Frosty the Snowvan

When I realized that Rover wasn’t the van for me, I quickly set my sights on a replacement. After all, cramming five dogs into the back of a Mercury Mariner in the dead of summer is not sustainable.

Enter the Ford Transit Connect (XLT Premium, but who cares). I had ruled them out as being too small when I started my initial van hunt, but my needs have shifted. I spent a few weeks comparing the older and newer models and learned that the 2014 (and later) version has less cargo space. The newer model also looks more like a minivan and less like a mini van, if that makes any sense.

I decided on a 2012 model sold by a Massachusetts Hyundai dealership, aptly in winter blue. I will omit the story of how the van was purchased and delivered because it’s frustrating and boring. On to the pictures! 

Some things worth mentioning:

  • The second-row seats fold forward; I keep one down for Dexter and the others stay folded during travel. If I need to, I'll unfold and use this row as a bed.
  • I had a 2" hitch receiver installed at U-Haul for around $200 ($160 for the hitch and $40 labor).
  • The roof rack was a nightmare to put on, despite being made for this van. Key parts were missing and the instructions were full of typos. Avoid "Rola" racks, for sure.
  • Storage space is ample despite being way smaller than Rover. I've got my emergency road kit, first aid kit, air pump, tool kit, tire chains, hiking pole, plastic basin, and a pile of dog hair stored between the crates. The rear door has a handy pocket that I use for east-access dog gear. There's also a shelf right above the windshield/front-row seats.
  • This sucker gets 27 mph highway, whaaat.

I'm more eager than ever for cold weather to arrive. I have yet to attach the roof cargo box or try loading the dryland cart on the back, so I'm hoping that all goes smoothly. I'm also anticipating that my sled will fit inside the van in a way that's easily managed, but somethings tells me it'll be a challenge.

In the mean time, I need to find a new home for Rover. If anyone is looking for a starter adventure van, check 'er out!

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Rover's Retirement

I hate to say it, but my days roaming with Rover are coming to an end. I love this van. It has served me (pretty) well for almost a year now. But in that year, I learned a lot about what I need out of a van—and what I don’t.

The allure of #vanlife may have gotten to me a little more than I’d like to admit. I collected ideas from other van-lifers and I was too ambitious with my setup. The big conversion project, quitting my job, and finding a fully-remote job seemed to imply that I was going to hit the road for the ramblin’ life. Friends were asking, “Where are you going?” or “Where are you now?” Uhhh, home, still.

I’ve always loved a good road trip, but I never intended to live on the road. Furthermore, traveling with five dogs isn’t simple. The van has made it a lot more comfortable, but I’m still limited to traveling during cold-weather. Aside from the risk of overheating, I need cooler temperatures to take them running and tire them out. Otherwise, I’d be rolling with four tightly wound balls of energy, restricted to tie-outs at rest stops and campsites. 

The true purpose of this van is to haul dogs and gear to trails. More than anything, I’ve used this van for day trips. I slept in the bed a grand total of one time. I cooked inside the van a few times, but it’s easier (and safer) to set up the camp stove outside. 

I could do without the cooking desk and use that space for storage. I also don’t need a permanent bed for most of my trips. The ability to roll up and store my bedding would keep it clean and free up more room. Once you take away the 4” thick mattress and interior cooking space, there’s no real reason to have a super high top. As it turns out, there are a lot of bridges and underpasses that Rover can't fit under, especially with the cargo box on top. 

When I bought Rover, I wasn’t planning to relocate to California. There are logistic concerns of getting the van across the country and having it survive the 6,000'+ elevation gains of the San Gabriel mountains, where I plan to live. It’s also unlikely to ever pass California’s emissions.

This year has been all about downsizing and simplifying. I went big out of fear that I wouldn’t have enough room, but now I know how I can condense. Rover taught me exactly what I need out of a van and I don’t regret the purchase one bit. 

