https://www.traipsingabout.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/10/Van-life-Hells-Canyon.jpg 683 1024 Dakota https://www.traipsingabout.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/03/Traipsing-About-logo-white-background-450x156.png Dakota2018-10-25 06:09:112023-05-06 15:17:29What I'd Change If I Built Out a New Camper Van
What I’d Change If I Built Out a New Camper Van
It appears this van life trend is sticking around. We’re sucking up wifi bandwidth at your library and stealth camping in your neighborhood…watch out! At most trailheads these days, I count the number of vehicles that aren’t vans. I’m certainly not innocent. In fact, since I think all humans (and some dogs) need a van, let’s talk about how to make them Super Awesome Sauce. I’ve talked about my initial build, but never said “this still works” or “I’d change this.” While I currently don’t plan to buy a new van, reader feedback and many weeks of van travel this year prompted me to make a list of:
- Things I still love about our van
- Things I’d reconsider, modify or do differently if I endured…err, engaged in a new buildout project.
I’m trying to move past my profound desire to photoshop myself into that picture with MMM in order to leave a meaningful comment. Deep breath. Mmkay.
If your goal with this post was to get wimpy, suburban New Jerseyians to seriously consider a lifestyle involving outdoor showers, job well done. And I’m with Chelsea. More open space!
Go Jules Go recently posted…Would You Like Fries (and a concussion) With That?
You just gotta get out west and flex those toughness muscles! (Sitting in NJ traffic and surviving on smog-laced air doesn’t count.) Outdoor showers will be second nature.
Glad you appreciated the MMM shot. It was hard to find a pic of him in a van that looked just like ours and Photoshop me in, but I think it worked out!
This post was a huge breath of fresh air! I spent the past 6 months building out my diesel promaster (short version) and your post confirmed my thinking (what felt like overthinking) and approach. I’ll tell you all about it when our paths cross out there in the nature.
Thanks for all the inspiration! Keep on keepin on
Glad to hear it! SO easy to overthink the design and get uber-complicated. Many of the trick designs I’ve seen, with stuff like fancy ovens or so on, end up not even using those features. Keep it simple and get out there and have fun! See you at a trailhead sometime or maybe for a ride in Bend. Cheers, Nick!
Thanks for sharing all this well organized info! Love this post and have it bookmarked for when we become proud van parents. For the time being we rent ’em which is a nice way to kick some tires until we’re back in the states.
Renting is the way to go! Gives you a sense of what you use/don’t use and like/dislike in various configurations. Amazing how such a small space can create so many nuances.
Great write up. After 7 months on the road i agree with 99% of your thoughts.Really would love to add a cell booster after long periods of limited cell service in remote areas but am hesitant to comit to another hole in the roof without checking it out. If I am hearing you correctly you’ve been simple running the antenna through a window to the roof?
Howdy Jim! Sounds like you’re on a fun adventure. I scoped out your shots on FB – you do great work!
RE: the booster, gotta have it. I just run the antenna wire out the slider door, threading it under the trim seal. Others have done the same and it works great! No drilling, easy to pull down or move, and you won’t even notice the wire. Hope that helps!
Really appreciate the effort in contributing your experience and updates on the build. Yours was one of the first Sprinters I read about and learned from since you are aligned with taking nice bikes along for the adventure. Thanks for your thoughts. Now if they would just take my order for a 2019!
Gotta have the bikes, and not junkers on a bike rack either! Glad my build/story helped out. Crazy how hard it is to get a new van delivered these days eh? Good luck with the order and the build.
Very timely, as we’re in process modifying our cabinetry and raising our bed height to accommodate newer and longer mountain bikes. Looking over your list…
High-roof, YES. I love being able to stand up inside. Short wheelbase, Yes. Maneuverability trumps the extra inside space.
Slide-out bike racks. These are great for bike transport, and for trips not requiring 4 bikes we use ours to transport other stuff. Like backpacking kit or a suite of power tools for home projects at our daughter’s house. Besides, your build with the trays was what convinced my wife we should build a campervan, so I can never remove them from our rig.
We did a CR Lawrence window in our sliding door, but have tall cabinetry on the other side and so made do with 2 smaller windows back by the sleeping platform. We do love the CR Lawrence window though..
