Van Camping Makes Us Happy

What makes you happy? Really happy? The kind of happy that you felt when you were a kid playing with your favorite toy. That’s van camping for us. Our van makes us happy, so happy that we named our van “Happy”.

Carl and Be in front of our Ford Transit van, Happy.

How we ended up camping in a van

Mostly, our love of the outdoors and our favorite hobby, rock climbing.  Most of the locations where we climb require a long drive and good hike to get to.  It makes our weekends easier and more enjoyable if we “stay” as close to the area that we are climbing as possible.  Since we are, often times, out in the middle of nowhere, staying in the area means camping.

Luckily, we both love to camp and look forward to “getting out” as often as we can.

We started out camping in a tent

Be and Cami in front of one of our early tents.
Be and Cami in front of one of our early tents

When we started camping, we used tents (of varying sizes depending on whether we were alone or with the kids). We love tent camping, yet it requires a lot more planning, packing, and set-up.  It’s a lot harder to just “jump in and go” when we tent camp. And stopping alongside the road on a longer drive is out of the question requiring more planning.

Our first camper was a pop-up

Our Pop-up Camper parked in campsite in Enchanted Tower

We upgraded to a pop-up camper when we decided we wanted less packing to do (and wanted something with a heater to encourage the kids to camp more in the winter).  This worked for several years until the kids decided they’d rather sleep in a tent and camping areas got crowded enough that privacy became an issue (not inside the camper but for things that had to be taken care of outside the camper – like nature calling). Yup, you guessed it, our camper was very basic. No bathroom facilities!

In addition, the pop-up still required a lot of set-up and tear-down. And, stopping alongside the road on long drives was still out of the question.

So, we upgraded to a Retro.

Our Retro Camper parked in the West Stronghold, AZ.

We decided to upgrade to a small hard-side camper that had an indoor bathroom. This allowed us to store most items in the camper, making it easy to “jump in and go”.  Since the kids were no longer camping with us, this worked well for a few years until we realized we were beating the heck out of it on the dirt roads that we traveled getting to campsites. We had a bag of screws that we never did figure out where they came from.

Also, the design of the camper just wasn’t “us”. It was cute and comfortable, yet it just didn’t fit our lifestyle.  There were so many things we were just accepting, but not really to our liking. 

Back to tent camping

Our tent and canopied kitchen while camping in Enchanted Tower
Our tent and canopied kitchen while camping in Enchanted Tower

We sold the camper and went back to tent camping. Although we were enjoying our new deluxe tent and we took care of the outside privacy issue with a pop-up bathroom, we did miss the ease of packing that the camper had given us.  Also, we were back to not being able to stop alongside the road on a long trip.

pop-up bathroom and shower in the woods
The pop-up shower and bathroom has worked amazingly well

What made us decide on a van?

We started looking around at other options and came upon the world of van living and van camping. There were several advantages to a van that we found appealing.

  1. We could get one that was empty and build it out our way.
  2. We could get a four-wheel drive van or one that could handle rough roads.
  3. We could have everything packed and ready to go (except cold food and drinks).
  4. No hook up, no set-up, and no cranking up roofs.
  5. We could easily take our bikes by adding a trailer hitch and bike rack.
  6. It would allow us to stop alongside the road on long trips.
  7. And most importantly….it would be OUR design.

One issue we had with our previous campers was that the design didn’t “fit” us. There were things about each camper that we would have loved to change. With the van, we loved the idea of having so much space that we could personalize to meet our needs.

After months of researching and visiting car lots, we decided a van just might be what we needed. We happened upon a used Ford Transit at a car lot and our adventure began.

Our Ford Transit van sitting in our driveway after buying it.

What we did before camping:

When we bought Happy, it was an empty cargo van.  An empty slate! Just what we wanted!  We could design it to fit our needs, our likes, our lifestyle!

Rear view of inside of our van, Happy.

The first thing we did was install a bed frame (and by we, I mean Carl). We bought a king-size memory foam mattress and grabbed our blankets from the camping boxes.

The bed frame we built inside our van, Happy

Then we took Happy out for several weekends of van camping.  Each time we’d sit inside and visualize what we wanted Happy to look like. Then slowly we built the inside to match those dreams (I say slowly, but it actually only took us about 2 months to have Happy ready to hit the open road).

And hit the open road we did!

We planned a 9 day van camping trip to New Mexico. 1, 200 miles, round-trip. All the way from Tucson to Taos, NM (and many side roads in-between). Happy performed better than expected, we loved the ease of setting up camp (or just parking for the night), and the trip confirmed our choice to camp in a van. The trip itself was exciting and Happy made it more enjoyable than it would have been hauling a camper or having to set up a tent each time we moved locations. We loved it (but, more on that in another blog post).

4 pictures from our road trip to New Mexico
Getting on the road, our campsite at Jemez Falls, NM, and
a view of the Rio Grande from a stop on our trip

What we love the most:

Everything we need for a camping trip is kept in Happy. This makes it easy for us to load up our food and clothes and head out for a weekend or even a week-long trip.

We love the comfort and function of our van. We designed it to be as open as possible while still providing us with plenty of storage, comfortable sleeping, and ease of getting to things.

Wall to Wall king-sized bed is good for sleeping as well as relaxing and reading
The wall-to-wall king-size bed is good for sleeping, relaxing, reading, and hanging out on rainy days.
Brightly painted storage cabinet and pegboard that holds incidentals.
The storage cabinet and pegboard keep things we use daily organized and easy-to-reach
Gray storage boxes that are easy to reach and held in place with a bungee
A shelf at one end of the bed makes our clothes boxes easy to reach and
gives us a place to hang our climbing and cycling helmets.
Overhead storage bins with bungee to hold them in place.
Overhead storage bins make getting items we use a lot a snap.
Storage under the bed in the van showing how much we can store.
Storage under the bed (the garage) holds everything we need for our adventures
(and can be gotten to from outside or inside).
View of mountains through the bug screen out the back of the van.
Bug screens on both the back and side doors,
allow for great ventilation as well as awesome views.

We also love the ease of setting up camp. We simply find our spot, use leveling blocks to level the van (if needed), set up the kitchen, and pop up the bathroom (if needed). We’ve got it down to about 15 minutes to have camp completely ready, which give us plenty of time for hiking, climbing, exploring, and enjoying the views.

In summary, van camping makes us happy!

Carl sitting in a hammock in front of the Enchanted Tower climbing wall.

Our next installment on our van story will have links to the resources we used in outfitting Happy. We took full advantage of blogs and suggestions from others and are more more than happy to share their information.

Well, it’s Thursday. Carl has tomorrow off, and the mountains are calling. Time to load up the coolers and hit the road.

Our van, Happy, parked in front of mountains

Do you love the idea of camping in a van but aren’t sure it’s right for you? Check out these links for advantages (and disadvantages) of camping in a tent, pop-up, camper, and van.

15 Types of Camping Tents – Pro’s and Con’s and 8 Types of Tents: Pro’s and Con’s.

Everything You Need to Know about Pop-Up Campers and Is a Pop-Up Camper a Good RV Choice for You?

Pro’s and Con’s of Travel Trailers and 18 Big Pro’s and Con’s of Owning a Travel Trailer

So You’re Thinking about a Travel Van and Let’s Weigh the Pro’s and Con’s of Traveling by Camper Van.

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