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A Van Named "Donde"

Our van "Donde" is a 2003 GMC Savana H-1500 AWD Passenger. We purchased it from a Craigslist private-party seller in May 2016, with 143,000 miles for $6,250. The previous owner took great care of the van, and kept all receipts and records. This was great peace of mind purchasing a vehicle this "old."

We purchased the van as a stock, 12-passenger van with a sliding door. We chose the passenger model with windows because we wanted to avoid the feeling of living in a box, and also allow ourselves to enjoy views from inside the van. Sliding door option was preferred for its ability to open in tight spaces, barn doors don't allow this luxury. We chose All-Wheel Drive (AWD) for use in snow, sand and mud.  It allows us to go further, and get back again.  

More details:

Motor: 5.3 vortec V8

Transmission: 4L60E

Transfer Case: BW4473 

The Build

Turning this van into a home

BEFORE YOU START there are some decisions that should be made. First, decide the kind of quality your are looking for, and decide your rough budget, these aren't necessarily mutually exclusive. Typically the other factor to throw in the mix is time. Time and quality are dependent on each other. The amount of time estimated for a particular project with your van should be tripled, unless you're either lucky or have done this before.   

Next, step is to plan. Plan and measure. Measure and plan, again. The goal here is to not to have to re-do parts of your work because you forgot a step. For instance, trying to put in electrical wires after you've got your wall panels installed can be difficult, or requires creative solutions to hide the wires.

This is a story of how we built our van, with ideas of how yours can be done. Be smart, we are not liable for your results. And always measure thrice, cut once.  

Write-ups on the individual improvements made to the van will be added to the menu at the right side of the page as they are completed. If you have any questions please feel free to leave a comment below or send an e-mail:



Our first step was to remove everything from the van that we wanted to replace. For the most part we wanted to leaving the driving compartment alone. We removed everything from there back. This included the seats, headliner, the side panels, and the carpet. Our van did not have a passenger air-conditioning or heating unit (this would have been in the back left of the van) so there was a lot of wasted space behind the factory side panels. We set everything aside, thinking parts would be useful in the future, they were, this was a good idea.

When removing the panels and plastic, be patient. Take your time, and Youtube is a great resource. Most pieces simply snap away, most of the snaps will break on a vehicle this old. When prying, it is helpful to have a plastic prying tool. I used a bicycle tire lever, it worked okay.  

Next we cleaned the van... with a hose and a bucket. We cleaned the inside just like you normally would the outside of your car.  I recommend using Dawn dish soap and warm water.  Do this on a warm sunny day, so as to let everything dry out in a timely manner. 

You may notice the seat belts in these photos. I didn't have the tool at the time to take these out. We ended up removing them all, and saving them. We later attached all the lap belts to our 2nd row bench to have an option to still have a 5-passenger vehicle. More on that later.

We decided to leave the black seat rails in the van and work around them. These are welded, bolted, and riveted to the floor of the van and to the frame. They are difficult to remove, and removal would prevent future installation of seats. We left the interior up front alone, because we found it to be suitable as is.

This is the point where the build begins, we could see the skeleton of our van, and started to make a viable plan as to where to install the different accessories, where to route wires, and different attachment points. It is important to make sure the hardware and drill bits you will use won't poke through to the outside of the van.  

Next, it's time to create a wiring diagram, and run some electrical...

Planning and Running Wires


The first thing we did was plan. Measured, and planned, planned and measured. We created a list of the appliances that we wanted to add to our van, then we created a plan to install them.  

I am not an electrician, do all your own research, and use the proper size wires, and connectors. Fuse everything! I have a rough understanding as to 12 volt wiring, and electrical systems. I am not an expert, if something is wrong, but safe... forgive me. If something is unsafe, please let me know. 

Here is a photo of a list that we made of the electrical stuff that we wanted in our van, as well as a very rough wiring diagram.  

I re-drew the rough wiring diagram a couple of times to clarify and simplify. Re-do as many times as needed, and look up the symbols for electrical items. This will help the people trying to help you. If a professional sees that you're at least making an attempt at their 'language' they will be more apt to give you pointers. 

I also made specific wiring diagrams for the different systems (ie. solar, roof top lights, interior lights, switches).  I put together a master wiring diagram, showing the physical location of the items, and where I hoped to install them.

I know what you're thinking, 'Wow, he's so smart, it's crazy neat that he figured all this out on his own!'

I didn't, here is where I got the foundation for what is in our van: How to make a cheap isolated dual-battery setup for $50

There's a bunch of REALLY good and basic info on the Expedition Portal forum, it's also a great read.  We made some changes such as a 120W solar panel, and a 3rd battery. 

Ok, let's spend some money!!!  We purchased almost everything off of Amazon, with a couple of exceptions. I recommend purchasing as many items as you can before wiring, it makes it easier to visualize how everything will be wired, and attach to the van. If you plan to buy switches to add to your dash board, buy them here, they'll even do custom work, and it's a quality product. Also buy yourself a multi-meter, and spend more than $6.00. Check your multi-meter's accuracy and return it if it's not accurate. Don't get four months into your trip relying on your multi-meter to give you good accurate readings just to find out it's wildly inaccurate, and nearly useless.

Now it's time to run some wires. The most important thing here is to be organized, label everything. For our van, removal of the driver's seat was necessary, as well as most of the panels in the front of the car. For the wire, we purchased a spool of red and black wire from amazon, and just labeled both ends after we ran the wire. Keep your wires away from sharp metal, or places where they might rub. In spots where we were concerned about wires rubbing, we protected it with this stuff. Do your best to keep wires protected and hidden so as to make the rest of your build easier. 

