Our Van Build post-trip assessment

This post is a review of all of the systems and accessories we used in converting our van to a camper, for those thinking of building a van. Here’s what worked, what didn’t, and what we’d change.

The Sparksmobile

The Sparksmobile

The Van

Our van is a 2001 Ford E350 extended body with a Salem Kroger 4×4 conversion and the 7.3L diesel engine. We bought it used in 2012 with 78,000 miles on it and the 4×4 conversion already in place. The only problem we had with the van itself was a clogged fuel line that caused us to be very slow when climbing hills. It was a minor problem, but we didn’t know what was causing it and it stressed us out for awhile. With help from the Oaxaca Ford dealership and Calvin and Leanne at Overlander Oasis, we finally got it fixed. Since then it’s been only regular maintenance. I would have no problem taking this van on another trip.

The 4×4 conversion gave us no problems, although we stopped at Whitefeather Conversions prior to our trip where a former co-owner of Salem Kroger disassembled and lubricated the front hubs. This was purely preventative.

Colorado Campervan Poptop

The size of the CCV poptop is great for layouts like ours where the top bunk is the primary sleeping area. It’s tall enough to sit up in, and wide enough to be comfortable for two. The actuator motors worked through 700+ nights of camping on our trip.

We opted for fine “no-see-um” netting in our poptop which suffered a few rips along the way that we repaired with tent repair tape. The canvas held up well.

Auxiliary Fuel Tank

We installed a 20-gallon auxiliary fuel tank behind the rear axle. The tank switch failed, leaving us stranded on the Dempster highway with an empty rear tank and unable to switch to the main tank, and after a couple more problems with it I eventually removed it and gave it away. On our trip we never found that we needed extra fuel capacity.

Plumbing

We had no problems with our plumbing or our shur flo water pump. We only have a 14-gallon water tank, which from our experience was sufficient for about 3 days of being completely self-contained (drinking, cooking, and washing up) if we were careful. If I had it to do over again I would want a bigger tank.

We also have a shower that comes out of the back of the van. We can open the rear doors and rig up a shower stall with a tarp. Our Webasto Dualtop heater/hot water heater provides hot water. We only used the shower 3 times because of our lack of sufficient water on board (usually when we were near a source of fresh water we also had access to a shower) and the fact that the setup for the shower was time consuming. I wouldn’t include a shower if I had it to do over.

We installed a separate faucet at our sink for drinking water which went through an Everpure water filter. Following the manufacturer’s instructions, we chlorinated the water we put into our tank. The filter then removes the chlorine. It was very convenient to have clean drinking water readily available and without having to purchase and discard hundreds of plastic bottles. We brought a few spare filters with us to last the trip.

Appliances

We debated for a long time over whether to spend the money on a diesel cooktop in order to avoid the hassles of filling a propane tank in areas where adapters might be difficult to find. In the end we opted for a Webasto diesel cooktop. It only worked right immediately after I took delivery of the van, and a few times after we stopped at XP Camper where Marc Wassmann helped me try to diagnose the problem. We called it our leftover warmer, because it would get hot enough to warm up leftovers before flashing an error code and shutting off. I know a lot of the high-end expedition vehicles use these, so they must work. I just had a bad experience, and I plan at some point to install a propane stove.

Our Webasto Dualtop heater/hot water heater worked great, and having heat in the van was very nice on the handful of occasions we needed it (Alaska in September, high altitudes in the Andes, and in Patagonia). It worked at 14,000 feet, which surprised me.

If I had it to do again I’d probably go with an Espar diesel heater, sticking with diesel because heating is so fuel intensive. With propane only used for cooking, you wouldn’t have to refill the tank very often. Since we didn’t use the shower much I wouldn’t feel the need to have the water heater component.

Our refrigerator is a National Luna Weekender Twin. It has a small freezer compartment which is really nice to have because you can make ice, and it’s good for keeping meat frozen. The compressor in our fridge failed after about 2 years of continuous use. We didn’t know what part had failed, and the folks at Equipt1 who sold us the fridge shipped new electrical components to us in Chile free of charge. When that didn’t solve the problem, we located a 12v-fridge specialist in Buenos Aires who was able to replace the compressor. I still think this is a great fridge and would happily buy another.

