Van Updates! Small Changes with a Big Impact

Hello everyone! It’s been a busy summer over here. We arrived back in New England in late April for a family wedding and have spent the months since then mostly between Maine and Massachusetts. Over the course of the summer we welcomed a new niece into the world, celebrated a nephew’s 2nd birthday, visited a few friends, and saw Matt’s sister on her first trip stateside since moving to Japan in the early pandemic months. In the middle of all of that we managed to squeeze in a little hiking in Vermont before buckling down to get a few projects done on the van.

This summer is the first time we’ve had the van back here since we moved in. It was our first opportunity to do any significant work to the van, so by the time we got here we had an extensive to-do list. A few things on the list we knew we wanted as we were building it out but opted to hold off on for the sake of getting on the road sooner. Other list items were added based on our experiences living in this space. We didn’t quite make it around to everything, but the things we did do we’re already enjoying tremendously.

First on my list was to finally get into the front doors and see what the state of the insulation was, or if there even was any. I had tried to get the panels off two years ago with no success, but these doors seemed to be one of our biggest causes of heat loss and road noise, so we knew we had to address the issue while we had the chance. Our suspicions were confirmed when I pulled off the first panel to reveal minimal insulation and sound deadening. Lucky for us, we still had a good bit of insulation in storage, and just that morning Matt had found some leftover sound deadening mat.

Within half a day both doors were finished and put back together. Our first test, at least for the road noise, came a few days later when we took the van on the highway. The difference was immediately noticeable. Not only was the road noise significantly reduced, the clarity of sound coming out of the speakers was increased. We had always struggled to listen to podcasts while we drove, but now with the road noise lessened and the higher quality of sound, we had no trouble at all catching every word.

For the first week or so that we were focused on van projects, I largely stayed out of the way. Matt had some electrical projects as well as major work he wanted to get done on the battery pack, so after tackling the cab doors I focused on things I could do in the cab or outside of the van, such as finish sewing a seat back organizer, make an insulated cover for the fridge, sew a few more produce bags, and hang some hooks on the cab ceiling for additional clothes drying space.

None of that is as exciting as the improvements Matt made during that time. Some of his electrical work was somewhat minor updates, like moving a light switch for easier access and hardwiring other lights. The bigger updates though, these feel like pure luxury.

Each of us has one bench to use for our own personal storage, mostly clothes. Until now they were left as one large compartment, which was manageable to some extent, but did require a bit of careful organizing every time we did laundry. They were also difficult to see into. The lights we installed while we were on the road didn’t work well and kept getting knocked off no matter where we put them. Now, thanks to a little scrap wood, new LEDs, and of course, Matt’s time and patience, we have dividers and auto on/off lights!

Still a mess, now I just see it better.

He also installed lights in the space under the bed. These ones are the same LEDs he used in the benches, just on a normal switch. All of these new lights, along with the new light covers he made for the puck lights on the ceiling, have gone a long way in making the van feel more comfortable and usable.

Once it was clear for me to work in the back of the van, I got to work on the other insulation project we let slide during the initial build. Around the back doors there’s a large, empty channel. We left it exposed thinking maybe we would want to run wiring through there. Nearly two years later and that still hasn’t been necessary, so it was time to finally close it up and get rid of this eyesore and major cause of heat loss.

After filling the channel with insulation, I covered it with some leftover material we had on hand from when we built the gear shelf above cab. So far it seems to be holding up just fine. We haven’t put the additional insulation to the test yet, but it is noticeably quieter in the back of the van when it rains, so I’m taking that as a good sign.

Since any electrical work in the van falls to Matt and there was a lot of that on our to-do list, my bigger project besides the insulation was to build a new shelf for the kitchen. We moved into the van without any storage on the wall in that part of the van. Early on we threw a basket up there on some cup hooks and then added a few more last winter, but we always planned to install something better as soon as we were able to do real construction again. I settled on building a shelf, thinking it would be simpler than a cabinet and was therefore more likely to come out looking ok. Using some leftover wood from the van build and a dried, treated birch branch, I made this shelf that might just be my new favorite thing in here.

Another thing that had been on our to-do list for the past two years was putting more permanent bug nets on the doors. For the most part, holding off on these wasn’t too bad. Most of our traveling has been following the shoulder seasons when bugs aren’t as bad. However, with the places we’d like to explore next we knew it was finally time for a better solution than the sheer curtains we’d been using. Initially we thought we’d make our own custom screen doors, but in the end we went with purchasing two standard ones and modifying them to fit our doors.

We’ve been back in the van for a few weeks now in Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, and now New York, and have thoroughly enjoyed being able to leave the van wide open and to come and go as we please without letting in too many mosquitos. These doors are definitely an upgrade from our previous system.

All of these updates, some fresh paint in a few places, and the deep cleaning renewed our excitement to get back out on the road. We’re currently in the Adirondack High Peaks Region, taking our time driving across the northern states before temps drop and we have to head south. Although we’re both focusing on working for the foreseeable future, I’m sure we’ll stumble upon plenty of small adventures along the way.

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