A guided tour of our 4×4 Sprinter van conversion
If you’ve been following along on Facebook, you’ll know we sold Mowgli the Unimog and bought Baloo, a 4×4 Mercedes Sprinter van last year. Baloo was an ex British military minibus when we bought her, complete with 16 military issue vinyl covered seats, robust grab rails and dirty luggage racks. But no more. Today, Baloo is a fully converted 2 berth 4×4 Sprinter camper van and about to become our full-time home as our South American expedition gets underway. So by way of an introduction, please meet Baloo, our 4×4 Sprinter van conversion.
Baloo, our 4×4 Sprinter van conversion
The build criteria
We had a short list of priorities when designing the fit out. We wanted….
- our home to feel as spacious as possible
- a robust table we could work at together
- an onboard toilet and
- to live inside the van as comfortably as living beside the van.
When we bought Mowgli almost 5 years ago, our list of priorities was much longer. We thought we needed an inside shower, a fixed bed and a vast amount of storage. Oh and Graham insisted it was a Unimog! Having lived in Mowgli, we’ve realised many of these things were unnecessary, but also detracted from the most important aspects of van life. We bought Mowgli pre-built so with Baloo, we had a blank canvas to design the accommodation as we wanted. Well, after removing 16 seats anyway.
Camper conversion build stats
- Hours spent on conversion: 2500
- Build duration: 8 months
- £ spent on conversion: £15000
- Number of arguments: 17 (at least)
- Arguments Angela won: 2 (I’m being generous, 1 of these was a draw)
- How many jobs outsourced: 4 (re-spray, wheels refurbished, tinted windows & upholstery)
- MPG: 20.1 (so far)
- Water tank capacity: 175 litres
- Fuel tank capacity: 185 litres
- Maximum driving range on full tanks: 814 miles
Baloo, our 4×4 Sprinter van conversion – the guided tour
When we first spotted Baloo, she looked a little tired and unloved. Even then we could see the potential.
Baloo is a Mercedes Sprinter 411 cdi. She has a long wheel base and high roof so we can stand up inside without bumping our heads and have space for a bathroom. On our test runs up to Scotland and Northumberland, we averaged of 20.1 mpg or about 14 litres/100km.
We’ve kept the van pretty much unmodified. Aside from putting off road tyres on her and engineering a raised air intake, there was no need to make any changes. Oh, and we added an extra fuel tank too.
Framework & layout
We built the framework from box aluminium. The cost is similar to the cost of a wooden frame but it’s about a third of the weight.
Sprinter van wet room (which is actually dry)
One of our priorities was to have a toilet on board so we planned to install a bathroom. We had a chemical toilet in Mowgli and it was a bloomin’ horrible job to empty it. Angela would never do it, the chemicals were expensive and sometimes it was hard to find a place to empty it.
So we’ve upgraded from a chemical loo to a composting toilet. It’s not cheap to buy but the composting material is much cheaper than chemicals and better for the environment. Having only used it for a couple of weeks, we’re already impressed!
There’s a knack to using a composting toilet and for greatest effectiveness, the manufacturer recommends keeping wets and solids separate. So boys need to sit down to pee and girls need to learn to never pee and poop at the same time. I’m told that’s easier said than done! We empty the pee pot regularly and so far have never emptied the poop pot. It composts down to nothing and with no smells. A million times better than the chemical loo we had. We’ve not lived in the van full time yet so we’ll keep you posted on how it breaks down over the coming months.
Part way through the build, we thought more about how we used the bathroom in Mowgli. We hardly ever used the onboard shower and used the room more for hanging coats and our laundry basket than anything else. So we decided to give the wet room a miss. We still have the bathroom but it’s only used for the toilet and to store our toiletries and towels.
So how do we shower in the camper van?
Just because we didn’t install a shower in the bathroom, it doesn’t mean we don’t have one. In fact, we have 2! We installed one shower next to the back door. With a 2 metre long shower hose, we can shower outdoors and close the door over so we don’t get water inside the van. Even travelling in Europe, it’s easy enough to find somewhere suitably remote to shower outdoors so we’re happy with this solution.
Our second shower is our favourite although we’ve not yet used it in anger. We mounted the Bushranger shower inside the engine bay. We just drop one hose into a lake, river or bucket and hook up the shower head. The engine heats the water, giving unlimited hot flowing water without depleting our drinking water. We can use it to wash up, shower or even refill our main tanks from a lake if needed. This is a huge advantage in extending how long we can stay off grid.
Sprinter camper van kitchen
Our galley kitchen is 2.3 metres long with a solid wood bench top. We’ve installed a 2 ring diesel cooker and although it’s an expensive piece of kit, we don’t need any gas bottle storage. Cooking on a diesel cooker is a little different to gas. It takes longer to heat up and cool down too so it took some getting used to. I dare say we’ll become masters of it over the next few weeks.
