Why a Camper Van?

I chose a camper van because I want to travel with a smaller bootprint than the typical RVer. There’s nothing wrong with those RVs that are the size of city buses. That’s grand living on the road, no two ways about it. But the camper van comes with some compelling advantages:
  • They’re easy to park. My little camper van is no longer and no wider than a typical sedan. That means I can park it anywhere.Actually, I needed a small one that would fit in our garage — you can’t leave a camper van, no matter how small, parked overnight on a city street without serious risk of break-ins.
  • They’re easy to maneuver. Narrow roads, mountain roads, dirt roads — you name it: even though most camper vans don’t have four-wheel drive, they nonetheless can get up and around most anything.
  • They get relatively good gas mileage: 20-25 MPH in mine. VWs and others get even better.
  • They’re relatively low maintenance. If it breaks (knock on wood), you can get a tow easily. Or a jump. Or roll it out of the way.
  • They have a low profile, which means you can go places “under the radar” — you don’t stick out, so you’re less of a target for ardent local police and others who might mistrust visitors.
  • They’re less expensive! Camper vans can double as family vehicles and so they are not necessarily luxury items.

Mercedes Sprinter Van Conversion: Doing it Yourself

When I was in college, I had a VW van that my father helped me convert into a camper. I owned that vehicle for 12 years and treated it like a precious pet.

Although it had many limitations, I liked it for its compact size and its adaptability. Since that time, I have enjoyed looking at conversion vans of all kinds, but especially the Japanese microvan conversions, which are pretty wild.

The first challenge of converting a van into a camper is to maximize the space but, at the same time, make it comfortable. Those two things — convenience and comfort — are not necessarily compatible! That’s where art and ingenuity come in. Camper vans are micro-habitations. Like tree houses or sailboats.

There are many companies that will customize your van for you. Or you can buy a factory outfitted camper van off the lot. Some of these are really nice. But here’s something to keep in mind: factory-manufactured conversions are made first and foremost to make the manufacturer money. This means that, wherever it can, the manufacturer will cut corners. In other words, if you want top-of-the-line equipment — water pumps, cabinetry, faucets, holding tanks, etc. — you’ll have to request it and pay extra. That’s why I recommend doing the conversion yourself.

In doing the work yourself, you can hand-pick every item to fit both your budget and your taste. More importantly, in doing it yourself, you’ll know all the strengths and weakness of your treehouse on wheels.

From Houselove to Sprinterlove!

An interview conducted by Greg Keith,
of SprinterRV


Ron Tanner and Jill Eicher are the Houselove team: their project of renovating a circa-1897 Baltimore row house turned from a hobby almost into a vocation, as Ron’s blog (and new book) have turned the Houselove couple into a fixture among the reno-obsessed.

Recently they bought a used Sprinter van, and turned it into their own sweet custom Sprinter camper van. The really unique part – not only is it a conversion done on a 118? chassis, so it’s super-compact, but it also has a one-of-a-kind retro feel to it, kind of like…a stylishly redone old house! Coincidence?

This summer [2012] was busy for Ron: he took a 40-state tour in the Houselove Sprinter camper (along with Cleo the basset hound) to promote From Animal House to Our House, his new book. I caught up with Ron to ask him some questions about his process of turning their Sprinter into a DIY Sprinter conversion.

What were your reasons for doing this conversion on a Sprinter, and a 118″ Sprinter at that?

Ron: “I did a lot of research on which van to convert. I was most interested in small vehicles because mine had to fit into my garage — I live in mid-town Baltimore and have no driveway and can’t trust that a vehicle like this would be safe when parked on the streets. I was attracted to Westfalia VWs, but decided that they were too small – Jill, my wife, really wanted a toilet in the van, for example. The Sprinter was hands-down the best bet for getting the most space in the smallest package. It’s also a stylish vehicle, especially when compared to conventional vans. The 118? fit into my garage perfectly. Also, it would be easy to maneuver in cities. So I was sold on this model.”

What were your major design goals?

“The biggest challenge was to make the van ultra-efficient in terms of space and also aesthetically pleasing, with wood cabinets and stainless steel counters. I owned a VW van in college and had converted that to a camper, but it had many limits. Still, I liked the idea of having a van that was almost micro in size.”

Did you end up doing several designs, or just one?

“As a design project, this was a huge challenge. At first, before I got the van, I imagined it would have much more space than it does — I was dreaming big. But then, after I got the van, I saw how small it truly is, so I had to work through several designs. The challenge was in three parts: I had to have 1) a cooktop and sink, b) enough storage for food, kitchen equipment — including a water heater, and c) a full bed.