Electrical

We have a 100Ah Lithium Ion battery from Smart Battery. Going with Lithium Ion cost twice as much as an equivalent usable capacity in AGM batteries. They’re also 1/3 the weight and take 1/3 the space of AGM batteries. Our battery has a noticeable but small reduction in capacity after 2.5 years of full-time use. I am happy with the decision to go with Li-Ion. Depending on how much we use our computer and tablets, and how much sun our solar panel gets, our battery will last anywhere from 24 hours to about 3 days. I don’t feel the need to add any more capacity.

Update July 22 2017: About 4 months ago our battery completely died. It will read “full” but then as soon as you attach a load to it the voltage drops and it shuts itself off. The battery came with a 5 year warranty, and we’re within six months of that warranty expiring. According to Smart Battery’s website, after 5 years you can expect to see 80% of the original capacity. Since ours is completely useless, I feel entitled to some sort of remedy.

I’ve been working with Smart Battery for the past two months trying to get a warranty replacement, and the experience has been incredibly frustrating. I call, and they tell me they’re going to call me back to arrange to ship my old battery back and they never do. This has happened about five times. Not sure if they’re just trying to push me off until the warranty expires and then tell me to go pound sand. So yes, while the battery was working, it was great, but if you have any issues with it you may not get help from their customer service.

We have a 100W solar panel fixed to the roof and a Blue Sky Energy solar charge controller. Solar wasn’t a panacea, but we found it very useful. In an area with full sun it (in combination with the battery) will keep our fridge going indefinitely. In hot climates you’re always looking for shade to park in, so it’s less useful then. The solar is also nice when the van is parked for an extended period because it keeps all of the batteries topped off. If I was building the van again I’d probably go with 200W (or more if I could afford it).

We had a Cole Hersee 48530 dual battery isolator. After about 1.5 years it failed and wouldn’t separate the batteries properly. I replaced it with a manual switch I found in Lima, Peru.

One of our favorite items was our Fantastic Vent Fan. It kept us cool on many a hot night in Central America.

We haven’t had any electrical faults with the RV house systems.

Layout / Furniture

CCV built the interior of our van to our design. With the ability to use the “upstairs” as our primary sleeping area with our son sleeping downstairs most of the time, we were able to optimize the downstairs area for living rather than sleeping. We are happy with the layout. Photos are here.

The furniture is constructed of 3/8″ (I think) plywood and has held up very well. The drawers are secured with spring clips, and do occasionally pop out on rough roads. It would be nice to have a mechanical latch mechanism on the drawers.

Outside

We have a Fiamma F45 awning that worked great and was easy to operate.

We have an Aluminess rear bumper and tire carrier along with a galley box that holds our outdoor cooking stove. The bumper worked great, and Aluminess even built a custom platform on the inside of the door to the galley box so I could put our Coleman stove on it. With the EB van I tried to keep the weight on the bumper to a minimum.

We elected not to purchase an aftermarket front bumper, a winch, or offroad lighting. We didn’t miss any of those things.

 

Valparaiso, Chile

After a few fun days in Buenos Aires, we made the short flight back over the Andes to Santiago, where our Airbnb host picked us up and drove us to the apartment we rented from him in Valparaiso.

We had a very enjoyable and relaxing two weeks there, and we’re very happy we got the chance to explore this funky and sometimes gritty city on the coast.

During our first weekend in the city, we took a walking tour taking in some of the beautiful buildings that are built on the hills overlooking the harbor.

During our first weekend in the city, we took a walking tour taking in some of the beautiful buildings that are built on the hills overlooking the harbor.

Valparaiso is justifiably famous for its street art, and we were introduced to the works of several local artists during our tour.

Valparaiso is justifiably famous for its street art, and we were introduced to the works of several local artists during our tour.

The styles vary, but the art makes hike up and down the city's hills worthwhile.

The styles vary, but the art makes hike up and down the city’s hills worthwhile.

