A lot of people have encouraged me (Zach) to write a short post about the long strange trip I’ve had with camper vans and, well, the dude abides.
Some people don’t believe me but I literally made “houses with wheels” with my Legos on a regular basis. The idea of a moving home intrigued me from a very early age.
Growing up, my dad, who was always building and creating things (tinkering as he would put it) had a “VW phase” in which he restored countless VW vans including a few Westfalia campers. I think most of them were from the 60’s and were absolutely beautiful! If only he had kept a few of those. Maybe I can dig up some photos of those some day.
Eventually, my family bought a nearly new 1989 Vanagon Westfalia in 1990. This is the car that I learned to drive with! We had a few family road trips in that van and a few more in my teens, including a very memorable excursion with my dad, brother and good friend to Vegas for a Dead show including camping at Circus Circus RV park on the strip.
That was 1993 and, later that year, I would purchase my first camper van – a 1971 VW Westfalia. My girlfriend and I spent the next 6 months (or so) preparing that van to travel the USA for about a year (not just Dead tour). So, with the help of my dad – who was the only one of us who knew anything – we rebuilt the engine, updated the camping equipment/interior layout and painted the van red. My first build! Shortly before we hit the road, and without any consideration of the extreme law enforcement scrutiny we would encounter as a result, my girlfriend and another artist friend adorned the van with all manner of hippy/Grateful Dead art and stickers. We would quickly learn that smart hippies, who had been around the block a few times, drove mini vans with D.A.R.E stickers – flying stealth. Anyway, the van was named A Smile From Gondwanaland or just Gondwanaland for short (because that’s so short) and she took us across the country and back at the top speed of 55 mph when the road was flat or downhill. Uphill or on mountain passes we were lucky to get to 15- 20 mph. If you’re old enough, you may remember being stuck behind this red van on a one-lane road with about 65 other cars back in 1994. If so, my apologies.
One thing I reflect on about this period of time is how primitive technology was. Nobody had a cell phone and, if you did, it was the size of a briefcase and rarely worked. There was no widely available GPS and certainly no apps. The internet and apps would be years away. I marvel at how simple things were. We had paper maps and our friends and family had no way of knowing where we were or how to get in touch with us. We would use pay phones at rest stops to phone home. Finding campsites was a real chore, sometimes driving down dead-end roads. Today’s vanlifers have literal miracles in their hands connecting them to resources, campsites, gas prices, their friends and family and other vanlifers!
Learning About RV Systems
We eventually settled in the San Francisco Bay area briefly and then Boulder, Colorado. Getting turned on to the van lifestyle and living on the road for about a year in a very (very) basic camper van combined with my sort of engineering and DIY streak led me to learn about “RV systems” while tinkering with my old Westy trying to upgrade things to be more like a fancy Vanagon Westfalia. I wanted a few more lights, I wanted to add some kind of heat (it’s awfully cold in Colorado), I wanted a refrigerator instead of an icebox. I found a beat up 3-way refrigerator that I could learn with, I explored RV salvage lots, I broke a lot of things, I tried to act like a legitimate buyer when pouring over RV dealership lots and I spent a lot of time at libraries so I could read Trailer Life magazine (again, pre-internet). I’m pretty sure that I was the only reader of that magazine under the age of 55!
Over the course of a few years, I would completely transform that van into what was, essentially a new build. It was also repainted to reduce my run-ins with the police 🙂
Upgrading To 65 MPH (In The Right Conditions)
Sometime around 1998 I was able to use my miraculous, newly installed “broadband internet” service (400 kilobits/second – less than half a megabit,) to locate a 1985 Vanagon Westfalia for sale nearby. The seller thought it was likely to need an engine rebuild so I got a pretty good deal and hoped I could figure that out when it blew up.
I only had that van for about a year and a half, but I did a bunch of upgrades including adding a secondary (“house”) battery, a small inverter and a catalytic propane heater before someone slowly slid into my slider door at a stoplight on an icy road mid-winter. Winter sucks and I live in Florida now, but that van was “totaled” by the insurance company. I ended up keeping it with the salvage title and selling it to someone who parted her out. Here we are on a road trip to Lake Powell in that van. I think we had just cut out of there without getting stuck in the sands and I was pretty proud of myself or something. I do remember how hot that van was without air conditioning in the desert!
Sometime around 2003, I had enough dough to buy my dream van – a 1997 Volkswagen Eurovan Camper! This was pretty much the most awesome camper van of its day – well before the availability of the modern high-roof cargo vans like Sprinters and ProMasters. Travel back to the 90’s and join Mike, Kali and Tiger to tell you about the Eurovan Camper in this VHS-quality gem of a video.
