Adventure Vehicles: Box Truck with Garage

No, don’t worry, we haven’t switched vehicles again! Instead, we’ve been talking about the many different versions of vehicle dwelling we’ve tried in the last couple of years and remembered F’s old box truck. This is what he was driving when I met him, filled with toys! I suppose I should have known what I was getting into…

Way back in 2008, F bought a partially converted UHaul truck and turned it into a total bachelor pad box truck, complete with roof top driving range and a shifter cart on the wall.

When he purchased the box truck, the garage/living space wall and bathroom were already installed. The walls were also insulated and wired. F purchased the cabinets at a thrift store. (The trophy was earned by F at a motorcycle trials event.)

Prior to the Mom’s Attic days, this UHaul’s cabover only had room for a twin bed; perfect for a confirmed bachelor. Ottomans formed the seats for the “dinette.” Not pictured is the couch that was opposite the dinette.

The garage had enough space for his adventure bike, trials bike, shifter cart, and a mountain bike. I wish he still had the Easy Rider poster.

Immediately behind the curtain is an RV toilet. To the right of the toilet is a 3×3 shower stall. This kept the toilet segregated from the living space to cut down on any possible smells from the black water tank. On top of the shower is a small “under sink” propane hot water heater.

And of course, the roof top driving range:

Adventure Vehicle Update: Our Truck & Lance 815

Our latest adventure vehicle is pretty much completed! Sprocket is pleased to give you the grand tour:

We found a Lance 815—the smallest long bed camper Lance produced. The camper is just big enough to have a full “wet” bath (the kind where you shower over the toilet). Dry it only weighs 1750lbs. This smaller, simple camper doesn’t have an oven like the toyhauler but it does have a dinette where we can relax in the evenings.

Our truck is a 1999 Dodge Cummins 4×4 extended cab. We sold the original truck bed and bought an aluminum flatbed. (All via Craigslist, of course.) To match the flatbed, we added aluminum toolboxes. With the truck weighing nearly 7,000lbs empty, the weight savings from using aluminum combined with the relatively lightweight camper was important for keeping our load in an acceptable load range. (If you can call 9,500lbs lightweight!)

Having all the toolboxes gives us a place to keep all of the extras that you wouldn’t usually need for a weekend of camping but are indispensible when you need them while living on the road long term. With the toolboxes I feel like we even have more space than we did in the trailer since everything is put away in its place rather than having to be shuffled around periodically.

The extended cab works really well for us. It gives Sprocket a place to ride as well as storage for his food, F’s riding gear, our outdoor table and chairs, and a lot of rarely-used heavy tools under the rear seat.

Ikea for Campers

Living in a small space requires organization. I’m a big fan of having everything in our vehicles put away so it looks less cluttered. Sometimes, though, that just doesn’t work. It’s a pain to shuffle through a tote for something you use everyday like floss or deodorant.

I picked up a magazine rack at Camping World to hold the computer but didn’t really like their spice rack option and all the other storage stuff was expensive! Last Wednesday, I ran (literally) down to Ikea to see what I could find that would work in an RV.

This first item I wasn’t planning on buying. I’m always trying to find ways to use the full height of our cabinets but most shelves made for that purpose don’t have a lip or anything since houses are usually pretty stuck to their foundations. 😉 This shelf is actually supposed to be assembled so the lip hangs down from the shelf making it “pretty.” I just assembled it upside-down to give it a little something to keep stuff from sliding off.

Most of the miscellaneous stuff scattered around this photo is supposed to go in the cabinet above the kitchen area:

The result is still crowded but I actually fit more up there opening up some additional dry goods storage elsewhere.

I found this sweet little basket for the bathroom “stuff.” It was on sale with an Ikea Family Card (it’s free! And you get free coffee every visit with it!) for $1.99!

Finally, I found this really simple spice rack. It’s just what I wanted.

This is the one drawer in the whole camper. Our spatula, wooden spoon, and lighters were really dominating it making it hard to access the silverware.

The spice rack and large utensil organizer in action:

These few additions went a long way in helping the place feel more like home to me! There’s a lot less clutter to shuffle around every time I want to cook or the vehicle needs to move. More pictures of the whole set up coming soon!

Updates From the Road

Life has been crazy around here in the two weeks!

We spent a couple of days urban camping around Phoenix and Mesa. We had both the truck and the van towing the trailer and within a few hours we knew that the trailer was much too big for us to comfortably travel in. After some discussion and deliberation, F and I concluded that we could live in a camper—preferably on a 4×4 truck so we could go more places.

And then the Craigslist-ing began: we needed to sell the van, the trailer, the street bike, and the truck. We needed to find a camper and a different truck.

We figured that finding a camper in all of Phoenix wouldn’t be that hard. Wrong.

