Sunday, September 10, 2023

Trip Log 2023

My plan has been to write about our travels.  I had started writing about our van purchase, finding a builder, deciding what to fit in the van, and ultimately getting it built out.  However, once we got the van, I wasn't consistently writing about our adVANtures.  So, before I forget, here is a trip log to date.  I may write about some of these at a later time...we'll see.  I just wrote a post about the rally.
  • March 16, 2023 - Slept in van on our street.  Hey, I needed to sleep in it on the first night.
  • March 18, 2023 - Spent night in van at Crystal Springs Sno Park (Stampede Pass).  Beautiful evening even though the temps dropped into the 20s.  
  • March 25, 2023 - Spent night in van at Cultura Winery.  This was our first Harvest Host stay.  Really enjoyed the hospitality at Cultura.  We spent the day wine tasting.  We also brought the pugs on this adventure.
  • April 14, 2023 - Spent night in van boondocking near Cold Springs Campground outside of Sisters, OR.  This was our first boondocking experience and we had the pugs.  Everything went well, but another cold night.
  • April 29, 2023 - Spent night at friends house
  • May 5-7, 2023 - Spent nights at Kanasket-Palmer State Park.  Actually a very nice state park only 45 minutes away.  Unfortunately it rained some and it was cool.  We had the pugs.  We used our portable fire pit for cooking and a campfire.
  • May 10-12, 2023 - Spent nights at Teanaway campground.  I went here on my own and worked for two days.  Beautiful weather.  This was a very relaxing getaway.
  • June 8, 2023 - Spent night boondocking in Jack Creek area outside of Sisters, OR.  I stopped at this place on the way back from our Sunriver home to Seattle.  Great area with lots of spots to spend the night.
  • June 15-18, 2023 - Spent nights at Sun Lakes State Park.  This was a 5 family trip.  Had a great time SUPing on Dry Falls Lake.  Bonus, we got to see a rattlesnake.
  • July 2, 2023 - Spent night with family boondocking in Jack Creek area outside of Sisters, OR.  I liked this place so much we returned with the whole family.
  • July 7-9, 2023 - Spent nights at Little Lava Lake campgrounds in Central OR Cascades.  Beatiful area at the source of the Deschutes River.  Only issue was the proliferation of mosquitos at all hours.
  • August 10-13, 2023 - PNW Sprinter Van Rally around the Olympics.  23 vans driving our the the Olympic Peninsula - need I say more.  Bonus, I got to use my traction recovery boards to help someone out of the sand.
  • August 25-27, 2023 - Spents nights at Teanaway Campground.  We had a really good time camping here with friends.  The campground was only half full.
  • September 8-10, 2023 - Spent two nights at Salmon La Sac campground.  Four couples, fun hike, and swimming in the Cle Elum River.  One of the nicest campgrounds - only a two hour drive.

Salmon La Sac Campground

We just spent two amazing nights at Salmon La Sac campground nestled in the mountains beyond Lake Cle Elum.  This is one of the most beautiful and well maintained National Forest Service campground I've been to.  They have some very large sites, some well hidden in the trees, some right along the Cooper River, and several multi vehicle sites.  The road is paved as are the parking pads (which are level as well).  Each site has a fire pit and picnic table.  Many sites have gravel (vs straight dirt) around the picnic tables - this makes it less dusty (and muddy if raining).  The vault toilets were clean and not smelly.  There are water pumps throughout the campground - most are hand pumps but we did see one solar powered spigot.  

We booked our sites around 6 months ago.  The weather can be questionable this time of year - once you pass Labor Day, your chances of cooler, wetter weather increase dramatically.  Well, for this weekend it was low to mid. 80s and clear.  Perfect weather.

On the way up, we stopped in Roslyn (national historic town).  Steph picked up some non-alcoholic beverages at Roslyn Grocery while I went into Heritage Distillery for a taste.  I picked up a bottle of the Elk Rider bourbon - good stuff.

On Saturday we did a hike up the Cooper River.  Beautiful area.  Quiet.  Crystal clear river water.  

We also went swimming on the Cle Elum River.  Just a guess, but I'd say the water temp was around 60 (or maybe high 50s).  I got some swimming in but I couldn't stay in the water for more than a few minutes at a time (others in our group hung out in the water for 15-20 minutes at a time).  It was refreshing and good way to get cleaned up after the hike.

I completely failed to get photos of the campground and our rig at our site.  Fail.  

Tuesday, September 5, 2023

What would we do differently?

So we are almost 6 months into our van adventures.  We have done 1, 2, and 3 night adventures.  We have done everything from boondocking in the middle of Deschutes National Forest, to dry camping at DNR campgrounds, and full hook ups at a state park.  We've stayed in a friend's driveway, at a winery (Harvest Host), in beautiful mountain field (Hipcamp), and in the forest (and never saw one person in a 24 hour period). 

One question we've gotten on multiple occasions is what would we have done differently with our van.  These are not things we don't like, just given hindsight, would we change anything.

