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Van life build out: turn an Astro / Safari into a tiny cottage on wheels

Interested in van life? Read about the van build out of a 2003 GMC Safari, complete with kitchen, bed, work studio, and a system for water storage, electricity, refrigeration and shaded patio.

Thinking about building out an old Chevy Astro or GMC Safari? There seems to be plenty on the road still, and a few up for sale. A testament to their durability and appeal. These are great vehicles if you’re considering van life or road tripping. Part of the appeal of these vans are their size and ubiquity. Many models featured AWD. Parts are relatively cheap and widely available in the United States. They’re not quite a soccer mom van, nor do they feel like a 70’s creepy van. They were used commonly as fleet work vehicles as well as for family weekend trips. Part of the appeal to me is that they are common enough to stealth camp when you need to.

hest bed for van life
HEST makes the best van sleep systems

The particular one I ended up with, isn’t even the most sought after version. This 2003 GMC Safari is 2wd, not the AWD version that is most in demand. But, i’ll tell you what. I still take it to many off-road areas with rocky, washboarded and pot-holed dirt roads. I have standard road tires, and no lift kit for higher clearance. There has been a few roads I’ve turned around on, deciding to not take a chance. But, you’d be surprised at how many places you can get into with just this standard package. My understanding is that these vans were build on pick-up truck chassis, and perhaps that is one reason for their durability.

The kitchen area

When I bought this, it was the most affordable option for me. If I had more resources at the time, I would have chosen one of those newer tall Mercedes-Benz sprinter vans that are very popular these days. However, with a clever build, and a smart approach, I enjoy almost all the amenities of someone who spent enough to buy a house in denver or austin. I have also configured it to allow me to convert the space into a work area for silversmithing and jewelry making.

considerations for build outs
van build out for van life
Comfy memory foam mattress by HEST

Besides the plywood, 2×4’s and wood screws, what really makes this work out are a few accessories. These accessories allow surviving various conditions you may encounter. Skipping out on these specific ones, without a similar alternative, will make being on the road and van life more of a challenge. I feel that these are the most reliable brands available today. I have had no Issues with them, and recommend them.

accessories for having a good van life
van life storage idea
Stackable bus tubs make excellent storage containers

features of the build out

Removable and sliding leafs make a great table
van build astro van
The loft with bed removed and leafs set in place

When it came time to finally build out the van, I spent a little time to accommodate a few key accessories into the design; The “loft” height is a result of a balance between my tallest ‘under the loft’ storage items (cooler, generator and 5 gallon water container) and with the how the back dutch doors open in the back. You really want to try to have the mattress line up well, so you can lift the back hatch and peer out on a starry night. But, you also want to have the accessories out of the way until you need them. In my case, a height of 18 inches worked out for both.

the loft and bed

gmc safari van life
get an excellent view of the stars at night

As far as the loft surface goes, I built it to accommodate the HEST dually mattress. They are made with van life in mind. It is truly a pleasure to finally have a mattress that compares to one you would have in a standard house. It folds in half, and that is the line where I’ve built the central support wall under the loft. It’s modified to usefully contain my taller liquid cooking condiments as you can see in the pictures. There are 4 upright 2×4’s that bear most of the weight of the loft. Only the center has a plate that rests on the floor. This allows 2 easy access point where i can get to the storage area, on either side.

the ‘channel’

gmc safari astro van life
Leafs set upon the bed make more usable surface area

When not in use as a sleeping area, the bed conveniently folds up and stays on the drivers side of the van. The center support roughly lines up with the center of the van. On the passenger / sliding door side, there is a channel and “kitchen area” that covers the wheel well. I have made 3 removable leafs that fill the channel which allows me to then fold the bed out fully. When not in use as a bed, i set one or two leafs on top of the bed and keep one floating for use as a sliding table in the channel. The other two sit atop the hest bed and also become a convenient hard surface to set things on.

van build ideas
Central loft support provides a place for condiments and storage access to the sides

In the open channel, i can access my cooler, condiments, pots and pans and cooking equipment. With the back doors open i can access my water container as well as pull out all the gear needed to set up camp.

the kitchen area

van buid ideas for van life storage
Sawed in half milk crate for cast iron pans

The “kitchen” features a surface area I keep my butane cookstoves and a basket full of Aeropress coffee making supplies. Behind these, i have a removable folding splatter guard the protects the window from excess heat and splatters from the cooking process. Directly under the stoves there is a cutout access hole where i keep some pots, and a few other bulky kitchen tools. With drilled holes in my 2 cutting boards and hooks, I can hang them in a way to cover up the access hole when not in use. Because I also do silversmithing out of the van, my acetalyne tank is inside the kitchen cabinet near the back door with a bolted down tank holder.

van life kitchen storage
Cutout hidden behind cutting boards for pots and Tupperware

storage spaces

The cooler is kept by the slide out door at the front end of the channel. It is covered by an extension of the loft that makes yet another handy surface or table. It is located there so it can be either accessed easily from the kitchen area, or can easily be slid out for draining or ice loading. On the side of this, I have cut a milk crate in half with a jigsaw and bolted it to the side support. I keep cast iron pans and a few bulky kitchen items in it as well. i find it quite handy.

van life ideas build out
The cooler is kept under a table and near the slide out door

Finally, to maintain plenty of open space in the channel and van, i use a cargo rack that is attached to a trailor hitch receiver. Currently I keep 4 cargo boxes and a mountain bike on it.

van storage
This design allows storage for all my jewelry equipment, in addition to everything else.

The cargo boxes are for things that are less valuable, but great to have around, not taking up interior space. I keep a space heater, water shoes, an extra fuel tank, a large stock pot, a couple 5 gallon buckets, and sometimes some firewood in them. There is extra room for spare clothes and blankets, for when weather conditions change. And there is plenty of room for a few odds and ends. If i need to, all four cargo boxes fit inside, atop the folded up hest bed. My bike can go be rolled into the channel. If i need to leave the van somewhere on the street, and I can feel that everything is secure.

cargo rack and boxes
Cargo racks can free up a lot of space!

To read more on how some of the specific ways i use the accessories for van life, feel free to explore these links and articles below:

cargo rack and boxes
Set up with sand mat and moonshade canopy, i’m ready to do some lapidary work outside.

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