The information in this post has been updated and published as “Update: Ford Transit Camper Van”
BACK STORY: Because of the greyhounds, in 2014 we transitioned from backpacking/tent camping to car camping with a pop-up tent trailer at state parks. We enjoyed the Livin Lite Quicksilver 8.1 trailer— it was sleek, lightweight and had everything we wanted: beds, table with benches, a kitchen cabinet, stove top, sink, furnace and power.
With it, we explored the Oregon coast campgrounds, and after discovering how easy it was to use the iPhone as a WiFi hotspot, we were able work from anywhere with a good internet AT&T data connection. The tent trailer gave us much more room than a heavy hard-sided camper. However, it had some major drawbacks. We couldn’t access anything in the trailer unless it was fully deployed. Using the sink and/or stove took up all available counter space. The dining table was usually in the way and we wound up just stacking gear on the benches. We found that we preferred to sit outside on camp chairs or, more often, just hang out on the bed. The furnace worked well but was also very loud.
We agreed that we loved exploring Oregon in comfort but needed to make a change, especially in light of Chris’s retirement date of October 2015. Attending the annual Fall RV dealer’s event in Portland was both astonishing and horrifying. Everything was SO big, and yet felt weirdly small inside and way too much like the tackiest apartment or hotel room. The Mercedes Sprinter-based Class B seemed like they might work, but were just too cramped with bathroom, plastic-y cabinets, microwave and multiple TVs and quickly became just as expensive as Class C motorhomes.
Finally, in the furthest corner of the convention center, we spotted a sweet little 22′ Sprinter van conversion by Van Specialties, a local aftermarket conversion company. It was really close to what we wanted but at $110,000, way over our budget. We realized we’d need to do our own conversion. We came up with the following list of goals to keep us on target as the research phase commenced:
DIY as much as possible
“No more no less” than we need.
Re-configurable: modify as our needs and interests change
Incorporate technology as it proves necessary
Open, airy with 360 degree views
Enough headroom for David
Be able to walk all the way front to back
Decent counter space for food prep; most cooking done outside
Lightweight, with good gas mileage
Functional but not luxurious
Also serve as an emergency vehicle/shelter
The Mercedes Sprinter platform is well established in the “adventure van” conversion community. But it’s expensive, has high maintenance costs because of its diesel-only engine and lacked the headroom David needed. Dodge’s ProMaster is not noted for its reliability, has too short a body length, a too-low roof and looks pretty homely.
As luck would have it, Ford had just released their new Transit van which replaces their long-time Econoline series. Early reviews were very positive and it came with a gas engine that could be serviced by any Ford dealer. We stopped by our local dealership after spotting a high roof model on the lot. The interior volume looked promising, David could stand up with room to spare, and it handled surprisingly well on the road.
On April 15, 2015, we ordered an Ingot Silver Ford Transit F250 long wheelbase extended high roof cargo van 3.5L Ecoboost V6 engine with some upgrades ($43,000). It arrived in Sandy from Kansas City on July 22, and we were out for our first trip by August 6.
THE CONVERSION: With only a couple of exceptions, noted below, we’ve done all the work ourselves. So far, we’ve spent just over $2100. Our total investment so far is less than half the cost of the Sprinter conversion we admired at the RV show last fall.
INSULATION: Ford’s cargo van comes straight from the factory with no insulation, headliner or wall panels. The floor is covered with a thick vinyl mat but it needed additional insulation and leveling. We slid a layer of UltraTouch Radiant Barrier under the mat. It’s a natural cotton product used for both acoustic and thermal insulation which we used in the ceiling areas, too. For the walls, first we lined the cavities with Reflectix, which look like reflective silver double-sided bubble wrap, then stuffed thick UltraTouch denim batt insulation into the voids.
CEILING: David poured through the forums, blogs and Pinterest, looking at products and techniques to finish off the ceiling. With limited time, money and skills, we thought we’d try a product we haven’t seen used for ceilings before: 8′ x 4′ sheets of white Coroplast, a thick plastic corrugated material similar to cardboard. It’s often used for outdoor signs. We special ordered it through HomeDepot (available in giant 10 sheet packs only). He attached it using thin strips of aluminum channel stock, Velcro and black push retainers. We love how it turned out— it’s lightweight, clean, bright and finishes off the ceiling nicely.
KITCHEN: The kitchen storage consists of two sets (medium and wide) of 4-runner Platinum Elfa frames stacked 29″ high from the Container Store. The counter top is a re-purposed Ikea desktop with an aluminum channel edge around three sides. The sturdy Elfa system allows us a certain amount of flexibility in drawer size and placement. We use bungie cords to keep the drawers from sliding out in transit in addition to using rivet retention pins in the front corners of each drawer.