At first, I had no answer. There is really nothing that I regret or even have some pain over. With some reflection there are things I would reconsider.
  1. Toilet options.  This is something I can easily alter to a point.  We opted for the Laveo Dry Flush Toilet.  This system actually works very well and has several plusses (no smell, easy clean up, can dump into trash).  However, it costs $2 a flush so it's very expensive.  I'm considering trying out a Thetford or Dometic porta potty or a Trelino composting toilet.  We have no plumbing for waste for power where the toilet exists.
  2. AC or no AC?  verdict is still out.  We used it once for our dogs and it was needed - glad we had it.  I suspect we'll use it more often so still happy we have it.  The cons are cost and it takes up a sizeable part of the roof.
  3. Dinette Seating.  We opted for a bench style seat looking out through the slider.  While this setup and our swivel seats work great for Steph and I, it's a bit more complicated with the pugs. We really lack good lounging with the pugs when relegated indoors. They are lap dogs and it's tough to get comfortable and have them on your lap.
  4. Mattress.  Ours is too firm.  Being older, our hip joints need a bit more softness.  Hoping that more nights in the van will soften it up.  If not, I may put in a soft topper. 
  5. Put more emphasis on weight.  We didn't consider weight when making decisions on our buildout.  To be clear, we have had zero issues related to weight.  The van drives great in the mountains, on dirt roads, in high winds, and on snowy/icy roads.  I don't baby it (ie, I drove it like I stole it) and it's responded really well.  That being said, I'd probably put more consideration into the weight of materials used and consider some soft sided shelving for lightweight items like clothing.  
  6. Add the Expedition Tire Carrier.  We've kept the original spare under the vehicle.  I like having it hidden, and I like that we didn't have to buy a 5th wheel/tire setup.  However this means I need to be able to access under the vehicle to get the spare (may not be possible depending on situation) and I don't have a 5th wheel to rotate into the lineup when rotating tires.  Plus the stock spare is not the same size (as we moved to 275/70R17).  This is likely something we will address within the year - fortunately, it's an item to change post-build.
Nothing major. Given that this is our first van, I'm extremely happy with the choices we made.  Previously having two trailers and spending long (3 week) vacations on our boat as a family of 4 (most of that on anchor) taught us a lot about ourselves and how to accommodate ourselves in small spaces. We also learned what we need, what we don't, what's important to us, and how to organize it.

It must be said, Momentum Vans was excellent at informing us on the pros and cons of our decisions. They provide healthy insight and challenges so we could make the best design decision possible.  Their expertise in van use and van building was indispensable.  

PNW Sprinter Rally August 10-13, 2023

So who doesn't love a rally.

Since we just took delivery of our built out van in March, this would be our first van rally.  We are no stranger to large group outings.  As a boater and happy members of Queen City Yacht Club, we've participated in multiple gatherings and we even chaired/hosted two large events (think 30 to 60 boats and 90 to 150 people).  

So not only were we excited to join and meet other van owners, we were willing to help out as well.  We volunteered to be ambassadors.  What is an ambassador at a van rally you ask?  Don't let people get lost.  Well, not just that, but that was a big one.  Also, some basic cat herding - it can be tough to ensure people move ontime when you have 23 vehicles.

The rally unofficially started on Thursday evening, August 10, at Schafer State Park just outside of Satsop, WA.  Our leader, Deiter, had reserved the group site.  Honestly, this was probably the best location in the whole campground.  Very large, open, grassy area that could easily hold 25 vans.  I believe we had 17 that night.  This our first time meeting other van rally members.  Their friendliness and hospitality was apparent immediately.  I'm now a fan of Bitchin Sauce! (highly recommend trying it). It's now a staple in our fridge.


On Friday morning we hit the road by 830am with a plan to arrive at Chance A La Mer Beach Access in Ocean Shores between 930 and 10am.  This is where we met up with the rest of the of the crew.  After a brief break for people to fuel up and use the restroom, we had a quick debrief and started to head out.

After corralling a few wayward vans (took a wrong turn), we were all headed north for Pacific Beach where we would drive on the beach for about a mile...pretty cool site to see 23 vans parked on the beach.  

After some cool photo shots, we headed north on the beach.  Well most of us.  One person got stuck.  Sooo, I got to use my traction boards.  Total time to deploy, unstuck said van, and store them back on the roof - about 5 minutes.  

Our next stop was a DNR day use area on the Clearwater River.  This spot was awesome.  Giant rock/sand bar easily fit our 23 vans and we could have fit another 20.  We spent a while here having lunch and soaking in the warm river water.  Another great time to meet up, admire our vans, and share stories.

So now things hit a few hiccups.  We first attempted to hit up Ruby Beach.  I was actually really looking forward to spending time on this beach in the Olympic National Park.  Even though it was a weekday, the parking area did not have capacity for our rally group.  There were less than 10 spots available.  So we continued north and had a pit stop in Forks for fuel.  After that we made our way to another beatiful NPS beach - Rialto Beach.  Unfortunately, there were even fewer parking spots at this location and each van had to perform 5+ point turn to leave.  We created a bit of backup (and may have miffed a few people behind us)...sorry. 

