One Big BOV, by KC-4-JC

In my prepping, one of the hardest things for me currently was the bug out vehicle (BOV), so as with any prepping activity I made my list. I first made my list for a “normal” BOV; 4×4, diesel, four doors, trailer hitch front and back, winch front and back, spare rims and tires, and enough storage for our stuff. Since we currently do not have a retreat location, we would have to be able to carry a large amount of supplies and equipment to the location we will be hunkering down at. Continuing the thought process I decided we would need an enclosed trailer. We have a small gas SUV, so we could use it as well. The reality of the situation grew, and without a retreat we would really have to plan on what we would and would not bring. Just my family would be three vehicles, two trailers, 7 people, and a years’ worth of supplies. The logistics did not add up. Talking to my wife, whom I am blessed with as she is a prepper as well, we began to look into motor homes. So again I made a list; 4×4, diesel, front and back door, trailer hitch front and back, winch front and back, spare rims and tires, and enough storage for our stuff. On a hot Saturday we set out on a tour of the used recreational vehicle (RV) lots. I was quiet unimpressed by the offerings. First motor homes are cheap in their construction with thin walls, cheap running gear and many have poor engine choices. At one of the location in the back they had an old school bus; someone had “converted” to a motor home. It was very poor workmanship, but it really got my mind clicking, and home I went to scour the internet. I was amazed at the expected services life of a school bus, 15 to 20 years before any major servicing; look at the average 20 year old RV and then a bus which would you rather have? They are made of steel, built on a truck frame, and the safety regulations are through the roof as opposed to a motor home. I thought about when tornados strike and they show the school yards; buses maybe thrown all over the place but they still look like buses. My mind was made up; I set out on the adventure of a life time I expect only to be exceeded by the craziness of bugging out.

There are a lot of forums out there that were very helpful, but none geared towards the BOV. So I had to blend the great information out there with the reality of the vehicles use, and my wife always reminding me that until its ultimate goal we can use it for fun. After tons of questions on the forums, reading, and research I decided on a mid-1990s, flat nose, Bluebird TC2000 front engine, with 90,000 miles. It was an ex-school bus, with awesome service records, and was sold only because of budget cuts! With a front engine flat nosed bus I can work on the engine from the inside of the bus, giving me some protection in a heated event. The bus was a 13-window bus, about 43 foot long bumper to bumper with a usable interior space of 39.5 x7.5 feet and roof height of 6.25 feet. The only thing it lacked was four wheel drive. I found several companies that can convert the “Big Bird”, even though the cost would be as much as I paid for the bus and extra engine and transmission. I decided this would be the last thing I did to her; I figured since she has 20” of ground clearance, and tons of torque, we would be okay without it. It has a 5.9 Cummins diesel in it with an automatic Allison Transmission. A lot of people had issues with this engine claiming that it is under- powered. But after doing some research most of these claims were unfounded. This engine also is so common that I can go to the local auto parts store to get anything for it. And a used engine can be picked up for under $1,000–which I did within a month of the purchase of the bus. The transmission was the same, although finding a used one in good shape was little harder and took three months. I did a little research and found a mechanic that contracted to a large freight line. I spoke with him over a few weeks and worked a deal from him to rebuild the engine with my help, he also recommended a transmission guy who was a retired vet that worked on tanks in the army. The deal was to rebuild the second hand ones, install them and rebuild the pulled ones for storage. I know if I had to bug out I probably could bring them, but if the TEOTWAWKI holds off for a few years, and our gold and silver continues to increase in value we should have a retreat in two to three years.

