Vanlife

Turning a VW T5 into an Adventure Sports Camper Part 3 – External Modifications

When I began Live2Flow it became clear I would need a strong four wheeled companion to support me.  It needed to have the capacity to shift a stack of multisport gear, carry me and a number of clients in comfort and ideally also act as my mobile home.  Oh, and I also wanted car like performance, decent fuel economy, good reliability levels and, in a perfect world, something that I would be proud to be seen at the wheel of.  In short, I needed a custom VW T5.

I’m now on the second iteration of the vehicle I affectionately refer to as ‘The Dub’ and wherever I travel people express an interest in how I have adapted the van to my purposes.  Each van was bought as a straightforward VW T5 Panel Van and each custom converted, but now that I am on MkII I have been able to make a few adjustments to the set up based on lessons learnt from MkI and feel that I now have a truly versatile Adventure Sports Camper almost perfect for my needs.

Over three consecutive blogs I will lay out my thoughts on first choosing the right van, then making internal modifications and finally looking at the exterior changes.

PART THREE: EXTERIOR

Looking Good…  

Each van I’ve bought already had colour coded bumpers and grill giving them the look of personal vehicles rather than fleet vans.  Both Dubs have benefitted from tinted side and rear windows, ideal for the camper conversion, and I’ve used the same set of 18” alloy wheels on both vans to complete the personal look.

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Otherwise I stopped short of making any radical appearance changes.  I occasionally get carried away when I see other people’s ‘pimped’ vans but I then have a quiet word with myself when I started looking at LED lights and lowering!!!

Kayak Carrying

One of the advantages of the van is that the kayaks don’t have to go on the roof but when I am carrying more than two boats/two people or need to live inside the van whilst carrying a boat the roof is the only option.  I’ve worked with two systems, both of which have their merits, and I’ll look at both below…

Thule System  I’ve always trusted Thule bars so initially went with their locking system bars spaced well apart then after a little experimentation decided I needed some form of cradle too.  You see, I am no giant at only 5’9” and can barely reach the roof of the Dub.  Without any form of cradle I had to use a stool (which I affectionately titled ‘the stool of shame’!) to get a kayak on to the roof bars.  However, with the Thule Hull-a-Port Pro cradles (terrible name…) I was able to load a boat more quickly, even a large plastic sea kayak, on the passenger side, solo and without recourse to the stool.  It was reliant on me being able to lift the kayak above my head, so was quite a physical loading experience (more on this later…) and on the driver’s side it was even trickier and the stool was often needed.  But with both cradles folding flat and still space for two boats in between them (in extremis) it was a good, cheap solution and, as an aside to van specific comments, I would recommend the cradles to anybody who struggles to get their boat onto a car roof.

Karitek System   Let’s get the biggest drawbacks of the Karitek system out of the way to start with; it is expensive and a bit ugly – function over aesthetics…  That aside, it offers lots of advantages over my previous Thule System;  I can load 4 boats with no problems, I don’t have to lift the boats over my head, there is much less chance of damaging the van or boats and the overall physical strain of loading the boats is massively reduced.  It also literally makes people stop and stare and starts a lot of conversations!!!  I can configure mine to carry 4 kayaks or 2 kayaks and up to 3 SUPs, and it can be partially removed when not in use.   I can fully load the rack alone, and only need assistance to raise the rack onto the roof when there are more than 3 boats.  It has been a game changer that has increased the carrying capacity of the van to 5 people and 5 kayaks (4 on the roof, one inside).

Bike Carrying

The other key requirement was to carry a number of bikes, ideally without any dismantling.  The roof space was not available and impractical anyway.  Although I still may fit a towbar to the van, if I do so I would not want it to be there for either a trailer or bike rack; it would be fitted to allow me to have both.  So, I looked at a range of tailgate bike rack options and settled on the Atera Linea Bike Carrier as a good compromise between some cheaper racks of questionable build quality and the VW rack which was much costlier and had a few features I didn’t like.  Although the Atera Linea has the capacity to carry three bikes, I choose to avoid any potential to do damage when packing them close together. For this reason I generally run with the middle rail removed so the rack holds two bikes firmly and well separated.  After years of service it is in great condition, performs flawlessly and I would highly recommend it.

There were other factors and complications to consider when transporting bikes.

Firstly, when the bike rack was loaded the rear gas struts were unable to take the weight of the tailgate making the rear difficult to access and preventing the use of the tailgate as a shelter. Investing just £70 to have the VW California gas struts fitted to the van solved this problem. Designed to a much higher load rate, these stronger struts will now firmly hold the tailgate aloft, even with the rack fully loaded with MTBs – very impressive and possibly my most cost effective upgrade!!

The other issue is one of security as bikes on display on the rear of the van are a temptation. My solution has been to take advantage of the racks integrated locking system but then backing that up with a heavy weight cable through wheels and frame to the body of the rack. This withstood attack in a car park where the extra security measures were the key factor that stopped my bike becoming somebody else’s toy.  Sadly I once forgot to use an extra cable lock and on that occasion a bike was stolen. It is worth saying that I still keep the bikes inside the van if it is to be left unattended whenever it is practical to do so…

Taking Shelter…

I was very late to the awning scene and my experience hasn’t been entirely positive. As a sun shade it is superb and in light winds and/or light rain it provides welcome shelter; it can be the difference between pleasant ventilation and a damp, closed down van. It is also great for marking your territory in a campsite, stopping others getting too close! The problems come in higher winds or heavy rain where, my experience and that of another van owner, is that the awnings break quite easily if left fully out. So although having protection for the door is welcome, allowing you to leave it open during fairly heavy rain, you have to balance this against risk to the awning itself. I now try and leave the awning only partially extended whenever the forecast is for rain or winds, especially overnight.

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Awning marks your territory!!!

 

I hope you have found these blogs useful. If you have any questions about the changes made to the Dub please use the comments section below to get in touch and I will be happy to help.

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7 thoughts on “Turning a VW T5 into an Adventure Sports Camper Part 3 – External Modifications”

  1. I also had a bad experience this September in Croatia when I left my awning out all night (the first time in 25 years) and we had a terrific storm with torrential rain I looked out at 3 am and although I had sloped the awning it had filled up with water and was sitting on our table. Luckily the material had stretched and no long term damage was caused but lesson learned.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. The arm on mine snapped in Bosnia in a heavy storm when I had left it out with a good slope and the legs pegged down. It wasn’t pleasant to head out into the thunder and lightning in the pitch black to try and retract a broken awning, I was soaked to the skin! A friends snapped in the same place on a different trip in Slovenia, this time just in heavy rain. Tough call to make but now I only ever leave it partially extended, ideally with just to provide enough shelter to have the window open…

      Like

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