Van Upgrade Season Concludes and a Summer Trip Launches

Starry night Sprinter van Oregon

We’re on the road! After a stint at home in Oregon, we’ve headed out for the summer with a fresh set of tenants renting our house. Four weeks in Iceland awaits, followed by outdoor adventures in the Canadian Rockies through the fall.

Before I come at y’all in waterfall photos from the Arctic Circle, let’s wrap up van upgrade season. A couple dozen hours of effort resulted in a litany of improvements that I’m excited to use. Houdini’s ghost would envy my contortionist skills as I wriggled beneath cabinets and into the gear garage getting them done.

Update: to streamline things, I’ve added all these upgrades to the first upgrades post. These are the smaller upgrades, so I won’t go into as much detail. Still, I’ve found that the tiniest tweaks are often the most helpful, so here they are! If you have questions, I’m just an email away.

Fantastic Vent upgrade

When we first bought our van, we wanted the rain sensor and variable speed vent fan. Too bad I ordered the wrong one… The rain sensor isn’t such a big deal, but only having 3 speed settings – tempest, tornado, and hurricane – created some serious drafts even on the lowest setting.

Luckily, there’s an upgrade kit that replaces the old kit. Pop out a few screws on the original, disconnect some wires, swap wires around until the sparking stops, and *presto* you’ve got a new fan. This is a 30 minute project that I’m glad I did.

The one thing that threw me (not mentioned in the instructions) is that it’s necessary to sync the fan and remote control. Here’s the instructions on that.

Pffft, who wants to see a picture of a vent fan? Here's a waterfall in Oregon instead.

Pffft, who wants to see a picture of a vent fan? Here’s a waterfall in Oregon instead.

Isotherm fridge efficiency enhancer

This cool upgrade improves the efficiency of our Isotherm fridge, our van’s biggest power draw. (Thanks for the tip, Jon.) The claim is that it’s 30-50% more efficient; I’ll update this later when I have hard data. (Why, I’d like to know, doesn’t Isotherm just install this as a standard item in their fridges?)

At first glance, this project was slightly intimidating. Turns out it’s simply drilling one hole through your fridge and rewiring a few things. Two things the 44 page instruction manual didn’t mention: 1) If you have an original thermostat with a light, it’s easier to simply reuse the housing and install the new guts in that to keep the light. 2) The thermostat in our fridge was connected to a temperature sensor in the freezer compartment. I didn’t know what to do with this and wound up just snipping the tube. It gave off a hiss, but nobody died.

Watch this Youtube video that some kind soul created if you’d like step by step instructions. I didn’t bother watching/reading anything and it worked out ok!

All-Terrain Tires

4×4 Sprinters are badass. I’d argue that most people don’t need one, however. Who wants to rally their home over stuff better traversed by a Jeep Wrangler?

Our 2013 van is the 2WD option and we’ve driven 30,000 miles on the smooth stock tires. From gnarly access roads in Gooseberry Mesa in Utah to steep fire roads, we’ve covered a ton of ground and only gotten (briefly) stuck once.

Still, there are times when some extra traction would help. When our tires started looking frayed, I researched options. Wildcountry, Toyo, BF Goodrich, and others were all on the table.

In the end, I went for the ones that practically every Sprinter owner uses – the BFG 245/75/16 T/A KO2s. After all, no need to get creative when Sprinter Van Diaries and others can drive gnarly South American roads on their BFGs. I bought mine from 4WD.com and got $50 off on a set of 4, but any tire store has them, as does Amazon.

After rumbling about on fire roads around Oregon the last month, I can attest that these tires are 1) grippier 2) give a better, softer ride and 3) are slightly noisier. Mileage after two tanks of fuel has us between 19-20 mpg, within 5% of our previous mileage. Worth it for increased badassity and peace of mind.

New BFG KO2s.

Look at those gnarly beast monsters!

Warmer interior lights and gear garage light

Our interior LED lights from West Marine work great. I dig having them individually switched and they look clean. The downside is that their color temperature is cold – around 3,500-4,000 Kelvin.

A nice, warm light is around 2,700K, which is a much friendlier tone (and also what Chelsea wants). Since my aim is always to keep my awesome wife happy, I searched…and searched…and couldn’t find exactly what I wanted.

Enter LED filters used for photography! I found this $7 sheet of photo paper from B&H Photo, cut out a few circles to insert between the LED bulb and the clear light cover, and we are now bathed in a warm yellow-orange glow in our cozy space. Huge improvement!

LED light bar for gear garage

I also added this 12V LED lightbar on a switch to the rear storage garage. It was hard to find what I wanted with a switch, but this bar from superbrightleds.com is awesome.

The light bar doing its job. All four bikes loaded up the night before heading out!

The light bar doing its job. All four bikes loaded up last night before heading out!

Increased/improved storage for gear garage

Our gear garage holds our four bikes, but it also contains a ton of stuff for backpacking, climbing, and around camp (hammock, chairs, slackline). To make things super easy to access and maximize the storage space, I added a number of cabinets and structures.

-U-shaped platform over the right rear wheel well to support two camp chairs. It’s 8”x12.5”x36” and I screwed two L-brackets to the top to hold the chairs in place. Wasted space, used!
-For our camp stove, I opted to copy Sprinter Van Diaries. All I did was build a little alcove (accessed from inside) that took unused space from above the mountain bikes. We’ll continue to cook outside on the drop-down side table.
-Cabinet over the center sliding drawer behind the bike handle bars (see above shot).
-Another cabinet behind the center, slide-out storage array. This is easily accessed from inside the van and is where we’ll store our backpacking, bike touring, and climbing gear, plus another big area for miscellaneous items.

You don't fit into the storage garage of a Sprinter without staying limber. Here we are hanging with our buddies Nikki and Jakob from Sprinter Van Diaries.

Ah, cheesy pictures rock. Here we are hanging with our buddies Nikki and Jakob from Sprinter Van Diaries on their way through town.

Remote switch for inverter

Our inverter is tucked at the back of a cabinet. With some recent additions, accessing it was a bit tougher, so I bought this remote switch. Cut a 2” hole, plug in a telephone jack wire between the two, and you’re done. $20 well spent!

Odds and Ends

-Sliding carriage bolts to hold rear sliding drawers in place. Under acceleration uphill, they’d sometimes break free from the ball catches I used in the past. No more!
-Two 12V USB chargers by the bed for charging phones and other devices without running the inverter
-Magnets to hold countertop storage boxes in place

***

And with that, I declare our van ready for a big summer road trip.

If you’re in NW Montana or from Banff west to Whistler and want to hang out, drop me a line! Maybe we can meet up in August or September for some outdoor shenanigans. Onward into the summer!

An excellent alpine day in the sun last weekend on Gunsight near Mt. Hood. Here's to many more days outside this summer! (Here's my buddy Tony cranking through a rock garden.)

An excellent alpine day in the sun last weekend on Gunsight near Mt. Hood. Here’s to many more days outside this summer! (This is my buddy Tony cranking through a rock garden.)

Favorite Upgrades to Our Sprinter Camper Van Buildout

Making new friends and meeting a bunch of blog readers at Sprinterfest in June 2016.

Hanging with folks at Sprinterfest in June 2016. It was awesome to meet a bunch of blog readers in person!

As we’ve traveled in our Sprinter van the last few years, we’ve made a list of upgrades to make. This post details recent favorites that I’ve finally had the wherewithal to complete since we landed in Portland in late April.

I considered my initial van buildout effort in 2013 a prototype design. Our goal was to use the van for a few months to nail down specifics, be it water usage or storage for my chia pet collection. After many months on the road, we loved some things – I’d sell a kidney to keep the sliding bike drawers – and other things needed improvement.

Without further ado, here are recent upgrades/additions I’d highly recommend incorporating into your camper van buildout. Happy van building, y’all.