Let the fun begin. I luckily did not have to strip the seats out, since I bought from a used school bus lot, they knocked $1,000 off if they got to keep the seats; however I did have to strip the rubber floor, this was a 30+ hours of labor endeavor. Once all the floors were stripped I was lucky to find no major rust, just some minor surface rust that a wire brush took care of. I sealed and primed the floor with a RustOleum industrial product. The walls were insulated with 2 inches of fire-resistant foam board giving me an R value of 15. I sheeted over some of the windows, and left the stock windows intact in the rest. The floor was covered ½ inch fire resistant foam and ¼ inch water resistant subfloor. At this point I had a blank slate. I had already worked through all of the designs in Google sketch-up, and was ready to go. I first did some rough framing in both wood and metal, being sure to mount everything securely and with some kind of adhesive between everything for both added bonding purposes and to help eliminate as many buzzes as I can. The framing went pretty fast. In the back of the bus I built a master suite, that included a murphy bed electrical panels, plenty of storage and floor access to both the 60 gallon stock diesel tank and the 100 gallon aftermarket tank. Next was a set of bunk beds; I installed ¼ inch hardened steel around the bunks giving us a small “safe room” when the bunk doors are closed. Following the bunk is the head which included a macerating toilet has an electric pump as well as a manual handle, and small 30×24 inch bath tube. Then the galley, were I installed a tankless hot water heater a diesel marine stove, and a 12v/120v refrigerator. Finally the salon which had two couches on either side of the bus and 60 gallon water tanks under each. I also installed three seat belts on each side.

With every system on the bus I tried to ensure there was a backup. On each side of the salon behind each water tank I installed a water pump and accumulator, which helps with water pressure. Both of these are wired and plumbed independent of each other only joining and the electrical box and the main water line. Both water tanks can be filled from access ports on either side of the bus. Hot water is supplied by either a tank-less hot water heater, or through water coils in the diesel stove. A simple valve and flip of a breaker chooses which heating source I use. The 12 volt system is anchored by 3,000 amp hours of batteries setup in three banks throughout the bus to distribute the weight. The batteries are absorbed glass mat (AGM) and again after doing the research I felt these would be the best for my application. They are managed and maintained by a charge control unit, of which I have two in place with a manual switch gear in between to choose which one is used, and two spare ones in the stock. On the roof I have 1,500 watts of flexible PV-panels. I have a dual pole high output alternator, running one pole to the engine battery bank, and one pole to the charge controller. The running battery bank also has a battery isolator installed with another line to the charge controller. Finally I have another switch gear in place allowing the engine to be cranked off of the salon battery bank if needed. All 12v equipment runs through a breaker box instead of fuses allowing me to stock less. Each wire run has a spare pair of wires in case one melts or breaks I only have to re-terminate to the spare pair. All lights are LED, both inside and out. I removed the old flashing lights and installed 3 million candle watt spot lights both front and back for a total of 12 million candle watts pointing each way. I figure worst case I could cook with these bad boys! The 120 volt system was kept to a minimum. It powers the two AC units I installed on the roof between the PVs, the tankless hot water heater, optionally the fridge, a few outlets throughout the bus and the 32 inch LED television at the front… I know but I had to do it. Under the back of the bus I mounted a 3,000 watt diesel generator/welder and a 7,500 watt quiet Onan diesel generator on opposite sides. They are both wired to a Tripp Lite 3,000 watt inverter that with burst to 6,500 watt if needed. The inverter has two inputs allowing me to connect both generators without a relay or switch. I purchased a spare inverter since this is one of the few single points of failures. I do plan on wiring it in with another switch gear in place; I just haven’t got to it yet. The inverter also acts as battery charger and a UPS for the whole system 120v system when you are running on it. The fuel lines for both generators and the diesel stove are plumbed off of the 100 gallon auxiliary tank. There is no hard connection between the stock 60 gallon road tank and the 100 gallon auxiliary tank so I can run non-road diesel in the auxiliary tank, saving a little money; and if the SHTF pumping from the auxiliary into the running tank won’t really be a big issue. Finally I have outside hookups on both sides of the bus. With these I can pull or push power. We lost power at our house when a pole was knocked down by a car. I used the box I installed on the house to hook the BOV up, flipped the main off, and powered our deep freeze, a fridge, a small air conditioning unit, and our television for 14 hours with no problem!

