Making the Impossible Achievable is What I Strive for Every Day.
A little over two years ago, I took a long, hard look at my happiness, and took some time to define what I really cared about. I first identified my needs: the feeling of being free, the adrenaline, the desire to go beyond the limits of what is possible, and the need for alone time with my pets. I looked for what could satisfy all of these needs and I came to the conclusion that a trip to Western Canada was just what I needed: a place with majestic mountains, where I can feel truly free. I’ve long wanted a camper to go on an adventure; and building MY little nest, with my own hands and the way I imagine it, seemed like a beautiful and motivating project.
That’s when the party started! I started looking for a van to go on a three-month trip out West, in the middle of winter. You know how it is… this girl does not do things halfway! In October 2019, I chose a 2014 Mercedes Sprinter. It was quite dented on the outside, but its engine was in good shape and only had 75,000 km on the odometer. I affectionately nicknamed it my financial abyss, since only having one money pit (my snowmobile) clearly wasn’t enough. My goal was to leave for the West on December 26th, 2019 with my snowmobile, my dog and my cat (Feu Bruno, RIP to the most beautiful cat). My game plan was to work 40 hours a week, give training courses 2 nights a week, and build the van in less than 3 months.
For those interested, here are the different stages of construction. It’s a bit long, so I invite you to scroll directly to the “The Departure” section to jump straight into the adventure!
Stages of Construction
The first step is to establish a plan of action. I couldn’t possibly imagine doing this type of project with an other person; I was constantly arguing with myself!
I began by taking measurements and I made a diagram with paint tape to try to get an idea of what the layout might look like. Then, I used a steel brush to remove the rust from the floor before applying anti-rust paint. I also gave some love to the exterior body which was also affected by rust, mainly above the windshield.
Since the floor was uneven, I had to cut bubble wrap and glue it in the spaces where it was needed in order to get a level surface. Then, I cut some 1” foam and glued it onto the floor. It looks easy enough, but I can guarantee that I deserve no bonus points for my artwork around the wheels! It’s far from perfect, but it works! As for the flooring, I got my hands on some glue-on vinyl boards at a really good price. However, if I had to do it all over again, I would install linoleum in single piece instead. The flooring that I installed warped with the temperature changes: there are small cracks, but nothing major, luckily.
Installing the Windows
There are times when we have to face the fact that we cannot master every craft. Let’s just say that perfection is not where I shine. I therefore chose to have my windows and roof ventilator installed by professionals. I prefer to admire the rain from the inside, rather than see it seeping in: that’s the art of choosing your battles!!!
Travelling in winter requires an efficient and high-quality heating system. I chose an Espar D4, one of the most powerful options for this type of vehicle. It’s a diesel heater: the one used in transport trucks. It’s a hatch through which the warm air comes out. Once again, I had to hire a professional to install my diesel heater, but I was present throughout the installation: the nice man who took care of it was happy to pass on his knowledge and passion to me. I installed an external tank and finally integrated it directly into my diesel tank a few months later.
My pet peeve… Luckily I have some amazing friends who helped me plug in my solar panel and gave me a basic course to do the rest of the wiring.
The solar system includes two AGM batteries, more powerful than regular batteries, but less powerful than lithium batteries.
Carodollars are rare, so choices must be made! My van has a very good autonomy nevertheless: I can always start the van when the batteries are too weak and they recharge. Thanks to this project, I managed to install my lights, I learned how to make electrical connections (which were useful to rewire my trailer) and to install electrical plugs.
To avoid consuming too much diesel for heating, it was essential to have good insulation. I was fortunate to have access to a urethane machine at my work. Since the days were numbered before my departure (it was already November 21st at that time), I opted for the easy and fast option. There are more efficient methods, but they are more expensive and require more time.