Next up was our place to hunker down for the evening.  We were originally set up to stay on a baseball field right off of the ocean in La Push thanks to the Quileute Tribe.  Unfortunately, the field got commandeered for heavy equipment being used to work on the jetty.  The tribe was able to find a piece of land for us with a local resident.  This would be our stop for dinner and the evening.  Let Happy Hour begin.

The next morning Steph and I decided to break camp about 90 minutes early and head back to Rialto Beach.  Glad we did.  What a beautiful location.  The forests goes right down to the beach, the surf is perfectly magical and beach is almost endless.  The islands are the topper.  We went for a 45 minute walk, enjoyed the amazing ocean sounds, the mist on the beach, and some cool driftwood admiring.

On Saturday we headed toward and around Crescent Lake.  This lake is stunning!  It's a pristine, very deep blue lake at the north end of the Olympics, and it's one of the clearest lakes in the country.  Unfortunately, there are very few turnouts along the lake and definitely none for 20+ vans.  Next stop is Salt Creek Recreation Area.  I have camped here and loved it (stay in the non-hookup part of the campground).  It also has an excellent day use facility with a ton of parking.  In the day use area (which is free), you can access the potable water, dump station, restrooms, and showers.  But enough about facilities.  Salt Creek has gun turrets (setup for protection of the Straits and shipping during WWII), tide pools, sea life (we saw an otter), beautiful beaches, a picturesque island, excellent surf, and lots of varied hiking terrain.  

After several hours here we staged/met on the Port Angeles Jetty by the US Coast Guard station.  Next we drove the vans through downtown Port Angeles to our next stop - a Hipcamp (called Roberts Woods) in the foothills above Port Angeles.  This 12 acre piece of land was acquired specifically to setup as a hipcamp - it has been the wife's dream and labor of love.  The hosts were lovely, very helpful, and just genuinely fun people to talk to.  They have around 6 individual campsites but they have wide open fields to accommodate large groups like ours.  They even have glamping tent cabins.  We had a very nice catered meal and a local folk band from Port Townshend playing classic favorites.  It was a perfect evening to sit out, enjoy the music, and later watch the Perseid meteor shower.

On Sunday, after some exercise (I ran and Steph participated in a group cross fit session), we all headed to Sean and Dawn's coffee bar and athletic club (The Coffee Box/Storm King Athletic Club).  We had a plethora of fruit, danishes, bagels, and beverages - they were great hosts and their businesses are very cool.  As the final gathering, this officially ended the rally.  Steph and I decided to do one more adventure.  We drove up to the top of Blue Mountain (almost 6k feet up).  You need to traverse along an 8 mile dirt road - this road was in outstanding condition, but it's steep, very windy, and at times narrow.  You were provided views into Canada, the Cascades, and the Olympics.  On the way down, I got to utilize 4WD Low - which worked great - it managed the van speed well so I used very little brakes.

And then we drove home.  We loved making new friends, learning about our vans (thanks to the Van Compass folks who were part of the rally - they were great - and yes, I had Momentum install the Baja Bracket), and seeing new sites.  Until next time.

Friday, September 1, 2023

Boondocking Apps and Books

I wanted to describe what tools and methods I use to find boondocking places.  There are many options.

The most critical item to remember IMHO:
Relying on apps, websites, phones, and computers is very useful and convenient.  You can identify spots from satellite views or gps coordinates shared by others.  You can save these on various apps.  All of this works well if you have cellular or internet service or if you store everything offline on your device.  Ensure that your method for saving locations can be recalled with no service.

First, let me list resources I'm using.

Apps I find useful
iOverlander - Seem to have a good database of true boondocking locations - good crowdsourced data.
Sekr - good community.  Nice interface.
Freeroam - Good source for NF campsites.
Gaia  - Many different map layer options, but a little bit of learning curve.  I like tagging points from the webpage on a computer and then downloading them to the app.  You get offline maps with good detail.
Google Maps - Mainly use to get satellite views of locations and search for dispersed spots.
Avenza Maps - I use this to download the NF MVUM maps and as well as other free maps.  These are copies of paper maps.  They will locate your location on the map when using GPS on your phone.

Websites I find useful

Boondocking and Free Camping USA on FB

Other apps that are helpful (but used less)
The Dyrt - I subscribed but regret it.  So I'm referencing it but it's not my favorite.
USFS and BLM Campgrounds
Harvest Hosts

There are tons of apps and websites.  I would find the core ones that work for you and learn to use them.  You don't need every app.  If you have too many things available to you, you'll get analysis paralysis while on the trail.

So how do I do things?

I start by determining what areas are within my driving range for the trip.  Then you need to evaluate the weather and conditions for the time of year.  You need to consider things like precipitation type, road conditions, elevation, etc. 

