, you might ask why a box truck, in the first place? The simple answer is, well, just look at it! There’s a reason why U-Haul trucks are such popular options for an RV-camper box truck conversion. Even from the get-go, its large rear cargo area already looks like the perfect place to squeeze a tiny, comfy, loving home into.
In contrast, a minivan camper conversion requires significant modification. This includes throwing out the rear seats, as well as any other fitments that you don’t need back there. The same story goes for those keen on turning their SUVs and off-roaders into a campervan, as well. Pickup trucks are slightly easier, as you could install a small RV-like suite on top of the bed, bolt it together, and call it a day.
Doing so, however, does leave you wanting more space. Indeed, all of the aforementioned options to turn your vehicle into a pseudo-RV or camper – minivans, SUVs, 4×4 off-roaders, pickup trucks – are compromised in terms of space. Additionally, this makes their interior somewhat more challenging to work with when it comes to decorations. It would especially feel small if you’re living in it 24/7.
A box truck conversion does alleviate this massively. You have a gargantuan (literal box) behind you that’s unhindered from one wall to the next. On top of that, it’s practically ready to move in, as you won’t need to heavily modify it to accommodate a home. Vehicles similarly shaped like box trucks, such as retired ambulances, military transport trucks, and so on, also work well for RV conversions.
What Are The Pros Of Getting A Box Truck Conversion?
TL;DR, here’s a promptly summarised list of upsides to getting a box truck conversion compared to a typical van-, SUV-, truck-based camper setup:
- Its cargo area is significantly larger than what you might find in even the biggest cargo van. A typical U-Haul box truck, for example, has 865 cu-ft worth of space in the cargo area. Most box trucks are also tall enough that you can comfortably stand upright.
- Since box trucks are used to carrying heavy haulage, they can support greater payloads than any other vehicle here (even compared to a super truck). It means you could fit heavier, bigger, and more complex furnishings on your box truck RV without compromising performance.
- They have flat, straight walls all-around, making the conversion process easier. You could install some windows, and other fitments like a kitchen counter, cabinets, or shelving without needing extensive modifications.
- Speaking of, its flat and barebones construction means fitting auxiliary accessories would be much easier on a box truck, too. These include piping and tubing for a full shower or bathroom, as well as wiring to install lights, fans, or perhaps even an AC unit in the back. Moreover, the box’s flat roof is a perfect mounting point for solar panels.
- Although not a thoroughbred off-roader, a box truck usually has a higher ground clearance and more power than a cargo van. Therefore, you could maneuver around tougher terrain on your adventures more readily. Furthermore, box trucks are generally fitted with four-wheel-drive – compared to mainly two-wheel-drive vans – which are also welcomed for roaming across rougher ground.
What Are The Cons Of Getting A Box Truck Conversion?
Aha, but it’s not all sunshine and kittens with converting a box truck into an RV. For all its simplicity, there are complicated aspects of its ownership and driveability that you have to worry about:
- Being porkier, heavier, and boxier, a box truck is by far the least fuel-efficient of the bunch here that you could convert into an RV. If you’re driving it often, then be prepared to expense substantially for fuel stops. You ought to expect low double-digit MPGs if you’re lucky.
- As it’s essentially a commercial vehicle, box trucks will cost you more in insurance premiums. This is attributed to a box truck’s higher running costs, as well as increased on-road risks. Some insurance providers might also refuse to insure a truck like this as a personal vehicle. This may force you to take on pricier commercial insurance, instead.
- Parts and serviceability will be harder to find for a box truck compared to a van, pickup, or SUV. Plus, these components are commercial-grade, so they’ll likely cost you more to repair or replace.
- Since it’s a truck, and depending on how large it is, you may be forced to stop at weighing stations on your journey along the highway. In most states, trucks with a GVWR of more than 10,000lbs have to stop and have their weights measured at these stations.
- You don’t need a special CDL license to drive most box trucks, as long as it’s Class 6 in the GVWR scale and below. Nevertheless, this doesn’t mean that it’s easy to drive. With a large vehicle, you can surely expect this to be a challenge to maneuver around narrow and tighter spaces.
How Much Does A Box Truck Conversion Into An RV Cost?
The key sticking point with any RV or camper conversion is the price. So, how much would a box truck conversion cost you to turn into a modestly furnished home on wheels? In short, it’s around par with a campervan or a (pickup) truck camper. The box truck itself generally costs cheaper than the other two to buy. You can find many recently retired and well-cared box trucks for less than $12,000.
