He Turned an Ambulance into a House—Now He Lives In It
Many of us entertain the fantasy of selling all belongings, traveling the world, and living nomadically. But for Ben Harris, that fantasy is reality. Ben took on a project after graduating from high school that carved out a path of its own: Converting a run-down ambulance into a mobile caravan. It eventually took him to all corners of the U.S.
Born an islander in the Florida Keys, it came as no surprise that Ben grew up craving a life of adventure. At a young age his family made the move to Montana, but Big Sky Country was just the beginning of Ben’s sightseeing. Shortly after graduation, Ben embarked on an ambulance-driven journey that led him to the middle of the Alaskan wilderness.
For Ben, the ambo-van was one of those off-the-wall ideas that was so crazy it had to work. Much as a window-shopping child longingly looks through the glass of a toy store and imagines a world of possibilities, Ben envisioned himself spending days sitting in an ambulance, minus the trauma. After seeing an ad for one online, he buckled up and began the conversion process.
The vehicle came to Ben in top shape courtesy of a volunteer fire department. Everything was intact, even to the point of the paramedic equipment on board. During the process, Ben bought two additional vans, one of which sat in his parents’ driveway until he could fix it up and sell it (after borrowing bits and pieces, of course).
“My brother and dad are carpenters. That’s where I’ve gained the skills to build out what I’ve done,” he told Sunset. The first day he laid the groundwork, “I sat around for a few hours looking around what I wanted to do, processing it all.”
First, Ben gutted the contents of the ambulance. Unlike other conversion vans, the vehicle already had storage in place.
“I utilized what was already there in terms and cabinets and made it more comfortable and clean,” he said, adding that his one goal during the conversion was to “make it not feel like an ambulance when you walk in.”
The ambo-van’s first trial run was a monumental one: none other than the historic Alaska Highway.
“I pretty much threw it into the wringer on one of the most remote roads and it handled it,” he said, noting that since that first trip, the van has visited almost every state west of the Mississippi and is currently soaking up sun in Mexico’s Baja Peninsula.
Even with the build of an ambulance, the vehicle still manages to pass as a nomadic conversion van, especially given the motorcycle on the back and surfboard on the roof.
Plus, “It’s usually filthy,” Harris joked. “We call it the big girl. She has a personality of being big, especially down in Mexico where the roads are narrow.” As for whether Harris takes “Big Girl” on distinct travel routes, Ben says he simply goes “where the road takes me.”
“I’ve never had much of a set destination or plan. It’s always where the wind blows.”
The same goes for his overnight stops as well. Harris makes sure to stop where the views are outstanding and the sound of civilization is far away, he said.
“I always make a point to camp in areas with a view, unlike other van lifers who will settle down for the night in a parking lot. The places I want to see the most are the ones I don’t know exist.”
Days without showers, reception, or civilization present their share of trials and tribulations, but there are many misconceptions when it comes to van lifers, Harris told Sunset.
“A lot of people think you’re living in it because you have to, but for me, it’s a choice. I enjoy being on the road and having freedom. I could easily have an apartment but I choose not to.”
Ben’s experiences go beyond simple destination hopping. The people he meets along the way offer a reward seldom afforded those bound to one location.
“It’s rewarding to go into these new towns and meet local people who are proud to show you where they live and what they do,” he said. “Being on the road is a community. Every time you pull into a campsite you’ll meet someone. And if you have a connection you can travel together.”
In terms of what the future holds, Ben doesn’t plan to let his spirit of adventure fizzle anytime soon. After all, each time he finds himself in a place where he has roots, “I get uncomfortable,” he said.
“I’ll always have this desire to discover new places and I’ll always have that little bit of nomadic drive.”
Follow along with Ben’s journey through his Instagram account @adventure_ambo.
Read the 2021 Camping Issue
To read: Click on the right and left arrows at the edge of the box to turn pages; to make the text larger, click on the fullscreen icon in the lower-right corner (desktop) or in the center (mobile).