The Upgrades

Sink and water system

The sink cranking out running water!

The sink cranking out running water!

Favorite item first! We finally leapfrogged pre-Mesopotamian civilization and officially have running water. It only took us a few years to pull the trigger…

Why didn’t we do a sink right away? Our rationale was two-fold: 1) Before investing in a water system, we wanted to see how much water we used and 2) The idea of drinking from a plastic water tank made my cancer radar ping like crazy.

For 2.5 years, we simply used four 1-gallon glass jugs as our water source. It worked fairly well, but capacity was obviously limited and doing dishes wasn’t very fun.

In a burst of vanspiration, I recently bought all the components for a water system from the folks at Van Specialties. Then I took 17 trips to the hardware store and *presto* running water!

Water tank installed. The top line is a 3/8″ vent line through the floor; the top fill nozzle plug is a 1″ plumber test valve that expands when the wing nut is twisted. The bottom drain has a hose attachment when needed.

There are lots of full posts out there about how to install a water system, but here are the basics. If you don’t have a local camper van store, I’ve linked to the same items online.

  • Dometic folding-lid sink (American RV sells them cheap on Ebay – they keep changing the main link, but you can find it)
  • 25 gallon freshwater tank like this one mounted over the rear wheel well using metal plumbing strapping. Many people use jugs under the sink, but this takes up valuable storage space inside the main living area. I simply drilled three holes (fill, drain, and line to pump) and used 1/2″ fittings. Super easy!
    Note: I chose to fill the tank by opening the rear doors rather than cutting another hole in the van. It’s easy to fill with a 25′ expandable hose like this, and the fill hole is sealed with a 1.125″ “plumber test valve” that was nearly impossible to find. (I got mine at Winks Hardware in Portland, OR.)
  • 3 GPM Shurflo pump wired to 12V power with a $7.50 switch in between. I’m noise sensitive, but the pump is nice and quiet.
  • Gray water is currently routed to 2.5 gallon holding jug that we empty each night. After 2 months traveling with it, there’s no stink and it’s easy to empty anywhere. Do the polite thing and don’t drain your water onto the ground through a hole in the floor.
  • Drinking water from the original 1-gallon glass jugs (just say no to buying bottled water!)

I’ll end with this: put in a sink and running water. Just do it. Stop pretending you like doing dishes squatting over a bin and join the all the fancy people with their high-tech running water.

Cell Phone Signal Booster

The weBoost and internal/external antenna. It's about 8" square.

The weBoost and internal/external antenna. It’s about 6″x8″.

Some people are lucky enough to completely disconnect from the world while they travel. Our double-edged sword is that while we can travel long-term, I’m still working at least a little bit most days.

It sucks to watch a fading cell signal right when I need it most, and that’s where the weBoost comes into play. It’s not for everyone, but if you are working remotely and don’t want to be tethered to wifi at a coffee shop, this is what you need. I got the Drive 4G-X, but there are other models as well. They work for all cell phone networks and will also boost wifi hotsports if you use one of those. (I’ve switched to only using data from my cell phone for simplicity.)

This handy device allows us to camp in remote places where 1 bar of Edge trickles in from somewhere over a ridge. The weBoost will turn that into a few bars of 3G, enough to send emails without praying to the internet gods that your communiques are being delivered. (Ok, you caught me – I only need this so I can post fake yoga poses at sunset on Instagram.)

The install was incredibly easy and didn’t even require drilling any holes. Just a magnetic antenna on the roof and a quick wire splice to wire to 12V power. Cancer-fearing person that I am, I put our booster on a switch so that I only turn it on when I need to check in on work.

One caveat regarding its performance is that it doesn’t create cell signals out of thin air. If you’re in the bottom of some canyon where all signals are dead, you’re done.

Bike repair stand attached to van

Close up of the bike repair stand install.

Close up of the bike repair stand install.

How many times have I worked on my bike with it leaned against a rock, tree, or dog? Too many to count.

Well, NO MORE! I bought this Park Tool bike stand and installed it on the right rear door near the hinge. The door can still swing 270 degrees and also clear our awning when it’s out, but I don’t have to open all the rear doors to work on a bike.

To mount the stand, I drilled a couple holes and installed two 3/8″ rivet nuts. Whammo, I’m officially a mobile bike repair business!

Bike repair stand and side table showing their utility after a MTB ride.

If you travel in a van and ride bikes a lot, I insist that you immediately do this too. If not, men with straitjackets will descend upon you very, very soon. You’ve been warned.

For the record, I stole this brilliant idea (among others) fair and square from my friends Jon and Pamela. Their site has great tips for traveling in a van and they are currently on the road from Alaska to the east coast.

Storage shelf above the front seats

Headliner half shelf in final installed position.

Headliner half shelf in final installed position.

If you have the high roof Sprinter like us, you’re wasting a shit ton of space. RB Components, which fabricates many high-quality aftermarket Sprinter parts, has a solution. Sure, I could build my own with hours of effort, but the need to manufacture brackets, pull out the headliner, and deal with a weird shape sounded terrible. So I bought one.

The shelf is awesome! And others agree. Last weekend we went to Sprinterfest, a big gathering of dozens of Sprinter owners near Portland, and the shelf was the biggest hit in our van. Do yourself a favor and buy one. We’re planning to store camera equipment, physical therapy gear (foam rollers, etc), and at least three watermelons up there.

There are two options: a full shelf that mounts at visor level and a “half shelf” that mounts six inches higher. I opted to keep some head room and go with the half shelf. (If you’re wondering why you haven’t seen this before, it’s because the half-shelf wasn’t on RB’s website until just recently per my request.)

If there’s a downside, it’s that the shelf is exactly forehead height if you’re 5’10”. Chelsea forced me to install pipe insulation on the edge to avoid knocking myself out. My forehead thanks her already.

Drop-down table from side cabinet

Table dropped down. The cut-out is for the stove.

Table dropped down. The cut-out is for stove access.

In an attempt to not stink up the van like a rolling chuckwagon, we mostly cook outside using our portable camp stove. Sometimes this is on picnic tables, but often we are in the middle of nowhere without a table.

Our initial cook table was a pull-out shelf with the camp stove on it. This worked well but was a bit small to hold anything except the stove. With upgrades in full swing, I decided to build a drop-down side table, as inspired by my buddy Michael.

The table is 24” x 28” and is supported by a piano hinge attached to the cabinet. A magnet holds the table vertically and two small chains support the outside edge when in use. Some aluminum trim and it looks pro! Or at least useable.

Table in vertical position with magnet holding it in place.

Table in vertical position with magnet holding it in place.

Detail of the table in horizontal position.

Detail of the table in horizontal position.

A less powerful blender

Last, but not least, we just replaced our travel blender. The trusty Vitamix is going to stay at home and we’re now rolling with a Ninja blender. Why?

Our Vitamix pulls 1,650W. With our 12V/210 A/H battery system, anything <80% charge while trying to use the blender would make the 2000W inverter error out. I decided a lower wattage appliance made more sense. At 1000W, the Ninja is perfect and is already facilitating iced smoothies after long rides in the summer heat.

Fantastic Vent upgrade

When we first bought our van, we wanted the rain sensor and variable speed vent fan. Too bad I ordered the wrong one… The rain sensor isn’t such a big deal, but only having 3 speed settings – tempest, tornado, and hurricane – created some serious drafts even on the lowest setting.

Luckily, there’s an upgrade kit that replaces the old kit. Pop out a few screws on the original, disconnect some wires, swap wires around until the sparking stops, and *presto* you’ve got a new fan. This is a 30 minute project that I’m glad I did.

The one thing that threw me (not mentioned in the instructions) is that it’s necessary to sync the fan and remote control. Here’s the instructions on that.

Pffft, who wants to see a picture of a vent fan? Here's a waterfall in Oregon instead.

