We will most likely be adding more detail to this post as time goes on, but for now, here's a brief run through of our experiences and our build. Feel free to leave a question or reach out to us in our "about" section.
Our van is a 2005 Chevy Express 3500 4x4 with a 3 inch lift. We bought our van in Salt Lake City, Utah, from a technician at Advanced 4x4 Vans. Having 4x4 capabilities in a van was important to us, but the ability to tow our 28 foot, 7,500 pound trailer was of the most value. Our previous tow vehicle, a 1/2 ton, 5.6 liter ,V8 Tundra had been so good to us, but we were hoping for a little more power with our 1 ton, 6 liter, V8 Chevy. We have had the van for about 4 months now, and in our opinion, the Tundra out-performed the Chevy with towing, especially up mountains and steep passes. Compared to the amount of freedom that the van has given us, the slower drive time is not that concerning to us right now.
When planning our build, we wanted to have storage for our skis, bikes, and kayaks, and most importantly, comfort for our 6 year old St. Bernard, Buford. Buford is a 150 pound, sleeping machine and requires cool temps and a big human bed to spread out in. The van also had to have a work station for Nick, and some sort of food storage setup for boon docking. Brittany strongly felt the inside should have bike storage, while Nick felt the task was impossible with the limited amount of head room. Another major factor in our build was time. Nicks parents graciously lent us their home, driveway, and tools, and we tried our best not to over stay our welcome.
One of the first things we did to our van was spray paint our shiny, silver front and rear bumpers black with Plasti Dip. It took 2 cans at about $5.98 each, was super easy to apply, and made a huge difference in the appearance.
Next up, we installed a back up camera to our whale of van. Our Tundra had a truck cap on the back of it, and while it was great for camping and storing kayaks, it offered low visibility for backing up. We both were surprised at how the Chevy's numerous back windows made backing up so much easier, but wanted the extra assurance of a camera for tight parking situations in a city. Nick found a compatible one online, and it's been totally worth it.
One of Nicks most favorite features in the van is our swivel seats. He installed a base he bought off Shop4seats.com, and within 40 minutes, our front two seats swiveled around and faced the back. These have been great for creating Nicks work station and opening up the space in the van.
Our Express van is a passenger van, not a cargo van, meaning there were 4, 2+ inch high metal seat rails bolted to the length of the floor from underneath. Our van does not have a extended top, so the those 2 inches of head room were valuable. There were a couple of options to get the rails out. One would be to remove the heat shield and unbolt the tough to reach bolts one by one from underneath. The other option was to cut open the rails and torch the bolt heads off that were welded to the rail. After reading a blog (http://defyingnormal.com/2013/04/09/the-last-seat-rail/ about Chris's experience, we decided to try and find a shop that would cut them out or remove them for us. It took some time to find a shop who wasn't afraid to tackle our odd request, but we finally found one. Removing the rails left holes in our floor, which we plugged and would later fill with some JB Weld.
With a blank canvas and the carpet, seat belts, plastic siding, felt ceiling cover, seats and seat rails removed, we started to tackle the insulation. We plan on taking our van on many ski trips, so it was important to make sure it would be nice and toasty come cooler temps. For our first layer, to help protect from rust, sound, and heat, we painted the floors, sides, and ceilings with DupliColor Bed Armor. Fat Mat sound dampener came next, which we cut into small squares and evenly spaced out throughout the vans ceilings, floors and side panels. From there, we cut out custom sizes of Reflectix and triple layered the walls/ceiling, adhering them with Super 77 Adhesive. To help further insulate and protect from moisture, we used Window and Door spray foam to fill all the holes and gaps inside the vehicle cabin. Next, we created a cardboard template of the floor layout that we used to cut the 3/4" foam insulation board for the floor. The template was later used to cut out the 1/2" plywood subfloor. On the side walls of the van, we cut out pieces of fiberglass paper back insulation and wrapped each section with heavy duty trash bags to help weather proof them. On the floor and ceiling, we then placed 1/2 inch plywood over the foam insulation board, and 1/8" luan went up on the sides.
To help keep Buford cool in the warmer temps, we purchased a Fantastic Fan with a rain sensor. Nick decided he was confident enough to make the install himself, and set to work cutting a hole in our roof. After he placed the vent fan in, Dicor Lap Sealant was used to waterproof the seams. Confident, Nick then tested his luck again, and cut a couple more holes on the outside of the van, for the battery ventilation hose and shorepower outlet.
Once we loosely committed to a floor plan, Nick drew it all out with a sharpie on the floor, and we got started building the frame of the inside. We started with covering the wheel wells and the auxiliary AC/Heat unit, and then started building out the frame for the bed, leaving space for drawers and storage on the sides. Before we could get started with the upper cabinets, we stained the ceiling with a walnut color, and hung cedar strips vertically along the top. The skeleton for the upper cabinets went up next, along with the cabinets in the front, to house our water and future 12v fridge setup.
Electrical wiring came next, and Nick's dad was such a big help during this process. Wires were pulled for all the AC and DC outlets, solar controller, inverter remote switch, and to the car battery for charging. The electrical is not yet completed, but the bones are there and we should have it figured out soon.
Once the wiring had been run and we were comfortable with where we were at, we started to attach the hinges and faces to the cabinets, to the bed/seat and the front cabinet that would hold the fridge. The bed was designed into thirds, with the middle section swinging up and locking, to form a seat. Without the seat, we most likely could have brought the bed higher, providing more storage, but the seat has already proven beneficial for taking friends on trips, which, we love.
Some late night finishing touches of cedar and stain, wrapped up the inside of the van, and Nick began to start working on the back, underside of the bed.
We both were slightly uncomfortable with the idea of cooking with propane inside the van (which I'm sure we'll get over with colder temps). As a solution, Nick designed a pull out stove/food storage/food prep area in the back of the van. To each side of the cook area is a deep space for our ski's, boots, and camping gear.
We have been traveling solo (no travel trailer) in our van now for about 4 months and are pretty happy with the choices we have made. There are many more additions we would like to make, but that are going to have to happen slowly. Future plans include adding an Aluminess roof rack and ladder, a kayak rack, and solar panels for the roof. Right now, we have a bike rack on the back for our bikes. Some nerf bars for Buford and us to hop up in would be helpful, and fender flairs to look sweet and help keep mud down. For the inside, we hope to obtain a 12 volt ARB fridge and finish up the electrical to hang our LED lights. As of right now, we will be bouncing back and forth between the van and the trailer, depending on Nicks work schedule. Nick finds it more comfortable to work in the trailer, with his large screen and equipment, for long periods of time. Having the option of both has been exactly what we had hoped it would be, and we are pretty stoked.
Some links that were helpful to us during our build process included: