Preparing Our Camper Van for Season Three 2021

Getting our Red Tail Lodge (our camper van) ready for Season Three in 2021 involved not only some van modifications, but also some regular maintenance and repair items. Since we had over six months to prepare, you would think we would have most of these items done way ahead of time. Winter weather, a home kitchen remodel, and life got in the way. So we were working hard the few weeks before we hit the road.

Item 1: Upgraded our AGM batteries to Lithium. This was the most involved modification that we did. There are two blog posts covering this upgrade: Upgrading to Lithium Part 1 and Upgrading to Lithium Part 2. Therefore, we won’t go into any details here.

Item 2: Installed a larger refrigerator. This was the second most involved modification that we did. Our previous fridge was a Dometic 28 liter top-loading powered cooler (paid link). It was a little small to keep a week’s worth of groceries in. Being top-loading made getting to the desired items a little cumbersome. We decided to go with a 65 liter, front-loading refrigerator. Dometic makes one, but the dimensions were just a little too large to fit in the space we had. The outside dimensions of the Isotherm Cruise 65 Elegance fridge (unpaid link) was just slightly smaller and would fit. The Dometic is more energy-efficient than the Isotherm (we’re guessing it has more insulation, hence the larger dimensions), but the Isotherm was slightly less expensive.

In order to install the Isotherm fridge, we needed to make some cabinetry. Our old fridge sat on top of an open storage box next to our sink cabinet. For the new fridge, we built a cabinet to enclose it with a storage drawer underneath. The fridge would then sit as high as our sink cabinet, so we built a new, larger countertop for the sink that extends over the fridge. The sink cabinet and fridge cabinet are still separate pieces, both mounted to the t-track, so we can easily remove them from the van during the off-season. Left Buddy (LB) did some nice cabinetry work, even using finger joints to construct the drawer. He wanted the practice because he was getting ready to start building kitchen cabinets for our house. In addition to the fridge cabinet, we added a couple of short shelves using t-track to better utilize the space between fridge cabinet and the existing t-track shelves.

We previously stored our Lagun table top behind the Dometic fridge. There is no space behind the new fridge cabinet, so we needed to find a new place to store the table top. It fits nicely behind the driver’s seat, next to the sink cabinet, that is if we remove the fire extinguisher from the side of the sink cabinet. The fire extinguisher’s new home is now on the top shelf of the newly installed shelves next to the fridge cabinet.

Initially, we made the drawer below the fridge with an RV cabinet push button latch (paid link). After we installed it, we found that the drawer would stick a little bit and we couldn’t get enough leverage on the latch to pull the drawer open. Adding a drawer handle solved that problem nicely.

As an added bonus, the Isotherm fridge comes with a small freezer. It is large enough for ice cube trays, but not much else. The ice cube tray that came with the fridge was small and hard to use. Therefore, we bought a couple additional ice cube trays that fit perfectly in the freezer. They are flexible silicon and the large ice cubes come out easily.

Item 3: Replaced our window shades. The shades that we made for our van windows for insulation, privacy and keeping light out at night had served us well for two seasons (Campervan Project #5: Shades and Curtains). However, they were starting to fall apart and we struggled with a couple of them that liked to keep falling out. We purchased professionally made ones from VanDOit last fall. Their current design uses strong, bar magnets in the shades along with large, rectangular metal plates that are taped to the window glass. This system keeps the shades in pretty well and makes taking the shades in and out of the windows really easy. 

However, the shades for the driver and passenger door windows along with the shade for the windshield still use VanDOit’s old design of suction cups that snap onto the shades. We’re assuming they did that because adding large metal plates to those windows would block some of the view while driving and be a safety hazard. 

We’re not big fans of the suction cups. They easily fall off the shades and make the shades bulkier to store. In addition, we’ve never had much luck in past experiences with suctions cups working long term on car windows. For the windshield shade, this is not much of an issue since we can leave the suction cups off the shade and just flip down the visors to hold it in place. We decided to modify the door window shades to use small magnets and plates.