I also installed a motor home style security camera system. While driving it eliminates any blind spots, and when parked, it gives me a 360 degree view around the bus day or night.
Under the bus I have a 60 gallon black water tank and a 60 gallon gray water tank. I can dump either tank from either side of the bus. I have installed macerator pumps as well to help clear out the tanks a little easier. Down both sides, in-between front and back tires, I installed under the cab tool boxes like the ones big rigs put under their cabs. These are for both storage and access to needed equipment. I have installed a 100 foot reel 120v extension cord, I taped off of the air system and installed a 50 foot air hose reel, and finally I have installed a small shop-vac and a small air compressor also tied into the air system as backup in case the air brake system’s compressor goes out. The rest of storage is for tools and equipment use outside of the bus.

On the roof I had a rack made at a local welding fabrication shop to store two spare tires mounted on rims. This installs on the back of the roof, and allows me to “easily” get them off and on. A pulley system you utilize the buses winches is in the future for the roof of the bus. I did it once to test without the winches, and it took me and a come-a-long a little too long. A small collapsible ladder is attached to back as well; it is pad locked on, but can be extended from its mount to get to the roof if need be. The same fab shopped built me a front and back bumper with winch mounts and two inch receivers. They both have 12 inches of walking space as well as louvers over the radiator up front. The winches mounted are 15,000 lb winches front and back for a total of four and 100 feet of cable each. I should be able to get myself out of most anything with this setup, from pushing a few cars out of the way to pulling myself out of the mud, if I have something to tie on to.
We prepped the outside of the body and used a roll on truck bed liner product in desert tan. I left the roof white to try and keep the temperature down some.

Building the inside partitions and trim myself allowed me to create multiple hiding places for “just in case” items. These include a 12 gauge over the door, a Glock on either side of the bed, and Taurus Judge by the driver’s seat. Unless you knew where they were you would never find them.

While we were installing the rebuilt engine and transmission we also completely re-did the brake system, this is when I installed the small pancake compress as a backup. We also went through the suspension replacing the springs and a few other worn out items. I thought about installing air bags, but was warned against it through multiple sources; I also figured it was one more thing to go wrong.

One of the biggest pains was getting the title converted from a private bus to a motor home, so that I would not need a special license. I had to get a weight certificate proving it weighs less than 26,000 lbs., pictures of the inside to prove it seats less than 14, I had to have insurance, which meant I had to get a temporary commercial insurance account (ouch), take all this to the DPS office along with the regulations printed out from the [state] DPS web site, and argue with them for hours until they did what the laws of the state say. Then I canceled the commercial insurance, and they “allowed” me to credit the extra to a new motor home policy.

The completed BOV, as we now call her, gets 10-12 miles to the gallon, weighs just shy of 25,000 lbs. (dry), and tows a fully loaded 9,500 lbs. trailer with no problems. The goal was to create a vehicle that would be self-sufficient for at least 30 days, be able to carry my family and supplies, and get us out of Dodge! It is just an added bonus that it is a blast for us almost every weekend to head out and go somewhere new and fun! We have taken 17 day adventures, never having to hook up to shore power or refuel. With our stored jerry cans, and some rationing we have no doubt we could make it 30+ days. Since the build started I have also purchased an older dodge pickup with the same engine and have started to work on a conversion to the same transmission. We have the truck setup to tow behind the bus, and a camper on the back for storage. If we were bugging out we would hook up our 16 foot enclosed trailer to the bus for a total length with tongue of 62 feet (keeping us under the legal limit of 65 ft.), and tow our small gas SUV with the truck.

I know this conversion is not for everyone, and as I said earlier this was the biggest adventure I have ever undertaken. It was a lot of work, and a lot of learning. Now that it is done, my wife was joking that there is half of the cost of our retreat. Even though she is right, I would still not want to be without her.