Taking inspiration from the VW vans, I made my bed a tri-fold bench seat and put it in the back, in the usual seat position. This separated the far-back, where I would put my electrical system, from the middle of the van, which is the living area. Once the bed was in place, I had to figure out how to arrange the rest. Breakthroughs were:

finding a small water heater that would fit under the sink; this opened up space in the far back for the toilet; by stacking two storage cabinets next to the toilet (and giving up a view through the rear door windows), I created a tremendous amount of storage space as a “garage”; then by building a tall, narrow storage unit (with sliding doors) over one wheel, I created a surprising amount of vertical storage for clothes.”

About how long did the conversion take you to design and build, and roughly how much did it cost?

“Total cost was close to $60K. $20K for the used 2006 van (with 60K miles on it). Biggest expense was the electrical system: solar panels, 6 AGM batteries, big inverter, breaker panels, etc. Second biggest expense was the custom paint job and body work. Third biggest expense was the water system, which included custom aluminum holding tanks, custom stainless steel counter and other fixtures. The van itself needed some mechanical work (EGR valve and shifter/transmission, which cost several thousand dollars. I replaced the shocks and stabilizer bar, got new tires.

I bought the van in July 2011. It took me 3 months to get it back from the painter (he was good but really slow and, frankly, unreliable). I didn’t start working on it myself until Nov. 2011 and finished it in May 2012. So my own work on the van, with some down time for custom tank fittings etc., lasted about 6 months.”

What are the features of the design that you feel turned out the best?

“I’m really happy with how the van interior works. When the bed is folded out, it fits snugly in the middle living area such that you are nearly level with the sink and stove-top: it creates a nestlike or treehouse atmosphere: you have access to everything in the van from that comfy spot.

I am surprised by how much storage space there is for clothes and food. For four months, I traveled fully loaded all over the country and then, when Jill joined me, I still had room for her stuff too. I’m really pleased with the electrical system. I’ve got all the outlets and lights and extras I’ve ever wanted. And, because of multiple power sources (both solar and alternator feed), I can take this van anywhere without power worries. I consulted with a marine electrician and then an auto electrician to make sure I got everything right.”

What are the things you wish you’d done differently?

“Honestly, I wish I had taken more time with the cabinetry. It looks fine but it’s not nearly as good as it could have been. But I was under a very pressing deadline. In fact, I just barely had the van done by the time I was due on the road in May 2012. I continue to refine the interior — there are a lot of finishing touches I plan to add, like aluminum trim. And I’m still refining some extras, like my fog lights (there’s a short) and my junk drawer, which needs partitions for better organization.”


Are You Ready for A Camper Van?

As a camper van consultant, I have talked to many people who really want a camper van but haven’t thought it through. Camper vans are cool and fun–it’s easy to see their appeal. But getting a camper van is kind of like getting a pet. You’ve got to think it through. For example, do you have a place to store your van safely? You really shouldn’t park a camper van on the street, unless you live in a very, very safe and secure neighborhood. Camper vans are loaded with equipment that many street-savvy thieves would love to steal.


Do you have a garage?

When I went looking for the ideal van to convert, I realized that I had to find one that would fit in my garage. So I took a measure of both the garage length and height. I learned that I couldn’t get a Sprinter hightop because it would not fit in my garage. The only van that would fit my garage was one with a low roof and a short wheel base–the 118”. I had no other options because I live in the mid-town Baltimore, where street parking is difficult and very unsafe (car break-ins are so common in my neighborhood that our insurance rates are double what you’d pay in the suburbs!).


Do you have a storage site?

Friends of mine who own a 22’ Pleasureway live in a neighborhood where they are not allowed to park an RV, not even in their driveway. Does your neighborhood have a similar rule? My friends park their van in a secure storage lot. If you will need a storage lot for your van, be sure to check out what’s available (and the cost) in your area.


Do you have a hook-up?

Here’s a detail that often surprises would-be camper van owners. If you have a camper van that comes equipped with auxiliary batteries (to power appliances and lights), then you need an electrical hook-up to keep those batteries fresh. You also need a hook-up so that you can keep your van heated during winter, when cold temperatures would otherwise kill your auxiliary batteries and freeze the water in your tanks and water lines.


This hook-up has to be a 30-amp line. It will look very much like the kind of plug-in you see at an RV campsite. You’ll have to hire an electrician to run line this from the electrical panel in your basement out to your garage or wherever you’re parking your van. I learned this the hard way after I let my van’s auxiliary batteries (called “house batteries”) run down.


