Hello. My name’s Phil and I’d like to share with you my journey of up-ing some not so deeply rooted sticks and heading to Spain in search of new adventures and warmer climes.
Back in November 2016 I bought a second-hand Mercedes sprinter 313 CDI van with Luton box with the intention of converting it with my girlfriend Donna
and having some fun in continental Europe, chiefly Spain (‘Brexit means Brexit’ after all). In this post I’ll be sharing some of the different stages, to-date, of the conversion. For an in-depth account of converting a van into an off-grid home and living life on the road, look no further than Van Dog Mike. (The apple of my eye. One day our vans will cross paths..)
This conversion would be my 3rd to date after owning a VW T4 and a Mercedes Sprinter 308D; the VW was a true rust bucket with side doors falling off and faulty transmission, however the Sprinter was a true stalwart, giving me 2 years of off-grid (but cramped) living,
but I suffered from acute maintenance neglect and this gives you head gasket problems…So, with numerous learning curves in my repertoire and a passion for live-in vehicles, I’ve set out to create the home of my dreams that will let us be vagabond travelers whilst also meeting all our needs of comfortable living; our chariot beckons.
The first job was to put in a window, 2 roof vents and 2 air vents. The side window was a case of angle grinding off one of the metal cross beams, using a jigsaw to cut out a hole from the reinforced glass fibre wall, applying a heap of all-weather sealant and screwing the window in from the outside. The Fiamma roof vents are perfect for allowing more airflow and increased light into the van, even though the luton box I have has a glass fibre roof which is a great skylight in itself, these get you well on the way to the motor home look. For these I had to make up wooden frames that would sit in between the interior and exterior parts of the vent, as the roof was too thin to install them without.
I placed one above the window where the cooker would go to help water vapour escape whilst cooking and the other at the front, directly above where are sleeping quarters would be. Lastly I fitted 2 air vents just above floor level on either side of the van; ventilation ventilation ventilation. Yep, we’re anticipating stiflingly hot summers.
Next up we insulated all the interior walls with a combination of sheep’s wool, which I had hastily recovered from my last van before it went to the breakers, and hemp insulation that came in slabs, both produced by ‘Thermafleece’. I wanted to use a natural material here as living in such a confined space, the idea of having glass micro-fibres floating around equated me to moving in to my old family loft; itchy, abrasive and dusty. Plus the sheep’s wool and hemp are more eco-friendly and you can tear them easily with your bare hands to-size. This would hopefully help us retain some warmth inside the van during the colder months. Donna had a ball nurturing Grinch-like fingers by the end of the day.
Once this was complete, it was time to think seriously about where all the electric cabling for lights and chargers etc would finally be sited, as these would sit behind the interior plywood and the finial cladding layer. This is where having a well thought out design makes the job a lot easier; of which I only had a rough sketch on A4 and this only sited where the main amenities such as bed and cooker would be. It was very much ad-hocery-think-on-your-feet type designing, even more so as we had a mere 2 weeks to make this our home before we jumped on the euro-tunnel.
Once the cabling was in, everything was covered with 6mm plywood which was screwed directly in to the metal trusses of the luton box. It’s worth noting here that it’s extremely useful to mark on the ply (and later the cladding) in pencil where the metal framework is, as when it comes to adding shelving and cupboards you’ll know exactly where the best supports are. Once the ply is on, it’s a real ball-ache to revert anything!
My last van had gleaned, well-worn laminate flooring from a skip that fell a few pieces short of what I needed; it was time to get something half-decent. By chance, some very cheap used laminate was listed on ebay only 20 miles away; the gofer was summoned. For the floor I first laid a waterproof PVC sheet, as there were some suspect damp patches on the stock flooring. This was followed next by foil-covered foam underlay, the best B and Q supply. I had cast thought on laying joists down and filling in with Celotex and 18mm ply on top, but a combination of cost, weight and Mediterranean winter’s made me favour otherwise. Finally the laminate was fitted on top of these 2 layers. I left 2ft at the rear of the box bare, as this would become the porch area.
The main reason for choosing a luton style van for me was the amount of cubic m2 you get to play with. I’m 6ft 5”, so being able to stand up without any restrictions is one thing, but the fact I can lay down width ways meant that we could incorporate a king-size bed above the cab. For this we fixed a frame consisting of 5 joists and cross supports that would hang over the above-cab space, supported vertically by 2 upright joists and some 45 degree corner supports. To access the bed we made a ladder to one side and then we fixed a side barrier that would stop us rolling out at night.
2 days until we set off and we had somewhere to sleep.
On the way back from the timber merchant I eyed a brimming skip at a garden centre that I’d only passed as the sat-nav had sent me wrong way, and in that skip I found a door and a window; a fortunate stroke of serendipity…? At the rear of van we planned to have a ‘false wall’; it would enable us to have an ‘outdoor’ porch area where the leisure battery, bike, snowboard, tools and other bits I don’t need in the living space can live. It also means there is more wall area inside the van which is where the kitchen would be.
We bought a brand new LPG cooker with 4-ring hob, oven and grill. I also picked up a second-hand refillable LPG gas bottle and adaptor for Spain. Firstly, I built a stud wall and positioned the hinged window and entrance door. I then covered the remaining wall on the inside with plywood, filled in all available space with insulation, then nailed in treated, all-weather slab wood on the rear side. I also put a 12v extractor fan in the top corner. Inside, the cooker sat underneath the side window and next to that, a cupboard I had made from my old van, topped with solid oak that I was told had been a church pew (no amount of sanding can stand up to the smoothness that comes with decades of Christian bum’s). Things were beginning to start looking homely.
Another relic from my old abode was the electrical system, which consisted of a 260w solar panel, a 180AH leisure battery, a solar charge controller and related gadgetry. I bolted the solar panel in the rear corner, through the glass fiber roof and into metal cross beams. A top tip from my friend Jorge was to use old bicycle inner tube, cut in to strips and folded, which the bolts would go through.
This would help to reduce friction on the roof and provide some waterproofing. I also made a wooden enclosure for the battery next to the ‘front door’, so it was fixed securely in place in the porch. On the opposite side I made a frame that would safely house the gas bottle, allowing easy access to be filled and kept out of the living space. The electrical supply was directed to a control panel underneath the bed where the lights, laptop charger and stereo amplifier were fused.