Large frig, Yes. Swivel seats, yes. We didn’t do the driver’s seat because it’s kind of behind the cabinets. I wish we’d found a used original Sprinter swivel seat; the added 2″ of the aftermarket swivel base is hard on my wife’s short legs.
We liked your cabinet layout, and put our kitchen in the door space. We like it. Given the storage requirements I don’t think we could do it any other way. Our counter has a sink, 8 gallon water reservoir, and a foot pump. And a Wallas diesel-fueled stove/heater. We’ve found that we run the Wallas as a heater, and like it for that, but we seldom cook on it. In practice, we’d rather avoid cooking inside, and the Wallas isn’t that great for cooking. It takes minutes to warm up, the heat isn’t especially controllable, and then it takes minutes to cool down again. We cook outside on the propane 2-burner, or use our slow-cooker to make one-pot meals inside. In a pinch I think I’d rather cook using my backpacking one-burner instead of the Wallas. It’s an amazing piece of kit, but we’re thinking we’ll rip ours and build in an Espar heater instead.
Alternator charging, very helpful for early or late season, when sun angles can be challenging for solar. The door stop, brilliant. Diesel-fueled heating makes November in northern New Mexico bearable.
Solar, YES. Why would you not do this? Weboost, yes sort of. Our experience with the same model as you have, mixed. I think I would rather have a wi-fi signal booster. Still, once or twice the Weboost has given us workable signal where otherwise nothing was happening..
More power. We set up with 3 105 Ahr batteries, so we’re between where you are now and where you’re headed. Not convinced Li ion batteries are worth it for a camper, but using these would definitely save weight over traditional batteries.
We’ve found some nice non-KOA campgrounds that have electric hookups. And our several weeks visit with our daughter’s family in south Texas pretty much requires air conditioning, even in April. So yes, shore power.
Flooring. We added a rubbery floor stuff over the stock Sprinter floor. Definitely easier to clean up.
Wiring, plumbing. With your rig as the example, we did extensive planning on what we wanted the rig to look like. Then, at my wife’s insistence, we mocked up the interior using cardboard from refrigerator boxes (thanks Lowes in Wauwatosa Wisconsin!), and made a few mods based on that. The build included all wiring for lights, charging, outlets, etc. We have limited plumbing, but pretty much knew how that would go. So far we’ve had few things we wished we’d done differently. So I’d agree that to the extent you can, it’s helpful and desirable to design in wiring and plumbing.
The insulated blackout curtain sounds like a great idea. As we’ve done more camping in colder weather, isolating the cockpit from the living area is more desirable. Down side: you WILL find your windshield frost-covered in the morning. Living warmer trumps that.
Backup camera. Our Sprinter came with a factory backup cam. When it got broken (long story) I found I missed it a lot. We had to install a wireless camera system.
Awning. We’ve never had one, but have toted a couple different sun shelters on our trips. I think we’re kind of in the same place as you guys. Seems like a good idea, but in practice the shelters are a pain to deploy and take down, and we use them less than expected.
Skis. It’s helpful to design for all loads you think you might want to carry. Like you, we wanted bikes and things in bins – backpacking or climbing gear. Other loads, like snowshoes and a pulk for winter camping, or our new longer mountain bikes, required a cabinetry mod. Would have been good if we’d thought about those possibilities in building the original cabinets.
FWD. For winter roads it’s tempting. Otherwise I’m with you: having FWD will just get you in trouble further out in the backcountry. I know Mercedes make a big deal about the overloading capabilities of the FWD Sprinter, but I don’t know that my camper build is overland-capable. I’d rather leave those roads to my mountain bike.
Now for the $100,000 question: would you consider doing a different van instead of a Sprinter? I like our Sprinter, and so far it’s treated us well. However, it’s expensive to maintain and repair. Worse, not many places work on them, and I’ve had friends who had to resort to expensive tows to get their ailing Sprinters to a shop that could work on them. One of those people sold his Sprinter and did a new build on a Ford Transit because, he said, he could get it repaired at any Ford dealership. I suspect that’s not quite true, but I also think the network of repair facilities is probably denser for the Transit than for a Sprinter. I’ve seen 3 different Transit-based campers, and they look good. I personally would miss diesel, but otherwise the case for a Transit instead of a Sprinter is reasonably good. What say you?
