When Dave and Angela Spinks decided they were going to shift gears from their overland ready Defender 110 to a setup with more comforts for cold and volatile weather, they asked themselves… Could an off-road capable and adventure ready VAN be the solution?
Words & Images by Dave and Angela Spinks
Posted with permission from www.polaris-overland.com
We see many threads and blogs throughout social media on overland builds where people are using the standard Pick Up, LR Defender, Land Cruiser etc but how many are using a van as a base to build into their overland vehicle? These blogs and threads are separate from Van Life blogs in that overlanding is a journey often over long distance, sometimes involving international borders and difficult terrain whereas Van Life is often more of a lifestyle choice. We are in no way denigrating the Van Life culture – in fact we envy it in many ways.
The decision to move from our trusty Defender that took us to Mongolia and all places in between to a VW 4MOTION Transporter was not an easy one particularly for Dave who has a familial connection with Wilson built over many years.
But the primary reason for a need to change is comfort, particularly in cold wet weather, something that living in Scotland means you have to be prepared for.
The ability to sit inside in a warm dry area is a game changer. However before we got to this point we had spent money making numerous attempts to improve the comfort of living in our Defender and roof tent by adding 270 degree awning with sides, adding heating ducts from our diesel heater to the tent and a wood stove for use in the awning.
All of these were a vast improvement on our original setup but we still found that the time between finishing driving for the day and heading into the roof tent was cold, damp and miserable. A lot of time had to be spent setting up and taking down each day and on our trips we tend to be moving on daily.
We had discussed previously how once our bigger trips were over, bearing in mind our ages (late 50’s). We had agreed that we had another 5 or so years in the Defender before we would move to a campervan. Dave was adamant we would not go the motorhome route, the ability to explore the smaller side tracks was still a requirement so our choices were either a smaller campervan or a bigger better Land Rover build.
That financially was a massive undertaking with Land Rover Defenders currently at premium prices in the UK and then sorting a 20 or 30 year old vehicle mechanically followed by adding in a build of a camper body the costs would climb massively.
So our thoughts went to a campervan. We had seen many throughout our journeys and found some to be very capable and suitable for overland trips. In fact the predominant vehicle of choice throughout much of the former Russian states was the Uaz Bukhanka. We often met these vehicles full of passengers bouncing across the Kazakh Steppe or the tracks of Mongolia. They are basic but capable, and more importantly, easily fixed on the road.
Our trips tend not to be massive off-road challenges, in fact when your vehicle is also your home you tend to try and protect it and avoid terrain that might break or destroy it. So we were looking at something capable of light off-roading and gravel type routes which was the predominant type of terrain we had experienced.
In some cases it is not always possible to avoid more serious off-road tracks as we found in the Gobi Desert, Pamir Highway and the High Atlas Mountains of Morocco however we saw many 2wd vehicles doing these routes including a Double Decker London Bus in Tajikistan coming off the M41 Pamir Highway. It just takes better planning but is still very much achievable.
So the decision was made, and we were now looking for a van. The constraints were not to be too big as we did not want to be restricted by size, 4WD to enable light off-road use as said earlier to allow us to tackle over 90% of the type of terrain we have encountered in our Defender 90 throughout the Stans, Russia and Mongolia.
We found what we were looking for back in February 2020. A 2015 VW 4motion Transporter, 140bhp 6 speed AWD former breakdown recovery vehicle which we have christened “The Colonel”.
Being a VW Transporter it has a proven history of reliability and longevity and is found throughout the world with spare part support in almost every corner.
It came with a larger fuel tank giving a range of around 600 miles and also with the rear fitted out in a basic camper layout. We added a diesel heater to open up travel in cooler winter months and we wanted to be internally self contained so the pod style kitchen pull out under the lifting tail gate was rejected and we opted for internal cooking and living.
We added an Eibach 50mm lift and fitted BFG All Terrain Tyres giving slightly higher ground clearance and better traction.