I usually start by looking for user contributed sites on iOverlander.  Even if there is just one spot, there may be 10 more that people didn't tag.  People tend to contribute their reviews as well.  You can look for other recommendations on Dyrt, Sekr, and Freeroam.  Once I have some general areas, I'll check them out via Satellite on Google Maps.  I try to assess my driving capabilities with how things look on Satellite (this is very imperfect but it is a data point).  I'll locate these areas on Gaia and include contours to understand if roads/area are hilly or flat. 

If I find a site or general location, mark it on Gaia.  Make sure the waypoint is stored on your phone and ensure you have downloaded that areas map for offline viewing.

Next, do you have a paper map version of these locations?  If going to a national forest, you can always check-in at the local ranger station.  The Motor Vehicle Use Map (MVUM) shows legal roads, seasonal and wildlife closures, and is used by law enforcement and Forest staff to enforce which roads are legally open to vehicles. The MVUM was created to allow appropriate access for wheeled motor vehicles while protecting forest resources from damage caused by unmanaged motorized use.


I carry the following:
  • Corps of Engineers Camping: Directory of 942 Camping Areas in 35 States
  • National Forest Camping
  • Free Van Camping on BLM Public Lands: Discover 935 Bureau of Land Management Camping Areas at 658 Locations in 12 Western States

There are others.  Good to have reference material handy in paper form.  

Our First One Nighters (or First Month with Van) (written April 18, 2023)

Technically, the first night in the van was spent by me - sleeping in the van parked on our street outside our home.  I won't dive into the evening much - I was like a school kid with a new toy...except I'm 52 and I was drinking whisky listening to classic rock in the van.

We've had the van for a month.  We live in the PNW (Seattle area) and the weather has been colder than normal with average precipitation.  So we haven't had comfortable weather.  We decided to plan out some one nighters increasing the adventure level over time.

Our first trip was just Steph and I and no pugs.  We drove an hour up I-90 to the Crystal Springs SnoPark (Stampeded Pass) just east of Snoqualmie Pass.  Basically a large wet and muddy parking area.  We pulled in around 4pm.  Unlike our past land outdoor adventures - there is no setup!!!  We sat outside enjoying our first bottle of wine for our inaugural van trip.  We met two other families staying on either side of us (both in Northern Lite campers). 

One neighbor told us their sprinter van rental horror story.  Before they chose the camper over the Sprinter, they rented an outfitted Sprinter van for a trip to California.  In Oregon (where you are prohibited by law to pump your own gas), the attendant mistakenly put gas into their diesel tank.  Ugh.  It was late afternoon and the gas station couldn't get the tech out until the next day to pump the fuel out.  So they spent the night at the pump.  That sucks.

Back to the sno park.  It got cold quick.  This is March and there was still 6 feet of snow on the ground.  Once the sun dropped below the trees, we hopped in the van, turned on the heat, and drank more wine.  We enjoyed listening to music and just relaxing. 
The Rixen Systems heat worked great.  Simple to use and quick to bring the van temp up to 60. After having some additional wine, I made chicken for our chicken tacos on the induction cooktop.  We opted for a single cooktop, which is perfect for how I cook.  We enjoyed our dinner with, you guessed it, more wine.  We made it an early evening and watched a movie in bed on the iPad.  In the morning we had some coffee and called it a trip.  Everything worked great and the van drove well.

For our next adventure, we drove out to Yakima on a Saturday morning to spend the day wine tasting.  We hit up 2 wineries and a sparkling wine place before landing at our place for the evening.  We ended at Cultura Winery (also a Harvest Host participant).  After some very good wine tasting and conversation with Tad, we relaxed, with wine, at our van.  We were located next to the winery building on a gravel patch surrounded by orchards. 

It was another cold evening.  Earlier in the day, we had more sun and no wind.  By 6pm we had wet snow and temps in the 30s.  Oh...we also had the pugs for this trip...almost forgot.  During our winery stops we popped open a awning window and turned on the ceiling fan to funnel air through the van.  We sat outside with the Sounders game on the iPad, while enjoying some local wine.  Post game, we hunkered down in the van with the heat on and prepped up a meal.  We ended the evening with a movie on the iPad.

For last one nighter, I planned on a night of dispersed camping in the national forest outside of Sisters.  This was preceded by a week at our place in Sunriver.  Oh, almost forgot, we did two day trips skiing - one day at Snoqualmie Pass and another at Mt Bachelor. 

For the Sisters night, we spent the morning making our from Sunriver to Sisters with stops for gas, weigh station (4450lb front, 5950 rear), outlet mall, and finally walking around the town of Sisters.  You don't need to drive far to find dispersed camping outside of sisters - the NF starts pretty quick outside of town.  We stopped by the ranger station and picked up a MVUM (motor vehicle use map).  We first did a quick drive through Cold Spring Campground.  Even though it was empty and free, it defeated our goal to truly boondock.  We pass several places that were occupied along one of the main forest service roads.  So then we started venturing down the lesser used roads.  Didn't find much at first so we had to turn around a couple of times - always fun in a 170.  Finally found a spot with plenty of room flat, and not near anyone.  We never saw a single person or vehicle.  We also saw no animals - would have liked to have seen something.  While the sun was out, it was still in the 40s and breezy.  We bundled up and set out our chairs to enjoy the outdoors.  The doors were on a long lead so they could move around a lot.