If you let your house batteries run down, they will never be the same after you power them up again: they won’t hold as large a charge and they won’t hold their now-reduced charge as long. As these batteries cost about $200 each, my mistake was very costly because I had six batteries to replace.


As of this writing, Baltimore is coming out of a very tough winter. From December until March, I kept a heater running in the van most nights so that my house batteries were cozy and my water lines were clear.


Regardless of the weather, or the need to winterize your van (more on this later, under “maintenance”), you have to keep your house batteries powered up. Typically, they can’t sit idle (unpowered) for more than three days. Let me say this again: your house batteries cannot sit idle for more than three days.


Because I drive my van all the time, my house batteries are getting charged all the time (the house battery charger is attached to the alternator that feeds my regular starter battery). Does that mean I don’t need a plug-in? Probably.

If you don’t have a 30-amp outlet for charging your battery bank, then you’ll have to be really vigilant about keeping those batteries charged by checking them every two days and then running your van until your voltage meter shows that your batteries are topped up.


Do You Have the Funds?

A lot of people who want a camper van mistakenly assume that, after buying the van, they are pretty much good to go. But finding the van you want to convert is only the first step. The real kicker is the equipment you’ll need inside the van.

The RV industry has done well marketing relatively inexpensive RVs with very cheap interiors that offer all of the amenities American want. Problem is, these RVs don’t last and those amenities go bad pretty quickly. Still, the discount RV market has led Americans to believe they can have it all — and get it cheap. But let’s be honest: you get what you pay for. A good toilet is going to cost you $200 or more. A good water pump, at least $150. And so on: it adds up.


Does it have to be that complicated?

No.  You can camp in a van with very little money. All you need is the van and a sleeping bag, right? But camping in a van doesn’t make your rig a camper van. I’ve been hired by more than a few campervan newbies who just gave up when I informed them that their wish list of equipment and luxuries (full bath, flat screen TV, air conditioning, etc.) would cost thousands and thousands of dollars — sometimes more than the van itself.


As a rule of thumb, you’ll need to accept that a rock-bottom basic conversion will likely cost more than $5,000. A realistic figure would be $10,000. A fully, well-outfitted conversion would run $20,000 or more. These are 2016 estimates and they are not at all unreasonable when you consider that a fully-outfitted 18-20’ Pleasureway (without top-of-the-line equipment) will cost you $120K or more.


Using the Pleasureway example as a model, you might estimate that a full conversion will cost — at least — as much as the van itself. But, realistically, it might cost twice as much as the cost of the van itself. The more work you do yourself on your conversion, the more money you’ll save, obviously. And, obvious too: the fewer luxuries you can live without, like air conditioning, the cheaper it gets.




Do You have the Time?

Even after you’ve found your ideal van to convert, you’re only getting started. Here’s a bit of news for those who want a camper van: making a van into a camper won’t happen fast. I’ve talked to many people who are starting from scratch and want to get on the road in a matter of months. No way will that happen.


If you’ve ever done DIY work around your house, you know that always something goes wrong. Always. That little bathroom rehab you thought would take a couple of weekends ultimately takes 6 months. And that garden wall you were going to build during your week’s vacation? Two months later you’re still building it. No need to rail and rant about it — it’s just Murphy’s Law, the way our universe works.


When I did my conversion, I gave myself about eight months. I was fully dedicated to putting in long hours but I couldn’t predict how long my subcontractors would take: I needed somebody to paint the van and somebody else to do some welding and somebody else to advise me about electricity. Unless you are a remarkable DIYer who can do it ALL, you’re going to need to hire people–and that’s where things get tricky.


My painter was brilliant and really good at what he could do but he was also hampered by his inability to meet a deadline. I never really figured out what his problem was; maybe he was working several jobs at once. I lost more than two months waiting for him to complete his work. Nearly three months to do a job that most shops could have knocked out in three weeks!


The problem was, I had to be on the road in May, but I didn’t get my van back from the painter until mid-January. I worked on my van every day and night and still, come May, it wasn’t ready. I went on the road anyway. My wife laughingly recalls my first phone call to her while I was driving. “What’s all that racket?” she asked when I called her. She heard pots crashing and pans clattering and odd knocking noises.


Nothing in my van was well secured. Driving it was like piloting a small boat in a storm: cabinet doors were swinging open, pans were sliding across the floor in the back, my mattress kept sliding off its frame, etc. That first night, I discovered that my house batteries weren’t working, so I had no running water, no toilet. The joys of camper-vanning are greatly diminished when your rig isn’t ready.

