This Van Conversion Project Is Not What You Think

A lifelong pickup truck owner rents a camper van and everything changes.


I recently embarked on a serious van conversion experiment. For my project, I used the following kit: One diesel van, large enough for two, fitted out with sleeping arrangements, food storage, a gas cooking surface, and a small refrigerator. Once everything was assembled, the conversion project took about a week, though many people stretch it out over many more than that. The longer the better, really. You can take this exercise at your own pace. There’s no right way.

The conversion process is dead-bang simple. Take the above kit and pack it full of food, plenty of beer, and backpacks stuffed with hiking equipment. Fly fishing gear helps too, though it’s not required. A surfboard or a kayak would also be a nice addition. When all the gear and food are in place for the conversion, simply collect a willing partner, and take the van on a long, winding journey through New Zealand’s breathtaking Southern Alps.

Just like that, anybody, even a dedicated truck person like myself who may have regularly scoffed at the whole #vanlife movement, will be converted into a born again Van Person®.

Even though the first serious adventure road trip I ever went on was an axle-busting hellride over barely there dirt/rock roads in central Baja far from any kind of assistance that my friends and I took on in a late-80s two-wheel-drive van with total success, I’ve nevertheless always feared that a van wouldn’t be as tough or as off-road capable as a truck. Or maybe it was just that they didn’t look as tough as a truck. A dumbass aesthetic thing.

Either way, cruising around off the pavement in and around New Zealand’s Fiordlands and Mt. Cook National Parks earlier this month in a diesel Toyota Hiace quelled those fears. Quelled them quickly. The steel-belted radials ate up road ruts and the beefy suspension laughed at poorly graded dirt roads, none of which I was supposed to technically be driving on in a rental anyway (sorry faceless insurance company!), but the van loved the dirt, was seemingly called to wander off the pavement any chance it could get.

So the toughness isn’t a concern.

And even if it was, frankly, the sheer practicality of the van won me over. I’ve also often argued that I like keeping the driving and the cargo/sleeping sections separate, as in a truck with a camper shell. Keep the dirty clothes and food smells in the back while I’m driving, thanks, was always my argument. But, and this was a revelation: you can keep food and clothes in storage boxes in a van, sealing their offending odors from the passengers. Brilliant. Who woulda thunk?

Not to mention that when it’s time to set up a stove in the truck, I have to take the stove out, set it up on a table, the ground, the tailgate, or, hypothetically, the little folding-leg table I keep meaning to build but haven’t done so yet, then dig out a gas can from a supply bin. Same with cooking utensils, and that’s before hauling a heavy ice-chilled cooler from the bed.

I never really thought any of that was cumbersome until I cooked a meal in a van with a stove that slid out on a custom shelf, with plates and utensils stacked neatly below. Oh, and a sink with a water pump? Easy peasy in a van. But good luck making that work in a truck with a normal-sized camper.

Of course, none of this even touches on the outrageous luxury of a sleeping space that easily accommodates two tall adults, with room to spare, on a mattress that’s always there, without requiring blowing up, or assembling, or erecting above the roof. My god, the convenience.

Add in sliding doors on both sides meaning easy accessibility without crawling over a tailgate, and that’s it. You win, vans. I’m in. I’m hooked.

Figuring all of this out in too-perfect-to-be-real New Zealand surely helps, as the van culture is breathtakingly diverse and incredible and has long existed before the #vanlife movement took off in the states. Kiwis make vans out of anything, actually. Walk along any body of water in that blessed country and you’ll see rows of wagons made into vans, sedans turned into vans, I even saw a motorcycle towing a small, self-built trailer with a bed and some intriguingly-designed drawers that I’ll consider to be a van too.

Campgrounds full of travelers in vans is surprisingly charming, and, with everybody in a self-contained vehicle, far quieter than car campgrounds in the states, with tents everywhere blaring music and loud conversations.

I’ve learned my lesson. Vans are the superior overland travel vehicle. Ours wasn’t even four-wheel-drive, but obviously, there are plenty out there and they’re drool-worthy. I’ve got my eye on a Mitsubishi Delica down in Southern California that’s for sale, and there’s an AWD Chevy Astro in my neighborhood with a for sale sign that’s mighty intriguing. Hell, an AWD Toyota Sienna with the seats taken out would be a formidable gas-sipping house on wheels and if I see one I’m buying it.

All this is to say: Anybody in the market for a built-out Toyota Tacoma? Because I know a guy (me) who is looking to sell.

 

 

 

Showing 8 comments
  • Derrell
    Reply

    I’ve thought of doing this very thing. I have a rather old conversion Van (1997) Dodge Merry Miler. It came up with a check engine light which lead to a diagnosis of an electrical problem on a harness assembly for the fuel injector on a particular plug. Long story short no money to invest in an older vehicle. Probably need to sell for someone to fix and buy another. Great idea though.

  • Ben
    Reply

    I did the same thing in 2015 for permanent, I was also once a dyed in the wool truck guy. I had tried to do the van thing back in 2005 with a Spring 118, but it was not really a family mobile so I switched to soccer mom rides like a Sienna until they flew the nest.

    I bought a front wheel drive diesel Promaster 118. For my conversion I needed to have a vehicle that would still work like a truck, so I built a folding dinette, leaving the cargo space open, added some storage up high, fridge and cabinet behind the driver’s seat, roof rack, and burly tire.

    It’s my daily driver, 22mpg overall winter, 25mpg overall summer. I can haul 4k and pull 5k. Now I’m a no truck guy 🙂

  • Giulia
    Reply

    I’m a Van Gal… Permanently. I live in my 1991 Ford One ton Econoline and travel up and down the West with my Aussie mix Bee following the seasons. I wouldn’t have it any other way, even though it’s becoming increasingly difficult to boondock and the increasingly popular RV resorts are not my thing. I might have to move to New Zealand! Thanks for the great article.

  • o jean
    Reply

    always vans! i have a 84 gmc vandura diesel (decked out for baja) for travel and work.
    i can pack my tool boxes, 4×8 sheets, 2x4s, stuff it with custom made furniture for clients.
    on friday afternoon i flip down the bed, slide the equipment crates and water canisters underneath.
    next step: drive up and into the next NF; driving some sand and gravel piste in baja, or just to the next state park for weekend camping.
    the conversion back to a work van takes 5 min!

  • The Woodsman
    Reply

    Just get a pop-up truck camper (4 Wheel, Palomino, etc.) for your Tacoma and have the best of both worlds.

  • JayC
    Reply

    I converted a 1996 Toyota van in NZ several years ago, and easily sold it when I left. The problem isn’t vans–it’s van culture and mindless backpackers who are ruining the experience for those who are mindful and diligent.New Zealand towns are outlawing ‘freedom camping’–just parking anywhere you want along the side of a road, etc., because there are just too many people that have left their shit (yes, literally human shit) and toilet paper where it shouldn’t be, often within site of people’s homes, or at the end of a road, or even in the side of the gutter (caught on film in Dunedin recently). So if people intend to go to NZ, take your manners and your Leave No Trace etiquette with you.

  • Curtis McCollum
    Reply

    I Have A Chevy 4X4 Van, wile it’s not a true off road machine, it very capable with a little care. Love your ideas.
    Curt

  • Jake
    Reply

    I recently saw a video on HubSpot, was it? about a couple that converted their van to a sleeping deck for long night travels and it seemed very doable. I tried it with my old Matador and failed miserably. I was hoping to take it for a road trip through the Western Ghats in India and I had to then go backpacking. Your approach seems a tad easier, let’s see. I might just try again.

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