We'd like to share our adventure in obtaining a van here. It has been a process and a learning experience for sure. It's been a long time since either of us has bought a new car. Actually, I've never bought a new car, ever, although I've had...let's just say "many" cars. I'm not really sure anymore. A couple dozen?
Our process started with a stack of graph paper, and a list of household objects. We knew we needed a shower and a toilet inside the van, as well as a way to store and cook raw food, and a mattress for sleeping. Those were our absolute bare minimum requirements. We set to work drawing, to scale, a whole bunch of different floor plans in different sized vans. This was an iterative process, because we didn't know what would fit where and in what arrangement until we drew it, and a lot of times we'd draw something only to realize it wasn't going to fit. Which led to trying to find a different product in a smaller size or a different configuration, and start all over.
When we had about 10 different layouts that we didn't hate, we started to narrow them down. Which layout is most efficient? Which do we like the feel of? What does each one cost? Are any of them too difficult to produce? We also rearranged the kitchen in our house to the dimensions of the van to get a real-life feel for the size of the floor space and what it would be like to stand in. We looked at countless pictures of RV-converted vans online. We spent hours and hours of preliminary research. We even toured a Winnebago that's very similar to our design to give us an idea of what the living space will feel like.
We ultimately decided on a layout that is built around a 2020 Mercedes-Benz Sprinter cargo van with 144" wheelbase and a high roof. We were able to fit a shower, toilet, stove, refrigerator, sink, 64 gallons of freshwater storage, water filter system, 340Ah of battery, power inverter, air-and-water heating system, queen-size mattress, and a table with benches. So our next task involved picking all the options we wanted, and shopping for a van that checked those boxes. Easy, right?
We received a very warm recommendation for a particular salesman at a dealership in Maine, so we contacted him and gave him our list of wants to begin searching for us. We were underwhelmed at his responsiveness, and after a week or so of no follow-up communications from him after the initial, we visited a different dealership in person. This time we were able to locate a van off-site (at a third dealership) that was a close match to what we wanted, so we put a deposit on it, and waited for verification that it hadn't already been sold. A couple days later, we received the disappointing news that it was no longer available. That evening, we went through the online inventory for all 264 Mercedes-Benz USA dealerships one by one, searching for matches. We found about a dozen in the whole of the United States. We sent the best match to our salesman and asked if he could help us secure it. After a couple days of no response, we began reaching out to dealers all around the country ourselves. By this time it had been explained to us that whatever stock was available (this is late-November to early-December of 2020 timeframe) was all that would be available until the 2021 vans arrived hot off the assembly line. And that was expected to be late-July 2021, best case scenario. So with each call to a dealership that resulted in a "Sorry, that van's already been sold," our anxiety rose. We are hoping to have our conversion completed by the end of Summer 2021, so that wouldn't really be possible if we started the build in July or August.
By a stroke of pure luck, really, I called a dealership that had a sort of close match, but not really, something we probably could have been content with, but a little disappointing. But it was only about a half hour away from us. In talking with the salesman over the phone, he informed me that he actually had two vans that were a closer match to what we were looking for! Both were available for viewing, and he confirmed they had not been sold to anyone. What a relief! We went to check them both out a few hours later and begin the process of paperwork.
The two vans we looked at checked all of our boxes, and then some. We really only looked closely at one of them; the other got ruled out quickly because it was more expensive, we liked the color less, and it had painted bumpers which we knew could easily get ruined with any off-road driving we plan to do. So it was easy to decide which van we liked better, but then there was the larger decision of if we should do it at all. Of course, by this time we'd already kind of swallowed that pill, since we had previously put a deposit on the first van. But it's still a little nerve-wracking. Is this the right move? Is it the right time? Can we handle it? Are we totally committed? because we have to sell our house to make it work.
"Let's do it!"
We actually didn't have to do any paperwork at all to secure the van. Our salesman was content to hold it for us with just a verbal agreement that we would take it as soon as we could obtain New Hampshire plates for it. We did take it for a test drive first, of course, and found it's quite enjoyable to drive. It drives much nicer than I expected, although I should have known, because at its core it's a Mercedes-Benz with all the options. It's a V6 turbodiesel with 4WD; heated, swiveling seats; upgraded infotainment system; 360 degree parking camera; power everything; LED exterior lights; etc. etc. It's way classier than anything either of us has ever had before. It feels weird; are we actually this fancy? The color is called Pebble Grey, although it's really a tan color.
