#VanLifers Never Had it So Good
Beartooth Vanworks owner Matthew Brailsford grew up in a converted school bus in Livingston, Montana, built by his father. And since, he’s spent much of his life traveling in ten different vans, cabover and trailers, including a 1971 VW Westfalia. So it wasn’t surprising that he ended up co-founding a company that outfits vans and caters to #vanlifers. The company perfectly fit with the Bozeman outdoor and travel vibe and with Matt’s lifestyle.
“Matt was doing the vanlife thing in the 70s!” says Nic Thoman, Beartooth Vanwork’s Marketing Director. So he really understands what people living or spending a lot of time in vans are looking for. When he moved back to Montana after spending 15 years in China, he started flipping houses. But by 2015, he and co-founder Jake Tocco, decided to start a company building out off-grid, non-stationary homes.
By 2017 they moved into their first shop and started converting the inaugural van with a small team of five people.
“The first van took around six months,” Nic explains. “It was a huge learning curve.” They’ve built out 80 vans since, average cost $115K per build (ranging from $75K-$250K), not including the vans.
Some people spare no expense for things like radiant floor heating and interior showers, says Nic. “It’s like having a cabin on wheels!”
A House on Wheels: Growth, Precision & Value
Even with the high costs of buying and building out vans, growth is exponential, says Nic. The company is at capacity for production. They’re shooting to do 24 vans per year, two per month, building six vans at a time. And they now have 17 employees.
So what’s driving growth? Fifty-year-olds and retirees, Nic says.
“Obviously there’s a stigma around the #vanlife thing, but most are not buying vans to post on Instagram,” Nic says with a chuckle. “This is a project they’ve been dreaming of for a while. They want a van going into retirement, and they’ve likely been saving since their 20s.”
Growth also likely results from their reputation, adds Nic. “We are gaining pedigree in the market as one of the top builders. And you definitely get what you pay for.”
A company like Beartooth Vanworks has extensive experience and know-how, Nic explains. And they spend plenty of time with customers to ensure they’re getting exactly what they want AND something that will hold its value.
“One cool thing about the company that sets us apart is the fact that we are employee owned,” Nic explains. “All the guys have a personal stake in every product that goes out. We have a team of guys actively trying to better every van that goes out, for their own pride. And the company itself is an extension of all of us.”
How Does the Van Planning Begin?
Their builds start with potential customers completing an online survey, Nic explains.
“That survey helps the design team to get to know the client better by asking them questions about the intended use of the camper van,” he says. “Knowing that the owner is a fan of mountain biking and fly fishing—and plans to camp in the backcountry—helps the BTV team better understand their needs. That customer may have different requirements compared to one that stays at established campgrounds and enjoys skiing and scuba diving.”
Once that process is complete, the Beartooth team creates a preliminary van design and meets with the client to discuss their ideas. “That conversation helps refine the build process and leads to a more detailed floor plan,” Nic explains. BTV then finalizes the design concept and creates a quote with detailed estimates of the cost of the project. If both sides are comfortable with the plan, a contract is signed, and the build out begins.
“We guarantee that whatever leaves our shop is as good as it gets in the van market,” Nic says. “If you’re looking for something that lasts and that has lasting financial feasibility, going with a professional builder is a huge plus.”
And, in fact, it’s not uncommon these days to sell a van for the same or more than what you paid for it. It’s almost like buying a house; it’s just a house on wheels.
So What Goes Into a Beartooth Vanworks Van?
A lot, says Nic. One of the biggest considerations is materials.
“We need to build something that’s going to last when you’re driving down a gravel road,” he explains. “If everything is shaking around and jiggling, it’s going to fall apart.” So they focus on building beds, cabinets, etc that are “locked tight and robust to handle the roads that we are going to drive the vehicles on.” For example, they switched from using wood cabinets to aluminum framing because it was more secure.
The Beartooth Vanworks construction style is standard across the board, able to handle any conditions even if the buyer doesn’t have 4WD, Nic says. “Everybody is going to get an electrical system, basic insulation paneling package, windows and all that.” And most people choose a platform bed.
On the other hand, there are many options, and every build is completely custom. People fill out a survey which drives the overall design and build, says Nic.
“Some people want their bed in the front with a lounge space and others want all the living space up front," he adds. "Some people want the family hauler to get the kids to the ski resort, while other people are full time van living. We have no categories.” And they don’t want to pigeonhole anyone.
“It’s cool to get people into a van that gets them doing what they love to be doing,” Nic adds. Living or traveling in a fully decked out van is just a really fun way to do the activities that we all like to do. And at the end of the day, everybody wants to get out and do what they enjoy doing.”
How Does the Crew Use Titan Straps?
“Everybody in Bozeman uses Titan Straps for skiing, snowmobiling, construction, etc,” Nic says. “And our team is made up mostly of outdoorsmen. So early on we figured out we could hold our benches that flip down into beds in place with a Titan Strap. It holds tight and doesn’t move. We leave them there for our clients.”
The company’s employees also uses them to hold microwaves in cabinets, for gear storage and to strap skis or snowboards onto ski racks, among other things. “It’s nice to work with local companies where we know the product and can back it,” adds Nic.
Check out their badass website to dream about your future #vanlife van: BeartoothVanworks.com. Also follow Beartooth Vanworks on Instagram. Which strap appears in these pics? The black Industrial Strap 30".