“Valpo” as the locals call it, was once Chile’s most important sea port. It is the first major harbor for ships coming north after passing Cape Horn. The opening of the US transcontinental railroad and the Panama canal drastically reduced that traffic, and the harbor dimished in importance. Today it is home to part of Chile’s navy, a stopover for cruise ships, and a busy freight terminal.

Riding one of the electric trolley busses in downtown. Some of the busses are more than sixty years old, and the system is a Unesco World Heritage site.

Riding one of the electric trolley busses in downtown. Some of the busses are more than sixty years old, and the system is a Unesco World Heritage site.

Valparaiso harbor from our apartment.

Valparaiso harbor from our apartment.

A system of ascensores takes some of the work out of getting around the city. Most of these elevators are more than 100 years old, and they rattle and creak to make sure you know it.

A system of ascensores takes some of the work out of getting around the city. Most of these elevators are more than 100 years old, and they rattle and creak to make sure you know it.

The highlight of our visit to the excellent naval museum was meeting the builders of this model. When they finish their two year labor it will be the largest model ship in South America.

The highlight of our visit to the excellent naval museum was meeting the builders of this model. When they finish their two year labor it will be the largest model ship in South America.

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We visited two of the homes of Pablo Naruda, a famous and eccentric Chilean poet.

We visited two of the homes of Pablo Naruda, a famous and eccentric Chilean poet.

A last day of fun on the beach before we fly to winter.

A last day of fun on the beach before we fly to winter.

We celebrated the end of an amazing journey with a nice meal overlooking the harbor.

We celebrated the end of an amazing journey with a nice meal overlooking the harbor.

On our last full day in town we got together with some friends to take a cooking class. Quinn and Jen roll dough for empanadas.

On our last full day in town we got together with our friends, Cicilia, Jorge, and her son Caetan to take a cooking class. Here Quinn and Jen roll dough for empanadas.

Our day started with a visit to the market to buy ingredients. Here Quinn watches the fish cleaner filet the fish we bought from the fish seller.

Our day started with a visit to the market to buy ingredients. Here Quinn watches the fish cleaner filet the fish we bought from the fish seller.

Seems like a good place for a nap.

Seems like a good place for a nap.

Mmmm fresh veggies.

Mmmm fresh veggies.

We of course had plenty of wine to acompany our meal, and here we're pouring the pisco sours.

We of course had plenty of wine to acompany our meal, and here we’re pouring the pisco sours.

During our class fellow Denverites and overlanders Chad and Katie contacted us and were able to stop by to share a couple of bottles of wine with us. What a fantastic ending to the last day of our Big Big Trip!

As I write this we are waiting for our flight to Toronto from Santiago. What a journey this has been. We are so incredibly fortunate to have been able to undertake this adventure together as a family, and as this chapter in our lives comes to a close we look forward to spending time with family and friends whom we haven’t seen in far too long. We’d like to thank everyone who has stopped by to read about our adventures and travel virtually with us.

We don’t know what the future will hold, but this site will stick around. You never know when the Sparks will decide to spread their wings and fly once again.

With love,
Witt, Jen, and Quinn

So How Was the Trip?

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Whenever you come back from a trip everyone always asks, “How was your trip?” I’ve been thinking about this for awhile, trying to figure out how to answer it, and realized I can’t. When you go on vacation you and all of your friends back home have the expectation that the vacation will be “Great” or “Awesome.” That’s why you went on vacation, right? Because you want a break from the routine, a short period of time where every day is amazing.

When you’re away for longer than a month or so, every day can’t be amazing. The “trip” starts to become “life.” There are highs and lows, good days and bad, just like at home. So how was the trip? It was life, differently. Or as another group of travelers called it, “Life Remotely.

What I can say is that over the past two and a half years we’ve covered over 40,000 miles in our van. That in itself isn’t amazing – the average car in the United States travels almost the same distance. What I think is cool is that almost none of our miles were ever the same twice. During our life pre-trip, they almost all were. That means that most days we were seeing or doing something new, going somewhere we’d never been before. So yeah, that was pretty amazing.

Enough waxing philosophical, time to get on with the show – our last road segment in South America!

