Friday, September 22, 2017

More Thoughts on a Chrysler Minivan Camper

Although I've talked about our future plans (in the previous post) to use the Chrysler minivan as a camper and support vehicle to our main RV, I know there are going to be a lot of "naysayers" out there who just couldn't even consider anything that small under any circumstances. Some wouldn't even consider it for a weekend. So be it. To each his own. But if you do the research on what is out there, you'll find a lot more people with the same idea, and I am not the first one to think of it.

Tear drop trailers have been around since the early part of the 20th century, and people are still in love with them today! Of course, they didn't have minivans back then, but they did figure out other ways to accomplish the same ideas!

A typical tear-drop style camping trailer.

So what is the difference between a tear drop trailer and a minivan, other than the fact that the latter is driven, rather than towed? The camping layout of the majority of them is basically the same... a bed low toward the front, and kitchen facilities at the back under a door that lifts up to provide rain shelter! That describes both of them! The main difference is that you can't get to the kitchen from the inside on most tear-drop trailers!

An excellent use of space with ready-made shelving.

Sure, some of the larger ones like the Tab, have moved the kitchen inside and to the front where there is standing room, but those are also taller than a minivan, or even a normal tear drop trailer. But in a comparable size and height, there's not too much different that you can do and still remain practical.

A typical Tab (brand) tear drop trailer with standing room.

I have seen a few minivan plans that have the bed in the back, and other things stored in the front, but I don't see those as very practical. Sure, you can easily crawl into bed from a rear tent, but all of the eating and cooking stuff would have to be accessed from the side door and/or taken outside totally. In larger, full-size vans where you have more interior space, that works fine. It seems to speak for itself that there aren't very many smaller campers built that way. It just makes more sense to be able to access the kitchen just by raising the lift gate and have full access to meal preparation while standing up! Having the lift gate overhead for rain and sun protection is a great bonus!

Without the sloped back end of a tear drop trailer, the rear kitchen setup in a minivan can be perfectly vertical, rather than "leaning in" over the sleeping area and over the top of foot space on the bed. The bed doesn't have to set on the floor in order to have room to put your feet when laying down. Therefore, you can have a LOT more storage under the bed, and plenty of ways to access that storage.

Since there are no dividers built in on a minivan (which, on a teardrop, also help to strengthen the sidewalls and the design in general) you have everything open and can have access to the rear kitchen from the inside. I wouldn't want to "cook" (with an open flame) in there with a ceiling that low, but you can certainly get into a cooler and fix a sandwich if it's raining outside! You just have to plan for occasional meals with that possibility!

People thinking about a minivan as a camper need to look at it as a big metal tent. If you were camping with a tent, it wouldn't have everything built in, and neither does a minivan, a cargo trailer, a cargo van or anything else! It is an empty shell, to which you can choose your own layout and design as you see fit, rather than just tolerate how some interior designer "thinks" you might want it. And personally, I wouldn't want it any other way! I like to make my own choices, and have the flexibility to make changes as my needs require! I don't want built-in cabinets, dividers and other things in the way!

For those who worry about where to put clothes and linens... what would you do with them if you were tent camping? You'd roll them up and put them in a duffle bag or back pack of some kind. Soft-side bags of all kinds are the mainstay of traveling light. There's plenty of room under the bed, or between the bed and side doors to store the bags. Depending on the depth of the kitchen, there may even be room at the foot of the bed.

I have seen many vans that have made use of cargo nets along the top above the window levels, too. Rather than mount heavy cabinets up there, the very light and flexible netting can hold a lot of extra items that need to have ready access to them. Plus, there is less rattling when going down the road or having things sliding around.

Likewise, pantry items can be stored with the kitchen items, or in tote boxes under the bed or wherever else they may fit. With traveling light, we plan to be on the go a lot more than we would in a gas-hog motorhome, so there's no need to stock a lot of pantry items. We'll probably be passing stores at least twice a week, and will buy only what we need for the length of time we will be parked at camp, especially when it comes to fresh fruits and vegetables.

We have had our share of factory-built campers and RVs, (eight of them, in fact) from a pop-up tent camper to a 40-foot motorhome, and we've made them work, even though the layouts and amenities weren't exactly what we would have wanted if we were designing our own. But think about that for a minute... you are actually paying exorbitant prices for floor plans and systems that you had no hand in designing! And today's RVs have more built-in systems than a house does! Why does anyone need all that, just for running around the country and sightseeing?


