The great outdoors

Having spent the best part of a year building our campervan in preparation for lots of mini-breaks in the great outdoors, a thought suddenly occurred to me: I hope we do actually like the great outdoors. In 13 years together, our experience of campsites has extended to one short holiday travelling around New Zealand a few years ago – a campervan trip we enjoyed so much it encouraged us to build our own.

Limited experience of ‘the outdoors’ (in NZ)

The main reason we’ve never truly embraced this quintessentially Australian lifestyle is probably due to a complete LOVE of hotels. Whether it’s a city centre spa nestled in a quirky cultural quarter, a boutique B&B perched on a clifftop, or, quite frankly, a Holiday Inn on the M1, if there’s ever a chance for a weekend away, you can put our names down.

It’s such a treat staying in a hotel; a real feeling of escapism. I love the sense of anticipation when you first pull back the curtains and peak at the view. The excitement when you prise open the mini-bar and involuntarily gasp at the price of the Pringles. The thrill when they replace all your toiletries the next morning (when actually you’ve just stashed the first lot in your washbag). The indulgence of hanging the ‘do not disturb’ sign on the door, just because you can. (Much to my sister’s embarrassment when I was sharing a room with her.)

While room service and complimentary smellies might be harder to come by at a campsite, it’s the sense of freedom we’re hoping to capture in the campervan. The chance to escape after work on Friday, put a pin in the map and then just rock on up to somewhere new – particularly somewhere with a beautiful view. (Of course the fact we’ll be able to open the fridge when we get there and not have to pay for Pringles is an added bonus.)

And having devoured every episode of Bear Grylls in recent years, I feel we’re fairly well equipped to deal with anything nature might throw at us. I will be quite content to sit under our awning and twirl a twig for three hours to produce a spark for our stove. And if ever a cold front moves in and we get caught in a storm, I will be instructing Paul to immediately strip off all his clothes and perform 20 star jumps naked to get his (and everyone else’s) heart pumping.

<I won’t be inserting an appropriate picture here.>

Anyway despite these useful skills, for all intents and purposes, we are definitely camping novices. So we thought we should conduct a trial run before our van is finished, just to brush up on our camping etiquette and basically check that after 12 months’ work, our enthusiasm for an outdoors mini-break is still intact.

The opportunity arose a few weeks ago when we visited some friends in Mackay, 1000km north of Brisbane. We decided to break with tradition and, after spending one night in ‘a nice hotel’, we checked into the Cape Hillsborough Nature Resort for the next night. I’ll do a quick review of the campsite and our experience in the next blog post – not that it particularly warrants the added suspense, but from a ‘technical perspective’ I can separate it out from blog posts about the campervan conversion.

Thankfully though, we had a great time. And suffice it to say, star jumps are so last year.

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Raising the roof

Early on in our diy campervan project, Paul removed the back panel of the internal ceiling so he could install the wiring. (The front panel stretched right down to the windscreen and housed all the air conditioning, so he left this intact.) Removing the ceiling afforded us an extra 10cm head height in the main part of the van, which has been useful with Paul working in there every weekend, and which we’re now reluctant to lose! So instead of replacing the original ceiling, Paul’s created a new one out of panels of flexible hard board.

This shows the original ceiling at the front and the extra head height we can gain at the back:

Once all the ceiling was insulated (using flooring insulation as above), the hard board panels could go up. It was quite a long process involving a lot of measuring and sawing, before each panel was screwed into the van framework with metal screws.

In the bathroom we’ve extended the ceiling down to block out the two side windows (it seemed a bit of a shame to lose the extra light, but the alternative was making two more curtains. Hmmmm.)

The original ceiling is covered with a pale grey type of carpet, which we couldn’t match exactly so we’ve gone for a two-tone look with a darker grey carpet matting from Clark Rubber.

It was really fiddly cutting the carpet template exactly to size and fitting it in place – made harder by the fact that the adhesive (Selleys Kwik Grip spray) was brilliantly sticky and stuck fast the instant it attached to something.

