Off-Grid Family Camper Conversion Plan

jamesdunn

New member
So after two years of fairly actively browsing and daydreaming the time has come to start my own ultimate planning and build out thread! Queue lots of sleepless nights considering different options!

We’re a family of 3 ( to be 4 towards the end of the year) with two dogs (pointers) based in Scotland. Over the next year we plan to kit out a sprinter for off-grid adventuring. My wife will stop work after the arrival of our second baby and I can work remotely for nearly the entire year so we’re going to rent the house out and do some more extended travelling throughout Europe. We’ve had a VW T5 which we converted from a panel van 4 years ago and have had some incredible trips in this (up to 6 weeks), but feel like 4 +2 dogs will be too much for a T5, particularly in the winter so want to upgrade to a Sprinter.

The build will be DIY where we will try to embrace our lack of experience as an opportunity for learning rather than frustration!

The aim is to have a camper which seats and sleeps 4, minimises the compromises for us personally and can sustain prolonged winter temperatures at high altitude (for snowboarding). It will have to haul expensive mountain bikes, surfboards, snowboard gear, toddler gear, work mostly off-grid and (obviously) look mean.

I wanted to start this thread as a depository for various options and their pros/cons to help me keep track of decisions, as well as get input from you all and perhaps it will help others in the future going through the same process. Any thoughts or comments very much appreciated!

I'll start with the base van and overall look, and add later internal layout, plumbing, electrics etc.

Base van:
NCV3

XLWB (170” EXT) would be good but they’re considerably more expensive in the UK. We want a low mileage van to have some confidence that it will last given how much time, effort and money we will put into it so have decided to go LWB (170”) instead. Around 40,000 miles and 3ish years old.

I’d love a 4x4 for the looks but realistically we shouldn’t require 4wd and this again saves some money on the purchase and also potentially on maintenance. Plus 4x4 LWB vans seem impossible to find in the UK. It is possible to import from Europe but don’t particularly want the hassle (left-hand drive for UK driving + importation hassle), or increased cost and think we can get close to the look of a 4x4 which is what we really want.

End goal is something pretty close to this:
Screenshot 2020-05-23 at 16.02.06.png



Exterior:
Van Compass 2” lift kit. Expensive but makes the van look indefinitely cooler IMO and I want to feel it looks cool if we’re spending this much money on it.
265/75/16 BFG AT’s on stock steel wheels.
2wd with this set up here; https://sprinter-source.com/forums/index.php?threads/51298/
Screenshot 2020-05-23 at 16.04.55.png

I’d like to do an Agile Off Road kit to get an extra inch or so or lift and improve ride quality but budget doesn’t allow for this currently. 2wd van with VC 2" striker lift plus the AGOff Road RIP kit here looking mean and nearly at 4x4 height (note the leaf pack from Agile replaces the lift kit so if doing both in one go you can save some money by only purchasing the striker kit for the front);
Screenshot 2020-05-23 at 16.08.59.png

May put beefed up leaf springs on the rear if it sags under the weight. I think a 5tonne leaf spring is a straight swap...

Air suspension seems to be a poor choice with potential for air leaks...but open to opinion/ideas on this.

Polyvision Aero double glazed pvc windows (chosen over glass for insulation, ability to have open whilst raining and built in curtain/fly screen). I think these can lock whilst open an inch for airflow in the summer to the rear whilst driving. Seem the same as the Dometic windows but considerably cheaper. I can't find many reviews of these so any thoughts appreciated, particularly whether they are the same quality as the Dometic S4/5/7 range.

Plasti-dip spray for paint protection/rust/look. Thinking camo-tan. UK company here with gun and paint looking to be about £1k; https://www.matt-pack.co.uk
Summary and review here;
https://www.explorist.life/full-body-plastidip-diy-sprinter-campervan/

Hoping for this kind of colour finish, to roughly match the opening photo;
Screenshot 2020-05-23 at 16.15.50.png
 
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jamesdunn

New member
Roof rack;
c. £2k for a custom rack. Wheeliams UK get rave reviews but seems a lot of money just to put some solar on the roof. Aluminess imported is £3k.