So, yes, time is an issue. Give yourself lots of time. And, if you don’t have the time? Then reconsider your options. If you can’t make the time for your camper van this year, the maybe next year will work: you’ve got time to plan.

Camping Tips

If your van is small enough and your wheelbase high enough, you can go anywhere! Well, almost anywhere. Problem is, most land you see is private land. And I’m sure that, like me, you respect private property. Still, we van campers need a place to park. The good things is, we’re light on the land. I carry my own water and toilet. I cook inside the van. All I need is a place to park. Once I leave a spot, you’d never know I was there, except for the tire tracks.

When it comes to finding a place to park, there are four things to consider: 1) Am I in a hurry? 2) Do I want to be alone? 3) Am I concerned foremost about safety? 4) Do I want to stay more than a day?


The easiest thing to do, of course, is to go to state or national camp grounds. So, let’s consider those first. I say “state” or “national campgrounds” because they are more reasonably priced and they are located on prime real estate. Private camp grounds will be on the periphery of that prime real estate and they will be more expensive. When sizing up a private campground keep this in mind: the more development you see (playground, swimming pool, amusements, etc.), the more you’ll have to pay. It costs money to keep all that development going. The advantage private campgrounds have is that they will most certainly have shower facilities and dump stations for RVs. State and national campgrounds don’t always have these.

In fact, state and national campgrounds may be fairly undeveloped, if not downright primitive. That’s not a big issue for us van campers. But I need a shower, which I don’t have in my little van. I’d hate to pay $20 bucks for a campsite that offers nothing more than a pretty place to park. I’m not above bathing in a mountain creek. But I don’t want to make a habit of it. In short: state and national campgrounds are best if you’re looking for scenery, not amenities.

You should know that, at peak season, state and national campgrounds can be crowded. Very crowded. You should check in before noon. In the most popular places, all campsites may be gone by early afternoon. National parks no longer take reservations. It’s first come, first served. And, if you’re looking to be alone, this is not the place for you. Chances are, by dinner time, you’re going to be making small talk with your neighbors.

Let me be blunt: campgrounds are expensive. Some cost as much as a motel room. Staying at such campsites seems to defeat the purpose of van camping. The whole idea of van camping is that you are self-sufficient. The whole idea of paying a lot for camping is that you are not self-sufficient. Since I can’t afford to pay even $20 a night for a place to park, I seldom stay at campgrounds.

Walmart Parking Lots

The nature of my travel (when I’m doing a book tour) often demands that I move quickly. That means I have to stay near the major highways. I don’t have time to drive 20 miles out of town to find a campground. I’ve got to be up at dawn and in a TV studio by eight sometimes or on the road for a 300 mile drive to the next town. That’s why I camp a lot in Walmart parking lots. Nationally, Walmart allows RVers and truckers to park overnight in their lots. It’s unofficial story policy. Why? It makes good business sense, because those overnighters will most likely shop at Walmart. Also, for those Walmarts that are open late or all night, the RVs and trucks help make the lot look fuller.

Notice that I said “unofficial” store policy. In many places–especially on the West coast, from Seattle to San Diego–you will find Walmarts that prohibit overnight parking. It’s often the community covenants that put these prohibitions in place. The city or community does not want families camping out for weeks at a time in a parking lot. This is especially the case in resort areas, like Monterey, CA, and Portland, OR.
Two things you should know: Walmart Super Centers have all night security patrols. The other Walmarts do not. The safest Walmarts are suburban stores. You can tell when you pull up to them that they are safe. Also, look for the other overnighters: you should see semis and RVs parked at the edges of the lot. I myself always pull up to a well-planted island (it gives Cleo a place to hang out) well away from the store — far enough away that no other vehicles are are nearby. That gives me a good view of anybody who might approach.

I have never been bothered in a Walmart parking lot. And even the security guard who told me I couldn’t park there overnight made an exception and let me stay. Still, whenever I park in unofficial locations (that is, outside of campgrounds), I keep a low profile. I don’t put out my awning. I don’t sit in a chair subathing or whatever. At night, I shade my windows and stay inside. By the way, if you don’t have window shades, you need to get some — for privacy, security, comfort (keeps the parking lot lights out of your eyes), and energy efficiency.

Rest Areas

The best rest areas are Welcome Centers just as you enter a state. These are a showcase for that state’s hospitality and they not only have 24-hour security patrols, they sometimes have RV dump stations and other amenities. Virtually all state highway patrols accept that rest areas can be used for overnight parking. Traffic safety demands that drivers have a place to pull off when sleepy. Truckers led the way in this regard, and you’ll find plenty of truckers parked overnight at any and every rest interstate rest stop.