After diving back into van research and visiting a cargo van depot, I've landed on the Ford Transit Connect XLT (2010-2013 version). They’re small (as far as vans go), affordable, fuel-efficient (compared to Rover), and from this decade. If it were just me traveling in this van, I’d probably stick to something older and "cooler", but I need something dependable when I’ve got five dogs traveling with me. I’m going to salvage what I can out of Rover’s build and transfer it, so most of the money I put into the conversion will not be wasted. Oh, and if anyone's looking to buy an empty '89 Ford E-150...

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We Out Here

I finally got a chance to take the van out for her first overnight camping trip. I decided to only book one night at a campground I'm very familiar with, assuming this would be a sort of "test run". I've camped in plenty of tents, but I'm new to this whole van life thing.

We rolled down to the NJ Pine Barrens just after noon. I had first dibs for the dog-friendly sites, and not surprisingly, didn't see another soul the entire time. 

As soon as I got the dogs out to stretch, they started yodeling, so any plans I had of setting up were quickly dashed. I hooked them up and set out for a brief run, which accidentally turned into over six miles.

I've been limiting Blitz's runs, so I wasn't planning on doing more than four miles with him on the team. Somehow, I took a few wrong turns and our quick run became much longer. If you've never been to the Pine Barrens, you should know that it all looks exactly the same. It's taken me dozens of runs on a specific trail to recognize its features, so starting at a new spot threw it all off. Even with a working GPS, I couldn't quite figure out where we were.

We did make it back, of course. Blitz had no trouble and proceeded to dig a giant hole while the other dogs rested. 

After our run, I attempted to put up a hacky awning I had thought up. The plan was to attach a tarp to the roof of the van using suction cup clips and to prop it up with 8' tent poles. This failed entirely; the suction cups would not stick to the van's roof at all. Aside from that, the tarp I bought off Amazon was utter crap. The grommets were on nylon webbing, which tore off immediately. I didn't even pull the tarp taut - just lifting it to the roof of the van made them tear away. I threw it in the trash and was thankful I didn't actually need overhead cover. I'll have to revisit the awning idea.

Winter camping has its downsides*. In other seasons, I tend to go to sleep after it gets dark and rise with the sun. Can't really do that at 5:00 PM. I built a fire and cooked up a veggie burger, but once I was out of wood, I decided to load into the van for the remainder of the night.

The dogs weren't too sure what to do. After a bit of shuffling around, I got each of them settled. Just like at home, Dexter, Denali, and Willow slept in the bed and Knox and Blitz slept beneath us. 

The cold started to creep in around 7 or 8:00 PM, so I plugged in the little electric heater the van's original owner gave me. It helped, but not quite enough, so I used my propane camp stove to make tea. (Remember: ventilate if you cook inside a van or tent! Or you WILL die.) This warmed the van up enough to be comfortable while I read and avoided reality for a little while.

Sleeping in the van was surprisingly comfortable, if you consider being cramped between three dogs comfortable. Their warmth was welcomed, though. At one point I woke up spooning Willow, with her head tucked under my chin. (This is cute and totally not depressing or weird.)

My phone crapped out pretty early, since I wasn't charging it and the temperatures were low. The next morning I couldn't get it to stay on, so we set out for a brief run without any GPS to save us. I played it safe and managed four miles (like I had originally planned) by running a big square.

Once we got back to camp, I was eager to get back home, but Rover had other ideas. The condensation on the windows had frozen over night, and for whatever reason, the heat wouldn't turn on. Usually it kicks on when I start driving, but alas, I could not see to drive. My lazy desire to grab a Wawa breakfast sandwich was defeated, and I cooked up some eggs and coffee to defrost the ice.

Ultimately, the first overnight in the van went fairly well. There's definitely things I need to consider for the future, but overall, it was a nice little escape. 

 * LOL I know what you're thinking, what are the upsides of winter camping? Well, if you're not a dog musher, there are some other perks. Zero bugs, for one. And you pretty much have the entire woods to yourself. Because you're crazy and it's 25 degrees.

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Pack Rattin'

When I set out to build my camper van, one big concern was storage space. I was worried I wouldn't have enough room for all my mushing gear on top of my camping supplies and everything else a van should have.