We had our wine and books.  Also, we had very little to no cell service.  But, the weboost changed all that.  We were able to give ourselves very usable service with it.  We relaxed for a few hours until the sun dropped below the trees and temps were getting into the low 40s.  We hunkered down in the van with the bug screen deployed - this actually cut back the wind significantly.  Dinner was leftovers - we had meat, veggie, cheese omelet bowls...and wine.

For this trip, I had installed a setup to mount the iPad above the bed using l-track, ram mount, and iPad holder.  This worked well to hold the iPad up above us while we watched from bed. 

Oh, and the pugs.  They did well on both of their trips.  They seem to sleep well, even when we get up to use the bathroom during the night.  But once the sun comes up, they need to go outside and go potty. 

That morning was sunny but cold (below freezing).  We made our coffee and called it a day.  We had a 5.5 hour drive ahead of us.  So we headed out early.

I really enjoy driving the 170.  It can get blown around a bit in real high winds - we had these coming from Yakima and driving through the high desert north of Redmond, OR.  Acceleration is good with the pedal box set to sport mode.  I've tried Eco and Sport - I've chosen to leave it on Sport.  One other interesting note, I've seen the gas mileage improve slightly.  

Delivery! (written on March 19, 2023)

On March 7, we received an email stating that our van would be ready the following week for pickup.  Our delivery date was set:  March 16, 2023.

I can cover all of the prep purchases made in another article.  Let's talk about delivery day.

This delivery day almost didn't happen as I ended up with Covid the weekend before.  Fortunately it was a mild case (one day of fever and headeach, followed by mild cold symptoms).  We all agreed we could the pickup as long as everyone masked.  Done.

Our pickup appointment was scheduled for 1pm.  So we left around 11:45am from West Seattle and arrived at 12:50pm in Arlington. 

We quickly shuffled into one of their garages where she was parked.  All sparkly and new!  Absolutely beautiful.  We spent 10 minutes ooohing and ahhhhing at the outside and inside before diving into how the systems work.

Initial impressions:  She is gigantic!  She looks amazing.  Th quality was pure perfection.

Brian Wright spent the next 3 hours walking through the systems in a very orderly and methodical manner.  No one element is complicated.  But it's easy to miss a minor detail over the course of 3 hours (only time will tell). 

We started with the primary functions on the panel next to the shower.  This provides the Victron battery meter, Xantrex inverter/charger controller, the Rixen systems heating and hot water panel, and one of two water pump buttons.  All of these are pretty intuitive and simple to use (note, as boaters, we are already familiar with many of these type of systems).  This panel also has the buttons/dimmers for the 3 zones of lighting.

We moved through the main area discussing things like the boot wamer, laveo dry flush toilet, shower, location of plugs, etc.  Next we discussed our recessed multi-color LED lighting and the we-boost cellular signal booster.  Before exiting the main area, we got a tutorial on the new bluetooth audio system including amp, new speakers, and a subwoofer. 

Do you want lights?  We got lights.  From a touchpad on the console we can control our overhead lightbar (that thing hurts the eyes), grill installed white lights and amber lights, side load lights, and rear load lights.  The latter two can be dimmed. 

We then moved to the garage area for a briefing on the air compressor, external shower, AC/DC panel, battery shutoff, external power inlet, water, and sliding tray.  We also hopped on the roof to check out the we-boost antenna, AC, storage box and solar panels.  Also got a quick lesson on how to remove the maxx trax boards.

There were several other items we went over - awning extension and setup, gray water drains, pedal box controller, drone mobile setup (not yet complete - will happen soon), and any last minute questions. 

Then it was time to leave.  Perfect timing...driving south, through Seattle, at 4:30pm on a Thursday afternoon.  I was a tad nervous knowing how much we invested financially in this build.  But slow and steady was my speed. 

Once home, we parked it in our driveway - it's home.  Our driveway has a respectable amount of angle to it.  So sleeping in the van in the driveway would not be much fun.  But, I must sleep in it for the first night.  So out on the street it goes.  Just like a true Seattle-ite, I have slept in a van on Seattle streets. 

Check out the professional photos of Salish.

Getting to Van Drop Off (written October 25, 2022)

It is October 2022 - one year after ordering our van and 11 months after choosing Momentum Vans for our build.  So what has been happening during this period.

Lots. Of. Waiting.

I need to remind myself we were/are fine with the wait as this van was more intended as a retirement travel vehicle.  But once we got the van in the driveway (April 2022), we've been very eager to get to the build phase. 

This period has been taken up by us deciding what we want in the van, how it's laid out, and make choices that fit our 80% use case.  Things like bathroom or no bathroom, sleep east/west or north/south,  install DOT approved passenger seats, colors, fabrics, countertops, single or dual burner stove, and what do we install on the exterior - these were all questions we need needed to answer.

