We endeavor to spend as much of our lives outside as is practical and reasonable. The more we are outside, the better, healthier we feel. We explore and camp from the seats of our bikes and boats (or both) whenever opportunities arise, and those trips usually end up among our most memorable moments.
All that said? For two humans with real responsibilities that want to stop, drop, and go on a moments’ notice, expeditionary bikepacking and packrafting just aren’t reasonable for us every weekend, nor on every vacation.
It is for these ‘down’ trips — the ones where we want to get into the mountains or the desert to explore and rejuvenate, but aren’t quite feeling ‘up’ to going deep — that we have been working on our Promaster campervan.
My intent here is to share a bit of detail on what we have, why we chose it, and what we’ve done to make it work for us.
Ask ten people what “camping” means to them and you’re likely to get ten different answers. Ditto with “car camping.” We’re all different: What makes sense to us might seem silly to you, and vice versa. We are not retired, we do not have limitless time to go gallivanting about the continent. We don’t go to “campgrounds” and plug in to the grid. We have no plans to live in this van, but we do want it to be comfortable and practical for ~ a week at a time, and most weekends.
I knew from past experience with class A and C motorhomes that we just didn’t need anything that big, that that increased size would actually be working against us in almost every way. I knew from many experiences trailering through the years that a tow-behind camper was out of the question for us, not least of which because we have nowhere to park it when not using it. We knew we needed a single, simple, self-contained unit. In a word, “a van.”
In fact, I’d been looking at Sprinters for at least a decade, but could never quite pull the trigger. Primary hangup was initial buy-in cost, but you also have to factor in maintenance and fuel expenditures over the life of the vehicle. Even “ordinary” wear items like alternator, brakes, and suspension are notably expensive for the Sprinter, not to mention paying for the service. I could probably have stuck my head in the sand and ignored that, but then I started looking into mileage. Unless you get one of the very early versions (which by now would have a few hundred thousand miles and be way out of warranty) fuel economy isn’t awesome. Every time I got serious about researching the ubiquitous van, I got stopped in my tracks by the numbers: I simply could not afford a Sprinter.
Cost aside, what never made sense to me about the Sprinter is that it is such a narrow vehicle, and for the way I envisioned setting it up (more or less as our Promaster is now set up), we’d need to get a long wheelbase version to fit what we wanted to fit, and that long wheelbase becomes a problem with daily driving (parking), and especially when getting into off-the-beaten track campsites due to low ground clearance. The Sprinter was simply a non-starter for us.
A decade ago, if you wanted a full-size van and didn’t want a Sprinter, your options were “traditional” vans like the Ford Econoline that I had in high school, or to get creative. Every few months I’d search eBay and Autotrader and come up with lots of pre-owned campervan setups that were close but never quite ticked all the boxes. Plus they were used, out of warranty, and with a questionable past that I didn’t want to know more about.
Back then I ended up with a Honda Element E-camper, (“The Hotelement”) and for many years it was good enough for what I was doing with it. I loved the uniqueness and practicality of the E-camper, and how it was fun, easy — sporty even — to drive. That Honda was as reliable as a hammer and it took a lot for me to move away from it. Primary driver in upgrading was to gain more interior space. Secondary driver was to get as good or better fuel economy as the Honda when hauling all the extra gear we knew we would be.
Before settling on the Promaster — before really even looking hard at it — I’d learned a lot about the Ford Transit and the Nissan NV. I was raised in Detroit and my dad and grandpa both retired from Ford after decades of service, thus that was the obvious, almost expected direction. Also, I’d owned a Nissan pickup years ago that still got 32 mpg with some regularity even with 235k on the odometer, and that never needed anything other than tires and oil changes. That kind of reliability was hard to ignore. I wasn’t a fan of the “big brain” look of the Transit nor the, um, I don’t even know how to classify it looks of the NV, but I’d gotten used to the Element so I knew that I could adapt if needed.
What ultimately steered me away from both of those vans was a lack of fuel economy and the rear-wheel-drive mandate. RWD, seriously? I learned on a one-wheel-drive Econoline in Michigan back when they had winters with actual snow, thus I’m no stranger to finding scraps of traction and making them work. But the average “big hill” in Michigan is smaller and less steep than the ignoble blip between here and the grocery store, and worlds away from trying to get over Vail Pass or onto Grand Mesa in a whiteout. Can’t count how many times I’ve seen (and sat behind) people in RWD vehicles clogging up mountain roads in winter. No, RWD was not going to cut it, thus the Transit and NV got removed from the running and I was back to the drawing board.
Side note: 4×4 options (or conversions) do exist for the Sprinter, Transit, and NV. At ~ $8k to $13k on top of the cost of the van, they were simply not a conceivable option for me.