After some searching, the best price we could find was in Quartzsite. Bob, of Cheap RV Living, was camping there and we figured we could hang out with him while selling our extras and looking for a camper. Unfortunately, the camper in Quartzsite turned out to be in pretty bad condition so we set up camp and continued to search.

Several days of Craigslist searching and many dead-ends later, we were starting to get a little discouraged. Last Friday afternoon, we found a camper in Salt Lake City… over 600 miles from Quartzsite. It’s always a bit of a gamble to drive that far for a used item but the photos seemed to show that this was in really great shape so hit the road immediately bound for Las Vegas. After staying the night in a motel we continued all the way north to SLC. Fortunately, the camper was in great shape as promised. We loaded it up and immediately headed south. Much of our drive back down to St. George was in the snow! Late the next afternoon, we pulled back into camp in Quartzsite excited with our new purchase and even more anxious to sell all our excess stuff. Perhaps even more encouraging was that we’d pulled off about 18mpg with the camper on the way back from Salt Lake.

We managed to divest ourselves of the van on Monday and bid the trailer adieu on Tuesday. Wednesday morning, we packed up the rest of camp and headed into Phoenix. We sold the street bike and found ourselves free! As it turned out, we were only sort of free. Although our Ford we’d purchased as a “temporary” truck to pull the trailer down here while continuing to shop for a different truck has been great for us, we really want to have 4-wheel drive.

After driving all over the Phoenix area, we’ve tracked down what we think is the truck for us: a 1999 Dodge 4×4 with the Cummins diesel. We’re hoping to continue getting fuel mileage in the 18mpg range and having some fun!

Tour of our sweet little camper coming soon!!!

On The Road Again

Aaaaand, we’re back!

It’s been a busy couple of weeks around here as we prepared to leave Ridgway and head south for the winter. First we had to figure out what to live in, where we were going, and what we were taking. It turned out that we bought a toy hauler so we could bring a whole lot of gas powered toys. It’s a new experiment for us (after the Sprinter, the Scamp, and our Chevy van).

Whenever you buy a new vehicle there’s always a flurry of activity while trying to get things ready for use. On top of that, there’s the transitioning from apartment living (with a grocery store next door) to living on the road.

Sprocket for one, is totally excited to be traveling again. This is how our dog shows excitement:

As it turns out, we’re pretty used to this style of living. It didn’t take me long to be on the lookout for free coffee, an electrical plug in, and some sunshine:

Handsome is pulling wizard-like feats of giant trailer turnaround on Forest Service roads and throwing sticks for SP in reservoirs:

I’m trying to incorporate running in to the day:

And we’re back to blogging to you from McDonalds:

It’s adventure time!

Building A Van For $200

After putting together our awesome Sprinter and working hard on the Scamp, we were anxious to get on the road and didn’t want to spend tons of time working on the Chevy. After traveling off and on for the last few months we have a pretty good idea of what is really necessary in a van to be comfortable and live on the road. We were also attracted by the challenge of building out this van as affordably as possible (see yesterday’s post) as an exercise in what it really takes to hit the road.

We purchased 3/8″ sheeting for the floor and installed it directly on top of the sheet metal. The bed is 3/4″ A/C plywood (11 layers!) cut to fit the sides of the van (our van tapered about 1″ from front to rear); conveniently, the left over plywood was the right height to support the bed below our torsos (placement was determined by the width of our storage totes).

There are a few key items that you probably need inside your van. The items we chose to include in our budget breakdown are things that we’ve judged to be necessary to “make the jump” to living in your van comfortable. There are always ways pare down and make the entry costs cheaper and never ending ways to make things more complicated or expensive—these just represent our thoughts on the matter.

Budget Van Build:

  • 2 sheets 3/8″ sheeting for floor: $36 (Home Depot)
  • Box of self tapping screws for floor: $6 (Home Depot)
  • 1 sheet 3/4 A-C plywood for bed: $34 (Home Depot)
  • Two burner propane stove: $25 used (garage sales, Craigslist) or $40 new.

A single burner can also work but for minimal extra cost two burners can be quite nice. 1 pound propane cylinders will work just fine and you can upgrade to a 5 pound container when you can. We’re actually just cooking with my backpacking stove outside the van right now, so whatever you’ve got will get you on the road!

  • Cabinet: $15 (garage sales)
  • Futon mattress: $40 (thrift store, Craigslist)

Non-spring mattresses can be trimmed with a razor blade to fit around ribs in the van body. A full-size futon will hang over a plywood bed (48″ wide) but at 54″ this size works fine. Or just cut it down and resew the cover.

This is one of the vandwelling necessities we already had. Any clean container will work but having a good supply of water on hand is key! We keep 4 1L Nalgene containers full for drinking water and cooking and refill them from our large container.

