Ultralight Travel Van

Always on the wish list was a more comfortable vehicle for traveling and camping.

Not wanting a popup trailer [bear country], travel trailer [too big] or regular RV [too poor], we thought we’d try the old standby – a van.

For us the sole purpose of the van is to transport us to where we want to go, carry our gear, sleep in it out of the elements, cook some meals and that’s about it. It’s for touring, sightseeing, bivouacking the far reaches. A minimal approach.

We picked up an older conversion van with nice large windows, stripped out the interior and built it into what we thought we needed. Came out pretty good.

People have asked about what went into it’s construction so this post will show the build of the van from start to finish.

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This is a 1999 Chevrolet Express 1500 1/2 ton standard wheelbase 2wd 4.3L V-6 with a 4 speed automatic transmission. It had 86,000 miles on it when we got it. It gets 16 to 19 mpg depending on whether we are going uphill, downhill, into the wind, with the wind, with air conditioning or without. We’re happy with that.

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This shows the kitchen area with both doors open. One sits on the cooler and cooks up a storm. The Dickinson Marine P9000 stainless steel propane furnace is the first thing to fire up on cold mornings.

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In the back is a full time bed – for the second bed there is a plywood panel that rests on the two rails you see. The other mattress is folded up and stuffed behind to the left, two directors chairs and a small folding table are stuffed behind to the right.

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Here is why large windows were important to us. Beautiful scenery!

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A little cabin on wheels.

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A 10 ft x 15 ft tarp and two 7 ft collapsible poles makes the perfect sized awning to sit under or cook outside. It helps keep the rain from coming in the rear windows on all sides if they need to be open in warm weather. Works good. Compact. Easy to setup.

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If you see the Ultralight Tipi Tarp set up – it’s bath day. The tipi gives complete privacy and is fast to setup and tear down. I have recently sewn up the 12 ft version which takes an 8 ft center pole and it’s an even better bath house.

Fabrication

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First day home, rescued from the salvage yard and parked on a side street in the big city. City ordinances do not allow pop-up trailers, travel trailers or RVs on the public streets. Some villages do not even allow them on your own property! That’s why the we are using a ‘passenger van’.

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After ripping out the interior which was mostly 1/4″ paneling and carpet, the messy job begins of removing the insulation and foam that in places were glued in.

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Lot’s of scrubbing.

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Lot’s of glue.

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3/8″ exterior plywood ripped 3″ wide and screwed to the cross ribs for ceiling joists. The center dimension is wide enough for a ceiling fan to clear.

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Time to get some insulation – on sale in the fall.

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Pool noodles cut in half lengthwise and put in place. Routing the dome light wiring.

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1/4″ birch paneling cut to size ready for finish.

Wood Finishing Book

This is a very clear exposé on the subject of wood finishing.

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Every panel’s exterior side had aluminum foil attached to it with double stick tape – so the aliens won’t find us. Radiant thermal barrier – worth a try.

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Each panel breaks on a structural rib and a batten is added later. Everything is screwed so that it can be dismantled at anytime. No glue was used anywhere.

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All the woodwork is stained with Minwax® stain and finished with Minwax® Helmsman Spar Urethane. There are 3 coats of finish on the living side and 2 coats on the exterior side of every panel.

The screws are stainless steel ‘oval’ head screws that look great with the stained wood.

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The stock dome lights came from the junk yard, the ones in the conversion van were not that good.

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Developing the curvature for the wall stud pattern.

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Transfer a cardboard pattern of the wall stud to a standard 1 x 6. The object here is to make the walls as thin as possible. There’s just enough room for the pool noodles full size.

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Make as many as you need.

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Frame the walls with Grabber® style exterior grade construction screws and use metal ‘angles’ and sheet metal screws when attaching to metal supports.

Remember to put in ‘backing boards’ where you might want to hang or fasten something later.

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These are some tough fits.

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This is a good method to keep track of the framing members.

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You’ll need those measurements later.