Thinking of doing DIY. Again roughly to replicate the opening photo, crossed with the Flatlinevanco racks; https://flatlinevanco.com

Essentially like their Low Pro Roof Rack but without the solid 'wings', just black aluminium t-slot all the way around;
Screenshot 2020-05-23 at 16.20.29.png

Fairly sure our van won't come with factory roof tracks. OEM tracks seem difficult to come by in the UK. This seems a solid workaround;
https://workshoplateral.com/sprinter-van-build/diy-roof-rail-install/

Cut some box section aluminium maybe 100mm x 80mm x 4mm to attach to the t-track as 'feet'.
40mm x 40mm T-slot 4m lengths for the rails length-ways.
Same for cross-members.
Solar panels mounted on here taking up most/all of the space. Space cut-out for the fan to come through in front factory slot.

Hopefully somewhere to mount surfboards with a locking tie-down strap. Initially I thought about lifting the rear solar panels up maybe 6” and storing surfboards in this section. Kind of like this idea to have a raised 'box' at the rear but again built from t-slot aluminium section (so 'open' rather than a closed box and probably not as tall);
Screenshot 2020-05-23 at 16.24.15.png

But I don’t like the aesthetic so might try and mount the boards underneath the solar by raising the whole lack as little as possible whilst still allowing the boards to go underneath? Will need to have a play around with heights and clearance once we get the van.

From a very quick google I reckon this will be around £700 to complete.

Rally-style flood lights on the front connected to full beam to assist in driving. 1 or 2 lights on the sliding door side for letting dogs out at night etc. Possibly a couple at the rear too. Similar to this;
Screenshot 2020-05-23 at 16.30.03.png

Probably keep these cheap as they're just for aesthetics. How good are the high beams on a sprinter though? Should I consider investing here?

Unsure whether to bother mounting a snorkel or not...

Any thoughts or comments appreciated. Will get onto outlining the internal options at some point.

Thanks!
 
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jamesdunn

New member
Nothing overly fancy for the layout. This seems to be tried and tested with a few little tweaks to suit us.

Roughly like this;
Screenshot 2020-05-23 at 16.41.25.png

Seating;

Double captain’s chairs in the front on swivels.

Second row of double seats as close behind as possible. Somewhere close to this;
Screenshot 2020-05-23 at 16.43.00.png

But a double seat rather than a single (above), like these (but further forward ideally and with the kitchen cabinets impinging into the sliding door space);
Screenshot 2020-05-23 at 16.46.32.png
Screenshot 2020-05-23 at 16.57.08.png

Wanting the back rests to fold flat to improve access through the side door and potentially for kids to sit on. The clearance will be tight between the seats and the edge of the kitchenette but hopefully with the backrests folded down it will be okay. Need to space this out with some cardboard and the seats once we have the van to confirm.

We had initially thought this fold-away approach (Suburbanseats.com) would be amazing but I can’t find anything similar in the UK;
https://saraandalexjames.com/vanlif...-2019-mercedes-sprinter-camper-van?rq=suburba
After consideration I don’t think the space we would gain by folding the seat out the way would be all that useful anyway.

We have an old VW Transporter double passenger seat which I need to install a folding bracket to but I’m not sure if this will hold 2x car seats or precisely how to fix the seatbelt to the body of the van (these are usually attached to the wall and not the seat, unsure how to brace this sufficiently yet). An alternative is Vito folding seats which will be slightly more expensive and slightly wider. If we use the VW seats I’ll try and get leatherette seat covers to help wipe-down ability, if we go Vito then I can’t find any nice covers but the fabrics will all match already so may just deal with cloth covers. We’ve been anal about keeping our RIB fabric bed clean in the T5 and it’s a pain, hence the thought of leatherette covers, but maybe we just embrace the stain or do more thorough cleaning more often. If using seat covers we will use these which have been pretty good in our T5;

Will get a metal fabricator to make brackets to attach to the rails as well as to the actual chassis underneath. Even beefy washers underneath makes me a little nervous with tiny people in the seats. I want it actually bolted to the chassis like we did in the T5. Something like this from the above link;
Screenshot 2020-05-23 at 16.53.05.png

This will create the dining area with probably a lagun table mount to locate the table somewhere convenient.

We had also considered two single seats sitting apart against each wall so as to create better flow through the centre of the van but this would make getting in/out the side door a pain or we would lose cabinet space where the kitchenette overhangs the sliding door opening.

Another idea we considered was locating the seats in the back, 12-18" forwards from the rear doors (with a bulkhead behind them to make a vertical garage). Then we could use the traditional benches down either side of this for storage and a lounge area. We felt the kids would be too far back, that this layout wouldn't give us enough garage space, or allow us to open up the rear doors in summer and would probably be hassle to create the bed platform/bedding each day. Plus it duplicates some lounge space by leaving the front seats unused. I think it might feel more open but think we're willing to compromise on this to be able to have more storage space.

