We’ve had the dream of living out of a camper van ever since spending the summer of 2011 living out of our Nissan Xterra in the mountains of Colorado and spending the rest of 2011 and 2012 traveling Argentina and Chile mostly living out of an Infiniti QX4 (Nissan Pathfinder). While the SUVs were great for two people, we now have two kids and want share with them the joys and simplicity of van life.
With a family of 4, our first inclination was a cheap used RV, a la Breaking Bad. An RV would provide plenty of room for the family, and since RVs plummet in value on the used market, it’s easy to find something in the $10-20k range. However, we were having a hard time getting excited about the places an RV could take us. Most RVs are based on long 2-wheel-drive van or truck chassis with very little ground clearance, break-over angles, or appetite for a rough road. In the back of our minds was our summer of 2011 where we never paid for a camp site or camp ground. Our 4×4 Nissan Xterra took us to some of the most beautiful trailheads, random pull-offs on old mining roads, and off-grid camp sites on National Forest or BLM land. We just had to get creative with the layout in order to seat and sleep 4 people.
There are very few 4×4 vans on the market. The Chevy Express can be had in AWD, but only in the half-ton version, which doesn’t allow enough payload capacity for a camper van upfit. Ford vans can be modified to have the F-150 4×4 system added to the front end (see Quigley or QuadVan), and while this system can provide extreme off-roading capability, we thought it might be overkill and we weren’t sure about the long-term reliability of an after-market system. And that was it…until 2015 when Mercedes started importing the 4×4 version of their Sprinter van. While it’s more of an AWD system related to Mercedes’ 4Matic system, it does come with a low range and a lift of 4 inches from the factory.
There are several configurations possible, including three different lengths, three different roof heights, and three different seating options: passenger, crew, and cargo. We went with the shortest 144” wheelbase, the low roof, and the crew, which comes with one 3-person bench seat behind the driver and front passenger.
Our concept was to have a pop-top for the kids to sleep up high, then a galley kitchen in the back, which at bedtime will converts to a larger bed just above the counter top level. While camping we rotate the factory bench seat out of the way to give more space and act as a couch to sit on. The other aim is simplicity and reduced weight: no grey-water tank, no black water tank, no on-board propane tank (just a 20-lb bottle which can be swapped out at any supermarket).
While many people choose to convert their vans themselves (which is awesome in itself), we’ve done enough house remodels and construction projects to know that in order to keep our sanity (and our marriage – ha!) we hired it out to the professionals. We chose Sportsmobile Austin, TX to do the top and Colorado Campervan to outfit the interior.