We mainly followed the design that Kurt on the VanDOit Owners Facebook Group used to add magnets to his shades (thanks again, Kurt!). Our procedure differed slightly from Kurt’s. Instead of drilling new holes in the shades, we removed the snaps and re-used the holes. We also wanted the magnets to fit a little more snug against the window shade, so we used shorter machine screws and shortened the barrel bolts (we couldn’t find shorter barrel bolts). Here is the list of materials that we used:

Our procedure:

  1. Drilled out the snaps in the window shades using a 21/64ths inch drill bit.
  2. Shortened the steel binding barrel with a hack saw so that the magnets fit snuggly against the window shade. In order to hold the binding barrel in the shop vice without crushing it, we threaded it onto a long bolt until the end of the bolt was just before where we wanted to saw the barrel off. We used masking tape to mark on the bolt where to stop.
  3. Added 2 washers onto each shortened binding barrel.
  4. Pushed the binding barrel through the hole in the shade.
  5. Slipped the magnet onto the barrel.
  6. Screwed the machine screw into the barrel.
  7. Cleaned the window with rubbing alcohol.
  8. Stuck a sticker dot onto one side of each strike plate.
  9. Placed the other side of the strike plate onto the magnet.
  10. Removed the protective film from the other side of the sticker dot.
  11. Pressed the window shade against the window so that the strike plate adhered to the window at the proper location.

These magnets are pretty strong and can break easily if you allow them to smack together quickly. Also we’re not sure if the striker plates will stand up long term to the opening and closing of the windows. We thought about using super glue instead of the sticker dots for the strike plates, but others in the VanDOit Owners Facebook group said they could not get the super glue to work. Therefore, we plan to travel with spare magnets, strike plates and sticker dots just in case we need to replace one or two during our travels. We also discovered that it is easier to remove the window shades with the strong magnets by sliding them off the strike plates before pulling away from the window.

Item 4: Made a more compact camping toilet. We were using a Cleanwaste Portable Toilet (paid link). When the legs of the toilet are folded in, it is pretty compact. However, the legs are a pain to fold in. They are stiff plastic with tabs that you have to push in at the same time you try to fold the leg in. Half the time we would pinch our fingers. Needless to say, we ended up always leaving the legs extended instead of folding them in. Then the toilet took up more room. Then we were watching Tristan on his SUV RVing YouTube channel. He posted the video “This $20 Ultra-Compact Camp Toilet Is the Best I’ve Used!”. The idea is basically buy a cheap folding camping stool, cut a hole in the seat, and insert a plastic bag. What a great idea!

We purchased a pair of camping stools. Right Buddy (RB) wanted to also be able to use the stool as a foot stool, so our first attempt was to split the fabric seat down the middle and slip it to the sides to make room for the plastic bag. The fabric wants to keep slipping down, so she sewed a couple of strips of binding tape to the fabric to keep it from slipping too far. However, it did not seem very stable. Thank goodness we bought a pair of the stools so we could try again. Our second attempt was to cut a square hole in the fabric to insert the plastic bag into. This seemed much more stable. At first we used gaffing tape around the cut edges of the fabric to keep it from fraying. However, the gaffing tape did not stick very well to the fabric. RB then hand-sewed binding tape around the cut edges. Much better.

The plastic bags(paid link) from our Cleanwaste toilet fit perfectly into our new homemade toilet as well as the Green Elephant 8 gallon compostable bags (paid link). We also are using the Poo Powder (paid link) from Cleanwaste. We’ve heard of people using kitty litter instead, but we have not tried that. So now we have a more compact toilet and a foot stool! RB was wanting something to prop her feet up on while sitting in the van. The stool solved two of our issues!

Item 5: Figured out a way to secure our camp chairs inside the van. We store two folding camp chairs up on the top shelf under the bed platform on the passenger side. It occurred to us that this could be a safety issue in a car accident or if we have to slam on our brakes. RB found a Jeep roof hammock to use as a solid cargo net. She just looped the velcro straps through a few t-track eye bolts, wrapping it around the post for the bed platform. Not only are the camp chairs now more secure, but our towels hanging from our clothes line are now protected from rubbing up against the dirty camp chair legs as well.

