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"It's Not Going to be Perfect." A DIY Campervan Conversion Story - Part One


#vanlife

Living in a campervan is one of the ultimate ways to travel.


Why?


Because home can be anywhere you decide to park your wheels.


Fancy falling asleep at the beach to the sounds of crashing waves? Done. Think you might like to wake up in a gorgeous mountain pass surrounded by wildflowers and take a morning dip in a pristine glacial lake? No problem. Want to travel across your country but don’t want to spend an arm and a leg on accommodation? Have I got the solution for you!


Waking up to views like this is a major perk of traveling in a campervan

Before you say, “Hold on, I could never live in a tiny van! They're too small! I need X, Y, Z in order to live comfortably.” Let me tell you, there are so many different styles of campervans, one to fit every budget, style, and level of luxury. If you're willing to spend a little more on your build or buy, you can get a van outfitted with a shower, full working kitchen, and plenty of extra head and storage space.


Besides, if there’s anything that living in a van teaches you, it’s that by living with less, you truly end up with more.


Life in a van isn't always glamorous, but it's always an adventure

Until I met Uschi I had never given any thought to living in a van. I didn’t realize that it was such a common way to travel, but it IS a common way to travel, at least in certain parts of the world.


Once I began looking into it more, I discovered that people were building and living in vans all over the world – New Zealand, Europe, The United States, Australia, and even my home country Canada.


Although people often have different reasons for adopting the #vanlife lifestyle, whether it be for short or long term, there is usually one common thread binding all these vanlifers together – the desire for freedom.


Don't mind us, we just woke up like this

When Uschi and I travelled across Canada and parts of The United States in the spring and summer of 2018, we lived and travelled in a 2003 Chevrolet Venture we called Charlie.


Everyone, meet Charlie. Charlie, meet everyone.

Charlie had everything we needed for the three months (give or take) that we travelled in him: wheels, a bed, and plenty of storage space for our clothes and travel gear. We lived in Charlie as we travelled to The Great Lakes, Toronto, Montreal, Nova Scotia, and The Rocky Mountains. We even survived living in Charlie during an intense heatwave in New York City (but just barely).


What more could you need?

Where did we stay, you ask? Often times we parked in Walmart parking lots. You may laugh, but it was a major game changer for us discovering that the company allows travellers to do this. We were able to park for free, use the toilets, and get free wifi - a hot commodity for backpackers!


Hanging out in Banff National Park

We also found many free camp spots through a website called www.freecampsites.net, which allowed us to stay in more scenic, remote locations. We stayed with friends, and sometimes we just spent the night at truck stops on the side of the road.


Uschi and Charlie taking in the view

When we decided to travel to New Zealand, we knew we wanted to tour the country the same way. But because we were planning on staying for at least a year, we wanted something a little bit bigger and more comfortable than our trusty Canadian minivan.


While Charlie met all of our short-term needs, he was not an ideal candidate for long-term van life, especially in a country with weather as diverse and unpredictable as Canada.


The weather is not always kind in the Canadian Rockies

New Zealand is similar to Canada, in that the weather is incredibly unpredictable. It is said that certain parts of the country often see all four seasons in one day, and many parts of the country get bucket loads of rain, especially in the spring and fall. For this reason, Uschi and I knew that we wanted something a little heftier than Charlie, where we would have space to cook and relax inside.


Ta Da! Our big ol' Toyota Hiace Jack!

We bought our 1998 Toyota Hiace at the Ellerslie Car Fair in Auckland the first week we arrived in the country. Jack, as he was soon named, was converted into a self-contained campervan by a car dealer who buys vans and outfits them for backpackers during the summer months.


Backpacker's Paradise!

New Zealand, as it turns out, is much more backpacker friendly than Canada, allowing travellers with self-contained vehicles to freedom camp almost anywhere in the country (no more Walmart parking lots for us!). That coupled with the fact that it is one of the most FLIPPING GORGEOUS PLACES IN THE WORLD makes it a very popular destination for backpackers. So many people tour the country by campervan, and because of this it is very easy to buy a backpacker van outfitted with anything you could ever want, and many things you would probably never even think of!