BED: The bed represented the biggest conundrum of all. Should it fold? If so, where does the bedding stow? Should it run front to back or side to side? What size and type of mattress? How high off the floor? We even tested hammocks and considered bunk beds. Until the actual van arrived, we were still in the theoretical stage. The night the Transit arrived, we inflated our Exped SynMat UL7 air mattresses and slept on the floor of the van. Clearly, at 6’2″, David would not fit sideways. All night long, we tracked exactly how much space we took up. By morning, we concluded that a 48 x 75 inch mattress would suffice. We located a brand that specializes in odd sizes for RVs and trucks and ordered the 3/4 size Sedona RV Mattress. It’s been great for snuggling under our winter weight down comforter and still allows plenty of room to walk along the side. There’s still room for two Downtube folding bikes in the rear.
In the meantime, David’s stepdad Dave Walz swiftly and skillfully fabricated and painted a welded steel bed frame which adjusts to three heights: 16, 20 and 24 inches. After adding a fabric-wrapped OSB panel and strapping it tight to the tie downs, we were all set.
STORAGE: We liked the Elfa system we used for the kitchen so much that we returned to the Container store and picked up two 2-drawer units for our clothing, coats and gloves, etc. These are also fastened tightly together with plumber’s tape and anchored to the tie downs. We re-purposed two wire pannier market baskets from our road bikes to use for carrying shoes, maps and books. Hiking shoes/boots are stowed securely with bungies inside the wall cavities left open along the ceiling.
COOLING: The idea of cutting a hole in the roof was daunting, so we got Van Specialties in Tualatin to install a remote-controlled Maxxair Fan in the rear ceiling. This allows hot air to exit passively when open, but also acts as an active cooling system when the fan is turned on. We cut pieces of Reflectix to block and reflect the solar gain through the windows. They can also serve as insulation on cold nights.
On our first boondocking experience on Mt. Hood, David entertained himself by experimenting with a various bungie configurations to keep the solar windshield screen in place:
HEATING: We’re still sussing out solutions for heating and solar ($1 to $5,000) and will update this post soon.
REFRIGERATOR: Our Coleman Xtreme 75 quart cooler does a great job of keeping food cold for over 5 days. We freeze plastic containers of water ahead of time, and line the bottom of the cooler. It also does a fine job of providing seating if needed. An added bonus are the cup holders molded into the lid.
SCREENS and CURTAINS: Four of the side windows pop out a few inches, so Chris sewed screens made from fiberglass window screen fabric and attached them to the metal window frames with sticky-back Velcro. The screens for passenger and driver’s side windows take advantage of the door frames to hold them in place and are sewn from fine-gauge no-see-um fabric. Velcro and magnets fasten the large 6 x 6 foot screens for the rear and sliding side doors, allowing us to sleep bug-free if they’re open at night. When not in use, they’re rolled up and secured with Velcro above the doors. Black-out curtains, rods and clips for added night-time privacy are all from Ikea.
COOKING AND WASHING: It’s important to cook outside to avoid steam building up inside the van. This aluminum Mountain Summit roll top table from REI weighs less than 10 lbs and folds down into its own bag. After using the double burner Coleman stove for a few trips, we’ve switched to back to our small single-burner Primus stove which has a much smaller footprint. Once we’re done cooking, the dish pans, water jug and Nemo Helio Pressure Shower (thank you, Kevin!) are set up for washing. We’ll fill the Helio with hot water for our showers when we go to the southwest next month.
THE HEAD: Originally, we researched composting toilets, but they take up a lot of room and start at $500. Instead, we decided to make do with a more affordable option: a five gallon bucket, lined with 2 plastic bags holding 4 inches of kitty litter. As in the clumping kind. Snap on a toilet seat/lid combo with gasket, and for $20, we’re ready to “go”. So far, we haven’t had to use it, but it’s comforting to know the option is there, should the need arise. We’ve heard that dispersed campers in Utah have to pay a hefty fine unless they carry a functioning toilet.
NAME: We get a kick out of the aggressive model names used in the RV industry. We’ve still debating the perfect name for our new rig: “Ultimate Platinum Renegade Vortex Scorpion Rendezvous, the Eco Edition” would have us fit in with the big guys, don’t you think? Just gotta get out that Bookman Swash font and we’ll be ready to rock.
We’ve really enjoyed the design and build-out process so far. Our compact silver “spaceship” has been a delight to drive and live in (16 nights and 2500 miles as of September 15). We head south towards Arizona in October, so join us via the Beyond blog for more adventures!