How to: Build Out a Sprinter Van, Part 3

In the third and final installment of our series, learn that it's what's on the inside that counts
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Nov 22, 2014 | By Jon Gaffney

This past July, our Van Man Jon Gaffney, embarked on a cross-country roadtrip driving a Sprinter van powered by our friends at Goal Zero. In this ongoing Huckberry series, we'll learn why Jon selected a Dodge Sprinter and take an inside look at his custom additions, getting some pointers on building out your own Sprinter along the way. Click here to read Part 1 and Part 2

fter we’d completed the prep of the Sprinter, it was time to turn it from a rust-proofed, watertight, sound-deadened, insulated shell into a living space that could help us meet our goal of not only surviving, but thriving once we hit the road for a year. A potentially daunting task, to say the least. 

Before we'd even bought our Sprinter, I’d gotten the detailed dimensions of the interior space and taken to Google SketchUp to mock up potential living space configurations. Multiple rounds of edits happened while I was researching what utilities, amenities, and devices we’d want to take with us. Originally, I’d planned for us to undertake the buildout ourselves—I’m competent with tools, always willing to learn, and am confident I can figure out a project if I'm given enough time. In the end, however, we decided to invest in some professional help. We weren’t building a weekender vehicle; we were building our home and wanted to invest in it accordingly. To help turn our vision into reality, we turned to woodworker acquaintance (and now friend) Lincoln Tetherly of Tetherly Design

Lincoln turned out to be the perfect person for the job. Having taken half a dozen cross country trips himself over the years, he understood the challenges in building our optimal mobile living space. We worked with him on every stage of the Sprinter, from design to beginning the buildout to fine tuning the final product. As soon as mechanical work was complete on the Sprinter, we turned to Lincoln and his business partner, Pete Jalbert of Moose Mountain Woodworking, to use the shop space in New Hampshire to get cranking. Time was of the essence — and in just over a week, Lincoln and Pete were able to take our ideas and turn them into a livable reality. 

The buildout process went in two steps: the first was to frame and sheath the inside of the van with walls; the second was to build in the cabinetry. Unlike a traditional house, we don’t have furniture of any kind in our van; everything is built for storage and it’s all interconnected. For the framing of the van, we used wooden strapping normally used in hanging sheetrock as studs. These were screwed to the walls and ceiling 12 inches on center and fastened to form the skeleton that would support everything else in the van. With our studs attached, two layers of 1/4” Luan Plywood were hung on the walls and one layer was hung on the ceiling. (1/4” was used because of its ability to flex with the curves of the van.) Two layers on the walls also gave us more to lag into when hanging the cabinets.

With the walls and ceiling ready to go, we moved onto the cabinetry. The bed platform was the first to build. We lofted it up enough to take advantage of the space underneath the bed for more storage space. This we split into two spaces—the front half accessible from within the van through a small sliding door, and the back half made up of two large drawers inspired by Alex Honnold's van. Next came a dividing wall between the cab and the living space. This was important for privacy (we didn’t like the idea of living in a fish bowl) and for safety, since any short stop could easily turn our possessions into hazardous projectiles. At the same time, we removed half of the headliner and built a storage space above the cab (Sprinters waste an absurd amount of space above the cab). 

Then we turned to our seating space. From this, we wanted an eating, working, and card playing booth that we could retreat to when the weather was adverse. The table for the booth is the most notable piece in the van; Lincoln helped Gale make it from 200-year-old reclaimed barn boards. It was a time-consuming task, but added lots of character to the van. We built a storage cabinet under each seat and then turned our attention to the “kitchen”—that is, a countertop with cabinets above and below for storage. To keep things simpler in the van, we opted not to put in plumbing or a stove top (and we have yet to regret that decision). The last piece of cabinetry to go in was the matching his and hers bureaus that we hung above the bed. And just like that, in eight days we went from a shell to a woodgrained home.

Both Lincoln and Pete can’t be thanked enough for their effort in making our plans a reality and on a timeline that was fairly unrealistic. They imparted small details and touches to the van that we never would have been able to think of or do ourselves (there are certainly too many to mention here). Kudos to them both.

Now that our home was built out, we had to outfit it. Luckily we’d used the time during prep to round up the devices, gear, and accoutrements we’d need. In our buildout plans, we’d accounted for a queen size mattress and were lucky enough to get a Casper mattress to do the trick. It’s made many a night spent in Walmart parking lots seem (almost) like a night at the Four Seasons. Not an easy task.

For power, we installed a Goal Zero Yeti 1250 (V) mated to two Boulder 90 Watt panels. This setup allows us to run Goal Zero Life Lights, power our laptops, Kindles, cameras, and cell phones with ease. With good sun, we’re completely power self sufficient. We also brought along an EnergyStar dorm style fridge in hopes of running it off the Goal Zero Yeti; unfortunately, it draws way too much power and has largely been a space suck, but we’re hoping to upgrade to a 12v fridge at the end of the year. Instead we’ve relied on a Stanley Cooler for perishable food storage. Cooking happens with a combination of two JetBoils and a Coleman Triton Stove. Stanley’s camping French press has been critical for our morning caffeine fix. 

Overall, we’ve been incredibly pleased with how the buildout and kit out of the van has worked. There are things that need fine tuning and changing, but most are minimal. If you dare to undertake your own van build, be sure to do your research and remember to have patience. It's challenging, but worth every trying moment when you spend your first night in a home on wheels that you created. [H]

Jon Gaffney is a man of the road who enjoys testing the recommended use limits of everything he owns. 
When he's not taking photographs, he's climbing, hiking skiing, swimming, or gripping the wheel of his Sprinter Van. 
You can follow his continuing cross-country adventures as the Huckberry Van Man here.