After living in SE Asia for three years, we moved back to the Seattle area in April 2016, bought a house, and set down our roots. After a year or so, our wanderlust started kicking in again and we set plans to drive around South America in a home-built campervan.
We first purchased a Northern Light camper, thinking a truck camper would be the way to go. We borrowed my father’s 3/4 ton Chevy 4-door longbed truck, loaded the camper up and drove about 200 miles to the Washington coast. During this trip I rather quickly realized 1) that the Northern Light camper we had was a beast of a rig and 2) it scared the shit out of me to barrel down the road at 60-65 mph with the weight of the camper causing the truck to float like a boat. After one trip, I decided that I could not see myself driving a large 4-door pickup and a large camper 20-30,000 kms across South America & down washboard roads – so we sold it.
We then went on the hunt for a van that we could convert. We looked at Ford Transits, Mercedes Sprinters, and Ford Econolines. We almost purchased 2 vans – one a 2005 Mercedes Sprinter and one a 2015 Ford Transit – each time something pulled us out of the deal at the last moment. Finally, we found a 1999 Ford Econoline E350 Passenger van with 38k miles and no rear seats to dispose of.
Once we had the van in our possession, we started thinking about the conversion. The main reason we were looking at the Transit/Sprinter option was because of the stand-up height. We had seen some Sportsmobile and other Econoline vans with a high roof, and finally sourced a 30″ Camper top from Fiberine to give us the needed additional height. Once we had the top installed, it became evident that this vehicle was the correct choice for us, as it allowed us to place a bed above the drivers/passenger seats, giving us separate spaces for us and our daughter to sleep. In addition, the money we saved in the up-front vehicle purchase meant that we could complete the entire build for what the Ford Transit base vehicle would have cost and a little more than what the 2005 Sprinter base vehicle with 180k miles would have cost. This allowed us to add some rather expensive luxuries, like an Espar B4 heater, without breaking the budget.
Is a 2wd Ford Econoline E350 the perfect vehicle for a build of this type? I honestly have no clue. I will say, however, that we took the van to Alaska in August, and covered 6,000 miles in 3 1/2 weeks, including the famous (infamous?) Dalton Highway. Right now I am writing this in Coyhaique, Chile after having driven from Buenos Aires to Ushuaia on the RP3, and then up the RP40, crossing into Chile at Los Antiguos/Chile Chico and up to Coyhaique. During this time we have driven in 100km/hr wind, in rain on both paved and unpaved (ripio) roads, up and down hills through the Torres del Paine park, on ripio with ~6″ of fresh gravel, and on the worst washboard roads I have encountered in my life. We have covered 5,003 miles (8,051km) in South America, of which approximately 10% has been gravel (referred to as ripio).
Through the abuse that has been thrown at it thus far, our van has held up quite well, with the only issue being a hole in the lower radiator hose, caused by the hose rubbing on a bolt. The inside of the van continues to look and feel the same as it did when it left Seattle (if not a little bit dustier).