Our biggest van built mistakes
This is probably one of my favorite articles so far even though I’m really emotional about it and it’s somehow painful to write down the things about your built that went, let’s say… not so incredibly well. But the van life experience is an experiment for us and you learn most from your mistakes. And it also gives you an idea how far we’ve come already. So here are the things that we defined as our main van built mistakes:
The kitchen counter top
The counter top was one of the most important elements of the kitchen to us. We spent weeks, looking for the right material. It should fit our overall style but also be durable enough to withstand the wear and tear from daily kitchen tasks. When we picked the laminated beech wood, we thought we’d found the ideal solution.
We cut out the form, sanded it, waxed it (three times) – everything went perfectly fine and it looked awesome.
After a few weeks traveling, we realized that we chose the wrong material. All the sanding and thorough waxing couldn’t prevent water and moisture from entering the panel. The surface began to swell up and we got more and more indents and cracks. Really annoying when you just want to wipe off the counter and it feels like your rubbing on rough sandpaper.
The counter also changed its form which let the silicon sealing around the sink break, so even more water could enter. Not very pretty and even less functional.
What we should have done:
We should have bought a little piece of the wood beforehand and test it, or rather should have bought a material that is definitely meant to be used for counter tops.
The guest bed
We loved the thought of having the opportunity to host guests (and we actually already had a friend from home over). So we built our table-bench setup in a way that it could be turned into a bed.
It was probably one of the most complicated things we built. Just planning it took for ever and building it even longer. But we did it. One of the benches slides out, the table can be lowered between the benches and we even have an extra piece of table that creates an almost queen sized bed surface. The bench cushions become a perfectly fitting mattress.
So we had our mate over and he used the guest bed. It technically worked. But did we use the slide out option? No. Not stable enough. And it would have taken up way too much room, because we were three people in the van now. We were also extremely worried about the lowered table. It’s the same material as the counter top (yep…), which turned out not to withstand a lot of weight. So we put a tool box and all kinds of books under the table to give it as much support as possible.
We went through all the trouble to end up with a just half decent bed. And what’s even worse, we sacrificed a few things for it that affect us every single day. Inside the bench is very important storage space, but the slide out mechanism takes up quite some room. The slide out door is also not silicon sealed with the floor which makes daily cleaning harder. The cushions could have had more suitable dimensions for sitting at the table, the table itself too. All in all, in works a lot better in theory than practical.
What we should have done:
We, as not so skilled wood workers, should have just skipped the guest bed option. Building a van for the first time is hard enough. I kind of knew this would go wrong in the end. Just carry a hammock or tent for guests or put them up in an AirBnB.
The propane tank
With this one we got really unlucky. Twice. I mean, we could have known better. But would you expect it to be prohibited to take an empty propane tank on a cargo ship, even when the tank of your van is actually filled up to the top with diesel?
But let me start from the beginning. We have a gas stove in our van. It’s the only appliance that runs on propane gas, but an important one. So back in Germany we had the whole setup ready. The propane tank fit perfectly into a metal cage that was built into the van by a previous owner, it was connected to the stove, the setup was easy… happy days.
Last minute, we learned we weren’t allowed to have a propane tank on board, when we shipped the van to the US. We tried to talk to them, but they didn’t care. The answer was no. If we’d brought the tank and they would have found it, the ship would have left without Fritz. That was too much of a risk, so we left our brand new tank behind. Bummer.
Once we arrived in the US, we learned that the standard propane tanks are about 1cm wider than the German tanks… one f****** centimeter… it would just not fit in the cage anymore. Here, the real odyssey began. No store would have any other tank sizes than the complete standard. Eventually we found a (much) smaller tank online. After weeks of traveling, we managed to have it ordered to a friend. Problem solved. Not. Because the stove has a German fitting on the hose, that wouldn’t connect with the tank. A few days later, we found an RV store with incredibly helpful staff. After hours of work and several adaptors we managed to get the whole setup connected. Uff.
