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Colin Gage and Marni DeRyckere
August 1, 2023
330 views

Kruzin’ in the Kraken - A 2013 Thomas Freightliner Skoolie

When Bus Conversion Magazine asked us to submit an article for their digital magazine, we couldn’t help ourselves. What owner of a van or bus, who has spent countless hours building it, wouldn’t be willing to share the results of their latest build? My name is Colin Gage, and my girlfriend is Marni DeRyckere. We live in Merritt British Columbia, Canada. Our two canine traveling companions are Bailey (aka Big B) and Marley (aka Mars Bars).

When someone asks us why we built “The Kraken” bus, it’s an easy answer. Covid-19 travel restrictions eliminated our ability to travel any significant distance for recreation. Prior to Covid-19 arriving on the scene, we had already built out a 2008 5-window bus named “Slow Mo”, a GMC 1-ton dually chassis with Duramax diesel engine/Allison transmission. We utilized it extensively in the secluded and somewhat off-grid areas of British Columbia Canada, mostly close to home. 

Covid-19 or not, we had lots of fun! “Slow Mo” forced us to realize that there are endless forest service roads throughout the mountains close to our hometown of Merritt, British Columbia that we couldn’t safely access.

Unfortunately, our 5-window bus was only 2WD and the clearance underneath was not great. This limited how far we could go off the pavement. 

With the explosion of RVers during Covid, we wanted to spend time camping in areas where other RVs couldn’t go. We wanted secluded spaces and areas where the dogs could just roam off-leash. Then, on a random Kijiji, search, I came across a 32’ 4WD bus for sale, five hours away in British Columbia. 

It was like spotting Bigfoot! I have never come across a 32’ bus that had: a 6” suspension lift (the interior floor of the bus is at my chest height), a transfer case with 4H and 4L, a locking rear differential, a solid front axle, Warn manual front hubs, 6.7 Cummins diesel engine, and an Allison 6-speed transmission. 

The front differential of the Fabco 4x4 conversion.

The clearance under this bus was perfect for where we wanted to go. After numerous conversations with the seller, we drove five hours to have a look. The seller bought it from an auction with the plan of hiring out the entire conversion since he didn’t have any of the necessary skills to do it himself.

After his quotes from bus conversion companies came in at about $150K CAN (115K USD), he decided that he wouldn’t have enough time to use it to make that investment worthwhile. So, he decided to sell it. Of course, we bought it right away. This was in December 2020.

The bus came to us as a completely functional bus, with all the seats and a large storage area in the back for tools and equipment. This bus had a former life of transporting workers to remote areas for oil sands maintenance in northern Alberta Canada. 

It had navigated some rough terrain, which is what it was built for. We couldn’t get the demolition of the inside of the bus going full tilt until the winter temperatures became slightly more forgiving. However, once the temperatures allowed it, this project went into full swing.

Between some weekend adventures in our existing 5-window bus and working full time, we worked tirelessly removing the seats and plywood/rubber flooring, grinding out any rust and treating it with Rust Mort and Por15, replacing all of the failed twin seal windows, and frames, stripping the walls and ceilings of the interior metal skin, sealing any pre-existing leaks in the walls and ceiling, sound deadening the walls/ceiling/floors with Kilmat, removing the roof emergency exit and replacing it with sheet metal, and removing any unnecessary wiring. I must admit that this was not the fun part of this bus build. Regardless, we finally had a clean canvas to start the building phase.

The bus before demolition.
The gutted bus with the treated floor.

My primary job for the past 26 years has been as a chiropractor. Marni has worked for 20-plus years in early childhood education. We both have extensive experience in renovating homes, small commercial buildings, and rental properties. We had already fully renovated one bus, and a 1990 GMC 1-ton extended-length van for my daughters, so this was not our first renovation project. 

Unfortunately, we didn’t have any experience using the new software programs available for designing a floor plan for this new bus. After a couple of hours of trying, we resorted to the old-school method of mapping the interior floor space out on graph paper. We then drew and cut out, the appliances, cabinetry, and furniture on small pieces of graph paper to the appropriate size based on the scale of the floor plan. 