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My brother made the handrail mounting blocks in his machine shop. They are mounted with 1/4″ flathead machine screws into t-nuts in the backing board and are tapped for the 1/4″stainless steel oval head machine screws that hold the handrail on.

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Kind of pretty. The void in the upper left of the wall is for a rear speaker. The bright white line at the ceiling is the LED light bar powered up.

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Patterning the wall panels. Notice 48″ does not reach the floor. Use fillers later. Note finding the corners of the window framing by cutting in with a utility knife. Locate the handrail screw holes.

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The wall panels are cut out, ready to stain and finish. Note the handrail mounting screw holes prefabbed in the panel.

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Window areas cut out. Save the cutouts for more work. Alien resistant aluminum foil in place.

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Panels installed. Handrail mounting blocks installed. Vertical batten installed.

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The devil is in the details. More pool noodles and some foam backer rod. Fill ‘er up.

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Make a window trim frame for each window from the cutouts you saved. Pattern the window shape and cut out the center.

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Vinyl bead the inner edge of the trim frame.

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Make all the window casings and finish trim. Note the curved vertical window casings.

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Make your own filler. Stain the sawdust. Fill the crack with wood glue. Press in the filler. Repeat as necessary. Coat with spar urethane later when dry.

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Make the handrails from Grade A ‘Select’ lumber. Router the edges with 1/8″R. bit.

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Install the window trim frames, casings, trim and handrails.

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Those handrails really protect the windows and more.

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Rough out the fan and furnace penetrations.

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When cutting the hole for the fan leave the lower rib extended, then bend up to reduce leaks.

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Curtain rod brackets made from Simpson® Strong-Tie connectors. A 1/2″ hole is drilled for 1/2″ aluminum tubing used for curtain rods.

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Upper bulkhead board support installed from 1/8″ x 2″ aluminum flat bar.

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Bulkhead header fastened to the ceiling panel with 1/16″ x 3/4″ aluminum backing strips.

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Header and ceiling panel installed. Getting the bulkhead pattern. Note the upper rail stuffed with pool noodles.

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Bulkhead in place. Nice knotty pine beaded panel laminated to 3/8″ plywood backing and nosed with a Grade A Select lumber corner edge.

The bottom of the bulkhead is sitting on a piece of Grade A Select lumber with a 1″ x 1″ x 1/8″ aluminum angle on top fastened through the floor deck with 1/4″ bolts and nuts.

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Propane port installed through the deck. 1/2″ black pipe and gas valves. Port to a secondary inlet for a 1 lb canister behind the front seat. Top tee to feed the propane furnace and the two burner stove.

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The Dickinson Marine P9000 propane furnace installed on a custom base and rotated out from the bulkhead. The countertop left no room for a standard bulkhead installation. Looks great too!

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Positioning the stove and fabricating a copper supply line. Furnace piped and wired.

Coach’s Main Wiring

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The top gauge and switch checks the voltage on both batteries – the van’s starter battery and the coach’s battery.

The second toggle switch is for the indirect rope lighting in the ceiling.

The Manual Battery Switch is a marine grade switch made by Blue Sea Systems as is the main fuse block and the 12 circuit fuse block for the individual circuits.

Below the Manual Battery Switch is a standard 12v outlet also from Blue Sea Systems.

The cable from the vehicle’s starter battery comes up through the deck through a standard electrical connector.

The cable is run through a 3/4″ electrical conduit that fit from behind the front wheel along the frame to the front of the rear wheel where you see it come up through the deck.

Hard mounted to the frame the conduit provides excellent protection for the cable.

You can see the flexible conduit (blue color) which carries the individual circuit wires forward to the fan, furnace, ceiling lights, etc.

Manual Battery Switch Operation

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Position ‘OFF’ is off. Both batteries are functionally disconnected from the coach’s circuit.

