North to Alaska

Garrett and Sherrila's van conversion

Big RVs - the full-sized motorhome kind - are frivolous. You'd have to stay in a hotel every day for three or four years to make up for the difference in cost between a motorhome and a camper van. If you're a rich retired dork with a gigantic family, a house in a crappy location, and no sense of efficiency, go ahead and get one. But I've got other needs.

I want to travel. Travel can mean different things, based on the level of comfort, and the level of "adventure", an individual prefers. But frugality and flexibility are interests of mine. Hauling an entire house around would solve a lot of problems, yes, but the core element of travel is being away from home. For example, If I bring my whole bedroom to a mountaintop in the Sierras, I bypass the novelty of sleeping under the stars.

I'm going on a long trip through Alaska and Canada. The larger the vehicle I take, the fewer places I will be able to drive it. Some roads just won't accommodate a large vehicle. I'm also interested in having a vehicle that I can use for purposes other than long camping-style road trips. I'd like to employ my vehicle in trips to the store, or use it to haul furniture, for example.

Trucks are nice, but I rarely need their level of power or flexibility. I do, however, like to haul groups of friends around, and have a private indoor working space wherever I go. A better choice for my purposes is a van. Vans apparently aren't popular because they're not "manly" enough. To be "manly", I'd require an SUV. I'd like to go off-topic and say a few choice words about that.

An SUV is designed and marketed as a replacement for van and a truck, but in practice it conveys the real advantages of neither. In the extreme case, an SUV is essentially a truck that's only good for hauling groceries. Mud, paint, cinder blocks, and scrap metal do not mix with leather interiors, even synthetic leather interiors. Clever fold-away seats, and piles of split firewood jumbling around, do not play well together.

I suppose the reality is, that's all people want - to be able to take a bunch of groceries up a four-wheel-drive-only road. So, my irritation must shift instead to all the twits on the road who are now capable of this, yet never do it. They said, "I want one car that will inadequately serve the purposes of three, so my options aren't limited." For those twits, I have these words: Did your dick actually get bigger, or are you still waiting?

In less extreme cases, an SUV is essentially a van with fat tires and the nose stretched out so it has the hood-space of a truck. Think about it. Yank the nose of a van and add 10k. Instant SUV. Fuck you, SUVs. Okay, so where was I? Ah yes, vans.

There are motorhome-van hybrids, custom-designed around a van body that is flared at the sides to carry a large bed and more passengers. The bedroom is inevitably in the rear, eliminating the rear-entry aspect of a van. This also prohibits you from using the vehicle like a van, unfortunately. That alone puts this entire class of vehicles squarely outside my interest, and what's more, all the hybrids from the last ten years are festooned with gadgets and appliances that cannot be removed.

Getting a truck, and then hauling a trailer, or putting a shell directly on the truck, would seem like a handy alternative, if only I was interested in having a truck for general use instead of a van. Most trailers are too classy for me (though Ben's "Jellybean" trailer is so efficient and compact that I love it), and a shell merely turns a truck into a camper van with a big wall slashing across it. No, my needs are centered too closely around the body style of a van to make any of these options appealing.

What I really need, is a van that has been adapted for camping and road-trip use, but remains essentially a van. And that brings me to the camper van.


A V-10 is overkill. With it, I could haul 15 people, all their luggage, and a trailer. Up a mountain. I don't need a gas-hog like that. A V-8 is still overkill, but at least within the realm of sanity. The modern 6-cyliders actually have enough power for my needs, and would be the most efficient. However, an extended-body style with that kind of engine is rare. I'll probably end up settling for an older V-8 with a relatively small block.


If I'm going to get a van, I'd like it to be an extended-body van. That extra length has proven useful in the past when hauling things, and since Sherrila and I like a lot of space to sleep, we'll need extra space for the luggage displaced by the bed. I consider a good bed to be a high priority because we'll be spending three months sleeping on it. How well we sleep will decide how well we enjoy our whole vacation.

The fold-down beds provided in regular-body vans are too short for my comfort, especially if mah honey will be sleeping next to me. Some of this need for space is mitigated by the addition of a pop-top or cruiser top to the floor plan, but I find that when hauling people or belongings, extra horizontal space is much more important than extra vertical space.


A "pop" top is versatile and compact, with excellent ventilation and room to sleep at least one comfortably. It can also be rolled back to provide ventilation and headroom to the whole rear vehicle. On the other hand, it MUST be collapsed while driving, it is the most fragile, and it has no storage space. It's thinness also makes it a poor choice during rain and cold weather. Note that it is the ONLY configuration that will keep the van looking like a van, and not a camper. Park any other vehicle on the street, and you may get funny "trailer-trash" looks from your neighbors, or even complaints that your van should be garaged or hauled away.