So I turned on the gas for the first time and looked for leaks. There was one little leak at the fitting of the stove. „Ok“, I thought. „I’ll tighten it just a tiny bit more, really really careful…“
Yup. I broke off the fitting. A German fitting. Made from some weird aluminum that nobody wanted to weld on. I wanted to cry.
We kept driving, and stopped at numerous stores trying to find a similar fitting. No chance. Not in California, not in Mexico. We were so close to toss the stove. But it was so perfectly fitted for our kitchen and expensive.
We ended up getting the spare part from the manufacturer online and send it to our friend in Germany who came to visit us a few weeks later.
When he arrived with the fitting, everything went fine. The stove worked. It’s not as powerful as we hoped, but we use it every day.
Ah, there also a little oven underneath the stove. We’ve never used it. Not even tried it out. We’re in Mexico. It gets super hot here every single day. Why would you want to bake something? Complete waste of space.
What we should have done:
I’m not sure. I guess there was a fair bit of bad luck involved. I guess next time I’d wait until I arrive in the US to put in a propane tank and stove. But how would you really design your kitchen counter beforehand? Kind of a dilemma.
We wanted to have a „real“ fridge. With a door and enough space to stock up fresh food for a couple of days in warm weather. We knew we’d have to spend a bit of money on something decent. Because we couldn’t blow our budget, we bought our model second hand from eBay. Probably a mistake.
Just when we had the stove eventually working, the fridge started playing up. It would run non-stop, overheat, blow a fuse and then stop working altogether. Great.
There are vanlifers that travel without a fridge. They believe it’s pure luxury – I couldn’t do it. We think it’s essential to have a fridge when you want to travel to remote places for a couple of days and you don’t want live off beans and rice. You also want to refrigerate medicine sometimes. And pulling out an ice cold beer at the end of a very hot day just adds a lot of quality to life.
Our fridge is pretty modern. Everything is plastic, it’s all glued together… a few people took a look at it but everybody is like: „Sorry guys, can’t help you.“
Our solution up to this day is to buy a pack of ice every two days and put it in the bottom of the fridge. It’s not a perfect solution but it does the trick more or less. We still don’t know what our longterm solution is going to be.
What we should have done:
We should have bought something that could be exchanged throughout the journey. These 12V fridges break all the time. We heard that so often now. I guess we should have bought a compressor cooler box instead. It’s by far not as nice, but much easier to find. And driving around with a broken fridge for months is just stupid.
The fuse box
This is a minor one, but still let’s me shake my head regularly. We have two fuse boxes. One is easily accessible, the other one sits behind a panel in the kitchen, crammed into a super narrow space.
When we have a problem with our electric appliances (let’s say the fridge is making problems), I have to take out the trash can, get my toolbox from the back of the van, unscrew the panel and then fiddle around in an awkward position in the tiniest space (and then it’s probably super hot, you sweat like pig, you actually planned to spend your day at the beach, you’re using lots and lots of German swearwords). Once I’m done checking the fuse, I have to put everything back.
What we should have done:
Make the fuse box as accessible as the other one. As simple as that. So why didn’t we? We forgot to plan for it. We originally thought one fuse box would be enough. When we learned we needed to install a second one, we had very limited options where to put it. We just hoped, we wouldn’t need to get to it very often (or never). Well, just have a guess which one the fridge is connected to. That was stupid. Lesson learned.
Some final thoughts on our van built mistakes:
Our mistakes were nerve wrecking at times. But once the problem is there you have to find a solution to it. It won’t go away, it might only get worse. And you usually will fix the situation somehow. It’s all part of the adventure, right!?
We personally think these royal mistakes just suck. 🙂
The adventure happens, when we’re hiking trails, crossing deserts, riding waves. That’s how we want to spend our time. Of course things break over time or need maintenance and that keeps you busy enough. And that’s why we don’t like to do stupid mistakes. Our advice is to really think your van built through. Go into the details and build with care. If possible do some test drives and camp over the weekend to see what you really need. We never got the chance to do that part. That way, you’ll have more time for real adventures!
Experienced some van built mistakes yourself? Tell us about it, so we feel a little less stupid 😀