Item 6: Mounted the GoPro below the rear view mirror. When we mounted the GoPro on our dash, it would quickly over-heat and turn off. Our dash gets amazingly hot to the touch when the sun is shining through the windshield, even with our air conditioner running. We’re hoping the new location under the rear view mirror will stay cooler.

Item 7: Put the Wisconsin and Michigan state park annual pass stickers in the windshield for 2021. Well, actually, we only removed the old ones for 2020 and are waiting to put the new ones on until we reach those states. We have a chip in our windshield and we’re concerned that it may grow and cause us to replace our windshield at some point. We would hate for a second year’s worth of state park passes to go to waste, especially since we didn’t get to use the ones for 2020!

Item 8: Added labels to our circuit breakers and fuse panel. While we were working on the lithium upgrade, it seemed like a good idea to have these things labeled instead of trying to figure it out in the heat of the moment when something goes wrong.

Item 9: Fixed the sticking gear slide. This has been on our todo list for a while. We were hoping we could just grind down the edge of the large nut underneath the gear slide that seemed to be what was scraping on a couple of the metal straps on the floor. After grinding down the nut, not only was the gear slide still sticking, but we noticed that the pin was also misaligned so that it was not engaging into the holes of the track. The alignment issue must have gotten worse. Now this was more than just a nuisance of having difficulty extending the gear slide out to the maximum position, this was now a safety issue, as the gear slide will not stop every six inches like it used to. We opened a support ticket with VanDOit. They offered a couple of things to try if we couldn’t bring it into the factory for them to fix it for free. Since we live quite a ways from the factory, we gave it a try. 

According to Ian at VanDOit, the Ford flooring is made of soft materials like foam, vinyl, and particle board. These soft materials compress when the bolts for the metal straps and gear slide track are tightened down to the floor. His first suggestion was to pound down the high spots with a hammer wrapped in a towel. The second suggestion was to bore out the mounting hole for the pin so that it can be raised. Of course we did both suggestions and also enlarged some of the holes in the gear slide track that the pin was not slipping into. The combination of the three seemed to do the trick. Thanks, Ian!

Item 10: Replaced our small DC fans. The way we had our two previous DC fans mounted at the foot of our bed was not very secure or flexible. LB saw a post on the VanDOit Owners Facebook for a newer DC fan (paid link) with a better mounting system. Of course he jumped on it. As an added bonus, they are quieter, more powerful, and have more speed settings.

Item 11: Tried to replace the rubber mat on the van floor of our main living space. We added the rubber mat at the beginning of Season Two. The rubber mat covered up the holes in the floor for the seat attachments, adding a soft surface under our feet and an extra layer of insulation. However, it is getting pretty worn. We tried to replace it with interlocking foam garage flooring tiles because we thought they would hold up better. However, we had a few issues with the tiles. The tiles did not conform well to the uneven van floor and the tiles were too thick. They stuck up above the edge of the sliding door entry and the drawer of our new fridge cabinet would not open. So we’re hoping the rubber mat will last one more season and we’ll try to come up with something else next year.

Item 12: Checked and tightened all the bolts around the van. Only a few of the bolts were loose, but we would rather spend an hour or two every year making sure they are all tight instead of something coming apart as we’re driving down the road. 

Item 13: Flushed the RV anti-freeze out of our water system. After putting our kitchen cabinet back into our van and hooking up all the water lines, we ran both the hot and cold lines through our sink and through the shower nozzle in the back of the van until the water coming out was no longer pink. We had to refill our fresh water jerry can about three or four times before it was completely flushed. After that, we added some chlorine and then flushed that out after it sat for a little while, making sure our whole system was sanitized.

Item 14: Replaced our water pump. When we were flushing out the anti-freeze, we noticed that the water pressure at our sink was not that great. LB took apart the kitchen sink faucet and cleaned out debris. This had happened once before where he found pieces of plastic clogging up the faucet. He was concerned that he had damaged the water pump at the end of Season One when he tried to blow out the van’s water system with an air compressor. To give him a little more peace of mind, he decided to replace the water pump (paid link) using the same make and model as the original. He would much rather replace it while we were home than have to deal with it somewhere on the road.

