Preparing for our first big van trip – Do we have enough space to pack everything we need and want?

It’s certainly been a whirlwind several months since we handed over a bunch of money to a guy in Eastern Iowa and drove our newly purchased used 2019 Ford Transit 148-inch wheelbase high roof van home earlier this year. (Read our blog post all about our jump into #vanlife on this website.)

Our ultimate goal was to sell our small Class A motorhome and convert our RV camping lifestyle into more basic van-based no frills way of camping.

We put Elvis the Vegas up for sale and a couple from Illinois drove out and purchased him. That helped free-up some driveway space and just barely paid off the RV loan!

With that hurdle out of the way we began to plan, sketch, and try to figure out how the two of us, plus our two dogs Willow and Tia, were going to fit inside our new van. The goal was to accomplish that without killing each other by the end of a weekend getaway!

The interior of the van was configured by the last owner but really didn’t match our vision for our new camper. We basically started from scratch and removed almost everything from the interior leaving a paneled shell.

Building a new van interior to suit our vision

It was JK who spent most of his waking hours during the Spring rebuilding the van’s old cabinets, putting in new flooring, painting, and building ways to neatly house such things as a Porta-Potty, battery power generator and a portable air conditioning unit.

The Adventure Wagon bed system went back in the van at a more decent height for us and the underneath area became storage, or “the garage” as #vanlifers call the space under the bed.

For us, the most challenging aspect of becoming van campers was trying to anticipate our movements or routines inside the much smaller living space. In the motorhome, we could put the slide out and gain another three feet of floor space to the abundance already there. The new van’s floor space is what it is. There are always going to be concessions.

Designing and building van storage solutions to hold all of our food, supplies, clothes, water, camping equipment, and still yield enough space for all of us to be comfortable was very tricky. We think we did an okay job considering it’s our first time designing and rebuilding a camper van interior. That opinion may change drastically after our first long camping trip.

Lookout Amazon, we’re coming in hot

We made it a priority to purchase as many of the building supplies as we could from the local lumber yards and hardware stores during the DIY van rebuild. As hard as we looked for needed outfitting supplies and storage solutions locally, many times we came up emptyhanded and had to go to an online source for the specialty parts or van-related items we needed.

We could see right away we needed additional interior storage, so we ordered another overhead soft storage locker from Adventure Wagon van builders in Portland, Oregon. The large wall and ceiling L-track system-mounted Mule Bag matched to two that came with the van.

JK custom-made three additional wooden overhead storage bins to fit the remaining spaces along the upper wall areas. The overhead storage lockers are totally open inside, so we needed some way to compartmentalize that interior space. Kim bought some 10-inch by 10-inch collapsible storage bins from Walmart to help hold all the individual items in one place. Each bin was used to corral everything according to subject matter.

Coffee and coffee making accessories went into one cubby. Non-perishable food pouches and chip bags went into another cubby. Games, playing cards, device charging cables and plugs went into yet another. Kim made sure the bins were all the same plain grey color so as to match the interior color scheme of the van.

Time to plan a vacation!

Once the construction was done, we started to plan our first major road trip in the van! Getting a period of time off for a getaway isn’t easy with Kim’s demanding job. Kim could work from the road as needed to keep things rolling for her real estate business during the journey.

We set aside a block of days on the calendar for vacation. Yikes! Now we had to decide where we wanted to go, which route we wanted to take, how far we’d drive each day, where to camp each night and, of course most importantly, what snacks to bring along!

Did we bring along enough food and snacks?

We will NEVER starve to death while camping. We learned our lesson from those famous pioneers in the Donner Party tragedy!

If you don’t know what happened, the Donner Party’s emigrant wagon train was heading west to California that fateful year when they were caught in a surprise blizzard as they crossed the Sierra Nevada mountains. Those pioneers that didn’t freeze to death resorted to cannibalism of the others less fortunate in order to stay alive.

Ah yes, that’s not going to happen in our van while crossing the mountains. Not under our watch!

We know there are grocery stores and gas station convenience stores all across the United States, and we can go in and stock up as needed, but we always seem to overpack food and snacks. This is one of our weaknesses. Don’t judge us! lol

And it’s for good reason. Eating out is awfully expensive. Buying food and preparing on the road is a little more budget and diet friendly and lots more fun. It can save time, too.

Granted, fast food places are at nearly every off ramp. Every town or city has a Kwik Trip, Casey’s, 7-Eleven, Starbucks, Love’s Truck stop, Flying J or TA Travel Center. Pulling off the interstate for a coffee or burger takes time. Every stop we make (that doesn’t involve refueling or going potty) can add 30 or 40 minutes to our travel time.

The great thing about having a van is the copilot can get up out of their seat, walk back into the cabin and grab a cold beverage from the refrigerator or whip together a quick sandwich or snack to eat while we continue to put some more miles under the rig.

When we have to pull off the highway to refuel, we try to make it a multi-purpose stop. The dogs get out to “stretch their legs,” we hit the restroom if needed and do a quick walk through of the gas station convenience store to see if there’s any cool souvenirs or goodies we can’t live without.

If it’s coffee break time, we might take a couple more minutes while we’re stopped to brew a cup of coffee in the van. We learned that we would rather make and drink our own coffee than pay several bucks for a cup of questionable gas station joe.

Dealing with the hot and the cold

How do we pack clothes to match the weather when traveling through areas with different weather and temperatures? This has been a dilemma for us when planning our up-coming trip. We will have stops with similar hot summer weather like here in the Midwest. We will also be camping in areas with possible rainy and chilly weather conditions.

