Gear Reviews

We are testing out gear to use with the van. Here’s a few reviews:

Camp table: An ideal camp table is lightweight, fits in an Aluminess storage box when packed, is heat-resistant, seats 2 to 4 people, and fits between the van seats. We tested the Rokk table. It is available from Wal-Mart or Camping World. It packs up tightly and fits in the Aluminess storage box. Assembly was fairly easy. It’s best to assemble the table top first, flip it upside down, and then snap on the legs. The top is aluminum, so we can put a hot pan directly on the table. The leg cross-supports are high up, reducing knee collisions when we use the table indoors. Looks to be a good choice.

Chairs: Several Sportsmobile Forum members had recommended the Pico Chair from GCI outdoor. In our test, the chair has folded up easily. 2 chairs and the Rokk table fit together well in the Aluminess box. The seat-space is surprisingly roomy. There’s a bit of butt sag, so I wouldn’t want to sit in the chair for hours at a time. However, for a compact dining chair, it should work well. Some users have reported that the chair breaks when put on sand. We haven’t tested that out yet. REI does carry this chair, so at least it comes with a great return policy.

Awning: I tried to set up our Shady Boy awning last night. It appears to be a well-made product. I like how the case snaps closed, and there are snaps to hold the fabric up during repacking. The notches that hold the poles seem quite shallow. The poles would just barely pop into the case. I’m hopeful and skeptical regarding the sturdiness of these notches. The awning poles come in a bag, and each pole is color-coded. I wish that I could find directions that explain the codes! The stock directions were unhelpful. There’s a few poor-quality instructional videos on line. The camera work is fuzzy, the instructional text is white print on a white background, and reggae music drowns out the instructor’s comments. We will be reaching out to the manufacturer for better directions.

Vehicle self rescue gear: The Ford vehicle manual is clear, detailed, and a must-have for road repairs. It proves its worth when the “check engine” signal lights up 500 miles from the nearest mechanic, especially when that mechanic doesn’t know what a wiring harness is. Sigh. Viking Offroad is a great resource for rescue gear. Their recovery rope and shackles are valued pieces of our “stuff happens” kit. For an example of “stuff happens”, see what happens when we try to camp on a maintained forest road. The Extreme Air Compressor is essential for airing down tires in rough roads, with the added bonus of inflating bicycle tires and blowing out dust.

Pet care: How to get a large, arthritic dog into a tall van? There are dog ramps, but they would take up half the living room. The Pet Loader folds, and is more compact. With lots of treats and praise, even our “old lady” learned how to use it.

Test Drive

Jeff Hickey at RVI took the Yeti out for its first test drive today.

The solar panels held solid and quiet at 70 MPH. Jeff had warned us that solar panels often make loud drum-like noises at speed, so we’re quite pleased with the results so far. Aluminess did a good job with positioning the roof rack a bit aft to decrease wind drag.

The rear bumper rattled quite a bit, but that should be fixable with tightening a few bolts. Aluminess had told us to expect bolts to loosen over the first few miles.

Jeff filled up the propane tank and is pressure testing it.

Roof Rack and Front Bumper Installed

We returned to Aluminess for installation of a roof rack and front bumper. Check out this beautiful hardware! We love the sleek design of the roof rack — just enough to hold the solar panels without making the roof too tall. Alan also squared the rack corners to provide more room for panels.

 

 

 

 

We also got a tour of Kenny Gorham’s home brew serving system. He’s adapted an Aluminess deluxe box to tap a keg and CO2 canister.

 

 

 

 

 

Looking forward to finally getting the solar panels in, after which we’ll install them on the roof rack. The rack cross members can unbolt from the permanent feet, so Aluminess will be able to lift the rack up when it’s time to bolt on the solar panels.

We’re also deciding on a winch and hi-lift jack to add to the front bumper. The winch is permanently installed behind the bumper, so selecting a bumper also involves selecting a winch. Tom from Badlands 4×4 Adventures provided helpful advice on selecting a winch and accessories. Kenny Gorham, Brent Haywood, and Sportsmobile Forum users also shared useful tips.

