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John and Mandi

us --> van --> overland
7 yrs and 6 days - end of the road

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Why Build Our Own Camper Van?

Feb 3, 2015
by John

Being more of a why not person, sometimes biting off more than I can chew and always having a very full mouth, I'm prone to trying most things. When we started leaning hard towards driving the Pan-American highway we began considering building our own overland vehicle. To be entirely honest, our ideas were light years apart, mine winning since I'm still an overbearing anal retentive super freak. That means our build is way more involved and complicated than Mandi ever imagined, I love you sweet pea.

However, that's where we are and not how it came to be. When we started the process of choosing a rig we went through the usual suspects of Toyota truck, SUV, retired military vehicles, truck camper, so on and so forth, before finally deciding on what we wanted to drag our glutei maximi 40,000 (+/-) miles to the end of the world. We have nothing against any of the other setups, we admire the folks tougher than we are that can travel with far less as equally as those who can take many more luxuries, we just happen to be van people at this time in our lives. The realization that we would be driving a van limited us to a Sportsmobile, a VW Syncro, or building our own due to our other vehicular requirements.

The start of it all

The start of it all

Spending any amount of time researching overland vehicles does plant the seed to home build. Sites like Expedition Portal and other forums are filled with talented folks that have built beautiful large scale and minimalist rigs. Just like wanderlust, a fire can be lit in those who possess the masochistic gene to attempt to build the perfect overlanding rig (think chasing unicorns). Vehicles that are kept to just the basics can be built quite affordably, a choice many people make that plan on selling their rig at the end of the Pan-Am. We're wanting to keep our van so we will be shipping it back to the states once our trip is over, excuse #312 for building it exactly to our liking.

We've always wanted a Sportsmobile or a VW campervan. Melding the two with a minimalist approach gives us the perfect combination. Removing most of the permanent on-board systems seems like a good idea and it should limit some complications along the way. Keeping it simple should allow us to replace any broken pieces without having to engage in any major renovation. The electrical, entirely 12v, is the most involved and complicated system thus far. While we would have rejoiced upon finding the van we imagined, epic fail Google, fate determined that we'd be doing it ourselves.

One could call building your own overland vehicle a right of passage, for us that would be trying to sell a bundle of horse shit as makeup remover. It takes some special kind of dumbassery to attempt a project of this magnitude without ever building anything greater than speaker boxes. I did help my dad build a few decks, porches and such but a twitchy teenage boy doesn't retain what he should especially when being forcefully employed as unpaid labor. Factoring the number of years that have since passed, most of what scant cursory knowledge was learned has long faded out of my memory banks. Mandi's father built cabinets at one point in his life but as she recalls that was well before her earthly being.

Making unsmart decisions is sometimes the best thing for us. Breaking the comfort zone as it is often referred, has already pushed us to learn about our different reactions to stressful situations confronted during our build, messy but necessary. In our normal day to day life, putting things off or getting others to help is an easy crutch to lean on. Our life on the road will present us with situations that must be faced directly, no calls to supervisor's supervisors to bail our sorry asses out or to force our stubborn ways. Practicing patience now will hopefully pay off tenfold when presented with a real problem later down the road.

The pretty side to home building, shit be just everywhere

The pretty side to home building, shit be just everywhere

Today the van is roughly 60% completed, the reason why it's much easier to share our decision. There have been many moments we looked at each other, eyes filled with desperation for a real life super hero to come save the day (Wonder Twins - "in form of master carpenters"), wondering what-the-eff we got ourselves into. There are also those moments we step back and marvel at what we've been able to accomplish. Cresting the hump has us appreciating the agony, slightly, as we continue to translate our vision into a reality.

Choosing to build our own van was an inadvertent consequence to the path we decided to take. A little bit of naivety sprinkled with the desire to break out of our daily routines. A monumental task that has put us at odds, yet has us reveling in our evolving creation. An extension of our beings, loose in translation. An absolutely absurd and wonderful experience. There are times we question the sanity of our decision, progressively less as of late. A self inflicted wound that must be healed before we set off.

Oh-oh, here she comes

Oh-oh, here she comes

Wise words regarding building out a Ford van were recently posted on the Sportsmobile forum by our friend Eric (86Scotty), a great guy so make sure you meet him if you get the chance.

"If you do some homebuilding you'll quickly find out that every single line on a damn Ford van is curved, even though most look straight. There's not a straight, level line anywhere on one of these vans, either vertical or horizontal, in or out."

Probably wouldn't have changed our minds but that is the single best piece of knowledge we've learned the hard way. It's no secret, we've mentioned it in several posts, that our biggest pain has been dealing with the damn inconsistencies of the walls. Ye be warned.

Say what? (4)
Feb 4, 2015 at 09:14 AM
Thanks for the morning laugh John! Also, thanks for including me, just a little, in your journey, even if it is to state the ugly truth about things. Glad to hear you guys are getting there and can't wait until you start your journey in earnest.

Feb 4, 2015 at 09:30 AM
Anytime Eric! Mandi and I got such a laugh out of those two lines. No one could ever state it better, it oozes the perfect balance of experience and the angst it took to gain.

Late May we will be running up the East side of the Rockies then off to Alaska for the summer. September or October we should be dropping into Baja. We know you have wonderfully restored a Sportsmobile and we're always up for a caravan, just sayin.
Feb 5, 2015 at 02:42 PM
Well.... sometimes the hard way works! At least you'll know that you're getting exactly what you want and it's all coming together!
Feb 6, 2015 at 10:45 AM
Hopefully we've worked past the school of hard knocks and can gain some ground. The more it starts to look like a camper our excitement grows.
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