I am in the early stages of designing my RV camper van. As an avid backpacker who more often fails to muster the energy for outings, I knew I needed to make it easier to get into the back country.
I discovered #VanLife and am building my own van. This will give me an easy base of operations for backpacking excursions (even though my home in the north Atlanta metro area puts me within 2 hours of wilderness!).
What I see as the positive parts of #VanLife are posted elsewhere. Here’s what I see as some issues.
Van Design Issues
Modern camper van designs aim to address a multitude of challenges while taking advantage of great advances in technology and materials. We expect a van to support a “normal” life, whatever that is. I feel that the expectations and goal are too high and that many vans are overbuilt.
A balance is possible. A van can be comfortable, affordable, reliable and still get good gas mileage. All of life’s essential functions, such as eating, hygiene and sleep, can be supported in fine style, just not the same way as a fixed home with fewer restraints on design. Compromises will be needed.
A lightweight build will be safer, all other things being equal. Stopping time is kept as low as possible. There is less mass to fly loose and turn into projectiles during a crash (warning, those videos are scary, even with just crash test dummies).
On the electrical system, avoiding 120vac appliances is not necessarily a safety decision, however having less batteries, wiring, appliances, and a heavy inverter will be some benefit. Propane does present it’s own safety issues which will be mitigated with placement of the tank and venting considerations.
My van will need a third seat for our son. It must be as safe a possible. I plan to use a DOT-approved Ford Transit seat with integrated seatbelt. I will use the factory mounting rails to mount it into the center of my van. For space and usability reasons, it will have a second mounting location for use only when stationary.
Other decisions will also have secondary safety implications.
Keeping the van light will have only a modest increase in fuel economy on flat level highways. I plan to visit many cities and mountains. So light weight will pay off in the end.
Instead of drawers, I plan to use plastic storage boxes mounted on lightweight rail frames. This will not be as “finished” or aesthetically pleasing, however it eliminates a lot of weight and makes all the storage visible as the boxes are translucent. The boxes can also be removed to another place in or outside the van, making the logistics of space more flexible. The upper cabinets will be more traditional, yet will use sliding doors that are thinner and lighter than “traditional” lift-up doors with their complicated struts and latches. Sliding doors are also better at “warning” you that something has shifted and is about to fall out of the cabinet!
Aerodynamics are a bigger factor in highway fuel economy. To that end, I am using flexible solar panels that require no roof rack and can be mounted so as to offer very little wind resistance. They are also much lighter, especially important since weight further from the ground affects handling and safety more.
I also plan to mount water tanks, etc., under the van, keeping that weight low. I also am looking to extend the engine splash guard the entire length of the van to have a smooth, mostly unbroken, bottom of the van for best aerodynamics. This will also reduce the amount of floor insulation needed and increase the security of the components. I’ll have more to share on this when I discuss the water storage and the water heater venting.
As I plan to park this van in all sorts of places, from cities to remote mountain trail heads, it must be secure. There is no true solid impervious security. Someone with the proper tools can just cut through the sheet metal of the van. The idea is to slow down an opportunistic thief, even a thief with a bit of knowledge of the weaknesses of the van’s door latches, etc.
The side windows will be large sheets of Lexan covered with security film that will protect the plastic from UV light as well as make the inside of the van less visible to prying eyes. The Lexan is strong enough to withstand enormous impacts. The remaining factory safety glass windows will get two layers of security film, inside and outside. Window covers will prevent any scoping out of the interior and may also have features to add to illusion of imperiousness (more later, if I can work out the details!).
All of the doors will have a remote-controlled secondary latch “dead bolt” made of a lightweight fiberglass rod. This won’t be impervious to a determined thief with a large enough pry bar, however it will slow them down, hopefully enough. I’ll also add metal to known weak points of the factory locking system.
The van will not have a ladder! Ladders are generally seldom-used extra weight/wind drag and present their own security risk. The skylight will be plexiglass and setup to not open wide enough for entry without some extra effort from inside the van.
Add in an alarm system, a remote camera and other electronic security measures (tbd) and I think I’ll feel much less trepidation.