Tuesday, 8 August 2017

Featured Van Conversion (USA) Alpine Jonny's killer van conversion!

A little while back Alpine Jonny dropped me a message over Reddit - it was great to see some of the pictures of his van so I thought I would give him a grilling over the details.

You can follow his adventures on his instagram, his girlfriend's instagram, his van's instagram and his YouTube account!

See van details in the interview below!


Van type? Dodge Ram Promaster
Age? 2014
Mileage? 44,000km (27,000 miles)
Solar / wattage? Charge controller size? 100W solar / 75 AH battery / 30 Amp CC (Soon to be upgraded to 200W / 200 AH)
Split charger? In the plans for the future
Other key features? Maxxxair 4000K 10 speed vent fan, 12v water pump, LED strip lights & pot lights, queen sized ikea mattress bed. We also built a 3rd seat in the back with a frame-mounted seat belt as my 12 year old daughter does travel with us at times. This seat folds out into a 5' bed for her, which so far has worked out perfect for multi-day trips.

What do you do when not van-lifing?

Jolene and I (Jonny) live in Canmore, Alberta, Canada and we both work for the municipality here (I am in IT, she is in planning). We have 2 kids (aged 12 & 18) who both still live at home. In other words, we have a pretty standard family life when we are not travelling. We choose to live in the Bow Valley because we love to climb, bike, and ski, and generally be outdoors as much as possible. The Bow Valley offers one of the top climbing destinations in the world right outside our door. The price we pay is that housing is pretty expensive currently. The average home price in the valley is around $1,000,000 - since we can't afford something like that, we currently rent a small condo/townhouse that all 4 of us squeeze into.

What made you decide to convert a van for travel?

Due to the cost of living where are currently, we came up with a long term plan (once the kids are moved out) to build a van, move into it, and travel for a number of years. Since we rent currently, we have nothing tying us down to our current location other than our kids, and so we are in a perfect situation to set ourselves up for semi-retirement. We both have jobs that would allow us to do some work on the road, and we would be able to both adventure, and save money to buy a small piece of land and build some kind of tiny home later on when we are ready to settle down from the road.

We also do a lot of climbing trips all over western Canada, and to be honest, tent camping, or trying to camp in our Honda CRV wasn't working out very well... it added a lot of stress to our trips, and made it difficult to manage living while still climbing as much as possible. The van is an opportunity to simplify our living situation on the road, and focus more on climbing and adventures instead of setting up and tearing down a campsite.

Our long term travel plan is to do the Pan America - travel from Alaska to Tierra del Fuego at the southern tip of South America. This would likely require at least a few years to complete, so we are building out our van with this particular trip in mind.

Do you travel for a long period of time? If so, any funding/life management - any tips or ideas?

We currently do not travel for long periods of time, although that is the long term plan. In that sense, our funding/life management plan is to work our asses off now while we have careers, and set ourselves up for semi-retirement in a few years. We realize we are sacrificing a lot of time right now, however it will pay dividends in the future when we can finally cut ties and start to pursue a more balanced life.

What was the most challenging part of the conversion?

We originally thought we could do the conversion in phases, and start using it without it being complete. It turns out, this isn't really possible. We had hoped to spread out the build over 6-12 months, working at it when we had the time, but in reality we ended up doing almost the entire build in about 6 weeks. You quickly learn that you sorta have to do it all at once. Phasing it out is really not possible. This meant that budget-wise, we ended up digging into our line of credit to complete the build, which is something I had been hoping to avoid from day 1.

We also struggled a ton with space to work on it. We live in a condo/townhouse complex. While I do have a small back yard, it was almost immediately clear that I couldn't set up a work space back there, as my hours would be severely limited to do any work at all, and I was always bothering the neighbours when I did. We also live in a town where almost everyone we know does not own a house (because it is so expensive).

Our solution was to drive 4 hours (each way) to my best friends house in Cranbrook, BC, who has an extensive 2 car-garage sized work shop, and no neighbors to annoy. I was able to crank out some 24-hour epic weekends to get as much done as possible in a very short amount of time.

Did anything go horribly wrong?

Right now there is a leak in the roof... fortunately it doesn't rain much here... but i'm hoping to figure that out sooner than later!

If you had one key piece of advice for someone thinking of doing a conversion, what would it be?

We learned very quickly that phasing out the build over several months, doing the work in our small back yard in our condo complex is completely unrealistic. Having a solid $5000 - $10000 set aside for the build (over and above the van itself), a reliable, dedicated work space with all the required tools (a tablesaw and brad nail gun are pretty much indispensable), and the time set aside to do the work are all pretty key to success.

Did you install a solar and/or a split charge system?

We have a small solar system (Renogy 100W Panel, Wanderer 30 Solar Charge Controller, and AGM 75 AH costco deep cycle battery) currently. This is more than enough to run our LED lights, vent fan, and water pump in the summer. We currently do not have a fridge yet, or an inverter, and we are planning to double or even triple our solar system to 300W and 300/400AH once we add those appliances. We will also be adding a split charge system to charge from the alternator sometime in the future.

What are you most happy with the build?

I'm happy with what we were able to accomplish in 6 weeks given limited budget, space, and time. We are very realistic with the fact we will need to redo a large portion of the work, as well as upgrade a number of the systems.

How much did the conversion cost you in total?

To be honest, i'm not entirely sure. I would guesstimate somewhere in the $4000 - $5000 range so far.

How long did it take you to convert it, any estimate on the number of hours spent?