Pffft, who wants to see a picture of a vent fan? Here’s a waterfall in Oregon instead.

Isotherm fridge efficiency enhancer

This cool upgrade improves the efficiency of our Isotherm fridge, our van’s biggest power draw. The claim is that it’s 30-50% more efficient; I’ll update this later when I have hard data. (Why, I’d like to know, doesn’t Isotherm just install this as a standard item in their fridges?)

At first glance, this project was slightly intimidating. Turns out it’s simply drilling one hole through your fridge and rewiring a few things. Two things the 44 page instruction manual didn’t mention: 1) If you have an original thermostat with a light, it’s easier to simply reuse the housing and install the new guts in that to keep the light. 2) The thermostat in our fridge was connected to a temperature sensor in the freezer compartment. I didn’t know what to do with this and wound up just snipping the tube. It gave off a hiss, but nobody died.

Watch this Youtube video that some kind soul created if you’d like step by step instructions. I didn’t bother watching/reading anything and it worked out ok!

All-Terrain Tires

4×4 Sprinters are badass. I’d argue that most people don’t need one, however. Who wants to rally their home over stuff better traversed by a Jeep Wrangler?

Our 2013 van is the 2WD option and we’ve driven 30,000 miles on the smooth stock tires. From gnarly access roads in Gooseberry Mesa in Utah to steep fire roads, we’ve covered a ton of ground with no issues.

Still, there are times when some extra traction would help. When our tires started looking frayed, I researched options. Wildcountry, Toyo, BF Goodrich, and others were all on the table.

In the end, I went for the ones that practically every Sprinter owner uses – the BFG 245/75/16 T/A KO2s. After all, no need to get creative when Sprinter Van Diaries and others can drive gnarly South American roads on their BFGs. I bought mine from 4WD.com and got $50 off on a set of 4, but any tire store has them, as does Amazon.

After rumbling about for a couple months on them, I can attest that these tires are 1) grippier 2) give a better, softer ride and 3) are slightly noisier. Mileage after two tanks of fuel has us between 19-20 mpg, within 5% of our previous mileage. Worth it for increased badassity and peace of mind.

Note: I also used black Plasti-Dip to “murder out” (see how hip to the jive I am with lingo?) the rims and front/rear Mercedes logo. This was purely aesthetic and I LOVE IT. Don’t listen to the internet claims that it takes 5+ cans to do this . You’ll need two and you’ll have enough to spray the neighbor’s mailbox and kid to boot.

Admit it – the rig looks way more badass like this! (Camped in the Bob Marshall in NW Montana.)

Warmer interior lights and gear garage light

Our interior LED lights from West Marine work great. I dig having them individually switched and they look clean. The downside is that their color temperature is cold – around 3,500-4,000 Kelvin.

A nice, warm light is around 2,700K, which is a much friendlier tone (and also what Chelsea wants). Since my aim is always to keep my awesome wife happy, I searched…and searched…and couldn’t find exactly what I wanted.

Enter LED filters used for photography! I found this $7 sheet of photo paper from B&H Photo, cut out a few circles to insert between the LED bulb and the clear light cover, and we are now bathed in a warm yellow-orange glow in our cozy space. Huge improvement!

LED light bar for gear garage

I also added this 12V LED lightbar on a switch to the rear storage garage. It was hard to find what I wanted with a switch, but this bar from superbrightleds.com is awesome.

The light bar doing its job. All four bikes loaded up the night before heading out!

The light bar doing its job. All four bikes loaded up last night before heading out!

Increased/improved storage for gear garage

Our gear garage holds our four bikes, but it also contains a ton of stuff for backpacking, climbing, and around camp (hammock, chairs, slackline). To make things super easy to access and maximize the storage space, I added a number of cabinets and structures.

-U-shaped platform over the right rear wheel well to support two camp chairs. It’s 8”x12.5”x36” and I screwed two L-brackets to the top to hold the chairs in place. Wasted space, used!
-For our camp stove, I opted to copy Sprinter Van Diaries. All I did was build a little alcove (accessed from inside) that took unused space from above the mountain bikes. We’ll continue to cook outside on the drop-down side table.
-Cabinet over the center sliding drawer behind the bike handle bars (see above shot).
-Another cabinet behind the center, slide-out storage array. This is easily accessed from inside the van and is where we’ll store our backpacking, bike touring, and climbing gear, plus another big area for miscellaneous items.

You don't fit into the storage garage of a Sprinter without staying limber. Here we are hanging with our buddies Nikki and Jakob from Sprinter Van Diaries.

Ah, cheesy pictures rock. Here we are hanging with our buddies Nikki and Jakob from Sprinter Van Diaries on their way through town.

Remote switch for inverter

Our inverter is tucked at the back of a cabinet. With some recent additions, accessing it was a bit tougher, so I bought this remote switch. Cut a 2” hole, plug in a telephone jack wire between the two, and you’re done. $20 well spent!

Odds and Ends

  • Sliding carriage bolts to hold rear sliding drawers in place. Under acceleration uphill, they’d sometimes break free from the ball catches I used in the past. No more!
  • Two 12V USB chargers by the bed for charging phones and other devices without running the inverter
  • Magnets to hold countertop storage boxes in place

***

That’s a wrap! I’ll update this post with other mods as I do them, but I have no plans for any more at this time. Just lots of traveling in the van and mountain biking my legs off!

What favorite van upgrades would you add to this list?

Don't worry, I don't spend ALL my time working on the van. Here's a shot of my buddy Nate during a mountain biking trip we took to Central Oregon. 100 miles of riding in 3 days made for some tired legs!

Don’t worry, I don’t spend ALL my time working on the van. Here’s a shot of my buddy Nate enjoying a view of the Cascades during a mountain biking trip we took to Central Oregon. 100 miles of riding and some downed tree clearing in 3 days made for some tired legs!

How to Build a Badass DIY Camper Van

Big Sur Sprinter Van

If you have enough money, it’s easy to buy an incredible adventure rig. Building a camper van, on the other hand, is trickier but a helluva lot more affordable.

You can either go the cheap, bare-bones route or opt for the nicest amenities around, but I prefer an approach that strikes a balance between the two.

I spent less than $15,000 (plus the vehicle) retrofitting my Sprinter cargo van, including items like a stainless-steel fridge and a full electrical system with solar. Some people fully devote six months to a build-out, but mine took about four months of part-time effort. (I’d rather mountain bike than build stuff.)

Whether you’re retrofitting a used Ford Econoline or a new Mercedes Sprinter 4×4, here’s a framework to guide your decisions…

Read the full article at Outside Magazine.

Door Stop for Passenger Slider on Sprinter Camper Van

The door stop in action in the Steens Mountains.

The door stop in action in the Steens Mountains.

Looking back, I can’t believe we used our van for a year without a door stop for the sliding passenger door. It’s one of my favorite tweaks for the van! Most of the Sprinters or other camper vans don’t have this as a stock feature unless you ordered it new. Ours didn’t, and we decided it was worth looking into, especially with one of our cabinets blocking half the door space.

If you don’t have a door stop installed at the factory, it’s a couple hundred bucks +$120/hr for a shop to do it OR a giant pain to retrofit. I opted for the fun of a DIY version.

Design and how it works

My rad brother-in-law Jesse and I designed a two-sided ramp with a divot for the passenger slider wheel in it using a CNC machine. I used old engineering skills from bygone days to sketch out a design and then we used CAD to model the door stop in Solidworks, a 3D design program.

This ramp rests right in the main track that the passenger door wheel slides over and works great! The divot is sized to fit the wheel of the passenger door. The door stop is just 3″ long, 1/4″ wide and 1/10″ tall, and attaches with JB Weld. When installed, it provides a perfect way to hold the door in place, even when you’re parked at an angle.

