From Issue Four of Gear Patrol Magazine.
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Alan Feld is no-bullshit, and Alan Feld is a bullshitter. This is the mix of a man who, for more or less the majority of his adult life, has vacationed by van. He has two homes — Fresno and San Diego — and he has a van that goes quite literally anywhere. Feld owns Sportsmobile West, the largest of the three of Sportsmobile branches in the U.S. (the others are in Texas and Indiana).
Feld and his wife, Liz, drove from San Diego, California, to the Durango, Colorado, airport to meet our crew after a phone call that lasted just five minutes. No bullshit. There was also a brief email correspondence — insurance, minutiae — but that’s all. Feld said he’d be there with two vans, including Sportsmobile’s latest van conversion, the Mercedes-Benz Sprinter 4×4, and when we walked outside the airport there Feld stood, word strong as oak.
Over the next five days, Feld doubled down on bullshitting. Jokes. Chewing the fat. Storytelling. Camp talk. The kind of discourse that makes five days together memorable and never lets the conversation run dry. It’s van life, and Feld does it with a seasoned grace.
There’s a distinct pattern to life in a van, for better or worse. Yet when the van you are occupying is a $140,000+ modified German 4×4, life leans toward the better. And in western Colorado, whether on fire roads, Jeep trails or no roads at all, Sportsmobile van life blossoms into luxury. What the Sportsmobile unlocks — and unlocks with exceptional proficiency — is the capability to reach a desolate destination while being spoiled in comfort.
“I’ve had it out in the desert, and I’ve had it in the snow, and I tried to get it stuck a couple times and couldn’t. It amazed me.”
“I like getting to destination points,” Feld said. “I don’t like, ‘Watch this, I can climb this hill for fun.’ [The van is] more of a tool.” A very capable tool, and — lest one forget — an expensive one. “When I talk four-wheel-drive, the number-one thing I talk about is asset preservation,” Feld added. “This is your kitchen, this is your bedroom, this is your ride home. You do not want to be putting the vehicle in peril.” In other words, lay off the Monster Energy drinks and treat this mobile home like a cherished home.
That advice is a mentality shift, in some ways, from the machismo of the 4×4 community. But it’s a relevant one. During our time in the Western Slope, we traveled from Durango to Dunton to Telluride to Crawford to Grand Junction. Our journey was not a rock crawler’s wet dream. We didn’t climb steep embankments. We didn’t ford rivers. We never put the winch to use (Feld claims he’s only used his winch five times in 25 years, “all for somebody else”), and we never put ourselves in any sort of pulse-raising peril. We drove on gravel and dirt roads, sometimes wet, sometimes muddy, sometimes puddled, but nothing intense.
“The factory Mercedes four-drive is a very capable vehicle,” Feld noted. “I’ve had it out in the desert, and I’ve had it in the snow, and I tried to get it stuck a couple times and couldn’t. It amazed me. It’s a well-designed and -engineered German four-wheel-drive system.”
Yes. Definitely. And when the time comes to use that capability, you’ll be glad you have it. Feld took a Sprinter 4×4 down to Baja earlier in the year, and a storm washed out a bridge on the return route. He popped the Sprinter into four-wheel low, forded the river and returned home on time. The other vehicles in his party waited an extra five days for the bridge to get fixed. On this Sprinter, rescue security comes standard but, surprisingly, it’s not high on the list of selling points. Rather, my most treasured moments with the Sprinter happened on rather mundane occasions.
The first was as I headed up into the forests of the West Elk Wilderness, driving in four-wheel low on a rutted-out pathway, reached an aspen meadow at the top of the hill, opened the van’s slider and sat my ass down to take in the view — one entirely unspoiled by human interaction. The other memory: driving past the RRL Ranch in Ridgway with the dramatic San Juan Mountains in the background, cruising at 70 mph, one finger on the wheel and the seat warmer on. It was a moment of luxe-proficiency in a vehicle made for the mud. Again, neither memory serves to impress the Jeep crowd around a bonfire, but they are both times I cherished.
