Off Roading North America

Nick & Micah
On the road since early 2016
“Traveling by car, and spending the day in glorious scenery but then having to rush back to motels and services every evening back in towns got old quickly for us, especially when the most enjoyable times in the wilderness are often the early mornings and evenings spent around the fire.”
We’ve been married for 17 years.  Nick is a kiwi from New Zealand, and Micah is originally from Webb City, Missouri.  A career in travel and tourism has seen us living all across Asia, and we’ve recently completed a five-year posting in Tokyo, Japan.  Back in 2003 we took six months off work and traveled to 43 states across the U.S.A. Since then it has always been our plan to trade in full-time corporate life for a mobile setup that allowed us to travel and explore at a slower pace by living in a van and working for ourselves on side projects.

Are you part-time or full-time vanlifers?

We’re kind of both!  Our current plan is that we spend the US winters down in New Zealand (its summer there!!) and then travel to the US for vanlife adventures through the US spring, summer and fall.  So we’re not full timers year around, but we are full time in the van when we are traveling through the US (although we’re the first to admit we grab a hotel room every couple of weeks to do some laundry and enjoy longer showers!).

Why are you making this trip?

We’re making this trip because we’ve always wanted a setup that allows us to explore the country while staying within some of the best areas of North America.  Traveling by car, and spending the day in glorious scenery but then having to rush back to motels and services every evening back in towns got old quickly for us, especially when the most enjoyable times in the wilderness are often the early mornings and evenings spent around the fire.




How did you choose the van?
We came across a Sportsmobile van soon after we got married and we both knew then that this setup was something we wanted to work towards.  That was over 15 years ago now!  The design of our van has been a multi-year project that went through multiple iterations and twists and turns.  But what never changed was that we wanted a platform that had enough storage space for our gear was off-the-grid ready and most importantly offered the 4×4 capability that could take us off the pavement and into the wild.
How did you decide the conversion company?

We’ve always been fans of Sportsmobile and like their poptop penthouse design, flexibility of interior designs and the durability of their interiors and systems for offroad abuse. Their plumbing/electrical/solar system setup has been refined over decades of offroad use, and that proven experience was a big appeal to us. We originally had eyes on the Ford Econoline van but when we were living in Tokyo Ford announced they were stopping making those, so we were one of the first customers to put a deposit down for the new Ford Classic design that Sportsmobile announced a couple of years back. After a visit to the Sportsmobile factory in Fresno in 2015, we realized that the Classic project timing wasn’t going to work for us. At the same time we were reading more about the new Sprinter 4×4 platform and the fuel efficient V6 3.0L Turbo Diesel engine it came with so we made the decision to swap over to the Mercedes-Benz Sprinter platform and couldn’t be happier. The Sprinter 4×4 also has a factory installed option for a low range gearing that works great, so this is a recommended option for anyone considering the Sprinter 4×4.

One of the big advantages of building your van with Sportsmobile is that early on in the process they align you with one of their designers who stays with you through the whole project. Having someone who can listen and take all your crazy ideas and special requests and filter them through their years of experience building/designing offroad vans is definitely something we valued and recommend – looking back our designer Brian saved us so many hassles and headaches if we were doing it all on our own! Thanks Brian 🙂

We looked at the high roof and low roof options and decided on the low roof with the penthouse poptop because we liked the profile better. We love the extra space that it gives us up top when we setup camp and having the lower roof on tight narrow offroad trails is a definite advantage for the places we like to go. With the poptop up the headroom inside is really impressive and sleeping upstairs in the penthouse with five open windows all around you makes you feel like you’re sleeping in the canopy of the trees.

We went with a walk-through design inside the van for easy access to all our storage space, and we have a central galley/fridge/sink area hub by the sliding door that opens out into the canopy area for all weather outdoor food prep. We do nearly all our cooking outside even in the rain, and we love it this way – plus it keeps all cooking food smells out of your bedroom.

