Now that you know The Backstory of how we chose our van, here is the tale of how we groomed it into our vision of a versatile and reliable overland rig.
First, I must say that I’m glad we were realistic enough not to choose to build our rig from scratch. We have the tools and know-how, we simply do not have the time. Not with all the preparation and adulting (ie. working & parenting) to do on a daily basis. We were pleased to be starting with something that was almost what we needed, minus a few choice mods. We looked long and hard for an appropriate candidate to build on and are very happy with the choice we made.
By starting with a van that had already been professionally converted into an RV we had all the bases covered; appliances, beds, solar, electrical, awning, toilet etc. Of course, North American RVs are built for highway cruising on tame North American highways. We knew we’d need to make some key modifications to arrive at something that would endure tens of thousands of kilometres of potholed South and Central American roadways and gravel tracks.
The focus of the modifications was suspension: extra ride height, quality shock absorbers, all-terrain tires. A relatively mild 2″ suspension lift was sourced from Boulder Off Road Vans who also hooked us up with some adaptors to mount beautiful new Bilstien 5100 off-road shock absorbers. These shocks would not complain about hours of continuous beatings that would vapourize the OEM units. One weekend of sweaty wrenching with some friends managed to get the lift kit installed.
Of course, a vehicle is no more reliable than the rubber it rolls on, so we had to mount something we could trust. We would need a ‘E’ load rating for our 1-ton rig and 10-ply rubber for durability, with an aggressive all-terrain tread to help keep the tow straps in their box. There was never a doubt what tire we’d choose. We have been rolling on BFG All-Terrain KO tires on our last three trucks/SUVs and they have never let us down. That said, shit happens, so we also decided to carry 2 full-size spare tires. In order to carry a second full-size spare tire we would need a rear bumper to mount it. Thus the single biggest expense for our modifications (literally twice the cost of my first car!) was a bad-ass aluminum rear bumper from Aluminess. No regrets. It’s a work of art.
Another last minute upgrade was the replacement of the old starter battery with an AGM unit from Optima. I figured the exiting battery was already 5-years old and past its prime. But more importantly, an AGM battery is built to withstand the shock and vibrations of off-road use which can cause the plates in a typical lead-acid battery to fail, leaving you stranded. An Optima battery is not exactly cheap, but we feel it’s worth the peace of mind.
The rest of the modifications were more cosmetic. The tubular steel front bumper is mostly for intimidating nosey taxis, but ya never know if maybe it will end up deflecting an unlucky llama or alpaca! The LED off road lights are amazing, but the truth is if we are ever actually using them (i.e.. driving at night) we have done something wrong. The first rule of Overlanding is; never, ever, drive at night. But, honestly, what self respecting overland rig is complete without a set of off-road lights. Am I right?
Coating the fenders and rocker panels in truck bed liner should reduce the rock chips. Painting the hood was just a spur-of-the-moment decision. I’ve always wanted to try plasti-dipping something. The end result isn’t perfect, but it looks pretty butch!
Installing a rearview camera was a bit a of a splurge, but maneuvering this super-tanker of a van is not easy at the best of times. The rear view camera makes those three-point maneuvers a cinch. However, the camera is useless without a screen. Luckily the GMC Savana dashboard is set up for whats called a “double DIN” head unit which is a technical way of saying it will fit a big touch screen stereo system. The upgrade of the strereo also let us choose one that would sync nicely with our iPad for seamless DJ’ing of MJ’s road trip playlists. Plus, the installation allowed Liam to get his first experience in low voltage wiring.
It has been a long summer of blood, sweat, and swears, but our rig is now ready roll. Behold, El Cóndor.
Chassis: 2012 GMC Savana 3500, 20′ Passenger Van
Engine: V8, 4.8L LS
RV conversion (by Safari Condo)
- Refrigerator, 12V, 3.5 ft³
- Swivel passenger seat and driver seat
- Double sleeper seat/bed 51″ x 76″
- 2-burner LPG flush mount stove
- 16,000 BTU LPG furnace
- Propane, CO, and smoke detectors
- 15L LPG water heater
- Rear shower nozzle and shower curtain
- Front dining area with portable folding table
- Rear hide-away table
- Microwave oven (deleted)
- Auxiliary batteries, 2 x 6V AGM
- Electrical inlet, 30A 120V
- Power inverter, 1,500W, 75A converter / charger
- 3 GFI 120V outlets
- 3 auxiliary-battery-powered 12V outlets (car lighter type)
- 56L Fresh water tank
- 46L Grey water tank
- Interior LED lighting
- 12V water pump
- Monitor panel: water tank levels, LPG, and batteries
- Cassette toilet
- TV antenna (built in to roof)
- Fiberglass running boards with storage compartment (deleted)
- Awning, Fiama F45, 11′ 10″
- 12V Variable speed roof vent
- Sliding door bug screen with zipper
- Rear door window screens
- Blackout Curtains
- Stylish laminate floor
- Water repellent poplar plywood cabinets
- Pop-up roof with mildew proof acrylic canvas
- 2″ trailer hitch receiver and four-wire hook-up
- Fire extinguisher
Additional Modifications (by us):
- Bilstein 5125 shocks
- 2″ suspension lift kit (Boulder Off Road Vans)
- Front pre-runner bumper (Boulder Off Road Vans)
- LED driving lights, 3 x 7″ round (Threesixty Designs)
- Rear bumper with swing-arms and galley box (Aluminess)
- Underseat secure lockbox (Smittybuilt)
- Ax & shovel mount (Smittybuilt)
- Tires, BFG All Terrain KO2, 265/75R16
- AGM Battery (Optima)
- Rear view camera (eBay)
- Touch screen stereo receiver with iPod control
- Ceiling mounted mesh cargo mesh
- iPad (navigation screen) mount (Ram Mounts)
- Truck-bed liner coated fenders and rocker panels
- Painted hood
- Microwave delete
- Running board delete