The idea of having a dedicated adventure van that doesn’t require monthly payments, which can be used as a mobile base camp is an alluring prospect for anyone who is even semi-serious about leading an active/outdoor lifestyle. It doesn’t matter if you are into mountain biking, surfing, hiking, or even motocross racing. With a little planning and thought you can expand your boundaries and possibilities through the freedom of mobility. Follow along on my journey to acquire, outfit and begin my adventures in my own adventure van.

Image courtesy:Sportsmobile.com
Image courtesy of sportsmobile.com

Selecting the van and the plan

In the planning stages of the project I dubbed this vehicle the “adventure van”. I had to consider vehicle price, vehicle size, and future maintenance needs, along with availability of repair parts. At the same time, I started making a list of necessities and niceties (what was truly essential and what was a luxury).

Living in Alaska I had to weigh my options carefully, environmental factors and availability weighed heavy on my decisions. Although the State of Alaska has just over 750,000 people, replacement parts for exotic (or custom) vehicles could take days, or weeks to arrive. I would love to do a school-bus conversion like Nick Cahill did, but for my first attempt at building an adventure van, I wanted to start small.

I relied heavily on the information I found at expeditionportal.com, a website full of people doing the same things we were all doing (some on a much larger scale). My wants/needs in adventure van will not be the same as yours, but it’s a base to start from. Below is the criteria I created for my project which may help you if you choose to build your own adventure van.

  • Ford E Series, Chevy or Dodge full-size, bigger is better
  • V8 motor
  • Must be able to go through a drive-through
  • Fewest amount of extras such as power windows, locks, etc.
  • Fleet-style work vans ideal

There are things you have to accept as facts when taking on a project like this. You will get angry and want to throw tools (just accept this as natural). Things will not go as planned (often), and you will have to shift your expectations and plans accordingly. If you choose this style of life or use your van for camping expeditions, you’ll experience things that will enrich your life for years to come (use that as motivation).

After you have selected a price range and a list of requirements, remember to be flexible. Don’t make the mistake I did and stay overly committed to small details. In my project, I looked at 20 vans before selecting my 1994 Ford E250. In hindsight, there were better vans, but I talked myself out of them for one reason or another.

In all my van shopping there seemed to be several commonalities that I came across: high mileage, and significant wear and tear. I would advise you to get a vehicle inspection performed by a competent mechanic prior to a purchase. This can help identify any major problems and give you an idea of overall condition of the van. Don’t settle on the first van you see, be prepared to look at multiple vans and haggle on price.

Purchase and parts

Once you have purchased your van, come up with a list of ideas/possible floor plans, make sure to set aside some extra money aside. This extra cash will come in handy for building materials, replacement parts, and preventive maintenance. Even if the previous owner says he just did it, plan on an oil change and basic maintenance. Breaking down on a trip because you chose to save $100 will end up costing you more in the end.

Performing a routine oil change, cooling system flush, replacing the thermostat, and changing out coolant hoses would be a good way to start. With simple hand tools, a manual, and a friend, this can be accomplished in a short amount of time, and will extend the life of your project. Next, I would put money into the spark plug wires, belts, and ignition components. This may sound rather dull, but you want to start your project off with a clean slate (known running time and wear on the vehicle’s components).

Not bad for being 21 years old
Not bad for being 21 years old.

What I chose and why

I chose a 1994 Ford E250 extended-body construction van for my project. I chose this one because it met many of the requirements I had on my list, and it came with a full-length metal lumber rack attached to the roof. My van had no seats or windows behind the front seats, so it was the perfect blank slate. Camping in Alaska, it was important to me to have as few windows as possible (the amount of sunlight in the summer regularly causes sleeping problems).

If you shop around you can find a diamond in the rough, mine came with a great roof rack (to put kayaks and canoes on) and heavy-duty wood flooring installed. The previous owner had tried to make it into adventure, although unsuccessfully. After haggling on price I got the van, roof rack, two cases of MREs (Meals Ready to Eat), and a box full of various goodies.

Camper options other than a van

There are other options beyond the typical adventure van I am working on. One of the more popular alternatives is a full-size bus, or minibus conversion. Nick Cahill, by way of his Instagram, have shown thousands of us what two people, some tools, and a dream can do. The options available to a builder when converting a bus are almost limitless.

While converting a bus is alluring, there are additional factors to considered. A bus, no matter what size is going to be harder to find replacement parts for, and when you find the parts they will cost more than van parts. Additionally, engines and transmissions on older buses are often nearing the end of their service-life and should be considered as a major replacement cost.

Originally buses were manufactured to transport people over modern paved roads, not to be made into rolling cabins. The steering/handling characteristics of a bus is something which can take a driver quite a bit of time to get used to. Also, loading and configuring a bus into an adventure van can change the steering and handling characteristics.

Nick Cahill Converting his Mini Bus
Nick Cahill converting his minibus

The end goal of this series is to present you with viable options that could greatly expand the way you get out and explore. This project may not be for everyone, but for some of you this might just be the thing to unlock endless journeys.

Get out and explore spots like the one shown below.

Hatchers Pass 004
“Hatchers Pass”

(Featured image courtesy of Leo Jenkins)