Our design also features an all-weather canopy outside the sliding door, a full solar system for remote camping, onboard hot shower and toilet facilities and a rear bumper storage system that allows us to haul around two fat bikes and keep our dirty 4×4 and camping gear safe but outside the van. Our 2 SUPs we fit inside in the rear storage. We have a LED lightbar on the front to help find the best camping spots if out after the sun goes down. We opted for bigger Toyo RT tires that we’ve found are quiet on the road but really come into their own when the trails get gnarly. Onboard air allows us to air the tires up and down easily to suit the trail conditions which has been a real plus especially when the road conditions get more challenging. Many ask us what our mpg mileage is like and we’ve been pleasantly surprised. Even with the weight of the camper and gear with the added roof rack and bigger tires we are getting around 15-16 mpg.

Many ask us how we cope living in such a small space but what they don’t realize is we actually live in a bigger space than they probably do. Given most of our living is done outside beside the van, we never feel we are in a small living space – especially if you are in a National Forest for the night. I guess that’s the big advantage of designing your van from the outset with an outside living focus in every aspect of the design and setup.

 

The paint on your van is remarkable. What can you tell us about it?
Yeah – we love it too!  Many have asked us about the paint job on our van so here are all the details.  Our liner is an aftermarket application by Texas-based Camoliner. Camoliner’s proprietary spray-on protective coating is a 3-layer liner called CLOAK and features DuPont’s Kevlar micro pulp in the liner. The liner’s strength is more than 4,500 psi tensile, double that of other liners and for all practical purposes is invincible on the trail. This makes for peace of mind exploring especially when the trails get thinner and the brush thicker. And talking of practicality, the liner just cleans off with a simple garden hose. The liner adds around 90 lbs to the van’s weight. We had fun choosing a color as Camoliner’s paint magicians can match any color or design you want – we finally went with a color called Bentley Graphite Grey with a matte satin finish.  The peace of mind when bashing down trails with branches and twigs scraping and scratching down the sides of the van without any damage is just awesome.




Have you planned every part of the trip?
We try really hard not to over plan our trips – we plan the general route and direction but leave ample room for diversions and side-trips that we discover along the way – as we’ve found this is the true essence of a road trip adventure.  If everything is prescribed and preplanned, we find it kills the road trip mojo, so we are always conscious of allowing freewheeling time into all our trips.
Which National Park did you enjoy the most?
The NP system in North America is truly epic and world class.  Interestingly, as much as we love the National Parks, we have found that National Forests and BLM land bordering many of the National Parks are equally amazing and often provide scenery as epic and inspiring without the crowds and restrictions.   That being said, our favorite National Parks so far for vanlife travel are Big Bend and Death Valley.  Both parks are big and provide seemingly endless miles of offroad trails that get you out into the wilderness in your vehicle.  Both parks also allow remote camping in your vehicle inside the Park that is more the exception than the rule in the NP network.  We’re not huge fans of developed campgrounds, so any park that offers dispersed camping in the park is an instant favorite in our book!
What are your hobbies and favorite locations for your hobbies so far?
Our hobbies include hunting out a good espresso, hiking, biking and standup paddle boarding.  We’ve also been fortunate on our trip to visit a couple of Bible camps in Montana and California through our Christadelphian Church which is always a welcome time to help us refocus on what’s most important in this life.  Our favorite biking so far has been in the Sawtooth Mountains in Idaho, and the best SUP location we’ve had has been paddling alongside the Saguaros in the Arizona desert.
What are the greatest benefits you’ve experienced from this trip?
It’s a long list of benefits that this vanlife lifestyle offers.  Our favorite aspects include enjoying the sunrise and sunset outside every day, enjoying and reappreciating the truly simple pleasures of life, good chats over a fire every night and not being continually distracted by noise, electrical devices, and office schedules.  Being outside makes us realize that as humans we weren’t meant to be cooped up in concrete cities and structures all our life!
What’s next?
In 2017 we are really excited to be heading to the Overland Expo in Flagstaff, AZ for the first time.  It will be a great opportunity to share and glean experiences from other Overland travelers and also check out the new gear on offer.  From there we are heading to Colorado for another Bible Camp before shooting straight north for an extended summer exploring the Yukon and Alaska.  We figure we’ll probably turn around when we get to the Arctic Circle.

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INSTAGRAM: @advanturing

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2 COMMENTS

  1. Brilliant article – this is so inspiring and a great reminder for us all to follow our dreams, get outside and simplify our lives…

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