Construction of the Van's Inner Shell
Green urethane is very useful, but it’s not very cute. So I shopped at hardware stores for the cheapest decorative panels, that I then installed. I used metal screws, which I screwed directly into the crossbars provided for this purpose. As for the ceiling, I had to screw wood planks first, because I wanted to use finishing nails to install my siding, which I had taken care to stain beforehand. Before completing the finishing touches, I made my electrical circuit for the lights and outlets. It’s difficult not to forget anything and to put the lights and outlets in the right place when your plans change daily. The more I think, the more time I lose, the more I get anxious: then I switch to action-reaction mode and I tell myself that I will live with the consequences of my choices, however small they may be.
Building a van requires planning everything. Each step depends on another.
It’s really very important to write everything down, so that we can immediately know if we’re overlooking something. When installing my interior finish, I had to make sure to identify the holes that would allow the bolts to be screwed in. Why? Because it was in those holes that I was going to screw the bolts that were going to support my bed, and simple screws would not be able to support the weight. At this point, I only worked on the supports: the bed is the very last step!
Solar panel and winter mean: “Caro, find a way to clear the snow off the roof! “What could possibly be better than a welding day, with my favorite welder, to build a ladder to be installed on the back door and that will give me access to the solar panel!
The Ikea cupboards finally arrived on December 20th. I invited my loving friends, who are always present in my craziest projects. I’m like the bottle of Tabasco in the pack: I add a little spice to the mix!
In order to complete the project on time, I had to delegate some tasks. My friends happily agreed to cut out the window insulation in bubble wrap. My wonderful friend made the insulating window coverings. The result is magnificent and makes all the difference in the interior decor !
Let’s get back to my Ikea cabinets: to make sure that the cabinets are properly secured to the floor, I built a wooden support that I glued and screwed to the floor with reinforcing brackets. I then glued and screwed the cabinets to the wood support.
The top cupboards = my worst nightmare. This beloved little van of mine sure saw many tears of despair! Since it was a round corner, I had to build the frame for the cabinets. Before I figured out how to make the perfect angle, I had to analyze the whole thing for a long time. Once I had made the round corner, all I had to do was screw the cabinet door hinges in place.
This is definitely the step I’m most proud of; perseverance has rewarded me.
Despite all the efforts we can make to bring ourselves happiness, the reality is that we cannot control everything. On December 21st, my life did a sudden 180º, and I had to postpone the project to the next year.
In spite of everything, my objective stayed the same. It was only a rain check!
Finishing Touches on my Van
I continued the work where I had left it. I set up my countertop, made the hole to insert the sink and installed it. I learned to be a plumber in a moment! I built a bench that was going to be used for storage, and covered it with some siding boards that were left over from my ceiling. I then used the piece of countertop that I had cut for the sink in order to make a retractable table using drawer extensions.
Under my bed, I installed drawers to store everything necessary in case of mechanical breakdowns. I designed this part tall enough for me to bring my bicycle (I simply remove the front wheel and it fits). And, finally, I installed the bed!!!!
I’m realizing now that I didn’t fully appreciate the scope of this project until I took the time to write it down for you! It sounds worse than it really is, but for me, it was definitely by far the most emotionally demanding project I’ve ever tackled. Loving myself enough to make myself a priority is not that easy to do! I had to learn to be selfish when what makes me happy is the smile of others. At school, I wasn’t taught how to take care of myself and no one can do it for me. I searched for a long time for the equation of my happiness. I added up a few variables through trial and error to see the results.
When the failures pile up, the question arises: is life trying to tell me something? When exactly do I know that I am pushing too hard, and that it’s time to give up?
Someone once told me to always hold my head high: I look forward with pride, determined to feel more alive than ever. Life does things so well; you just have to listen to yourself and move forward with gusto. You don’t always end up where you initially hoped, but that doesn’t mean you won’t find what you’re looking for.
I encourage everyone to discover new things. For me, it’s working remotely from my van, enjoying a season of snowmobiling in Revy with my dog, and improving my English.
I am writing to you from my little piece of heaven, that I built.
Thank you to all those who contributed to the construction of my new self.
Thank you to the most beautiful and most humane company: Outland Quebec, a division of Dexterra.
I now define myself as a strong, independent woman, while staying on the lookout for my prince! I sincerely hope that my adventures will inspire you to do the impossible.