We recently caught up with the Morel family, who own Rain Shadow, a Mercedes-Benz 170 which was custom build by Outside Van in 2016. With their family of three in tow and storage for a canoe on the roof, this van and it’s family have seen it’s share of adventures! Read more about their story below.
OV: In as many or as little words as you’d like, tell us your story! What made you decide to build a van with Outside Van?
When our daughter was heading into 4th grade, the Every Kid in a Park Program was just starting, offering 4th graders and their families free access to the National Parks. While the promotion wasn’t a huge financial benefit because an Annual Park Pass can be purchased for around $100, it got us thinking… Perhaps we should do a 3 month road trip and visit a bunch of National Parks since our daughter was now at age where she would appreciate and remember it? We investigated renting an RV for the summer but were quickly frustrated by the rental cost. So we started looking into a better long-term investment and that led us to Outside Van, which Mark had been drooling over for quite some time. Sonya somewhat reluctantly agreed and we were lucky enough to arrange the purchase and conversion of a 4×4 Sprinter in time to set off on Memorial Day 2016 for our first van-venture. After this 3 month trip, we were hooked and we have been taking shorter van-cations multiple times a year in every season since, with hopes of another extended trip in 2020. Alaska, Yukon, and Northwest Territories here we come!
OV: Yes! We love all the National Park images on your cabinet! How many Parks have you visited since you got your van and what were some of the more memorable experiences?
Well, we keep a journal of every place we stay, so we could go back and count, but Morgan has fourteen Junior Ranger badges pinned to the pocket next to her van seat and many more patches sewn on her campfire blanket, if that’s any indication. There are also so many amazing National Monuments, National Forests, State and Provincial Parks, and other public lands in between the well-known parks. The western US has a massive amount of public land and we definitely enjoy taking advantage of boon-docking and free camping opportunities van-life provides.
One of our memorable adventures this past summer was the Nez Perce Trail/Magruder Corridor in central Idaho. This vast expanse of beautiful, nearly untouched wilderness and 4×4 trails was a trip we won’t forget. Mark wagers to bet we might be the only Sprinter to have ever completed the trail. We did get a few strange looks from the much smaller dirt bikes and ATVs on this narrow trail and have a few extra scratches on the van. I think we also a got a bit lucky and didn’t have much “traffic” coming the opposite way. The 4×4 with the new suspension and tire upgrades from Agile Off-Road were awesome!
OV: Your family of three often travels together on all kinds of adventures. Describe how the layout of your van accommodates your family and gear.
Well, that’s actually been evolving over the past few years. As it turns out, kids tend to grow. So sleeping arrangements have evolved! In the summers, Morgan has enjoyed having her own “cave” at night, sleeping below our platform bed. We’re now experimenting with an inflatable mattress in the front cabin for her. Of course van-life doesn’t preclude some nights in the tent or the hammock.
The overhead storage above the bed has really helped provide room to stash clothing for three people, though we’ve also learned that you never really need as much stuff as you think!
Obviously the extra seat in back was essential, but choosing the captain’s chair instead of a bench seat gives us a clear path from front to back and allows for extra space getting in and out of the van. We do have a second rear seat, that we’ve removed at the moment, so we’ll be ready for the teen years when Morgan might declare that she’s NOT going anywhere with her boring parents unless she can bring a friend along as well. Mark is already planning ahead for the post-teen years as well; when Morgan is off on her own adventures and we can remove the rear seats entirely!
OV: What’s one of the coolest features you’ve grown to love in your van?
While it’s NOT the “coolest” feature of the van, one of Sonya’s essential features is the Webasto Dual-Top heater (pun intended). As someone who gets cold easily, van-life with a good heater and hot water has made adventuring a 4-season activity. We’ve comfortably slept in sub-zero temperatures with icicles growing on the ladders outside and been able to enjoy winter trips that never would have been possible in our station wagon. Weather no longer keeps us home, even when the forecasts predict rain and wind. We always know we’ll have a warm, dry space to return to.
The “coolest” feature of the van is technically the refrigerator! But in all seriousness, it so awesome not to have to deal with buying ice and draining coolers and still have good fresh food for many days of off-grid trips in remote locations.
Mark’s favorite feature is the newly updated wheel, tires, and suspension upgrade. Well, it just looks cool! Oh and it has improved the ride on and off road, provided more ground clearance, and so far hasn’t let us down.
Morgan’s favorite feature is the induction cook top and “Dinner Table” because they allow us to go on winter adventures and cook and eat inside. These features often go unused much of the year but come winter time get a lot of use. We’ve even enjoyed Christmas dinner together in the van several years in a row!
The awning is one of the features that is easy to forget. We hardly notice it’s there and don’t use it too frequently. However when you do use it, whether it be for shade from desert sun in Utah or protection from rainy gloom in the Pacific Northwest, we are super glad we have it.
OV: Describe a typical day when you’re on a trip in your van.
Well… Mark could describe a typical day at the office but would rather not! Time in the office, is just time not in the van! 🙂 It’s much more difficult to describe a typical van-life day as they tend to be atypical and always different. That’s the beauty of it all —the freedom not to live the typical day.
Some days the van is just perfect transportation to a ski area, or bike trail, or a rock climbing or paddling destination.
Other times it’s off to visit friends or family for outdoor adventures.
Longer van life trips are truly random with only a general idea of what direction we should start heading. We tend to just go with the flow, choosing routes or destinations to avoid bad weather, forest fires, or especially crowds. Mark tries to find the road less traveled and Sonya makes the navigation possible. We sometimes settle in a beautiful place for days, while other times we might drive 12 hours to reach the next great thing or to connect with friends. Sometimes we just stop at a beautiful river and read books. Other times we stumble across a hot spring and enjoy a “bath”. We are still learning how to slow things down a bit and enjoy the opportunities in front of us and not rush off to a destination. As some of our van-life role models told us before we got our van, one of the best things about van life is that you always have everything with you. The van can truly hold a lot of gear for multiple activities. You never miss a dip or paddle in a beautiful lake or a great bike trail or climbing route because your clothes and gear are back at the campsite. You can stop for lunch anytime you’re hungry and you can pull off the road at the top of a mountain pass to make dinner so you don’t miss the sunset.
And the sometimes it’s just a quiet place to take a nap or read the book while it sits in the driveway between trips.
OV: And the question that everyone wants to ask you, how difficult is it to get your canoe on top of your van?
LOL! This is by far our MOST frequently asked question and we get A LOT of van questions when traveling (which we mostly enjoy answering). It’s definitely a two person job but we have a practiced method and it now goes quite quickly. We have a light weight canoe which certainly helps. Perhaps we should just make a public service YouTube video 🙂 I’ll try to summarize:
1) From behind the van, we get one end of the canoe up onto the rear roof rack cross bar.
2) Mark holds the canoe in that position while Sonya climbs up one of the side-ladders. Yay for side ladders!
3) Sonya pulls the canoe up the rest of the way and secures the canoe to the roof rack.
Taking the canoe down is more or less these steps in reverse. We have discovered steps 1 and 2 are a wee bit more difficult with bikes on the back of the van!