On the way down the pass into Argentina we stopped to look at what we call "Old Train Stuff." This was a snow plow for clearing the line that once ran over the pass.

On the way down the pass into Argentina we stopped to look at what we call “Old Train Stuff.” This was a snow plow for clearing the line that once ran over the pass.

Looking back at the Andes from the East

Looking back at the Andes from the East

Sunset from our campsite in the town of Uspallata

Sunset from our campsite in the town of Uspallata

The next day we drove to Mendoza and spent a day there just relaxing – we realized it had been a couple of weeks since we’d stayed in the same campground for more than one night. We couldn’t leave Mendoza without visiting a winery. There are so many you could spend a lifetime and not see them all, so on the advice of our friends from Buenos Aires we choose Domaine Bousquet, one of the few organic vineyards in the region.

Wine tasting (and train drawing) at Domaine Bousquet

Wine tasting (and train drawing) at Domaine Bousquet

From there it took about three more days to reach Buenos Aires. We spent an afternoon driving around looking for the parts we needed to build the security wall in the van for shipping, then headed for Herman Zapp’s house where we’d stayed way back in June. Herman and his family have been traveling the world in a classic car for the past 8 years and are currently in the Middle East. Eduardo and Clarita, who live in and care for the house for the Zapp family, organize parties for a living and since it’s they’re busy time of year they unfortunately were away from home during our stay. But they generously allowed us to use their house which made it much easier to pack up for the transition from “van life” to “backpack life” and to get the van ready for shipping.

On a Monday we said a sad farewell to the Sparksmobile, our home for the past two and a half years, as we left it sitting a the port in Zarate waiting for a boat to take it to Jacksonville, Florida.

Now toting our backpacks, we took a bus to an apartment we found on Craigslist in the Recoleta district of downtown Buenos Aires. It was nice to be able to visit a city without the stress of trying to find a place to park the van!

This two hundred year old rubber tree provides welcome shade for a plaza.

This two hundred year old rubber tree provides welcome shade for a plaza.

We tried again to visit the BA train museum. It was closed again, this time to repaint the floors. Fortunately there was one engine outside that we could look at.

We tried again to visit the BA train museum. It was closed again, this time to repaint the floors. Fortunately there was one engine outside that we could look at.

We took the metro to the end of the line at the town of Tigre.

We took the metro to the end of the line at the town of Tigre.

The train station in Buenos Aires reminded me of European stations.

The train station in Buenos Aires reminded me of European stations.

Tease: After ordering a sampler at a local microbrewery, I decided on a pint of the IPA. Sorry, only enough of the IPA left to serve samples. What!?

Tease: After ordering a sampler at a local microbrewery, I decided on a pint of the IPA. Sorry, only enough of the IPA left to serve samples. What!?

One of the main tourist attractions in Recoleta is the cemetery. Argentina’s rich and famous are buried there, including the famous former first lady of Argentina, Eva Perón.

The cemetery features ornate marble structures. Each tomb houses caskets from an individual family.

The cemetery features ornate marble structures. Each tomb houses caskets from an individual family.

We visited a couple of children's museums in Buenos Aires. Quinn learns to be a checker at a grocery store.

We visited a couple of children’s museums in Buenos Aires. Quinn learns to be a checker at a grocery store.

Or maybe a McDonald's employee is more to his liking. All the french fries you can eat!

Or maybe a McDonald’s employee is more to his liking. All the french fries you can eat!

After a few days in Buenos Aires, we boarded a plane for Santiago, where we would spend the rest of our time before heading to Philly for Christmas. The flight was KLM, and it was great! Plenty of leg room even in the cheap economy seats, on demand in-flight entertainment, and OJ imported all the way from Holland (and probably made with Spanish or Moroccan oranges)!

Instead of staying in the city of Santiago, we decided to rent an apartment through AirBnB in Valparaiso on the coast. Our apartment is on the 17th floor giving us an amazing view of the city and the harbor. Valparaiso is a funky town and we’re looking forward to exploring it for the next couple of weeks.