We are going with a bathroom/shower space.  We knew we wanted a toilet and knowing we would use it year round (in snow), we didn't want to rely only on an external shower.  Momentum also builds in quick drop shelves so you can use the shower for storage or prep, while being able to quickly convert for using the toilet or shower.    The biggest negatives to adding this this - takes up a lot of space and it's the most expensive part of the build.

Next biggest thing - we have two pugs so we want room in the bed for both of us and the pugs.  We plan to sleep north/south (so longer bed) and we will spend extra to add flares (think of these as the pugs space).  This takes up space but adds a big expense (flares are pricey). 

We did cut back on some external items.  We will not be doing  an aftermarket front bumper with a winch.  I've had a winch on our Xterra for years and never needed it.  Bluntly, I'm pretty cautious about where I go.  Having traction boards will likely solve any issues I may get myself into (hopefully).  We are replacing the fuel tank with a 47 gallon tank - this allows me to keep the spare underneath - so I don't need a rear door spare tire carrier.  I also opted for no storage on the rear door - just a ladder.  All of the things we eliminated can be added later and didn't constrain our van use in anyway.

Passenger seats were removed from our build.  Both of our kids will be out of the house or very close to leaving the nest.  They also have their own car.  So there is really not need to have the DOT approved seats.  We are opting for a cushioned bench seat instead.

We will have T-vent windows at the mid-point of the Van and we will use Awning windows in the flares.  We'll have both a fan and the Nomadic Cooling 2000 watt AC.  We want to ensure we have good ventilation (realizing this eliminates insulation) and the ability to cool quickly.  The pugs can get warm so maintaining cooler temps is important.

As for colors and materials.  Cabinetry will be natural bamboo and the countertops will be Paperstone (Cabernet).  Going for the wine color.  The floors will be 2Tec2 (lava).  Wall covering will be Hester (Moonmist) while the ceiling will be Softside (Pegasus Brilliant White).

Wheels.  Those were challenging to pick out.  I didn't really have a specific wheel.  So I spent time reviewing photos on various van sites to see what look I liked.  Then it's a matter of whether they have the size you want.  For example 16" vs 17".  We want 17" - more aesthetically pleasing.  We ultimately chose Black Rhino Havasu (this ended up changing to Method MR703).  I liked the design and high load rating (3300 lb).

As we decided on all of the bits, we also sat down with Momentum to describe placement of everything.  You might think that in such a small space, what choices do you really have for placement and sizing.  Well, there are numerous decisions to be made...and we've changed our minds several times.  I suspect we'll continue to change some things up until the point we are locked in on design.  One key decision - I wanted the galley on the passenger side so I could look out the sliding door while working on meals.  

Design Session July 20 2022

July 20, 2022 was our first in person design session with Momentum Vans.  Our appointment was at 9am so of course we had to leave West Seattle at around 7am (stopped at Starbucks on the way).  This session would introduce us to the products and colors of the finishes, have detailed discussions about design choices, and get that much closer to the products we wanted installed in our van.

Leading up to this meeting, I increased my research time on what we wanted or no longer wanted on our van. 

The following are the main things we no longer wanted
  1. A winch.  We have a winch on our 2010 Xterra and we have never used it.  I've never found myself in a position in the Xterra where it was needed.  If I didn't need it on that vehicle, I most definitely don't need it on the van.  The likely scenario where we would be stuck could be remedied with traction boards.  So I'll opt for those in lieu of a winch.
  2. Floor heat.  This seemed like a luxury.  I'm sure my feet will be chilly in the winter but there will still be significant amount of insulation in the floor plus we will have a hefty dose of cabin heat.
  3. Side Ladder, Rear Cargo Box, and Rear Tire Carrier.  I wanted to slim down the look.  I decided to stick with a rear ladder and nothing more.  We'll install Roam Adventure boxes on the roof and opt out of the rear cargo box.  As it turns out, we can keep the spare under the vehicle - so we will go that route.
  4. No third seat.  We are opting to have a bench/dinette seat instead.  So only belted seats for driver and 1 passenger.

Of course, you always add things. 
  1. AC.  We want 12V AC.  So added Nomadic AC2000 to our build.  We debated this quite a bit.  We wanted it...then we didn't want it...and now we do.  It's a big power draw but we have a good size battery bank allowing us to run it a few hours at bedtime.  I sleep HOT so this will be a big deal to me.  We also have pugs  and this will help their well being.
  2. Switching to Sleep fore/aft.  We want to maximize our bed size.  Pretty simple.  Right now we plan to keep the flares.  We both like the look but appreciate the extra space it provides , especially if the pugs use the space.  The big negative with keepings flares is the added cost.

We spent over two hours reviewing flooring, wall, ceiling, cabinet, and counter material.  Staying true to Momentums prior builds and style, we are not straying too far away.  I mean, why would you choose them if you planned to upend what they are good at.  Our cabinets will be made with bamboo - solid, resistant to all sorts of stuff, repairable, renewable.  The main negative is weight - it's a heavier wood. 