The van included a few options that we didn't really care about when we were shopping, but we are beginning to really appreciate. The power sliding door seemed like a totally unnecessary luxury, but it's pretty great and we use that door quite a bit. The rear bumper has an optional step that seemed kind of pointless when we were shopping, but it makes getting in and out of the rear way easier. It also doubles as a great little shelf to rest small items on if you're standing behind the van. Only one option is missing that was a nice-to-have and not a requirement - a trailer hitch, and that can be easily added at home. We figure if the van has the towing capacity, it would be silly to not be able to tow anything just because the hitch is missing. You know, in case of emergency, or even a non-emergent towing need. We aren't planning on regularly towing anything, but sometimes you just need to. So we'll add a hitch, just in case, so we're prepared.
So stay tuned as we work on upfitting the van for life on the road. Feel free to check out our YouTube channel if you'd like by clicking here.
It’s been quite a while since we’ve been able to travel anywhere interesting, and therefore it’s been a long time since we’ve written to you. It’s not for lack of doing anything, however. We have actually been quite busy planning something. It’s not quite the same as before, but then, what is anymore? It is a trip that we’ve been working on planning, but since it’s so different than previous trips, there’s a lot more involved. We think it might be worth sharing the planning portion this time, unlike our previous posts that were more like suddenly we're in [location].
“What the heck are you guys talking about?”
Something we’ve wanted to do for a long time now is an extended road trip. Like a year long adventure. Maybe longer, we don't know yet. Our one main goal is to drive all the way down to the southern tip of South America. And back, probably. Initially, we intended to use our camper trailer that has been featured here a bunch for that task. But, we’ve discovered some issues with that plan. Chiefly, there’s no shower or toilet in the trailer. The kitchen is outside, which we love in good weather. But what about when the weather is crap? There’s nowhere to stand inside, and we can only sit on the bed against the headboard. It gets uncomfortable after too long. There are other issues too, like the increased cost to ship a vehicle and trailer around Darien Gap. And that we can’t camp inconspicuously, if needed. A long list of little things that could be improved and make our year on the road more enjoyable.
So we've decided to build a van that will resolve all these issues for us. A high-rooftop Sprinter van has enough ceiling height for me to stand fully upright at 6 feet tall. We’ll have room to walk around, or at the very least, room to stand and get dressed. There will be multiple seating options. We can cook, sleep, shower, dress, and hang out, all without having to open a door or step outside if we don’t want to. And it’s not that we don’t love being outside! Just the opposite. But, sometimes you just can’t. Maybe it’s rainy season, or below-freezing on a mountaintop somewhere. Or any number of other reasons, you get the point.
We have talked about the road trip plan now for years. But now as we are working on a detailed design of the interior space of our van, it’s suddenly become a lot more real. Tangible. We’ve also begun looking around our home, and small though it may be, it is far larger than a van. So we’re realizing all of the things we will need to get rid of. While we don’t feel like we have a huge number of things, and we’ve always tried to be mindful of not accumulating stuff we don’t need…it’s still a bit much.
And trying to make these decisions about what stays and what goes feels, in a weird way, like attending our own funeral. The lives we have been living are ending as we begin something totally new. It’s kind of sad, a little bit scary, and really difficult yet exciting all at the same time. We’re also trying to do our best to avoid simply putting everything that won’t fit in the van into the garbage because it just feels irresponsible. It’s not sustainable. And we’re not unaware or ungrateful for our privilege in all of this. We're extremely fortunate to be in a position to have so much stuff; even more that we are able to think about letting go. There are an overwhelming number of people who do not have anything at all to get rid of, and that’s not okay either. We just want to do our best to minimize our impact on the environment and maximize our impact on those around us. In a positive way.
So with that in mind, we’re trying to make sustainability a main focus of the van. We absolutely love having solar panels to charge our trailer electrical system, so of course we will be doing something similar again. It’s so nice to be able to use electrical equipment without having to plug into a grid. It’s freeing. And free! And it doesn't contribute to global warming. If we design the system just right, we should be able to cook, pump water, use lights, recharge devices, etc., all without having to burn any fuels. We will need diesel only to move the van from place to place as we explore the world around us and to heat water.
We will dive into more detail in the future, once we know what the details actually look like a little more clearly. At this point, we just have a small mountain of pencil-sketch layout concepts and a bunch of financials spreadsheets; planning how we'll arrange everything in the van, and how we'll afford it. Exciting stuff for us, but probably boring for you all. But for now, we just wanted to provide this update so you know we’re still out here, and still longing to travel.
"It's a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don't keep your feet, there's no knowing where you might be swept off to."
- Bilbo Baggins
We're just an adventure-loving couple with a puppy looking to share our stories with the world.