Our Vehicle: the decision, process and modifications
The mode of transportation for this trek has always been driving. That was the easy decision. The what we would be driving was quite a process.
Marie's trusty 4Runner, Babe, has always been the backup, the it-would-definitely-make-it vehicle. We picked out a design for interior storage and a sleeping platform. That's as far as that idea went. Then we purchased a Roost roof top tent. Although the tent was a good option, Eric isn't a small person and couldn't stomach the idea of putting his pants on outside or horizontally for the entire trip.
After this realization, Eric could not keep his craigslist searching at bay and, long story short, this led to a flat out trade, engineering work for a running (sort of) 1972 VW Van. The owner Ron was as much a hippy soul as the vehicle. The model was a rare hard top. The headroom really caught Eric's eye. However, the idea of the bus was much more enjoyable than the actual ride. After at least three little miss sunshine style push starts, not kidding, we decided it was time to find something that would actually get us from A to B, let alone through Mexico.
In the end we ended up with the 1982 Toyota Chinook camper, Pedro. We know this thing is simple and still smells like my grandmothers basement with the right gust of wind, but with an engine that won't quit and enough headroom for Eric with the top popped, it's a dream.
Please see below for the actual mechanical details, modifications and photo evidence of our new home!
The bones… When we first got Pedro, it was almost completely original. In one way, that was fine. Good to have the original layout, wiring and plumbing for ideas. But, the old wood, bed, old inverter, plumbing and mostly the smell had to go.
So, the first step was gutting Pedro. Marie and I spent a weekend pulling everything out. We left the closets and some wiring, but the entire back went away. Luckily a local guy also had a chinook and wanted some of our parts, so little pieces of Pedro have been recycled.
The Bed... First step in the rebuild was the bed. With some inspiration from this website -
And some help from our good friend Jeremy, we built a bed that can be lifted to store items underneath, and can slide to create our bed-couch. The final touch came later when another friend Travis made our actual mattress. See the shout out post to our "seamstress". The old bed was flimsy and everything had to be taken off the bed to go from couch to bed mode. So, although we are still working out kinks, the bed functions like we hoped.
The electrical system... This one took a little more time and research. It can certainly be done easier, but I can’t imagine a more cost-effective setup. Admittedly I have a small craigslist addiction, so of course I found my solar panel on craigslist, but panels are surprisingly affordable these days. I’m getting ahead of myself. The first step was actually the plan. We knew we wanted to utilize solar if possible. It is a free, very cool resource and we hope to see plenty of sun. We also knew that we will be doing plenty of driving, so if it was possible I thought it would be nice to charge our second battery from the alternator too.
So, I got to work figuring out a plan. First we needed to decide what would use power. We decided we wanted a fridge. That is easily a post in itself, but we settled on a Dometic cooler style fridge. We also wanted a few lights. LED lights take next to no power, but we will use them freely. We also decided on a small inverter to have normal U.S. 110V power in Pedro. I went with true sine wave because it will be used mainly to charge a computer or phones. I’m no expert, but for a little more money, it will produce a more accurate sine wave for AC power. All that to say - we wanted to have some normal house style AC plugs. Finally we wanted some running water. The plumbing system info is below, but the water pump will use some power.
Long story short, I figured we could use a 70 amp hour battery and have a few days of house power without having to start Pedro. Worst case, we can go for a quick drive and power back up. With a battery chosen, I also figured that 100 Watt solar panel would provide a good charge amount and would fit on Pedro’s roof. (I’m happy to explain the thoughts and calculations for the battery and panel. Just email or message me and I can provide more detail.)
So, I had a craigslist 100 watt solar panel, and a sealed 70 amp hour 12 Volt deep cycle battery. I was still working on how to provide a safe charge from the panel and hopefully the alternator. I searched around, and there are ways to make that possible with solenoids, or switches, or I found a few marine chargers that generally do what I was thinking. Then, I found this gem - The CTEK dual charge controller does what I was looking for, all in one package.
To fast forward a little bit, I had a charge controller, a solar panel and a new battery. From there, and with help from my brother and dad, we connected the alternator (while still keeping the main car battery isolated) and the solar panel (which we put on the roof) to the “house” battery. From there I bought what I call my breaker box, even though it is just a simple fuse box. The lights are one on fuse, the fridge on one, the water pump on one, a CO alarm on another and the inverter on one. We have one extra. Maybe I can use the for our future flux capacitor… But that will require 1.21 gigawatts…
The water… We decided we wanted to have running water to wash dishes, or to wash our hands or face. We also wanted a shower of some kind. We found a 9 gallon tank that fit well. 9 gallons is great for dishes and washing hands, but will go quickly with a shower. So, I added a few valves and created the ability to pull water from a bucket, or from a stream. So, if we want a “long” shower, we can fill a bucket, let it sit in the sun, and shower from there, all using a pump to create a push button shower. Or, in a pinch, we can shower quickly from our 9 gallon tank. I added a few more nerdy additions for good measure. We have the ability to circulate the water with our pump if we decide to add a little chlorine along the way, and we have the ability to fill our tank either from a spout, a stream, bucket or by hand. (Same thing goes with more info here. If you want more info on the pump choice, how it’s routed, etc. feel free to email.) Hopefully the photos show enough for a general idea.
The cabinets and closets… This sounds like the easiest thing, but creating smart storage in a small area proved to be difficult. Good thing Marie is a master of space. She came up with the closet plan, and the general cabinet plan. With more help from friends and mainly my dad (he refers to himself as the “labor”) we built great cabinets and a new countertop, complete with a sink. We decided to bring a small coleman stove. It gives us the ability to cook inside or out. A coworker Paul gifted us an old ½ size propane bottle. With a hose, the propane can be inside or out. We have a small propane heater that has been very helpful so far, but it stows away.
The front… Pedro’s old seats were worn and terrible. So, while on a “test” trip to California for Christmas, Marie’s dad and brother and I went to a junkyard, and with some luck found some old Dodge Neon seats that somehow fit perfectly. Bob (Marie’s dad) is an engineer and happens to be a master of fasteners, so he helped me pick out the perfect new bolts for the seats to keep us safe. Marie’s brother, Mark is quite the handyman himself, and basically did the work to replace our seats.
The stereo was also showing its age, so my brother Matt picked out, ordered and put in a new stereo and speakers for us. We were just along for the ride on that one, but it was a great purchase. Now we have comfy seats, and a new stereo that has all of the newest options for music.
We had tons of help from friends and family and we are truly grateful. Pedro still looks pretty rough from the outside, but he will be a great little home for us for this adventure.