I lucked out with this conversion van. Unlike a bare contractor van, it had plenty of built-in storage space already. I tore out all the antiquated tech and filled every nook and cranny with gear:

When you add the space under the bed and the extra storage in the cargo box on top, this van can pretty much haul everything I'd ever need. To live in the woods, at least.

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Frozen Puddles and Scrambled Eggs

It's unusual for dog mushing to exist in the state of New Jersey, so it should come as no surprise that our races frequently get canceled. The Mt. Misery Mush was postponed until March due to freezing rain in the Pine Barrens, though it snowed a bit where I live. It's weird to explain that your dog sled race was canceled when the weather outside seems perfect for it, but so it goes.

Even though I still haven't had a chance to camp out in ol' Rover, she did make her maiden voyage down to the Pine Barrens before the storm rolled through. After an icy cold nine miles, it was nice to cook up some eggs, toast, and cup of hot tea right on the spot.

The end of December always proves difficult for mushing, but it's time well spent with friends and family. Rover still got plenty of use as we traveled around three different states between Christmas Eve and Christmas day, dogs included.

The new year brings a lot of change with it. My guy has shipped off to California for the remainder of the winter. I won't be spending nights in the city between in-office days. I'll have more time to mush, work out, and get my shit (more) together. Blitz will be joining the team for some light training runs soon. I've been investigating the possibilities of life outside the northeastern US. My insides are a tightly wound knot of anxiety and determination.

You’re off to Great Places!
Today is your day!
Your mountain is waiting,
So... get on your way!
— Dr. Seuss

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Camper Life

After just over two months of owning Rover the van, the interior conversion is complete! My Dad built a solid (and only slightly crooked) raised bed frame over the dog crates. I was worried there wouldn't be enough room with an almost full-sized bed raised over two feet, but the van proved to be gigantic enough. 

The frame still allows me to access the side windows to help air out dog breath. There's room along the wheel wells for storage and a spot for the spare tire in between the crates. I can even slide some stuff between the crates and the plywood support layer. Most importantly, the bed is actually comfortable.

Outdoor rug fits nicely underneath the bed.

I even found lantern patterned sheets!

Another victory from the past month was finally securing a roof rack for my cargo box. I ended up buying cross bars and attaching them to the van's existing U-shaped rack. Now that the cargo box is up there, the van is just under nine feet.

Watch out, low clearances!

Watch out, low clearances!

Since all the major work is done, I've begun to develop an irrational (okay maybe somewhat rational) fear that the van would die on me. I took her in for an oil change and maintenance check, and surprisingly, everything is in relatively good shape. 

Our first overnight trip will most likely be for the Mt. Misery dryland dog sled race in the Brendan T. Byrne in a few weeks.  Fingers crossed she keeps on chuggin' along!

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Van Update

Somehow it's already November and the van's To Do list is starting to dwindle. For the most part, progress has been positive. I finished the floor and installed the desk, which will serve as a cooking station. I finally managed to rip the ancient TV out, opening up a nice chunk of storage space for cooking supplies. Most of my camping gear will live in the van permanently, instead of clogging up my closet.

Dirty floor and dog gear not a permanent fixture.

Dirty floor and dog gear not a permanent fixture.

The biggest struggle has been trying to find a roof rack. I bought a Thule system, but drilling directly into the fiberglass top freaked me out. It would have also required cutting into the headliner and who knows what else, so back to Thule it went. I ordered a Vantech system designed specifically for high top conversion vans, but the gutters on my van wouldn't fit the foot attachments. So back to Vantech it goes.

I'm hoping I can salvage a homemade rack out of what's already on top of the van. The main goal is mounting my cargo box to keep muddy dog gear outside. I'll figure something out.

A good pick-me-up from the roof rack debacle has been putting up a little bit of decor. Since everything big is mostly in place, I decided to put up my tapestry, flags, and cargo net. Rover is starting to feel like home.