The wiring for each hole was fed through the board and the carpet, then the light fitting screwed on top.

The final job is to bridge the 10cm gap between the front panel and back panel.

It’s great having the tiny bit of extra room, and we’ve realised we don’t even have to stoop over any more, if we just bend our knees into a slight squat we can stand up to full height – a quick and simple way to combine a bit of added exercise with excellent health & safety practice.

White light district

Timing is everything. As I stumbled in late from work the other day, Paul called out, ‘Great timing, I’m just ordering the lights for the campervan. For the entrance, I was thinking red would look good, to match the cabinets?’

Thank Crunchie I sneaked through that last set of traffic lights on amber.

‘Or blue, to match the curtains?’ he asked hopefully.

And breathe.

‘Red to match the cabinets or blue to match the curtains?!’, I may have shrieked, while having visions of pulling up at our first campsite under the disapproving gaze of seasoned caravanners curiously trying to work out whether we’re a fifth emergency service or mobile brothel.

Now usually of course, the key in all successful partnerships – be they in life or in campervans – is to compromise. On other occasions, one exasperated shriek is all it takes. Without further ado (and in the rather fortunate absence of a purple lighting option) we ordered white lights. The surfer-chic dream is still alive.

The ceiling lights are very cool. You operate each one individually just by tapping it – once to switch it on, another to dim it and a third to turn it off. It’ll come in very handy when we want to create our own mood zones in different areas of the van, although until I finish the curtains, romantic and atmospheric will have to be the default as the full beam is visible for miles around.

On the subject of curtains, well some familiar obstacles have surfaced – namely my uncooperative sewing machine and complete lack of sewing ability. Oh to have some more cushions to tackle – they were a DODDLE in comparison.

Post edited to add: if any of my fellow campervan diy-ers are still persisting with this blog in the hope of finding some useful tips (firstly, well done), we bought the lights from www.qled.com.au. They do a huge range of styles and colours. Each ceiling light is wired into the 12v battery via the main control panel, and the entrance lights are operated by their own retro switch – just to the left in the photo.

A breath of fresh air

When we first started building the campervan, a popular discussion was whether to install a pop-up roof to give us some extra head height inside. Actually, I’m not sure it ever really evolved into a discussion as such, it was more a case of:

Me: Please can we have a pop-up roof?

Paul: I’m afraid not.

It would have been a huge and expensive job to raise the roof, and seeing as we’re never going to spend a lot of time meandering from one end to the other, it’s been the right decision.

Yesterday though, we did enjoy a brief taste of vertical freedom, and were momentarily permitted to uncurl ourselves out of a nicely perfected stoop and stretch out to full height.

Admittedly it was a bit restrictive, and we couldn’t move our head for fear of being garotted but it was exciting nonetheless.

The hole is for our ceiling ventilation fan, which will provide a welcome through-draft during the summer months. Our fan is a Fiamma Turbo Vent P3.

So, how to install it:

  • Measure out a cardboard template to make absolutely sure the hole you’re about to cut in the roof of your van is the right size.
  • Draw around the template on the inside ceiling, and cut a 50mm diameter hole in each corner with a hole saw:

  • Using tin snips, cut out the rest of the hole according to the template.

  • Position the fan in place on top of the roof.
  • Drill 20 holes, 5 down each side, through the frame of the fan into the roof. Remove the fan.
  • Rust proof all the cut edges and exposed metal around the hole with a heavy duty primer.
  • Squeeze plenty of silicon around the edge of the frame and around the hole itself – we hopefully used enough to withstand a Queensland summer storm.

  • Place the fan in position on the roof with the hinge at the front (to stop it flying off when you’re whizzing along) and use stainless steel bolts to fix it in place.

At this stage Paul was on top of the roof screwing the bolts down while I was inside holding them from underneath, and trying to dodge the long drips of silicon that squirted through every time he put a screw in. (I can attest to its waterproof qualities though, it is still adorning my hair three showers later).