If I want to feel "at home", sitting in front of the TV all day in my air conditioning, I'll go buy another piece of real estate and stay there! Getting out and seeing the country isn't about "home life" or taking your entire house with you! It's about getting out (and even "outside") in the world and seeing and doing things! It takes leaving that comfort zone of normal home life to accomplish "experiencing" life!

Some legislators are trying to say that RVs aren't meant to be lived in full-time! I doubt that many of them are RVers, or they wouldn't think that way! If a dwelling allows comfortable living for a couple days or weeks at a time, then why can't it keep doing that for a couple months, for a couple years, or for a couple decades! Nothing has changed except the wear and tear on the RV, which still has to be maintained, but that's no different than a house! No one is forcing an RV owner to stay in inclement weather with their RV (except maybe an employer).

Granted, most are not designed for "cold" weather living... but who in their right mind is going to plan on long term living in a "normal" RV in sub-zero weather? With better insulation and windows, and freeze protection for storage tanks, it is entirely possible, though. Some RV's are now being built with winter in mind, for those who enjoy the winter sports.

We've already camped full-time through a mild winter with temps down to 8 degrees, but we were lucky. That same area has seen temps down to 32 below zero on other years! It could have been much colder! And our RV at that time wasn't built for ANY kind of cold weather! But we made it work! We had plenty of heat, water, and could dump tanks when they needed it. Nothing froze, and nothing broke. The biggest problem was condensation forming on the outer walls where there wasn't enough air circulation. That's where thicker walls with better insulation, and better windows would have helped.

With a minivan camper, we don't plan to travel in extreme weather of any kind. We are completely free of obligations to be anywhere at any specific time, so as the weather changes, we will change locations with it, and drive out of inclement weather of any kind. And we can return to our larger RV whenever we want a break.

Our minivan will be set up with everything we need to live day to day, whether for a weekend getaway, or for several months. If we don't use something at least once a week, it won't be with us! All of our other possessions that we can't part with (or just haven't yet) will remain with our larger RV.

We will have bathroom facilities, including a shower (if none other is available), and we will have plenty of water (including a way to have hot water), cooking appliances, refrigeration (not freezing, although there are ways to get that, too), a place to stand up inside (with the Tail Veil attached), we'll have sufficient power for what we plan to use, heat, and comfortable sleeping for two people. We'll have a table and seating, reclining "bag" chairs, plus the van seats and the couch.

The Tail Veil rear tent with the rain/privacy fly attached.

If our travels do not take us to places (often enough) where we can set up the Tail Veil rear tent or an external shower tent, we can stop at a place that has showers (state parks are very inexpensive) or we can put the bed into couch mode and just kneel on the floor to do a quick "sponge bath" in the van. We'll have a sink, and hot water. And for traveling light, a good supply of wet wipes is a necessity, if for no other reason than to conserve water!

If we figure that most of the time, for just the two of us, we'll probably leave the jack-knife couch in bed mode, it will save having to mess with the couch every day. But we know we have the option to make it into a couch and pull up a middle seat from the floor in case an extra person wants to ride with us for a non-camping excursion (day trip). A fourth person (or even fifth and sixth) can then sit on the couch, if necessary. What more could we want?

With the window screens mounted inside the window frames, and some Lund (?) (brand may change) rain deflectors over the side windows, we can open the side windows slightly even if it's raining outside. If it's not raining, the side door windows go all the way down into the door, and the wing windows can be opened, for a lot of fresh air and breezes. A combination battery/AC "O2Cool" powered fan (which we already have) can circulate air on the inside to prevent condensation buildup if it's cool outside, or to just keep us cool if it's hot outside.

OK, so we've got things pretty well planned for two people... but how about an extra "being". Some may be wondering about our "baby", Angel... our 37-pound snow-white German Spitz. He's not such a baby anymore, as he'll be 11 years old this fall (as near as we can guess). Well... he may be cramped for floor space for playing, but we'll be mostly outside during the day. He likes that better anyway.

At night, he usually kisses us good night and then cuddles for a few minutes until he gets too hot, and then he goes to the foot of the bed for awhile before jumping down to the floor. It's cooler there, but he gets tired of that, too, and may jump back to the foot of the bed several times during the night. In the van, with no floor space, it will be slightly different.