We look forward to taking classes with Tom in the Spring so that we can learn how to effectively and safely use our vehicle rescue gear.

Thank you to Dave, Kenny, and Alan for the excellent work on the rack project.

Next up: Van interior build starts next week (finally!).

Roof Rack Fitting

We headed back to Aluminess today to get the roof rack fitted. The rack gets held up with pulleys and is then lowered onto the fiberglass top. Alan then checked the measurements and adjusted the mounting supports. We also planned brackets for lights and the back up camera.

 

 

 

 

 

The rack design is sleek and simple. To make more room for the solar panels, the rack has squared corners instead of rounded ones. We chose a single loop design to avoid shading the panels. Check out this video regarding the effect of even partial shade on solar system efficiency.

We also met up with several Sportsmobile owners. Aluminess owner Dave brought his red van with a penthouse top. Dave had some great stories about camping and windsurfing in Baja.  Photographer Brent Haywood stopped by to discuss van conversion design ideas with us. Brent had some smart ideas for the shower and windows. We also liked his propane tank set up. It’s fun to talk gear with someone who thinks about the details as much as we do. Here’s a picture of Brent’s rig.

We also spied a nice Sportsmobile with a surf board rack parked on the street but didn’t meet the owner.

The rack goes to the powder coaters on Monday and should be ready to install next week.

 

RVI Factory Visit

We visited RV Interiors, Inc (RVI) in Spring Valley, CA this week to plan our interior build. Owner Jeff Hickey does complete RV interior builds and also makes custom cabinetry for hotels and homes.

We learned about Jeff’s work through friends on the Sportsmobile Forum and Expedition Portal. We then met with both Jeff and one of his former clients in June, and were impressed with the quality of Jeff’s work.

Choosing a Builder

There are only a few semi-custom RV interior builders in the nation that we know of that work with class B (van chassis) motorhomes. These include Sportsmobile in California, Texas, and Indiana; Van Specialties in Oregon; and Outside Van in Oregon. If you know of others, please post a comment and we’ll add the data. The two fully custom builders that we know of are RVI in San Diego and Global Expedition Vehicles in Missouri. Companies selling fully fabricated expedition vehicles include TigerXP Camper, and EarthRoamer.

For our interior build, we interviewed Sportsmobile Texas and RVI, amongst others. Our choices were due to geographic proximity and apparent fit. If we had known about Global Expedition Vehicles when we started our build, we likely would have interviewed them as well.

A few factors that stood out as we made our decision were:

A) Handling of a Custom Build   Since we’re living and working out of 70 square feet, we have a lot of specific needs and creative designs. We were pleased that both Sportsmobile Texas and RVI were willing to consider customizing. However, the two businesses varied in degree of flexibility and the pricing structure.

Sportsmobile primarily sells semi-custom work characterized by set options. The experience is similar to designing an Ikea shelving system or kitchen. You assemble Galley A with Closet B plus Stove E to come up with a “custom” build. For most recreational part time RVers, this gives enough options without overwhelming the buyer with decisions. That is — for the average buyer, Sportsmobile customization works great, and Sportsmobile prudently serves the average buyer. Of the Sportsmobile locations, Texas is reputed to do the most customized interior work. President Paul Meyer was certainly affable and flexible about customizing things for us. As the design developed, we did feel like our build was stretching beyond Sportsmobile’s skill set, and that Paul was managing that by billing heavily for anything custom, even if it was simple and inexpensive to build. For example, Sportsmobile Texas quoted a grand to build a simple desk cabinet because the design wasn’t one of their standard cabinets. Jeff bills for his time and parts, and the cost is reasonably proportional to the effort involved. It’s also clear that custom work is at the heart of Jeff’s business model, and that he enjoys custom work. It’s much easier to plan a custom build when the architect is excited about the work.

