C’mon in and meet full time vanlifer Luke Thomas. Luke has completed…well it is never finished is it, the fit out of his full size Merc Sprinter in beautiful style. He talks us through the fit out…
I think my initial interest in campers stemmed from the festival scene back home in the UK. I’d spent quite a bit of time in muddy fields growing up, and it didn’t take me too long to realise that it was the crews living out of vehicles that had it sussed.
I really started looking into it though when I was bouncing between sporadic job contracts and sofa surfing in Bristol. It just made sense to have something flexible that would allow me to chop and change if and when I needed to. I found a ‘96 XLWB Hi-top Transit already converted as a camper for £1500, and it only had 80,000 miles on the clock. Practically pocket change compared to the price of vehicles this side of the world! It saw me through two British winters, a couple of roadies through France and a handful of festivals.
I’d planned to strip it out and convert it again from scratch as the original layout wasn’t working for me, but once I’d got it back to the bare shell, the rust I had been quietly ignoring was pretty overwhelming. I ended up losing the keys not long after which was pretty much the nail in the coffin. I ended up scrapping it and moving to NZ a few months later!
Coming over to NZ with a friend, getting a van was the first priority. After looking at a few shoddy self builds we decided the only way to go was to get an empty van and build something up ourselves. We ended up with a trusty ’96 Hi-ace and knocked out a self-contained conversion in a week! It covered all the basic needs and was pretty comfortable for the 2 months we spent dotting around the North Island.
We eventually ended up back in Auckland on the hunt for work. My mate was keen to get a house, but I decided to stick it out in the van in the hopes of keeping that backpacking dream alive… ha, or at least that’s what I kept telling myself!
Fast forward 6 months and I was still in the Hi-ace, hadn’t left Auckland, but still had no intention of moving into a house. The one thing that was clear though was that I needed a bigger van.
I was initially looking for a newer model hi-top Hi-ace but stumbled across the Sprinter on Trade Me in the same ballpark price wise. A lot of people would consider a Sprinter as the dream van conversion (me included) so I figured I should at least check it out and take it for a test drive. I was in two minds initially when considering the size and extra time and expense it would take to do the conversion, but in the end I bit the bullet with the mantra – if it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing properly.
It’s a 2006 LWB Mercedes Sprinter 313 (T1N), which is considered one of the better models you can get your hands on. It pulls like a train and is really enjoyable to drive despite the size. It used to be an auto paint distributor delivery vehicle so the bodywork was kept in decent condition, and a verbal agreement of the purchase was that they would sell me paint at cost price if I were to ever give it a re-spray!
The intention was always to live in it. The underlying plan was to set myself up with a base that I could always come back to if and when I was travelling outside of NZ. Chase the summer between here and Europe, with some pitstops in Indo in between; that’s the dream right?! And I figured that when I wasn’t in NZ I could rent it out to keep the piggy bank topped up.
Philosophically speaking though, I’m pretty sure I’m just scared of commitment and tight with my money, haha. I guess I’ve always been quite independent though, enjoying the moments of solitude. That, mixed with a fair few doses of lacklustre house shares, and the lack of insulation or heating/aircon in a lot of NZ houses, there really hasn’t been much appeal to renting.
When I was designing the layout, the first two aspects I was working around were a full length bed, and surfboard storage. I knew that having a full size bed permanently fixed would be a massive waste of space but I also wasn’t keen on making the bed from scratch every day. I was trying to make the bed and seating area as versatile as possible, so eventually I came up with a design that fitted the bill. In ‘bed mode’ it works as a full queen lengthways or two short singles widthways. As seating I can have it as two benches, with the slide out table in between for when I’m eating or need a table to work at. Or if I want to chill I can spread the slats & foam over the middle section and have one bigger section perfect for those loungey rainy days. Having it split like this also means that when there’s 2 people in the van, one can be in bed whilst the other’s still got space to do things.
Aesthetically speaking I knew I wanted to go for a natural / rustic look. I love live edge timber and having a slab worktop was always on the list. It all started with the macrocarpa tongue & groove cladding on the walls. This pretty much set the standard for the rest of the build and the majority of the timber since has been macrocarpa from Cypress Sawmill up in Waitoki.
All of the kitchen cabinetry though has been pallet wood; definitely the most laborious part of the build. In an ideal world I’d have a thicknesser/planer but without one I had to try and find pallets with all the same thickness planks. I’d strip them down, square up the edges, paint them, sand back to a weathered / worn look, then bevel the edges before joining them using pocket holes. Finally I finished them with a layer of stain and then a few coats of oil. I’m pretty happy with how it turned out but not sure if it was really worth the time or whether I’d do it again!
So the bed, seating and board storage was where the design started and then everything else just fitted in where it could from there. I had a few requisites knowing I was planning to live in it full time, I didn’t want to feel limited in the kitchen so went for a stove with separate oven / grill set up, a decent size fridge, full size sink / drainer, and plenty of benchtop space.