Fun with Friends in Central Chile

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It was over a year ago that we first met Rick and Letitia from California in Colombia. We enjoyed a Superbowl party with them in Ecuador before parting ways as we continued South. After spending more time in Ecuador and exploring Peru, they are now heading for Southern Chile to explore the Carretera Austral and Southern Patagonia. Our paths crossed once again in Villarica and we got a chance to meet up once again.

We spent a few days catching up with them as we explored the lakes and mountains of the region camping in Villarica, Pucón, and on Lake Caburga. It was great to spend time with friends once again, and although our time together was brief, we were grateful for the opportunity to share a few dinners and laughs with them.

Steam powered contraptions are always a great place to stop for lunch.

Steam powered contraptions are always a great place to stop for lunch.


Fields of rapeseed plants (the source of canola oil) create a vivid yellow carpet.

Fields of rapeseed plants (the source of canola oil) create a vivid yellow carpet.


Enjoying a yummy treat in Villarica

Enjoying a yummy treat in Villarica


Camping with Rick and Letitia on the shore of Lago Caburga

Camping with Rick and Letitia on the shore of Lago Caburga


Rick grilled up a yummy salmon fillet for dinner one night. The local cats thought it was great too.

Rick grilled up a yummy salmon fillet for dinner one night. The local cats thought it was great too.


We spent a relaxing afternoon at one of the area's many thermal pools.

We spent a relaxing afternoon at one of the area’s many thermal pools.


After saying goodbye to Rick and Letitia, we drove to Conguillio National Park.

After saying goodbye to Rick and Letitia, we drove to Conguillio National Park.


We'd hope to drive all the way through the park, but late season snows kept the road closed and we were forced to backtrack.

We’d hope to drive all the way through the park, but late season snows kept the road closed and we were forced to backtrack.

On the advice of a couple we met in the campground in Pucón, we decided to visit Villa Baviera. Formerly known as Colonia Dignidad, it was started by a group of German immigrants in the early 1960s. It has a dark history and is the subject of the recently released film Colonia.

On our way north along Ruta 5, we happened to cross paths with Peter and Lesley from the UK who we first met a few weeks ago in the lakes district. We told them of our plans and they decided to join us.

The colony is only now transitioning from being a closed, secretive community led by the autocratic Paul Schäfer, to a venue for weddings and events. When we arrived we were greeted by people wearing traditional European clothing. This wasn’t something put on for tourists, this was how they dressed. Everyone spoke to each other in German, and it felt much more authentic than the other European influenced regions we’ve visited.

The five of us toured the beautiful property with a guide from the community.

The five of us toured the beautiful property with a guide from the community.

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Our next stop on our way North was at the Siete Tazas (seven cups) waterfalls.

Our next stop on our way North was at the Siete Tazas (seven cups) waterfalls.


After driving around the city of Santiago, we camped at a truckstop. We sat on top of a pile of rocks as the sun set trying to break pieces glass by throwing rocks at them. Not your typical family together time!

After driving around the city of Santiago, we camped at a truck stop. We sat on top of a pile of rocks as the sun set trying to break pieces glass by throwing rocks at them. Not your typical family together time — we pull out all the stops when it comes to Quinn’s education!


The switchbacks on the way up to the pass separating Chile from Argentina are numbered - over twenty of them!

The switchbacks on the way up to the pass separating Chile from Argentina are numbered – over twenty of them!


Near the top of the pass is the ski resort of Portillo, popular with ski teams from all over the world as an off-season training ground.

Near the top of the pass is the ski resort of Portillo, popular with ski teams from all over the world as an off-season training ground.


We also got to see the highest mountain in the world outside of Asia - Aconcagua

We also got to see the highest mountain in the world outside of Asia – Aconcagua

The Lakes of Northern Patagonia

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Thanks to Debbie for the idea for the Google Maps screenshot to provide a reference of where we’ve been! I should have been doing this for the whole trip. Oh well, better late than never. This map leaves off at Puerto Pirihueico, because Google apparently hasn’t heard about the ferry we took across the lake to Puerto Fuy. So we made it a bit farther than is shown on the map, but this gives a good idea of where we’ve been.