This position is important when working on the engine. Even if both the positive and negative cables are removed from the starter battery, the positive lead from the charging circuit will still be hot if the switch is set on 1+2. A mechanic will not know you have this system so you must set the switch to ‘Off’ before handing the vehicle over for repairs.

Position ‘1’ connects the vehicles starter battery to the coach’s wiring system. Not much use for it as it will be running down your starter battery – not a good idea.

Position ‘1+2’ connects both batteries to the coach’s wiring system. Position 1+2 allows the vehicle’s alternator to charge the coach’s battery while the engine is running. The switch is always on 1+2 when traveling. This keeps the coach’s battery topped off.

Position ‘2’. When at camp switch to Position 2. This disconnects the vehicle’s starter battery from the coach’s wiring system. You will not run down your starter battery while running your lights, furnace, fan, stereo, charging your cell phone, etc. Start the vehicle in this mode at camp then switch to Position 1+2 when you leave to charge the coach’s battery.

Charging Circuit

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Use Vise Grip pliers and a ball bearing to crimp the lugs before soldering. Worked good.

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Littlefuse® In-Line MIDI® Fuse Holder.

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Each battery has a 150 amp lead with the fused end connected to the battery and the other end connected to the Manual Battery Switch.

Connect  the positive (+) terminal from the vehicle’s starter battery to the #1 terminal on the Manual Battery Switch.

Connect  the positive (+) terminal from the coach’s battery to the #2 terminal on the Manual Battery Switch.

Why? Why 150 amps?

The system is wired with #4 AWG stranded marine grade wire. #4 AWG wire will carry 80 amps all day long. Why a 150 amp fuse?

This 4.3L engine drives a 100 amp alternator. It can also handle a 125 amp alternator. At startup if the battery charge is low the alternator may spike to the 100 or 125 amp output. If you used an 80 amp fuse to just ‘protect the line’ you might be changing that fuse out often.

The 150 amp fuse is there for a ‘catastrophic’ event like pinching your cable under the rig to a rock because the zip ties you used were worn out, broke and the cable drooped. In that case you will see the the full cranking amps in the battery unleashed and possibly burn up your rig or start a forest fire or both. If that happened with the fuse in place it would open immediately – no fire.

Late model vehicles have even larger alternators so you have to research whether you might need a 180 or 250 amp fuse.

All vehicles have these protections, they are called fusible links and they are in your vehicle’s electrical system.

Since you are the builder here you need to be responsible in this regard. I hope this helps.

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Here both cables from the starter battery and coach’s battery are ready to be installed on the Manual Battery Switch. Flexible split wire loom tubing is added to help protect those cables in the coach. 

The lead for the coach’s battery has a piece of pool noodle temporarily over the fuse end and lug in case somebody turns the switch after its installed. A ground (-) lead will be added through the deck and bolted to the vehicle’s frame [not the body] for the coach’s battery.

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After installing a new stereo in the van a 12v DC rated ON-OFF-ON switch was installed shown in the little square below the vent.

Up and the power to the stereo is connected to the vehicle’s wiring.

Down and the power to the stereo is connected to the coach’s wiring. You can play the stereo with the ignition off and also when the Master Battery Switch is set to Position 2 at camp.

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The indirect lighting in the ceiling is adhesive backed LED rope lighting attached to a 3/4″ x 3/4″ x 1/16″ aluminum angle and screwed with self tapping screws into the roof rail. The power comes to the LED’s from the bulkhead area.

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A 1 x 3 #1 trim board is added as a shade screwed in place at each ceiling batten.  Both the trim board and light bar are easily removable for repairs.

Also in the picture are the curtain rod brackets installed that will be part of the cornice mounting supports. Plywood shims back up the cornice above to meet the trim board shade.

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Here’s a close up of the curtain bracket clips made from Simpson® Strong-Tie connectors. 1/2″ aluminum tubing used for curtain rods are held in place by drilling for ‘hairpins’ to hold them in place. Very easy to install and remove the curtains for cleaning. The cornice will be screwed in from the back through those holes drilled in the center of the clips.