No longer a Westy, the Eurovan camper was a partnership between Volkwagen who supplied empty cargo vans to Winnebago who then upfitted them into surprisingly European-styled camper vans.
This van could keep up with the speed of traffic, it wasn’t prone to perpetual mechanical failures and wasn’t older than I was when I bought it. It was much more like an RV with a real refrigerator, forced air furnace, modest house electrical system with shore power charging. It even had a fancy tank monitoring system, which is something I had long admired about “real” RVs. I did add an inverter and made a few tweaks. It was a great van and it started a tradition of me using my camper vans as cargo vans as well.
I have so many great memories adventuring in that van. Here’s a shot of us caravanning with my dad who was driving the Vanagon Westy that I grew up with. Fun fact: he still has this van – it’s basically a part of the family now.
Camping in Wyoming in 2007:
In 2007, I moved to Panama, which is another story. So, I ended up selling the Eurovan Camper to fund building my house inside the crater of an extinct volcano in El Valle de Anton, Panama. Selling a camper van is nothing like unloading a car. First, they tend to hold their value much better and, emotionally, they’re more like a home or a pet. You have so many experiences in these vans!
Miles Van Camper – My First Promaster Build
By the summer of 2016, I was back in the USA, living in Florida (one avoids going too far north after living in the tropics!) and took a short trip to Colorado. My girlfriend and I borrowed the old family Westy from my dad and took it up to some of my favorite camp spots. True to form, the Westy broke down in a parking lot in Boulder at the end of our trip. Fortunately, Boulder is a great place to have a VW repaired and despite this, my girlfriend – who was brand new to vanlife, caught the bug as well and we talked about future trips. That short trip made me realize how much I missed having a camper van and I started scheming a DIY build.
I had been wanting to do a DIY build for years (decades?) and the newer high roof vans seemed perfect for the conversion. There wasn’t nearly as much info out there on the internet and social media in those days, but I started diving into the research and design. I ended up trading in my trusty Honda CRV and buying a brand new ProMaster 2500, 159″ wheel base van. I had never purchased a new car before and I had no idea how I was going to pull of the conversion. I had plenty of doubts and was pretty sure I was getting more insane by the minute. But, I also had years and years of ideas from all of my traveling in vans and I was so excited that this gigantic ProMaster van was big enough for all the things I could only dream about in a VW van – things like a fixed bed, large galley and a shower. Oh my gods, a shower!
Through continual persistence and occasional desperation, I figured out how to find the materials I needed and how to stumble my way through my first build – all in my driveway with pretty limited tools and a spare bedroom full of materials.
Years of home renovations and learning about and staring at RV/boat systems definitely helped, but it wasn’t easy. My first project on the first build was removing the seats to install the swivel bases…and I striped the bolt. Each time I would learn something “the hard way” I felt compelled to share with the handful of other people I imagined might want to build their own campervan.
I was thrilled with my first build and loved how it turned out. And despite how difficult it was, when the conversion was over, I realized how much I enjoyed the process.
Toward the end of my first build a friend asked if I had heard of the vanlife Reddit. This was deeply confusing. What is vanlife and why would there be a Reddit for it? It wasn’t until that moment that I realized that there may be more than a handful of people doing these “builds” and I discovered that this stuff I had been passionate about for so many years was becoming an increasingly popular thing. So, I started a blog to share a few things and made a video about that first DIY build.
Since then I’ve built out two more vans and now we are in the business of making a DIY camper van easier, faster and more enjoyable. What a long strange trip!
Thanks To Everyone Who Forged The Way
Some people might read this and think I was early to the “lifestyle,” but that’s far from the real truth. While I was “vanlifing” over 20 years before the term “vanlife” was coined, I was following in the footsteps of the hippies who where influenced by the beats who were inspired by the gypsies and the gypsies must have been turned on by someone else. I’m eternally grateful to everyone who forged the vanlife path for me (not the least of which is my dad) to find and so excited that I have so many more potential friends on the road. Oh, and that technology stuff is really cool too.
I hope our blog and store helps others discover vanlife. As we say on our “about page“, there is real magic in the alchemy of adventure, discovery, freedom and challenge that you experience living on the road. With a van you can go just about anywhere – from culturally rich cities to wonderfully desolate deserts, enjoying both the excitement and novelty of travel along with the comfort and security of home.