There won't be much room at the foot of the bed, and not much at the door wells, either. He may have to get used to staying at the foot of our bed when we use the privacy curtain behind the front seats. Without that (using the windshield and side window covers instead), he would have easy access to the front seats, or even down in the foot space in front of the passenger seat.

For that reason, we will try to use the windshield "sun shade" and side window sun shades more than the curtain behind the front seats. There's a center console (which we will cover) between the seats that will be about the same height as the bed, so he could easily walk between the seats up front and find a place to lay. He'll be fine... as long as he is close to us! And we couldn't have a better security alarm! (Maybe too good!)

So if you are thinking about buying a tear drop trailer, also consider this... in a tear drop, you wouldn't have that extra space in the cab area as a place to store things at night... like luggage... or a dog! Your head would be against the front wall! Neither would you be able to get to anything in the kitchen, if you had a hankering for a late night snack or cold drink. Neither would you have all that extra storage space under the bed, because the bed would be flat on the floor!

Neither would you be able to do much if someone decided to break into your tow vehicle at night and drive way... with you still in the trailer! Neither can you park a tow vehicle and a trailer in a single parking space. And if you have trouble backing a trailer up, you might as well forget towing one! Besides, towing a trailer on flat land is one thing... but you'd better learn what it's like on steep mountain grades before you decide on a purchase!

One other thing that we have typically done without (only because we have had so much trouble with the larger ones) is a side patio awning. Out of our last two, one wasn't installed right and wouldn't lock properly, and the other one got caught by the wind and ended up on our roof, along with the lower anchors that pulled out of the side wall, and the bent arms! But there may be times we would like some shade without having to resort to the rear tent. If a visitor stops by, the rear tent is barely large enough for two, so an alternative for shade and visiting space would be helpful.

My temporary office in our newly assembled screen room.

Also, since we do a lot of computer work, it is easier to see the screen if we're out of the sun. If we are parked where we can't put out either the rear tent or an awning, we'll just stay in the van to do computer work. We can get shade in the rear Tail Veil tent, but depending on where the sun is, or the best breeze is, it will be nice to have an open awning on a different side of the van, too.

There are many smaller awnings that can be used with a van. I really don't want the bulk or weight of a pop-up canopy. Although companies like Fiamma make smaller RV and van awnings, they aren't as inexpensive as I would like them. However, I have enough mechanical skills and tools that I can take a standard tarp and figure out a way to attach it to the roof rack of the van, and stretch it over a "take-apart" frame that can be stored easily when not being used. That way, we can have a place for entertaining without having to invite people into our kitchen area in the tent at the back of the van, or into our 'bedroom" in the middle of the van.

An example of a simple and inexpensive side awning.

If anything happens to the tarp, it will be easily replaceable, as will the hardware. I plan on using PVC pipe for the frame. One piece can be attached to the roof rack as a tie point for ropes through grommets in the tarp. The other piece will serve the same purpose at the outer end, on upright pieces of PVC for legs. The corners will be strapped/roped to tent stakes in the ground. If center braces are needed, that's easy enough to accomplish, too.

In fact, the Tail Veil will likely see some similar modification, too. Its only support is the lift gate, which only extends out so far, and limits the standing space. With an extra support on the inside, placed a little farther out than the end of the lift gate, some additional head room can be gained, in addition to the ability to close the lift gate with the tent still up. I'll figure all that out next year, after I can get the Tail Veil (still in storage in Arkansas) installed and see what can be done with it.

If we find that the Tail Veil is too limited on space (it's only a 6 x 6 floor space), there are plenty of larger rear tents made especially for minivans, with up to 12 x 12 floor space. And those are self-supporting, too, so that the lift gate can be closed and/or the vehicle can be driven away with the tent left standing by itself. You can't do that with a Tail Veil.

On the other hand, one has to look at setup and tear down time, too. There are pros and cons with either style of rear tent. One has to decide for themselves whether quick and easy beats the need for extra floor space. Since we already own a Tail Veil and rain/privacy fly, we'll use it for now, and see if we are happy with it. One thing is sure, though, neither of them are fun to mess with in the rain, especially if you have to put them away wet and then pull them out again later just to dry out so they don't collect mildew! We'll be watching the weather closely, and try not to use our tents if it's going to rain!

I'll also have more details as time goes on about installing the window screens and curtains, the secondary battery wiring, lighting, the exact setup for the rear kitchen, and much more.