A small oval sink is inset to the bench top with hot & cold running water and a Doulton ceramic water filter. The filtering tap means we can drink water we suspect may not be totally clean so we save money by never buying bottled water.
We’ve got loads of bench space and it’s terrific for preparing dinner and washing up. The sliding cupboard doors take up no space and we’ve maximised the thin gap beneath the sink by installing a cutlery drawer.
We have a huge 60 litre Engel fridge. It’s a top loader so we had to engineer a lifting bench. We’ve owned this fridge for years but Mowgli already had a fridge when we bought her so the Engel has been in the garage for the past few years. We’re delighted we have such a large capacity fridge now and top loaders are so much easier to pack.
Essential reading: how we’ve packed our camper van kitchen
At the back end of the kitchen, there is a half depth cupboard. We initially ear marked this as our drinks cabinet but because we changed our mind about the wet room, we installed the shower hose fitting here and random bits. The drinks cabinet has moved to the lounge so we have more room for Argentinian wine and not so far to reach for it.
Sprinter van lounge/office/dining room
We designed our Sprinter van conversion to provide us with comfortable and flexible living accommodation. We need to work on the blog and edit photos so need a space to double as an office where we can both work. The weather won’t always support an outdoor lifestyle so we need a dining room too. And on a cold, winter evening, stretching out on the sofa and lounging around in comfort is just what we want. So how have we managed to fit it all in?
First up, we have a 2 metre long sofa with plenty of space for us both to stretch out. Both the passenger and driver’s seat swivel around too and it really opens up the living space.
When we want to work or eat dinner inside, we get the 2 table legs and table top from underneath the sofa. The legs slot into the floor fittings and we can set it up in a couple of minutes. The table top is a cut off from the kitchen counter so it’s really robust. It’s a bit heavy to put up and down but we don’t need to worry about our camera gear and laptops balancing on a flimsy table.
We adjust the back cushions so they’re double depth so it’s more comfortable for working and dining. They get stacked for lounging giving us a wider seat for stretching out.
Sprinter van bed
So where do we sleep? Our sofa doubles up as our bed. We unclip a lock at each end of the sofa, slide the base out and hey presto, a full size double bed. We adjust the seat cushions to form the mattress and store the bedding in the huge space beneath the bed. This took a lot of engineering and the build (and redesign) for the bed alone took 3 weeks. To say we’re pleased with the result is an understatement!
First off, we know we have a tendency to use all the storage space available. And more often than not, this means packing more than we need. We could have put storage units along the full length of the ceiling but this would have retracted from the spacious feeling we were aiming for.
The 2.3 metre cupboard under the kitchen bench hold most of our packing, consisting of 11 boxes, a cutlery drawer, knife drawer and a few small spaces on the floor. 4 boxes are for our clothes. All of our clothes. That amounts to not a lot but with some thought out packing, we actually have spare capacity. When we’re in warmer climates, our chunky winter jumpers and coats will get vac packed and stored under the bed so we’ll have even more space.
3 boxes are given over to kitchen equipment and although we could possibly reduce that to 2 if we brought our collapsible posts and pans, and left out the coffee grinder, we didn’t want to travel without a few kitchen luxuries/essentials. A further kitchen box is used for dried foods and another for fresh fruit & vegetables. So we have 2 spare!
We have another 2 cupboards opposite the sofa to store our tripods, outdoor shoes and camera gear and the area doubles as the drinks cabinet and library too. We strap everything down so it doesn’t fly around while we’re driving.
There’s a massive space underneath the bed. We keep our bedding in here and have space for deep stores if we ever need it.
All in all, we’re pretty pleased with our approach to packing now. It’s allowed us to shed unnecessary clutter while still having space for a few little luxuries.
Outdoor gear storage
To live comfortably outdoors means we need a few extra bits of kit. A couple of camping chairs, an outdoor table and a BBQ help but we need a space to store them. We also need to carry tools and spares for Baloo. We’ve built a small storage cupboard behind the bathroom beside the back door of the van. It’s not huge but all our outdoor gear fits perfectly with a little space to hang wet coats.
Solar panels & electrics
We’ve installed 400 watts of solar panel on the roof of the Sprinter van conversion. We have space for another 100-200 watts so we may fit extra in the future if we think we need it. 400 watts was plenty in Mowgli, and our appliances are now all 12v with only 2 exceptions so all in all we hope to use less than we used to. Time will tell though.
Heating & Ventilation
Day time ventilation is easy – we open the doors and windows. We have 2 fans in the ceiling and both will either draw air in or extract air out so we can rid the van of cooking smells and vapour from our breath at night. Coupled with keeping a window slightly open yet still secure, makes sure we get a constant movement of air through the van at night so we reduce the chance of condensation.
We have a diesel heater fitted and 2 vents at either end of the sofa blows out the warm air. After spending a couple of nights in the van with the outside temperature dropping to around -5ºc we were still cosy inside. We knocked the heating on in the morning before we braved getting up and within an hour, the van was toasty. So far, so good!
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