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It takes a Village to Renovate a Van

Renovating a nearly 30-year-old conversion van from passenger vehicle to dog-hauling camper is not a simple task, especially when you have very specific modifications in mind and a limited amount of time to do anything. Between working in New York City and mushing upstate, progress has been slow going. Luckily, my family and boyfriend have been a huge help.

First step was removing the second and third row seats. Should be simple enough, just unbolt them and out they go. The catch? The bolts were rusted, corroded, and uh, nearly 30-years-old. My Dad and sister's boyfriend helped majorly in this step, leaving me with the job of holding the nuts (hah) underneath while they loosened the bolts up top. 

Dad butt #1

Dad butt #2

The middle row seats were harder to unbolt, so I paused on the interior to yank more stuff off the outside of the van. The spare tire had to come off, along with the metal step in the hitch receiver, so I could mount my dryland dog cart. This presented an unexpected challenge: lighting the license plate. My super handy boyfriend was able to help fix the wiring, and boom! We have illumination:

I rage-pulled the carpet up after a stressful day at work and took Rover to my mechanic to get the remaining seats out. He ended up lifting the van and blow torching the bolts off. Best solution? I don't know, but it got the job done. I threw the seats on Craigslist's free section and they were gone within 24 hours. I highly recommend doing this for free junk removal.

The plywood beneath the carpet was in mostly good shape, we just needed to replace one piece towards the back. I filled in some holes left by the seat bolts and began the process of de-gunking the carpet glue and fuzz. Initially I tried using a degreaser spray, but switched over to Citristrip gel. This stuff works wonders on ancient, disgusting carpet glue and grime. I left it on overnight and it did strip some paint, but I was planning to repaint the floors anyway.

After pulling up the carpet along the door frames, I discovered the hole.

The orange stuff is carpet glue and Citristrip gel

The orange stuff is carpet glue and Citristrip gel

It started as a small rust hole in the front passenger door step area. I started poking and the small rust hole became kind of a big, scary rust hole that I could see the ground through. Woof. I'm still debating whether to have it fixed professionally or hold off with a DIY patch job. For now, the area has been thoroughly cleaned, repainted, and will be doused with anti-rust spray until I figure out what to do about it.

Onto happier things. While I was at work, my Mom was nice enough to start on the laminate flooring. I initially bought the type that snaps together, but was warned that they would be nearly impossible to work with, especially in a van. I returned them and bought these 1' by 1' peel and stick tiles. They're cheap and easy to cut into all the different shapes I need to cover the floor. 

Tomorrow morning I fly out to Colorado for a few days, so most progress will be on hold. Once the floor is done, I'll be securing the dog crates into the back of the van between the wheel wells, leaving just enough space between them to store the spare tire and jack. My Dad has volunteered to help me build a bed frame over the crates, though I haven't decided how it'll be positioned just yet. I also put together a desk that will function as a kitchen area behind the driver's seat. 

Original concept for the bed frame/crate area

"Kitchen" - the storage underneath will be concealed with a curtain

The van seems to have a never-ending "To Do" list, but making progress feels pretty satisfying. There's still the roof rack to attach, a TV to remove, bedding to buy, and oh yeah -- a giant rust hole.

I'm the type of person who obsesses over projects and likes to get them done as quickly as possible. This renovation has been teaching me to chill the fuck out and enjoy the literal ride in between each step. Driving the van has proven to be more fun than I anticipated and I think I will always own a van from now on.

Oh, and these guys like it, too. And I guess that was the whole point.

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The Advanture Begins

I initially titled this post "Step One: Buy a Van" but that's hardly been the first step in this long process. After months of research, lurking forums, and scouring Craigslist, I finally bought a van. The next step was getting the van insured and registered so I could get her from Long Island to New Jersey. Aside from a few MVC hiccups, things went smoothly, and now this beast resides on my little dead end street.

She is a 1989 Ford E-150 Econoline Club Wagon... a "Starcraft" model, apparently. Sticking with the space theme, she will be dubbed the Lunar Rover, or Rover for short. OK, I actually chose the name "Rover" months ago while watching The Martian. But she is a spaceship and it fits.

