Making a panel van for adventure

Here’s a story, it started 20 years ago.

I love travelling – not so much the destination, but the journey. I like backpacking, bike packing, canoe camping, overlanding, multiday running and much more.

But, a family has to slow these things, but not stop them.

Vehicles have their good points and bad points – bad for carbon footprint, good for easy travelling. What I wanted to achieve was something that would fit a lot of different criteria and really add something to me and my daughters life.

I’ve had Land Rovers, Toyota Hiace, Ford Transits and Transit connects. All good vehicles for their jobs. A lot of outdoor people favour the VW Transporter, and for good reason – however, living in rural North Wales I wanted something that gave a bit of a better fuel return, was well built and would give a few years service.

After a bit of research, my ideal van would be a VW Caddy Maxi Kombi (5 seats and glazing) but it was a good way out of my price range to get something that would have low miles and a good engine.

Then, Clogau Motors, just down the road from me had a Caddy Maxi panel van, with low miles, a 1.6 TDi engine and the right price. A test drive with my daughter and a bit of money calculating later I had the base vehicle.

Inside of a normal pane van
Inside of a normal pane van

Now, I had to convert it, to be a five seater, rear windows, lined and a power supply. I wanted to keep the vehicle as flexible as possible so that it can do the job of a van (i.e. load carrier), take people and kit places, and be a small campervan when needed.

The first job was to decide how to have a power supply. I thought about whether I could have a removable leisure battery, what I wanted to power and when. I quickly realised that I was going to have to give up valuable space to make the van powered, and so decided to go off-grid. More on that later on, but the important thing now was that I didn’t need to run wires whilst I went through the fitting out process.

I really wanted to fit original manufacturers seats – these fold up, lift out, all on simple fixings that are already in the van floor. So after a bit of negotiation I managed to find a supplier, who could get these from a vehicle that had had them removed to allow wheelchair access. To do this the bulkhead had to be removed, this was an unbolt and trim type job. The windows went in at the same time as the seats, and after a bit of negotiation with my insurance company it was accepted as a 5 seater combi van.

The next bit needed a bit of thinking about – because of the camping kit that I wanted to use, I couldn’t box in and insulate the wheel arches, so they got a covering with lining carpet as a first job. Behind the ply-lining on the walls and under the headlining and floor went sheeps wool insulation. On the walls and roof lining went carpet trim, and on the floor went heavy ply, over some ply packers, covered with commercial grade vinyl lining.

There were a few moments of frustration, and the fact I was running out of time before the summer holiday started didn’t do too much to keep things calm.

Lining the strip of bare metal round the rear door was the hardest bit, some awkward, tight radii, and a good bit of swearing I got a finish that I was happy with. YouTube was definitely my friend during this bit of work, and this clip seemed to be the one that I kept coming back to.


USB AAA charger from Power Gorilla
USB AAA charger from Power Gorilla

I really wanted make sure that the engine battery was kept as unused as possible when having a camper, and as I said earlier I had chosen not to install the costly split charge system and spacing eating leisure battery. Instead I went for a set of battery LED lights in 3 strategic locations, and then added a solar charging kit to my carried stuff. This is a power gorilla, solar gorilla and a USB AA/AAA battery charging system. I knew that I was going to need to run my laptop, recharge phones, camera and batteries during the time away as I couldn’t not work for the trip. It looked like on bit of the trip was going to tie in nicely with a job – nice to align expenses for work, with a leisure trip.

Solar Gorilla sucking in those suns rays
Solar Gorilla sucking in those suns rays

The range of gear from Power Traveller is well worth considering if you want or need to be off grid for any period of time. 

The solar gorilla worked well recharging phones and AAA batteries straight from the sun, and was an important part of keeping the power gorilla (basically a big rechargeable battery) topped off.

The power gorilla can be charged from the mains, as well as the solar gorilla. This  gave me about 4 hours extra lap top time, but perhaps critically for number one daughter a seemingly endless supply of iPhone recharges. I’ve used both for work when I’ve been away from the office, and the solar charging works really well on the dash of the van inside the windscreen. 

The LED lights had about 20 hours on 3 AAA batteries before they started dimming, and again the power gorilla meant that after a couple of hours, what ever the conditions the van would be lit inside again at night. It needed a bit of thought as to how and when what could be charged, but much better for me than the option of a split charge and leisure battery – all the solar kit is all easily transportable and so works in any environment.

The major addition for turning the now, five seat van into a camper was the addition of a boot jump from Amdro. This bit of kit effectively replaced a family tent (that I always hated and wasn’t particularly well suited to anything other than a flat field). The small lift in lift out unit maintains the ability to be a van in the morning and then a camper in the evening. Made from ply, with storage boxes, a drawer with an alcohol stove, fold out bed easily long enough for me at 6’2″, seating for four, a table and water supply this kit drew many discussions on the trip – a real testament to the skill and creativity of the guys at Amdro.

With the addition of a quality cool box, we were all set to head off on an adventure. That might need an additional write up – Dover/Calais crossing with tight border controls, Eiffel Tower, Disneyland, Aire’s, and the Alps. Great trip!

Mainly French flies making a mess.
Mainly French flies making a mess.

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