Then we were able to move the small pieces of graph paper around on the floor plan to see how it could all fit and work efficiently in the space we had. I woke up many days at 4 a.m., stared at the graph paper, and tried different scenarios of laying out the interior of the bus. We had to think of the best way to do a layout of the interior items of the bus that still worked for the plumbing and electrical needs. This went on for weeks! We finally settled on a specific open-concept layout that seemed to check all the boxes.

Lucky for us, we still live in the small town that I grew up in. With this comes having friends that you have known since elementary school. I am blessed to have various lifelong friends who are tradespeople (Chip at Hub Electric, Brian at Copper Valley Mechanical, Ted at Cederland Construction, and Darryl at Mill Creek Cabinets) who have put up with my crazy renovation projects over the past 25 years. Having people like this on your team makes a full bus renovation project less daunting. They were a huge help!

Now, to give the renovation details that only other bus conversion people would appreciate. In case you didn’t know it, most people think us bus/van conversion people are crazy. Most people would wonder why one would go to all that work and expense of building a bus or van when you can just buy an RV. Well, we all have our own responses to that theory!

First, we insulated the floor with 1-1/2” of rigid foam board insulation (with an R-value of 7.5 per inch) and sheeted it all with 5/8” plywood. All the plywood joints and where the plywood met the walls were sealed and waterproofed.

Eventually, all the walls and ceiling were insulated with 2-4” of closed-cell spray foam insulation (R-value of 7 per inch). 

This bus didn’t have the standard bus windows. These windows were non-opening, except for four emergency exit windows, and full glass twin seal windows. Most of the seals in these windows had failed over the years of driving on rough roads and had to be replaced. Our plan is to use this bus in temperatures below freezing, so it had to be insulated well.

The framing of the walls was all done with full 2” x 4” studs. We wanted the walls to be solid and not squeak or move when we traveled on bumpy forest service roads. We then sheeted the 2” x 4” walls with ½” MDF shiplap. 

The kitchen is always a big part of any bus build. My cabinetmaker friend helped us design a functional kitchen. He had some cabinet doors left over from a large residential job that we could use in our bus kitchen if we planned it accordingly. This saved us quite a bit of money.

He built the cabinet boxes out of full 5/8” birch plywood and the cabinet doors were painted solid maple. We bought large sections of 1-1/2” thick solid maple butcher block countertops, cut them to size, and sealed them with a clear gloss epoxy resin.

We had never used epoxy resin before, so this step was a bit stressful, but they turned out great. We decided to splurge on the kitchen sink and make it the centerpiece of the kitchen. We used a 32” hammered copper apron sink. It is beautiful! 

We wanted a sink this big so we could easily hand wash clothes in it when we are off the grid for extended periods of time and not near a laundromat, we also didn’t want an inefficient washer/dryer combo taking up crucial space in the bus, let alone its water and power needs. 

With the help of my plumber/gas fitter friend, we installed a Suburban propane-powered tankless hot water heater under the kitchen sink. He also assisted us in installing all the PEX plumbing. 

All our plumbing is clearly visible when we open the cabinetry. Then, in the case of a leak or potential freezing, it is fully accessible. Our 125-gallon fresh water tank is located under the bed so it is not exposed to freezing temperatures outside. 

The fridge brand is “Unique”. It is an 11 cubic foot 12V/120V fridge/freezer that is plenty big enough for the two of us to keep lots of perishable foods on hand. 

The 3-burner propane stove/oven is made by Furrion. The stove/oven and tankless hot water unit are supplied by a 40-gallon commercial propane tank mounted under the bus. This tank is mounted up high under the bus and doesn’t lessen the clearance of the bus to the ground. When filled, it would likely last an entire summer.

The shower base is a half whiskey barrel with a plastic liner, and we have a small vanity sink as well.

The shower is basic for a reason. Our bus is a 32’ bus and not the standard 40’. A 40’ bus would have been too long to turn around and navigate narrow forest service roads, let alone park in the city. So, we needed to utilize every inch of this 32’ bus as efficiently as possible. Also, when you really sit down and calculate how much time you spend in your shower, it’s minimal. Basically, you get wet, shut off the shower, you wash, you turn on the shower to rinse, and you are done.