If the Carretera Austral reminded us of the Pacific Northwest, as we’ve gone north we feel like we are at home in Colorado. Gorgeous mountain lakes are framed by the now capped peaks of spring, and remote back roads offer stunning lakeside campsites.

One of the many crystal clear rivers we crossed. This one was on the northern end of the Carretera Austral near Puerto Montt.

One of the many crystal clear rivers we crossed. This one was on the northern end of the Carretera Austral near Puerto Montt.

Puerto Varas was the first city we'd seen in some time. It's set, of course, on a beautiful lake with a view of the nearby Osorno Volcano.

Puerto Varas was the first city we’d seen in some time. It’s set, of course, on a beautiful lake with a view of the nearby Osorno Volcano.

Lesley and Peter are from England, and we ran into them for the second time in the village of Petrohué. We chatted over drinks in an upscale tourist lodge before returning to our vans to spend the night. Yes, overlanders are cheap.

Lesley and Peter are from England, and we ran into them for the second time in the village of Petrohué. We chatted over drinks in an upscale tourist lodge before returning to our vans to spend the night. Yes, overlanders are cheap.

The view of Volcán Osorno from our campsite in Petrohué. The piles of sand in the foreground are actually volcanic ash.

The view of Volcán Osorno from our campsite in Petrohué. The piles of sand in the foreground are actually volcanic ash.

A different volcano erupted in April, covering the area with over two feet of ash. This is one building that hasn't yet been dug out.

A different volcano erupted in April, covering the area with over two feet of ash. This is one building that hasn’t yet been dug out.

Playing on the beach during a lunch stop at, you guessed it, another lake.

Playing on the beach during a lunch stop at, you guessed it, another lake.

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We crossed into Argentina to explore Bariloche. We didn't like the city much, but we found a great campground on the lake that let us use their kayaks.

We crossed into Argentina to explore Bariloche. We didn’t like the city much, but we found a great campground on the lake that let us use their kayaks.

An ibis at the campground in Bariloche.

An ibis at the campground in Bariloche.

The view of Bariloche from the top of a nearby hill.

The view of Bariloche from the top of a nearby hill.

It's getting warmer as we go North!

It’s getting warmer as we go North!

Relaxing after a tough day traveling.

Relaxing after a tough day traveling.

Not a bad spot to enjoy a cup of joe...

Not a bad spot to enjoy a cup of joe…

The drive north through Argentina's lake district was amazing, with beautiful scenery around every turn.

The drive north through Argentina’s lake district was amazing, with beautiful scenery around every turn.

Another lakeside campsite

Another lakeside campsite

If I had to pick one place to live that we've visited, this would probably be it. San Martín de los Andes, Argentina. It's got lots of hiking, mountain biking, and even a small ski area right out the door. Yes, I know, it looks like it could be in Colorado. Funny how that seems to happen!

If I had to pick one place to live that we’ve visited, this would probably be it. San Martín de los Andes, Argentina. It’s got lots of hiking, mountain biking, and even a small ski area right out the door. Yes, I know, it looks like it could be in Colorado. Funny how that seems to happen!

From San Martín, we found a combination of dirt roads and a ferry across a lake that we could take to re-enter Chile. Here we're waiting at the ferry terminal in Pirihueico.

From San Martín, we found a combination of dirt roads and a ferry across a lake that we could take to re-enter Chile. Here we’re waiting at the ferry terminal in Pirihueico.

Crossing the lake took about an hour and a half.

Crossing the lake took about an hour and a half.

On the other side we were greeted by yet more amazing scenery.

On the other side we were greeted by yet more amazing scenery.

If you haven’t been following along on the Sparks Tracker, take a look at it. The points on the map are almost all places we camped or stayed for the night. If you zoom in on Southern Chile and Argentina, you’ll see that our points are very close together. The conversation goes something like, “Oh, look, we could camp on that lake! Yeah, but it’s only noon. That’s okay, we’ll just hang out here for the day.”

We’ve decided that part of the reason we’re enjoying this part of the journey so much is more than just the natural beauty. We know that our trip is coming to a close (only two weeks before we ship the van back! Yikes!) and we’re trying to savor every minute that we can. It’s going to be cold in Colorado when we get back there in January!