Van Life: Converting Ambulance Into Mobile Home And Traveling The Americas

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IAN DOW, A FORMER RESIDENT OF NEWPORT BEACH TURNED A PASSION PROJECT INTO REALITY AFTER CONVERTING A 1994 FORD E-350 OSAGE AMBULANCE INTO A MOBILE HOME, DRIVING FROM CALIFORNIA TO COSTA RICA

Last year, after realizing the need to search for a new home, Ian Dow took to eBay in hopes of finding an old ambulance he could convert into his new home and travel the world. After one night of browsing the site, couch-ridden by a motorcycle crash earlier that day, he hastily made a bid on a ’94 Ford E-350 Osage ambulance, and to his surprise, won the auction at $2,800. His first to-do? Drive it back to California and start converting the ambulance into a suitable home, enabling that true vanlife experience. After spending four months of hard labor and learning about the ambulance, it was now a habitable mobile home on four wheels.

His unorthodox approach to searching for a home led him to continue his passion of traveling the world for the next great adventure. Some people resort to living in an RV, their car, or on someone’s couch, but Ian had a clear goal in mind and he knew an ambulance would be his perfect home. So he was off. Where to? Costa Rica of course. Surfing, fishing, and stopping at numerous locations along the way. We caught up with Ian recently to get the inside scoop on his converted ambulance and to get the full story on his travels through Mexico, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Costa Rica.

“I’M UNEDUCATED, UNEMPLOYED, BROKE, SINGLE, LIVING IN AN AMBULANCE, AND TRAVELING THROUGH THE AMERICAS.”

 

Words by Ian Dow

 

THE AMBULANCE

The ambulance was in Missouri, so I hopped on a flight to the treacherous Central America Del Norte where a white dude actually did pull a gun on me in St Louis. 2,000 miles later after driving the rig to California, I dove into the van life conversion process with my pops, Jim Dow, with yacht-like designs in mind. Living in a van, or an ambulance (whatever you want to call it), makes travel difficult if you don’t do it right, so I had to make some adjustments.

Additions:

I added a bed, table, stove top, sink, kitchenetteish thing, tile backsplash, cutting boards, storage, closet, pantry, teak floor, varnished drawers galore, a bar, spinning captains chair, curtains, insulation, padded walls and ceiling, trash porthole, roof top tent and lawn, motorcycle rack, water tanks, water heater, shower, lots of hardwood, and even made my own fancy friggin’ moulding.

The ambulance kitchen remodel. Rare-earth magnets (strong permanent magnets) have come in real handy. The strips are hardwood with magnets I put inside, but I also use them to hold in drawers, cutting boards, and hang plates while I drive. Simple interior van life tips to keep you going.

When the ambulance camper van conversion was all built out, I tossed my boards, rods, spears, ukulele, Betta fish, and dog inside, with the boat on the roof and motorcycle on the back, then started driving south. I’ve dubbed my emergency adventure machine “El Salvador.” When I was down mentally and broken physically, the idea of converting this ambulance into my home saved me.

This rig was originally built to save lives. How many lives have been saved by this machine? I don’t know, but El Salvador saved me also just as she was intended to.

Ian gives you a full tour of the converted ambulance, inside and out:

HITTIN’ THE ROAD SOUTH TOWARDS MEXICO

Dino doggy, Mr. Biggles the Beta, my buddy Dylan and I hit the road on an adventure of a lifetime. Together, we drove through Baja, surfing and fishing our way down to Cabo. From La Paz, we crossed the Sea of Cortez to Mainland Mexico, my first time in “real” Mexico. We bounced down the coast hitting epic spots like Barra de la Cruz, Pascuales, and Nexpa, as well as The Ranch and Playa San Diego, and even got lucky catching this year’s WSL Puerto Escondido big wave challenge.

That’s the plan. I’m guessing a good 3-6 months in the ambulance over 11,000 miles and through 6 countries will be a good break-in.

Ian Dow and friends surfing an amazing swell in mainland Mexico’s Barra de la Cruz:

VSM GRITTER MODERN CHINO PANTS

For life on the road! Ian has put these durable and comfortable Volcom chino pants to the ultimate test on this trip and continues to wear this same pair today. The VSM Gritter Modern Chino Pants include Anti-Microbial to kill off and stop microorganisms from growth and an exclusive Sgene® performance stretch by the legendary Cone Mills.

*Available in 3 colorways

GUATEMALA

After surfing our brains out and eating our bellies full in Mexico, we ventured over the border to Guatemala’s highlands. Mainland Mexico was hot as hell so jumping up a few thousand feet and chilling in at the cool volcanic Lake Atitlan was perfect. With a trip like this, planning is kinda outta the question. You can have an idea of places to visit or things to do, but to set dates really messes up the mojo of things. When we’re over the heat we go to the mountains, tired of driving we stop for the night, if the bugs are too much we leave, if the place is perfect we stay. We took our first warm, fresh water shower in about a month. It’s amazing how the small things in life like a nice shower can become such a luxury on the road.

Guatemala ended up being some much needed chill time as we heard there was little swell and a long in-n-out drive to the beach. With the legendary breaks of El Salvador just down the road, why bother.

