Buying a Vintage RVEver since we rented a campervan in New Zealand in 2013, we knew that someday we would have one of our own. The freedom to explore in any direction, find a beautiful place, and call it home…to have the comforts of our own bed, closet, and kitchen and still get to travel every day…this was a concept that sounded more and more appealing as the years went on. But we weren’t quite ready. We had grown to love the nomadic life, where possessions are whittled down to the contents of a backpack and you’re ready to jet across the globe at a moment’s notice. So the concept of owning a home (albeit on wheels) still sounded a little too confining. We needed to sail to Antarctica, hone our skiing in Vermont, island hop the Caribbean, and house-sit across Europe. Though now, with seven continents under our belt, the time has come to explore our home continent, in a home of our own, and buy a vintage RV.

Wooed by a Toyota Camper

Buying a Vintage RVWhenever we’d see a camper with a “For Sale” sign, we’d slow down for a better look. We loved scoping different models, possible configurations, and their quirky qualities. Once we ruled out the $120,000 Mercedes Sprinter we drove around New Zealand, we started getting into the old-school campers. Sure, used models from the 2000s might be more reliable, but they lacked soul. We needed to go back to the 80s, when RVing wasn’t about bringing your flat-screen and microwave into the woods. We needed panoramic windows to be our television and a small chassis to fit between the trees. Then while in Maine visiting our good friends Lisa & Alex (who happen to have road-tripped around the world in a 1980s RoadTrek), we saw an old Toyota camper with a “For Sale” sign. It looked like someone welded a breadbox to the back of gardener’s truck…we pulled over without hesitation. It was a hot mess–no toilet, uneven wood floors, and cabinets painted by a toddler–but somehow it felt inviting, like a tiny home. That wasn’t the rig for us, but a similar Toyota model was in our future.

Buying a Vintage RV: The Craigslist Hunt Begins

Buying a Vintage RVAfter doing a little research on Toyota campers we realized they were a thing. At under 21-feet in length (small enough to fit in a standard parking space), 15-18 miles to the gallon, and a simple 22RE engine (often dubbed as “bulletproof”), these funny looking RVs have a cult following. Toyota shipped these pickups to the States from the 1970s to early 90s and RV manufacturers like Winnebago, Coachman, and Gardener Pacific were tricking them out with tiny homes on the back. We were open to buying almost any of the models (Dolphin, Warrior, Seabreeze, etc.) and had to be because they were so far and few between. We searched every online car re-seller across the US for months, until we saw a 1985 Sunrader with 94,000 miles, bamboo floors, new cabinetry, and our dream panoramic windows come on Craigslist in Jacksonville, Florida.

The Test Drive

Test driving RVsAfter having a camper snaked out from under us in California, we knew we had to act fast. We called the owner, Alex, asked a million questions on a Skype call, got a good vibe, and booked our flight for two days later. Standing at the curb of baggage claim, we saw the quirky little white Sunrader approaching and smiles crept across both our faces. Alex got out to shake our hands and opened the door. It was beautiful inside. Now for the first test: Making the 50-mile journey to his house in Georgia. Unlike a car where you can get a sense for it after a drive around the block, a camper needs its bed, cabinetry, appliances, electricity, plumbing, and engine taken for a test drive. After a little tutorial in his driveway, Alex kindly let us take the rig to Jekyll Island campground for the night. One problem, the car wouldn’t start. That was just about the worst first impression a vehicle could give, but we kept hope and called the mobile mechanic. Like a beast, a 250-pound man named “Cheetah” (yes that was the name on his business card) shimmied under the car, connected two loose wires, then in ten seconds flat…vroooom…we were on our way.

Buddy’s Namesake

Buddy's Auto Clinic FloridaWe spent the night in the camper, trying every possible switch, hinge, and lever to make sure the “house” worked. We even used the oven while running the air conditioner. Before we let our daydreams of driving off into the Alaskan midnight sunset get the best of us, it needed to see a mechanic. My uncle’s strong recommendation: “Find a mechanic who’s over the age of fifty and can remember the days before computers.” Well, we one upped him and found a 75-year old guy with 50+ years under the hood, plus he was a proud owner of both Toyotas and motorhomes. We pulled into Buddy’s Auto Clinic of Yulee, Florida and a guy with silver slicked-back hair and sunglasses only rivaled by Elvis, walked our way. Mike turned on the engine and Buddy leaned his ear toward to the 22RE. He peered deep into the metal crevices, put his hands on the engine, took a deep breath through his nose like a yogi…and said. “It’s good.” We let out a sigh of relief and laugh all at once, then Mike said, “Don’t you want to put it up on the rack, and take a look underneath?” He replied. “Nope, I’ve seen all that matters…go west and go far.” We shook his grease-stained hand and he told us about his bucket list dreams of RVing to Alaska and his regrets about never taking that trip. That day we decided to name our camper “Buddy.”