These are the only two photos we took during the wiring process. The whole process took about two solid days of running wires and checking our work. You'll notice how long the wires were left. When it came time to install the specific electrical appliance, we simply cut them to fit. 

For the rooftop LED lights that would go on the outside of the van, we didn't want to drill a hole through our nice waterproof, rust free, factory roof.  So we used the air vents at the back of the van above the left rear-facing light assembly. This is where the wires for all eight lights, as well as our solar panel, were run.  

This photo shows the connectors for the four directions of LED rooftop lights (front, rear, right, left) as well as the positive and negative for the solar panel. These wires run inside the van on the driver's side above the windows through the bodywork. This can be seen in the above photo, we also ran the interior lights in the same fashion.

For solar wiring it is important to use a larger wire, and MC4 connectors.  Do your homework, use a wire size chart and figure out what size wire will be needed for your system. Always go bigger if you can.  

We wanted a clean final product, but also easy access to things such as the auxiliary fuse box and the battery isolator relay.  We found a nice spot above the driver's shins for the fuse box, and mounted the relays and solar charge controller behind the driver's seat.  This ended up being a good choice because in the beginning of our trip we chose to remove the solar relay and have the solar panel always connected.  We also had our 70 amp fuse holder fail on us, and we had to remove it from operation. This is why you see duct tape in the photo. Don't be cheap (like me), and go with a good ANL fuse and holder.

Adding a switch and a relay for the solar panel is totally unnecessary, I chose to add them for one simple reason, spare parts.  The relay that was intended to turn on or off the solar panel can very easily replace the battery isolator relay should it fail.  The switch in the dash can also replace any switch in the system should one break or wear out.  

Once all the wires were run and labeled, it was time to insulate.  Final electrical finish work would wait until the interior was completed.  This allowed us to hide all of the wires and ensure that we could work around them for a good clean final product.


and lots of it

This is arguably the most important step in the whole process of building a comfortable home on wheels.  This will help to keep it quiet inside your van, as well as warm when it's cool, and cool when it's warm.  Spend time and do it right!  I did a ton of research, and I came up with two viable options.  Those who know me won't be surprised to find out that I took the less expensive of the two acceptable options.  Below are the two options I found to be practical, there are many other choices but I ruled them out for one reason or another. 

Option 1: Thinsulate

This is a product made by 3M.  Sometimes you'll find it used in boots and winter gear. It's a synthetic insulation material that checks all the boxes.  It's light, it's easy to work with, it doesn't absorb water, it deadens sound, mold doesn't like it too much, etc.  It's also expensive, and a bit difficult to source.  To do our van, and have enough to mess up once or twice, it would have cost about $700.  You can buy it in rolls, different expanded thicknesses, and you want to make sure you get the right thickness you need.  There's a guy in Oregon that sells the stuff, and it seems like it's worth it.

Option 2: Combination of Mass Loading Material, Reflectix, and foam insulation.

This approach has several steps and is quite a bit of work.  The end result can be great, it just takes a lot of time and patience.  This is the option we chose.  Total cost was under $200, and we are VERY happy with the results. 

The first step to do was to install a mass-loading material. This is basically heavy stuff that sticks to the big flat sides of your van and prevents it from resonating sound like a guitar.  Another name for "mass-loading material" is "sound deadening material".  Do this step, it's important.  Even if I had used Thinsulate, I would have done this too.  You only need to cover 25% of your car's body with this material.  Yes, you can cover the whole dang thing, and it works great, but there are diminishing returns after the 25% mark.  This stuff is also heavy, thus the more you use, the less beer you can carry and beer is important.  We used a self adhesive butyl rubber, foil backed option available from

Why butyl rubber?  You ask...

That's a great question!

Butyl rubber is a natural kind of rubber that doesn't off gas over time. Meaning, when you are sleeping in your van, it's not going to smell like a tire factory inside your van.

Remember, it doesn't have to be perfect, you just want 25% coverage.   Make sure the sides of your van are clean, and then just peel and stick.  It helps to do this on a nice warm day.  If you can't do this on a nice warm day, use a heat gun.  If you don't have a heat gun, buy one, trust me, you'll use it.  Heat guns are powerful, so know what you're doing before you melt the paint off your car.

The second step is Reflectix.  This stuff is basically silver bubblewrap.  There's a ton of different information on where this should be applied in your insulation layering, some people say it should be on the outside, against the metal/mass-loading material, others say it should be after your insulation before your wall panels.  I chose to do both because it was cheap enough. We ended up using roughly 100ft for our whole van.

We used 3M Super 77 spray adhesive to stick the reflectix to the sides of the van.   Many places carry the Super 77, we found Home Depot to be about the cheapest option.  If it's readily available, start with 5 cans, if not, order 10 or so, you'll use it for other parts of the build too.  Also purchase some foil tape.  Buy 2 big rolls from Amazon, or your favorite foil taper retailer.


Measure and cut the Reflectix doing your best to get it to fit in all the tight places, then follow the directions on the Super 77 to glue it in place.  Tape seams between pieces of Reflectix with foil tape.  Do this for the entire interior of the van.  It should look like a space ship when you're done.  The goal here is to create what is called a radiant barrier.  There's science at work here!

More coming soon!!!

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