By Andrea Clemett
Vans have habitually been a part of Neil Morse’s life. In his younger years, he owned a Volkswagen Westfalia camper, completing numerous treks around the country.
Camper vans, he says, appeal to various consumers because they are easy to handle on the road and fit into standard parking spots. These vehicles’ special spark lies in their ability to be largely customizable.
“People are getting vans built to suit their needs, usually because they want to go do something,” Morse says. “So, they’re a cyclist, skier, surfer, runner, or climber, and they’re getting in them to go do something else.”
What’s also fueling the surge in camper vans, says Morse, is that people can work out of them now and work remotely.
These vans can come fully equipped with power and solar systems, batteries, heating, air conditioning, beds, full kitchens, hot and cold running water, and sometimes showers, all while being fit into a 19-foot-long van.
“They’re all coming with the technology of a cell booster of Wi-Fi routers in the van, and then there are more products coming out where there will be some mobile satellite systems,” says Morse, the owner and creator of the Adventure Van Expo—an annual event for van admirers that’s grown into a multi-city tour.
In its first year in 2018, the expo started as a single-day event in the Lake Tahoe area, where about 800 people attended. The expo has grown to eight events across the country. Morse says that at times, the event sees more than 7,000 people on a weekend.
This year’s annual expo tour will kick off this weekend, with the first stop in San Juan Capistrano, from April 30 to May 1. Van enthusiasts can experience the allure and wanderlust of “van life” at the Rancho Mission Viejo Riding Park.
The rustic location allows guests to get fully immersed in the adventure culture with camping opportunities, live music and, of course, the array of built-out Mercedes-Benz Sprinter 4×4 rigs—the fastest-growing segment of the RV market, Morse says.
For Pacific Northwest native Boe Trosset, 36, his van enabled him to live out his pipe dream on an excursion starting from his hometown in Bellingham, Washington, ending at the bottom of the Baja Peninsula.
The van dwelling culture was ingrained in his genes since his father built a van and ventured from the East Coast in the 1960s. Trosset’s father had been a carpenter and fell into an apprenticeship of woodworking from his earliest memories.
Trosset purchased his maiden Sprinter van when he needed a vehicle to distribute inventory for a brewery he opened in 2015. His itch to design the van’s interior began when he needed comfortable space for long road trips.
“I was very inspired by spending time on sailboats, and I delivered a few sailboats in Mexico before starting the brewery,” Trosset recalls. “Boats are the prime example of tiny living and maximizing a small space.”
After six months of research and development, Trosset began his build-out. He noticed how the van’s construction required building off the vehicle’s frame.
“It’s never really going to be level right or plum, so you have to work around a lot of curves and funky characteristics that are much more boat-like than house-like,” Trosset explains.
After finding success in drawn-out camping trips, he moved his stuff into storage and embarked on his southbound adventure in March 2021.
“I’d never really planned on living full-time in my van, but over time, I realized that it was fully possible,” Trosset says.
He said the most significant challenge lay in the anticipation and preparation required for spending a month driving down the peninsula. He recalls a few self-sustaining essentials, such as an adequate supply of diesel and water, two spare tires, and maps that function with or without cellular service.
Since returning, Trosset has made a base in San Clemente working as a carpenter on various projects. He is currently sharing his experience in extended van living and expertise in build-outs with local van builders, Doho Vans, a vendor at the upcoming expo.
The Montclair-based and family-owned True Van said the company is excited to share its 2023 model with the public at the expo and has taken note of the uptick in sales from families.
The company not only converts the standard worker’s outline of Mercedes Sprinter vans into tiny spaces, but it has added the extended passenger Mercedes to their conversion repertoire for maximum space.
“After being locked inside for more than two years, people are looking to travel and get outside,” says Jonathan Lin, sales and marketing for True Van.
He adds that people in the niche community value the freedom of van life.
Eddy Lin, Jonathan’s father and the creator of the brand, has more than 35 years of traveling camping experience with his wife. The couple discovered that Sprinter vans allow more flexibility than their traditional hitched trailer.
With his daughter’s help in the design process, the elder Lin developed a three-in-one model that is versatile for space separation, sleeping and even an office.
Many vendors such as True Van will also feature van accessories for retail. The brand will demo its best-selling magnetic screen door that is resistant to weather elements and is multifunctional.
Since modern adventure vans are a new endeavor for some, Morse says the expo is an avenue for people to learn about the vans. They can get an intimate experience during an open house-style exhibition with brands including Airstream, Storyteller, Winnebago and the popular Mercedes Sprinter 144 diesel.
The expo will hold seminars for cooking and discussions on how van owners can rent out their camper when they are taking time away, much like an Airbnb. With three van rental companies attending the event, patrons can sign up and familiarize themselves with the process.
“We’re coming to San Juan Capistrano, because greater Southern California is the largest van market there is the country,” Morse says.