Van Life and Travel
Custom outfitting a van to explore New Zealand for the next 6 months
To live in a mobile adventure platform and travel the beautiful islands of New Zealand for 6 months, that’s our plan. Hiking, canoeing, sailing, caving, skydiving, and van life-ing our way across the country.
(Video of the van at the end!)
What we required for an adventure of such duration was nothing short of a base of operations. As a digital nomad, I require enough power and internet signal to keep the funding engines churning. We also wanted enough of the “normal life” amenities to enjoy days off in moderate luxury.
I described the plan, and added an interactive map that will track our progress, in this article’s sister story:
We decided on a van for two reasons. First, the van market in New Zealand is liquid given that traveling the country in a van is a major tourist activity. This means that vans hold their value well, and there are many campsites, amenities, and associations available to benefit travelers.
Second, parking lots and spaces (not to mention many roads) in New Zealand are small compared to their American counterparts. Getting a van around and into places would be much easier than doing so with a larger camper.
After looking for a van with all the furnishings for several weeks, and failing to find one of sufficient quality in our price range, we finally decided to build one ourselves. We figured we would have a nicer product in the end, and we might even be able to add value and turn it into an investment. Plus Chilly’s dad has a workshop and the skills to help build it.
So we picked up a 1998 Toyota Hiace Grand Cabin with a high roof, gutted the whole thing, and set to work.
Chilly, being an engineer, was able to create a 3d model of the van interior. We knew before ever buying anything how much wood we needed and where everything would go.
First, we put in the wooden frame — a plywood floor and panels where the front of the cabinets would go:
Over the next few days, we measure and remeasured, making small cuts until everything fit just right. Then finally, made the big cuts to form storage bins, a bench/chest, and a kitchen counter complete with holes for the sink and fridge.
While Chilly’s dad continued working on fitting it all together, we went out shopping for the many things that would go inside.
In New Zealand, there is a certificate for self-containment which allows free entry to a great many parking spots. The requirements include 25-liter containers for clean water and gray water, a rubbish bin, a toilet, and a sink with a U-trap.
We also needed to find flexible solar panels that we could mount on our rounded roof, a “house” battery to charge, and all the electric wiring to connect it. When it came time to wire the electrical components, it was Chilly’s brother who lent his expertise.
We glued plastic insulation to the roof, and then bolted the panels in place.
When completed, we had 320 watts of solar power linked to a 120 amp hour battery with a solar controller and VSR. This system would assure that both the house battery and car battery would stay topped up at all times.
It was more power than we would likely need, but it assures we never run dry.
From the house battery, we ran power to a control panel, then to the fridge and water pump.
Her brother even rewired the cabin lights to be powered from the switch panel in the kitchen rather than from the dashboard.
When it came to bedding and curtains, Chilly’s sewing expertise came into play. We picked up some foam that will double as seat cushions and mattress (this was one of our biggest expenses), and Chilly made covers for each of them. To make the bed, we fold down the dining table and arrange the cushions into a queen-size mattress.
It’s really quite comfortable, extra-firm and just to our liking.
We added in shelves, dishes, a gas cooker, a solar shower, and even some edible plants I’m still struggling to grow.
She is both a beauty and a beast of a van. A perfect mobile base of operations. Many adventures are sure to come from this one!