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It’s no secret that I am a little obsessed with our camper van! We started dreaming about our future van back in 2015, and took the leap and purchased ours a couple years later. After I received a scary health diagnosis in early 2017, we reevaluated our lives and our priorities, and made a commitment to making our lives absolutely amazing!

For Brian and me, our dream life looked like traveling more, having more freedom to work from anywhere, and adventuring as much as possible: mountain biking, paddling boarding, rafting, hiking, backpacking, and skiing. A camper van was the next step in creating a life that was in alignment with all the things we love and value.

Since many of you have asked to see more photos and details about our van, I decided it was time to finally share the grand tour! I’ll keep the tour short on descriptions and let the photos do the talking. Then at the end of the post, I’ll answer some questions we frequently get about our van!

This post will be the first in a series of (at least) 3 articles about van life, each focusing on a topic you’re dying to know about! While this one will mostly focus on the build and the physical aspects of our van, I’m excited to write more about other fun stuff like finding free places to sleep/camp, how we work from the road, what we eat, and all the logistics of living in a van for several weeks at a time.

The roof!

The Exterior:

  • Two-way roof-top fan
  • Two solar panels that keep our fridge, fan, sink pump, lights, heater, laptops and phones going strong
  • Gear box for things like skis and other stuff that doesn’t comfortably fit inside
  • Rack for firewood, extra gas cans, paddle boards (when traveling short distances when they’re wet or we don’t want to deflate)
  • Road shower – heats up to 30 degrees warmer than the ambient air temp! Great for cleaning dirty bikes, too
Small screened window opens for warm nights

The Kitchen

Compact but functional
ARB fridge on a custom built retractable tray
The fridge looks small, but fits a LOT! About two reusable bags worth of groceries.
Kitchen cabinet – this thing is filled to the max with food when we’re on the road!
Magnetic spice tins attach to a knife strip
A bar sized sink from Lowe’s
Electric water pump, 2 fresh water containers, 1 gray water (plus all-purpose cleaner, windshield wiper fluid, and laundry detergent)
A teeny drawer fits all our utensils
Goal Zero battery pack connected to the solar panels. 12V, USB, and AC outlets
Two-way van for cooking ventilation and for drawing cool air in on warm summer nights. It’s enclosed so we can use it even in the heaviest rain or snow storms!

Not pictured: our Coleman one-burner stove, Jet Boil stove, and Mini Instapot. We opted to have removable cooking devices so we could cook outside when the weather is nice, and also have more counter space.

Heater

Because we are big skiers, heat is a must. The Espar gas heater makes sleeping in sub-zero temps actually cozy! We crank it for 20 minutes before bed, crawl under our blankets, and don’t even have to turn it on again until the morning when we get up.

The heat comes out of a small vent near the floor, between the kitchen and the bed area.
The vent for the heater on the side of the van

The heater is connected to the van’s gas tank, which means we never need to worry about running out of heat as long as there is at least a quarter of a tank when we go to bed (it won’t run on less). The amount of gas it uses to heat the van for a night is negligible; we don’t even notice that the gas gauge goes down after one night.

Gear & Storage

Sliding tray makes grabbing our bikes easy and fast!
We use every extra inch of space! Small compartment for bike pumps, camp table and chairs, etc.
Hanging car gear organizer on one door
Shoe organizer on the other door
Bench seat with hinged lid for more storage
A blanket for now, but this is where we keep our clothes when we’re on the road (we each get one large and one small bag that fit perfectly in here)
Where we keep window shades, an extra fan, and all kinds of miscellaneous other goodies
More hanging storage for all of our bedtime stuff – Kindles, glasses, extra layers, earplugs, journals, etc.

The Bed

Who doesn’t love a bedroom with a view?

We have a full-sized bed, which is a far cry from our king-sized at home, but it feels pretty luxurious compared to all those years of sleeping on thermarests! We chose a 5-inch thick bunk bed mattress from a local store that specializes in small spaces.

The bed is just high enough to fit Brian’s 29″ mountain bike underneath (mine’s 27.5″), and low enough that I can actually sit up in bed to read or work (Brian has to slouch a little).

More About the Build

We get a lot of questions about our van, especially when we’re on the road. People are curious no matter where we are – trailheads, gas stations, rest areas, supermarket parking lots. Folks love to sneak a peek or ask for a tour, and if we have time, we’re usually game (although the van isn’t always this tidy!).