B) Construction method and materials Sportsmobile uses a veneered marine plywood product held together by L brackets and sheet metal screws. Benefits of the marine plywood are ease of construction, lighter weight compared to hardwoods, and improved durability in comparison to fiberboard. The marine plywood is an improvement over the medium density fiberboard (MDF) that Sportsmobile used to use and that other builders continue to use. BadgerTrek discusses some of the problems that the MDF and L-bracket construction method poses when you camp in snowy or wet weather. The veneer on the marine plywood can chip with heavy use, then swell when exposed to moisture. Once swollen, it will not reform unless you deconstruct the cabinet and replace the boards. Fortunately, there are some RV builders using solid woods and even sustainable materials. We’ve heard good things about Bamboo construction at Outside Vans. When we visited one of Jeff’s RVs, we were impressed with the quality of the cabinet work as well as the ability to use solid wood and natural materials. We chose kumala wood, a semi-sustainably grown hardwood that resembles teak and that combines light weight with durability. We’ll also be able to use residential-quality materials for the flooring and counter.

C) Broad knowledge base. It takes many skills to build an RV Interior, as it would to construct a house. Electrical work, woodworking, flooring, and space design are some of the most heavily used skills in our build. The foreman at Sportsmobile Texas seemed very knowledgable with fiberboard work, flooring, plumbing, and counters. Conversations with their sales team revealed moderate knowledge of insulation, strong knowledge of standard electrical systems, and minimal knowledge of solar or custom electrical systems. Jeff’s passion is woodworking, though he is skilled in the other areas as well. Peter is knowledgable in electrical system design, and is working closely with Jeff on our electrical system.

D) Responsiveness and Professionalism  We value simple acts of professionalism like communicating clearly, sticking to timelines, and answering calls within a business week. Some businesses would put great effort in to work with us closely (and we with them — including a 10 hour drive to one factory), and then not return our call for 6 weeks with no explanation. The amount of our business that they lost would have more than paid for another secretary to respond to client calls. Sigh.

E) Ability to think about systems. In a small space it’s important to think about the interconnections of systems, locations, and uses.

In our post on “Becoming A Home”, we talked about the order of steps in a build. Since wiring and the headliner must be completed first, it’s important to think of roof and electrical add-ons at the beginning of the build. So, while external lights and an awning are low on our priority list, we’ve got to decide on them soon.

Another aspect relates to understanding how the customer will use the vehicle, and then catching problems before things are built. We’re planning on being reverse snowbirds — skiing and ice climbing in the snowy mountains that most RVers flee from. When we discussed our shower design with Jeff, he pointed out an important and obvious detail that no one had caught before — a standard recessed shower pan involves cutting a hole in the floor. The recessed location saves space and stubbed toes. However, this also means that we’d shower with only fiberglass to support our weight, and that the uninsulated shower pan would be very cold when snow camping. As an alternative, Jeff suggested building up a false floor in the bathroom area. The floor could be filled with extra insulation (always a bonus!), and the shower pan could be recessed into the false floor. We’re very impressed that he thought of that!

Designing the Build

Our meeting with Jeff this week focused on planning the upcoming build. We examined the van, reviewed the floor plan and design, examined the parts that have arrived, and made several design decisions.

Last time we met with Jeff, we didn’t have the van yet. Now that we have the vehicle, we were able to map out exact locations for tanks, antennas, cabinets, etc.

A few updates that arose:

Schedule

The previous plan was to drop the van off and start the build immediately. However, at literally the last minute, Jeff bumped a VIP build ahead of us, pushing our build back by 3-4 weeks. Though we understand the business reasons for his decision, we’re also disappointed in him and in the circumstances. Jeff has otherwise treated us with the utmost professionalism, and this sort of behavior really isn’t like him.

Power

We’ll be able to fit 3 8-D solar batteries and an at least 8 gallon propane tank under the vehicle; this is good news for maximizing our power resources.

The roof is more curved than expected, which may limit our solar panel carrying capacity. This was a big disappointment.

Background: Peter worked hard to get clear specifications for the fiberglass top before purchasing it. We corresponded with Fiberine, Sportsmobile West, and even two generous Sportsmobile owners to get top specifications. The SMB owners were most helpful. We were dismayed with the “architectural drawings” that Fiberine provided, which looked like a child’s scrawl and were nearly inscrutable. It amazes us that they’ve manufactured from the same mold for 30 years, but never produced a proper architectural drawing. After visiting and measuring two of Fiberine’s tops on built SMBs, we thought we understood what we were getting. However, these tops were finished inside and out, so some of the curves weren’t apparent.