Item 15: Made bug screens for the sliding door and rear door openings. The Skeeter Beater magnetic bug screens that we purchased from VanDOit as part of our build have served us well for two years. They go up without a lot of fuss. However, every time you go in or out of the van, you need to adjust it to make sure everything is in place and there are not any gaps for bugs to get in. To avoid that hassle, we wanted screens that could easily open and close and stay permanently installed. There are bug screens specifically made for the Ford Transit, such as The Bug Wall, but they are rather pricey and they take a while to order due to supply chain issues. So we thought we would try to rig something up that was a little less expensive. If it doesn’t work, we can always purchase the professionally made ones later.

Again, we got our inspiration from the VanDOit Owners Facebook group. We purchased screens with magnetic closures intended for sliding glass doors in a house. One has a central panel (paid link) with a magnetic opening on both sides that we installed for our van’s sliding door opening. The other screen (paid link) just has one magnetic opening down the middle that we installed in our van’s rear door opening. Neither one is a perfect fit, so we needed to make some adjustments to install them.

Our procedure for installing the screen for the sliding door opening is as follows:

  • Wiped down the surfaces we planned to put Velcro on with rubbing alcohol to make sure they were clean.
  • Velcroed the top of the screen to the plastic just below the rubber door gasket, using the Velcro that came with the screen.
  • With chalk, outlined the door opening on the screen.
  • Added Velcro Extreme Outdoor (paid link) to the sides, with one part on the screen along the chalk markings, and the other part on the door opening, getting as much as possible under the rubber gasket.
  • Added hot glue to the other side of the screen along the added Velcro as extra insurance that the Velcro will stay secured to the screen.
  • Cut the excess screen off along the sides.
  • Hung the screen back up in the doorway, working the side edges under the rubber gasket.
  • Cut the screen to length, so that the bottom of the screen reached the metal just inside the rubber gasket at the bottom, allowing for a double rolled hem.
  • Removed the magnets from all of the pieces cut from the screen.
  • Attached four of the removed magnets to the bottom of the screen by rolling the screen fabric around the magnet a couple of times and soaking it with hot glue.
  • Tested that we could close the sliding door with the screen in place.

The procedure for installing the screen for the back door opening was similar, but slightly different:

  • Wiped down the surfaces we planned to put Velcro on with rubbing alcohol to make sure they were clean.
  • Velcroed the top of the screen to the metal just above the rubber door gasket, using the Velcro that came with the screen.
  • Added Velcro to the sides of the door opening. Above the door hinges, the Velcro was placed outside the rubber gasket. From just above the door hinges to the bottom, the Velcro was put inside the rubber gasket, again getting as much as possible under the rubber gasket. This allowed the screen to not interfere with the door hinges while still allowing most of the Velcro to adhere to the metal instead of the headliner and plastics.
  • With chalk, outlined the mounted side Velcro strips on the screen.
  • Added the other part of the Velcro to the screen.
  • Cut the excess screen off along the sides.
  • Since the length of the screen was ideal, replaced the weights at the bottom of the screen with the magnets left over from the side door screen, sealing the ends of the fabric hem with hot glue.
  • In order to close the rear doors, detach the top of the screen from the Velcro and fold it down past the door latches, about six inches. This prevents the doors from poking holes into the screen when closing.

Now we have screens across both the sliding door opening and the rear door opening that we can leave in place all season. If we want to remove them, we can. They are so much easier to go through to get in and out of the van or to pull something out of the back of the van. Hopefully they will even be better at keeping the bugs out. We’ll keep you posted.

Item 16: Cleaned the van. Basic stuff so we could start our travels with a clean van. Vacuumed, wiped all the surfaces down, washed the windows, and washed off the solar panels. Of course we know it won’t stay clean for very long.

All that was left to do was pack up the van and hit the road. Now that the pandemic is starting to calm down, we hope you are getting prepared for adventures of your own!

Check out our related video: Camper Van Preparation for Season Three

(RB)