This post originally appeared in Tiny House, Tiny Footprint.
In summer 2012, Dane & Penny began discussing the idea of exploring North and South America, but they didn't have an adventure mobile to get them there. Even more important was finding a vehicle that they could live in during their travels.
It takes a lot of research and planning to pick a rig and design their interior space of 45 square feet. This is Dane's story of why they picked a Mitsubishi Delica and how they converted it into a tiny house.
However, the prospect of designing a tiny space to share with another person, and then adding in everything we would need for a year and knowing we would travel through all types of weather...well, it didn’t feel so easy. We had never traveled in a campervan or designed one, but we knew living in a poorly-organized space could be the death of some otherwise beautiful moments.
In the beginning, we thought we would go for a few weeks, then maybe a couple months, and now we anticipate exploring for about a year. So, we set aside a year from our careers and are in the middle of a road trip, traveling from Vancouver, Canada to Ushuaia, Argentina.
We wanted a van that we could convert into a tiny rolling home, and naturally we considered the classic Volkswagons and the super spacious—yet extremely thirsty—Ford and Chevy campers. But we decided we wanted a Mitsubishi Delica, a 4WD passenger van with about the same amount of interior space as those classic Westies.
I spent hours researching the various models to determine the best one. Then I put my logistical skills and connections to work and imported it from Japan where—at auction—they can be found for a steal.
While our home-to-be shipped across the open seas, Penny was busy sketching possible layouts and praying that we hadn’t spent our savings on a lemon. In such a tiny footprint, there were still so many potential layouts. We spent an unbelievable amount of wine-filled nights researching what we would need to bring on the trip so that we could determine where and how it would then fit in the van, and the best use of our tiny space. It was well worth it. When designing our tiny home, we found this process invaluable (albeit arduous).
After many weeks reviewing possible layouts, we finally had a plan for all 45 square feet. Inside, we could see cabinets along one side that would hold our wardrobe, a kitchen supply cupboard, refrigerator, counter, a sink with top cabinets and a utility closet access at the back. We also wanted a “rock’n’roll” bed, which provides seating during the day and a bed by night with additional storage underneath at the back and a drawer storage pantry at the front. To bring it all together, we wanted a swiveling front passenger seat. Then, a camp-style kitchen with packable table and chairs to enjoy the great outdoors with an awning for shade above.
When our van finally arrived on Canadian soil, it had seven seats and a sketchy body roll. Penny was quick to measure the interior while I got busy making sure it met Canadian road-safety standards. With the exact dimensions of all windows, doors and skylights, Penny drafted the plans in AutoCAD and began sourcing the best refrigerator, sink, faucet, etc. These things were surprisingly hard to find and do. Insert many more wine-filled nights.
During this time, summer was quickly approaching and the van had just become street legal, so we couldn’t wait any longer to get it and go exploring. We removed the interior seats, ripped out the existing carpet and underlay in the back and carefully removed the interior paneling and electronics where the cabinets would be installed. We set aside everything we thought we might reuse, including one of the swiveling passenger chairs. These are worth their weight in gold in any camper.
Over the next several weeks and months, we spent weekends camping in our gutted van while we saved our pennies. As summer slipped away, we got busy ordering the appliances, fixtures and finishes Penny had thoughtfully selected. We replaced the front passenger seat for a swivel chair, bolting it into the frame of the van. Then, we began insulating the flooring and the walls as much as possible using a combination of spray, fiberglass and foil-backed insulation. We put down two sheets of plywood (cut to fit our interior footprint) and began installing click-together resilient flooring. Since we had the swivel chair rails protruding into our living space, we carefully selected materials that would let our finished floor be flush with the rails.
Each step took much longer than we had estimated. Weeknights and weekends slipped away as the temperature outside dropped. We piled on extra layers, made another pot of coffee and kept going. We argued, we laughed and at least one of us cried.
As we designed and fabricated our custom rock’n’roll bed and lockbox, a millwork company Penny often worked with built the cabinets she had spent many hours detailing. The van was finally beginning to come together.
I continued upgrading the van to make it ready for overland adventures by adding an awning, sport box, exterior lighting, snorkel and suspension lift. My brothers joined in. One helped install a new timing belt and water pump while the other helped install a solar-powered electrical system. The new system allows us to go camping with some modern luxuries (i.e., a fan for those hot nights, a fridge to keep food and drinks cold and outdoor lighting to enjoy the view well into the night).
To get the right solar setup, it took some careful calculations to figure out the amount of energy used from all of the electronic devices connected to the auxiliary battery. Do your homework, it will be worth it in the long run. With this information, you can be confident in your choice of deep cycle battery where amp hours is the most important factor. From there, you can choose the appropriate sized solar panel to charge your battery. However, a bigger panel is better. It’s not uncommon to have overcast days where you’re only operating at 30%. We’ve also invested in a charger to fully top up the battery every once in awhile to extend its life.
Within a week of our planned departure date, it all came together. The cabinets were installed, the rock’n’roll bed was bolted in and the plumbing was connected. Everything was tested and in working condition.
With haste and with no trial run, we threw in all our belongings and hit the road. We spent the next several weeks purging the things we found that we didn’t need and adjusting to life on the road.
Fast forward six months. We’ve been busy exploring the many mountains, beaches, volcanoes and colonial cities that North and Central America hold and are now preparing to ship our little “casa rolante” to Cartagena, Colombia. It has been amazing, but navigating our way here hasn’t been all been easy. Thankfully, we’ve been lucky and have had mostly minor tweaks here and there. We've had to fix small plumbing leaks, fine-tune the solar system and tighten bolts. Despite the fact we replaced a pile of parts before leaving, the van still demanded a new radiator. After all the speed bumps in Mexico, we shipped in airbags and rear control arms for the rear suspension. I am pretty handy, so I've done most of the work either in parking lots or campsites with a set of tools and parts I meticulously packed before leaving. That leaves us with more money in our pockets to enjoy the road.
So, what do we really love about our tiny house? There is almost no place we can’t explore. That gives us freedom and confidence while we’re driving down those dusty dirt roads in 4WD. We're able to search for a remote paradise or wind our way through extremely narrow colonial city streets while we look for a little social interaction. Our swivel chair and rock’n’roll bed give us an indoor living area, while our outdoor lighting and awning extend our living space outdoors.
Waking up to wildlife and a new view each day is incredible. Is there anything worth complaining about?
In the beginning, we found it onerous to put away the bed each morning in order to access our fridge and kitchen supplies. And it was tedious to set up the awning and kitchen table outdoors and then to put it all away again in the evening. But, this was all part of adjusting to life on the road. While designing our space, we recognized we wouldn’t always want to cook indoors because of the smells, heat and kneeling. We saved costs and space by purchasing a camp stove instead of installing a cooktop in the van.
Sometimes we wish we could leave our bed undone and crawl back in later in the day, or stand up inside or have our own toilet. But we can go more places on less fuel and enjoy the outdoors better with the setup we already have. What it really comes down to when choosing the right van or expedition vehicle is priorities. It comes back to that list you made in the beginning of what you want to do, the things you want to see and the items you want to bring.