Great feedback, Dennis! RE: the $100k question, I’d absolutely consider another van. The Sprinter was the only high-roof van in the game when we bought ours and so that’s what we chose. The Transit and ProMasters seem to be doing well so far for people and the decreased maintenance is absolutely a positive. If I make the move to a new van, those two will be in the running for sure!
Dakota – We are new to Bend and enjoying all that the outdoors offer. Quick question regarding service – where do you recommend in Central Oregon? Our local Mercedes dealer? Or do you head up to Eugene?
Thanks! And hope to see you on the slopes or trails soon.
A couple more thoughts on your list.
The interior sound issue. Our Sprinter is surprisingly loud inside. We have sound deadening around the rear wheels wells, 2″ of blown foam as insulation, 1/2″ rigid foam insulation on the floor, and there’s still noise! Not sure what else to do about it. I will say that the foam has reduced the noise. Our test drives of stock Sprinter work vehicles were significantly louder.
Awning. We balked at the price for the cool Fiamma awnings, and instead purchased a stand-alone sunshade/shelter. Our experience with this has been mixed. Useful at times, like a rainy (?!) 3 day stretch in Moab, but enough of a pain to set up that we often don’t use it. I think the shelter is more stable in wind than the awnings, but it requires more pegging and guy lines – and the risk of the beast turning into a huge kite is always there. And it takes up valuable storage in the “garage”. What I WOULD like is an easily-deployable “tunnel” out of the slider door to keep off the rain and wind (and snow last trip) when the weather is kind of ugly out. This would protect the door, serve as a place to hang up wet shell gear and other clothes,
Cabinetry. Our build feels darker than photos of yours, and it’s mostly because of the large bank of floor-to-ceiling cabinets we built behind the driver’s seat. Chelsea would not like our space – not nearly light enough – but we couldn’t see a way to store all the stuff we wanted to take without having the cabinets. This circles back to your point about preplanning. We would have benefited from a van meet up before we started our build. As it was, we rented a Sprinter camper for a week, which hooked us on camper vans but was mostly an example of how we WOULDN’T build our own rig, and we pored over various blogs of people who’d done it. Our cardboard mockup helped us formalize our design ideas, but I think seeing other builds might have given us more ideas how to do things.
Dennis – have you soundproofed the front doors and step wells? I haven’t either but have read they’re a major source for travel noise. I’m surprised at your and Dakota’s thoughts on awnings. I just bought (but have not yet installed) a Fiamma F65S. I helped a friend install his a while ago. It takes him all of 30 seconds to deploy and seems like a must for the open west and SW desert where shade is a tight commodity. I am sun-phobic and want to be able to hide when parked. I should mention that I have a black van that is an oven – great in winter but requires special consideration in hot/sunny locations.
Thoughts on the bike sliders: it seems like you don’t need them at all for bikes; roll the rear wheel in and attach the fork mount (I have L-track across the rear of the garage). I can see that they would be very useful for bins and other storage but they just seem like a gimmick for bikes. Am I wrong on this? My mind is made up so your answer may not matter. 🙂
Dakota, your site has been a tremendous resource so thank you for all your documentation. On most issues I am in full agreement with you.
Hey Rob! We did not soundproof the front doors or the step well, so both of those could be contributing to the loudness. I want to replace the stock door speakers, so that might be a time to look at soundproofing the doors.
Friends have a Fiamma awning on their somewhat larger motor home. It is pretty quick to deploy, and it does conveniently protect the entry from sun and rain. However, on a couple trips with them we’ve had to quickly take down the awning because of gusty winds. We have a detached sun shelter that we sometimes use on summer trips. Most of our recent trips have been spring or autumn, where the desire for shade is less.
As for the sliders, yes you can roll a bike in on its rear wheel, clamp the fork, and be pretty secure. That’s how we did our first trip. However, the tray and sliders make the loading and unloading of bikes so much easier, enough that I’m really glad we did them. And you’re right: the slide-out trays are great for getting to bins of gear stored inside.
Aw, man! You are such a distraction!