Here are some common questions we get:

ProMaster or Transit?

We spent a decent amount of time researching one of the biggest questions that future van owners are faced with: Ram ProMaster or Ford Transit. Both are solid choices, but we went with the ProMaster because it’s Front Wheel Drive, while the Transit is Rear Wheel Drive. We were lucky that Brian has some experience driving his employer’s Transit, which he managed to get stuck in our driveway one snowy day! That pretty much sealed the deal, and we went with the ProMaster.

How does it do in the snow?

It does relatively well in the snow, especially with the burly winter tires we added this past season. This is a must, since we live at 9,600 feet. This March, during a record-breaking heavy snowstorm, we skied Wolf Creek in the morning, then drove to Taos as it continued to dump. The drive was no doubt sketchy, but we confidently made it in one piece.

The clearance isn’t as high as my Subaru or other past vehicles we’ve owned, but it’s only gotten stuck once in a dirt parking lot that had over six inches of fresh snow. Thankfully, our trusty snow socks (similar to chains) got us out.

Someday, we’ll either convert the ProMaster to 4WD, or upgrade to a Sprinter or something else that can handle more rugged terrain (and deeper snow!).

What kind of gas mileage does it get?

About 14-16 MPG – pretty much what an average pickup or bigger SUV would get. And considering it’s also our home, and everything but the engine is solar powered, I like to think the carbon footprint isn’t terrible.

While the van is one of our daily drivers when we’re not traveling, we drive very little. My work is 100% virtual, and Brian’s workplace is only one mile from our home. So even with all the trips we’ve taken, the total mileage is still less than average for most people’s cars that they use for commuting.

Is it easy to drive?

While it doesn’t have the turning radius or the responsiveness of my Outback, driving the van isn’t too challenging, and the ride is pretty smooth (although it tends to be loud at high speeds). Driving a vehicle that sits up higher off the road takes a little getting used to, but it didn’t take me long. Having a back-up camera makes parking lots easier to deal with, and the window on the sliding door makes for better visibility in general (we actually had that window added as it did not come with one).

I admittedly do NOT like driving the van in cities or congested areas, so Brian happily takes over when I start to get uncomfortable. But it’s really not an issue since we typically spend most of our time exploring wide open spaces!

Does it fit in a parking spot?

Usually. It’s 19 feet long, so it fits in most spots, but can be tricky to park in a tight parking lot. I usually opt for the outer edges of parking lots, especially if we’ll be loading gear or groceries.

Did you buy fully built or empty?

Empty. We wanted to be able to customize as much as possible. We bought it new from a dealer in Denver. We searched for used ones, but found that most used vans were heavily used and had very high mileage. And neither of us has mechanical skills, so we didn’t want to deal with any breakdowns.

Did you build it yourselves?

For the most part, no. We originally intended to build it ourselves, but quickly realized we were in way over our heads. Neither of us is particularly handy, and building a van from scratch requires a lot of different skill sets. Can it be done? Absolutely. Did we want to? No. If we hadn’t hired help, we’d probably still be on the insulation stage, and it certainly wouldn’t look as pretty as it ended up.

We were fortunate to make friends with a guy who has extensive carpentry skills and an engineering background, who had recently completed his own van build. He was interested in starting a custom van business, so we agreed to be his guinea pig client. We were lucky to find someone who could help us get what we wanted for a reasonable price, because custom builds can get quite expensive.

What about the bathroom?

I’ll cover this in more detail in my next post, but admittedly a toilet is one thing I wish we had that we don’t. 95% of the time, it’s not an issue if we’re sleeping at a rest stop, camping at a campground, or on BLM land. We carry a little port-a-potty, but have only used it a handful of times.

What kind of insurance do you have?

A regular car policy will not cover the van build, which we spent about $20,000 on. Fortunately, our local agent at State Farm was able to hook us up with a good RV policy that isn’t much more than a regular car policy. Our homeowner’s policy covers all our personal belongings: bikes, gear, clothing, laptops, etc.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this tour of our van! Next week, I’ll go in depth to answer the questions we get about living in the van. I’ll cover:

  • Finding places to sleep and camp
  • Off-grid living: water, showering, laundry
  • Working from the road and internet
  • Winter van camping
  • How we don’t get sick of each other (ha!)
  • Van life challenges
  • Our favorite things about van life

Have more questions? Hit me up in the comments!