February 23, 2022
Hunters have long relied on their vehicles for shelter in the backcountry. Whether sleeping in the back of a pickup or SUV or towing a camper, sportsmen have been hunting out of mobile deer camps for generations.
In recent years, however, it seems America’s fascination with “rut rigs” has reached a level our grandfathers never could have imagined. From a plethora of rooftop tents and gear organization systems for pickup beds to military-grade travel trailers with massive ground clearance and beefy, off-road suspensions, an entire industry has sprung up to meet the needs of sportsmen seeking vehicles that allow them to access remote country and live there comfortably for extended periods.
Of particular note is a growing cadre of deer-hunting diehards turning their attention to vans. Although not historically a hunting vehicle of choice, a new generation of hunters has embraced the van’s cavernous interior as the perfect platform for creating a mobile camp limited only by your imagination and budget.
Read on to learn how three hunting van aficionados from across America are upping their odds of success by spending less time driving and more time hunting. From a used Ford converted to a comfortable camp for less than $5,000 to a top-end Mercedes with a price tag approaching $200,000, these rut rigs will get you where you need to go in style and comfort.
The DIYer: Zach Owsley
They say necessity is the mother of invention, and that has certainly proven true for Tennessee bowhunter Zach Owsley.
“I wanted to be able to travel to hunt,” he explained regarding why he took on the task of purchasing, stripping down and completely rebuilding the interior of a used van. “My thing was, whenever you travel to hunt, if you’re staying at a motel or whatever, you’re still limiting yourself in where you can go, because you’re not going to travel more than probably an hour — at the most, two hours — from the motel.”
And Owsley pointed out that once your hunt is over, you still have to hike back to your vehicle and drive back to where you’re staying. “With the van,” he said, “my mode of transportation IS my motel.”
Prior to building his custom van, Owsley hunted out of a pickup truck. But in researching toppers and converting them to what he wanted, he discovered that moisture is a consistent problem experienced by others. So, he looked into campers. “But you’re still confined to where you can pull it,” he said. “You’re not going to be able to pull that camper to every place you hunt.”
Thus, Owsley’s search continued, and it wasn’t long before he stumbled onto the idea of a customized van. “I saw people were living out of these vans full-time,” he said. “I thought, ‘If they can live out of it full-time, I can hunt out of it full-time!’ ”
After deciding on a van as his platform, Owsley determined to do it as cheaply as possible without being in a vehicle that would leave him stranded on the side of the road. “I would love to say it was very difficult to find a good van,” he said, “but I actually looked on Facebook, and the very first van I found was for $2,500, had less than 80,000 miles on it and had been kept in a barn.”
As it turned out, the 2003 Ford E-150 Econoline had been used to carry the owner’s mother and had been equipped with a wheelchair lift and came complete with the wheelchair. “It’s all about finding that gem,” said Owsley, who removed and sold both those items to bring his costs down even further.
Owsley warned that anyone planning to undertake a custom van conversion needs to expect the unexpected. Nothing inside a van is square, and that means nothing you want to install is going to fit the way you want without custom modifications. As a result, doing just about anything in the van is a two-person job. Owsley and his father worked on the van every weekend for three months before it was ready for its first hunt.
“You better have one heckuva friend who’s willing to help,” Owsley advised. “The problem isn’t that it’s such a time-consuming process to do things — it’s a time-consuming process to figure out HOW you’re going to do things!”
YouTube is a great resource for information and advice, and Owsley said he found a channel by the user DualEx to be one of the most helpful. Owsley also documented his own build on his channel, Aerial Assault. “It’s not really a how-to, but showing you more of the layout,” he said. “The people on YouTube are usually doing much more elaborate builds than [hunters] want. We need a place to sleep at night, so we can hunt during the day.”
Owsley said planning the layout of your van is critical, and you need to prioritize a place to sleep, a place to keep food, and a sink. You also need to plan for climate control. A van is obviously made out of metal, and because metal is such a great conductor, the interior of the van will get very hot on hot days and very cold on cold days unless it is properly insulated and you have mechanical cooling and heating options.
During the build, Owsley said, figuring out how to attach various wooden fixtures to the van’s metal frame was a particular challenge. For example, it took him quite a while to figure out how to install a false ceiling so he could insulate between it and the metal roof of the van. “It’s the same for the walls and floor,” Owsley said. “Everything you buy is in a 4x8 sheet, but no line inside your van is straight.”
One aspect of the build that went more smoothly than Owsley expected was the installation of solar panels to supply electricity. “I am not an electrician,” Owsley said, “but that was the easiest part of the whole build.”
Owsley uses the solar panels in tandem with a deep-cycle marine battery and power inverter to allow for interior lighting, 110-volt wall outlets, a rooftop vent fan and even a diesel heater. “It’s diesel, but it’s electronically programmed and has an electric fan,” he said. “On low, it’s pulling like 1 amp. That’s another thing you need to know: how much wattage and amperage everything you install is pulling.”
Not surprisingly, other aspects of the van build proved far more challenging, forcing Owsley to get creative when searching for solutions. “For example, it took me forever to figure out what I was going to use as a sink!” Owsley said. He was looking for something that wasn’t too big or heavy, finally settling on the idea of using a stainless-steel dog bowl.
“I have a battery-powered electric pump,” he said. “It has a little spout that comes off it, and it sits down on a 5-gallon water container — the kind you’d turn upside down on an office water cooler. It goes up to my countertop and…you have a place to wash your hands and brush your teeth.”
Owsley plumbed the bottom of the bowl to a drain hole exiting beneath the van, with an inline valve he can turn to release the gray water on demand, depending on where he is camping.