Every few weeks I’d get frustrated with the size of the Honda and look into the specs and numbers on each of these vans again, perhaps in hopes of eroding my own certainty about them, and the answer always came out the same: Not even close.
Enter the Promaster. These have existed (as the Fiat Ducato) in Europe for far longer than I’ve been interested in the genre. Chrysler started importing them under the Ram name in 2014, but I’m not sure I saw one before late 2015. And when I did see it I wasn’t even sure what I was looking at — at first I thought it was one of those right-hand-drive vans you see with UK or NZ tags on it, that some wannabe overlanding type had barged over for their gap year or retirement travels. But then I saw another, and another — both on the Front Range when visiting Jeny, my partner’s, family.
A cursory amount of digging revealed that they are front wheel drive (ding!), wide enough for non-giants to sleep crosswise, thus removing the need to get a long wheelbase (ding ding!), and they have a diesel option that owners reported getting in the mid to high 20’s for mileage with. I remember reading that last and thinking ‘really?!’
That was when I went deep down the rabbit hole of reading about these vans, available options, and pricing. The deeper I dug the more pleasantly surprised I was, and in the end I couldn’t find a good reason not to buy the Promaster. As you’ve seen by now, I found a red one, haggled via email on price, then flew to Nebraska a few days later to drive it home.
I think the corporate propaganda refers to it as “Flame Red” or somesuch. To me it is nothing less than HOLYFUCKINGRED. It practically screams it at you. Had I known just how bright it was I might have waited a bit longer, but here we are. Pretty hard to lose it in a parking lot, much less the woods.
Specifically what I got is a 2015 2500 EcoDiesel in 136″ wheelbase with high roof. I paid $31,000 out the door. Sticker was $39,330.
A few days after driving it home I loaded a bike, boat, and a cooler and went to the mountains to pedal and paddle. While laying there that first night, ostensibly reading while my mind raced on how to get it from where it was to what I wanted it to be, a flood of build ideas poured into my head — very few of them reasonable.
I knew that I wanted it to be able to carry 4 bikes and 2 boats easily, without shenanigans or finagling, and without compromising our “living space.” I knew that I wanted a fridge (bubbye, ice), a freezer (hellooooo, ice cream), an always-available bed for napping or just climbing into without having to rearrange anything when we rolled into camp, a small area to prep and cook simple meals, and ideally a bench seat to sit on when eating or recline on when reading. I knew that I didn’t want us to have setup or teardown times for anything — no digging, no rearranging, no folding or lifting or stacking or adjusting. Full-time, always-on convenience, albeit a very simple sort. Beyond that we would just have to see how things worked out. And, because I am as OCD as they come, I wanted all of it done by next weekend. Ha.
In retrospect, one of the most important things that happened, despite my OCD, was only being able to get so much done every week after work before wanting to use it on the weekend. What this did was to force me/us to get out and use it after just about every step had been completed, to actually “live with it” and see how things worked out, fit together, complemented (or not) each other. Many, many times we’d be laying there on Saturday night, completely unsatisfied with some thing I’d done or changed a few days before. Gratifying, cathartic even, to be able to take it back home, rip whatever it was out, and then make it truly right before moving on to the next phase. The bookshelf, magazine rack, shower compartment, original seating, shape of the gearage’s center pillar, negative busbar placement, and in-slider cubby are examples of this phenomenon.
The first phase essentially consisted of putting in a bed-rug type floor liner, then sound deadening and insulating the walls and ceiling. The sound deadening and insulation took an embarrassingly long time, largely because I took the time to fill every damn micro crevice in there, knowing that doing it right takes less time than doing it twice. I used FatMat and Thinsulate and would definitely do both again, although I definitely didn’t need even half as much FatMat as I used. I abhor rattles and squeaks and this seemed like an easy way to pre-remove some of them from the equation.
I installed a CRL driver’s side window with vents, and a CRL sunroof that was seemingly made to fit the sheet metal sunroof stamp in the roof. Not possible to quantify how much added light brightens the inside of the van with these two additions. The sliding passenger side door has a ginormous (we refer to it as ‘the TV’) window but no vents — I may eventually spend the money to install a vented version. I left open the option to install an overhead powered vent in the roof, but in the 100+ nights I/we’ve slept in Clifford so far I have yet to see a need. If we lived in a more humid environment, or lower in elevation, I’m certain I’d feel different about that.
I ordered 200w of solar panels and associated accoutrements, along with a handy little fridge/freezer unit, and after much deliberation spent a little extra for 2 x 6V AGM batteries. I was already in over my head with my normal summer (busy season) workload, and saving a few bucks by buying lead acid was appealing, but then I’d have to box, seal, and vent them to the outside, and I already had too many projects stacked up and seemingly not enough time to do them right. So, effectively I threw money at that problem and (because the AGM’s don’t require venting) made it go away.