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That’s a hairpin in place on a curtain rod for the side doors.

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Here the curtain cornice is installed.

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Framing the bed, seats, and cabinets with 1 x 2’s and 1 x 3’s. Note the 5 gallon bucket – that was a design dimension. There are a lot of videos where people use 2 x 4’s and 2 x 6’s to frame these things. Also 1 x 4 and 1 x 6 tongue and groove boards for walls and ceilings. Don’t do that, too heavy. This is all you need. That’s why we can remain ‘Ultralight’.

The joints are glued with exterior wood glue and screwed with Grabber® style exterior screws. Solid. The bottom plates are screwed to the deck here and there with sheet metal screws. Doesn’t need a lot of screws.

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Leaving space to inset a 3/4″ panel. In this case more beaded knotty pine with 3/8″ ply backing. Every inch counts.

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Pattern for the plywood floor before cabinets go in. The floor throughout the coach is 3/8″ exterior plywood stained and finished both sides and straight on the deck. No insulation. Forget it. Every inch counts.

One theory is that the air flow in the deck channels help to prevent mildew as it will be drier. You decide.

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After fitting the 3/4″ plywood tops a 1/8″ R. edge was routed once everything was in place.

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Another view of why the furnace was rotated.

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The stove is cut into the top and a 2″ side clearance for heat from the furnace is maintained.

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The battery box for the coach battery uses a flex conduit to take gases out of the top of the box. That was an existing hole in the the wheel well for the seat belt system.

Not shown are (3) 3/4″ holes sawed through the floor deck and covered with galvanized window screen that was siliconed in place to vent the lower part.

The box is silicone caulked completely on the inside. The door at the back is held in place with screws. Battery vapors are toxic and explosive so this should be done.

Living Quarters

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For luggage my 55 L backpack is under the bed to the left and her pack and an extra bag is on the right. There’s still plenty of room.

We each carry a 28 L daypack that we use all the time. It’ll have a change of clothes, wind breaker, towel and washcloth, soap, toiletries, repair kits, shrunken heads – everything we need day to day, minute to minute.

We take these to the camp showers, into the motel rooms and if needed stuff is dumped out and we use them for day trips.

The point is we don’t carry that much.

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One piece of plywood is across the back and the side pieces are fixed with brass piano hinges to make two compartments.

The left compartment holds the blanket, linens, several All Weather Space® Blankets, the screens for our windows, tent stakes, cordage and other odds and ends.

The right compartment holds dry goods, canned goods, bottled goods, an iso-butane backpack stove with a propane adapter to use outside and other odds and ends.

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Here the extra panel is in place. It is stored under the rear bed in retaining clips. The cut out pattern reduces the weight for handling.

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Both mattresses are made from 2″ high den$ity foam from an upholstery shop. Surprisingly comfortable for us.

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On cold nights we hang a wool blanket over the handrail and that blocks the cold from the window. An All Weather Space® Blanket works just as well and also across the rear van doors which is why we like them.

The blanket was made from calendared 1.1 oz ripstop nylon and is 90″ x 90″ or queen size. The blanket is filled with 5oz/yard Climashield® insulation which is good down to 30°F. It’s warm.

For the goose down version see Ultralight Down Quilt.

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A view at night. Indirect lighting in the ceiling. A cheery candle lantern burning and the warm glow of the furnace. With the bulkhead curtains closed we find up to a 15°F difference or more between the front cab area and the coach’s quarters.

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A small folding aluminum table fits perfectly, we use it all the time and put it away when we don’t need it.

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A fire extinguisher is located for easy access. Notice the grab hold for the cooler here and in the picture above. Without it the cooler will constantly slide forward when you hit the brakes. This was a good solution and holds well even when the cooler is fully loaded.

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The little tote to the right came from an office supply store. Fits perfect. It even has some decorative holes in it that lets ice water flow through it. Keeps tall items upright – milk cartons, wine bottles, water bottles and other things.