Buying a Vintage RV: Sold

Buying Vintage Toyota RV With the keys and car title in hand, we felt like a major chapter of our lives was just beginning. It was as if all the little stresses of traveling every day—not knowing where we were going to sleep, what we were going to eat, and how we were getting from A to B—melted away in an instant. (Not to say that we don’t love the excitement of the unknown and this new “consistency” didn’t scare us a bit, but the novelty of not packing up everyday was quelling most of those fears). We found the perfect way to satisfy our cravings for a home, while still having new adventures. Watch this video to catch some of the raw emotion of getting the keys to our first front door in over five years.

Due North

road trip through the south
After spending a few days sleeping at the Tire Kingdom of Yulee (yes, we slept in their parking lot until our custom carrier bearing arrived), we were ready to make the 1,000-mile drive to our storage unit. But we didn’t want to miss the chance to see friends, family, and cool towns in the South along the way. So we zigzagged from Savannah to Hilton Head Island to Atlanta to Charlotte to Harrisburg over the course of two weeks (despite only starting the journey with two day’s worth of clothes). Highlights: playing pit crew at a vintage car race, meeting our friend’s new baby bump, repairing our black water tank in front of a Pawn shop on Easter Sunday, watching a Braves game at their brand new stadium with our cousins, boondocking at the visitor center in old town Savannah, and realizing our our average speed uphill would be around 25mph. More pics here.

Fixing Up the Camper

Toyota Sunrader renovationBuddy made it to Pennsylvania just fine, but if we were planning on making it to the far reaches of Canada and drive him for years on end, we needed to make Buddy a road warrior. Over four trips to the mechanic, the auto repairs (some necessary, some “just in case”) were: a new manifold, sway bar, spark plugs, ball joints, muffler welding, and diagnosing some white exhaust (everyone was scaring us that this was the death of the car but it turned out to just be a little humidity. Phew!). As for the house of the camper, holy moly, Mike became a master plumber, electrician, and general contractor and I was apprenticing as fast as I could. We re-caulked the windows, doors and taillights, resealed the ABS pipe into the black tank, cleaned and reset the toilet, replaced the gray water valve, installed two Maxx Air fans, hack-sawed and rebuilt the battery compartment (to accommodate our 200-amp hour behemoth), installed and wired three 100-watt flexible monocrystalline solar panels (no easy feat!), stabilized the propane tank, and added three roof racks for our future kayak. (Aren’t you exhausted just reading that list? If not, see the full renovation photos here.)

Decorating Our Tiny Home

Aesthetically, between the new floors and cabinets, the place was in pretty good shape…now it was time to make it our own. To break up the 115-square feet and give it more distinct living areas, I painstakingly laid a “tile” backsplash to define the kitchen and separate it from the living room and bedroom. One of the previous owners (just after the New England Oyster farmer called it home) had made a lovely hand-painted cherry blossom screen to give privacy to the bedroom and hide the car cab. Playing off the tree theme, we bought a ginkgo leaf bedspread and hung our favorite bird photograph of a Lilac Breasted Roller. While the cushions and curtains in the living area aren’t exactly perfect, we’ve spiced it up with some vintage-y geometric pillows, working with the teal and gray theme and adding some sunny yellow. For art, we’ve strung up our favorite postcards from our world travels, hung a painting of the mighty Fitz Roy mountain (painted by my uncle and inspired by a photo Mike took) and a cartoon drawn by our family friend Al, which gently mocks old Buddy with his “Flintstone Breaking System” and “squirrel-powered motor.” Lastly, we laminated a National Geographic map of North America, which doubles as art for the front door and a log of this ambitious journey. We’re still tweaking the décor, but it’s starting to feel like home!
2021 Update: See our camper’s latest look!

The Road Trip Begins

We could have easily been tinkering with the camper for another month, but the road was calling…as was Mike’s little brother’s wedding all the way across the country, in less than ten-days! Ready or not, we made it out of the driveway. With dreams of going to every US State and Canadian province, hiking the Rockies, kayaking the Great Lakes, spotting grizzlies in the Great Bear Rain Forest, chasing the Northern Lights, and blazing paths down unnamed roads…a new adventure has begun.