Right now, I still have things in the van that were brought out of our second storage unit here in Florida. Most of it will be sold or given away. Some will go into the trailer for now. Some will get pitched. Once the van is empty again, the first major purchase will be the black leather jack-knife futon couch. The next major purchase will be the secondary battery (Optima, "yellow-top") and wiring. The rest will be mostly small stuff... wiring and hardware items.

The only other major purchase will be a 2-inch receiver hitch, but that can come next fall. At this point, we have no need (or desire) to go anywhere with the existing Haulmark trailer, so it will remain here in the RV Park with the RV. The only thing we will need a receiver hitch for (for next fall) is to be able to rent or buy a small trailer (in Arkansas) to empty out our storage unit and bring it all back to Florida. We can't get rid of stuff if we don't have it with us.


If I buy a trailer, I'll sell it after we get back to Florida. After we deal with that, I still need to get the electric brakes repaired on the Haulmark trailer (I can hear loose parts dragging inside the drums). Then, the only thing we would use the hitch for is a rear swing-away plug-in with a storage pod on it. The minivan camper should be complete with that!

Although this week of September (17th - 24th) remains in the upper 80s and low 90s here in northern Florida, we can see the predicted temps gradually cooling down. We haven't used our air conditioner since the 11th, and prefer to open the windows and get a breeze through the RV. Evenings have been cooling down, too (into the low 70s and upper 60s now), and we get by nicely with a fan.

Our 12 x 12 screen room, almost a little too big.

We also decided to set up our 12 x 12 portable screen room on the 20th, and we find it very comfortable to sit out there in the recliners during the hottest part of the day. I ran a power cord out there, too, so now we can work on our computers, watch some TV, or even use our electric Rival Crock Grill for cooking! We've really missed having grilled foods since we left our real estate!

Sharon and Angel relaxing in our screen room.

It's a little too warm yet in the afternoons to do much traveling with Angel. Also, many areas are still cleaning up from Hurricane Irma. It is nearly two weeks after the event, and some are still without power or even fuel. So for now, we're just going to let things try to get back to normal before we venture very far to do any sightseeing.

Once we know we are safely done with hurricane season, we'll be venturing out a little at a time to do some of the things we intended doing when we left our real estate behind. It will be just day trips until next spring. It may take us that long to get the minivan fully functional as a camper.

Our goal for this winter is to continue selling things off and make room for the changes that are coming, and what we have to bring back from Arkansas. I'll make the screens for the van, while Sharon works on the curtains (provided we have everything we need already here). We'll get the sunshades for the front and side windows, and the rods and curtain we need for the divider behind the front seats in the van.

By next spring, we will purchase the jack-knife futon sofa, and the secondary battery. Since there isn't anything to actually "build" for this minivan camper conversion, we will be done enough to get away next summer in it. Once we get the rear storage pod on the swing-away hitch, we can take a few extra things with us... "if" we find that we need them. We may not. We'll see.

If my plans work out, we should be able to travel northward for next summer, or maybe even to the northeast. We know we have a "home base" in northwest Indiana that we can use anytime, but we don't want to stay there very often, or for very long at a time. We want to see the country! We can return here to Florida after hurricane season and still travel throughout the south during the winter. The RV will give us a break from our travels next fall and some time to socialize with people here in the park in between our shorter winter trips. After April, we can store the RV and trailer here at the RV park and then put it on site again in late September or October as a cost-cutting measure.

At present, it looks like we could be gone from here as early as April, and stay gone "maybe" through October, even though we may have to pay September's space rent in order to hang onto our rate. We'll confirm the details with the office. It just feels a lot safer to leave our RV and trailer here, where we know that there are people to watch over it. Everything will be shut down and batteries disconnected, so there won't be much to watch out for. It just feels right to do it this way.

Other than heading north "somewhere", we have no idea where our travels will take us, other than passing through Arkansas on the way up and the way back. For next year, it might be anywhere from Wisconsin to Canada, and from New England to the Smoky Mountains. After that is anyone's guess. Only time will tell.

Our experience with the minivan camper will give us new things to write about on my other blog at CaravanCamperRV.com and to finish the paid version of my ebook. Both have been sadly neglected while we headed off on a different course of action.


I'm not even sure at this point what next week's post here will be about, but I may write something about finances for this lifestyle. I have enough figures put together over the past 22 months that it may provide some enlightenment and insights into what a newcomer might expect. I will say right now, that it's far more expensive than most of these vanners and other "light travelers" would have you believe! But I'll discuss that next Friday.

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