Floor is 2Tec2 flooring and Lava ( is the color/pattern we chose. 
For the walls, we chose Hester Moonmist (
For countertops, we were looking at Corian and Avonite.  I prefer the cement looking tones and Steph gravitated to some of the lighter spreckled/terrazzo appearances.  We will need to make a decision but have time.  There was one from Paperstone called Cabernet ( that would be a bold choice.  That is still a possibility.

While there we toured the shop and the van builds that were being done.  Always fun to see vans in all stages of the build.  One was completely done and getting professionally photographed the next day.  

How We Got the Van (written April 7, 2022)

So getting a Mercedes Benz Sprinter van is not as easy as trotting down to your local dealer, paying, and driving it off the lot.  Honestly, I wasn't even sold on our van being an MB Sprinter.  I was also interested in the Ford Transit since it now had an AWD option.

One thing that could drive your selection of make/model is the upfitter you use.  Many only exclusively work on Sprinter or Transit or Promaster.  There are a few that work on multiple makes but most focus on one make.  We had narrowed down our search on an upfitter first.  As it turned out, they all only converted Sprinters.  Benchmark had previously done Transits but they stopped. 

When we asked Momentum Van (the upfitter we chose), they told us they only worked on Sprinters.  First, they only need expertise on one van.  Second, they are big fans of MB fit, finish, and quality.  So MB Sprinter it is.

But...always a but.  Momentum, like many, do not source vehicles for their customers.  Ok, so I need to go buy a van.  No biggie.  I asked Momentum for some advice and referrals.  This was in October 2021.  They told us to get moving on acquiring a van - even before we locked up build slot at Momentum.  But the build slot is Fall, 2022 - why do I need to rush.  This is when I learned that Sprinter V6 4x4 170s were a rare commodity and very challenging to acquire.  So how do I get one I asked.  Their response: "I would start by reaching out to 50 dealers immediately."  They were serious!

This was a shock to me.  I wasn't prepared to do a bunch of legwork to find a van.  But whatever.  I started with the 3 contacts provided to me by Momentum - Seattle, Spokane, and Lynnwood.  I dropped them email.  The next day I filled out the Contact form for 15 Sprinter dealers in Washington and Oregon. 

So what happened next?  I heard from Spokane - not very friendly.  They basically told me to buzz off for 3 months and they'll try to help me in 2022.  Seattle and Lynnwood never responded.  I heard from about half of the 15 within hours.  The smaller dealerships in OR prioritized or reserved their allocations for OR state residences (this is a new issue I hadn't thought of).  I was prepared to start expanding my search to  the rest of the western US.

I took a call from Marisela Valencia at Tri Cities Mercedes Benz in Kennewick, WA.  She had recently (ie, within the last few days) 2 allocations for 170 4x4s.  One was already gone, but I could reserve the other one for us.

Never having ordered a vehicle or researched how rare Sprinters were, this was all new to me.  I hopped off the call (without committing) and discussed the option with Steph.  This was the exact van we wanted and we could pre-order color, options, etc.  I called Marisela back within the hour and claimed the allocation.  The following Monday morning (that was Friday afternoon), I put down my $1k deposit for the build.

Oddly, Marisela kept telling me how their dealership doesn't do markups.  I was confused - what's this markup.  She explained they sell the van for MSRP and the dealer doesn't add more to the price.  HUH?  I've NEVER paid MSRP, let alone pay above MSRP.  Heck, I even attempted to negotiate the price of the Sprinter lower.  She politely explained that she would pass on any Mercedes incentives/rebates if they existed but there is nothing for the Sprinter.  Ok, welp, we will pay MSRP.

I quickly did some research and learned that most are paying above MSRP for a new van.  Sometimes as much as $20k.  WTF!  Suddenly this MSRP deal is not so bad.  I shared this with Momentum.  While happy to hear this, they were skeptical.  They suggested that I get an agreement written on the price 

Long story short.  I didn't attempt to get a contract.  I actually don't think they would do this.  See, with no formal agreement, they have leverage to ensure I get to the dealership as quick as possible to pick up the van when it arrives.  They don't want the risk of the van sitting on their lot.  This is my belief anyway.

So, did I get it for MSRP.  Absolutely.  The build was scheduled to start on Feb 1, 2022.  Marisela notified me at the end of February that it was built.  She then called me on April 4th to inform me the van had arrived.  Ideally, they wanted me there within 48 hours (or as close to that as possible) to pick up the van.

On April 7, I caught the very short 8am flight from Seattle to Pasco.  Marisela promptly picked me up at the airport at 9am.  The van was all washed and ready out front when we arrived.  Paperwork and an intro the systems on the van and I was out of there by 11am in our 2022 MB Sprinter 170 4x4 in Selenite Gray Metallic.

A couple of things of note.

I had recently seen comments in forums that 2022 vans were missing some things due to supply chain issues and/or product shortages.  While I ordered the Driver Convenience Package - I did not get the Driver Convenience Package.  I got everything (I think) except for BLIS.  Sigh.  A 23' foot van with no rear windows or rear view mirror and I have no blind spot detection.  Just have to do it the ole fashion way - use the mirrors.