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  1. tamaralikecamera says:

    This is my kind of post, and you are my people!
    Northern lights are big on my bucket list, actually. Alaska was my #1 travel dream until we went last summer. And you know what? We only saw some of it. So it’s still #1 on my list!
    As for the camper, I have big dreams for all of you! My good friend wants to buy an RV and went to the expo out here with my kids and now they want one too!

    1. Heck yea, Tamara! So happy to hear Alaska was even more awesome than you imagined. Guess what? We’re in Northern BC right now and heading over the border to Hyder, Alaska later this week! So stoked. Hope you and your kids get that RV someday, it’s been awesome!

    2. I own a nearly perfect 1992 Dolphin in great shape. Just 68M. Excellent traveler and great mileage! I love taking it out in trips

      1. AMAZING Tony. My brother just bought a 1992 Dolphin himself. Engine looks a bit too new for me to work on…but overall he loves it!

    3. Kevin Eugene Wallace says:

      What are you using the 300 w solar panels for? Also do you have a refrigerator in the rv? Do you have generator to keep the rv warm in winter? Also how are you keeping the water (fresh and black or grey) from freezing in winter? We recently purchased a 92′ Spirit Itasca.

      1. Hey Kevin, thanks for the questions man. Replies:

        – What are you using the 300 w solar panels for?: We have not plugged into the grid since the day after we bought our camper April 15th 2017. 100% off grid. We use the solar for ALL our electricity needs.

        – Do you have a refrigerator in the rv? YES. Fridge + Hot Water + Stove + Oven all run on propane

        – Do you have generator to keep the rv warm in winter? We have a generator but haven’t used that either since April 15th 2017 (when we turned it on to test it). We don’t like the sound or the smell, or consuming gas. So we just bought a warm blanket, and don’t camp anywhere the inside of the camper gets below 28 degrees.

        – Also how are you keeping the water (fresh and black or grey) from freezing in winter? We don’t go to places where the temps are below 30 degrees. If we do need to store Buddy somewhere cold (or go cold for a few weeks), we simply drain out the water and go dry.

        – We recently purchased a 92′ Spirit Itasca. AWESOME. Love those Itascas. Welcome to the RVLife!!!!

  2. Congratulations! That’s quite the purchase! This is an incredibly journey for you both and I wish you all the best. I know plenty of people who would love to RV and just go on those type of adventures!

    1. Lisa, buying the camper was a HUGE move for us but we’re so glad we took the plunge. It’s been so liberating to explore like this way! Thanks so much for your well wishes.

  3. Hubby’s dream is to buy an RV and travel the U.S. I don’t know how well that’ll go over with the four year old, but I’d enjoy seeing all the sites. I really like how you’ve decorated your RV.

    1. I actually think RVing could be great with a four-year old, it’s like having your house with you so if he needs a nap, snack, Bandaid..whatever it’s all right there. Plus, it would be a great learning experience for any age. Thanks so much for the decorating love, it feels good to make a little home 🙂

    2. Janice Lager says:

      You’s three are adorable!
      Are other motorist ok with Buddy snailing it uphill? I hope so, he’s

      1. Buddy is flattered, he rarely gets called beautiful 😉 The occasional motorist will get impatient with slow ole Bud, but we get far more high-fives and rock-ons than curses.

  4. I have always wanted to travel on an RV. I have been glamping because I do not like to camp, so an RV would be ideal for me. I need one with a bathroom though. I have been always a city girl, but I love adventure. Good luck, I cannot wait to hear more about all your adventures.

    1. I feel you on the adventure without the tent. Our camper has a bathroom and solar panels so we can have your privacy and power even in remote wilderness…you’d love it!

  5. OMGoodness, this is so cool! We have been searching for camper too, it’s so much fun traveling in an RV. Good luck on your adventure and what a great job on the renovation!

  6. toastycritic says:

    This takes me way back. I remember having the RV and going out on the road. It was actually the first thing my parents gave me to drive. I have so many good memories making long road trips in that camper, sitting in back as we went out on the road. It was awesome.

  7. As much as I’m not sure I can live a nomadic lifestyle, I love the idea of being to get up at any time and travel somewhere new. Have an RV obviously makes that possible…the kids would love it!

    1. Full time RVing is definitely not for everyone but hey you don’t have to live in it to try one out! Highly recommend it for a vacation around the US & Canada with kids!

  8. Ahh this is so so sick. Megan and I intend to do this as soon as we can. So excited for you guys. Just outta curiousity, how did you go about finding such a specific mechanic, just call and ask do you have a toyata and RV? Take care guys and will be following a long getting inspiration and scheming on how to make this a reality for ourselves.

    1. Pretty sweet, right? You and Megan would love vanlife. Can totally see you two in an cute VW. We called every mechanic in the Jacksonville area and were so lucky to find Buddy. Be in touch…happy to answer any questions if you guys get seriously shoppin.

