There’s something alluring about a nomadic life. Tied to no one place, able to explore at will, seeking adventure, with everything you need in your caravan.
It’s a love of exploring, travel and road tripping that led me to buy a beat up old van, with an eye to converting it into a chic camper.
After much research and hunting across western Canada and even into California, the vehicle we (myself and my husband Roger) bought is a 2007 Dodge Sprinter.
VanLife – Choosing a van
There are any number of choices when it comes to which van is the right one. We narrowed our list down to the Mercedes Sprinter or the Ford Transit.
Initially I had no idea Dodge also had it’s name on a Sprinter van (of the things you learn through research!). Dodge initially made Sprinters in North America before Daimler Benz bought that auto brand. The Sprinter was initially branded as a Freightliner in North America before switching to Mercedes, back to Dodge in about 2003, then back to Mercedes. We’ve read that repairing and maintaining the Mercedes engine in the Dodge can be pricey, but the low price we paid for this van should offset any future repairs.
In choosing a van, we were looking for the largest body we could get in order to create the largest camper van, with enough floor space to be comfortable for two people and possibly a dog, and with enough headroom to make standing comfortable. The high roof model Sprinter with the 170″ extended wheelbase was the right choice for us, but there’s fierce debate in van conversion forums about what qualities make the best van.
First steps in creating a camper van
Once we’d narrowed our list and started hunting down local options, we test drove a couple of vans, before settling on the ’07 we bought in a private sale through Kijiji. The vehicle was used by a flooring contractor, but had been well cared for and maintained. Trying to make it more sale-able, the former owner had applied a liberal layer of anti-rust paint on a smattering of body rust spots all over the vehicle. while it had the desired effect of hiding the rust, the van now has somewhat of a mottled look. We’re calling that ‘incognito mode’ for now, but as we get further down the road on this project, we may look into a paint job, or perhaps a vehicle wrap.
The interior fittings and fixtures were minimal, alluring since we knew we’d have to strip out what was there to inspect the body properly, insulate it and begin a proper build.
Camper van demolition – Exposing the ribs
The first thing we did was to remove the partition separating the driver’s cabin from the rear. There were a lot of bolts, but fortunately they came out easily and light now floods the rear compartment.
Next, we ripped out the corrugated plastic panels that were attached to the inside with screws. Behind it was simple pink fibreglass insulation, which came out to while we were wrapped in long sleeves, pants and safety glasses.
Finding rust… and ripping holes
Disappointingly, but not surprisingly, we found a lot of rust. A lot. It became clear quickly some of the plastic body panels on the outside were allowing water in via holes drilled through the side that allowed rubber clips to hold the plastic side bumper panels on. (Sidebar: I have almost no idea what the proper names for any of these parts and pieces are. I’m learning, but hopefully most readers can understand what I’m getting at.)
Hubby pulled off the panel to see what was going on and in about 3-4 spots, large circular chunks of rusted out metal came off with it. Yikes! Talk about unsettling; there’s now gaping holes directly to the outside.
My first reaction was to take it to a body shop, stat! Roger had other ideas. Using body filler compound he was able to fill in the worst of the holes. We can now re-attach the panels, and probably seal the openings for the clips somehow. We’ll prime and paint the body filler, and have already applied a rust-stopper compound to the worst of the corrosion.
Removing old tie-down flooring
At the same time we were dealing with the rusty holes, we took up the floor. The floor was two sheets of plywood, with D-ring tie downs bolted into the floor. Tie down rails ran up the middle. Fortunately this was an easy removal too; no adhesive had been used. Under the plywood was a thin layer of roofing material. In the end, I’m glad we took it up, since sleeping inside a closed vehicle with a tar-based floor could be a health concern.
Future plans for ‘Canuck van’
That’s where things are at. We’ve got big plans for the van: there will be a platform bed with storage underneath, a kitchen with stove, fridge, sink and running water, plus a small eating/work area. We’ll have a multimedia entertainment centre, solar panels for power, propane for the fridge and stove.
We’ve got plans for lots of storage for clothing and food, and a cool vinyl wood-look plank floor. Lighting will come from low-energy dimmable LEDs.
We may or may not add some windows and a skylight.
Tech van plan
There’s going to be plenty of tech in this camper van. We’ll have a couple of built-in charging stations for phones, tablets and laptops so we can work from the road if necessary. We’re looking at a cell phone booster to snag better signals for internet use. The aforementioned entertainment centre will play music and stream and the solar system will give us plenty of juice. Solar lights will also figure prominently, I also have plans for a hidden safe to stash valuables on a long road trip.
The design? Something I’m calling chic all-white Canuck cottage.
If you have tips, advice, questions or recommendations, I’d love to hear them. Please post below or find me on Twitter and Instagram @ErinLYYC.