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Bart Miller ’Wheels and Overlands in a 2017 Mercedes-Benz Sprinter Van

Van Go

If we decided to do some kind of crowdsourcing experiment and asked, "What to you is the ultimate overlanding or trail rig?" there's a high probability we'd see nary a hint of "van" within the responses. Then again, if you know, you know, and Bart Miller knows. That's how he ended up with a 2017 Mercedes-Benz Sprinter. We saw his 4x4 in action on our 2019 Four Wheeler Overland Adventure, and we understood the appeal of the "house on wheels," as he calls it. In fact, overlanding in a van is kind of an obvious consideration, given that there's a built-in living area and off-road capability straight from the factory.

Bart comes from a life of traditional 4x4s. He's had Jeeps. He's had a Toyota Tacoma TRD. He's also tinkered around with motorcycles. So, this wasn't an uneducated purchase made on a whim. "I felt like it was a good all-around platform and would allow me to customize it to fit my needs," says Bart. "The big difference that I found with coming from a Toyota Tacoma to an M-B Sprinter was the size and off-road capabilities. I do miss the Tacoma for its articulation and making a hard trail look easy."

But here's the interesting part: He hasn't really done much to the Sprinter; he's built a simple overlander that he can point and shoot to get to destinations—even those remote ones. What has been customized was done by Bart, because "doing a build yourself is part of the fun. This also helps when issues arise, and making repairs out on the trail seem to be a lot easier because you know how everything was put together in the first place." Having built overlanding vehicles before, he didn't fully wing it here—but must-haves included a fridge freezer, onboard water, cassette toilet, onboard air, extra fuel, oversize spare tire, and front bumper capable of housing a suitable winch for self-recovery, plus custom interior odds and ends.

The Sprinter is also his daily driver, but that particular usage no one questions. "On my recent trip out West, we decided to make a detour on the way back East and hit Moab. We did a trail called Fins and Things and as we were on the trail, everyone that we ran into said, 'Dude, are you lost?'" A vehicle like this on a trail like that? "I felt like we were at a rockclimbing competition with all the bystanders!"

Every van has its fan, and with this Sprinter, the fanbase keeps expanding beyond just Bart. "I would say the thing I like most about this build is the fit and finish of the final product. I get a lot of people asking what options are these and does Mercedes-Benz offer different layouts. After explaining to them that it was a custom build, they are kind of star-struck."

When Bart Miller was a kid, he and friends would hike the Appalachian Trail during the summer. He started four-wheeling once he was of driving age, and next came tent camping. His current overlanding rig is this '17 Mercedes-Benz Sprinter that started off as a crew van, which meant a bench seat for rear passengers and a cargo area of bare metal. "Some people make modifications like suspension first," he says. But Bart's been working from the inside out.
Under the hood is the stock Mercedes-Benz diesel engine worth 188 hp and 265 lb-ft of torque. It's just fine for his travels. "Most of my overlanding trips have a large amount of travel to get to a set destination. The Sprinter van is a joy to drive daily and also on long trips, and I get very little driver fatigue," says Bart. "One thing I do love about this vehicle is its size and having all the necessities that I need at any given time." RotopaX handles extra-fuel duty for the getaways.
The simple, purpose-built Sprinter features Backwoods Adventure front and rear bumpers. Bart says, "The front bumper allows me ample room for a 12,500-pound Smittybilt winch and numerous areas to mount Rigid Industries lights. This bumper system also has an integrated diesel exhaust fluid tank skidplate, front skidplate, and engine skidplate."
The rear swing-out-style setup has room for an oversized spare, and the storage box holds recovery gear, extra fluids, and tools.
Exterior add-ons that you instantly notice are the Terrawagen snorkel—"more for the talcum-powder dust found out West than for water protection"—and the Canadian Solar panel on the roof. He has it hooked to a Morningstar charge controller. "The vehicle also has a Redarc DC-to-DC charge controller that charges off of the vehicle's alternator when the vehicle is running. This charge controller will also allow for a plug-in portable panel if you so choose to have the vehicle parked in the shade." It also charges a 220-amp AGM battery for the fridge/freezer, "which has been running constantly for a year and a half," plus air fans in the roof, all LED lighting, the water pump, and the van's USB and charging points. One regret: "I wish I would've added extra wire throughout the van for powering other accessories."
Rolling stock is comprised of 32-inch BFGs and 17-inch Method Race wheels.
Among the first things Bart did to the Sprinter: adding Dynamat and 3M Thinsulate insulation. He also added ceramic tint to the windows. This cut down on road noise and also helped reduce heat or heat loss. He made the custom interior panels from very thin birch and then gave it a custom-leather factory look. The panels and the floor are held in with aluminum L-track. The L-track is mounted to the vehicle via rivet nuts "for quick removal of the L-track and/or panels/flooring to do any troubleshooting and/or modifications down the road." He then TIG-welded everything together.
Platform bed or bunk-style bed? That was the hot debate Bart had with himself. "With this being a daily driver and needing to have access to the back of the van for hauling around various items, I chose to go with the bunk-style system, which allowed me to fold the bed up out of the way when not in use." He made it out of 1x1 aluminum box tubing and 1x3 box tubing, and then he covered it in quarter-inch birch plywood wrapped in automotive carpet.
Photo: Bart Miller"Off-roading the Sprinter van is a totally different experience than I've ever had before. Picking your line is totally different due to its size and capabilities. The articulation is slim to none. You have to power through an obstacle, which is not, in my opinion, the right way to do things, but it is a must due to the way the four-wheel-drive system works, and it utilizes the traction control a lot," Bart explains. Next up is a full suspension overhaul with a focus on ground clearance, articulation, and handling.

 

At a Glance

General
Vehicle: '17 Mercedes-Benz Sprinter
Owner: Bart Miller
Stomping grounds: Salisbury, Maryland
Build time: 9 months

Drivetrain
Engine: OM642 six-cyl BlueTec turbodiesel
Transmission: G40 five-spd automatic w/OD
Transfer case: ZG3
Front axle/differential: Stock
Rear axle/differential: Stock

Suspension
Front: IFS
Rear: Leaf spring

Tires/Wheels
Tires: 285/70R17 BFGoodrich KO2
Wheels: 17x7.5 Model 301 Method Race Wheels

Miscellaneous
Armor: Backwoods Adventure bumpers, Smittybilt 12,000-lb winch
Cool stuff: Rigid Industries LED lights, Pioneer amp, JL Audio headunit, DD speakers, Cobra CB, ScanGauge II gauges, VIAIR compressor, RotopaX fuel container, Terrawagen snorkel, Klein air horn, Snomaster fridge freezer, Superflow water pump, Blue Ridge Overland gear storage bags, Redarc DC-to-DC charger, Morningstar solar charge controller, Canadian Solar solar panel, Dynamat, 3M Thinsulate, AGM battery, Canyon Coolers soft cooler, Thedford electric-powered cassette toilet, custom-made sleeping system and interior panels, Factor 55 hitch