When Northwest Arkansas residents Bill Harris and James Henson bought a few cargo vans to convert into campers in the early months of 2020, their plan was to rent them out to people as a fun side project. Harris’ background is in residential home building and Henson’s is in electrical engineering. They posted pictures of their comprehensively stylish apartment-style van conversions on social media, and it wasn’t long before it became apparent that there was quite a demand for what they were doing.
“We just started getting hit up from all over the place about doing custom builds,” Harris said. So, they transitioned into full-time van building, hired four other mechanically inclined builders and set up shop in west Fayetteville.
While living out of vans has been a movement for quite some time, it’s starting to tap into the mainstream, and the biggest difference is that people want professional, Instagram-ready builds for their #vanlife, as opposed to DIY projects, Harris said. If you look up the hashtag #customvanbuild, you’ll find well over 1,000 photos. The appeal of the van as opposed to campers or RVs is mobility, Harris said. “They still have enough room for all your hobbies, all of your gear. All the vans that we build come with a full list of appliances: refrigerator, stove, sink, solar … so you can get all the basics that you would have in an RV in a much smaller, easier-to-maneuver package.”
Right now the three most commonly used vans for custom build-out projects are the Dodge Ram ProMaster, the Ford Transit and the Mercedes-Benz four-wheel-drive Sprinter. What makes those vans so special for build-outs? For one, unless you stand over 6 feet 2 inches, you’ll be able to stand upright inside. Also, the vans are “basically like a blank canvas,” Harris said. “They’re just blank metal cargo vans. We can deck them out with whatever the customer wants.”
Full custom builds can range anywhere from $25,000 on the low end to up to $75,000 on the higher end, Harris said. Open Road has done about 15 builds thus far, not including several partial builds for customers that didn’t want to tackle the complete build by themselves, Harris said.
One of Open Road Camper Vans’ first clients was a family of five. Matt and Sarah Elder had been dreaming of van life for a long time. Inspired by Foster Huntington’s book, “Home Is Where You Park It,” the Elders originally planned on traveling internationally with their three children, Jackson (6), Maeve (5) and Margot (2), before embarking on a 50-state van adventure. They sold their house in Northwest Arkansas and had reservations to leave the U.S. last April for a year of international travel, but the pandemic put the plan on an indefinite hold. The U.S. banned travel to Europe the same day the Elders’ kids’ passports arrived. So they decided to buy a home on wheels. But nothing’s easy in the time of COVID, and manufacturing shutdowns made finding the Mercedes Sprinter they wanted — the 2500 model weight class with a 170-inch wheelbase — a complicated search. A dealership in Bentonville located one for them in Florida and it was shipped to Northwest Arkansas. It was the only 170-inch four-wheel-drive model the dealership could find in the entire country at the time.
The Elders initially thought they could handle the build-out themselves. They knew what specifications they wanted, and Matt is a residential home builder. Sarah follows other local home builders on Instagram and inquired about some cabinets she liked and thought they could have outsourced, and that’s how she was put in touch with Henson and Harris. Matt and Sarah realized after talking with them that they were “a lot more competent than we were to handle the electrical system and the plumbing and all that, so we just decided to do the whole build with them.”
What kind of specifications would a family of five need for life in an 85-square-foot van?
“We had a huge list, basically a PowerPoint of all the things we needed, but the main thing for me was the safety of the children,” Sarah said. It was for that reason that they opted for the crew van as opposed to the cargo van because it had a factory-installed bench seat that was Department of Transportation-approved “so there weren’t any issues with safety with the car seat hookups,” Sarah said. Also on their list: a sink, kitchen, stove, refrigerator, compost toilet, full shower and bunk beds. Using a switch-operated system called the HappiJac lift, the kids’ bed can be raised all the way to the ceiling during the day. “The lower bed is the bench and table setup, which folds out at night.
“They were great to work with,” Sarah said of Open Road. “We came with a pretty heavy wishlist and we got it all in here.”
Delays sourcing materials kept the Elders from hitting the road until November. After spending some time with family in Northwest Arkansas over the holidays, they spent mid-January through February in Florida visiting Disney World and all the state’s national parks.
One of the perks, aside from seeing new places and terrains every day, Sarah said, is that they’re learning a lot. “The kids are doing the Junior Ranger program at every national park. I’m helping them through the books and it’s very informative,” she said.
One of their favorite national parks they visited: Dry Tortugas, which consists of seven small islands about 70 miles west of Key West and can only be reached by ferry or seaplane.
The van’s four-wheel-drive was put to the test during the snowstorm that hit in February when the Elders were traveling back through Arkansas.
“I had no issues through it. [It’s] probably the best vehicle I’ve driven in snow,” Matt said.