A "contempo" or "vista" top provides headroom and storage, though less than a cruiser top. It can be used while driving unlike the pop-top, and is more aerodynamic than a cruiser top. On the other hand, it doesn't provide any ventilation, and does not provide any extra sleeping space. It primarily addresses a need for headroom, with a little additional storage.

A "voyager" top is like a contempo, but full height. It provides lots of storage, including a large area over the cab. One can also install windows in it, for cooking ventilation. It doesn't fold down, and therefore adds wind resistance while driving, like a cruiser top.

A "cruiser" top is large, and provides room for two people to sleep, if they don't need a lot of headroom. It provides open space above the dining area like the voyager top, and storage space around it. These large tops make the vehicle harder to garage and park, and the meager windows and clearance give some - but not a lot - of ventilation. It would be fine in a cold environment, but a bit uncomfortable in the sun.

A big question to consider in a choice of tops is, will we be using the converted top for sleeping? That depends on the second-biggest question, which is: will we have so much luggage that sleeping in the van will be uncomfortable?


Things that suck, a short list:

The interior shower is not for me. A good idea in theory, but always too small, too limited in pressure, and only useable after you hook up at an RV space and wait for the water to heat. Either that or you must have a hot water heater, an electrical system, a generator, and large water tanks all installed. If you're going to be in the wilderness, and away from all external running water and electricity, you're going to run out of gas long before you start to stink. Either that, or you're very bad at keeping clean. (Post-script: In our whole Alaskan vacation, we never once had to stay at an RV park that didn't have a shower, except when we dry-camped in Denali, and even that place had showers back at the ranger station.) Waste of space, waste of energy, waste of money.

The full toilet is not for me. Once again, a good idea in theory, but unsatisfactory in practice. Way too cramped. Requires pumping and waste disposal, which requires an external hookup at some point. Crucial space much better used for other things. If you're that afraid of the toilets you'll encounter while traveling, you shouldn't be traveling at all.

A one-side bench-to-bed conversion, or a gaucho, is one of the competing options for sleeping. Irritating because it often blocks access to the stove, porta-potti, or fridge, while anyone is sleeping. Often requires removal of the table that residents will be eating at, in order to have space for cooking. In longer plans where accessories are in the back, it blocks the hallway and cuts off access from the front. A two-bench bed that spans the full width of the van is the only arrangement I can stand, preferably all the way in the rear where it cannot block access to any amenities, and can be bounded by two walls.

Television and VCR cabinets. If you really must take your mindless blithering entertainment with you into the wilderness, then do the classy thing and buy a laptop from Apple. Plug that into the 110 outlet or the cigarette lighter, and watch DVDs on it. Also makes a handy digital hub, who would have guessed? Televisions, and even TFT screens, built into vehicles, are the spawn and instruments OF SATAN, as far as I'm concerned. If you get a vehicle that has them installed, rip them out, and put a spice rack there, or a charging mount for walkie-talkies. And yes, I've heard the crowing from the parents: "It keeps the kids quiet while we drive!" Wait a few years, you ninnies, until your kids can read, and then give them some books. Or, what the hell, why not just talk to them? Or hey! Leave them behind, with the neighbors!


When cooking on the road, there are two options for applying heat indoors. A microwave, and a stove.

A stove can be used to cook more elaborate meals. It can also cook a greater quantity of food. It can be used in the wilderness for long cooking times even when there is no electrical outlet around. On the other hand, a stove must be supplied via propane, generally stored just under the stove itself. This takes up space, and also adds weight to the vehicle. It must also have adequate ventilation to be used, and you would never ever want to use it while driving. Though a raised roof will help, cooking on a stove inside a van will always be a cramped activity.

A microwave does not require propane, takes up less space, is less dangerous, and does not require ventilation. For heating up small things - drinks, leftovers, prepared meals - it is much faster than using a stove. Plus, if you were a complete idiot, you could potentially use it while driving. On the other hand, it makes any elaborate meal preparation a pain in the ass, if not impossible. Should you attempt an elaborate meal -- boiling water for noodles, then frying tofu, then simmering a sauce, for example, you would probably drain your house battery, requiring that you run the engine, or a generator. This will not strand you, but you may need to run the engine every day you make dinner.

