Thank you to Tiny Home Tours for checking out The Megalodon last month! I finally got the time to write up the details to accompany the video. My van, aka ‘The Megalodon,’ is an incredible blend of designers, artisans, craftsmen, makers, and technology. Right now, the van has contributed to living my best life, and I’m thankful for everyone who had a hand in creating something that makes my life on the road easier and more enjoyable.
For those of you who are just getting started or are ready to make some changes to your van, overlanding rig, or ‘road trip’ vehicle of choice, I hope you find this information helpful. There are a lot of van and tiny home bloggers out there, but only a few prioritized the kitchen build, overland features, security, AND accommodating several dogs.
Research, Research, and MORE Research
Before I put my house up for sale, I had to be sure that my vision could become a reality. I’m not your typical “van lifer” or overlander for many reasons, but one thing was clear: I didn’t want to buy a van “as-is” and just hit the road. So I spent more than a year researching, planning, researching more, talking to upfitters and van builders, more researching, more planning, more phone calls, more cross-country meetings…you get the idea. Honestly, it seemed so far fetch. I changed my mind MANY times and made plenty of adjustments throughout the process (RIP to my builder), but at last, it’s completed, and I’m officially living full-time ON THE ROAD with my four-legged boys.
Speaking of research…the Overland Expo® Mtn West is coming to Loveland, Colorado. If you’re attending, make sure you stop by the Backwoods Adventure Mods booth…The Megalodon might be there!
Choosing The Van
I’ve been living in the van full-time for almost six months and love it. I LOVE to travel, but my least favorite thing about traveling is packing up before you leave and then unpacking when you get home. Now that I’m living in the van full-time, I love having everything I need with me, and not having room for “extra” is good, too. Everything has a purpose, and without all the distractions of a typical home, I can focus on what’s important to me: my health, outdoor, and travel lifestyle.
First, I wanted a van that’s known for reliability and something already popular in the van-build community. When you buy a unique van or truck, finding qualified people to work on it can be challenging, or it can take forever to get parts. I’ve seen this in the RV world; there are a lot of cool RVs out there, but finding someone to work on it or get parts can be difficult. I encountered enough supply chain issues during the build process, so I’m glad I chose a MB Sprinter. The U.S. is the second largest market for the MB Sprinter, second only to Germany, so I have no problem finding someone qualified to service it or fix it.
Next, I wanted to maximize my living space and have access to all of the latest technology and safety features. I’m not a pavement princess, so I needed a van with unlimited 4wd and off-road parts and accessories.
Mercedes Benz High Roof Sprinter 3500XD – 170″ Extended
Growing up, I’ve always had different Jeeps and trucks, and the ability to go where other vehicles can’t is so freeing. I love being off-road. With the upgrades and aftermarket parts, I am confident going on trails and managing off-road terrain. And everything else inside the van stays secure and won’t fly all over the place or break while I’m exploring.
For the front bumper, I wanted something lightweight with powerful reinforcement, and the Backwoods Nomad Series was a perfect match. I added two 50″ OX6 Straight Dual Control LED Light Bars (amber/white LED) from Baja Designs for high-powered lighting. So far, I’ve driven it in the snow, at night, and in some foggy and dusty conditions; they have been phenomenal. So, I recommend upgrading or adding Baja lights; they have been incredible for navigating places with low visibility.
Next Up: Roof Rack. I chose Backwoods roof racks and ladders were an easy choice, with their aluminum lightweight construction. Built into the top of the Backwoods roof rack, I have two custom storage boxes that go across the entire roof, and I am using walkable solar panels as the lids of the boxes. I have 1,000 watts of solar (each panel is 500 watts each) on individual actuators to assist in opening the lids. They’re accessible with remote control; I can open up one at a time or both simultaneously with the click of a button.
I wanted an awning that could handle high winds, so I chose an awning designed for boats. SureShade has an automated awning product line, and it’s perfect. I can leave it out in winds up to 50 miles an hour and not worry about it being damaged or ripped off the van. I also wanted to avoid having an awning with poles sticking in the ground; I didn’t want to mess with poles during an unexpected storm, so instead of messing with awkward poles, I control the awning with an app on my phone.
It’s been a great feature; I don’t have to worry about where I stop for the day; the awning will always give us shade if we need a break from the sun or slight rain. Access to a covered area, whenever you want, is so important. You never know where you’ll end up sometimes, and staying in the van because it’s too hot and sunny or raining gets old fast.
