Outdoor Diary: How We Renovated Our Coachman Camper Van

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They’re calling it — the van project is done! (Is a van project ever actually done?). After buying a 1997 Coachman Ford E250 Econoline van in September, 2020, Amy and Luke have finished all of the remodel work they needed or wanted to do. So what does that mean? Here’s how they did their van conversion project.

Some of the good stuff:

[:27] The Vanimal

[:55] Buying and renovating the Vanimal

[3:35] Renovating the interior

[4:45] Work to be done

[5:18] Send us your tips!

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Here’s an edited transcript of this installment of Amy’s Outdoor Diary. Listen to the episode on iTunes, Google Podcasts, or wherever you find your favorite podcasts.

If you’ve been following the journey of our van, named the Vanimal by one of our fans, you know that remodeling it into a vehicle we wanted to use has been something of a journey. Luke had the chance to take it and use it for 10 days in a row while he attended a wilderness first aid course about 90 minutes from our home — too far away for our blood for a reasonable daily commute. Instead, he took the van and camped down there.

So first, I’ll walk you through how the van was when we bought it. We purchased this 1997 Ford Coachman E250 econoline conversion van last fall while I was recovering from my hip surgery. You’ve probably heard that it’s really hard to find an RV to buy right now, but the market for camping vans has been hot for awhile, especially in Alaska. It’s also really difficult to find a conversion or camping van that has more than 2 seatbelts, since the seatbelts are often stripped from the van to make room for beds.

This van, however, came with 7 seatbelts. It was being sold by a guy in his early 20s who had been given it by his aunt, and who was trying to earn some cash to move out of state. He had used it for a summer to fish around Alaska. It came with almost everything in working order but the check engine light on – which he said was being caused by a misfiring cylinder. It had just under 100,000 miles on it, and he was selling it for about $6,000.

Now, I had looked at a lot of camping vans online, and I hadn’t found really any that had more than 2 seatbelts, forget anything under $10,000. While mechanically a 1997 camper van may be worth that, he could’ve priced it for $12 or $13,000 and still gotten it. But maybe he didn’t know that.

So we snagged that van so fast you wouldn’t believe it. We almost immediately took it to a mechanic, who recommended we replace a lot of the hosing and air filter system, which we also did. All told we spent about $8,000 buying and then maintaining a completely functioning van.

But of course we did want to do a little updating on it. The interior was very 1997, and things were smelling more than a little mildewy. We removed the curtains, which were a big part of the smelling problem it turned out, and decided we would definitely paint over the oak-colored interior cabinets and cream-colored vinyl on the walls. We also wanted to remove the interior toilet because, frankly, the van was not big enough for four people AND their business on the toilet. That’s what the great outdoors is for.

Most of these remodeling steps, of course, had to wait for it to be warm outside. We bought the van in late September and winter moved in not long thereafter and then hung out through early April. Luke was able to do some work in there, but not a lot.

So when we did really get to work, the first thing I did was find new fabric for the curtains, and take the whole mess to a local seamstress to have the curtains copied into new ones. That cost me about $220 for the whole thing and let me tell you, that’s money well spent. Sewing is not my strong point.

And then Luke set out to see what we needed to do in the interior. First, he removed and capped off the place where the toilet was. We still have running water in the van and a heated shower outside – at least theoretically, but we’ll get to that — and now we can use the place the toilet was as additional storage.

Next, we started looking at the vinyl, only to realize there was significant water damage to it and two layers of wood paneling under it around the windows on the camper shell topper. Luke removed the windows, stripped out that section of vinyl and wood and then replaced it with new wood paneling around each window. He then put the windows back in and sealed them really well.

The next task was painting. We decided after quite a lot of back and forth to go with a light grey on the sides, a dark grey for the cabinets and a coral pink pop of color accent on a lower cabinet and sink area. The flooring is a blue vinyl, which had been installed by the previous owner, and the window cover fabric is white and blue. Luke first put a layer of kilz paint over everything, and then rolled on the greys and the coral. It looks ridiculously nice in there now.

But of course the work here isn’t quite done. We managed to fry the deep cycle battery, which powers a variety of things in the van including the hot water heater, over the winter by not reading the instructions and keeping it plugged in. Oops. We’ll be replacing that this week. Once we get that in there, the van really will be good to go, with everything in working order. Now it’s just a matter of using it to figure out any ways we can improve it going forward. We’ve got our first real family trip planned in it over Memorial Day, but I might take it out for a test adventure a little sooner.

If you have a camper van that you love and any tips for making using it a little more streamlined, I would love to hear them. We’ve always been tent people until this point, so having anything even closer to a camper is a new experience for me. What makes using it easier? Hit me up on Facebook or Instagram @HumansOutside to share your tips — I’m going to need them.

You can see multiple videos of our van project via links in the full show notes, including a tour of the finished job. You can also see the videos by hitting up the van archive in our Instagram stories at humansoutside.

Speaking of instagram, you know I share a daily photo of my outdoor time, something I’ve been doing for over 1,300 days in a row, and I tag it with #humansoutside365. You’re invited to do the same and we can inspire each other. As we wrap up the full episodes of this season of Humans Outside I’ll still be publishing outdoor diary episodes almost every week, so you can keep up with my summer adventures and we can inspire each other.

Until next time, we’ll see you out there.

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