Mountain Mumbles - Cy Whitling

Owning a van inspires some people to turn their vehicle into a mini home.

In the course of my relentless pursuit of pseudo mountain man perfection, I recently became the proud owner of a minivan.

It has all-wheel drive, seats seven and makes me look like some kind of demented bearded soccer mom. It’s my favorite vehicle I’ve ever owned. But somehow, every time I give a new group of friends a lift in its cavernous passenger space, I’m hit with the same question: “Sweet van, dude. You gonna build it out?”

Every single time I’ve been asked that question I’ve looked back from my driver’s seat at the two regal captain’s seats behind me, and the massive bench seat behind them, and thought, “Why the heck would I do that? Then you couldn’t sit back there and ask me stupid questions like that one.”

For some reason nearly everyone I know with any sort of van-adjacent vehicle has “built it out.”

These build-outs range the spectrum from fancy cedar paneling and clever hidden tables to “I tore out all the plastic and the seats and the carpet and then lost motivation and left it like that.”

What they all have in common is removing valuable seating areas from the van.

In some instances I totally get it. For the “I live in my massive sprinter van for months at a time” crew it can make sense.

But the majority of the time these “built out” vehicles just lose the whole thing that made them desirable in the first place: the ability to take a bunch of people places. And what do they gain? Better posts on Instagram? Lower resale values? Impressed dates when you bring them back to your sweet van? Cool, totally worth it to be able to spend a few nights a month sleeping in your car.

I know the professionals can do a great job making a beautiful and functional home out of a vehicle, but all the people who want me to build out my van have homes. I have a home, too. And if I didn’t, I still wouldn’t want to detract from the utility of my van by tearing out all the plastic, throwing in some wood paneling that weighs more and takes up more space, and replacing the seats with a bed.

I get the allure of living in your vehicle, bouncing around the open road, sleeping wherever you wish. I’ve done it.

A few years ago I took off for four months in my Subaru Outback, packed with skiing, climbing and mountain biking gear. I slept in Walmart parking lots and on U.S. Forest Service roads. I skied or rode every day, and worked from coffee shops and public restrooms with WiFi. I had a grand old time. But I didn’t need to “build out” my Subaru to make that happen. I just folded down the seats and rolled out a sleeping pad. And through the course of that four months, whenever I visited a friend or met a new ski partner I could just fold those seats back up and give them a ride up the mountain or trailhead. My car lost none of its utility, and I still lived comfortably in it.

On the flip side, I’ve been an unwilling passenger in many a “built out” van. I’ve sat sideways on the floor, fought car sickness as I lay on the tiny bed (complete with bouldering pad mattress), sat on previously platonic friends’ laps as we drove potholed gravel roads to our destination. And every time I find myself a passenger in some “built out” van I can’t help looking longingly at the blank spaces where perfectly useful seats used to reside. You really couldn’t figure out a way to spend a few nights in this thing without tearing those out?

This weekend I piled five friends and all their ski gear into my van. Up at Grand Targhee Resort the typical parking catastrophe was occurring, lines of vehicles with no passengers jockeying for spots. A monstrous “built out” Sprinter was parked poorly, taking up three spots. I shimmied my minivan into the non-spot its terrible parking job had left open as its owner looked down at us with disgust. We didn’t care. We had a decent parking spot, and every inch of the vehicle that filled it had been used to bring skiers up the mountain. Anything short of that, and we should have taken the shuttle.

We live in a world of increasingly selfish vehicle ownership. The running joke is that everybody and their dog drives separately up to the ski hill. Carpooling is a novel thought to many around here. And every time I ride in the back of somebody’s van I remember why. I hate that. I hate our need to all drive separately just in case we want to leave earlier or later. I hate the constant competition for parking and the constant possibility of drunk driving. It’s unsustainable and irresponsible.

So stop complaining about how you’d rather drive yourself and get in my van. There’s a seat back there for you. And no, I’m not gonna build it out.

Cy Whitling writes every other week on living and playing in the mountains. Contact him via

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