The interior will need some remodeling to accommodate myself, dogs, and camp gear. Luckily, I am not starting from scratch with a contractor van, so things like insulation and wall cover will be at a minimum. The second and third row seats will be yanked out, along with the carpet. Although it's in decent shape, it won't bode well with dog hair. Everything else about the van's body is basically pristine.

My favorite part of the van is the wood dashboard. It has a lot of character and it's been kept clean, despite being nearly 30-years-old. Some fun additions: musical horn, GPS, fan, and a lucky penny thermometer from Intercourse, Pennsylvania.

I haven't had too much time to work on her yet. So far, I've removed some of the old electronics (VHS and CD player; TV is putting up a fight) to make more storage space. I also took out all the wooden cup holder/ash trays, since I won't need them. Removing the seats is the next big step, but it'll require another human or two.

I've got a roof rack and other goodies on the way (my Amazon wish list is starting to actualize). There's plenty to do, so here's hoping she holds steady for at least a few years.

Stay tuned for progress updates!

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Van Ambitions

I love my Mariner, but it's just a little small.

Since the end of last season, I've been on the prowl for an additional mushing/all-around adventure vehicle. The goal is to find (or build) a van with some basic camp necessities: stove, sink, storage, and a bed. Plus it will need room for containing the dogs and all our mushing gear. While I love camping, the ease of rolling in and out of a spot without all the setup and breakdown is a big draw for me, especially when I'm looking for different trails to run. One end goal is to drive out to mushing spots late at night, wake up to run, then work from a mobile hotspot all without leaving the woods.

My first thought was a Volkswagen Westfalia. They fit all the requirements and the pop-top would allow me to sleep above the dogs. I spent several months stalking Craigslist, checking forums, ogling Instagram feeds, and collecting photos of about a dozen Westies I saw in California. I started learning to drive stick so that I could broaden my range of possible vehicles. I also read a lot of horror stories about these vans spontaneously catching fire and rolling into buildings.

A Volkswagen Westfalia

A Volkswagen Westfalia

Despite loving how these dumpy little vans look, I hit a turning point. There's a reason very few exist in the Northeast. The model I like is 30-years-old. Snow, salt, and humidity would certainly eat any Westy I brought back to Jersey. Westfalias aren't cheap, either. I couldn't justify spending almost $20K on a van that I could possibly ruin. Oh, and the pop-top is not much better than an ordinary tent and creates condensation throughout the vehicle in cooler temperatures. Gross.

So, the Westies are out.

I decided to shift my focus to a conversion van, which are plentiful and cheap. I'll need to build out the interior to fit my needs, but it's a task I think I'm up to. My first run through of The Vanual made me shy away from a project like this, but it seems to be the best option.

Step one, find a van. I'm hoping to land something like this:

1989 Ford E-150

1989 Ford E-150

In fact, there's a possibility I'll get the van in this picture, if things work out. If not, there are plenty others. The Ford Econoline series seems to be my best bet, and I'm not against buying a beat up old work van. The high top conversion "camper" type would require less work, though. Chevy and GMC make almost identical models, so like I said - there are plenty of these things out there.

Step two, gut it and build. I plan to take everything out of the back and put down more dog-friendly flooring. Next, dog crates built under a bed frame. 

After that, I'll have to construct some kind of cabinet to (hopefully) hold a small sink, camp stove, and some sort of cold storage (either a cooler or small fridge). The sink will likely be the trickiest part, as I have no idea what I'm doing, but there are plenty of DIY instructions out there.

Beyond that, there's a lot of other neat campervan upgrades to make, like solar panels and roll out awnings. There should be plenty of little nooks and crannies that I'll optimize for additional storage, too. I've already purchased a roof cargo box for mushing gear, since it tends to be muddy and hairy and not something I want inside any vehicle.

Whoops, I bought a coffin.

Whoops, I bought a coffin.

I have a long way to go before this will come together, but I'm mapping out a lot of steps and I think I'm on a good path to have this actualized before the end of this season.

Let the advanture begin.

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