We sat down with John to get some insight into what it’s been like for him to travel in his Outside Van, Pura Vida, since receiving it about a year and a half ago. His van was built on a 4×4 Mercedes-Benz Sprinter 144 high roof chassis with aftermarket 2” flares added to the driver and passenger sides.
OV: What’s the most memorable experience or trip you’ve had in your Outside Van so far?
J: It’s really hard to pick just one. Waking up cozy and warm inside a van covered with snow is pretty magical. So is watching the sunset in Joshua Tree when the sky is on fire after a day of climbing. I did a weekend trip to Big Sur in the middle of a storm, and it was amazing how easily the 4WD low range and BFG KO2 tires dealt with the off-road conditions to get to the gorgeous views at the top of Prewitt Ridge. Really, though, I think some of the most memorable experiences are the people I meet almost every day I’m out in the van who are excited to see what can be done with a Sprinter van.
OV: Can you describe a typical day, from sunrise to sunset, in your van?
J: I’m not a morning person, so most of my days don’t start exactly at sunrise. Luckily, the Outside Van window covers do a great job of blacking out the sun and keeping the interior at a comfortable temperature. I almost always have at least one of the roof fans open and circulating on low which keeps the temperature perfect, even in summer. In winter, the fan vents keep the humidity down so the windows don’t fog up, and the Webasto cabin heat is super efficient and easily keeps the interior as warm as I could ever desire. If it’s a lazy morning, I might scramble some eggs with the induction burner, but most mornings I have cereal and cold milk and orange juice from the fridge. Even at 6’2” tall, I can stand inside the van without bending over, so putting on snowboarding gear inside or donning a wetsuit to go kiteboarding is easy and always out of the weather. After I go out to play, the outdoor shower is great for rinsing off sand and sweat. Much of the time, if I’m traveling, I’ll just kick back on the bed or the sofa for awhile and either take a nap or stream some Netflix with my mobile hotspot and wait for traffic to die down. If I’m staying for awhile I’ll grab a cold beer out of the fridge, turn on some tunes, and make some dinner. I’m also a bluegrass musician, and with the sofa and the driver/passenger seats swiveled around, there’s plenty of room for a 3- or 4-person jam in the van. The dimmable interior LEDs are a great little touch for ambience. And before you know it, it’s bedtime. I went with the soft memory foam mattress, and it’s super comfortable. And we installed flares on the driver/passenger side of the van so I can sleep across the width of the van, which lets me have the bed setup all the time while still having a ton of living space.
OV: Your power system was one of the first lithium ion systems we’ve installed, and it’s capabilities are super impressive. What factors contributed to choosing this particular system? What do you like most about it?
J: The big power draw in my van is the induction burner in the galley. I wanted to have the freedom to cook whenever I wanted without dealing with a secondary fuel source (e.g. propane) and without having to worry about conserving power for lights, music, charging portable electronics, or any other use I would come up with in the future. With dual roof vents and a Packasport cargo box, there’s only room on the roof for 205 watts of solar. Because of this, we sized the battery bank generously (720 Ah at 12v) and added a second alternator dedicated to charging the house batteries whenever the engine is on. Lithium batteries are perfect for this application since they cope very well with high current loads like the induction burner and also can be charged at high rates almost to full capacity, unlike lead-acid or AGM batteries that require a lengthy absorption charge phase to top them off. Lithium batteries are also much lighter for a given capacity and can be discharged more fully without damage. The end result is that I can be off grid for easily well over a week without any sunshine, without starting up the van, and without trying to skimp on power usage. In practice, even in the winter, the solar charging extends this much further, and the occasional trip to the store or anywhere else I move tops off the power system easily. Power capacity so far has not been anything I ever worry about.
OV: That’s amazing. I love that you can exist off-grid for over a week without worrying about charging the system. So besides the power system, what’s one of the coolest features you’ve grown to love in your van?
J: I love the snap-in soft bulkhead that Outside Van made for me. For stealth camping in places where camping might be frowned upon, putting up the windshield and driver/passenger window covers just feels like advertising that someone is sleeping in the van. The soft bulkhead is great for this…it blacks out the living space in the back of the van in a much less obvious way and provides a lot of insulation to keep the temperature in the back comfortable. I still use the normal window covers in places where I am openly camping, because then I can swivel the driver and passenger seats to the back and have more room in my living area.
OV: If you could change one (or two) thing(s) about your van design, what would it be?
J: I think we got most of the design right the first time…we put a lot of thought into flexibility to accommodate almost anything I could think of doing in the van. In hindsight, I would probably put a couple USB charging ports on the galley. I have USB plugs on either side of the rear door which are great for charging phones and other things at night, but a more accessible plug up front would be useful. Also, as I use the van more, I’m discovering that strapping odd-sized articles to the underside of the bed panels for storage is a great way to keep them out of the way and utilize space well. The normal bed panels have a couple tie-down points on them, but I think it would be awesome to mount some Mac Track under there for the ultimate in flexibility.