The Elders were hard-pressed to find any tough challenges they’ve faced since taking off in their new home. Parking can be challenging if they’re in a major city. Sometimes they have to look around for diesel fuel. Overall, though, they love the van and van life. They don’t have to hook up to a sewer system to dump waste, they only have to fill up their water tank about once a week and their battery system and solar panels keep them from having to hook into the electrical grid. With an RV, it takes time to hook up or unhook and get everything ready to go, Sarah said. “We can just buckle the kids in car seats and take off. It’s nice to just be able to go wherever you want to go on a whim.”
The hardest part isn’t a technical component, but the lack of privacy, Sarah said. “It’s a lot of togetherness, but that’s good, that’s what we wanted. That’s the reason we’re doing this, so we can spend this time with our children while they’re young.”
“The kids are at the age where we thought we could do the homeschool with the older ones and still travel before they get too caught up in friends or sports or whatever,” Matt said.
The Elders plan on being on this current trip until November (see them dig up shark teeth and climb into lighthouses at eldersaway.com). They’ll come back to Arkansas for the holidays and then hit the road again for another four to six months, Matt said. The goal is to visit every state and national park in the country. “We have the van. We need to use it,” Sarah said.
Mary Mickler’s first job out of nursing school was in the intensive care unit at Washington Regional Medical Center in Fayetteville, where she started just a few months before the pandemic hit. She was there the night the hospital’s ICU was transformed into a COVID unit and worked constantly the next few months, doing night shifts and acquiring a lot of overtime hours. And while the experience of working on the front lines during a novel pandemic was at times “heavy,” she’s grateful for all that she learned. “It made me a better nurse,” she said.
While Mickler was in Fayetteville, she found herself drawn to the professional van conversions she was seeing on Instagram, and “started obsessively researching,” she said.
“I didn’t think I was going to be a travel nurse, honestly,” she said from a grocery store parking lot in Modesto, California, when reached by phone. “I was like, ‘I’m tired of moving, and I’m ready to plant in a place and build deep friendships and just stay put.’ ”
But not a lot of deep friendships were being built during a time of social distancing, and Mickler realized she could be a nurse while being paid to travel. She could work day shifts and visit the other 90% of the country she had yet to see.
While researching, she came across an Open Road rental that was for sale. She liked the price, so she looked them up and was shocked to find that they were located in Fayetteville. “I was stoked because a lot of these van companies were in Utah and California and so far away,” she said. The van she was interested in wasn’t available, but Harris and Henson told her that if she bought a van, they’d build it out for her. She decided on the Dodge Ram ProMaster. It was a little cheaper than the Mercedes Sprinter, she said. Much like the Elders’ experience, finding one wasn’t easy, but Mickler located a van in Bryant and had it delivered to Harris and Henson’s shop. Together they came up with a plan for the 75-square-foot living space. While Open Road executed the build, Mickler continued to work long hours to pay for it.
Mickler’s first contract was in Henderson, Nevada. On off days, she visited national parks like Zion in Utah, Death Valley in California and Valley of Fire in Nevada.
Between her previous contract in Barstow and her current one in Modesto, she spent nearly a month hanging out with a crew of rock climbers in Yosemite Valley.
“We’d all wake up and either go climb rocks or hike all day or spend the night in caves or go to random hidden waterfalls and springs. … That whole experience felt like paradise,” she said. One of Mickler’s reservations about living in a van was not being able to host like she would in a more traditional home space. But her van became the “Yosemite living room” among her new friends. “All my friends show up at my door for coffee [and] breakfast in the morning, we all go climbing in the day and at night we always come back for what we call family dinner. … I wanted to be able to host and do things like that, but I had no idea how much I would actually use this space,” she said.
A nice endorsement for her custom build-out was the long pause when asked about challenges she’s faced on the road. “I’m so low maintenance. It’s just like normal life living in a van,” she said. The van has a toilet, but she has to get creative sometimes to find a place to shower or park for the night. Those things, though, “have always worked out for me whether it’s showering at the hospital or finding a co-worker who I can pay to use their utilities …”
The hardest challenge is finding a hose to fill her 20-gallon water tank. Everything else is self-contained.
“I don’t want to hook something up,” she said.
Mickler has no plans to stop traveling any time soon and sees herself doing this for at least two more years. She wants to visit the Pacific Northwest but not quite yet. “A lot of people say that once travel nurses get up to Washington, they just re-sign contracts and just eventually get a staff job because it’s so great. So I’ve been trying to hold off,” she said.
Harris said that since they did Mickler’s build-out, they’ve had other traveling nurses reach out to them. For those who want to try out van life or go on an adventure, renting is a more affordable option and a good place to start.
“It’s usually a really basic package,” Harris said, “but it kind of gives you a taste of what the possibilities are, and they’re super fun to take out for a weekend.
“One of the things, if you get into it and you buy a cargo van and you outfit it yourself, it’s almost a guarantee, even with all the information that’s out there now, you’re going to … have things that you really like about it and then you’re going to have things that you wish you’d done differently. So it’s nice to start with a basic package, learn how you’re going to use it and then kind of dial it in from there.”