After Aluminess and Jeff examined the Fiberine top, we learned that the top is curved front-to-back and is significantly narrower at the top than at the base. So, we may have to scale back our solar power system, which already takes up nearly all the available roof space. Peter is back to researching all the available panels, which vary in shape, wattage, and percent efficiency in ways that make the decision complex. Our finished solar system will likely be one of the largest (in Watts) ever built on a Class B RV, so understandably this build stretches everyone’s skills.

Chassis and Bumpers

The towing plugs need to be reoriented. The current design from Sportsmobile 4WD would make towing power cables a low point of the vehicle (at risk for catching on road debris) and also rubs the cables against a sharp metal bracket that risks eventually breaking through the wiring harness. We’re glad to catch this small problem early before it becomes a larger issue, and will reach out to Aluminess about rotating the bracket.

Living Space

Taller than expected counters. Our backs rejoice! We’ll be able to have 33″ tall counters while still putting a kitchen window above them. House counters are 35″ tall in kitchens and 33″ tall in bathrooms. Counters in most Sportsmobiles with a pop-up Penthouse top are (from what we remember) 27″, because of fire regulations relating to the position of the stove. Most Sportsmobile owners go on short trips and either grill outside or reheat premade meals, so short counters are tolerable for them. This is going to be a long term home, so cooking comfortably is important. Sportsmobile Texas was willing to build us a taller counter, but they weren’t sure about fitting a window on top of it because their window supplier had a limited selection of shapes. No kitchen window would make for a dark and dreary kitchen!

We selected our flooring, counter, and cabinet wood.

We discussed the possibility of a bypass “camper drain” for the shower, so that shower water could bypass the greywater tank and drain to the outside when environmentally appropriate. This would save capacity on our greywater tank, while still making it possible to contain all greywater when needed.

The Natures Head composting toilet package had arrived at Jeff’s workshop. Peter had reviewed a (new and unused) model before by visiting the company owner’s family in rural Phoenix. (When you will drive 100 miles to see a toilet, you know you’re a gear head!) This week was Katherine’s first introduction to the Nature’s Head. It’s such a neat technology for environmental responsibility, water conservation, mobility, and hygeine. Check out our detailed posts about the Nature’s Head on Sportsmobile Forum. We look forward to reviewing the product after it’s installed in our RV. This might seem like a weird topic to discuss. But if you’ve ever changed an RV porta pottie or dumped a black water tank, you’ll understand why we’re excited about a cleaner alternative.

Working Space

We discussed our workspace designs further. We’ll need to install the swivel seat bases before finishing the design. Katherine’s workspace will be fairly simple, with a swing out table on the passenger barn door. We may model the table after an airline seat table. Peter’s workspace is more intricate, possibly involving a secretary-desk- style cabinet with sturdy arms for computer equipment.

In an ordinary workspace, the work chair adjust extensively so the table doesn’t have to. We’re using the driving chairs as work chairs, with space savings and loss of adjustability. So, the depth, height, and location of work surfaces involves a lot more planning.

Next Steps

Our next steps are to: finalize design for roof rack and solar system, then get the roof rack installed; refine the floor plan and design documentation; create an electrical wiring diagram for the interior build; and order more parts and appliances. We expect to get the roof rack installed in 2-3 weeks, and to start the interior build in 3-4 weeks.

To friends we know and friend we haven’t met yet: Thanks for accompanying us on this journey. If you know a fellow nomad or gear head, please invite them to join us.

 

Aluminess Factory Visit

Docked at Aluminess

Have you ever checked out the body armour on off road trucks and vans? Maybe wondered what, um, deficits the driver was compensating for? Me too!

I always thought of those heavy duty bumpers and roof racks as expensive and unnecessary toys. However, then I thought about where to carry our tools, tire chains, vehicle rescue equipment, trash, and bicycles. And I talked to folks who’d run into deer or moose on the highway. And I learned about the options for mounting solar equipment on a curved roof. These racks can be really useful.

