The $1500 DIY RV


Note: For information on how to build the $1500 DIY RV check out our companion post: How To Build the $1500 RV

While most of our campervan build posts involve building and living in a Sprinter van, not everyone has the $20-$50K+ to plunk down on their very own Sprinter. (We certainly didn’t!) But don’t let this prevent you from starting your dream of spending more time on the road now!

Our original Home on the Loose served us well for fourteen years before we moved in to our Sprinter. With it my wife (then girlfriend) and I were able to live for five straight months on the road. We have logged thousands of miles and hundreds of nights in our $1500 RV. This rig is great, not just for a young couple on the road, but also our growing family. All four of us have slept comfortably in our original Home on the Loose and it has made camping and climbing with young children so much easier. No worrying about pitching a tent, waking up the kids to pull them out into the cold night on late arrivals. We just park, tuck them gently into the already made bed in back, crack a beer and enjoy the beautiful night sky.

So, how did we do it?

It was the summer of 2003 and we were pretty sure we were in love. Brenda and I had met as camp counselors the summer before and had quickly built up a friendship that led to more romantic interests as the year progressed. Now a year into our relationship, we began discussing what we would do once the summer camp season ended. Both of us had a wanderlust and a desire to explore. We had about $6000 combined that we had squirreled away from working as admin at our summer camp. We obviously could not afford even the least expensive commercial RV. Plus, neither of us wanted to buy some huge, gas guzzling McMansion on wheels. We wanted to drive up forest roads, get high in the mountains and follow Ed Abbey deep into canyon country. We needed a rig that would be our third partner and that would enable us to chase after the dreams we were hatching together.

Enter Gandalf and Bertha.

We talked to our fellow counselors, our friends at camp who all seemed to be at a similar crossroads in life. (Note to those out there in early-life crisis or in transition who don’t know where to go. May we recommend camp? In our experience you will find a ready community of like-minded souls to help support your transition to the next phase in life, whatever that may be. Seriously, if you have the stamina for it, there is nothing better! You may even meet your soul mate. We did!) Our friend, Woody, mentioned he had a truck topper that he had partially built out during his time as a NOLS instructor out West. The topper was a plumber’s cap with full back doors and side access to shelves for gear. Woody had outfitted the topper with foam insulation, carpeted interior, a sleeping platform and shelves. Her name was Bertha. She was perfect.

Why is “the Grey” blue in the old films?

The only issue was that Bertha had been designed to fit a pickup truck. Brenda and I each owned a two-door and four-door (respectively) sedan. A trip to the local Toyota dealer and a trade-in of my old black car and we were the proud new owners of a blue, 1998 Toyota T-100. In a moment of Tolkien/Bakshi nerdiness, I dubbed our truck Gandalf. Brenda, because she is awesome, went with it.

That afternoon, we went over to Woody’s school, drilled some holes into our
brand new truck, and installed Bertha on Gandalf. We paid Woody $1000 and now owned our first Home On The Loose. We did very little to Bertha for our first trip. A thorough cleaning to get rid of the dust and mouse from being on sawhorses and under a tarp for a year, a piece of strapping on one unit to convert it to a bookshelf and we were on our way.

That fall we discovered life on the road. Gandalf and Bertha took us from Lake Champlain to Joshua Tree, Smith Rocks to West Virginia. We crisscrossed the US, stopping where we wanted, traveling by the Atlas’ red roads and finding the wide open spaces out West. I will never forget the first time I drove route 128, the river road, down into Moab. We had stumbled into this strange, vastly different landscape. We were hooked.

We traveled for years with Bertha and Gandalf with no house battery. We cooked via our propane stove. At night we read or hatched plans for the future under the glow of our headlamps. Back in 2003 we didn’t have smartphones or other personal electronics. We charged our old flip phones off a cigarette lighter charger as we drove from place to place. We navigated via Rand McNally and stopped in at local gear stores to glean local beta from the awesome locals we met there. (Still a good strategy!)

Twelve years later, after getting married (back at camp!) and the birth of our first daughter, Yvie, we realized we needed to overhaul Bertha to sleep three. With the passage of time we had also picked up a steady income, IPhones and a few wrinkles. But our wanderlust had not faded. Bertha 2.0 was born over a series of weekend preparing for our first long road trip as a family of three. We chopped a channel in the sleeping platform to be able to stand/stoop while changing and raised the platform so that we could finally put our cooler underneath in back (our first “garage”). We also finally researched a house battery solution and added a Renogy 100 watt solar panel kit to charge it.  (For a total cost of $500, bringing us to $1500 for those of you keeping count)

Bringing us to the present

With the birth of our second daughter, things have gotten tight in Bertha. Two car seats up front have eaten up the space that used to be reserved for our climbing packs and a cooler for food. The four of us have been like sardines packed in the sleeping platform originally designed for two. (I have taken to sleeping head to toe with Yvie adding to the close-packedness) We also now have the stability and means to invest in a new vehicle thanks to our jobs and our burgeoning summer rental income. We have been dreaming of a new Home on the Loose. It seems like time to grow out of our starter home and
into our next rig!

Don’t let anything get in your way of making your dream come true today. When we started out we had a few beater cars which were able to trade in for our truck. A little money saved up and we could buy our first Home On The Loose. You can too! Look around, be creative, and start creating the memories you’ve been thinking about. 

See you out there!



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