A camper van can get you into the outdoors, but without the time spent packing a car and putting up a tent, or the sleepless nights that might come with a surprise rainstorm. Here in the Roaring Fork Valley, some are turning toward custom built vans instead of traditional RVs, and "van life" has broad appeal.
Jason Schirato of Aspen Custom Vans is giving a short, but impressive, tour of a white Sprinter van. He's put in over 80 hours so far turning it a 24-foot-long home on wheels.
"This back area will be a dinette, and then the table lowers down to make a full-sized bed. Then there’s a bed that will actually come down from the ceiling for the kids," he said.
Schirato built out his first van for his family in front of a friend’s house in Carbondale.
"We were sick of camping," he laughs.
But if they had a van, he thought, all their camping supplies could stay inside, and all they’d need to pack would be a cooler.
Now, he’s got his own shop in Basalt. He guts the interiors of vans and installs tables, shelves, beds and kitchens. He adds solar panels to most of his projects. He uses a lot of natural materials: cedar, beetle-killed pine and wool insulation.
"Nothing’s square in a van, so trimming, making things look nice, is one of the hardest things for me," he said.
It's hard to find numbers on just how many customized vans are out there, but sales of Ford Transits, RAM ProMasters and Mercedes Sprinters, all models that are popular for customization, are up, according to Car Sales Base.
RV manufacturers are catching on; they’re starting to produce more camper vans. But the Winnebago Revel, an off-road camper van meant to appeal to outdoorsy types, can cost up to $130,000. A van can be customized for as little at $30,000.
Cost aside, Schirato isn’t worried about competition from RV producers. He says his clients want something that’s built just for them.
"Not having the exact same van that you see on the road, or at a campground, or at a climbing crag somewhere that was mass-produced and you walk in and you have the same thing," he said.
Katie Nardeccia is a Carbondale resident and a client of Schirato’s. She and her husband wanted a van that would sleep four people, including their two kids.
She remembers the last tent-camping trip she took before she started looking into vans.
"I’m laying there in the middle of the night, fighting for space between the dog and the kids and the husband,” she said.
Like the Schiratos, her family started to find that they were too busy with work and school to pack and unpack for every camping trip. She says she didn't consider an RV or travel-trailer.
"We kind of went straight from the tent to the van," she said.
Part of the appeal for her was that she could design a rig that worked for her family.
"And it wasn’t sort of a one-size-fits-all; it was custom, based on what we were looking for," she said.
It’s not just time-crunched families who are (pardon the pun) driving the popularity of custom vans.
"The way that I use my van is not even going to be remotely similar to something else," said Arielle Shipe, an Aspen Instagram influencer and climbing enthusiast. She says climbing makes you want to be outside, all the time.
"But it is really, really nice to have an enclosed place to sleep, especially if it’s windy or there’s weather. To have a normal stovetop to cook on, that makes a huge difference," she said.
The back of her white Ford Transit is filled almost entirely with a bed and a few shelves. It's a minimalist version of Nardeccia’s Sprinter. Shipe says it fits her impulsive lifestyle.
"It’s nice to have real campsites, but you can just pull over on the side of the road, and you’re good to go," she said.
Jason Schirato doesn’t blink an eye at building vans for both young adventurers like Shipe and young families like the Nardeccia’s. He says his customers run the gamut.
"From dentists to programmers. It’s really anybody," he said.
He says, no matter who they are, Roaring Fork Valley residents who want to balance ease and comfort with a desire to get out into the Great Outdoors, are embracing "van life."