The walkthrough from the cab was also a must to avoid the elements and keep things stealthy when parking up. I also wanted to keep an open bit of floor space for if I was ever cooped up in the van in shitty weather and wanted to stretch or something; but if I was to ever put a shower/toilet section in, this leaves some room for that.
For board storage I’ve currently got it set up as a rack for 2. If I need to though, I can ditch the rack and fit 3-4 boards in at a squeeze. I’m kinda limited dimension wise though – I can’t go for anything too long or wide. Also some room in the back to hang the wetties up was essential!
Stripping it back to the details, it’s been fully insulated with a mix of PIR board and Autex Greenstuff in the floor, walls and ceiling, and then lined with silver foil bubble wrap to act as a vapour barrier to keep any moisture from getting to the metal work.
When designing the plumbing and electrics I wanted to be sure that I could sustain myself off-grid regardless of the time of year. There’s 560W of Monocrystalline solar panels paired with 520Ah AGM Batteries, all run through an E-tracer 45amp MPPT charge controller. And just in case that isn’t enough I also installed a VSR split charge system to keep things topped up from the alternator whilst I’m driving. The good thing about this is that it’s a two way relay so it allows the solar panels to keep the engine battery topped up as well. No more flat batteries when accidentally leaving the lights on! I’ve kept the electrical system as 12v throughout, mainly because I don’t have any need for 240v, and the added expense of getting a sparky in to do the work just wasn’t worth it.
In terms of plumbing I’ve got 2 underslung tanks. 60 litres of freshwater and 40 litres of grey water. In hindsight I would go bigger with these but I was struggling to find the space for the tanks at the time. Eventually though, I might mount the spare wheel on the back door and put some bigger tanks in its place. At the moment I’ve just got one cold feed to the kitchen tap using a Shurflo 12v pump, but once I’ve found a suitable water heating solution I’ll plumb in the hot lines and put in a shower head at the rear of the van for an outdoor shower / post surf rinse off. Although the retractable kitchen sink tap is doing a pretty good job of this in the meantime! I’ve also got a 2kw diesel heater installed to keep things toasty warm in the colder months.
I’ve been pretty fortunate to be able to do the whole conversion in the warehouse where I work. I’m a video technician in the event industry day to day but we’ve got a decent space and most of the tools to get the job done. Being able to do work whatever the weather or time of day has been really handy. Although when I asked the boss if I could use the space to do the work, if he’d have known how long I’d take he’d have probably reconsidered!
I’ve lost count of the hours the conversion took, hahah! To begin with I was keeping a tally of all of my hours I’d been putting in as well as a running total of expenditure. That eventually ended up going out the window after about 350hrs, so at a guess I’d say approx. 500hrs to where it’s at now. I think it was about a year of sporadic evenings and weekends before I moved into it. And a solid chunk of that consisted of excessive contemplation, beard stroking, coffee and beer. I guess being a procrastinating perfectionist isn’t the best combo for productivity.
There’s still so much to do! Haha. Cupboard storage on the walls above the kitchen and bed, a tiled splash back for the kitchen, a variety of yet to be designed storage solutions inside of cupboards, on the bulkhead wall, and in the ‘garage’, hot water, water filtration system, window in the sliding door behind the sink, and then all the little finishing details! The list could go on but these are the must do’s before I can consider it ‘finished’.
Living Full-time In A Van
Honestly I think it’s great, I really enjoy the freedom and convenience of being able to get out of the city for a weekend or longer at the drop of a hat and just taking my home with me. No planning, no packing – just fill up the tank and drive. Especially so for those dawn sessions or if I’m out doing some astrophotography in the middle of nowhere. Having the home comforts so close to hand is a winner for sure.
It’s a compromise though of course, I do really miss the social aspects of sharing a house, I guess that regular company you can generally always rely on. Sometimes it can get a bit lonely when none of your mates are up for a visit and you’re left twiddling your thumbs. But to be honest I keep myself pretty busy most of the time, and when I’m not working I’m usually at the beach!
When I’m in the city I’ll often park up in the carpark at work; not really the picturesque image of ‘vanlife’ most people think of, but it’s actually pretty convenient and definitely beats sitting in Auckland traffic on the way to work in the morning. I’ll shower at the gym just around the corner and the laundromat is real close as well so that’s all the essential bases covered in a 0.5km radius.
I think the fact that I know it’s not a long-term, forever thing makes it easier to be content with cutting it back to basics and living like this. And whilst I’ve got no wife, kids or responsibilities as such to tell me otherwise, then why not!
Ultimately for me though, I think it comes down to retaining that sense of freedom and the ease of accessibility to explore. Whether that ‘freedom’ is actually real or just an illusion I’ve created for myself is another topic entirely, but I feel like it keeps the doors open to opportunity a little more than if I was stuck in a fixed term rental contract or mortgage. One day I’m sure I will be wanting to set some foundations in something a little more permanent but for now I’m content doing it like this and keeping those options open!
Oh and Luke happens to be a great photographer, check out his Instagram handle hocus_focus_imagery HERE