Hoping to put child seats in the front foot wells. Will need to confirm these fit with swivels.
 
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jamesdunn

New member
Sleeping:

Fixed raised bed at the rear with garage underneath for adults.

Hoping to fabricate drop-down coffin bunks which synch upwards onto one another and store in the space above the front seats in the day.

I haven’t quite finalised this design in my head but something like this;
Screenshot 2020-05-23 at 17.17.42.png
It’s hard to see in the photo but there’s a couple of videos;

Probably constructed from PVC pipe and heavy-duty fabric, military style camp bed. Somewhat like this;
https://nlavw.com/interior/180-german-quality-cab-child-bunk-for-vw-t5.html
Screenshot 2020-05-23 at 17.19.08.png

It will need to countour to the shape of the van which might be tricky.

We’ll have internal thermal screens for the front windows which we’ll wrap in black fabric and possibly add magnets to as well.

The beds will need some sort of screen to stop kids falling out. Currently thinking mid-weight dark fabric to keep it dark for them, essentially sewing a tent/box around the beds which would stop them falling out. Completely enclosed with a tent-style zip on each bunk. Almost like a portaledge but with vertical tent walls.
Screenshot 2020-05-23 at 17.26.24.png

I think the weight would be better supported by the beds sitting on something rather than just hanging from the roof, but need to consider this once we have the van.

Then some sort of ratchet/tie-down/pulley system to synch the lower bunk up to the bottom of the upper bunk and then both of them up into the roof section. From sitting in friend’s vans I think this will work, but it will require a lot of thought!

Anyone tried or seen anything like this before?
 

HarryN

Active member
Even with a 170 it is tough to fit it all in.

Honestly think seriously about pulling a trailer for the sleeping area / open area for the kids to hang out.

I love my family, but part of this comes from being able to have some sanity separation.

Not sure about lift kit vs just buying a 4x4 and being done with it. For snow areas 4x4 is pretty handy.
 

jamesdunn

New member
Thanks for the thoughts Harry.

Sanity is definitely a goal and worth considering carefully. My concern with a trailer is adding complexity for the winter, I guess I could install a second diesel heater with a separate tank in the trailer though. Would definitely provide more room. There's also some places where I'd be a little nervous (probably unnecessarily but that doesn't help much in the middle of the night) about kids being in separate compartment. I'm not sure it would change the proposed layout of the van much either, unless we also stored gear in the trailer...will mull it over though, thanks!

I've honestly not seen a single 4x4 170 for sale in the UK. There are lots of MWB because they are used by forestry/hydro companies but 4x4s seem to be like unicorns here. I'm not overly concerned about snow performance, we won't be off-roading; just need to get to the ski resort and in Europe they tend to be pretty good at clearing the roads. We will have the BFGs which have been brilliant on the T5 plus snow chains just in case. Hopefully it'll be fine! Famous last words! :ROFLMAO:
 

Kajtek1

2015 long/tall limo RV 2.1l
4 people (even when 1 is baby) in Sprinter full time sure will bring lot of things to settle.
You are not saying how big you guys are, but I read a topic in Truck Camper section about sleeping 4 in camper with slide and per American standards this is a stretch.
But I grew up in Poland and years ago, driving VW Sirocco I did fit 2 families in it (4 adults and 3 small children) so I know when people are forced to minimize, they will.
Just bare in mind that pictures are very misleading. I have 2-seat foldbable bench and it takes much more space that the one on picture above. It is barely comfortable for 2 adults regardless.
Base on pictures, I bought set of seat belts for my dinette from China. Upon receiving turned out that Chinese people are much smaller and their seats are smaller. I had to buy 18" extension to make the belt fit 150lb person.
So with all those challenges, I would ditto trailer suggestion.
Travel Trailers are the best bang for a buck, so that will definitely change the game. If on freezing night heating trailer becomes the issue, you can always sleep all people in front vehicle, even laying inflatable mattress on the floor.
But how do you plan to manage water carrying and showers? Baby requires bath every day.
Good luck with the project.
 

HarryN

Active member
You can get a feel for what different layouts are like using some cardboard boxes to simulate various components.

With one day of work, you can build a plywood box approximately van interior size, and play around with the cardboard boxes. I refer to it as PAD (plywood aided design).

Kids love card board boxes, so no material is really wasted.
 

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