The biggest update to our GMC Savana DIY van conversion journey yet!

In just over two weeks, our van really became liveable with a proper ceiling, cupboards, under bed storage, seating, solar panel system and more. JR managed to get an incredible amount done in such a short period of time.

But in classic van building style, the conversion wasn’t quite done. A few finishing pieces here and there were missing, although nothing truly essential. We have also learned from experience that it is best to have something of a trial to test what works and what doesn’t.

So after this stage, we travelled in the ‘almost finished’ van for two months, exploring Canada’s Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island provinces. I’ll talk more about the results of this trial next time! For now, here’s a look at the big changes.

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gmc savana diy conversion van brier island nova scotia

gmc savana diy van conversion finished stage one lookinside diy gmc savana van conversion stage one finish

Our DIY GMC Savana conversion van ceiling

The van’s ceiling is something we are especially proud of. Not only does it look great and have a personal connection to us (the spruce wood was grown on JR’s dad’s land) but it has practical functionality too.

It may be hard to tell on first glance, but the ceiling has two levels of wooden slats, with the narrower (and thinner) part simply resting on top of the wider slats.

This means that even if the wider slats expand or contract with cold/hot temperatures, we won’t end up with a ceiling full of gaps. Constructing this ceiling was difficult. It took hours and hours of sanding and varnishing plus half a day to put together (with a two-man team, thanks JR’s dad).

Underneath the slats is a layer of insulation foam panels, affixed with insulation foam, as seen in the last update.

gmc savana diy van conversion ceilingdiy gmc savana van conversion ceiling

GMC Savana under bed storage

One of the most important considerations when designing this van was the under bed storage. We have a lot of hobbies and having enough space for all of the required equipment for these hobbies is important. This was one of the major reasons we upgraded to a Savana from our old Astro van conversion.

We came to the conclusion that everything we use regularly (clothing, personal items) should be accessible from inside the van, and the remainder (mostly outdoor gear) from the back. The logic was right, but it proved a little tricky to implement.

The biggest issue was our two snowboards and bulky winter gear. The original plan was to build two drawers at the back for all of our outdoor equipment but there was no way that would work with the snowboards.

Instead, JR built one large drawer on a slider (rated to 100lb) and left the space alongside as a long, open storage place for awkwardly sized outdoor equipment.

view from back cupboard farming gmc savana diy van conversion

underbed back drawer gmc savana diy van conversion

Inside accessible storage drawers

Over on the other side of the bed is another large drawer (again with a 100lb rated slider) that contains clothing and personal items. The remaining under bed storage is only accessible via lifting the hinged bed panels.

This storage is only used for items we rarely use or need to access. One of these items is the solar system battery (more on this later). The handles on both of these large drawers are handmade by JR and match the cupboards. underbed drawer gmc van conversiondeep cycle marine battery van solar system

Cupboard space

Next up, the cupboards. The idea here was to have a full height cupboard with a cut out for a small ACDC fridge. One of JR’s priorities was a drawer to safely fit his banjo and ukelele. The result (a deep, drawer lined with fake fur) is probably one of the most unique van features I have personally seen!

The largest storage space is for clothes and personal items. At the time we left, there were no dividers within this space. Lower down, the bottom cupboard is dedicated to food, separated with three shelves. The large gap above the fridge is necessary for ventilation.

framing of cupboards gmc van conversiongmc savana diy van conversion cupboardsmusic drawer gmc davana diy conversion van

Our van kitchen

Another new storage area is our ‘kitchen.’ This cabinet has a sliding drawer containing almost all of our cooking equipment. Behind the drawer is a storage space for our two burner Jetboil Genesis (plus integrated pot system) and 5lb propane tank.

The work surface can be used from both inside and outside the van, great for those bad weather days. The section closest to the bed doubles up as a seat, with custom-made cushions (thanks Clare) that are easy to remove and store.

Opposite this is another seat, with storage underneath. A later project will be to add a removable table.

diy gmc savana conversion first stage finishdiy van conversion cupboard handlescooking in the van jr pei

DIY van solar system

One of the last projects was the solar system. This was something we both worked on. All the parts had been purchased long before (2 x 75W panels, controller, fuses and deep cycle marine battery) but it proved to be a bit of head scratcher to put together.

At least, in theory. We read so many overly complicated guides on how to do it, became overwhelmed and then finally bit the bullet. And, somehow, it was a lot easier than expected. Isn’t it nice when that happens?!

Unfortunately, we ran out of time to actually affix the panels anywhere on the outside of the van, so for the time being, they stayed stored in the back.