The worst rest areas are local, county pull-overs that sometimes have only a porta-potty. Because these are usually close to a town or city, I don’t stop at them, since they are likely to attract teenagers or other revelers looking for a convenient place to park and party. Also, these rest areas are rarely patrolled. If you’re traveling the back roads and need an easy and safe place to park, just look for the nearest interstate. A quick search on your smart phone will tell you where the nearest rest stop is. Also, sites like rvdumps.com will show you where you can find rest stops with dump stations.

Friends and Neighbors

I meet a lot of people on the road — often in Walmart parking lots. They’re curious about my van and/or they want to meet Cleo, my basset hound. It’s good policy to be a friendly camper, meaning you should take the time to talk to most people who approach you. As often as not, these people may offer you a place to park. All you need is a driveway. Or a nice neighborhood. If you park in front of the house of somebody you know, then you are legit — you are that person’s guest. I have accepted a number of these invitations from people I have met. Parking in a safe neighborhood in front of a new acquaintance’s house is especially helpful in congested areas.

Old friends, of course, are always willing to help. When passing through a friend’s town, I will call in advance and ask if I can park in his driveway. I have even called to ask if I can pit-stop for a shower. In other words, we may already have a network of help across the country. If not, we can create a network by making friends as we go.

Illegal (Stealth) Camping

Many cities and towns prohibit overnight parking for all the obvious reasons. But sometimes you have no choice but to find a place to park. This is especially the case during high tourist season, when you may find all campgrounds to be full everywhere you go until it gets too late to look and/or you’ve exhausted all options. In a situation like that, I looking for dirt roads off of two-lane paved roads. Dirt roads may lead you to public land. I once parked on a mountain top near a lake that was clearly public property but it was wholly unmarked.


Another time I drove as far as I could on a dirt road, then pulled over to park. Later that night, the owner of the land came knocking on my door. I explained my predicament and he gave me permission to stay as long as I lit no fires and left no trash. I assured him that I am wholly self-contained in my van and I thanked him for his generosity. Another time, I pulled off of the highway and hid among some trees where I could not be seen from the road, even though I was quite close to the road.

I prefer high ground to low ground and, if I have time (and light enough), I’ll go to the top of a mountain where there are transmitting towers for radio/TV: these are often public land. My main aim is to get out of the way — that is, out of heavily traveled areas — and out of sight. What you don’t want to do is park somewhere in a full campground. Rangers almost always patrol campgrounds, especially during the high tourist season. Nor do you want to park in plain sight if you don’t know where you are. I make it a policy always to hide — this means driving off-road, usually across a grassy stretch, being careful of boulders and other obstacles.

Hiding is just common sense when you’re not sure where you are. Once parked, you must shade your windows. If your shades are reflective silver, then you’ll need to reverse them so that your windows won’t reflect any light. Keep your key in the ignition and sleep with your clothes on if you think you might need a fast get-away. If you don’t have a toilet in your van, then pee into a cup or bowl (and dump it out the window). Remember, you are most vulnerable when you are outside the van with your pants down. This includes running into a bear or a skunk.

I don’t mean to worry you by saying these things, but because we live in a world of crazies, a little caution will serve us well. 99.9% of the time, if somebody approaches your van, it will be reasonable, well-intentioned person — most likely the land owner. If you ask for help, 99.9% of the time, you’ll get it: “I’m lost and had to park because it got dark. I’ll be out of here first thing in the morning” or “I looked everywhere for a campground but everything is closed and I didn’t know what else to do but park here till morning.”

Other Parking Lots

You’re looking for 24-hour businesses, like a big box store or a fitness center. Their lots usually have plenty of vehicles well after hours. And there’s no way a security guard can tell who’s a visitor and who’s working in the store.


Again, you want to be discreet. It helps if you’re a member of the fitness center whose parking lot you’re using.

Making a Deal

One other option, especially if you’re pressed for a safe haven, is to stop at a farm and ask if you can park on their land. You’d say something like this: “Hi. I love your farm. I’m on my way to (name your destination) and need a place to park tonight. Would you mind if I pulled into your field over there? I’m fully self-contained in my van and wouldn’t disturb your land in any way….” If you need more leverage, you can add: “I can pay you ten dollars, if that will help.” You’ve got nothing to lose by asking. Most of the time, the farmer will not accept your payment. Just be open and willing to chat and find ways to make him feel good about your being there — without sounding patronizing or full of shit.