Found this insanely beautiful spot on a nearly impassable mountain road somewhere in Guatemala. The views from both sides of this ridge were breathtaking and I had to stay for the night to see it at sunrise. I spent all evening talking (or attempting to talk) with the local indigenous people as they checked out the ambulance. I just barely snuck away from that incredible experience with the locals to snap some photos at last light. The Pueblo visited me again in the morning and some joined me for coffee in the ambulance. Then I said goodbye as Dino and I slipped down the mountain roads at the start of what would be an eight hour drive down a dirt road to the natural monument Semuc Champey.

Drone flight over a waterfall and river in Sierra Madre de Chiapas, a major mountain range in Central America that runs from Chiapas, Mexico, across western Guatemala, and into El Salvador and Hondurus:

EL SALVADOR

El Salvador lived up to the reputation. There are about 20 world class right point breaks within a bike ride from each other. But they’re not spread out or hard to get to like Mexico, so El Salvador’s surf breaks are busy, pushing SoCal busy with locals and tourists of all shapes and sizes. We even ran into the Guatemalan National Surf Team doing their tryout sessions in El Zonte, El Salvador.

This is Lake Coatepeque at a campsite called Los Pinos that we found after turning down a dead-end road around the lake. If you’re ever in the area, I suggest you check it out. $3.50 a night per car with full hook ups! This is the third time on the trip we were able to plug in the ambulance.

Playa Mizata. It was hot and humid, but felt great to get back in the water after a few weeks up in the mountains of Sierra Madre de Chiapas.

Might have bit off a little more than we could chew with this road to Punta Mango in El Salvador. We literally scraped by and bounced our way down to the point where we found a perfect camping spot. After camping for a few nights, we climbed back up this bad boy and got two huge rocks stuck in between the dually tires on the rear of the ambulance. We lost a tire, but we were able to ratchet the rocks out and limp to town where we got two new (used) tires for $70.

HONDURAS + NICARAGUA

Honduras was a blur of potholes for the small Pacific chunk of the Pan-American Highway. We didn’t score waves in Nicaragua, but we did score a bunch of corrupt cops and a sweet little break-in of my poor ambulance. The cops got nothing and thieves got little. No serious damage was made, so our positive vibes rolled on. We smoked cigars and watched lava pop the tops of volcanos, then headed farther south.

Lake Nicaragua, the largest lake in Central America. Camping spot for the night.

Catching some dinner together with @dinodogtravels. I’m in love with Nicaragua. During my 69 country search for “the place,” I finally found the livable, fishable, surfable, fun-loving, relaxing, perfect beach I’ve been searching for. This is my fourth time to Playa Majagual, and every time I’ve been here, the smile couldn’t be stolen from my face. This is truly as good as it gets!

COSTA RICA

The Costa Rica road trip began about five months into travelling through Central America. I ended up working on “El Salvador” at a friends yard in Jaco. The plan was to explore Costa Rica, get down to Pavones, then flip around and start the long road home with a more Caribbean theme. Damage control after driving through what turned into Hurricane Nate is what brought me here. Lots of rain and lots of fixing the rig. Nate’s what started my mold problem that had become a contentious battle in Costa Rica’s humidity. My gear and clothes were worked.

After waiting out the rain and fixing the amb, I stuck it out in Costa for a while before heading the long way back home. Costa is expensive and I basically ran out of money, but it was fun while it lasted.

Hanging in Costa Rica, waiting for the rain to clear up in my DIY camper ambulance

That feeling when you get laundry done for the first time in over a month! We visited a friend’s mom today at her hotel, Hotel Villa Amarilla Beachfront in Tamarindo, Costa Rica. Knowing our living situations, she offered us a much-needed proper shower and even offered to do ur laundry for us. Hotel Villa Amarilla is beautiful, right on the beach and super chill! Can’t wait to come back and stay here one day.

After leaving Costa Rica, his last stop on his trip, Ian Dow has been making his way back home to Newport Beach, CA. With a loose travel route and a few hurdles along the way, Ian’s 3-6 month projected trip has turned into a spontaneous and rewarding year-long adventure, and will be back home in a few weeks time. Follow Ian on Instagram to get his latest updates.

Be sure to check out Ian’s Reddit post where he answers tons of questions on his ambulance renovation and offers travel tips and secrets!

 

IAN ON HIS TRAVELS

When I first set off to see the world nine years ago I was hooked on traveling. Since then, I’ve explored 69 countries and don’t plan on stopping. My goal since I started experiencing the world has been to intrigue others with my experience and adventures so they can feel more comfortable getting out to see what the world has to offer them. The lessons I’ve learned are endless and have changed my prospective on life. Now I use Instagram while continuing my journey and sharing everything I do with fellow like-minded explorers and explorers to-be. The more people who are intrigued by trips like mine to go explore for themselves, the better. Tolerance and understanding of other cultures is something that needs to be learned, and the best way to learn about the world, its natural beauty, and interesting inhabitants, is to get out and experience it.

If you’re interested in a trip like this or have questions, I’m happy to talk. Contact me through my Instagram at @vanlife_ian_dow_travels and ask away!