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  • Writer's pictureChris Penn

Why I Built A Skoolie & You Should Too

It was 10 years ago, nearly to do the day of me writing this, that I purchased my first travel vehicle. Joplin was a 1995 Ford econoline van that I found on eBay for $1800 with 200k+ miles. I gutted the van, built some cabinets and hit the road with my siberian husky Cercie. I fell in love with the road and all it had to offer.

Joplin, Cercie and I traveled most of the East Coast and up into the Dakotas. Zep, my second camper van, assisted my travels of the Western United States, Canada and Alaska. Atlas, my Class A motorhome, assisted in full time living on the road with Summers in Alaska and Winters in the lower 48 over the last 4 years.

These previous vehicles helped me live a life I could only dream about only 13 years ago. The 10 years that I did spend in my tiny homes on wheels allowed me to play with different living setups. Joplin, the most basic of my rigs, was the most stealth. This meant I could park anywhere at anytime and no one knew she was my home. However, it lacked the basic amenities that most use daily. A shower, toilet, running water, a closet and storage in general was a non starter. But, as I mentioned, I could park this rig anywhere and absolutely no one would be able to tell it was a camper. Atlas, the most "motorhome" of my rigs, had almost every single convenience a typical home would have. All this convenience came with a price. The Class A was much larger leading to lower fuel economy, more difficulty parking and the logical deduction to anyone walking by that someone could be camping in the rig. The original sticker price was much higher and had many more components that could break. While it was nice having all the extra storage and amenities, Class A's are typically built with the cheapest materials possible to save on cost and weight. In other words, there was certainly a give and take to every aspect of every rig.

The most valuable lessons my previous rigs thought me was the knowledge of what I needed on the road and what I did not. This lesson cannot be purchased and there are no shortcuts to this knowledge. You have to spend time on the road to attain this knowledge. I attained this knowledge by camping in remote locations and making my limited water and food last. I learned lessons trying to boondock in uppity towns and getting the cops called on me. I had to learn that you really do not need 3/4 of the things you think you need to be happy. That things you own end up owning you.

I'm not going to lie, the Class A was covenant. Someone had already done all of the hard work and built the interior of the rig. It would have been easier to just roll with the Class A. It would have been easier to develop a system of storage in a tow vehicle. But, I chose a skoolie because I felt as though the time, energy and financial investment would be well worth it. Below I will list the reasons I chose a skoolie in order of importance:

1- Carrying Capacity

Boondocking in remote locations is my absolute favorite part of living on the road. Having the ability to carry extra water, food and supplies was crucial. If I tried to add an additional 30 gallons of fresh water storage in the Class A we would be overweight. If I added another 300 gallons of fresh water to the bus we would have weight to spare.

2- Build Quality

This is closely tied to carrying capacity but I feel as though it deserves its own explanation. Most rigs utilize cheaper materials for the build. This is twofold. One, it is cheaper. Two, it saves on weight. The Class A I purchased was built on a Ford F-53 chassis. While this is a great chassis, its total weight capacity was 22,500 pounds. After the Class A was built on top of it, water and fuel tanks full and all of our personal belongings were in the rig, we only had 300 pounds of weight before we were overweight. That means if we had two friends with us we were technically breaking the law driving the rig. And I must state, not all of the drawers were even full when we weighed ourselves. Long story short, even with the cheap building materials and us being mindful of weight, we were still close to our max weight capacity. Zeppelin II, my current skoolie, has a weight capacity of 36,000 pounds. I was able to use high quality building materials, install 200 gallons of fresh water storage and customize the rig in any way I saw fit to suit my needs. I added a roof deck Zep II that weighs at or around 500 pounds. If I attempted to do this with the Class A not only would it not be structurally sound enough to support the deck, I would be overweight by 200 pounds.

3- Engine & Transmission

Zep II has a Cummins 8.3 paired with a 3060 Allison transmission. Not only can I find both of these components at any truck scrap yard across the U.S. and Canada, I can get these repaired at many certified repair shops scattered around the country. It is not uncommon for this engine and transmission to last well into the 300k plus mile range, all original miles.

4- Safety

These things are built like tanks, tanks that protect children from the ravages of the road. Take one look at what happens to any class of RV when they wreck vs what happens to a school bus. Busses have h-channel ribs down the entire length of the bus for protection. Stories abound of school busses going into a ditch and rolling only to be rolled back on their wheels and continuing on down the road. That will NOT happen in any other class of RV.

5- The hustle, the grind, the project

This one is a selfish one for me. I loved the grind of the project. I loved the mountain grew 50 meters every time I worked on the bus. I looked at this skoolie as an investment. Not a financial investment, but an investment into my future freedom. Know this, if you take this project on there will be times when you question yourself. It will cost more than you think and will take longer than you think. Keep going, keep hustling and build your dream home.

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