  9. Thomas Sheldon says:

    What’s the winter 2018 plan? Mexico as part of this trip? This winter on the beaches of the Sea of Cortez in Baja sound good?

    you should also check out the full time RV wintering spots like Slab City and Yuma.

  10. Congratulations!! What an awesome next chapter! We are just starting our life of travel and have our sights set on buying something like this in a couple years 🙂 Can’t wait to follow your adventures and see where the road takes you!

    1. How exciting you guys are starting a big travel chapter together! Be sure to follow us on for the most up to date adventures and Instagram Stories for real time shenanigans! Happy to exchange long-term travel tips!

  11. Stuart Skversky says:

    I love seeing whats cracking with you guys, its awesome! Are you in or near LA on July 30th or Philly on August 5th or Jersey August 18th?

  12. alisonrost says:

    “Go west and go far” … the best thing to put on a billboard (ever). I love what you’ve done to your new digs. It reminds me so much of my aunt and uncle. Their home base is Phoenix, but at least once a year they take off and travel the U.S. in their RV visiting relatives. And they’ve got a lot of them(!) It’s a little bigger than Buddy, and I was surprised how roomy and comfy it is inside. Can’t wait to see where you go next! x

  13. Ha! Ha! Travelling for ages in a campervan would drive me crazy. My husband, our teenage son, and I live in 2 apartments, and we’re still sometimes on top of each other! Good on yer.
    Happy caravanning!

  14. Bill Bladt says:

    If Mexico is in your sights come fall San Carlos on the Sea of Cortez is a really great town. Just north of the Pilar Condos folks park their RVs in the dunes overlooking the Sea. About a 5 hour drive from Nogales.

  15. Outstanding blog! Big ups for writing this and your journey guys. Nice camper!

  16. I have a 1988 Dolphin! I work in Alaska in the summers and live in Oregon in the winters, would be fun to meet up if you guys are still on the road.

    1. Heck yea, Marissa! Toyota campers are THE BEST! Funny you say that…we’re planning on coming to Alaska this summer 🙂 Would be such fun to meet up!

  17. Rose Schraeder says:

    Hi Anne & Mike, Brett & I just bought a 1986 Toyota Sunrader and are loving it! We’d like to ask some detailed questions about the tilework you did, your hot water heater, and other topics. Would you please email us at the address affiliated with this post from me? Thank you! Rose

    1. Congrats on the Sunrader purchase! We LOVE ours so much!!! Just replied to your email with our best tips for your new camper!

  18. Hello guys, I have an 87 Dolphin i purchased in Seattle about 2 yrs ago. The engine had piston slap on #1 because the previous owner did not check the oil, no biggie. I contemplated an engine rebuild for months but could not overlook the lack of power from the 22r-e especially over the Pass. I have never driven the Dolphin, but did extensive reviews about the performance especially on the hwy and the Snoqualmie Pass here in WA State. A trip to the wrecking yard for my other project, brought my attention to a wrecked Mustang GT with a running engine. As a car enthusiast and a mechanic (natural inclination)it had to be done and I had to do the Dolphin a favor. It is no longer a the Dolphin but the Dolphin GT. I made it into what i believe it should be, just as you did to your rig. I am still in the process of completing the “Dolphin GT” which must remain EFI.

    1. OMG, that is an amazing story Keino…and while I can do some projects (I just replaced my drive shaft and carrier bearing), put in a new gas pump, new alternator and starter….you are SOOOOO much more a mechanic than I am. I am interested to hear what kind of mileage you get on that Mustang GT engine…I am sure you won’t come close to my 18.75 I am currently getting, but if you are even in the ballpark, with a LOT more horses under the hood it might be worth it.

  19. Deb Mulder says:

    You’re my role models.
    I bought a ’91 Itasca Spirit about a year ago. It’s really in pretty good shape but I’d love to be able to add tile like you did. Was that adhesive type tile like I see advertised on the RV websites or is it more like the stuff you use in a stick built home? I also want to replace the old carpet and put down laminate flooring. Any advice you can give me I’d appreciate. I’m still working full time so only get to go on short trips at this point, thankfully I live in Colorado so lots of good places to go. But in the very near future I’ll be hitting the road like you. Love my little Toyota! They’re the best.