  • Wire the fan into the 12v circuit via the master switch.

You turn the handle to open up the roof, then switch it on. Ours provides an amazing breeze and should cool the campervan down pretty quickly. It does sound like we’re about to take off if we turn it up very high, so it’ll be interesting to see if we can use it at night.

As the pictures above show, Paul has now also insulated the ceiling using the remainder of the flooring insulation, so thankfully our hair no longer starts to sizzle when we bump into the metal ceiling. Next stage is the lighting!

Plumbed in and ready to go

After the overindulgence last week of filling both sinks to the brim to test the campervan’s plumbing system, came the inevitable morning-after headache when we tried to empty them. The main problem has been finding fittings to connect the various flexible pipes to their respective tanks. But, with a bit of wrestling and a lot of silicon, everything seems to be secure and the cabinets have stayed dry! The only unexpected outcome is when we empty out the bathroom sink, the kitchen sink fills up:

Apparently it’s because our driveway slopes downwards, although I may keep it up my sleeve as a last-ditch party trick if we ever end up at a particularly sociable campsite.

This is the waste water tank, secured into place with some luggage straps.

The main grey hose leads into the tank from the two sinks, and we can empty it out via the blue tap at the bottom, which leads to an outlet with a normal hose connection:

We fill the cold fresh water tank up from the inlet pipe:

The pipe was a bit too wide to fit through the standard inlet connection, so Paul heated the end in boiling water until it was soft and pliable enough to fit. When the pipe cooled, it expanded back to its previous size and filled the hole nicely.

From there, it runs around the back of the waste water tank and into the fresh water tank:

The vertical pipe is a ventilation hose, which exits just to the left of the inlet hole (see above), and the metal bracket at the front holds the tank in place.

The real test for the whole plumbing system will come when we’re bumping along one of Queensland’s finest outback roads with a full water tank; it may be prudent to fill our limited storage space with more emergency mops than emergency cardigans for our first few trips.

Campervan cushions – and then there were five!

Hurrah! We finally have a full complement of cushions. Here in the seating configuration:

I had to step down the height of the backrests slightly so they would still fit side-by-side in the bed configuration:

I still need to adjust the padding on some of them but they’re almost there. Step-by-step instructions to follow shortly!

Who knew making a wooden seat could be so complicated?

Well ours has been very complicated, but having spent the last couple of weekends playing with hinges and bolts and sliding locks, Paul has now fixed and secured all the campervan seating. Let’s hope we’ve finally seen the last of the comedy seesaw moments.

The seats needed a bit of adjusting from their original position to allow for a 28mm overhang all around to protect the cupboard doors underneath. Once the seating panels were all screwed down, Paul turned his attention to the backrests.

Because the engine is underneath the driver/passenger seats, we had to hinge the backrest behind the cab to allow the front seats to still lift up and provide access to the engine.

And because the backrest doesn’t lean up against anything, Paul also fixed a small arm hinge at the side and a sliding lock at the back to strengthen it when it’s in the upright position.

The other backrest also had to have a sliding lock behind it to stop it falling forward. It’s this backrest which pulls over to form the bed support, and it’s really quite heavy to lift. To make this job a bit easier, I did attempt to fashion a handle out of a few scraps of gingham I had lying around (as you do). Unfortunately though, while clearly very beautiful, my handle was not up to the job and suffered major structural failure on its first outing. We might just buy a metal one from Bunnings.

The final stage in the seating was to make a trap door (with fully functioning custom-made handle) above the battery compartment to give easy access to all the electrics.

Here’s the bedding configuration:

The kitchen work surfaces are also now secure, having been screwed down to the cabinet shell underneath with small right angle brackets. Paul fitted a gloss white side panel onto the cabinet containing the fridge, and added a water indicator, which will link to the fresh and wastewater tanks.

Then on the outside of the van behind the fridge cabinet he fitted an air vent:

We also saw the first splash of red above the fridge:

So the seating is completely finished. Stay tuned for phase one of the plumbing!