Plus, you get to choose where you want to install it – anywhere on the sliding surface of the passenger slider track, so it should work with a RAM Promaster, Ford Transit, or any van with a metal sliding surface that the door rolls on.

Being able to hold the door only 1/3 open keeps things more private, makes it so the door doesn’t slide all the way shut or open, and keeps wind gusts out while letting a breeze in. A small, easy fix that we love.

The door stop installed on the van rail slide.

The door stop installed on the van rail slide. (Photo from LivingtheVantasy.com.)

How to buy one

Dozens of people have contacted me via email to buy one, but it’s not something I’m interested in. Not to worry: Jesse put up a simple order page here, plus wrote an installation manual. He ships the stops with JB Weld, so it shouldn’t take more than 5-10 minutes to install one. People on the Sprinter forum dig it, and we’ve even had unsolicited feedback from people like Jason at LivingtheVantasy.com, who recently wrote an entire post about it (excerpt below):

As soon as I finished reading Dakota’s post, I ordered one on the spot and I cannot believe I owned my Sprinter for so many years without it.  Not only was the product excellent, the service that Jesse provided was wonderful and the installation manual/kit he provides is extremely easy to follow. That was about a year and a half ago and I have consciously appreciated the brilliance of this simple doorstop every day.

Hope you enjoy this quick and easy DIY solution! Just a little karma back into the Sprinter world that helped me out so much when I was designing and building our van.

Some shots of the design and manufacturing process

Designing the door stop in Solidworks.

Designing the door stop in Solidworks.

Setting up the part in the CNC machine.

Setting up the part in the CNC machine.

Finished door stop in the CNC jig.

Finished door stop in the CNC jig.

How to Install Solar Panels on a Camper Van

200W of solar power and the vent fan.

Panels in their final location on top of our Sprinter.

Solar power for our Sprinter camper van was a top priority from day one. After a few years of free energy charging our batteries and running our fridge and laptops, I can hands-down say it was one of our best additions to the van. I highly recommend it.

There is something magical about solar power. Put a few photovoltaic panels on your roof, run some wires to your inverter and battery and POOF, electricity to run your electric shaver. And that solar power frees us up to set out across the land in a van with nothing except the fuel in our gas tank, untethered to explore with the comforts of home.

My senior project in college was designing a solar panel and battery system for an off-the-grid house. Luckily, I forgot most of that knowledge and got to experience the learning process over again! To save you some time, here is how I went about it.

Where Should I Buy My Solar Panel Kit, And How Big a System Do I Need?

Probably the most important thing to consider when setting up your solar, battery and inverter system is how big the power draw on your system will be. Are you installing a fridge? Microwave? Electric heater? It is easy to determine how to size things by looking at:

  1. Renogy has great solar panel kits at amazing prices. Here’s their full lineup and here’s the 200W starter kit.
  2. The maximum voltage draw from your van’s juice-sucking components. Unless you’re planning to stick with 12V power, you’ll need an inverter big enough to handle your biggest total voltage pull. Our max is ~1500W, so we got a 2000W inverter that has worked great. If you have the space, I say go big or go home. “Oh, I’ll never use more than 350 watts. We are minimalists,” you say? Mmmm hmmm. Famous last words.
  3. The estimated amperage draw on your system and how long you’ll be running each appliance. This will help you figure out battery system sizing. Sprinter-RV.com has a great ebook on Sprinter conversions that includes an in-depth discussion on solar setups. It’s worth picking up a copy like we did!

(Note: I’m not going to talk about wire gauge size or things like that in this post since it is so system specific.)

Sizing our system was easy. We don’t have many big loads that we run frequently except two big short-use items (Vitamix and hot water boiler at 1,500 Watts each).

LED lights, laptops, fridge, Fantastic Fan roof vent, the Espar heater fan, heating pad for bed (used briefly at night on cold nights instead of Espar), and our stereo system are the big power draws. That totals about 8-15 amps, which means we don’t drain the batteries all that fast. (With a 200 Amp-Hour system, we can theoretically run everything for 13 hours, minus the hot water boiler and Vitamix.)

 

Left to right: Solar tracking system, stereo amp, and the inverter/battery wiring.

Lots of wiring! Left to right: Blue Sky MPPT (final installation was inside wall after interior paneling went up), stereo amp (also recessed into wall), and the 2000W inverter/battery wiring.

I sized our system so that the solar panel system would put about 10-12 amps/hour into the system during the day in full sun at maximum power point, and then we have the electrical system rigged up to charge with excess current from the van alternator while we’re driving. This works great and we’re usually topped out with electricity unless we are not driving for awhile AND there isn’t any sunlight.

Note: we also have shore power in the form of a 15 amp cord to plug in… that we’ve used twice. I’d skip this if I did it again.

Should I Buy Individual Pieces or an Entire Solar Panel Kit?

Costs have dropped dramatically on solar components. We paid $1500 for our 200W kit in 2013; now you can get the same system from Renogy for $420! It’s amazing how cheap solar is these days.

Many shops also do solar installs, but the cost is painful. I say give it a shot yourself with one of the kits and save $1000+.

Below is the list of major components. All can be found on Amazon (links provided) or on Renogy’s Components page.

  1. Example of Panels: Grape Solar 100 W panels (two of them, easy to add more if needed)

  2. Charge Controller: Blue Sky Solar Boost 2512IX-HV

  3. Meter: IPN Pro Remote (this is the monitoring/control system for the solar setup)

  4. Batteries: Two Full River 6 volt batteries in series with 224 amp-hours capacity (installed beneath the van). Lithium ion batteries are freaking sweet, so check those out too, though they’re still spendy.

All our stuff showed up at our door in a big box and I got right down to being overwhelmed. When you do it, breathe deeply – it isn’t that bad and I bet you’ll find it to be a satisfying project by the time you’re done.

It took me about 10 hours total to do the install. After a solid weekend of effort, you’ll be sitting pretty.

Here's the kit you get from AM Solar.

Wires, wires, everywhere.

Nine Steps to Glory! (Or Wait, Where the Heck Does All This Stuff Go?)

Here are the basic steps I followed for our install. I’m sure everyone will do it slightly differently, but this worked well for me and there aren’t many things I would do differently.

  1. Assemble your tools! I recommend a rachet/wrench set, heat gun, hole saw (~1.25”), cordless drill and bits, caulk gun and caulk, utility knife, wire cutters and crimpers, and some way to get on top of your van (ladder, tall friend, or sky hooks).

  1. Get the panels ready for installation on the van. Attach all the mounting brackets and feet and pre-wire crimps and other attachment so you don’t have to do it on the roof of your vehicle.

  1. Put the panels on top of the van. I recommend having someone help you, or you can do it off the top of a tippy ladder by yourself and provide entertainment for the neighborhood as you wobble about trying not to kill yourself.

  1. Move the panels 67 times to figure out the best place to put them. Think HARD about where you’ll route wires inside the van. Make sure you consider proximity to your roof rails if you are planning to install an awning, or location relative to a Rocket Box if you are getting one of those. I suspect mounting a panel at the very front is totally fine, but I didn’t want the force from the wind off the windshield so I mounted them behind our roof vent instead, and could have put two more panels back there.

  1. Drill the Boss-Size hole to route the panel wiring inside. I used a tap hole followed by a 1.25” metal hole saw. Nothing like tapping an inch-plus hole in the top of your new van to make measure twice, cut once sink in. Make sure you paint the edge of the hole with some kind of sealant to prevent rust.

Hole saw ready to roll. I used an 1/8" tap hole first so it wouldn't wander and scratch the top of the van.

Hole saw ready to roll. I used an 1/8″ tap hole first so it wouldn’t wander and scratch the top of the van.

  1. If you have multiple panels like we did, you’ll need to somehow combine the wires from each panel before routing them through the giant hole you just drilled in your roof. I used a combiner box that came with the kit and mounted it under one of the panels. It is screwed down and sealed with lots of caulk. No leaking so far!