So, we went to Aluminess in Santee, CA to get measured for a roof rack, front bumper, and rear bumper.

The roof rack will hold and protect our solar panel system, which is the core of our electrical system. Since we want to spend our nights out in the woods rather than plugged in at an RV park, the solar is essential. Solar will also power the technomad electronics so that we can work on the road.  The top of the van isn’t flat, and a roof rack is the best way to mount the solar panels.

The front bumper will hold the winch, which is really useful for rescuing a stuck 10,000 pound vehicle. It’s sort of like carrying your own tow truck. The rear bumper rack has storage for our tools, toys, trash and recycling, and bicycles.

Bumpers Being Made

There are companies that build these racks out of steel or powder coated aluminum. The main advantages are aluminum are weight and rust resistance. Steel is stronger than aluminum, though the aluminum can be shaped to be nearly as strong as steel. A steel bumper can weigh 10 times as much as aluminum. Since the bumper is attached at a distance from the suspension, the weight and vibration from a steel bumper can cause suspension defects over time. Aluminess’ founder Dave got involved when Quigley contacted him about Ford warranty issues due to suspension failures. In analyzing the failures, Dave discovered the damage that steel bumpers were causing, and he started Aluminess to build a lighter weight alternative.

When we arrived at the factory, craftsman Kenny Gorham gave us a tour of the areas where the bumpers and roof racks are fabricated on site. The racks are then powdercoated off site, and then returned to Aluminess for installation.

Roof Rack -- Assembled , Before Powdercoat

We were pleasantly surprised to discover that our rear bumper was ready for immediate installation. We pulled our van into the factory bay. The craftsmen then removed our stock rear chrome bumper and bolted on the Aluminess bumper with storage box and bicycle rack.

Bumper Install -- Removing Chrome Bumper

It will look more complete when we get the spare tire mounted. Aluminess didn’t have the right lug nuts to attach the spare tire to the swing arm, so we had to carry the spare tire separately. Sportsmobile has generously offered to ship us the needed lug nuts. Repositioning the spare tire frees up under-vehicle space to install solar batteries for the house electrical system.

Alan Measures for the Roof Rack

The installation took about 1.5 hours. During that time, Alan and Kenny measured the roof for planning of the roof rack and solar panel installation.

We left Aluminess with the rear bumper installed. There’s still lots of work to do in planning the solar system. Next, we’ll go to RVI to plan the interior build.

Rear Bumper -- Installed. Tire Not Bolted On Yet.

Becoming a Home

How does a van become a home?  What makes our van different than the one your plumber or favorite creepy guy drives?

  1. Start with a Ford E-350 Extended Body van.  A van is small; many of us have closets larger than the van interior.  But, the van is a sturdy foundation.  A larger, more conventional motor home is too large, flimsy, and close to the ground to visit the off-road destinations we covet.
  2. Bolt on four wheel drive. Depending on where you’re going, consider structural upgrades such as a full floating axle, air lockers, and stronger tires.
  3. Add a fiberglass top to give over 6 feet of standing room and space for a loft bed. Most Class B (small) motorhomes have a rear sofa that converts to a temporary bed. This saves space, but involves remaking the bed every night. For full time winter living, a permanent bed is highly desirable.
  4. Add exterior storage and strength. Aluminum bumpers and racks provide storage and protection for the solar power system, vehicle rescue equipment, and tools. These items are optional, but very useful. While the bumpers can be added later on, the roof rack needs to be installed before the interior build. The roof rack bolts permanently onto the fiberglass, and then is reinforced from the inside. It is preferable to install all attachments to the fiberglass prior to installing the wall panels and headliner.
  5. Build the interior into a house. Electric wiring, insulation, and wood furring are installed first. Then, add decorative wall panels, flooring, and the fabric headliner. Next, install cabinetry, appliances, and lighting. Basic residential RV features includes spaces for sleeping, cooking, eating, hygiene, and work. Small RVs often have multipurpose or convertible furnishings to make the most of a small space. Check out this classic Disney clip for Katherine’s early childhood inspiration in compact living, and see grown up versions here and here.