We planned to take them out whenever possible. Obviously, this wasn’t ideal. The most obvious location to affix them to would be the roof of the van, but we already have a canoe and two kayaks stored there.

view from back of van conversionvan solar panel system at rissers beach

Key lessons learned from this stage of the conversion:

  • Be prepared for everything to be at least a little wonky. It’s almost impossible to have everything aligned and perfectly measured in a van conversion like this. The van itself is a bit wonky
  • Try not to get overwhelmed by watts, volts and amps when setting up a solar system
  • The best features are usually the ones that take the most blood, sweat and tears. In our conversion, it is the ceiling. All of that sanding, vanishing and crouching felt neverending but the result is pretty fabulous
  • Work out what needs to be stored before planning a storage solution. A little obvious perhaps but entirely necessary
  • Family and friend helpers are awesome. Thank you!

To read previous GMC Savana DIY van conversion updates, check out: Update 1, Update 2, Update 3, Update 4, Update 5 and the final tour
sunset view of gmc savana conversion van in nova scotia

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All of the details about our amazing GMC Savana Van conversion, from bare work van to adventure campervan! offtracktravel.caFrom empty work van to amazing adventure campervan. Check out this step by step blog post series of our #vanlife journey for inspiration and advice for your own van conversion!
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One half of a Canadian/British couple currently based in British Columbia, Canada. Gemma is happiest when hiking on the trail or planning the next big travel adventure.


  1. Avatar

    Excellent build, love the design. R U able to cook inside if it’s nasty outside? We do get a lot of rain in BC, but this year they say, more snow and cold cold temps. Now I am going to go back and see your Astro again. I have a 96 Astro and want to semi camperize it and yours gave me some ideas of design.
    Thanks again for this post and you are doing a great job of the van. 🙂

    • Gemma
      Gemma Reply

      Thanks Sue! Yes, we do cook inside and just prop the doors open a little. It works great!

      • Avatar
        Paul stephens Reply

        Thanks a lot for in depth review of work done on your van This is great information as I am deciding the best way to customize my 04 Savana 1500 Hi- too. I began work last year instslling laminent plank flooring then needing to remove it all same with electrical system. Work stopped after ankle surgery in December and back to initial drawing board. Last year i had difficulty finding a competent personwith solid experience to help me on the project. Now hoping to find someone willing to help. My first question is how you dealt with road noise issues. The door molding on front doors is ripped in places needing replaced. But it seems a fair amount of noise may be coming from side doors too. What door molding do you advise assuring maximum closure around all doors. And any other things I can do eliminate road noise assuring a much quieter ride. I’ll look forward hearing from you.

        • Gemma
          Gemma Reply

          Hi Paul! Great to hear that you’re working on a Savana too. For the doors, we’ve used a panel of hardboard over the top of some foam insulation. We haven’t found there to be much issue with noise, but then again we are not too worried about it in general. We do have a curtain between the front cab and the back of the van, and this cuts some of the noise too.

  2. Avatar

    Awesome job 🙂

    wonder if there is certain requirements (regulations) for converting a vehicle into a campervan. and any way to reclassify the vehicle to campervan on the registration certificate. ?

    I’m thinking of buying a used van and convert to a campervan in BC. and then travel around the world, take the van to my country(Export/import). In that case, It’s not allowed to import a “van” to my country but a a campervan is ok. that’s why I’m wondering about the certificate.

    If you have any info about it. pls share 🙂

    Thanks a lot .

    • Gemma
      Gemma Reply

      Hi Dabi! Yes, there is a list of requirements to be able to register a vehicle as a RV (recreational vehicle) in British Columbia. JR called a few years ago and, from memory, he says that there was five major requirements – a permanent bed, toilet, propane attached on outside of vehicle, water tank and perhaps a permanent table. As I said, this is from memory so don’t take this as fact! 🙂 The details to contact ICBC can be found here

  3. Avatar

    Thank you for sharing your build. It is great! I’m inspired. I am just starting on my Savana. I have been wondering if it is possible to have located the wiring harness that goes down the length of the van into that pillar down the length of the van. I know it would require disconnecting everything and trying to stuff it into that little hole, I just wonder if you guys had contemplated that? Maybe not worth the effort.

    • Gemma
      Gemma Reply

      I’m so glad this has inspired you Carolyn! If you’re referring to the wiring that connects with the rear brake/reverse lights, we have threaded this through the top pillar. It wasn’t easy to do, JR had to use lots of electric tape to make sure all the wires were together.

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