"Sometimes the best way to determine if something is doable is to simply do it!" This post is about the experience of renting a 19 ft. long Sprinter camper van.
I don't know if "campervanning" is a bona-fide word in the English language. However, a campervan (or camper van) is a recognized type of motor home. When I was much younger if someone used the expression "camper van" we thought of the Volkswagon "Vanagon." It was based on the VW "bus."
Today, camper vans come in a variety of shapes and sizes. Some have a pop-up roof, others have fixed roofs including low and high. Some have modified hard roofs and with the Mercedes Sprinter and similar vehicles no modifications may be required to permit free standing interior use.
This post will provide some information about our first campervanning experience. I should add that I had never previously been in an RV or camper van except on a lot or in a showroom!
Why a campervan?
With a view to the future, the question was what would be suitable for a week or two or three? After much deliberation, I concluded we weren't about to learn how to drive a bus. What was interesting was the possibility of travelling in a higher degree of comfort and doing so for short, but frequent periods and with a minimum of restrictions due to vehicle dimensions. There are different ways to do so. However, the concept of taking one's home everywhere seemed attractive. In this way, there would be no need to drop off the camper, explore for a day and then return in the evening for rest. There would be no need to back track to a campground to get the towable or the 5th wheel. As a former ground camper and backpacker, the concept of packing each morning, putting one's belongings on one's back and heading down the trail had been natural. Now it appeared that a motorized alpaca could do this for me.
By summer 2013 we had decided to rent a camper van. I had my goal set on southwest Utah, including Arches, Bryce Canyon, Zion and Canyonlands National Parks. My spouse and I have visited Zion together, but she had never seen the other national parks on this list.
Fall is a great time to visit the area. Temperatures are moderate and it's great to hike in the cool, crisp air of the higher elevations. However, one must be wary of freezing rain. particularly at Bryce Canyon. Several years ago I was caught in just such conditions.
We scheduled the trip to begin mid-October, 2013 and after research we selected an appropriate van rental company.
The selection process was interesting. One burning question we had was "how small a van is too small for comfort?" It seemed a 25 ft. vehicle would satisfy all of our requirements, but with a huge drawback in driveability. Dropping to a vehicle length of 19 to 22 feet seemed a severe compromise. Below 25 feet, out went the small but permanent couch and the larger bath. The kitchen area would be severely reduced and with it preparation area and the size of the refrigerator. There might not be space for a microwave or convection oven. Storage could be very minimal. Nevertheless, to see what was achievable in a small unit we decided on a 19 ft. Sprinter. This compromised interior space and amenities for driveability and fuel economy. Such a selection would certainly press the small size limit and we would be able to evaluate the Bluetec engine, the consequences of such limited interior space and the ride characteristics and handling. A vehicle of these dimensions seemed to be at the minimum on our personal scale. Would storage and amenities be adequate? What about location of appliances as dictated by the vehicle dimensions? We decided that living in such a space for a week would be a good way to find out!
How much interior space did we have? There was sufficient room for a convertible sitting/sleeping/dinette area, storage at eye level, a kitchenette with refrigerator, two-burner stove and a sink. There was additional storage under the sofa/sleeping area and in the kitchenette area. The van included a small bath with marine toilet and shower.
The following is a photo taken during setup, with the rear doors swung wide to provide a clear view of the interior. This provides a good idea of the arrangement and of the height available. You can see doors for access to interior storage. Most storage was available for our use. However, these areas also contained the fresh water tank, inverter, and stored the "shore power" electrical cable and fresh water hose when not in use. Some under sink storage was occupied by the hot water heater. The blue cooler in the photo was used for additional dry goods. During transit we placed it on the floor at the rear of the interior of the vehicle and tied it securely in place. With the bed made up for sleeping the cooler fit easily beneath it.
We used the overhead bins for bedding, clothing and toiletries, etc. Storage cabinets in the center of the vehicle adjacent to the kitchenette contained additional drinking water, boots, backpacks, canned goods, a set of stacking cookware, handi-wipes, paper towels, etc. There were drawers for bowls, plates, cups, flatware, utensils, tape, etc. There was also an overhead space above the driver and passenger seats. We used this for daytime storage of the pillows after stuffing them into large trash bags.
We did not use sleeping bags. That's one of the drawbacks of flying; there is only so much one can pack.
Here's another view of the interior, this one taken from near the front and looking toward the rear. The convertible couch/sleeper is set up for travel and relaxation. We were sorting hardware and taking a final inventory in prep for our first day on the road. Shortly after this photo was taken we drove the van to a nearby supermarket and stocked for the trip.
The Sprinter has a very large sliding side door. This photo was taken at Arches after a very long, early morning hike. It was time for a cup of coffee followed by a hot lunch! The photo provides a good idea of the dimensions of the van.