Great read, my friend! We’ve got a few things to iron out before we give a van some serious thought, but this certainly gets the wheels spinning.
I talked to an acquaintance about his van build out and one thing he stated is that he used a lot of heavy wood and would consider using more lightweight material, like aluminum, if he does it again. What are your thoughts on this?
Happy to distract! My perspective on wood vs. aluminum (8020 or whatever) is that wood is SO easy and approachable to work with. No learning curve, just start cutting. For people with the tools, tons of free time (that they want to spend building a van), sweet garage and skills, 8020 is a great option.
I can’t speak to the incremental improvements in handling or mileage with metal vs. wood, but my GUESS is that it’s not a big difference given the gross weight of the van, occupants, gear, food, water, dogs, anchors, anvils and other heavy, must-have stuff for van life!
Oh, sir! You just had to poke me by including “…dogs…” in that list 😉
Sounds reasonable. And I bet a build can be accomplished with less material than 20 sheets of 3/4″ plywood!
We built our cabinetry from 3/4″ and 1/2″ birch plywood, and sheathed the interior with luan plywood. Partly for easy of build (my wife is good building wood stuff, but neither of us knew aluminum), partly to give the rig a “boat” feel, which appealed to my wife because of a family history in sailboats. We certainly could have saved weight by using lighter interior covering or by framing cabinets with metal. However, our total ready-to-drive weight is less that 7500 lb, so I don’t think the choice of interior made that much difference. I do like the look of wood.
due to covid we just shut down our beautiful 2000 ft. salon and just bought a 2019 sprinter 170 extended and are just about to start our new buildout to go “on location” with our business. we are also trying to design in so that we can use it as a family ( husband, myself and our basset hound and coonhound ). very excited to get our there and travel and explore. it’s been a challenge in keeping both uses in mind when coming up with the functionality and comfort of the van and i almost just want to live in it now instead! hahaha! maybe someday soon but for now i would like to thank you for this input as it’s super valuable for people like us who are BRAND new to the van world. Any advice on what order to start the build in? so confusing! electric first? ceiling then floors? water pumps and tanks? my head is spinning!
thank you again!
palm springs, cali.
Hey Melissa! Welcome to van life, though I’m sorry to hear it happened because you had to shut down your business. Damn you, covid…
My primary recommendation is to look at building with modularity in mind, aka design the van with systems that can be easily added and removed (cabinets, hot water showers, lights, beds, bike trays, etc).
Secondly, the simpler you can go, the better. Cheaper, less to break… People buy RVs for 100% at-home comfort, but they are expensive and it’s easy to break stuff. Do you actually need an inverter to run AC power, or can you use 12V power for everything? USB powers the world, after all, and laptops can run off 12V power. For water, do you need hot water, or is cold ok? If you need hot water, can it be on-demand with a portable shower like the Eccotemp L5 propane shower (that’s what I use) and not piped into a sink?
When it comes down to it, van builds aren’t that complicated and the various systems come together quickly. Put in wire, then insulation, maybe a heater, then the paneling and lights, then a bed and cabinets and water…done! Presto.
Check out Faroutride.com. I think they’ve built the best compendium of how-to van stuff on the internets.
Hope that helps. Good luck!
wow! i just realized i never replied to this! Thank you so much Dakota. We are still working on the build out and I appreciate any information we can get. My apologies for the delay and I hope you are enjoying the end of your summer !
You are one of the few that pop up in a google search relating to a sodastream in a van – do you actually carry one? If so, any special things you consider for storage (i.e. temperature). I have not seen many do this but certainly a comfort of home that we would love to carry into our van!
Ha, yep, we do! If you’ve got the space, why not? Maybe not on quick overnights – just one more thing to load – but otherwise, you bet. All I do is keep the unfizzed water in the fridge so it’s cold beforehand, but otherwise, I treat it just like I do at home. Nothing like fizzy water with lime after a bike ride while my friends are drinking tepid, boring water! It’s the small things 🙂
We searched the exact same thing as Emily, thanks for the reply! Living in the van for a year now and really missing our soda water 🙂 Did you fix the machine for driving or do you store it in a cupboard?
Awesome! Aren’t they the best? We just stick ours in a cabinet…so far, so good!