Maintaining a holistic and healthy lifestyle on the road can be extra challenging, so I prioritized many kitchen features and accessories. Finding what works for you is essential if you’re determined to stay fit and active while living on the road, even if that means getting a little “extra” in the kitchen. If you can store and prepare healthy food you enjoy, you’ll avoid grab-and-go processed foods.
First, I went with a 2-Burner propane stove so I can cook two things at once; whether that be stir-frying, boiling, sauteing, or searing different ingredients, I’m able to still cook two dishes at once, as if I were in a home. I chose the K&H brand because this model has strong cast iron pan supports, and they’re removable, making it easy to clean and allowing me to have extra counter space if I need it. The Kitchen and Home (K&H®) brand has an Amazon store, so it’s easy to order online, and it wasn’t super expensive. I chose a deep recessed farmhouse style for the sink in case I have to eat and go; I can cover my dishes and get to them later. It’s also beneficial for washing my produce! The swing-style faucet swivels back to make the most of my counter space, and the custom wood countertop gives it the cozy, natural, and earthy look that I love.
farmhouse sink w/cover for counter space
two-burner gas cooktop
swing-style faucet for maximum counter space
mason jar spice rack
10 cu/ft solar fridge w/freezer
I included mason jars full of a variety of seeds and supplements that are sunk into custom-cut holes in the live-edge wood shelf; then, I wrapped each individual jar with a silicone band to eliminate rattling. Underneath the shelf, I also added a magnetic spice rack that’s secured with strong earth magnets so they don’t move or bounce around at all while I’m driving. I love the look of the jars, and it’s easy to swap out dried herbs and spices without going through lots of disposable plastic containers. When I’m cooking, it’s super convenient just to unscrew the container, add the ingredients, and put them back in their place; I don’t have to hunt anything down to find what I’m looking for because they’re all labeled and organized.
I also prioritized having a large fridge/freezer; a huge part of holistic nutrition is fresh ingredients, and high-quality super-food drinks, and considering I feed my dogs whole foods, vegetables, and raw meats I couldn’t cut corners on the size. To add to the van’s interior look and style, I chose a white “Classic by Unique” brand fridge with a retro-design. I purchased mine directly from The Cabin Depot; they’re dedicated to off-grid living and know so much about the product lines. It’s solar-powered, so it’s perfect for off-grid living. It’s a 12-volt fridge, so it doesn’t draw too much power, and this model is known for efficient insulated construction. The compressor also comes standard with a 2-year warranty, and having the fridge in my van doesn’t void that warranty. If you haven’t selected a fridge yet, check the fine print before you buy. Using a standard fridge for a van or RV might affect the warranty.
Layout, Storage & Cabinets
Custom van-built cabinets are made to endure road trips, outdoor living, and even off-road conditions that are off the beaten path. Nothing beats SECURE and UNBROKEN when traveling and living out of your van year-round. And when you use standard cabinets that aren’t meant for van living, you risk investing money in something that isn’t covered by a warranty.
Here’s a list of the “high priority” choices that were an important part of the cabinetry:
Matte Laminate Finish
Initially, I was going to go with painted cabinets; however, my builder gave me some pros/cons of having painted cabinets vs. laminate in a van. At first, I thought having laminate cabinets (especially white ones) would look cheap or like your in a doctors office; after weighing out my options, I went with matte laminate cabinets because they are effortless to clean with a wet rag, and you can easily wipe away dirt, debris, etc. Having cabinets that wouldn’t stain or get ruined from wear and tear, dogs, spills, and exposure to outside elements was very important; I didn’t want to get stuck replacing them a year from now.
All of my cabinets have ball catches inside, so the doors won’t fly open on the road, when turning, or on bumpy terrain. I also have extra ball catches on my cabinet doors with mirrors to support the additional weight. Another option would have been to use boat-style locking cabinets, but I purposely chose not to do that; I wanted to create a look you’d find in a home.
Extra Cabinets & Shelving Throughout
Wherever I could, I added a cubby, basket, or cabinet. Staying organized is the key to tiny living; having enough storage and a place for everything keeps things from getting damaged or lost.