A stainless steel utensil holder – 7″ dia. x 7″ high – fits under the cooler’s basket. An egg carton cut in half goes in there as well as some cheese and sausage if you like. Fill the ice around it to the top and everything inside stays cold and dry. An 8 inch silicone pot cover helps keep the Ice out.

Kitchen and Equipment

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Spice rack, tea box, paper towel holder behind the furnace and couple of those medium sized binder clips to seal open food bags. Those binder clips also double as clothespins to hang laundry on windy days!

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All this was in there as well as a couple of more gallons of water, extra towels and wash cloths.

Empty 1 gallon vinegar jugs made of ♴ HDPE plastic make great water containers. Poke a small hole in the cap and knot a string both sides. Then attach the string to the jug’s neck so that it doesn’t get lost.

We carry five 1 gallon jugs and a Coghlan’s® expandable 2 gallon water carrier with a spigot that is very useful.

Left to right? We have found that using paper plates and bowls worked well for us. The amount of cleanup it reduces warrants their use at times.

There is a 4 quart pot, a 1 quart pot and a 10 inch cast iron pan. The 1 quart pot is the teakettle and the 4 quart pot also heats water for our baths.

There are two pot holders, a steel turner and a large spoon.

We have added a Stainless Steel 3 Liter Tall Hawkins® HSS3T Pressure Cooker to the kitchen and really like it. The pressure cooker greatly reduces the amount of steam in the coach while cooking. Try one.

The little plate is our spoon rest, the other plates, bowls and coffee cups are used often and we take them into motel rooms if there’s a microwave.

The 20 oz GSI® bottle cups paired with the MIL-SPEC® 16 oz sierra cups make real good cookware here and in the backcountry.

In addition there is a container of knives, forks, spoons, a peeler, corkscrew, ice pick and can opener [P-38].

There is a cutting board, an 8″ chef’s knife and a 5″ utility knife. The two 12 quart washtubs are great. We use one in the tipi at bath time to hold some soapy water.

For cleaning we have a spray bottle with diluted white vinegar in it and one with just clean water. The spray bottles and the Coghlan’s® expandable 2 gallon water carrier with spigot seem to be the only running water we need.

There is also a scrub pad and a bottle of Campsuds® in there too for larger cleanups in the washtub or for laundry. Not as biodegradable as you think. Keep it out of lakes and streams – read the directions.

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The ‘jute’ placemat had a tag saying it was good for 450°F so that’s our hot plate. It’s been used a lot with no problems.

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Below is a 5 gallon garbage can, a 12″ folding stool to get in and out of the side doors of the van and a small whisk broom and dust pan. There is a rack to store extra toilet paper rolls and paper towels that shoves all the way to the back.

Take the lid from the bucket and cut out the center to make a snap ring. This makes an easy and reliable way to line the bucket and hold the plastic bag. One more bag over that held with the tied shock cord will make it an emergency ‘commode’.

Storage

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Here’s the garage with the extra mattress, chairs and table pulled out. In front you see a small shovel and axe.

On the right is the coach’s battery box door – 2 screws and it’s off. Added the plywood across the luggage area as stuff was going back an forth there. Good now.

On the left is the storage area open clear through to the dry goods compartment. There is a jack, 20 ft of tow chain, jumper cables, tipi tarps, tent poles, hammocks, ropes, a saw and more.

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Behind the driver’s seat is a bag of tools that has been there from day one. Every time I use a tool I put it in the bag. If I needed it once I’ll need it later.

A 12V air compressor is under the passenger seat.

Anyone who has a van knows those front door saddlebags are huge. Fuses, light bulbs, tire pressure gauge, tire repair kit, flashlight, a file and stone to sharpen the axe and knives, maps, batteries, duct tape, bug spray and more.

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Bug screens sewn up using no-see-um netting and magnets. Works well.

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Really helps in warm weather. All four screens fit into a small 6″ x 12″ stuff sack.

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Good Luck

Nick

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