Here’s something that you probably don’t need to get started but being able to charge a computer while going down the road is really important to us—and probably to lots of potential van dwellers

  • LED dome replacement lights: $6 (eBay)

Since you’ll be going in and out of your vehicle a fair amount, switching the dome lights to LEDs (or simply removing the fuse for them) will probably save you from killing your van battery repeatedly.

Total van build: $208

So You Want To Live In A Van…

The open road is calling your name but how do you even begin? There’s more than one way to live in a van.

There’s the $120K Roadtrek way:

There’s the DIY Sprinter conversion way ($15-25K):

And then, there’s the budget way ($1-4K):

We recently purchased a 2001 Chevy Express contractor van with 118,000 miles for $2500. For this build, we decided to do a budget build to figure out what’s really necessary to live in a van.

Budget vans come in all varieties, most common being the cargo van although conversion models are also available. Among cargo vans, budget options vary from $1000 older or high mileage vehicles to $4000 low mileage late models.

Although there are cheaper options out there, we decided to go with the newer van because of several factors. The newer van has a few more creature comforts: it is quieter and rides more smoothly. Our 2001 with the 5.0L V8 gets 20MPG which is as good as it gets for a gas powered van. Some mechanical improvements also make the newer models desirable; for example, the transmission is much stronger and modern fuel injection. Parts are widely available in junk yards and are more likely to be in stock at auto parts stores. This van has a high stealth factor for exploring towns and cities. A 1991 “Free candy” van sticks out a lot more.

Tomorrow, we’ll continue with a look at how to build a Budget Van.. for less than $200!

Is a Sprinter For You?: An Introduction to Mercedes Benz Sprinter Vans

A Sprinter is a great vehicle for a certain type of individual. For others, it may not be the cost effective choice. In this post we’ll take a look at the Sprinter’s strengths and whether they’ll work for you.

T1N vs NCV3:

The Mercedes Benz Sprinter was introduced to the North American market in 2002 and has existed in two body styles: the T1N, produced from 2002-2006, and the NCV3, 2007-present. Sprinters have come badged as Freightliner, Dodge, or Mercedes Benz but regardless of badging they are all 100% Mercedes Benz.

Improvements from the T1N to the latter NCV3 include tilt steering, a quieter and smoother ride, and an “updated” look (whatever that means). Despite these improvements however, the NCV3 is heavier, has lower fuel economy, and many dependability issues. These problems are enough to recommend not buying a NCV3 for the budget minded individual. (Unless of course you really, really want a brand new van with warranty. In that case, head right on down to your dealer, drop $45K.) You can also go pick up a New Roadtrek RV conversion starting at $110K. Because of the NCV3 issues, and their expensive price tag we will discuss only ‘02-‘06 (T1Ns) in this article.

Drive Train: The drive train is the same in all T1N configurations.

The engine is a 2.7L 5-cylinder turbo diesel that puts out 154HP and 243 ft-lb torque in stock form. All transmissions are a NAG1 5-speed automatic.

The 2002 and 2003 models had the OM612 engine while the 2004-2006 models had the OM647 engine. There isn’t much difference between the two engines however the OM647 has an in-tank transfer fuel pump, an O2 sensor and a slightly better EGR valve (except for an easily fixable issue with the turbo resonator). While the OM612 is preferred by some owners/mechanics because it is slightly simpler, it doesn’t really matter.

In brief:

  • -Generates plenty of power for the vehicle size, it is quite “zippy.”
  • -Engine can be expected to last about 500K miles with regular maintenance.
  • -5-speed automatic transmission lasts about 250K miles on average.
  • -Will not tow or put up to the abuse like a 1-ton domestic van will.

Fuel Mileage:

T1N fuel mileage is excellent! Carrying a standard (~1200 lb) load with the tires well inflated, driving at 55-65mph will net 26-28mpg. As with any vehicle, stop-and-go traffic, heavy cargo, driving with a lead foot, or low tire pressure will decrease fuel mileage.

My personal extremes range from a low at 12,500lb gross (loaded van, towing jeep) with conservative driving netting 19mpg to a high being completely unloaded, no headwind, 215/85R-16 tires at 70psi getting 30mpg. However you slice it, compared to domestic vans the mileage is very good.

The T1N does not require ultra low sulfur diesel (so go to Mexico or beyond!) One can even use the red stuff in a pinch. If your grandma owns a bakery, this Sprinter can also be converted to WVO (waste veggie oil).

Passenger vs. Cargo:

T1Ns came in two configurations: passenger and cargo vans. The cargos are by far the most common, will be useful for working out of, or for a clean slate to start your conversion. They have minimal windows although they are easy to install and will run about $100 each.