Everyone knows about dressing in layers. Fine if you can walk into the closet and pull-out the pants, shirts and jackets needed for the weather change. On the road when the weather changes dramatically, we need to pack for those changes. The dilemma is where to store the extra cold weather clothes in the van should we need them?

Over the years we have purchased cold weather gear that is very packable. Newer insulating materials and fabrics are extremely warm yet thin and lightweight. When we hit the Washington and Oregon coastlines, there could be a good 20-30-degree drop in temperatures.

The cold is one thing, but the heat is another serious consideration.

Our van is not equipped with rooftop air conditioning like our motorhome was. This has been a real concern. How do we for keep the interior of the van cool for us and the dogs during summertime camping?

After we investigated the costs of capable AC units for the van, it was clear roof top AC would be out of our financial reach. The lack of professional van AC installers in our area was also a negative. The closest installer we found with a good reputation was in Arizona, where they obviously know about air conditioners!

We watched dozens of YouTube videos about alternative ways of cooling a van. After more research, we decided to purchase a Zero Breeze battery-powered portable air conditioner. It isn’t cheap but it’s thousands of dollars cheaper than the roof top alterative. It’s not going to chill off the van to meat locker cold, but we pray it will help take the edge off the heat inside when teamed up with the van’s dash AC system.

Now, to try and squeeze it all in!

This is going to be the true wakeup call for us.

It’s like having Champagne taste on a beer budget. We still have the motorhome storage capacity expectations engrained into our minds, but our little 19-foot-long van can no way get close to the mega storage and weight carrying muscle of our old RV.

Everything we choose to load into the van has to be closely scrutinized and evaluated. Do we absolutely have to bring it? Is the item vital to day-to-day living and comfort? Will we be able to have the restraint needed to live in the van minimally?

Clothes are the hardest. As we mentioned previously, we need to take two different seasons of clothing. Camping gear is another area up for debate.

Luckily, camping, and backpacking companies have gotten very ingenious in designing camping gear. #Vanlifers are reaping the benefits of the small, collapsible, and packable stoves, cooking pots and pans, utensils, camp chairs and even campfire pits that are made available by these companies.

In our van garage we will have two large cargo boxes. One is for cooking equipment and the other is for items needed when we set up camp.

Unbelievably, we will be carrying a camping oven with us to bake cinnamon rolls, corn bread or biscuits in. The 13.62 x 7 x 6.63-inch oven, made by Coleman (the stove and lantern people) collapses down into a two-inch thick square that is easily packed away without taking up too much valuable space.

We will also take along a wood burning grill and fire pit, which is equally collapsible. This ingeniously designed campfire pit by UCO stores away in a one-inch thick by 13-inch-wide zippered package. When set up the fire pit is 11-inches tall and can grill burgers, steaks, or veggies with ease.

Making coffee has become easier for van living thanks to small, single burner backpacking stoves, heatproof and collapsible silicon pour over coffee cones, compact but large capacity kettles and hand operated coffee bean grinders.

We all need water to survive

When we bought the van, it had a built-in sink, battery-powered water pump and a 17-gallon water tank. All those things took up a lot of valuable space inside the van. We made the decision at the very beginning to get rid of them and not have any “built-in” plumbing.

We may live to regret this decision later, but water takes up room and is heavy. Sinks and plumbing lines can leak causing serious problems. Our original idea for getting the van was do more living outside rather than being holed-up inside all day like we tended to do in the RV.

In theory, we want to cook, eat and clean-up outside like we did in the good old days of tent camping. This might take some getting used to since we have “gone soft” after years of motorhome luxury living.

Water will be carried in the van, both filtered for drinking and potable tap water for washing dishes and other camping water needs.

In our RV we drank, supplied the dogs, and made coffee with filtered water. Water carried in the on-board freshwater tank was only for washing hands, dishes and flushing the toilet. We had to dump and clean the RV holding tanks every couple of days while on the road or at a campsite.

Because we do not have grey or black wastewater tanks on the van, used water will have to be disposed of properly. Our Porta-Potty tank will have to be manually filled with water to flush and resulting wastewater manually dumped at a campground sanitary dump station or toilet.

We have dedicated space to carry water in the van under the bed and in a couple other nooks and crannies. When we run out of filtered drinking water, we will head to a store to refill the jugs. The potable water tank will be filled from a fresh water spicket at a campground or other source.

Did we think of everything?

Typical for us, we plan to hit the road without doing a “dry run” test of everything. We have laid down on the van mattress but have not attempted to try a night’s sleep. We have all been inside the van at the same time, but have not tried to maneuver around the dogs, use the Porta-Potty or pull out the refrigerator with everyone present and the doors closed.

We haven’t tried to make a pot of coffee or heat supper on the stove, let alone bake a batch of chocolate cookies in the camp oven! We’ll let you know how that goes!

I guess we like a challenge! Trial by fire, as it were. It is going to be a steep learning curve for all of us, the girls included, on this first trip. But this is what camping memories and fireside funny stories are made of.

So, wish us luck. We are going to need it!

One comment

  1. Hi, from the West Coast (California). I just checked and Oregon and Washington does have fire burn bans like California as it is so dry out here. In California I think even propane fire pits have issues as no flames are allowed. Have fun! We also have a 19.6 foot van, by Roadtrek. I am jealous of your garage space! I found a nonstick grill pan I like as it wipes clean with a paper towel (almost) and I don’t need to worry if ants or mice will be attracted to the smell of a traditional grill. Have fun!

Leave a Reply