We bought the van on May 1, 2017. We started doing serious work on it sometime in late May, and only last weekend completed enough of the conversion to call it "done", at least for now.

I would say 6-8 weeks so far, and at least a combined 150-175 hours working on various parts of the build, including driving to the city for parts/lumber, and driving to my friends house to use his space.

Where are you off to first?!

We are leaving on our first major trip in 2 days! We will be spending around 10 days in Squamish, around 7 days touring the sunshine coast with my daughter, then around 7 days in the Bugaboos (back in a tent) alpine climbing. In the fall we are planning to spend some extended weekends travelling around as well.

We will be doing a video tour sometime in the coming weeks... will pass it along when we are complete :)

Thanks! Appreciate your honesty - look forward to seeing videos and adventures from you guys.


Tuesday, 1 August 2017

Sam Balmforth's Van Conversion - The details!

Sam Balmforth made this camper van over a few weeks - partly with the help of my van conversion guide. I interview him to get all the useful details.

You can out his adventures on Instagram here and see my interview with Sam about his build below!

What are the main Van Specifications?
    Van type: Renault Master MWB
    Age: 2006
    Mileage: 164,000
    Solar / wattage:  Charge controller size? LG 250W panel - 35amp Charge Controller
    Split charger: Yes - heavy duty VSR kit
    Battery Amp hours: 2 x 140ah deep cycle 12v batteries (xplorer)

What do you do when not doing van-life? 

I'm hoping to work within the land/minerals surveying field after I undertake a masters in Cornwall in September, though for the last year I have been working in marketing.

What made you decide to convert a van for travel? 

It seemed like a good investment for the years to come - namely low cost travel. I spent a month interailing last August around Europe and realised that asides from the cost of accommodation it can be a bit of gamble booking x amount of nights in a given location, you may want to spend much longer or much less time when you actually get there.

Having a camper van gives that ultimate flexibility and also allows you to get out of the cities into the rural areas, which are a much bigger draw for me.

Do you travel for a long period of time? If so, any funding/life management - any tips or ideas?

I haven't done masses of long term travel only the month in Europe and the current month I'm spending touring Norway. My thoughts would be try and take into account the cost of living in the country/countries you want to visit - fuel, food etc and save up enough funds to make that trip a reality. When I am travelling I usually keep a mental note of daily expenses, thereby if I go over a rough daily budget one day I can try and reduce a cost the next, common sense stuff really!

For van travel a rainy day fund is also a good idea, as you never know when the van may encouter mechanical issues (roadside coverage is pretty fundamental as well). Also stock up on food
as much as possible before heading off - I'm glad I did that before heading to Norway.

What was the most challenging part of the conversion?

There are so many to choose from, the whole project has been a massive learning curve as I had practically no DIY experience! I guess for me the electrical side of things, I left this till last as was worried I'd seriously mess things up, though it was still at the back of my mind during every stage of the build. It turned out to be pretty straight forward once I read up a lot - your ebook diagrams were especially useful!

Did anything go horribly wrong?

Yes, after I'd installed the buld of my electrical system: batteries in parallel, solar setup, lights, usb sockets etc I was wiring up my 12v fridge... When all of a sudden I noticed smoke coming out of my charge controller! I panicked and quickly disconnected it and my god it didn't half smell foul, after taking it outside I then retraced my steps - trying to find out what I'd done wrong (as I presumed it was human error). After running though eveything with no avail, I contacted the company I bought my solar kit from and explained what happened, sent them  pictures of my set up and they informed me it was a faulty unit and issued a replacement and I sent the faulty unit back to be diagnosed.

In a way I would have preferred the issue to have arisen as a result of an honest mistake myself, as then I could have learnt from it. That episode has made me a tad anxious about the  quality of charge controllers even though this was the first recorded incident with the particular model and the replacement has been working with no problems... touch wood!

If you had one key piece of advice for someone thinking of doing a conversion, what would it be?

It can be quite overwhelming doing a conversion, at some stage you'll encounter "analysis paralysis" I can't remember where I heard this term but it basically its where you are trying to take too many factors/stages of the build into account and end up getting nothing done. Try to break the build down into small chunks rather than one massive puzzle.

Did you install a solar and/or a split charge system?

Yes I went for both, LG 250w panel and 35a charge controller and a heavy duty VSR split charger which have proved fantastic and provided more than enough power.

What are you most happy with the build?

My seating area/bed - I feel like I maximised the space I have as best as possible.

Being 6 ft 2 I knew sleeping widthways was out of the question from the start, though I wanted a seating/dining area as well. With my setup I have plenty of storage under the two benches  and a table that can easily cope with 5 people around (though so far the max I've had is 3). The tableleg is removable giving a massive king sized bed or I can tuck the table behind the passenger seat giving a U shaped seating area.

(If ok to ask) How much did the conversion cost you in total?

I haven't properly totted everything up but I'd say in the region of £4000 +/- £500.

How long did it take you to convert it, any estimate on the number of hours spent?

I got the van back at the end of February and pretty much finished it by late June so about 4 months, working on weekends and after work as well as a fair amount of time I took off work. Hours spent actually physically working are far fewer than the hours spent researching online and head scratching haha. Though accumulatively in the region of a few hundred hours or so!

Where are you off to first?!

Norway, I've spent almost two weeks here touring from Kristiansands to my current location near Andalsnes. This country is stunning, I've never considered myself much of a hiker but Norway has some of the most picturesque landscapes which are perfect for it. My plan is to continue further North and ultimately end in the Lofoten Islands!

Thanks Sam! Enjoy your adventures!