Bringing together wires from each panel into the combiner box. The wires then all route to the interior via the orange/black pair at the top.

Bringing together wires from each panel into the combiner box. The wires then all route to the interior via the orange/black pair at the top.

Combiner box mounted. Notice the sealant around the perimeter of the unit to seal it to the top of the van.

Combiner box mounted. Notice the sealant around the perimeter of the unit to seal it to the top of the van.

  1. Once your combiner box is installed, you can mount the panels on the roof. (Or do this step last.) After a lot of research, I used 3M VHB 4950 adhesive tape. Some people screw their panels to the roof, which certainly would work, but that’s just 16 more holes to rust or leak. Make sure to put a layer of self-leveling sealant over the top of the solar panel feet/adhesive pads to prevent dirt and water from compromising the attachment and haven’t had any issues.
    Updated June, 2017: A recent event made me VERY happy I used the VHB tape. A string from a deck snagged a solar panel and ripped it off the roof! Luckily, the pads peeled off, the panel wound up dangling in mid-air with merely a couple bent brackets, and it was an easy fix. If it had been screws into the roof…*gulp* Our VHB tape has lasted 35,000 miles through all kinds of weather and is holding strong, though the sealant over the feet does need a refresher.

No drilling or screws required! Make sure to put self-leveling sealant over the entire foot afterward.

3M VHB 4950 tape. No drilling or screws required! Make sure to put self-leveling sealant over the entire foot afterward.

  1. To the inside we go! Here is where you just follow all the wiring diagrams. (See how easy that was?) Buy a kit that has all the connectors and shrink tubing clearly labeled so you don’t have to go back to your favorite hardware store (where they probably already know you by name) five more times in a weekend to get this project done. Before cutting any wire, carefully fitting and laying out the location of the charge controller, on/off switch, IPN remote and shunt relative to your inverter (if you have one) and other stuff is important or you’ll be cramming stuff into a wall cavity or struggle to find places to attach all the components. I mounted the charge controller inside the wall with flush-mounted face plates after I finalized the interior.

  1. Turn on the beast! Hopefully there is exactly zero popping, crackling and fizzing. Crack a cold one and sit back and enjoy the fruits of your labor.

Solar works first try, exceeding my expectations!

Power flowing. Works first try, exceeding my expectations!

All in all, this install was surprisingly straight forward and easy. Save yourself $1,000-1,500 and do it yourself! It took me an afternoon and part of another day, plus research about the system. One weekend and you’re dialed in with power on your van!


A Few FAQs

Q: Is 200W enough?

A: Yep! The only time we’ve run lower on power is when we have practically zero sun for awhile and haven’t driven recently. You could certainly put more on there if you want. When we’re in direct sunlight, which isn’t all that hard to find where we like to go, our system is at 100% almost all the time even with the fridge running, stereo on and laptops and other stuff charging.

Q: Is your Vitamix/hot water boiler (1500W each) always able to run?

A: NO. When the voltage in the batteries gets below about 12.2V, which happens around 70% battery life, the inverter will fault. Gotta keep the system pretty topped out to run that kind of wattage and amperage pull. Note: We have started the van up and run it for a few minutes while boiling water to get around this. Works great, and only has been necessary a couple times before you think we’re earth haters. Consider getting a Ninja blender (less wattage) and/or a lower wattage hot water boiler.

Q: Aren’t you worried about your panels blowing off while you drive?

A: Initially, I was worried about this. I haven’t had a single issue with it. Make sure to use the sealant to cover the solar panel feet and I suspect you’ll be fine. We’ve been fine for 35,000 miles!

Q: Do I need to wash my panels?

A: Yes! After a few months driving around, I got on top of the van and the panels were practically coated in dirt. I’d say a solid wipe down every month or two would be a good idea.

 

Installing an Espar Heater in a Sprinter Camper Van

Installing an Espar D2 heater in our Sprinter camper van was something we almost skipped. With 20/20 hindsight and many sub-freezing nights logged on this road trip, it is officially one of our favorite things in the van, with the fridge (perhaps) beating it out by a sliver. Except that I’m writing this post during a rare rainstorm in Joshua Tree and our heater is cranking away keeping my fingers warm while I look out at the desert, so the fridge is losing points fast! (For more background on our full build-out, check out the adventure mobile post.)

All in all, our Espar has been absolutely fabulous. We’ve run it about 50 150 hours so far without any issues whatsoever. One thing I’ve heard from blog readers is that the high altitude kit can be handy or else the unit will soot up and need to be serviced. That said, we’ve spent days and days above 6,000′ elevation and our Espar hasn’t required a cleaning yet. When it does, this is a handy resource for trouble shooting the unit, cleaning it out and hopefully fixing the problem.

Since I spent a fair number of hours dealing with the install and couldn’t find much except scattered and often incomplete forum posts on the InterWebs, I wrote up the following install process for how I put in our Espar D2 heater. (Installation of the Espar D4 heater is exactly the same, so far as I can tell.) I highly recommend doing it in a heated shop, or in the summer while drinking a cold beverage, rather than the November weather in Idaho that I experienced. Sleet, snow and rain are sub-optimal install partners…

Perfect Espar heater installation weather.

Perfect Espar heater installation weather.

Where to Buy It

I shopped around online and bought our heater from EsparParts.com. I also considered Snugger, a cheaper clone of the Espar, but there weren’t many reviews. (There are occasional deals on Ebay too, from what other readers have told me.) Either way, you’ll save a bundle versus buying from a dealership.  If you’re doing the install yourself, definitely buy online!

Deciding to do the install myself was a simple process after getting quotes of $1,000-$2,000 from the brain surgeons apparently needed to do the work. RIPOFF ALERT. The install may sound intimidating, but you can do it! And if you screw it up, hey, vans are cheap – buy another one. Your loving partner will understand, right? If not, you can sleep in your freezing-cold van…

Frankly, you can do this install. Dozens of blog readers have used my writeup to successful install a (working) Espar heater in their van. Grab fortune by the britches and get after it! (Yep, I just used britches in a sentence.)

Why I Bought an Espar D2 Heater versus D4

I went with an Espar heater because 1) it can run on diesel, which means I could tap into the main fuel tank for our van and avoid installing propane or other fuel sources and 2) everyone else did it and Sprinter Jedi Mind Control works on me.

I bought an Espar D2 heater, which is smaller than the D4, after reading that you want the heaters to run on “boost” (high power) in order to avoid fouling the combustion mechanism inside the unit.

Our van is insulated with anywhere from R-11 to R-14 on the walls and ceiling (none in the floor) and so far the heater has kept us warm down to about 22 degrees in the cold and damp redwood forests of the Northern California coast as well as the dry and freezing desert nights in SoCal.

Fuel economy on these things is amazing. Even at full boost mode, it burns just one gallon of gas in 20 hours (!), and it doesn’t run that high most of the time. (It’s apparently 50 hours per gallon at the lowest heat level.) For the heat output, it is quite an efficient unit and seems well worth the price.

In case you are considering not getting a heater: If your van is insulated and lacks an internal heat source, it will turn into an ice box. Some people may think body heat will warm up your van. From personal experience and testing this on numerous shorter trips prior to this one, I can say this… They. Are. Wrong. Put in a heater or your less cold-resistant partner is going to stay home while you road trip alone.

Install Tips

Set aside a weekend for the job. I did it in a day, but that doesn’t include the initial trip to auto parts store to get supplies.

Recruit people to help. An unsuspecting friend, or incredibly helpful father-in-law (thanks again Steve!), will make life 12x easier.

Getting the Sprinter up on blocks or a hoist to get more space under the van will make your life 1.2 million times easier. It can be done without it – I survived – but take my word for it. Your elbows and back will thank you. Especially if it’s sleeting and the ice water pools under the van on the tarp…just sayin’.

