September 09, 2022
In 2015, when I heard Mercedes- Benz was set to release the 4x4 version of its popular Sprinter van in the U.S., I said: This is it, I’ve found it, and I can’t live without it. I researched and made lists to justify the choice and proposed upgrades, but in the end, the decision was easy. With a family of four, it needed to perform at soccer tournaments and ski trips, then convert into a solo or two-person, expedition-grade fishing and hunting rig, while being able to cruise in comfort on family road trips. The first of which was a cross-country trip from Oregon to Louisiana to visit my wife’s parents, whom I included in my sales pitch.
These demands leave two realistic vehicle choices in my opinion: the classic cab-over camper on your favorite pickup truck, or a converted van. The 4x4 requirement left the Mercedes Sprinter as the only factory 4x4 van option with a warranty. I set a firm requirement that I could stand up inside without having to pop up or convert anything first. A hard-top Sprinter with the high roof and 4x4 upgrades quickly took the top spot. Removing the three-person bench seat that comes standard in the passenger van creates a roomy two-person capsule. In the house, the bench provides stylish seating placed against the wall on the carpet. Yes, it’s heavy but manageable and functional in our family room.
A wall tent provides the heating, eating and sleeping essentials in a backcountry camp, and formed the foundation of my concept. Adding four wheels with a boat in tow or a canoe on top would address most of my adventures. The 144-inch wheelbase traded nimble sportiness with room and comfort, against the longer 177-inch land-yacht version, and is in line with most full-sized pickups. This is not a shift-on-the-fly four-wheel drive, but rather I have to stop the vehicle and push the button. With both high and low ranges, I feel stuck to the road when creeping through muddy ruts and rocky two-tracks, and in control during regular whiteout blizzard trips to ski areas, in time to sizzle some breakfast before the lifts open.
It was important for us to locate a reputable van-conversion company at the time of purchase. Other than the sound-dampening tape and insulation, I chose only to install 3/8-inch Baltic birch plywood as the lower wall of the interior. I figured it was durable and ready for anything I might want to attach in the future. I stained it gunmetal gray with a clear coat to aid cleaning, was pleased with my contribution and left the rest for the professionals.
My wife and I scheduled a shop tour at Van Specialties in Tualatin, Ore., about three hours from our home. The van outfitters had a 40-year history of converting all types of vans and offered an a-la-cart style to their builds. We could pick what accessories we wanted, rather than an entire build-out from a conceptual floorplan. This allowed us to test our assumptions of what we needed as we used the van.
The popularity of “van life” had created an 18-month waiting list for complete build-outs, largely controlling any timeline we might have had. This resulted in a two-phased build where we installed the basics: heat, minor electrical and a bed, first. A ceiling vent fan, CO2 sensor, smoke alarm and fire extinguisher were added to reassure my wife we were battle-ready.
Custom windows, interior walls, full-length driver’s side cabinets, the final electrical system, a fridge, upright toolbox, roof rack with ladder, and off-road lights were installed in phase two. Restrooms are available when needed on most trips and were not considered in our build. A bag shower, pressured by a foot pump, has been essential for off-grid bathing.
The point of camping in a van is to be comfortable as well as mobile. Three items in particular check those boxes.
Dometic’s dual-zone line of fridge/freezers uses a removable insulated partition to create a separate freezer compartment. Powered through 100 watts of solar bolted to the roof rack that feeds a dual absorbed glass mat battery bank, the freezer side of this combo keeps burgers frozen and ice pops at the ready, while toting plenty of cubes for those celebratory moments requiring a proper drink. The fridge side holds a trip’s worth of fixings easily.
The 1.5-quart crockpot from Road Pros plugs into 12-volt cigarette-lighter-style outlets just like the fridge and will deliver a hot meal at the end of a long day on the road. I use slow-cooker liners to reduce any mess and preserve leftovers.
Webasto heaters draw fuel directly from the main fuel tank through a port on the motor that runs a small unit under the passenger seat. An exterior exhaust vent and programable thermostat complete the installation and allow comfortable nights, dry gear and a warm van after a day on the slopes. A maintenance reminder ensures regular operation and proper function to protect the investment.
After five years, I truly couldn’t live without the van. The ability to be on the spot with comforts just behind a sliding door is reassuring. Stepping out to conquer the rainforest steelhead rivers in a gentle downpour fully suited up is the norm, as is reaching for a refrigerated snack or drink. On the road, the van performs and drives to expectations. A glitch in the exhaust gas recycler system of my model creates a slight “cough” in some driving scenarios. It’s well-documented and warrantied to 115,000 miles. I learned through counseling that it’s a slight German flaw out of my control, and I am advised to get the newest valve at 100K. The 6-cylinder, 188-horsepower diesel engine averaged 16 mpg after 65,000 miles and got 18 mpg before the Aluminess roof rack addition during phase two. Given the accessories and upgrades possible, converted Sprinter vans bring adventure to a whole new level.