Based on his first deer season hunting out of his van, Owsley said he is even more pleased with the result than he thought — especially considering his entire build, including the purchase of the van, set him back less than $5,000.
Initially, one of his big fears was that his ability to access remote hunting areas would be limited without four-wheel drive. But after many out-of-state trips, he found it was unnecessary. “For the most part, state or federal land has a gravel road where I can park and hike from there,” he said.
In fact, during the 2020-21 season Owsley set foot on more new property than ever before. Since he no longer had to worry about finding a place to stay, he found himself more willing to simply head out and explore new public parcels he identified while scouting online. “I learned a lot,” he said. “Saw some nice bucks. Passed a few as well. But I was there. On the road. Camping in my van. That was the biggest success for me.”
Owsley planned to spend the last week of October and first week of November this fall bowhunting public land in Illinois. “The rut rig is packed and loaded,” he said, “and I will spend as many nights in it as it takes.”
The Influencer: Sam Soholt
Type “Sam Soholt” into Google and the search engine will volunteer to add “van” to the end of your search string; he is THAT well known for traversing the country in his tricked-out 2010 Chevrolet Express 3500 hunting van. In fact, Soholt has basically been living out of a vehicle for the past five years.
“It kind of stemmed out of necessity from being on the road all the time doing freelance photography and video work,” Soholt said.
Soholt started off building out a bus that was a travelling billboard promoting public land, which gave him enough room to take everything he needed for as long as he wanted to stay on the road. “Shooting multiple types of photography, hunting multiple seasons in multiple states, whatever I wanted,” he said. “That has been streamlined now down to the van. I can’t take as much stuff, but I can go about anywhere I want. It’s four-wheel drive, lifted, the whole bit.”
After moving on from the bus, Soholt’s original plan was to do a basic pickup build, complete with a topper and slide-out storage areas beneath a sleeping surface. But after attending the Total Archery Challenge and meeting the guys from Quigley 4x4 — a company that specializes in four-wheel drive van conversions — he quickly shifted gears.
“It was an easy transition,” Soholt said. “I already had the vision to create some sort of a mobile, four-wheel drive hunting rig. The van just happened to be the right chassis.”
Soholt said having a dedicated hunting vehicle, as opposed to loading up a daily driver with his gear, is a tremendous advantage and one of the things he enjoys most about the van. “In terms of hunting, it’s changed everything,” he said. “You have a purpose-driven vehicle with a spot for everything you need. You’re not just throwing stuff in duffels and totes and having to dig it out later when you need it. Having a vehicle that is specific to its purpose has made a huge difference, because you’re just not thinking about that anymore. You get to dive into the game immediately when you arrive at your destination.”
Since completing his bus build in the summer of 2017 and then later, with the help of his brother, Josh, converting the van, Soholt said he has witnessed an explosion of conversion vehicles repurposed for destination hunting vehicles, whether that be pickups, vans or cargo trailers converted into camps. “It has really been fun to see how creative people have gotten, and how much the industry has grown to cater to this market,” he said, noting that seeing a vehicle with a rooftop tent was a rarity five years ago. These days, he said, it seems as though every other Toyota Tacoma or Jeep Gladiator has one.
“There’s been a big shift in people wanting to do more of a mobile-style adventure rig,” he said. “It makes sense to have that fit into the hunting space, because that’s what we do; we’re just camping and hiking with a purpose.”
Soholt and his brother documented the van build on their YouTube channel, Soholt Brothers.
The Professional: Cory Benge
If you’ve started exploring the world of custom van building, you’ve probably run across Cory Benge, owner of Peak 10 Customs (peak10customs.com). An Illinois native and avid bowhunter, Benge picked up and moved to Montana 15 years ago to chase a dream of allowing his sons to race BMX. He quickly decided the family needed a van to haul all their gear around.
“I didn’t even know what a Sprinter van was four years ago,” said Benge, who used to own a large construction company. “I’ve always had 1-ton, crew-cab, diesel, four-wheel drive trucks, and I wondered if I was crazy, because I sold it and flew to Texas and bought a van — and a used one, at that!”
After the purchase, Benge drove back home and “got into this van world,” as he puts it. He now builds custom vans for clients all around the country.
“I’ll tell you, it has exploded!” he said. “There are lots of different types of vans; you can go buy yourself a Ford, low-roof van or you can have one like the van I’ve got in here. My next project van is [a Mercedes Sprinter] within pennies of $70,000 before ANYTHING is done to it. I dumped $60,000 worth of parts into it, so now we’re at $130,000.”
Benge said it will take him and three other guys two months to actually build it. “So in my shop, sitting here right now, is a $185,000 van. But here’s the deal: It’s brand new, it’s Mercedes, it’s turbo diesel, four-wheel drive, with 6-foot, 3-inch clearance inside.” Benge said the final product will include an auxiliary heater, fully insulated custom wall panels, dimmable lights, hot water, swivel seats, roof rack, lights, a rear ladder and solar power that will run an induction cooking surface.
Although Benge previously never saw himself as a “van guy,” now he can’t see himself without one. “I drove across Montana and pulled into my buddy’s driveway, jumped in the back and slept. I got up the next morning, made coffee and then we drove my van to where we were hunting. They are absolutely awesome. If you don’t like where you’re at, you just turn the key and go!”
For those who want to start with a brand new, four-wheel drive Mercedes Sprinter, Benge said custom builds run anywhere from $75,000 at the low end to $275,000 or more for the ultimate in top-of-the-line luxury. However, Peak 10 Customs doesn’t only build high-end, out-of-this-world vans; it can help customers with jobs as small and simple as suspension upgrades. If you’re interested in having Benge help build your custom van, he can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org