For water conservation purposes, the faster this all happens, the better. Therefore, we used half of a whiskey barrel with a plastic liner (these plastic liners are typically used when a half whiskey barrel is used as a planter box) with a 360-degree shower curtain. The drain is cut out of the center of the bottom of the barrel and extends through the floor to the grey water tank below. We also installed a small vanity sink next to the shower. The water pump is easily accessible in the bottom of the vanity cabinet.

The kitchen sink, bathroom sink, and shower all drain into a 40-gallon grey tank under the bus. Since we are mostly camping off-grid and not in formal campgrounds, we usually just let the grey water drain out the tank and onto the ground. Of course, we use minimal soaps or detergents, all of which are environmentally friendly.

The Nature’s Head composting toilet on the driver’s side of the bus, which eliminates the need for a black water tank.

As in our first bus conversion, we installed a Nature’s Head Composting Toilet. There is nothing better than never having to go to another Sani dump ever again to drain your black water tank! These toilets are very efficient, don’t smell, use peat moss, and are easy to clean even after a couple of weeks of full-time use. More importantly, the need for a black water tank is eliminated. The risk of the black water tank freezing up in cold weather is also eliminated.

The bedroom is straightforward. We have a full queen-size 10” memory foam mattress at the rear of the bus. Underneath is the 125-gallon fresh water tank, storage, and all of the electronic gear for the solar system.

We wanted the solar system to be large enough to provide adequate power to enable us to park “off-grid” for extended periods of time. We only ever stay at formal campgrounds if we absolutely must. Our solar system consists of six 250-watt panels (we decided not to have the trendy rooftop deck since it would limit how much solar power we could have), six 12V 100-amp hour Dakota Lithium FePO4 batteries, Victron Energy 3000-watt inverter/converter, and all the other necessary solar components (also from Victron Energy).

As a backup, we have an 1100-watt Yamaha generator mounted in a steel box that is welded to the large rear steel bumper. We also have the option to plug into 30A shore power. While driving, a Victron Energy 40A DCDC charger tops up the batteries if needed.

Regarding A/C, we have a 12,000 BTU Lennox mini-split A/C unit that runs off of 120V and is easily powered by our solar system and battery bank. We also installed two Maxx Air Fan Deluxe ceiling fans. We find these work very efficiently together when you have one draw air out of the bus and one that draws air into the bus at the same time.

We wanted to not have to be searching for locations to fill propane tanks. So, we installed a large 24-gallon commercial propane tank under the bus, which supplies the stove/oven and tankless hot water heater. A full tank will last us more than an entire summer of camping. The tank is mounted up high under the bus and doesn’t lessen the ground clearance. 

Awning brackets had to be custom-made to protect the awning from branches and to accommodate for the vertical angle of the bus wall.
The “bat wing awning”, off the side of the bus.

While attending Overland Expo in Flagstaff Arizona in 2019, we met a supplier of the coolest awning I have ever seen. They are made by The Bush Company in South Africa. We didn’t want a standard RV awning since they can’t tolerate much wind (let alone weight from snow) and it would likely get ripped off the side of the bus when we drove through narrow mountain roads with encroaching tree branches. 

We decided to install one of their new 180-degree XT Max Awnings. These thick canvas awnings fold out like a bat’s wing to extend to 19’ wide. They have no supporting poles and no electric or moving parts that can jam or freeze up. When you close them up, they zip back up into a heavy canvas bag mounted on the side of the bus or overland vehicle. 

They are designed for overland vehicles such as Jeeps and Land Rovers. The supplier has never heard of them being installed on the side of a bus so we may just be the first to do it. 

The awning mounting bracket has a specific bolt pattern that wouldn’t work with the framing of the bus wall metal vertical supports. So, we had to get a metal fabrication friend to build a 120” x 10” aluminum bracket that would bolt into five of the metal upright ribs in the bus wall. 

Then, the mounting bracket of the awning would bolt to the newly fabricated 120” bracket. We also had the foresight to add a 6” “roof” on this awning to protect the closed-up awning from snow/sun and branches as they potentially scraped down the side of the bus.

An 18,900 BTU Espar Diesel heater.

When it came to heating the bus, we will have a couple of different options. We have purchased, but have yet to install, a Cubic Mini Grizzly Wood Stove. We had the same wood stove in our last bus, and nothing beats the dry heat of a wood stove on a fall or winter day. 