Picking Up The Van — Trip Report

Day 0: Packing Up

The night before our departure, we enjoyed a lovely send off with friends in Tulsa. Leaving town was a bittersweet moment. We’re excited to head out on an adventure, but sad to say goodbye to good friends. We look forward to seeing everybody again the next time that we’re in town.

Day 1: Tulsa to South Dakota

We left Tulsa early in the morning. We headed north through Bartlesville, Kansas, and Nebraska. In Kansas, we were super excited to see a Tumbleweed Tiny House parked on a cornfield.  While we’ve read about these in the New Yorker, this was our first Tiny House sighting. Outside Omaha, we discovered 1 minor glitch with Google Maps. The map routed us across a Missouri River bridge that washed out in June in an extensive multi state flood. While I understand that it’s hard to keep up with road construction, this was a pretty significant omission. After a 45 minute detour, we were back en route. From there, we headed north through Iowa and passed Tulsa’s nearest “ski resort“. We continued north into South Dakota, arriving in Sioux Falls. The Sioux Falls downtown was a pleasant surprise. It was bustling and filled with many independent businesses. We got some (not so) spicy beef enchiladas at Mama’s Ladas enchilada and wine bar and then rested.

Day 2: South Dakota to Colorado

We headed to the South Dakota DMV to take care of a few logistics. Looks like we got there just in time, before an errant driver crashed into the DMV. Next, we headed south through central Nebraska and then west across Nebraska and into eastern Colorado. We passed a lot of Oregon Trail landmarks en route and saw enough wheat to activate all of our Catan knights for free.

Day 3: Colorado to Utah

We drove west across Colorado. It was so exciting to see snow! It was difficult to be so close to so many ski resorts but not be skiing. We continued into Utah, finishing the night in Salina near the Fishlake Wilderness.

Day 4: Utah to California

Salina, Utah to Tulare, CA via Las Vegas. We had a bit of car trouble and spent part of the afternoon at a mechanic’s in St. George.  A wiring harness under the hood had detached, and the fix was fortunately both quick and inexpensive.

Day 5: It’s A Van!

Finally, we met the van in Fresno, CA. So exciting!

The van is a Ford E350 extended body with a Fiberine camper top and Sportsmobile 4 wheel drive system. At this point, the van has completed 2 out of 3 build phases.

Sportsmobile gave us a tour of the van and 4WD system. We were excited to examine the 4WD systems and were a bit frustrated that our sales rep was not very familiar with the workings of most of the 4WD upgrades. The 4WD build foreman was much more knowledgable, fortunately. The accounting review for the purchase was also quite scattered, requiring us to cross reference 5 different invoices for 1 purchase. We found a minor leak in the rear door which Ford will need to address. The Sportsmobile-installed top was watertight, and we’re pleased with the clean way that the bolts were installed. The trim bolts will make more room for the loft bed installation.

The van lift is higher than we expected. This photo shows the relative size. We’ll definitely need to get a dog ramp.  The 4WD system looks nicely done, and we cannot wait to see what it’s capable of off road.

We toured other Sportsmobile vans including an original 1960s Sportsmobile Westie.

We also played with their demonstration models of 4WD parts such as the transfer case and air lockers. We also took a mini test drive of the van and learned how to operate all the 4WD parts.

We then left the van at Sportsmobile and headed back south to Barstow (again!).

Day 6: Barstow to Vegas, then Vegas to San Diego

Due to odd taxation law in California, we had to meet a driver in Vegas to get the van. Peter then took the van on its first shake down drive, heading back to California. Driving a large vehicle takes some getting used to, especially with windy roads and crosswinds!

Tomorrow, we’ll head south to meet with RVI and Aluminess for further work on the van interior. Once the van is built out, we look forward to heading east for skiing.

Shoving Off

Soon, we’ll leave Oklahoma and head for Sportsmobile West in Fresno, CA.  Sportsmobile is taking a Ford E-350 Extended Body van, adding 4-wheel drive, and a fiberglass top.  Next, the van goes to Aluminess for a roof rack and bumper.  Finally, we go to RV Interior and Custom Woodworking for the interior buildout.

Don’t miss the new “About Us” page for background on why we’re doing all of this.