One compromise here is to include both a microwave and a stove. if you don't mind sacrificing the space, go ahead.

Another compromise is to include neither, and instead keep a portable stove in the back. Design your van layout to include some table space, and ask for a quick-disconnect valve to be installed in the circuit for your propane supply. You can set the stove on the table while you cook, and then hook a space-heater up to the valve later that night. No fumbling with propane tanks either way.

You could also keep a portable propane supply, and forego the entire propane assembly for your van. You lose the convenience of easy-access propane, but if you go to places that have a flat surface nearby, you get to slap the stove down outside when the weather's good. When your vacation is over, you won't have to haul the propane assembly around as you use the van for daily chores.

Sounds great, though there are a few things you might consider: You must use the stove outside, unless you design your van with enough table space and ventilation to make indoor cookery safe. You'll need a "pop" top or a "cruiser" top and at least one additional window. (Rolling down your windows and opening the back may work too, but if you can do that, the weather's probably good enough to cook outside anyway.) You'll need to consider indoor cooking, because if it rains, or snows, or is too windy, or too dark, or there is no table outside, you'll have problems. Note that if your fridge is in the van, you'll have to march back and forth from fridge to stove, tracking the wilderness into your van each time.


When I'm traveling with mah honey, and we're driving down highway 5, it would be ultra-spiffy if I could have the laptop open in the back, hacking while she drove. Or we could trade places.

A dinette arrangement is well suited for this, with the pads that fold down to create a bed, because it provides a bench seat around the table. Two people can sit at it and hack. Dinettes with two benches are usually at the rear of a vehicle, with appliances running between the rear and the front. This means that in a typical EB dinette arrangement, I would get a table for hacking, but it would be far away from mah honey while she drives, and I wouldn't be able to face the front.

I'm not suggesting that anyone else do this regularly - working at a table while driving is irresponsible, folks. Those of us with laptops can just hold them on our laps. No table required!

A good layout for this is Sportsmobile's EB50 or EB51, where half the bed is a fold-up bench that faces forward instead of to the side, and typically has a socket for a table placed in front of it. This moves the table up to the front of the vehicle, facing forward, which is more cozy for driver and passenger, but it means that the table is smaller, and people can only sit on one side of it. Even if the front passenger seat rotates to face it, it's an ungainly place-setting.


An extended-body floor plan conversion, on a van I provide, costs about $15000. A top-conversion, be it a cruiser, penthouse, or whatnot, will cost an additional $5000. So to do a full conversion with one of the available floor plans, I'd end up paying $20000 on top of the cost of your van.

Sportsmobile will sell me a brand new EB Ford van with the right engine specs for about $25000. Combining amounts, I can see why they charge so much for their 4x4 stock - the full conversion with a new EB van costs $45000 total, not including all the work to make it a 4x4, nor the suave air-conditioning and heating options.

I'll probably find a good deal for an EB van I like on ebay, paid in cash, for about $7000. To convert it however, leaving out the options I dislike, will probably cost me $15000. Viewed in this light, paying around $20000 for a used conversion represents a safer bet, being $3000 cheaper. Even if the van turns out to be a lemon, $3000 will go a long way in making repairs and tune-ups. That would cover a new engine, a rebuilt brake system, new tires, and a full inspection, with money left over for a tune-up afterwards.


I began considering all this about a year before going on the trip. I decided to keep my eyes open for used camper-vans, tracking Sportsmobile's website among other places. I also decided to track the nationwide eBay Auto listings for vans that could be converted to my needs. Compared to what was available, my criteria were very restrictive. I wanted:

later on I decided to favor Ford vans over Dodge vans, once I realized that their interior dimensions were more different than I thought. I ignored the advice of others with respect to drivetrain issues, because I'd heard too many conflicting stories on both sides of the fence.

For months I watched the listings and worked on my vehicle layout, but none of the vehicles being offered were inspiring enough to make me purchase. Eventually I found a cargo van from Texas that was such a good deal that the balance in cost between a custom conversion, a used camper, and a new vehicle was tipped in favor of a custom conversion. Its faults were all things I didn't care about: For example, no rear seats, and a very messy, beat-up cargo area. That would be covered over by wall paneling and marine vinyl.

I flew to Texas and brought the van back, but that's another story.

Once I had the van, I took it to Sportsmobile in Fresno and reviewed my plan with a staff member. At the same time, my taxes came due, and I had to pay a couple of thousand unexpected dollars to the government. We gave up the "voyager" top, and the 'fridge and microwave, eliminating the counter-space along the left side.