In just a few days we will embark on a summer road trip up the coast to Maine, across Canada, and ending in Colorado. We have been a one-car family for the last 8 months (if you don’t count the scooter) and the idea of jamming everyone into my mid-sized Accord for three months seemed a little too cramped. Plus, we didn’t want to doll out tons of money on hotels along the way.
An RV is just a little too big and too expensive for what we needed, so we bought a 2005 Dodge sprinter van. The wheel base is 158″ which makes it just over 20 feet long, capable of fitting in parking spots but big enough for two adults, a toddler, and a dog. The engine is a Mercedes diesel and gets about 23 miles per gallon. We found a sprinter with 200,000 miles in Miami. These vans can last up to 500,000 miles so we jumped on the deal and brought home a completely gutted cargo van.
We added insulation and put 3/16 luan plywood to cover the sides so it felt like a home and not a cargo van. One problem we stumbled upon was the van is not exactly filled with straight edges. Most of it is curved, so Bruce decided the first task was to make corners and edges that are easier to build on. Our sprinter van came with two sliding cargo doors, which we deemed redundant, so we covered one up with plywood to make more building space. Although we are not using the door, it comes in handy for other reasons. Bruce ran wires from the 12V adaptor along the sides before he put the plywood up. We have four fans in all four corners that can run almost continuously without draining the battery. We also have two portable battery charged larger vans. Coupled with the vehicle’s air conditioner, this will keep us cool.
Bruce spent a lot of effort on the ceilings. Using 16-foot 2 by 6 boards, he used a table saw to make them into strips for a unique detailed look. The ceiling took almost two days and was especially taxing because of the curvature of the ceiling and the fact that holding a long board overhead while drilling screws is especially difficult. He added a shelf all the way around (there is a natural step where the high ceiling of the sprinter van begins). This shelf will hold most of our storage, including clothes, food, books, and bathroom supplies. He painted the side white, added a stain to the ceiling and shelf, and voila! It looks and feels like a rustic cabin – on wheels.
We found some solid bamboo flooring on sale at Home Depot.
We framed a bed 34″ off the floor. Underneath the bed will be storage and Summer’s sleeping area. It’s high enough that I can sit under there with her, but still leaves us enough room to sit up on the bed on top. We bought a Queen size mattress from Tuft and Needle that is only 10″ thick so we had to consider that in our measurements. A bulkhead separates Summer’s area from a large storage compartment accessible from the back. We ordered a custom-made foam mattress for Summer from Foam N More. They also made a custom water-proof cover for easy cleaning.
Next we framed an area for the “kitchen.” All framing throughout the van was 2X4 2″ pine. Bruce used a table saw to make three grooves to fit panel doors that slide open to reveal the cooler and water jugs. He did not have a dado blade, so he just kept adjusting the fence to make the grooves wider. For the cooler, he installed drawer slide hardware so it sides out for easier access.
Three water jugs and a foot pump live on the right side of the cabinet. The jugs hold 5 gallons each, and the foot pump is accessible by sliding the doors open. The jugs come out easily to refill. The drain from the sink and the drain from the cooler leads down to a footwell for the second and unused sliding door (I told you it would come in handy!). Bruce drilled a hole in the footwell. When we are stopped, we will simply place a 5-gallon bucket underneath the plumbing and dispose of the gray water.
Bruce cut a large opening in the top of the storage cabinet above the cooler, which accesses a storage area underneath the counter. This will hold all of the pots, pans, and dishes.
One of the hardest decisions was where to keep the car seat. We first thought of installing an old suburban seat, but we just couldn’t make it fit in such a small space. We also toyed with the idea of building a seat on top of the bed and installing the car seat there, but there was not a place to bolt the straps to other than the homemade plywood bed frame. I also envisioned the daily set-up and breakdown of the car seat growing old. We decided to attach it on the ground and through-bolted it to the metal frame of the van. A few blocks helped us get the appropriate angle, and we purchased a new car seat with the highest side-impact rating.
We bought heat shields designed Sprinter vans to keep it cool when we parked. We purchased LED rope lights, a carbon monoxide detector, and fabric for curtains. I’m happy with the final look, although we still haven’t moved in yet. The goal was to make it simple and cheap, but still look nice and be a comfortable space to live in. We still probably spent more money than we wanted to, but it came together nicely. With an unlimited budget, I would’ve installed swivel seats for the driver and passenger seats, solar panels, a real refrigerator, and maybe a cargo storage box for the roof. Maybe next time.