These stoves are quite small so you can’t expect them to burn for more than a few hours without adding more wood. So, they are primarily for short-term use only. In our last bus, we had a 7,500 BTU Eberspacher (Espar) diesel heater.

In this new, larger bus, we decided to install an 18,900 BTU Eberspacher diesel heater. It is a bit of overkill, but the fan on this larger unit is two or three times more powerful and the price difference between the two units was not significant. This 12V heater is very efficient and draws diesel fuel directly from the bus’s 100-gallon fuel tank. 

We also installed a remote thermostat so the heater can maintain the bus at a set temperature. An altitude sensor was also installed so it can adjust the oxygen required to efficiently burn the fuel, no matter what elevation we are parked at. This is a must for high-altitude off-grid camping. 

“Overbuilt” motorcycle lift at the rear of the bus, rated for up to 1,000 lbs.

We both have motorcycles, but we wanted to be able to carry at least one of them on the back of the bus. I found a used mechanical motorcycle lift that we mounted to the heavy frame on the back of the bus. I had two 2-1/2” hitch receivers welded to the steel frame and the motorcycle lift slides into the receivers.

 The motorcycle lift is made by “Overbuilt” in the US and lifts up to a 1,000 lb. motorcycle with a built-in winch. It is simple, works well, and lifts the bike quite high up into the air, which prevents it from dragging when driving over uneven ground.

The driver’s and jumper seat.

Although we plan on bolting our couch to the floor and having seat belts mounted to the original structural bus seat chair rail, we wanted a seat up front beside the driver’s seat so Marni could sit next to me (she doesn’t have her air brakes endorsement quite yet, so I am the designated driver). I found a new middle jump seat from a Ford pickup truck that folds down to make a console with storage, or it can unfold and be a seat with a proper shoulder and lap belt. 

Editor’s Note: In the United States anyone can drive a private bus conversion i.e., a motorhome without an air brake endorsement.  However, in Canada, an air brake endorsement is required.

We enjoy traveling together, so it’s nice to have her beside me. She also needed to be upfront when helping me navigate where we are going. For a mounting base, we used a heavy-duty steel bucket seat base from a 1990’s GMC van. It is bolted through the steel bus floor and the seat can rotate 180 degrees so the seat can face back towards the interior of the bus when we are parked.

The bus looks like a bit of a “beast”, so we named it “The Kraken”.  Besides being quite unique due it being lifted and converted to 4x4, it stands over 11’ tall and has heavy lugged tires. Also, it can be a bit of a beast to drive in tighter spaces. It’s doable but I must pay attention. I also have to be conscious of overhead heights, going under branches and even overpasses in some rural areas. 

We don’t have immediate plans on selling our home and living in this bus full-time. We still both work part to full-time in our hometown and would prefer to have a home base in between extended road trips. 

Even though the bus is not 100% complete, this summer we drove it down the Oregon coast and the Kootenay area of British Columbia. We have also been using it regularly near our hometown in British Columbia. 

Our first extended-length road trips will likely be up to the top of Alaska and down to the Baja of Mexico. However, our three to five-year plan will allow us to have adequate rental property passive income and remote online work to be able to be on the bus wherever, whenever, and for as long as we want. We look forward to this stage of life when we have the “freedom of time and place”. The Kraken will be a key component in that journey.

Article written by Colin Gage and Marni DeRyckere

Colin is 52 and a chiropractor and Marni is 49 and works in Early Childhood Education and is an Infant Development Consultant. They met in December 2018, and “Mo” was already sitting in the yard waiting to be converted. Mo was a 2008 GMC Bluebird handy-dart bus and was their first conversion, then they moved on to a 1990 GMC 3500 Vandura for their kids to use, and the “Grande Finale” their conversion of “The Kraken”.

The process of all the conversions brought about a lot of thought, planning, creativity, and HOURS of blood sweat, and tears. All three conversions required them to work long hours together (after work, before work, and during lunch hours). Every moment was treasured and with each build, they learned what worked and what needed a bit of tweaking. It was a steep learning curve, which required a lot of patience.

They love following like-minded people on social media and if you see “The Kraken” on the road, be sure to give them a honk and a wave hello!

You can follow
Colin and Marni on
Instagram @KruzinInTheKraken

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