Initially we were not going to go with a pop top roof as we thought we wanted to fit a roof rack and load up the roof. Having looked at a few examples we changed our mind and went for the Pop Roof. Just the ability to stand up inside whilst cooking was a revelation and this also gave us the ability to sleep in the pop roof and leave the lower area as a living and cooking space. Something we had wanted from the onset to make life more comfortable in cold wet windy weather.
Then Corona and lockdown arrived which has restricted us to just a few weekend trips and a two week trip away doing Scotland’s North Coast 500. Everything went well, we added a few minor tweaks here and there and added a few upgrades to our list.
Firstly we wanted to add a solar system so we added a 200W solar Panel to the Pop roof with a Victron MPPT controller to top up our batteries when off grid or laying up for a few days.
The Victron MPPT Controller is the same as we have on Wilson the Land Rover and operated faultlessly throughout all our trips and so was always going to be the first choice.
The water carrying capacity is currently only 15 litres which is very restrictive if wanting to head off grid so the next job is a 47 litre water tank fitted externally underneath where the spare wheel would normally go. This is due to be completed in April 2021 by Malcolm at Turriff Caravans. Once fitted a filtration system will be fitted by Dave.
Changes in family circumstances mean we now have a 4 year old grandson living with us on a permanent basis so accordingly our setup has been changed to accommodate him. Our longer overseas trips will now be few and far between and our trips will be more locally based throughout beautiful Scotland and the rest of the UK and occasional trips to Scandinavia and Europe. They will be shorter, weekends and weeks rather than months. Early on we had already added a Dometic Wind Out Awning; however, we have now moved to the addition of a Vango Cove Inflatable awning. This gives a reasonably quick setup and a little more dry warm space to spread out into especially when the typical British weather raises its head.
Our internal setup has had to change too and Dominic will now be sleeping in the Pop Roof bed whilst Angela and I will use the Rock and Roll Bed. By having the drive away awning we again have the option of leaving the R & R bed made up in camp but can still quickly pack up and detach from the awning to head out for the day.
Still on the list for the future are roof rails to be able to put light loads on the roof, nudge bar and underbody protection for additional light off-roading and some additional scene / work lighting for the darker evenings in winter. And there are smaller jobs to make our life easier and more comfortable in the pipeline as we go forward and our setup evolves.
We have added recovery tracks to the van to give us additional traction when needed but also to use as levelling ramps when on uneven ground. The Rhino 4×4 Escape Recovery Tracks are a much more economical option than Maxtrax for the limited use we expect to give them. The tracks are mounted on the rear ladder with custom made clamps to avoid the need for drilling. Whilst in the past Dave has had no concerns about drilling into Wilson to mount equipment and storage he now finds it much more difficult to have the same confidence if he needs to drill into The Colonel and tries where ever possible to come up with alternative solutions that are less destructive.
So whilst already our original plans for the campervan have changed we can still comfortably accommodate all our needs in the van. With Dominic we now want to get out more to give him the opportunity to enjoy mini adventures and in the process we will test everything and continue testing.
Our experience of nearly 3 years on an overland trip and living out of our roof tent means we are aware of many tricks that can make the difference between a comfortable trip and a struggle. It’s that experience that will guide our progression whilst also trying to keep everything as lightweight as possible to avoid unnecessary wear and tear.
Dave and Angela Spinks created Polaris Overland to document and share their overland adventures in their Defender ‘Wilson’. Dave’s main inspiration for an overland trip came in 2006 whilst flying by chopper over the Skeleton Coast of Namibia to work on a drillship operating offshore. The idea sprouted that he wanted to come back to Namibia and drive the Skeleton Coast and at this point he caught the Overlanding bug.
Overlanding gives Dave and Angela the chance to combine Adventure, Land Rover Defenders, Camping and Travelling… which sounds about the perfect match. Head over to www.polaris-overland.com to read more about their journeys!