A passenger version is ideal for hauling a large number of people. They will have all the factory windows and are completely “trimmed out.” The walls have some insulation although it is not sufficient for RV use. Little of the factory interior is useful in a conversion.

Configurations:

The T1N Sprinter comes in three different lengths: a 118”, 140”, and 158”. The long 158” was available in a 1-ton version (denoted by duel rear wheels) with the only differences being that it has a larger full floater rear end and heavier rear springs. Each length also came in two roof heights: a high roof with 6’ interior height and a regular roof with 5’2”ish interior height.

Sprinter as Adventure Van:

For a vehicle of its size, the Sprinter has very good ground clearance (9” of clearance under the front suspension, and 13” under the belly). 4-wheel drive has never been available in North America however they get into the boonies rather well, especially with aggressive tires.

In Mexico, the Sprinter is a fairly common vehicle making parts and service available throughout that country.

Maintenance and Parts:

The Sprinter is known for running a half-million miles (and beyond in some cases) but it doesn’t hold up to neglect the same way a Ford or Chevy would. Fixing small problems when they’re small will save frustration and money down the road.

Although the Sprinter has a small engine, it holds about 10 quarts of 0w-40 synthetic oil lasting 10-12K between changes.

Parts can be ordered at most Mercedes, Dodge, and Freightliner dealerships. Some parts are rather expensive; others are shockingly reasonable. RockAuto.com also stocks a lot of consumable parts (as do other online retailers) and are far cheaper than the dealerships—for example Mercedes dealership sells the 150 amp Bosch alternator for $858 while the same unit can be purchased on Amazon for $160.

Since most T1N’s have 200-300K on them by now all the common problems have been brought to light with most issues having step-by-step instructions with pictures. The online Sprinter community is a GREAT bunch of people.

Some Sprinter owners have had dealerships (out of greed) and honest independent mechanics (out of ignorance) replace high dollar items when there has been a failure with a simple item. Independent mechanics may lack familiarity with the Sprinter and most do not have the appropriate diagnostic tools to read the internal Mercedes codes. Even the generic codes are barely readable via OBD-II.

So who should buy a Sprinter?

How much do you drive? If it’s a lot then it may be an excellent choice in fuel savings alone. But if you drive less then 10K miles a year a domestic van maybe a better financial choice. (If in a year you toured 50K miles around N. America making for a difference of $4000ish in fuel savings over a gas powered comparable van!)

Are you very mechanically inclined? Do you have a trust worthy, knowledgeable mechanic? Go for it! If you can change your own oil, pack bearings, disassemble door parts, clean EGR’s, swap steering components and do simple problem-solving the Sprinter is probably a great choice. Just be willing to do a lot of research as most problems before 250K miles are often simple fixes in which your most valuable tool is research via sites like sprinter-source.com and other web resources. For example, I recently fixed a known issue with the window regulars for $5 instead of $300 each for a new window regulator unit from Mercedes. By far the most important tool is research!

Buying a T1N:

Sprinters commonly had paint and corrosion problems. Plan on traveling south for a rust free body (but it’s also a way of getting a cheap van when pointed out to the sellers).

  • Your best bang for your buck will come in the 150K mile range where you should expect to pay $9-12K.
  • Vehicles in the 250K mile range are up into the mileage range and generally sell for $7-8K. But maybe you only need this for a one time epic road trip? Budget for a repair that maybe over your skill level. ($$)
  • Low mileage units exist but are difficult to find and may fetch as much as $15-18K (and maybe worth it to you in the long run).

Sprinter Van Resources:

Doctor A

Sprinter-Source.com forum

Links for Sprinter builds:

Scamp Shakedown, Part 2

In the morning, we got a pretty slow start. I took some pictures, we drank coffee, Sylvia made us pancakes, and we packed up camp before heading out for a hike around the valley.

When we arrived back at camp, we all loaded back into the Jeep and headed for Ajo. Along the way, Forrest stopped to test the Scamp on some more angles to get a better idea of its capabilities.

Scamp Shakedown, Part 1

Last week, we took the Scamp out for it’s first camping adventure. We’d slept in it in town a couple of nights but with the new axle set up in place, it was time to take it out in the desert for a bit of a test run. Sylvia and her dog Blue joined us for the adventure and toasting to good times in the Scamp.

We headed out to a secret desert location. I rode in the Scamp to watch how our packing job held up to a rocky road while Forrest, Sylvia, and the dogs rode in the jeep. At our perfect little camp, we took the opportunity to just relax after a hectic week of buying & moving into the Scamp, selling the van, and taking care of projects.

I decided to attempt making skillet pizza for dinner. The pizzas turned out yummy but the recipe needs a bit of refining before I share it here. It was nice to discover that at least three people can quite comfortably eat in the Scamp. Here’s hoping it’s the first of many Scamp “dinner parties.”