Posts

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!

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 back 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 and break.

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. I bought from a local shop, but three years later there are tons of great options online that are WAY cheaper. Check out Renogy’s 200W system for <$400 – tough to beat that.

(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 yourself 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!