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Five Lessons Learned Building My First Campervan

I'm excited to share more about my process to build Sun + Salt from one campervan into a full fleet, but I'll start by sharing some of the little (and big!) mistakes I made on my first van. If you don't know me, I'm Bri and I'm the founder here at Sun + Salt.

I built my first campervan, Bertha, in 2021 with $30k in savings, one used car loan, and hundreds of Youtube videos. She'll always be my favorite van simply because of the blood, sweat, and tears that went into a project that I had no idea would work or not. Fast forward to today and I now have the five "ladies" who make up the Sun + Salt Fleet: Bertha, Betty, Laverne, Shirley, and Alexis.

I truly believe that there are no mistakes, just a win or a learn, but there was a LOT that I learned in that first van, so here goes!

Learning #1: Too little energy

Bertha has a Jackery battery hooked up to 200 W solar panels. It's jussssst enough to run the vent fan and fridge on sunny days, but looking back, I wish I would have set up the battery to also charge off the alternator. At the time, I thought this would be something I could easily adapt later, but after visiting several shops to get it done, it's more complicated and would have been smart to just do from the get-go.

Learning #2: Ikea cabinets aren't great in humidity

My time window to build the van was so unbelievably crunched (3.5 weeks to do the van build from start to finish) that I had absolutely no choice but to go with pre-made cabinets. But this was definitely something I would not repeat because the particle board simply won't last long in the humid weather in Hawaii.

Learning #3: Bed cut outs add significant space

I've never regretted choosing the Ram Promaster 2500 with a 136 wheelbase for my campervan frame. I love that their design is conducive to a bed placed horizontally across the back because they are boxier. That being said, in the first van, I didn't have enough time to cut out 4 more inches on either end of the bed to add a tiny bit of extra space for heads and feet. I fit fine and I haven't had any guests complain about it, but that little bit of extra space feels like a big difference in Betty, Shirley, and Laverne.

Learning #4: Nature's Head Toilet is too big

Ugh. This one sucked. I did so much research on composting toilets in my first van and I decided to go with Nature's Head. This toilet is just unreasonably large and really shouldn't be recommended except for larger campervans in my opinion. With the extra space needed for the 90 degree turn in the exhaust tubing, it was about 1 centimeter too large for the space I had allocated for it and I ended up selling it on craigslist and had to buy a new Separett toilet (which I do really like and put in all of the vans).

In retrospect, I think Nature's Head put a lot of marketing money into people doing videos for them, don't fall for it like I did!

Learning #5: How not to do sink plumbing

I wish I could find the video that drove me absolutely insane trying to do the plumbing for the sink, but it appears to have been taken offline, thank God! Basically the learning here is if the youtube video makes it seem really easy, confirm that with at least one other youtube video that follows the same process before buying the items they have linked in the description. Luckily this only happened once for me.

I wanted to set up a really simple manual foot pump sink for the kitchen sink. The video made it seem simple, but them completely complicated the process and left me wandering Home Depot aisles several times. When in doubt, don't rush the process and go back to researching if you get stuck with some faulty advice.

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