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SLEEPING UNDER THE STARS

FREE CAMPING

Places to stop along the Great Lakes in Ontario

  • Writer's pictureRyan Clark

Van Life

A dodge caravan with its doors open in  forest of fall colours

Chapter 1

"The Transformation of a Dodge Caravan"

Embark on a journey as we witness the evolution of a beaten Dodge Caravan, into a personalized comfortable camper. This chapter unfolds the DIY resurrection and the creation of a unique space tailored for my camping adventures.

 

For years, I drove around with all my camping gear in the back of a little Toyota Matrix, and she served me well. I accidentally wrecked her in Espanola, cracking the unibody and the transmission coolant line. It got me eight hundred dollars from a scrapper, and I needed a new vehicle for camping.

Obviously, the Matrix was a tiny car, and if I slept in it, I had to sleep sitting up. Now, I was in the market for something bigger. I considered a souped-up hot rod station wagon that would have cost me thousands in gas but looked great with its five spokes and matte black paint job, priced at a grand. I also tried to get my hands on a wheelchair accessible bus, but I'm glad that fell through because they have no clearance.

I turned to Kijiji and found a 2007 Dodge Caravan with low miles. It wasn't ideal; I could literally push my fingers through the rusted-out rocker panels and door bottoms. The tires had dry rot, and I strongly suspected this van had been sitting unused for years.


rust has eaten away the bottoms of the vans doors and rocker pnels

I could tell you about the young hustler and his 'probably bullshit' safety inspection, but that's a story on its own. So, let's get back to the van.

Since rust was the biggest problem, I decided to start with a DIY rustproofing for the bottom, and what an improvement it made. I have a buddy Damian, who helps me with all my car-related stuff.  We also changed the brakes and the front shocks and began collecting the materials needed for the replacement panels.

Before I could deck it out for camping, I wanted to make sure it was in working order. We replaced the spark plugs, oil, and coolant.

Then, we moved on to welding, and this too is a story in itself. This time, I'm going to share it with you. Damian, had a small welder, and we borrowed a welding mask. We're both pretty capable at most things... well, most things.

I started rough fabrications of door skins and rocker panels from raw sheets of metal. I used scraps of wood and an assortment of hammers after cutting them from the metal. They weren't perfect, far from it, but they were functional. We set everything up and started trying our hands at welding.


Like I said, we're capable, but we sucked.

We managed to get some of the metal tacked in place with welds good enough to Bondo over, and we wrapped up that first day.

At two in the morning, I woke up and couldn't open my eyes. Walking into walls, groping my way into the bathroom, I thought I had rust in my eyes and it hurt. First thing the next morning, I called Damian, and he had the same issue, plus something called welder's flu. Apparently, we'd given ourselves the equivalent of sunburned eyes. Learning to weld can be tricky, especially when you're trying not to look directly at the sparks.

A man sanding green bondo on. the side of a van

Eventually, we recovered, got a better mask, and finished the welding and Bondo work. If a professional shop had done the work, you'd be upset, but we made it functional.

In the back, I laid down rubber insulation and plywood on the floor. I built the left side as a bed and storage bin, with the whole side of the bed opening up as one flap. Later, I added hinges to the back of the bed so I could reach in from the rear door as well. If you open the sliding door on the bed side, there's a hinged table top I use for cooking, perfect for my hiker's stove or laying out my food. The extensive fire ban forced me to add the stove to my load out in the middle of my trip. First it was a shitty 12v plug in but I swapped that out for a fold up hikers stove I learned to love. I also keep my food and cooking utensils just behind it so when its open I just reach underneath to grab them as I need them. Convenience.



Between the two front seats I also built a small shelf to store stuff in like bear spray and my fire extinguisher. Of course, I cut a hole for an extra-large coffee cup in the part that also serves as an arm rest.

I installed a 12-volt power port in the back and Damian had hardwired directly to the main battery. I also have a portable solar panel that I connected to this setup. After accidentally draining my battery and calling CAA, I decided to install a deep-draw battery from a go-cart in under the flip up table. Now, the solar panel and battery are a completely separate system from the vehicle, giving me peace of mind while charging my equipment.

Since I usually travel alone, I also rotated my passenger seat 180 degrees. It's now illegal for me to have a passenger in the vehicle because of the modification, but it's incredibly comfortable for sitting around when I’m reading or writing. Additionally, the back of the seat, in what was the passenger footrest by the glove box, provides perfect storage space. It fits my 20 gallons of water and solar panel when it’s not deployed.

I installed vinyl interlock flooring and painted everything a much lighter shade of the grey interior color. As well, I applied another rust proofing to the bottom again.

By the end of my first year with the van, I only managed to get out for a week during the lousy weather. I realized that the only time I was comfortable was inside the van. It was my fault; I had missed the entire summer between working on the van and rebuilding a porch.

I did a second rust proofing, stored it for the winter at my brother's place and started looking forward to this summer.


Link to French version



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