While waiting for that stuff to show up I had the techs at the local Best Buy install an amp under the dash, and I bought 4 speakers to install myself. Gotta have good tunes and podcasts, and at highway speeds I literally couldn’t hear the anemic factory door speakers even though the van was pretty quiet already.
With that foundation laid I turned to storage. As previously mentioned, bike and boat departments were of utmost importance, and since our boats are tiny and malleable and can be stuffed just about anywhere, the emphasis became bike storage. I made the first of literally dozens of trips to Lowes and bought a few pine handrails — the idea being that with their rounded edges I could space them enough to allow a bike tire to be friction fit (slid in) between them, and if the spacing was just so it would hold the wheel tight, the bike upright, and no further restraint would be needed. Easy in, easy out, no added steps, no hassle was the goal. Once I was comfortable that we could get 4 bikes in there without gymnastics, that “rack” became the foundation and I started building our bed platform atop it.
The center pillar wasn’t mandatory by any stretch, but while standing and staring at it one night (<-you would be frankly shocked at how much of this is done while trying to imagineer something that you don't have a concrete plan much less a blueprint for) I realized that we'd need dedicated storage for our paddles otherwise they'd end up being in the way (at best) and likely damaged or broken sooner than later. So I devised three slots in that pillar: Each now holds two breakdown paddles, and we store our firepan and grill grate in the bottom-most slot. None of it shifts or rattles in transit, it's all protected from bikes going in and out, and we don't have to dig to get at it.
Still in the pic below, you can see that I completely covered the wheel wells to reduce road noise, and those boxes are also full of insulation. Pretty dramatic difference in noise right there. The storage slots directly above each wheel well fit a boat, sprayskirt, PFD, helmet, drysuit. etc… It’s tight but we can pretty easily get all of our boat stuff into those two slots, organized in and of itself, out of the way and yet easy access when it’s time to paddle.
The topmost slots on each side are where we keep our helmets, riding shoes, gloves, and glasses. I got some generic bins from Bed/Bath/Beyond that fit the space well, slide in and out easily, and keep our ride accessories organized and accessible.
While running errands, I happened to be driving past a sawmill out on the edge of town. Even at 40mph I could see lots of what I came to learn was called grayboard: the oddball and rough cut pieces of lumber that the yard hands use to cover the piles of freshly cut stuff, so that it doesn’t prematurely weather from our ample sunshine. I whipped a u-ey and drove in, then wandered around for a bit. I searched out one of the yard hands and sheepishly asked if I could just buy some of the grayboard. His befuddled look was priceless and his sincere response was, “Why would you want that shit — it’s all weathered, warped, and cracked?!”
Exactly, I said. It’s got character.
We continued to use it every weekend, while enjoying the space and light, appreciating what we already had while making notes on how to bring it closer and closer to our ideal. To that end we added an inexpensive butane camp stove that’s cheap to run and cranks the BTU’s, as well as a cast iron skillet and a few bowls and utensils left over from my bachelor days. I mentioned earlier some experience with motorhomes — that experience (admittedly 20 years ago, and with then-old units) convinced me that I wanted *nothing* to do with plumbing or propane of any sort inside the van, although outside, for certain purposes, was yet on the table.
Others have nosed about then asked where our toilet lives — I reach up and grab a gardening trowel and a roll of TP, hand it to them, and gesture toward the trees. We’ve been doing it that way for 40+ years and cannot begin to comprehend a need (much less desire!) to do it in the van. I dare say I feel unbalanced if I don’t shit in the woods once or twice a week.
I also splurged and invested in a Fiamma awning, opting to spend extra to get something that was handy to deploy and stow quickly, knowing we’d be more likely to use and enjoy it if it was easy. I’ve never noticed wind noise when driving and have repeatedly been glad to have it on wet or hot days.
A note should be made here that I don’t have a garage or any sort of covered workspace that the van can be driven into. Nor do I have an extensive array of tools to draw from. And I certainly lack experience in anything remotely like this project. Essentially I was (am) uniquely unqualified to do any of this work. But hey — at least I’m affordable.
Had I had dollars burning a hole in my pocket I would have happily, elatedly handed them over to someone, anyone capable of taking this project on. Van upfitters are popping up with some regularity, but none locally and none anywhere remotely in my price range. Thus all work was done by me, in the alley behind my shop, which has the benefit at least of being level, but which at about 25 minutes before sunset every night is besieged by a flood of mosquitoes moving out of the nearby wetland.
Every night after work I’d drag a few wheel boxes out the back door to act as sawhorses, sling a scrap of plywood on top of them as my workbench, then grab my seemingly insufficient but apparently adequate handful of tools. I built 99% of this van using a gutless circular saw, an anemic garage sale jig saw, the same 9.6v cordless drill that I’ve used to build ~12,000 wheels over the last decade+, and a small pile of hand tools that I’ve accumulated through the years like screwdrivers, tape measure, ruler, drill card, crimps, level, hacksaw, file, and t-square.