The orientation was thorough and I took brief notes for such things as proper water valve positions for specific fill activities, electrical systems, etc. Some things were well marked on bulkheads, etc. The camper van was an "all electric" coach with solar panels, coach batteries and inverter, and an electric range top and refrigerator. I'd requested this type of vehicle and we were fortunate one was available. That's not always the case.
We had brought a Leatherman tool, compass, GPS, maps, emergency medical kit, range of layerable clothing, sneakers and hiking boots, sunscreen, etc. We made a stop at a market to pick up groceries and additional supplies for our approximately week long venture.
How the Vehicle Performed
It was a lot of fun. Driving was not a problem for either of us. The Sprinter was easy to maneuver and parked in standard spaces with ease. Of course, for parallel parking one always wants adequate space. We parked in the standard spaces at Zion, Arches, Canyonlands and Bryce Canyon. We also parked on the street in Moab and Springdale.
One thing to keep in mind is the height of the vehicle. We used "12 feet" as a measurement, but it was less than that and we easily avoided any possibility of collisions with low overhangs at gas stations, etc. The dimensions made maneuvering in the National Parks easy. There were larger vehicles queued up at Zion waiting for an escort through the Zion-Mount Carmel Tunnel. That tunnel has height and width restrictions and, according to the National Park Service "If your vehicle is 11”4 (3.4m) tall or taller or 7’10” (2.4 m) wide or wider, including mirrors, awnings, and jacks, you will need a tunnel permit."
Driving on the highways was pleasant. The vehicle we had was quiet and comfortable. We usually stayed in the right lane on highways. No one wants to follow a billboard! However, on the interstates we would travel in the middle lane. At all times we simply kept our speed at that of traffic in our lane and the Sprinter obliged. There are sections of highway that are posted as 80 MPH and we travelled with traffic and sometimes hit that speed. However, our personal preference was to travel below the speed limit. We got nearly 20 MPG from the diesel.. Bear in mind that this was accomplished while driving a range of speeds at elevations varying from 2100 feet to about 9100 feet and for a distance greater than 1,000 miles.
The coach had LED lighting and was comfortable. The inverter permitted the use of electronics, etc. even if we weren't connected to shore power. However, because of the low 25-29F nighttime temperatures we decided we would use the electric heat and so we did connect to shore power each night. The coach electrical systems had one "glich" and we tripped the inverter several times while on shore power. A call to the outfitter gave us a work around and clarified the reset procedure. With this assistance by Sarah we were on our way.
We didn't need the air conditioner. Opening the doors while stationary allowed ample fresh air into the vehicle. Daytime temperatures in the Las Vegas area were about 75F, which was the peak we experienced. In the national parks, at higher elevations the temperatures ranged from the 30s to 60s. At the higher elevations temperatures in the evening and at night were cool to cold. Snow had recently fallen in Bryce Canyon. Because of the variety of conditions at differing altitudes layering of clothing was essential.
Here's a photo of the solar controller, the controls for the inverter and the power distribution panel with the cover off. This was conveniently located at eye level in the kitchenette area:
Additional controls, including switches for lighting and the water pump, a voltmeter and CO detector were on the side of the cabinet:
We flew into Las Vegas and picked up the camper van. We stayed overnight at a nearby RV park as a shakedown opportunity and to get a good night's sleep before heading north.. This provided the means to try out all of the equipment, shore power, water and waste water hookups. If anything went awry, we wanted to be near the outfitter's headquarters. As mentioned, a "glitch" in the electrical system inverter did require a concerned cellphone call. However, that was quickly resolved over the phone and we were ready to proceed.
The stop over also provided an opportunity to purchase groceries, etc. before heading north.
The next day we drove to Zion National Park and spent the night nearby. Temperatures were in the 50s to 60s during the day. However, during our trek nightfall temperatures dipped into the 20s. We definitely needed that space heater at night!
We continued to Bryce Canyon and then to Arches and finally to Canyonlands. We slept in four different locations.
I should add that this trek was planned several months in advance. Unfortunately, the US government shut down at nearly the identical time of our trek. However, we had previously decided that "no matter what" we were going to do this. Our schedules don't permit rapid time shifts. So, we decided we'd spend time at various State Parks. Fortunately, we had reserved several overnight sights and all were outside the National Park system. However, the Governor of Utah intervened and paid the Federal Government about $17 million to open the National Parks. So, by the time we arrived all of the parks in our itinerary were open for business.
Hiking at Bryce Canyon:
Black Dragon Canyon:
Our outfitter was Camper Van North America LLC. They have a number of locations and a lot of information can be found at their website. We had researched several outfitters and we decided to use them and a "Two4theroad" camper van. It was a very good decision. Their website provides additional information as well as phone numbers, vehicle data, etc.
Clicking will open a New Window> Campervan North America LLC