Sub-optimal working conditions... At least my father-in-law is under the van while I'm cramped in the bike garage.

Sub-optimal working conditions… At least my father-in-law is under the van while I’m cramped in the bike garage.

Something to watch out for: while the wires for the thermostat and heater power are 12’ long, the pump wire is only 7’ long…which can (did) create some issues depending where you place your heater. Why they don’t make the wires the same length, I have no idea.

-Strong recommendation: install a combination smoke/CO detector in your van. They’re small, cheap and can save your life.

If you have an ‘08 or newer Sprinter (the NCV3 or newer), you do NOT need the ~2′ fuel pickup pipe that comes with the unit. The helpful folks at Mercedes put a fuel tap on the front left side of the fuel tank that makes it quite easy to install the tubing without dropping the fuel tank and drilling a hole in the top. YES.

-Buy the $36 muffler from BunkHeaters.com. Our heater sounded like a rocket headed to Mars before I installed the muffler two months into our trip. Your neighbors in camp will appreciate it, trust me. It’s a super easy install.

Consider installing the high altitude kit if you are going to be camping at elevation (such as the Rockies). This avoids fouling the Espar (the elevation messes up the fuel/air mixture). I didn’t do it, but it is worth considering. (Update Jan 2017: For what it’s worth, we’ve spent many nights above 6,000′ with the heater running and have not had issues in three years.)

I read about some guy cutting off the “extra” wiring harness on the unit after he installed the thermostat and fuel pump wiring. That’s the diagnostic port! Leave it there.

The fuel pump wiring will not go through the same routing hole as the intake/combustion beneath the unit. You have to run it through the floor of the van somewhere else.

Connections You’ll Need to Hook Up

  1. Intake air for combustion from outside the vehicle – black flexible hose provided with the unit.

  2. Exhaust air from combustion to the outside of the vehicle – silver, heat-resistant ribbed metal hose provided with the unit.

  3. Fuel line from the main diesel tank under the van, routed through the fuel pump that comes with the heater (more below on that specific item).

  4. Thermostat control wiring – this stays internal to the van. Just follow the color-coded instructions on the wiring, it’s straight-forward.

  5. Power wiring – I ran this directly into a fuse in our 12v panel.

  6. Intake/Heating air ducts – I installed our heater so that the heating air snout for the heating unit pokes into the main living space, with the intake end of the unit in the bike garage. This has worked well and air circulates through the van without running a large amount of duct work, which I wanted to avoid. The air temp of the hot air isn’t too high, but I’d recommend at least 6-12″ of open space so you don’t roast your floor or other surface in the van. Installing under the front passenger seat seems like a popular option, but that’s where our subwoofer goes (priorities, right?) so I can’t speak to that personally.

Here is how I went about installing the heater in our 2013 Sprinter (same as 2008-2013). Please note this is the same process as 2007 and earlier models except that you’ll need to drop the fuel tank and install the fuel pickup that the Espar D2 or D4 heaters come with. Check out www.sprinter-source.com for information on that.

Install process

  1. Figure out where your heater is going to go and measure all wires, duct work, and fuel lines to make sure you have enough material. Then add 10-20% slop so you avoid stretching wires tight or running out of fuel line halfway. I ended up having to relocate the fuel pump and the shorter wire presented a headache.

  2. To attach the stock Mercedes Sprinter fuel tank to the Espar fuel line, read all the directions in the installation manual and then perhaps follow what I did:

    1. Buy a short (<12”) piece of 5/16” black flexible fuel line, two clamps to fit it and a metal male-male connector that is ¼”.

    2. The 5/16” fuel line slips over the fuel tap from the Mercedes tank. Then you insert the ¼” connector into that, which then inserts into the ~3/16” (5mm) fuel line that comes with the Espar D2. Make sure to clamp all connections.

    3. Clamped down, the fuel lines are snug around the connector and you can run the 5/16” fuel line directly to the fuel pump for the Espar heater. The instructions clearly give you max distances and orientation for everything.

      1/4" male-to-male adapter prior to putting on hose clamps.

      1/4″ male-to-male adapter prior to putting on hose clamps.

  3. The fun (scary!) part: cut a 4×6” rectangle in your wood floor. Note: you can cut all the way through the metal, but I don’t recommend it. Instead, just cut through the floor (a hole saw worked great for me) to get the clearance from the exhaust pipe and then drill smaller holes that allow the intake/combustion pipes to exit. There is a template provided with the heater that makes this easy. File down sharp edges on the holes and install heat-resistant muffler putty on the wood. I also folded up some aluminum foil and lined the inside of the wood just to reflect some heat back. Probably overkill, but it was easy.

    Paint to seal the cut, file and a hook blade to cut through the flooring.

    Paint to seal the cut, file and a hook blade to cut through the flooring.

    Two 4" hole saw cuts and holes drilled for the fuel line (center) and intake/exhaust.

    Two 4″ hole saw cuts and holes drilled for the fuel line (center) and intake/exhaust.

  4. The seal that comes with the heater will mash down on top of the floor and seal out grime and dirt. I don’t think it is necessary to cut a huge gaping hole in the metal when it just takes a couple holes.

    Holes cut and sealed with heat resistant putty behind the reflective foil.

    Holes cut and sealed with heat resistant putty behind the reflective foil.

  5. You’ve got your holes drilled. Before routing the intake/exhaust pipes, clamp them to the unit. Otherwise you’ll be doing it on your back and it will be impossible or make you hate life and any word starting with “Espa…” A little foresight here saved me some serious pain.

    Heater with piping clamped and ready to install.

    Heater with piping clamped and ready to install.

  6. Fuel line and intake/exhaust ducting run? Route any internal ducting, or at least think about where it is going to go. Perhaps reference step #1 again.

  7. Run your thermostat, power and fuel control wiring per the diagrams. (See how easy that was? Just one sentence that will take you a couple hours. Enjoy! )I think connecting to the house (not engine) battery is the best way to go since you don’t want to drain the battery that starts the engine.

    Test install for the heater. Flipped it 180 for the final go at it.

    First install for the heater…BACKWARD. *Slaps forehead* The finned silver end puts out the heat. Easy to flip around at least. Note to self: read instruction manual.

  8. FIRE UP THE BEAST. At first, all you’ll hear is a clicking of the fuel pump as it fills up the fuel line for the Espar. Do not despair if the unit “malfunctions” and says there isn’t enough fuel to start combustion. Reset it and do it again. It took three times through for ours to start. In the meantime, I cursed, kicked some stuff, and practiced other Zen methods of stress control. The manual doesn’t tell you to just let it run. I hopefully just saved you some frustration and early gray hairs.

That’s it! The details are in the the instruction manual and will cover most of it, yet I think a few little pointers like this could have saved me a considerable amount of time.

Drop me a line if you have any questions about your install. First question is free and then I demand Synergy kombucha drinks delivered cold to my van door after mountain bike rides! Cheers to staying warm on the road.

Sprinter bike hauler.

The Adventure Mobile – Our DIY Sprinter Camper Van Bicycle Hauler

A glamour shot for the Sprinter before the JEM/Gould's ride near Zion.

This post covers the DIY buildout I did for our 2013 Mercedes Sprinter to turn it into a bike-hauling adventure mobile. The goal was simple: create a functional, comfortable travel rig…without spending half my life creating it. (I’d rather mountain bike.)

Our build took about three months of occasional effort, plus one big three-week push. The result is a physical manifestation of fun and freedom that inspired us to hit the road in November 2013. (Careful, it’s addicting.)

The Sprinter van is what we use to carry two mountain bikes and two touring bikes, plus climbing and backpacking gear, on a variety of adventures. Hopefully it motivates you to get your own van or helps buildout ideas. Buen suerte!

Just Getting Started?

