In a Van Down by the River

I started sleeping in cars at a very young age. No, my parents weren’t nomads, or homeless, and, for all you Arm Chair Freuds out there, it wasn’t due to some deep seated fear that they were going to leave me while I slept (although I do remember having a particularly disturbing nightmare about being chased by giants as my parents drove off). I began crawling in the front seat of my dad’s 1979 Chevrolet C-10 Silverado, with my sleeping bag, stuffed Snoopy, and pillow, around the age of five, just because it seemed like a fun adventure to have in our driveway. Turns out the gypsy gene was strong and a habit was formed that would follow me for the rest of my life. 

Fast forward forty-five years, five Volkswagen vans, one Ford Econo-Line, and one Ford Transit, and I’m still sleeping in cars, it’s just that the bar has been raised really high now that my wife and I have found our  dream van. Two years ago my wife and I were on a road trip in Ketchum, Idaho, attending Rebecca’s Private Idaho, where event sponsor Sync Vans displayed a van that was everything we wanted. Truth be told, we already owned a 2018 Ford Transit that was partially built out, so we really we had no business looking at a new van. 

I’d been hovering around the periphery of the four vans Sync had on display, while Vanessa checked them out, trying to disguise my excitement and holster my trigger finger, when she stepped out of the particular model that we both agreed would fit our lifestyle perfectly and gave me a knowing look. Before she could even get the words, “What do you think about getting one of these?” out of her mouth, I exclaimed, “Hallelujah hells yes, let’s put a deposit down now!” And just like that our van lives would never be the same again.

Jay Sfingi and Josh Shelter founded Sync Vans in 2015. They were past partners in a real estate development company, but lacked any real prior commercial van conversion experience. As Jay remembers it, “the idea of Sync Vans really belongs to Josh and his wife, Angela. Following a long, hot summer mountain bike ride, they laid eyes on an outfitted sprinter van from the tailgate of their pick up truck at the trailhead. The seed had been planted.” Located in Bellevue, Idaho, just down valley from Ketchum, means that folks can literally drive their new adventure rigs right out of their shop and into the expansive wilderness that is central Idaho.

In case you haven’t been paying attention, #vanlife has been gaining in popularity for the past five or six years, but COVID has caused it to explode, which means business is really booming at Sync Vans, as evidenced by the fact that they’re taking reservations for March 2021 starts. For context, we put a deposit down right then and there, Labor Day weekend 2018, and didn’t get our van until late July of 2019. But the wait, which is well worth it, is not only due to high demand, but also due to the fact that, as Jay says, “we consider ourselves a boutique shop, building the highest quality vans with tremendous care and attention.” 

Jay and Josh deal in Mercedes Sprinter vans and have perfected three functional template builds, which allow them to keep costs down. They offer five different standard builds for 144” or 177” Mercedes Sprinter vans, but they’ll also do fully custom builds as well. We went with a 144”, non-4×4 Mercedes, and chose the Atlas build. We made one tweak to the standard build that allowed us to get three bikes (four if we’re careful) under our bed.

The basics of the Atlas build include: a raised, platform bed to allow storage beneath; as I mentioned, we had ours raised a bit more to allow for bike storage that doesn’t require me to remove the seatpost from my gravel bike. Shelving near the roofline and along the bed provide storage for food, gear clothes and even a book or two. A cabinet with sink and some counter space makes meal prep possible and the cabinet has space for our Yeti cooler. We travel with an additional Dometic refrigerator; the Yeti is for perishables while we stash beer and sparkling water in the Dometic.

One of the unique things about Sync Vans is that you will always speak with one of the founders when designing your rig, which is exactly what Vanessa did when picking out the interior colors/materials/layout. While we have a Goal Zero battery system that allows us to be off the grid for three to four days, we did have our van wired for solar in case we want to install it in the future. With 25 gallons of water storage, a sink, an on demand water heater, and a shower out the back, we are a pretty self-contained unit when we head out for a multi-day adventure. One of the features that we most love, surprisingly, is the swivel feature for both seats, which basically creates two more chill spots inside the van. We have a burly sun deck with a ladder that we’ve enjoyed many a sunset from and, some day, we’re going to get Paco Pads so we can sleep up there under the stars.

What sets Sync Vans apart from other builders? According to Jay, “I’d say we have a different philosophical approach to van building than others in the industry. We believe in operational intuition and eliminating the brain damage too often required to use a van. We believe in aesthetic beauty without being precocious or conversely a “man van.” I’ll be the first to admit that I’m a dummy when it comes to mechanical devices, or anything involving tech, so if I can operate the battery and lighting system, shower, sink, and other bells and whistles, you can too. I promise. 

For Vanessa and me, who don’t have kids and lead very active outdoor lives, the cost of our van, which was right around $130k, was well worth it because it’s an investment in future adventures that fill our lives with experiences that make us richer and happier people. Even though we don’t live in it full time, we are van lifers, through and through, so if you see our van parked down by the river come say hello and check it out. 

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  1. TominAlbany says

    Sorry. I just drooled on your van..

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