by Chris Bagg

Ed. Note—Curtiss Felter, one of the Wattie Ink. professional triathletes, has had his season placed on hold due to the Coronavirus, but this new father, and former professional snowboarder decided to shift his attention to a topic near his heart: vanbuilding. He began a video series on this Quarantine Van Project, which you can see above, and we caught up with the Bend, Oregon resident about building vans, training during COVID-19, and pinching pennies wherever possible.

“I wouldn't be able to race triathlon if I didn't know how to build out vans,” Curtiss Feltner says. “There's no way I could afford to travel to all these races without driving there and sleeping in my van. When I first turned pro in 2018 we were just living out of that van, and I only raced in North America. That really made it possible, because there was no way I could afford a $200 night hotel and flight to the race.”

Which of us hasn’t felt the pinch of triathlon’s expense? With three sports instead of one, and all of the gear necessary simply to start the race, costs add up fast. Toss in travel, lodging, and food, and each race can easily begin to cost in the thousands of dollars. What’s a self-described “dirtbag snowboarder” (or any athlete with a normal income, really) to do? For Feltner, the answer is to go full snail, and carry his home around on his back, with his wife Devon and newborn son Walter along as co-conspirators. Feltner isn’t a pioneer in this area; that honour goes to triathletes such as Trevor and Heather Wurtele, but even they simply carried on the tradition of driving to races and living in your vehicle that any young endurance athlete recognizes as necessary. So how’d he get there, and how can you do the same?

Sourcing the Van and the Components

“I'm stoked on how cheap I was able to do it. I was trying to stay under $20,000 for the whole project, as I mention in the video, and I think we are pretty close on that. I paid $11,000 for the van, which was a pretty good price. It’s a pre-2007 Dodge Sprinter, and it’s only got, like, 130,000 miles on it. It was so dirty, though. A granite slab company owned it before me, and when I opened it up it was just so full of stone dust. I would think I had it clean and then I’d open up the dash and it’d be full of granite, basically. It’s probably worth it, now, but at the time it definitely didn’t seem like it.”

After procuring the van, Feltner needed to build or buy everything that would go inside. “Amazon,” he says, when I ask him where he got everything. “I just bought generic for everything. You can go fancy on your parts, but I really wanted to stay under budget, and sometimes the generic pieces are better because you have a little more adjustability. Like the heater? The brand-name German version is $1100. I got ours for $150. The fridge is a knock-off.”

Building the Interior

“I built all of the cabinets,” Feltner says. “That grew out of my background as a snowboarder. I was basically the guy trying not to freeze to death in my vehicle, going to professional snowboarding events and not being able to spend $400 a night in places like Vail or Breckenridge. I’m the reason you can’t park on the street anymore overnight. But like a lot of people, my first van was simple, just a gutted interior and then a platform for a bed. But I had to stay alive in negative temperatures, so I figured out insulation first, and then heating and electrical work.”

For the current project, the electrical and heating system was the easy part. “I finished that in March, just as the virus really hit,” Feltner tells me. “Now I’ve been working on the interior ever since.” Van interiors pose challenges to to the home custom builder, with odd curves everywhere. “Nothing is a right angle,” Feltner says. “You spend a lot of time modifying things because they’re really not supposed to fit where you’re putting them.”

Making it Safe

For previous projects, Feltner didn’t cut corners on safety, but “Before if we crashed it would just kill us, but now Walter’s traveling with us, so we’ve done a 180 on the whole safety thing. We've got a shower, we've got a hot water heater, 40 gallons of water, a little diesel air heater that comes out of the vehicle tank. Our bed space is queen size basically at the back, and Walter's got his own little bed that's toddler size. We've got two big overhead cabinets that are these soft bag things and one big storage cabinet on the side and then storage under the kitchen, and a big drawer slide for the bikes at the back. It’s a lot of stuff. The big challenge in this one was making everything secure and I did some stuff I've never really done before. Like using rivet nuts to the van frame to make sure all the cabinets are really secured to the wall and doing a lot of bolting to the floor for those as well. Just trying to make everything as secure as possible in there.”

Making it Pay

“Pretty much every van I’ve owned I’ve eventually been able to sell for more than I bought it,” Feltner says. “That’s what we did with that last van you wrote about. We sold that right before Walter was born as a way to generate some cash during Devon’s pregnancy. But the way that the van market is right now, you can usually sell built-out vans for a profit. I’m not crazy about what it means for the van culture, but it certainly makes it simpler to do what we’re trying to do. Be careful, though, if you’re looking for a van, because there is a lot of really over-priced stuff out there. It’s a market bubble, so make sure that the vehicles you’re looking at is actually worth it. I have friends send me pictures of vans all the time and ask ‘Is this awesome?’ and I’m, like, ‘No! That’s terrible! Don’t buy that!’”