My simple point is that I really didn’t (don’t) know what I was doing here, but I dove deep and did lots of internet research to coach myself along. When I’d done the research and still arrived at an impasse I’d call my friend Tom (usually for electrical advice) or surf over to the Promaster forum where any/every question I could come up with had probably been answered years before. And if it hadn’t (or I simply couldn’t find it after much looking) I’d ask the good people there and usually get a quick, informative, detailed reply, often with links or pictures to help clarify. It takes a village, but that village is out there and willing.
I’d be remiss in not pointing out anything about the van itself. The diesel powerplant has been an absolute joy to own and drive. It has more torque than any vehicle I’ve yet owned, and can happily cruise the interstate at 85mph all day long, into a headwind, up a long grade, etc…, rarely getting over 3000 RPM’s. It fairly purrs along no matter what you ask of it. Subjectively, I love the sound — distinct yet unobtrusive.
Mileage has been a truly pleasant surprise. Worst tank I’ve seen in 30,000 miles (<-gah!) has been 21. That was pushing a 45mph quartering headwind while doing 85mph, fully loaded, all day, in the rain. Pretty much worst case. Best tank I've seen has been 31. That was doing 60 to 65 on two-laners over a summer weekend in the mountains, and surprisingly included 3 big passes going and coming. Clearly the average falls somewhere in between, and is entirely dependent on the type of driving. Pushing a headwind on the interstate while hauling the mail is never going to be efficient, nor is stop and go around town. Mixed driving yields right about what you'd expect -- 25 or 26, consistently. I am always amazed that it does so well on fuel in the mountains. The freaking thing weighs 6800 pounds!
Fuel capacity is 24 gallons, which seems massive. 500 miles between fill-ups happens regularly, with 600 miles doable but not common.
Turning radius is silly — better than any truck or van I’ve driven, ever. It’s one of the first things people notice, even if they aren’t driving.
The transmission is frustrating.
Heating, air conditioning, backup camera, stereo head, bluetooth — all of these creature comforts seem fine if basic. Exactly what I expected, nothing more.
Suspension/ride quality: It rides like a truck. It is a truck. Even after all of the weight we’ve added to the coach, the van is still sprung much heavier than what we’ve got inside, with the net effect that it feels fine on smooth roads but beats us up on square edged bumps. I have not yet found an easy way to lighten the spring rate — removing one of the two leafs out back helped, but not nearly enough. Seams in concrete are brutal, washboard at speed can get the van bouncing! I can’t really fault the design — it’s a cargo van after all. This is high on my list of things to dig further into. To the end of making a dent I replaced the stock tires with some Michelin AT’s and this made a small but perceptible improvement. I also indulged in the vanity of aftermarket aluminum wheels, after trying and failing to bond with the aesthetic of the stock steel versions.
Over this winter I got the idea to swap the stock rear leafs out with a set from a 1500 (reminder: ours is a 2500) Promaster. I sourced some from a junkyard in Missouri, whom palletted and freighted them here. I had a local tire shop do the install. Incredible what a difference this made — the suspension became acceptable, borderline invisible, overnight. Total cost was about $500.
Diesel fumes: I smell diesel when I’m standing at the pump, fueling up. Never at any other time. I didn’t expect that — thought I’d have to get used to the diesel stink — and have since learned that the DEF system removes any and all exhaust scent before you can sense it. DEF costs about $11 for 2.5 gallons, and I’ve had to add it about every 7500 miles. Pretty insignificant cost, but one that gas-van-owners love to point out. So there it is.
Winter driving: Jeny has an AWD Subaru and if conditions are truly bad and we need to get somewhere we’re likely in that. But I’ve driven Clifford into and out of the mountains all of last winter with no issues, on loose snow, packed snow, and black ice, without much of a thought. The van is so heavy (3800# on the front axle alone) that you have to want to break the tires loose when accelerating on slippery stuff. I can spin (or slide) the tires if I really want to, like screwing around in an unplowed parking lot, but only nano-momentarily and then the ESC kicks in.
Total outlay thus far has been about $10k for the build, on top of the $31k for the van itself. There are many, many, many people that could have (and have) done similar, or better, for less. I’m perfectly happy with it, notwithstanding that when I step inside I don’t see what’s done, I see what’s left to do, and the mistakes I’ve made along the way. Heck yeah I’d love it if it had cost less, arrived finished, and been delivered by eager swimsuit models — but I live in reality. It’s a modern vehicle, it’s done, complete conversion cost ~$10k less than a nekkid Sprinter, it has front wheel drive, gets excellent mileage, and should cost a lot less to maintain over the next decade-plus.
Read more from Mike Curiak, and order a set of his hand-made bike wheels while you’re at it, at his website, LaceMine29.