Space for Dog Supplies
When designing the kitchen layout, I needed to make room for the boys’ food bowls to store them away when they weren’t in use, and I could still easily access them for feeding time. I designed a slide-out drawer that holds three dog food bowls that slide under my dual trash cans. From the outside, it looks like a small cabinet-faced drawer, and inside is a custom walnut wood platform with three holes cut out to fit my dog’s food bowls. For their water, I purchased a stainless steel, spill-proof water bowl that is mounted to the base of my passenger seat near the sliding door area; this allows them to have access to it at all times, and it’s removable so I can bring it outside of the van wherever we’re hanging out for the day!I added a cubby, basket, or cabinet. Staying organized is the key to tiny living; having enough storage and a place for everything keeps things from getting damaged or lost.
Water, Water, Water
I have a 50-gallon water tank; having clean drinking water is essential, so I invested in water filtration systems. On the road, it’s easy to forget about pollutants and toxic chemicals, but one of the easiest things to do to stay healthy is to stay hydrated with clean, filtered water.
Since I fill my water tank from many different water sources, I invested in a top-rated filtration system. Clearly Filtered systems target the most harmful contaminants. I have three filtration products; one under the sink, one in the water tank, and a filtered water pitcher in my fridge. Most people think our water systems are filtered, but if you knew how many water lines in the U.S. are lead supply lines, you’d make room for it. See article: EPA estimates 9.2 million lead water lines (LSLs) in the United States.
Water Heater & Shower
The shower walls are all custom-made. I wanted a rustic color scheme, but the original shower walls didn’t work out. The plan was to create a two-toned rustic finish with the materials available, but over time, as the seasons changed and the humidity/moisture increased, the paint began to separate from the metal walls creating a bubbling/cracking effect. My builder knew it was a trial and error process, so they recently redid the shower with powder-coated aluminum that matches the base color of the original shower. These walls are super durable and can withstand seasonal changes and humidity.
Access to hot water is a MUST while living in a van. If your body is sore from hiking, working out, or even from a long day’s worth of driving, having access to a hot shower is a must. My diesel-heater’s control unit powers both the heat in my van and my hot water. In addition, I have an instant hot water source for teas, coffees, or as a backup if I ever need boiling water (when propane is limited); I went with an Espar Instant Hot Water Heater so that I don’t waste water or power to heat it.
Rear Custom Modification for Van Living
In the back of the van, there’s a custom-built, multi-purpose deck for an outdoor shower, a seating area, a desk/table, and a place to bathe the dogs. It’s welded onto my Backwoods rear bumper, folds parallel to the ground, and then locks into the “up” position between my back doors and swing arms when traveling. Sometimes, I even keep the doors open and put the deck up to create a pet gate for the boys in the back of the van while we’re at camp. The outdoor shower has its own shower head and shut off valve connected directly to my water tank; I also have an outdoor magnetic shower curtain that attaches to the van’s rear doors and has extra magnets for windy days. The deck is a great feature; as an outdoor table that I can use to work on my laptop or cook on my propane grill. It’s also a great spot to sit and hang out at camp or by the fire.
Security, Tech, and Power
I designed the interior so that all of my electronics are in one cabinet in the van. In that one area, I house my security system, weBoost for the internet, controls to open and access the roof storage, and my sound system’s control panel, amp, and subwoofer (as well as additional storage baskets on the door to utilize all of the space I could). I have speakers all throughout the van’s interior, so whenever I’m hanging out outside, I can open the doors and have music and good vibes.
So what’s left?
Off-grid Checklist & More Solar Power.
More Off-road Mods.
Window Shades, Tint, and Body Wrap.
…and I’m sure there’s even more, but for now, that’s a pretty good start!
Whether you’re doing a DIY van build or having somebody build out your rig, do as much research as possible before ordering anything or hiring anyone! There will always be something unexpected you didn’t know or plan for, but the more time you spend researching and asking questions, the better off you’ll be later.
Don’t get discouraged if you only see perfection on social media; it might look beautiful and fabulous to everyone, but only a few people post the setbacks or obstacles along the way. Just be prepared as best you can to deal with whatever comes your way and keep moving forward. Believe me, I’ve had to overcome countless hurdles that could have been devastating if I didn’t have the right mindset, but going through them is part of the journey. A positive mindset and attitude are crucial to living on the road, so take care of yourself so that you can respond calmly and collectively when things get stressful.
Phase II is coming soon. Until then, check out my van walkthrough from Tiny Home Tours: