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.)

11 replies
    • Dakota
      Dakota says:

      Thanks! I think it will work great long term – no UV to damage the filter. If it needs replacing, it’s only a few bucks. #win

      Reply
  1. Sean
    Sean says:

    Hey Dakota,

    When will you guys be in Alberta? I would love to show you a few of my favorite MTB trails… in exchange for a van tour of course 🙂 I am local to Calgary, but get out to the mountains just about every weekend.

    Sean

    Reply
  2. jason
    jason says:

    Wow, this site is great. I’ve been researching/ dreaming about a sprinter for a while and this is one of the most helpful sites I’ve come across. Thanks for all the info. I do have one question that I haven’t seen addressed anywhere though. Maybe you could help. Are the 4×4 sprinters decent in the snow? Is it worth the extra $6500?

    Reply
    • Dakota
      Dakota says:

      Hey man, thanks for stopping by. Glad you found all this helpful! Since I don’t drive a 4×4, I have no idea if they’re good in the snow. Readers of my site and friends with vans seem to do well in snow, and I’m sure it’s better than the 2WD. That said, a good set of AT tires will get you places no van should go, so perhaps the $6500 (more with the features that usually come with 4×4, I hear) isn’t worth it! Good luck.

      Reply
  3. james
    james says:

    Awesome blog, I’m in the uk just brought very sedate 2001 2.4lt fixed hi top toyota camper in australia (have family there) great help… gumtree.au search bar 1153676543 ideas please on solar roof panels, inverter type, love the fridge you used and the energy saver device, also BFG tires oh yes! my 25yr old daughter will be traversing australia in this van. any advice Dakota on her/my adventure would be most appreciated. Mate your a Diamond…

    Reply
    • Dakota
      Dakota says:

      Advice eh? Not sure I’m qualified for that! 🙂 After years of traveling frequently, my tip is to take it slow and enjoy the days where you aren’t being active all day or seeing the sites. Stop and talk to people, hang out in coffee shops, and don’t come home from your vacation more exhausted than when you left. Especially when you’re traveling with someone, slowing down deepens the experience.

      As for the van (if that’s what you really wanted to know about!), keep it simple! You can do a lot with a portable cooking stove, some water jugs, and a headlamp. If you feel like doing a big build out, that’s fun too, but a bare-bones build works for many people and keeps it a) cheap and b) not many things to break. Happy road tripping!

      Reply

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