Van Upgrades: South America Edition
"Yay, we're going to South America!"
That was our first thought when we our tentative plans became a reality, followed shortly by "Oh crap, we need to do some van upgrades before we leave."
At first the list (and pricetag) was pretty daunting, especially since it was on top of regular maintenance items (filters, CV joints, axles, starter, brakes, etc.). After all, most of the upgrades weren't absolutely essential and plenty of people had done a trip to South America without them. But even so, we thought, it's better to be safe than sorry and these things could really help us out in a pinch. We also had the opportunity to stay put in Nashville for two months and earn the extra cash to help pay for it all, so why not?
So what are all of these upgrades?
This was by far the most expensive and, ironically, possibly the least essential upgrade that we did, though time will tell just how important it was. The differential turns our one-wheel drive van into a two-wheel drive van by balancing the torque between both rear wheels. With a regular open differential if one tire loses traction (be it in mud, sand, tears, or whatever) then all power is directed to that tire and it just spins, getting you nowhere. With a torque biasing differential the power is more balanced between the two tires so that even if one loses traction, the other will still get power and potentially get you out of a sticky situation. Since we really enjoy taking the van off road and pushing it to the limit (and also don't have 4-wheel drive), we thought this would be a good investment.
We contemplated this one for a while before finally deciding to pull the trigger on it. The part itself is around $1400 and then there's labor costs to install it, since it wasn't something we could do ourselves. Was it absolutely essential? No, but we hope it pays off in the long run.
Mefro Steel Wheels + BFG AT KO2 Tires:
Up until now we've been rollin' like gangstas on stock 14s. While we love the street cred associated with that, we were concerned about being able to source all-terrain 14-inch tires in South America when our current ones inevitably bite the dust, so we started looking into 15" and 16" alternatives. In the end we decided on 15" tires because of the taller sidewall and availability. Unfortunately, the only 15" rims we could find in the States were alloy and we had our eyes set on some super-pimp Mefro steel wheels. After lots and lots of searching, we talked to our good friend Taylor at GoWesty and he was able to source us some from Europe. Woohoo! For tire choice we went with BFG AT KO2 215/75/R15 because of their good reputation and availability in South America.
Unfortunately, a bigger tire means we took a power hit because the gearing of the transmission is configured for a smaller tire size. We weren't happy about that part, seeing as Vanagons are underpowered as it is, but we'll just have to get used to it and pray harder when attempting mountain passes.
Our van has always had the stock chrome bumpers that we've come to love. Maybe it's the bling of chrome, or just being able to see our sexy reflection in it, but we love them. Unfortunately, they are notoriously flimsy and we wanted something a little more sturdy for deflecting the crazy drivers in South America. Another big reason was that we wanted a swing-away tire carrier that didn't require any modifications to the body of the van. With the GoWesty bumper setup there were no new holes that needed to be drilled and we could mount a tire carrier right onto the bumper. The pros: they look beefier, are beefier, and can hold a tire carrier. The cons: less bling and more weight. Regardless, we're very happy with them.
We opted for the universal carrier so that we could have our spare tire and gas cans both mounted in the same spot. In addition to that, we store our tow strap and recovery tracks on the carrier. For extra fuel we have two 3.5 gallon FuelPax (the cheaper line of Rotopax), along with the standard mounting plate, 3-gallon extension, and locking handle. Combined with the 4-gallon Rotopax we have in the luggage rack, that gives us 11 gallons of extra fuel for those long treks away from gas stations.
Solar Panel + Roof Box:
During our trip through North America we used one of the thin, flexible HQST 100w solar panels and only put it out when needed. Usually this worked out fine, but if we were in a populated area and were leaving the van for a bit we couldn't just leave the panel out for fear that some low-life would snag it. We also had one of them break after only 6 months so we decided to get a Renogy 100w rigid panel that we could mount on the roof rack and never have to move. We weren't thrilled about losing all that rack space just for a solar panel, so we started looking into roof boxes that we could mount a panel on top of. Unfortunately, pretty much all of the legit roof boxes we found (Thule, Yakima, etc.) were too curved on the top to accommodate a panel of the size/wattage we needed so we had to look into other options.
Luckily, our good friend Greg from Crepe Attack had the same problem a few years ago and came up with the great solution to mount a panel on top of an SKB keyboard case. We started to plot out something similar and found a video by LiveWorkWander outlining their similar setup so we decided to save our brainpower and just copy what they did. Installation was pretty easy and it's really nice not having to take out the panel every time we need juice!
Spare Tire Carrier Tool Storage:
While this may not be an "upgrade", it's definitely a great way to use extra space for parts storage. With our spare tire now mounted in the rear, the stock location for the spare tire was unused space that we wanted to use for extra storage. So we browsed Craigslist, found a plastic 55-gallon drum, and cut it down to about the size of a spare tire. Then we lined the rim of the top with some weather stripping and got some cheap ratchet straps from Harbor Freight to keep it closed. It fits perfectly in the spare tire space and can hold a ton of spare parts (two half axle assemblies, jumper cables, hoses, fluids, etc.). We can't take credit for the idea because some smarter folks on the Samba came up with it, but it was such a good idea we couldn't pass it up.
All in all we're happy with our upgrades, though they made our beloved Blitz fatter and heavier than she used to be. That's ok though, it's what's on the inside that counts, right?