I am leaving my home to photo-travel in a Mercedes van I built myself

I’m Dave Williams, a writer here at DIYP and a travel photographer, writer, and educator from the UK. For many years, just like a lot of other photographers, I worked a full-time job and shot on the side as a way to fund new gear. I progressed from funding gear to fund my life, with clients and partners forming throughout my journey. That hit a bit of a roadblock during the COVID pandemic and my travels ground to a halt – I suddenly went from around 20 trips a year to zero. That’s when I decided to make my daydreams a reality.

In March I took a hard-earned £5,000 and invested in a used Mercedes Sprinter 170 313 CDi. I spent four months converting it and making it exactly the way I need it to be and now it’s my full-time accommodation and off-grid, on-road office. The conversion wasn’t easy – I spent a night soaking wet during torrential rain with a leaking roof, I changed my mind on batteries and water tanks mid-build – but now it’s ready to roll.

The van is named Kofifernweh. This is a combination of the Icelandic word for ‘cabin’, which is Kofi, and the German word for ‘wanderlust’, which is Fernweh. Kofifernweh is a cabin with a desire to travel.

I’ve got everything I need and nothing that I don’t. Making the transition from house-life to vanlife has made me change my entire perspective on what’s important in life. Weight and space are a genuine, recurring issue in what is essentially a tiny home on wheels. Everything that goes in must have a purpose or, preferably, two or three purposes. Kofifernweh has a plated weight of 3.5 tonnes. I’m just beneath that limit and after the list of essentials, everything on-board is carefully considered. We all know that photography gear can be particularly heavy, so that’s had to become part of the equation.

I’ve slimmed down my gear so I’m now carrying only the things I need in order to get the job done. Composites and alloys were chosen over their heavier counterparts, and the lenses, lights, and other trinkets I don’t need have been confined to storage.

The van itself has had all manner of modifications to suit my needs. I specialise in cold weather photography and this winter I’ll be heading to Lapland and the cold, dark north of Europe so all the way around there’s 50mm of insulation to keep the warmth inside. This has also been a consideration for the name I’ve given the van. Rather than a van, I prefer to see it as a cabin. It’s somewhat nordic, is finished with wood, and features finishing touches that remind me of the places I’m so fond of and familiar with. The four seasons are represented on a cupboard door beside the double bed which, if you were wondering, is super comfortable!

On the outside too there have been lots of changes to suit my needs. Most notable is the paint job, which is a green, hard-wearing military paint up top and a rubberised, black bed-liner paint down low. Taking second place on the exterior list is probably the wheels. They’re 18-inch alloy wheels wearing Pirelli Scorpion All Terrain + tires, capable of going pretty much anywhere including ice and snow. I have a lot of lights positioned to help me see in Arctic winters, where danger is around every curve. Reindeer and moose roam free, and the weather creates treacherous conditions a lot of the time. It’s these treacherous conditions that often make for the best photos, so I need to be prepared for it all.

In terms of what I need in order to shoot and edit, I’m set. All the power I need is stored in 200Ah Lithium house batteries that live in the garage area, right next to the fridge/freezer. The DC power put out feeds, amongst other things, all the USB sockets dotted throughout the cabin which tends to be enough to keep my devices charged and ready. Everything routes through a central panel hidden inside a cabinet where all the wires are fused and distributed throughout the cabin, but there’s also an 1800 watt sine wave inverter which creates AC power, just like in our houses, so I can run other items including my printer.

So, here’s what it’s all about. For the past few years, I’ve been on the road a lot working as a travel photographer, writer and educator. I’ve spent a lot of money on AirBNB’s and hotels, as well as car hire, flights, and other transport. Along with those expenses came time constraints in that I only had a finite amount of time at each location and therefore if the light, weather, or other conditions weren’t right for a shot I was planning on getting I’d be out of luck and would have to give up. By moving my personal and professional life into my cabin on wheels I’ve been able to remove those expenses and will have far fewer setbacks when it comes to those constraints. I can drive to a location. get the shot, do the writing, and then move on to the next location with all the planning, eating, sleeping, and anything else I need to do already taken care of on the basis that my van is my home and my office.

Everything I’ll be doing will feature on my blog and social media, and you can even track my progress when I set off from the UK, aiming to arrive in Lapland at Christmas time.