Lake Life On Wheels (Sprinter Van Conversion)

June 19, 2018

My husband, Zak, and I are slightly insane. We’re ambitious, motivated people - and without a doubt - addicted to work. He is an electrician and also very skilled with carpentry. We own a CNC machine with which we create and sell custom carved signage through my business, Shelby Made It. And I’m Shelby! I’m a wedding invitation designer, calligrapher and painter. I also have a long history of DIY-ing everything from furniture to wall art. When we FINALLY finished over two years of extensive renovations on our first home, we naturally started a new project - our home on wheels!

Through this long, cold, Wisconsin winter, Zak came to me with the idea of buying a Sprinter van to use for camping. We’ve always loved camping and would often take the tent or borrow my parent’s pop-up camper during the summer, but we wanted something of our own. With such a tiny yard, it was hard to justify buying a single-use camper that would just be parked in our driveway taking up space most of the year. Zak thought the Sprinter van could be a perfect compromise. His idea was to make all the interior removable so he could use the van as his daily driver and we could still use it to haul things like plywood, Craigslist finds, or any other ambitious projects we found ourselves tackling.

After months of searching, we found our Sprinter baby! We drove 3 hours to La Crosse, Wisconsin to bring home our new van. Giddy with excitement, the whole drive home (in a blizzard) was spent dreaming up what road trips we would take throughout the summer.

We planned a kick-off trip to Door County, Wisconsin over Memorial Day weekend, which meant we had a deadline. Eeek! Nothing gets done without a deadline, right? Once the weather was warm enough, we got to work. I’ll give you the quick synopsis of our conversion, but this all took us about 6 weeks to complete. To start, we gave him a good wash, took off all the plastic interior paneling and cleaned the inside and outside with a wax remover and degreaser. We cut a round hole in the driver’s side for the electrical inlet and a square hole in the roof for the vent fan. We also decided to paint the lower half in a textured bed liner paint (Raptor) to remove the existing rust and prevent it in the future. The textured paint also resists dents and scratches when roaming the roads less traveled. We removed all the black trim pieces, taped off the wheels, lights and windows, and gave it a good sanding with the orbital sander. We used primer on any rusty areas or spots that sanded down to the metal and then went to town with the paint! Then it was time to work on the inside. WOO! We added rattle trap to the entire interior as a sound deadener, then insulated with 1” PolyIso foam and Great Stuff spray foam in the cracks. We spent a lot of time brainstorming the interior design to keep everything removable and simple while still functional for our needs. We decided the bed would take up most of the space and then also have a ‘kitchen’ with a countertop and storage. The bed is supported by two cabinets over the wheels wells. We were able to repurpose a cabinet from our neighbor that he was going to take to ReStore. We cut the cabinet in three and salvaged the outer edges. We also bought a little cabinet from craigslist with a butcher block top. It fit PERFECTLY in the spot we needed it. I sanded it down and stained the bottom grey. It turned out so cute! We were able to paint the existing flooring rather than replace it. To cover the walls of the interior, we cut to size and clear coated ¼” wooden panels. Since we had some unexpected snow this Spring, our timeline to completion before our kick-off trip was shortened by about two weeks. This meant the week prior to our trip was a MARATHON to get everything done enough that we could sleep comfortably. Every night that week, we were working well into sundown and our neighbors likely thought we had gone insane. At that point, we were focused on “good enough”, not perfect. This meant not all the paneling went up, the wheel-well cabinets and bed supports were ‘in’ but not secured. We used a moving blanket as a privacy curtain, and zip ties as drawer pulls. But none of that mattered. We were so incredibly giddy with joy that we had a home on wheels and the freedom to travel and explore wherever our hearts took us. At about 2PM on Friday afternoon, we were exhausted, sweaty, packed, and FINALLY ready to leave for Door County. We were able to fit our two kayaks under the bed platform and all of our bags, bins and crates of stuff up on top of the platform. We were amazed at how much room we had! My parents started taking me camping as an infant and we’ve visited Door County many times. It makes me so happy to share the joy of camping with Zak and take him to the places I visited as a child and make our own memories. This trip, we stayed at the Wagon Trail Campground in Ellison Bay. This private campground is one of the nicest in the area. The campsites and bathrooms are always meticulously cleaned and they have a really nice outdoor sink and counter for doing dishes. When we arrived at the campground, we took out the kayaks, set up the screen tent, made the bed and organized our little house. It was so easy to get settled! Which was great, because it started raining within an hour of arriving. Our first night of sleep was a success! Morning coffee in the van was a perfect way to start the day. For our first day, we decided to take our bikes on the Washington Island Ferry Line to tour Washington Island! The ferry takes cars, bikes, motorcycles, ATVs, and people the twenty minute boat ride over to Washington Island. Our first stop was The Albatross Drive-in for some lunch and burgers. This place is a Washington Island classic since 1977. We also stopped for a coffee at the Red Cup Coffee House. It was so fun to sit and listen to all the locals come in and chat with one another. With only about 716 yearly residents, this is as small-town-vibe as it gets. One of the baristas gave us some tips on a biking route to take and off we went to explore the island! We stopped at a cute farm museum and then found our way to Schoolhouse Beach. The beach is covered in limestone rocks that have been glacier-polished over thousands of years. This is one of five beaches in the world to have perfectly smooth stones. Taking the rocks is against the law! We also stopped at two lavender fields, Lavender Farm and Fragrant Isle. Even though the lavender wasn’t quite blooming yet as it was late May, their gift shops are both adorable! We caught the last ferry back to the main land just as the fog and rain started rolling in. We grabbed some pizza at the amazing, Wild Tomato restaurant and caught some glimpses of a sunset. The next morning was potatoes, eggs and bacon cooked over the fire with an avocado. Breakfast just tastes better cooked over a campfire and eaten in the fresh, cool morning air - with birds singing their morning song. For our last full day, we decided to do some fishing and kayaking in Rowley’s Bay and into the Mink River. I’ve been fishing since I was old enough to hold my Mickey Mouse fishing pole. There’s something so thrilling about hooking a big fish. But, we didn’t catch anything but some sun this time around. We loved wearing our new Wingman life jackets for kayaking! They are so lightweight you forget you’re wearing them. These are a huge step up from the puffy orange life vests I’m used to wearing that would choke me throughout the whole day on the lake. See exhibit A below. I think you can tell which one I am. If you love being on the water, these are the perfect way to stay safe AND comfortable. Back at the campsite, we threw the marinated fajitas on the fire for dinner. Bringing along marinated meats is such an easy way to cook while camping. We also love this Lodge cast iron cooktop we got from Home Goods! It has a flat top on one side and griddle on the other. After dinner, we headed to a movie at the Skyway Drive-in Theater. But not without stopping to see the sun setting over the lake! The sunsets in Door County are always a stunner. We got some candy and popcorn from the concession stand and settled in for the movie. This drive-in theater is the longest running in Wisconsin and opened in 1950. We were lucky enough to watch the movie from laying in our bed! And of course, we both fell asleep. On our last day, we packed up to head home. We decided to take our time and make one more stop at the Cave Point County Park near Sturgeon Bay. The yellow limestone beneath the blue water gives the lake the most beautiful turquoise hue. We heard it’s a great place to kayak when the water is calm and saw several kayak tour groups paddling through the rock coves. We’re hoping to come back here when it’s warm since it looked like an awesome place to swim! We had such a great time on this trip. Being able to sleep comfortably in the van was a HUGE upgrade from tent camping and we’re so grateful to have that luxury. We’re already looking forward to our next trip!

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