My wife and I married 10 years ago and for our honeymoon we drove from Vermont to Alaska. It was during this trip that I was first exposed to what life on the road might look like in van. What I didn’t know, was that 10 years later I’d be figuring out how to find a Sprinter van for a family of four!
We made the trip to Alaska in 2008 Mercedes-Benz ML320 CDI. The vehicle did great on the trip in that it didn’t break down or leave us stranded. But I’ll be honest, it left a bit to be desired. It was during this trip that I began to get a little tired of camp setup fatigue. You know, the process of every night setting up camp, then in the AM breaking down camp. Then drive all day (we were going to Alaska and back after all!) Then the next morning wake up, break camp, drive and so on. Throw in a few too many days of doing this in the rain and those vans we saw began to look pretty nice….
Fast forward 10 years and we now live in Oregon and we camp a lot with our kids. It was during this last year or so that we began to consider what camping life would be like with a van. “Think about how quickly we could leave for a trip!” “It will be so easy to move campsites every day if want.” “Camping in the rain will be so much more tolerable.” It was enough conversations like this that finally committed us to buying a van. (Tangent: sometimes I feel a little lame that I’ve fallen into this mindset that everything must be easy and comfortable, but alas, it is what it is.)
Deciding on our vehicle for a family of 4
We knew for our lifestyle that we needed a 4×4 van. We just get off the beaten track too often to not have 4×4. Given this requirement, our options basically got narrowed down to a Sprinter Van 4×4 or Ford or other vehicle with an after market 4×4 system. Given that it was easier to find a low mileage Sprinter and I really like driving Diesels the decision was pretty easy…we were going to buy a Sprinter Van!
Deciding that we were going to get a Sprinter Van was just the first of many, many decisions to come. We did quickly narrow it down to a 144 wheelbase (WB) because the longer model just seems too long for off road capabilities. Not to mention the 144 WB can fit in a standard size parking space.
Stock, Custom, Pre-Built
When we first starting researching Sprinters the thought of converting one ourselves was really daunting (although I’ve read enough now that I have a better sense of what is entailed). And once we decided we were getting one, we wanted to get one soon so that we could start getting out of town and escaping the wildfire smoke that was plaguing so much of the west coast in summer of 2018. I can work from the road, so by gosh, let’s get on the road!
So we ruled out getting a stock van and building it ourselves, we didn’t have the confidence nor time. So then we considered by a stock van and hiring an upfitter to build it out. We liked this idea, but there were two things that didn’t work well for us. First, cost. It ain’t cheap to hire some of those outfitters to do a build. And besides we knew enough to know that we didn’t exactly know exactly how we might want the van configured. We needed to get a van and start using to get a sense of what we wanted and needed. (For example, do we need a stove, what about hot water, interior heating, what about a table? and so.) All we really knew, that at bare minimum, we needed Sprinter that could safely seat and sleep a family of four.
So, we set our eyes on buying a used Sprinter that had been built-out enough that we could take it out, even if it wasn’t perfect. (Does “perfect” even exists when building a van?)
How to sleep a family of 4 in a Sprinter Van
Next we spent a considerable amount of time trying to decide how exactly could we seat and sleep a family of four.
We considered trying to find a standard roof Sprinter and then find an outfitter to put in a pop top (there are pretty much two main outfitters for this, Sportmobile and Colorado Camper Vans). We really thought we would end up going this route, but in the end cost and time to have the pop top installed were the main factors that prevented us from pulling the trigger.
The side flares by Flarespace solve a great problem. If you have to sleep “north/south” in the Van, i.e. lengthwise, you take up a lot of valuable space. Flarespace bumps the sides of your van out a few inches on either side so you can sleep “east/west”. This is awesome, at least for the top two people that get to sleep up there. It isn’t the most economical approach, but it does seem like a good solution. We may end up adding flares at some point. But again, time to get this done and the commitment to that layout were too much to take on this early.
The Search for Our Van
We began scouring craigslist, Sprinter-Source.com forums and Autotrader trying to find a van that would work for us. After about a month of searching we finally found one in Arizona that could seat 7(!) and sleep 4. Furthermore, this van had been well built out with a lot of the basics like insulation, battery system and a bed and seat system. Yet, it was modular enough that it didn’t commit us to any layout too much and there’s lots of room for additional work that could be done to it. It was the perfect Van for us.