Marisela called me last week (around March 31).  She had a customer back out on a 170 EXT 4x4 order - she was looking for a new buyer.  Even if you don't get an allocation, good dealership people will keep in touch.  Also, while I was there, she mentioned she had just picked up one more allocation. 

Research (written October 17, 2021)

It started with the creation of a bookmark folder called "Recreation".  First was Sportsmobile.  Then a google search on van conversions.  I also spent time looking at RV company offerings from Pleasure Way and RoadTrek.  This list would evolve over a couple of years. 

Then came the Revel.  Winnebago's offering was really intriguing - very offroad capable, wet bath, galley, bed (that could be raised/lowered), gear garage, and systems for 4 season comfort.  The only downside was all of this was in a 144 body.  There isn't really true seating for 4 passengers, which we have wanted.

I started searching for small, custom van conversion companies across the country.  I narrowed down to Revel, Mod Vans in Ventura, Outside Vans in Portland, Benchmark Vehicles in Portland, Navan vans in Seattle, and Momentum Vans in Arlington (WA). 

While a cool poptop offering, I eliminated Mod Vans fairly quickly.  They didn't make good use of spaces IMO.  They didn't setup a scheduled zoom/facetime call.  They were in SoCal.  They are a fairly new shop.

Now down to 4 PNW shops.  Emails go out.  Calls scheduled.  Details shared. 

Outside Van - They have the most builds in their portfolio.  They have standard options and fully customizable options.  They can also source the van for you.  The conversation was pleasant, informative, and it went well.  The data provided is high level.  There was nothing here that set them apart from others.

Benchmark Vehicles - I probably like their portfolio the most.  Erin spent a solid hour discussing options and working with Benchmark.  The do full custom builds.  They can point you to connections to acquire a van. 

Navan Vans - This is the most local builder as they are located about 5 miles away.  Their website has the least information of all builders.  They appear to have a very small portfolio - probably from only doing conversions for 2 to 3 years.  We will be visiting their shop soon, but likely not a builder I'm going to use. 

Momentum Vans - Jessica has been great to work with.  Brian spent almost an hour answering our questions.  We have an open invitation to visit their shop.  They have custom builds that are similar to Benchmark.  They developed their craft in boat building - this is a huge plus.  They have received amazing reviews online.  This is the builder we plan to use. 

How We Got Here (written October 17, 2021)

It all starts in the Spring of 2011.  Up until then all of our camping  was in a tent.  We've had small tents and very large tents that required two people to setup.  Always on the ground.   Often wet.  Living in the PNW, wet weather is a possibility any time time of the year - at least west of the Cascades. 

If I wanted to continue spending time outdoors, we needed a new solution.  I had spent a few years reviewing different trailer options, but nothing jumped out.  Then I came across the Forest River Rpod.  We liked the rounded look, having beds for the four of us, a wetbath, and indoor galley.  Long story short...the quality was crappy, we didn't like converting a dinette to a bed to a dinette every night, the fridge was too small, and we didn't know how to live small.

In 2013 we sold the Rpod and picked up an Orama Teardrop trailer.  Our primary goas were a dry, off the ground, permanent bed and high quality.  We got this with the teardrop.  We had the traditional galley out the back which was preferred.  No bath was the largest negative.  We did setup a popup tent and porta potti - Steph never used it.  I used it in the evening before it got dark - beers would really go through me and I didn't feel like walking to the park bathroom every 30 minutes. 

Then came the boat in the summer of 2014.  More space.  full head with shower, beds for all, bigger fridge, and a salon to hang out in.  We learned the most on our trips to Desolation Sound in the summers of 2017 and 2019.  17 days out (12 on anchor) teaches you a lot about fridge/freezer/food management, clothing choices, food choices, battery managment, trash management, water management, systems use, and  a lot more.   You learn what you need and what is important to you.  You learn it's OK to not have everything you might want. 

We love our boat and spending time on the water.  But we really miss visiting places on land.  I've always known I'd want to spend time on the road, do it comfortably, be able to go offroad, and not be a 30 foot RV or a trailer.   Like many things, I've been following Sprinter van builds for several years.  Like so many, I started by reviewing options on the Sportsmobile site then looked at builds by larger RV companies like Winnebago.  The Revel has been a game-changer putting focus on quality van life. 

We have our home in Sunriver, we have the boat, and now we want a van conversion?  Welp...yeah.  It will take over a year to get a van built for us.  This gets us within 2 years of being empty nesters.  Ideally, retirement occurs at 55, kids are away at school, and we sell our Seattle home.  We'll have the boat in Seattle for our time here, we can create a home base in Sunriver (or maybe somewhere else), and then we use the van to see the country. 

This plan is the impetus that is moving  a daydream to reality.  We want mobility.  We want quality.  We want comfort.  We don't want a large RV.  We don't want a trailer.  With the pugs, they'll have more room to spread out while on the roach.