A decently-sized van or pickup will no doubt cost you more, at least $20,000 to $30,000. However, its cost advantage may be negated during the conversion process. Since a box truck is larger, you’ll likely want to spend more to make it cozier. This means cushier sofas and expansive kitchen sets. Plus, its sizeable heft means you’ll possibly have to spend more on wiring, tubing, and other fitments.
If you’re going to DIY it and be sparing about the furnishing, there are box truck lifers that spent just around $1,500 for their RV-camper conversion. This isn’t rare, mind you. There are many others that spent under $10,000 for the whole package. This is by pairing an older and smaller box truck, with a minimalist approach to the interior. It goes to show that you don’t have to spend a lot on an RV.
Most suggest $20,000 (not including the box truck) for the conversion process if you’re keen to have a relatively comfortable and luxurious RV experience. You’d be surprised to see how expensive it can get once you opt for a professional conversion job. At this stage, you’re possibly looking at $100,000 or more for a five-star RV. Granted, a moderate fare is sufficient enough and costs half that.
What Does A Professional Box Truck Conversion Look Like?
We referenced that price from Contravans, a popular professional outfitter for box truck conversions. Naturally, a box truck can come in varying sizes and configurations. Therefore, a conversion process into a camper is truly bespoke for the most part. It’s thus difficult to set firm pricing or put together fixed packages, as each truck will be different. Contravans’ more basic conversions start at $45,000.
At this price point, you can hope for a comparatively nice place to spend time in. The box truck’s rear roll-up doors are first replaced with a regular door. Next up, they’ll start adding in flooring, insulated walls and ceilings, as well as basic cabinets, bedding, and electricals. Nonetheless, you could opt-in more stuff on top of this, such as a heater and A/C, a bathroom, a full kitchen, and more.
As the prices are being tallied, the costs can quickly skyrocket from $75,000 to $100,000, or higher. The extra accessories include awnings, a bike rack, larger batteries, a fridge, solar panels, and windows. With that being said, and irrespective of whether you spring for a professional conversion or are keen to do it yourself, the process is quite similar. Here are some tips on how and where to get started:
Step 1: Let’s Start By Sketching Out Some Blueprints
Okay, so let’s put some big air quotes over the term, “blueprints”. In the end, you don’t have to be as precise with the drawings as you might expect. A sheet of A4 paper, a ruler, and a pen or pencil will do just nicely. Start by sketching out – with the right scale – the dimensions of the box truck. You can find its corresponding lengths, widths, and heights easily on the box truck manufacturer’s website.
Otherwise, there are countless sources online that could provide you with those specifications. Should this information not be readily available, then get the tape measure out. As you’re sketching a blueprint for your RV-campervan box truck conversion, be sure to add a few inches’ worth of tolerances along the walls. This would help to compensate for any mistakes along the way during the build process.
Once you have roughly the available room inside the cargo area, you can start segregating different sections and halves of the box. Note down where you’d want the toilet to be, how you’re going to fit a bed in there, and where you’d want common eating and hanging out area. Remember to maximize every square inch of space you have with stowage and other furnishings. Leave no room behind.
Step 2: Chalk Up The Cargo Area To Match With Your Blueprints
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As a failsafe, it’s always a good idea to inspect the box truck’s rear cargo space in real-time. Then, you can draw chalk lines – to scale, of course – of where certain sections are or where décor is going to be installed. You’ll want to consider being more precise, so grab a long ruler and a big box of chalk. If you want a less messy alternative, then you could use rolls of tape, instead. So long as it’s accurate.
Begin scrubbing chalk along the floors, walls, and possibly the ceiling of the truck’s cargo space. Just make sure that your blueprints aren’t incorrectly scaled or calculated. The last thing you’d want is to see interior fitments clashing and overlapping each other clumsily. Additionally, it lets you see how particular “rooms” or furniture go together. If it doesn’t look good, consider revising the blueprint.
Step 3: Start Connecting The Wiring
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Have you finished drafting out your blueprint, checked, and double-checked it? In that case, you’re ready to start building the interior, beginning with the walls. But before we start hammering in wood panels, remember those tolerances we spoke of earlier? You can’t slap on cabinets and a bed straight onto the side of the cargo area’s wall. You’ll need to assemble and attach connections there first.