Van life is hot and the amount of online information regarding DIY van buildouts is crazy. When we started, I spent hours searching sites like this one or trolling Pinterest. These days, I get dozens of questions about buildouts and van life in general.

To help sift through build options, I recommend picking up this Sprinter conversion ebook. It’s a comprehensive guide to DIY Sprinter vans and saved me a ton of time. The ideas and suggestions bring together lots of insight and featured buildouts.

Shortcuts to All Van Posts

For details of our build, read on below this list. It’s a brain dump of everything I think you need to know about a DIY van.

For shortcuts to any van posts I’ve written, here you go!

  1. Favorite recent van upgrades I did in spring 2016 after a few years road tripping
  2. A quick video tour of the gear garage.
  3. How to install solar panels or an Espar heater in your van
  4. In-progress buildout photos
  5. My custom-made doorstop, one of my favorite improvements
  6. Not a van post, but helpful for financing a long-term trip: Our guide for how to rent out your house and make some cash while you’re traveling!

Overview Photos

Sprinter van bike and gear garage. The drawers on the left/right pull out 4' and hold two road touring bikes and two mountain bikes. In the center is a big pullout storage drawer system on 3' slides for miscellaneous equipment for road tripping. The doors have pockets (Ikea!) that work great for organizing shoes.

Sprinter van bike and gear garage. The drawers on the left/right pull out 4′ and hold two road touring bikes and two mountain bikes. In the center is a big pullout storage drawer system on 3′ slides for miscellaneous equipment for road tripping. The doors have pockets (Ikea!) that work great for organizing shoes.

View in Sprinter van sitting in front swivel seat looking back. Ikea countertops on either side, utility drawer over fridge on drivers side, and storage with wire baskets underneath the countertops.

View in Sprinter van sitting in front swivel seat looking back. Ikea countertops on either side, utility drawer over fridge on drivers side, and storage with wire baskets underneath the countertops.

Bike repair stand and side table showing their utility after a MTB ride.

Bike repair stand and side table showing their utility after a MTB ride.

Buildout Details for Our Sprinter

I’ve got a few building skills acquired from working on houses with my dad growing up. That got me about 50% of what I needed to know to do this. The rest happened through over-confidence thanks to my (completely unrelated) engineering degree and extreme optimism, plus a dose of insanity.

Below are our main design criteria (and a lot of detail), plus links and info to help find specific parts and components.For our build, I ordered a huge amount of stuff from Amazon. Some of the links below are affiliate links, meaning you pay the same price and they kick us a small commission if you buy something. We donate all blog income to charityIf you want to say thanks for this write up, helping us support our favorite causes is a fantastic way to do so.

Van size and model

We went with the 144″ high-roof model. The length allows us to park in almost any parking spot and navigate cities like San Francisco mid-week as well as remote fire “roads” without getting stuck.

The high-top is a must have because it allows a 6’2″ standing height inside. Sure, you can do a pop-top Vanagon/Sportsmobile style, but if you pop the top in a city then you’re going to be super obvious, and those things can get drafty. Oh, and if you don’t like working on cars or getting to know VW mechanics, Vanagons may not be your cup of tea.

The 4×4 model wasn’t out when we bought our van, but we would still stick with the 2wd model now. We drive lots of fire roads and solid tires like the all-terrain BFG T/A KO2s (245 series) take us everywhere I want to go. If people can drive through South America 2wd, we’ll be fine. Just my opinion, and of course the 4×4 looks badass!

Note: bigger is not always better. A few Sprinter-owning friends with the 170″ van mentioned they wish they had the shorter version. Ask yourself what your hobbies are, whether you need more space for kids, and what kind of gear you’ll be hauling.

Bed

This needed to be super comfortable so we could travel and not be desperate for a real mattress! If you’re traveling long-term in your van, screw sleeping on Thermarests and buy a bed better than your dorm room bunk. We sleep with our heads pointing toward the front on a queen-size latex mattress that I hacked a foot off of with a machete.

Note: No need for posts to support the bed! Just use plywood or wood slats attached at the walls and reinforce those with 6061 C-Channel structural aluminum from somewhere like MetalsDepot.com.

Or just buy a bed from the pros at Van Specialties near Portland. (I didn’t go this route, but perhaps it makes sense for you.) To answer an FAQ, the base of our bed platform is mounted 39″ above the stock floor of the van.

An older shot (prior to drop-down side table) from Big Sur.

Bike racks inside the van

Hauling four bikes (two touring, two mountain) and protecting them from theft, weather and road grime was important. The heavy duty sliders are the 48″ heavy duty version, which are rated far stronger than we need (400 lb) but otherwise you can’t get a 4′ slider (and if you use that drawer for gear, you don’t want a wimpy 200 lb rating anyway!). Yeah, they’re expensive…and I wouldn’t have it any other way!

If you only need ~3′ pull-outs, the 200 lb version has worked well for our center drawer. I used 3/4″ maple plywood to build them and lined the bottom with a clear plastic floor mat to protect the wood, with fork mounts from Universal Cycles. They work great.

Note: I’ve had a few questions about the tray size. The road bike trays are 60″x 13″ x 3″ (outside dimensions) and the mountain bike trays are 60″ x 17″ x 3″.

Ventilation fan

Keep the van cool and aired out with a roof fan. Why didn’t we do A/C? Because we are scared of RV parks and A/C pulls WAY too much electricity…and I refuse to have a generator in my van. Let the 40′ RV’s do that lameness. We own camper vans, not portable homes! If we can survive a night in Death Valley where it was 100 degrees after sunset, we’ll be fine anywhere.

(Model: Fantastic Vent 6600R rain sensing version. The variable-speed fan in the 6600 is a great feature.)

200W of solar power and the vent fan.

200W of solar power and the vent fan.

Battery and electrical system with a 2000W inverter

We charge laptops and phones, plus run a fridge. For A/C needs, we have a Ninja blender and a hot water boiler. If you don’t have a dedicated 12V USB charging, these outlets are rad. They charge two USB devices and have two A/C grounded plugs as well.

Note: I highly recommend splitting the van alternator and battery circuit like this so that they are charged while you drive. This keeps things topped off even if it’s cloudy or rainy. We also have shore power, which we rarely use. Sorry, but I don’t have an electrical diagram and don’t want to put one together.

(Models: Inverter – Xantrex PROWatt SW2000 plus the remote switch. Batteries – Full River DC224-6 with 224 amp-hours. They’re 6V each installed in a series configuration for a final of 12V and 224 amp-hours – check out the comments below for why we went with that.)

Solar panels

Here’s the full write-up I did on our install, a 12v DC system fed by two 100W panels. Renogy has some awesome kits; here’s the 200W setup, enough for most vans.

(Model: Grape Solar 2 x 100w with full system – GS 100 – from AM Solar in Oregon.)

Heater

Espar D2 diesel-fueled heater that runs off the main vehicle tank (see full description of installation to save some headaches). No propane tanks or extra fuel to carry around, and fewer things to break.

Noteinstall a combination CO/fire-smoke detector like this one if you do this.

(Model: Espar D2 Airtronic from EsparParts.com.)

Passenger slider intermediate door stop

This is an addition we did in San Diego to stop the door from sliding all the way open every time we opened the passenger sliding door. If you didn’t order it as a stock add, there’s an expensive kit that Mercedes offers (PFFFFFT). We absolutely love this and I bet you will too. Rather than a long description, read more here if you’re interested in the solution I came up with my brother-in-law. He has sold dozens of these to satisfied customers and people are even writing testimonials about them.

26 degrees in the Alvord Desert? No worries with a heater!

26 degrees in the Alvord Desert? No worries with a heater!

Swivel seats for the driver and passenger

180 degree rotation to convert the cab into seating and my desk. Note that this raises the seat height a couple inches.