“I guess our thing would be ‘the ultimate adventure vehicle.’” No bullshit included.
“What is the perfect overland vehicle?” Feld posited as we jostled down from that aspen meadow. “Off the record, it’s whatever you got. It could be a nice pair of shoes if you’re into backpacking or hiking, it could be a motorcycle, it could be a Jeep Wrangler with a trailer. Whatever you use is the perfect overland vehicle — could be a mountain bike.” He paused for dramatic effect. “On the record, though, it’s a Sportsmobile. I love these things.”
Sportsmobile West makes around 200 vehicles a year. From start to finish, it takes 10 weeks to outfit a vehicle, with 250 man-hours invested. At any given time, Feld has around 25 vehicles in production. Currently, there’s a wait-list of 15 months. All modifications happen in-shop, under the eye of Feld’s son, Sportsmobile West CEO Jonathan Feld. Welders, electricians and cabinet makers give the entire interior a makeover, customized to the buyers’ specifications. There are 44 floor plans to choose from — if that selection doesn’t suit a buyer’s van-life habits, there’s the option to go full custom. The classic Sportsmobile roof cutout is reinforced with specially fabricated 13-gauge structural steel, bolted to the van’s roof. Cabinets are both bolted through the van’s steel floor and secured to the van’s sides. Feld has also laboriously vetted and selected the best components, focusing on companies with long histories and whose products stand up to Sportsmobile’s in-field testing.
“We use all name-brand stuff,” Feld noted. “Our front axle, I can honestly say, is the strongest axle in the world. This transfer case is the best transfer case on the market.” He sources many components from California, where — Feld believes — the best parts can be found. The axle is made by Dynatrac in Huntington Beach, the transfer case by Advance Adapters in Paso Robles, the springs by Betts in Fresno, the sway bar by Helwig in Visalia, the stabilizer bar by Fox in Santee. “People say nothing is manufactured in California,” Feld added. “But it’s where all these parts are made, and that’s just great.”
For the Sprinter 4×4, fewer modifications are necessary than on the Sportsmobile Ford Econoline on which the company built its name in the 4×4 world. The Sprinter receives a lift of 4.3 inches in the front and 3.1 inches in the back, giving it 20 percent greater slope-climbing ability, and Sportsmobile adds heavy-duty mud terrain tires. Beyond that, there’s not much; there’s no need. The Sprinter is also more in the spirit of the everyman’s off-roader — a vehicle for the weekend warrior, not the rock crawler, or a vehicle for a New Yorker who’s come to Colorado for a few days off the grid. And for that, the cockpit fit.
As Feld and I drove up the old logging roads, climbing to five-digit elevations, the vans chugged along — his modified Econoline and my Sprinter 4×4 charting a path through the aspens and up to the top of the ridge. Earlier that day, we’d driven from Durango to Dunton, set up shop at our hotel, eaten lunch and then hopped in the vans to explore. The lack of lag time, setup and preparation is one of the best conveniences these vans offer. Feld noted it as well, “You can go out, do all this, but you can drive home.” For that — and the rest of my experience with the van — the nomenclature of the conventional 4×4 didn’t quite fit.
Sportsmobile is something more, but I couldn’t put my finger on it. I posed the question to Feld, to see if he could summarize exactly what the van’s ethos is — how Sportsmobile is best distilled. I asked him to sum up the gist of the whole brand in shorthand. “I’ve never been asked that one before,” he said, then paused for longer than usual — the great conversationalist finally halted by an inquiry. Then, he gathered himself, turned and said matter-of-factly, “I guess our thing would be ‘the ultimate adventure vehicle.’” No bullshit included.
A version of this story appears in Gear Patrol Magazine: Issue Four, 320 pages of stories, reports, interviews and original photography across America. Now available. Subscribe Now: $39