Camping in Arthur's Pass National Park

When we were searching for a campervan, there were a few qualities that we definitely knew we wanted:


A bed that converts to a seating area with a table – necessary for those rainy days.


Relatively low mileage – as these vans often change hands frequently and spend a good portion of their lives touring the country, the mileage often climbs quickly. We wanted something relatively low so that we will be able to sell it more easily at the end of our trip.


For the van to be in good mechanical condition – we had Jack checked out at a garage before purchasing to find out if everything was in good working order.


And for the van to be self contained – having a vehicle that is self contained might cost you a bit more at the time of purchase, but if you are going to be travelling long-term it is worth it as it allows you to camp almost anywhere for free.


Camping for free, just steps from the beach!

Jack had all of these specifications and although he cost a bit more than we originally intended to spend, in the long run it's worth it to ensure our comfort, safety, and freedom.


Although Jack did meet all of our initial specifications, his decor was a bit bare when we bought him. He had all of the basic necessities: a bed, kitchen, and a toilet, but we knew we wanted more than that. We wanted to turn Jack into a real home.


How Jack looked when we bought him

So after working for a month and a half to save up some cash, we arrived in Christchurch prepared to spend a week converting Jack into the campervan of our dreams.


Oh god, we were so naïve.


We turned up at our Couchsurfing host’s house on December 18th, all bright eyed and bushy tailed ready to put our DIY knowhow to the test (oh and by the way we had exactly no DIY know how…).


Ready to get to work!

We told our host John that we would be gone before Christmas (after all I had used a screwdriver at least twice in my life before), and he laughed and told us that we could stay as long as we liked.


We’ll show him! We thought, although in retrospect we probably should have taken him a bit more seriously as John has had numerous couples and backpackers work on their vans at his house. I think at that point he might have known a thing or two more than us…


See, I'm even holding a screwdriver! This will be a piece of cake!

We ended up spending fifteen days staying at John’s working on our van morning, noon, and night, and we have yet to complete everything we want to - a far cry from the initial six days we thought the project would take.


Preparing Jack for his makeover

We visited the hardware store about 38762 times, a total which is only a slight exaggeration. I’m quite sure the employees at Bunnings (the Home Depot of New Zealand) all knew us and cursed the heavens when we walked through the door yet again ... (we visited the store daily, and even sometimes as often as three times in one day).


A bit of fun at our favourite store: Bunnings!

We made some major mistakes... We applied and reapplied our ceiling at least five times, and it is still falling down and will need to be changed.


Our sad sad little ceiling

We definitely spent more than we thought we were going to (although not by too much), but I have yet to tally the total (to be honest, I’m a bit scared to).


Uschi and I fought like cats and dogs almost every step of the way, exchanging so many frustrated and angry words with each other that we completely drained ourselves mentally, emotionally, and physically.


All smiles at the beginning of the project

But ultimately, we learned so much in the process.


For example, I learned that I absolutely loathe DIY projects.


Okay maybe not all DIY projects, but definitely those involving hammers and power drills. I now know that although I can do these things, I have absolutely no desire to.


Smiling on the outside, crying on the inside

And Uschi? Well she learned the exact opposite.


Are you surprised?


Uschi was a complete rockstar during the whole process; she really has a knack for this stuff. Not only did she build 95% of the van, she also connected our entire electrical system complete with a second battery, solar panel, and LED lights. She taught herself everything she needed to know, and I am beyond impressed with her perseverance and genuine enthusiasm for the project.


Move over Bob the Builder, we've got a new expert in town

And I built a shelf! Well kind of…


My pride and joy

I cut and sanded the wood but technically if you want to get reeaaaally technical, Uschi put it together.

But she says that it’s perfect and I believe her.


I really hope it doesn’t fall apart.


Enjoying the fruits of our labour

Part 2 of “It’s Not Going to be Perfect.” A Campervan Conversion Story is coming soon, detailing what exactly we did to convert Jack to our dream home, how hard we worked (or didn’t work as was often in my case), how many times I told Uschi I wanted to strangle her, and what we still have left to do to turn Jack into our dream home.


Stay tuned for photos of the new and improved Jack!

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©2017 by Sarah Griffith.