(Model: Purchased from Sprinter Store in Tualatin, Oregon)

Cooking

We went with a portable propane stove that practically everyone I know owns. It lives on a drop-down side shelf (pics in this post) on the passenger side cabinets since we typically cook outside, but in bad weather we use the stove inside with the vent fan running.

(Model: Camp Chef mountain series.)

Fridge

As big as possible so we can bring plenty of grub for extended stays away from civilization. 12V DC, and far more efficient than a typical dorm fridge. It pulls about 2.5 amps running at full blast (though they spec 5 amps for startup amp pull), which means we have four days of battery life if it ran all the time. Adding an efficiency increaser I added as an upgrade cut energy usage by 50%

Gotta say, this is one of our favorite things in the van, and I can’t even remember the days of coolers and ice. Popsicles after a bike ride in the desert=living large! Do yourself a favor and get a fridge…

(Model: 4.6 CF stainless steel Isotherm CR-130 from West Marine (it’s expensive). For weekend-warrior rigs, this 2.3 CF Dometic fridge is half as big, and also half as much.)

Water system

After 2.5 years of just water in jugs, I installed a Dometic sink (a continuous Ebay deal!), an electric pump, and 20 gallon water tank in the van. Check out the first item in this van upgrades post for some pics and links to what we used if you’re interested. Glass jugs of water (to avoid chemicals leaching into our water) is still our go-to for drinking water.

For showering, we use the awesome Helio Pressure Shower instead. It’s a solar shower but has a foot pump and seven-foot hose with spray nozzle. Fantastic for washing dishes, showering and rinsing off bikes, especially when paired with a hot water boiler to mix hot/cold water.

The sink cranking out running water!

The sink cranking out running water!

Cabinets

Maple and birch plywood attached to the floor with L-brackets with $10 wire baskets from Ikea that are tough and light for the majority of drawers to keep weight down. There are also a few slide out drawers to hold appliances (hot water boiler and blender) and the four water jugs. This has worked great. Birch countertops to top things off – thanks again Ikea!

Side windows

Mercedes doesn’t provide stock side-panel windows that open. We went with a window that many Sprinter converters use, the CR Lawrence tilt-outs, and they’ve been great.

With the aforementioned vent fan, it’s fantastic to be able to open the windows (which are screened) and have airflow through the van without 1,237 blood-sucking mosquitoes joining in.

Note: I had these professionally installed by Van Specialties near Portland because cutting a couple giant holes in my brand new van made me want to puke.

Enjoying breakfast with a view in the Utah desert

Interior

Sound deadening to mitigate road noise, plus insulation (open-faced denim insulation for walls and denim water-heater blanket from Amazon for ceiling), plus a thin, light-colored wood veneer so we feel like we’re on a boat. (There is also the ready-made RB Components interior or a less expensive one from Van Specialties.)

In the buildout pictures gallery, you can see some details of my interior build. I used silver pan-head, self-tapping screws that were ~1.25″ long. For the wall panels, I just screwed directly into the metal frame of the van. For the ceiling, I ran five strips of plywood first (see pictures below) to make mounting/finagling the ceiling panels into place easier.

Note: I played around with Rivnuts and decided they were HUGE overkill for attaching 1/8″ plywood. Save yourself 57 hours and skip them. I did use Rivnuts to mount the bed to the wall.

(Models: RAAMmat BXT II sound deadening for walls/roof (way cheaper than Dynamat, about 1/4 the price) and Cascade Audio absorptive layer on floor to help silence road noise. Highly recommended, but maybe not necessary to sound deaden the entire vehicle, just parts of each big panel.)

Awning

Double our living space off the side of the van. Easy to crank out to the side, no whistling from wind while driving or noticeable reduction in mileage, and installation was *cough* a breeze solo on a tippy ladder. (Recruit a friend!) The awning isn’t good in strong wind, but keeps the rain off and certainly the sun when wind gusts stay under about 20 mph.

(Model: Fiamma F65s, perfect for the 144″ Sprinter. Purchased from the Sprinter Store.)

The Sprinter in action in the Mojave National Preserve. Awning and stove out while cooking a meal and enjoying the view.

The Sprinter in action in the Mojave National Preserve. Awning and stove out while cooking a meal and enjoying the view.

Curtains

Occasionally (ok, frequently), we pull into cities along the way and sleep in a quiet neighborhood. Yeah, we could get a hotel, but I paid enough for the damn van and I want the cost-per-use to keep dropping. Blackout curtains make this possible.

Ours are a two-layer black canvas facing out and a colorful design with  snaps and magnets that keep it quick, clean and easy. These were the first time I’d ever used a sewing machine and turned out quite well. For the front windshield and passenger/driver windows, we went with a cab insulator kit, also from the Sprinter Store. Using these, we’ve stealth camped at least 100 nights in cities and never had anyone bother us.

Lights

12V LED lights that we installed two months into the trip in Santa Cruz. A MUST have, in retrospect. We have one diffuse (wide-spread) light a foot back from the headliner and another two spotlights over the countertops.

Get the lowest temperature (warmer light) model that you can. Around 3,000 Kelvin seems to be what people like the most.

Note: I retrofitted our lights with photo filter paper from B&H and now we have a warm orange glow. I also installed a 12v LED light bar in the gear garage – both written about in this upgrade post.

(Model: West Marine standard 12v lights.)

Stereo system

Last but certainly not least, the High School Dream System that I couldn’t afford when I was 18. I suspect we bump Macklemore more than most teenagers in Seattle.

For those putting in a subwoofer, ours is in a custom-built box in the space under the passenger seat down-firing toward the floor. Works great!

Note: with the most-excellent Alpine deck we installed, I can connect via Bluetooth from my laptop and watch movies with some serious bass and surround sound action. It’s fantastic!

(Models: Alpine Bluetooth deck, 4 Hertz 6.5″ mid/high speakers, ID 10″ subwoofer, Helix 5 channel amp.)

Sprinter bike hauler

Bike racks in action in Andrew Molera State Park in Big Sur.

Things I Learned Doing Our Buildout

Turns out building out a Sprinter is like building a house. Same decisions on finishes, same design dilemmas. Which isn’t my favorite thing, by a long shot.

The saving grace? That this “house” had an engine and could give us access to nature and new places. That said, there were absolutely moments that I wanted to (and did) scream in frustration on a sunny Saturday when I was insulating it instead of shredding perfect mountain biking trails. Patience – the shredding happened later, and lots of it.

  1. Drilling holes in a new Mercedes gets progressively easier as you make more of them.
  2. Nothing in the entire vehicle is straight. Curved walls, floors, windows.
  3. A full shop would have made this far easier. Almost everything was done on two sawhorses in our backyard with a circular or jig saw and an abacus for calculations.
  4. DIY=prototype. Sometimes a permanent one, but in my mind, it was always “Wow, learned a good lesson there! I’ll take advantage of that newly-earned skill next time I (insert incredibly frustrating, tweaky building activity).”
  5. I could have been a contortionist given the small, awkward spaces I was able to cram myself into while building the interior.
  6. Put the heater in the van BEFORE you go to Idaho in the winter to shiver in 20 degree weather and slither around on the frozen ground underneath the van routing fuel and electrical lines.
  7. The process of building an adventure rig is immensely satisfying. I look at the completed Sprinter these days like a proud parent at graduation and am stoked (and surprised) that it turned out so well. Also, perhaps not like a parent (you tell me!), I pretend I don’t see the little things I’d like to improve. In my day job there ain’t much in the way of a finished, physical product, and so it was really rewarding to see something concrete come together.

Enough words. Time to start building your van!

If you read this entire post, plus comments, and can’t figure something out, drop me a line. Maybe I can save you 12 hours of pain or at least throw a snide comment your way about how suffering builds character.

Happy van building!

The van taking in a view of the Alvord Desert.

Once your buildout is done, you get to hit the road to places like this!