    1. That’s awesome you have an Itasca, we are Toyota cousins 🙂 Tiles were adhesive that came in 1’x1′ panels from Lowes, nothing special to RVs just that they were lightweight. They really help make the kitchen feel like a separate space. Having the decorative wall panel curtains from the bed down to the floor is nice too, for privacy, making the cab disappear when you’re “at home, and the feel of a big painting in small space. “Our bamboo floors were put in by the former owner and we adore them…carpet gots to go! Colorado is a road trip paradise, and if your rig can handle those mountains–you can handle anything. Happy trails!

  20. Car Nut Tacoma says:

    Sweet looking Toyota Motorhome. This is my idea of what a motorhome should be. It should be small enough that anyone who has driven a Toyota truck can drive this without a special driver’s license, but it’s comfortable for two adults to travel the country with.

    1. You are 1,000%. This is the first motorhome we have ever owned…however after living in it for 3 years, and spending time in approximately 30-35 other RVs/Camers/Truck campers/5th wheels/Sprinters/etc…we wouldn’t take another type rig if it was completely FREE. Seriously. This is the best camper on the market right now….oh and we get nearly 19 miles to the gallon 🙂

  21. Jose Luis yengle says:

    Hi Mike and Anne you have an amazingly beautiful 1985 Toyota Sunrader. Great job with the renovation, it looks beautiful. I have the same year and model as yours and I’m renovating mine as well, almost done and I can’t wait to get on the road. I live in San Francisco, hopefully some day I can meet you guys so we can share some ideas since we have the same year and model have fun with the journeys and if you guys ever come back to San Francisco please let me know. Also, thanks for your videos you guys got me inspired

    1. So awesome, a fellow Sunrader owner…wasssup Jose. How are the renovations coming along? Post some links to your blog/photos man!

  22. Oh man, I hope we know what we’re getting ourselves into! Heading to LA tomorrow to *fingers crossed* buy a 1992 Toyota Dolphin!

    1. YES YES YES! That is what i’m a talkin about Holmes. Can’t wait to see all your renovations on that baby!

  23. dot Cahill says:

    It came from Jacksonville, fl my hometown!!

  24. Mike & Kim says:

    Awesome blog and love all the reno tips. We own a 86′ Sunrader 21- classic too. Would love to be off grid worthy. What made you go with 200 amp, do you reckon a 100 amp could meet the demands, with x3 100 solar panels. Also please, list all components and cost estimates to go full nomad. Will post pic of our conversion project.

    1. Hey Mike & Kim, how are you guys?!!!! So awesome you guys own a Sunrader as well! You DEFINITELY need 200amp hours (honestly wish we had 400amp hours, and are strongly considering getting a Lithium Ion battery, so we drain it all the way to 0% without damaging the batter). And we would also recommend 400 watts of solar on the roof if you are going to be in snowy/rainy/cloudy places, or doing a lot of camping in the winter when the sun isn’t as high in the sky.

      Other than that we have a charge controller, the battery, and the inverter. Total cost from Windy Nation (solar+controller+inverter) was around $800 – then get the biggest Lithium Ion you can afford from Relion (we are looking at the 200amp hour one):

      And you will be ready for full nomad brother & sista!

      Looking forward to those pictures!

  25. Pat and Laurie says:

    My hubby and I bought a 1992 Toyota Dolphin in 2006 and went all the way East to Cape Cod and Maine ; took the southern route to stop in Texas and Tennessee and Washington, DC on the way.
    On the way back to California where we originally started (Northern) ; we took the Northern route
    by way of Ohio , Great Lakes Route 90 all the way ; down to see Mt. Rushmore and Crazy Horse in So. Dakota; dropping down to Zion National park in Utah then to Salt Lake city . Not wanting to go home yet; we went back up to Oregon and came down the coast! Awesome trip took seven weeks. We have taken other trips as well but that was very memorable ! we now just go camping ; our poor RV has about seen its last days but we will always have a special place for our RV!

    1. AWww Toyota motorhomes are the best. So sorry your Dolphin is in retirement but sounds like you enjoyed it to fullest!

  26. Kimberley says:

    Great video! My husband and I were considering living in an RV. We are curious as to what type of address you use for voting and drivers license purposes because you can’t use a mailing service / PO Box from our understanding. Thanks and happy travels!

    1. So glad you enjoyed it! Our camper is registered in South Dakota, and YourBestAddress (in SD) manages our mail for a very nominal fee. would highly recommend them.

  27. Luke Althouse says:

    Hey guys I have a 21 ft 84 sunradar on a Nissan pickup I love it and it is basically all I have. Unfortunately I have some transmission issues, do you guys have any advice?

    1. Hey Luke. Sunraders are awesome, the clamshell fiberglass is so the way to go and they are so retro cool, right? We’ve been super grateful for our Toyota engine with no transmission issues, sorry the Nissan has been giving you troubles!

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