Embarking on a cross-country road trip in a customized van might seem like the new rite of passage for hundreds of millennials not quite ready to submit to the nine-to-five grind, but it’s nothing new.
Car camping has been a tradition for the young (and young at heart) for decades, hitting a high point in the late ’80s when VW Vanagons were many and rust issues were few.
Fast-forward some years and the remnants of the “good ol’ days” are being plucked out of garages and storage sheds by hungry Craigslisters ready for their own adventure.
It seems like everyone with a backpack and a driver’s license is currently in the midst of buying, gutting and rebuilding their own adventuremobile in preparation for life on the road and a freewheeling adventure.
But before you join the ranks, heed the advice of a handful of people who’ve been there and done that. We’ve made the mistakes already, just so you don’t have to.
Here’s what to consider before you start building out your own adventuremobile.
Don’t buy what you want; buy what you need
The obvious choice for any stylish traveler is a VW Vanagon, right? Right — until they inevitably break down and burst into flames. (Don’t believe me? I’ve seen it happen; drive around Southern California long enough and you’ll find a charred VW skeleton or two.)
Sprinters are generally considered reliable and good on gas, but rust damage runs rampant and repairs will cost you a hefty sum. This writer once traveled the country in a renovated school bus — which is now in a junkyard somewhere in Colorado.
“There were a lot of small things I overlooked during the purchase process,” says Kyle Maggy, who ended up purchasing a 2007 GMC Savana 1500 cargo van. “I ended up having to replace nearly all my van’s weather stripping, remove a lot of mildew and completely repaint the entirety of the van’s floor. Apparently the previous owners thought it would be a good idea to pressure wash the inside of the van, and I didn’t find this out until I started my demolition stage.”
Do your homework
Before you ever pick up a piece of plywood or wash a window, have an action plan; it will save you time and money down the road (literally).
Search for forums dedicated to your type of van conversion, like Sprinter-Source.com, watch videos on YouTube, map out ideas in 3D using Sketchup and, most importantly, think hard about how you’ll actually be using your van.
“We didn’t think we’d be doing much off-roading, and we haven’t,” explains Nikki Levi, who lived in a Sprinter 144 WB in South America.
While she still invested in all-terrain tires, “in hindsight, we’re really happy with the better gas mileage. We’re happy hiking out the last few miles if need be.”
Materials matter — a lot
Chances are you’ll be going into your van or trailer build with limited knowledge of construction. Mistakes will ensue.
“When we bought our trailer, the rear wall had a lot of water damage, including the wood frame around the window,” says Mary Hall, who rebuilt a 1971 tow-behind Shasta trailer with her fiancé. “We replaced the wood and sealed up the windows with DuPont window and door sealant, hoping this would do the trick. A month into the trip, while camping in Arizona, a heavy rainstorm hit and pools of water were forming inside the trailer window.”
“Be sure to use a flooring material that will withstand 20 years of heavy use,” adds Levi. “For some reason we used vinyl flooring, and after only a few months it had tears in it. We should have gone with rubber flooring. It may not be beautiful, but it’s durable and will last. Replacing the floor is not a simple task.”
Lay it all out (then do it again)
How you think you’ll use the van will undoubtedly differ from how you’ll actually use it — something to take into consideration when deciding on a layout for furniture and storage.
The first thing you’ll want to decide on is permanence: Will your van be strictly for sleeping and storing gear in? Or do you need it to transform from a camper one week to a dirt-bike hauler the next? If you need your van to adapt, you’ll have to build furniture with removable components.
“I built a custom bed frame out of wood for my bouldering crash pad,” says Maggy of a smart construction move that forces part of his climbing gear to serve two functions and leaves ample storage underneath the bed’s frame. “For some added comfort, I picked up a cheap foam mattress topper and trimmed it to the necessary size.”
For Levi, gear storage and providing extra seating for guests were big considerations when thinking about layout: “While overlanding, we wanted others to be able to hang out with us, which meant we needed to have enough seating for at least four people, especially in the rain.”
Your costs don’t stop with the van title
When budgeting out your van build, don’t limit your needs to construction materials and new tires.
If your build is even semi-permanent, you’ll want to shell out for any additional costs now while you can install them easily — think electronics, furniture and lighting.
“The best decision we made was having all our electronics run off a solar panel mounted on the roof,” says Hannah Stowe of Wales, who has divided her time between a sailboat and a Renault Master. “We don’t have to worry about finding a hookup and can park anywhere and still be able to turn the lights on, charge a phone and work. And, of course, there’s the huge environmental benefit.”
David Sandel opted to bypass building custom cabinetry for his 2004 Ford E350: “Buy as many pre-built components as possible rather than building custom drawers, cabinets and countertops. We bought factory rejects and used secondhand. It saved a ton of time, money and material as opposed to reinventing the wheel.”
Vans are fishbowls, and people like to tap on the glass
“On many occasions we’ve pulled over in a city and camped on the street without anyone noticing that there are two people and a dog in the van,” says Levi of her decision to install thick, opaque curtains on every window in her van. Privacy is something to think about if you’ll be spending any time around other campers or in a city — and so is security.
Vans are targets — yep, even dirtbag vans (climbing gear is expensive). Avoid covering your bumper with National Park stickers or brand logos, and never leave a key taped to the undercarriage of your van.
“We built a hidden compartment in the bottom of the wooden closet floor by creating a hinged opening that could be locked by key,” says Hall. “Underneath the faux closet floor we bolted a small safe down. It was great peace of mind knowing we had extra security while backpacking for a few days.”
It’s going to take time — a long, long time
The one mistake that united all of our van builders? They underestimated how long their build would take.
“We set aside three weeks off work to get most of the work done, and for one of these, the van was in the garage getting a new gearbox,” laments Stowe. “We ended up living in the van before it was ready, which was stressful and demoralizing.”
“Restoration can be like opening a can of worms if you don’t have a plan,” echoes Hall. “Especially if you are working on an older vehicle on a time crunch.”
To remedy the situation, she suggests identifying the critical build-out needs and accomplishing those first before you worry about the details.
“The best decision we made was to take our time to do things right: choosing the proper materials, drawing the plan to scale on paper, fixing mistakes and not settling for ‘good enough,'” says Sandel. “We spent three hours installing one double drawer because it wasn’t sliding right. This is your home; you’re stuck with it. When you’re traveling, you can’t really pull out a table saw and rip a new door or tabletop.”
“Basically, you’re going to mess it up (at least according to anyone we’ve ever talked to about the topic). But don’t get discouraged,” says Maggy.
“Many of us folk that take on these van-build projects have little to no vehicle customization or construction experience,” he adds. “Things will go wrong, stuff will break and your clever ideas might not work. But think of the amazing places your van will take you; your build doesn’t have to be perfect or the most technologically advanced. Just make your van your own and enjoy the adventure!”