The most important would be wiring. If this is going to be your new home, you’ll want to install some lights, ventilation, and numerous other electrical accessories. Thus, you’ll have to get an extra battery to power all that, most likely a large marine battery. You’ll then have to jerry-rig this to be powered by the alternator, just like the truck’s battery. If you’ve already done that, route the wiring through.
All the way to the back, run it along the bare walls of the truck and clip in neatly in place. You may want to think about installing electrical boxes and fuses. Perhaps even an outlet, once you get that wall in place. As for actual wiring, we’d recommend using 14-gauge stranded automotive wiring. It can withstand the shocks and vibrations of an RV-slash-campervan battery than home-type wires.
To that beefy secondary battery of yours, you should connect a 30-amp converter. This needs to also be attached to the electrical box fuses. It’d be wise to keep the converter and battery in an accessible place, as all your electrics will be powered through this. When you inevitably arrive at a campsite, you can subsequently plug your camper into the camp’s 30-amp power supply to keep it topped up.
Step 4: Raise Up Those Walls (And The Flooring)
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On the bare walls of your box truck’s cargo compartment, you ought to have all the wires installed. A follow-up to that would be putting together the walls on top of it. If your budget can afford this, you may also like to think about sandwiching sound deadening material between the exterior and inner walls. It should help you sleep better at night by keeping the unwanted noise softened and hushed.
Although, be sure not to go overboard with the sound dampening foam. Remember to leave a bit of space between it, and your toasty electrics and wiring. That heat could melt or burn up the foam, and it can potentially cause a fire hazard. Finally, you can hammer in the interior walls. Wood is a great material to use if you want a more rustic appearance. Two-by-four lumber framing works best.
You can nail them together with 3-inch deck screws. To make sure they’re really stuck in there, you’d do well to apply polyurethane glue to cover all the little gaps in between. Should you have an excess of wood in your inventory, then you may use the rest of it for the flooring. Once again, remember to completely attach and route through the soon-to-be underfloor wires and piping before it goes on.
Step 5: Add Some Vents And Windows
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For any campervan, motorhome, or RV-style vehicle, we’d always recommend installing a roof vent. That tiny bit of fresh air and ventilation can do wonders in keeping the atmosphere in your house-on-wheels fresh and clean. If not to avoid it from smelling musty inside, it could also purge bacteria still lingering in the air. Moreover, a roof vent does help in reducing any feeling of claustrophobia.
You can start by cutting a hole in the roof with a reciprocating saw. Of course, make sure you follow the dimensions stated for said roof vent that you purchased. RV-style roof vents are fairly easy to put together and clamp in place. For added peace of mind, you may also want to get yourself a bottle of waterproof sealants. Apply it around the roof vent, to be sure that water ingress won’t be an issue.
Speaking of fresh, how about a window, eh? You can follow the same steps with fitting that roof vent, but sideways. Even a porthole window or two along the walls will allow a healthy amount of natural sunlight in. If you’d like to get a good deal on some glass, head over to RV salvage yards. They should be filled with disused RV windows. Just make sure they fit in well with your blueprint and layout.
Step 6: Mind The Water (And Waste)
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You’ll surely want fresh water inside your RV-style box truck conversion, even if you’re borrowing the necessities from somebody else. A simple fresh water tank will be adequate. So, place this inside a dry and clean area. For convenience’s sake, you’ll want a 12-volt water pump to circulate the fresh water more readily around the camper. Connect the tubing together, as well as wiring for the pump.
This tubing can then be split to the sink, as well as to a shower or flush toilet if you’re thinking about adding them. On the other end, you’ll also need a place to store the wastewater and septic. This is where having a big truck comes in handy, as you have loads of room underneath the chassis of the truck to work with. Here, you can fabricate mounting for wastewater and septic tanks, respectively.
Final Thoughts On RV-Style Box Truck Conversions
Fill up that fresh water tank, and you’re pretty much good to go! You can slowly add nice-to-haves like shelving and cabinets. Other luxury items that you can contemplate attaching to your box truck conversion could be extras like a water heater for hot showers. Or, maybe a propane tank to create a proper kitchen, not to mention a fridge to keep your food fresh. There’s plenty of things to do.
That there is the majesty of a box truck conversion. There’s so much room for activities, and it brings an abundance of room compared to a cargo van, SUV, or pickup. Best of all, you can exploit all of its interior space more easily, without significant modifications. There are compromises, sure. But if you want as much room, modularity, simplicity, and versatility as possible, you can’t beat a box truck.