MEET YOUR MERCHANT: Love for simple camper vans inspiration for Grass Valley’s Cascade Campers
Cascade Campers, Grass Valley
Converting RAM ProMaster City cargo vans into fully functioning camper vans
Zach Yeager got his first 1964 Volkswagen bus at the age of 16. To him, it represented freedom and the ability to hit the road in a moment’s notice, never having to worry where to sleep that night.
Immediately after his high school graduation ceremony, Yeager walked out of his school, threw off his cap and gown, jumped in his van, and set off on a road trip down the coast from his hometown of Seattle. This experience was the beginning of a lifelong love of road trips in vans, which offered affordability and a greater opportunity for spontaneity.
“The best road trips are the ones where you don’t have a plan — where you just follow the flow of things,” he said. “You just decide to be open — you can’t plan awesome. That’s why vans became so important to me.”
But like many adventurers, Yeager also had to make a living. He landed a job at Amazon and spent more than a decade working as a telecommunications engineer. But after 13 years, he knew he had to do something different.
“My plan was to save up enough money to last for six months to a year after I quit,” he said. “One of the ideas that had been floating around in my head was to build a modern version of a VW van.”
Yeager knew Volkswagens inside and out. He’d served as president of the VW Club in Seattle for 10 years, but realized he couldn’t build a business around fixing up VW vans.
“There were a lot of complexities associated with fixing up old and broken VW vans — it can be hugely expensive,” he said. “If I did it, the business would become more of a vintage thing. I wanted to find new vans that are affordable to most people, not the higher end models that run upwards of $90,000. Low cost and high quality have been my primary thing from Day 1. I know that doesn’t sound very American.”
NEW BIZ launches
In 2017, Yeager founded Cascade Campers and intensified his search for a modern, reliable, economical alternative to the classic VW campers he’d grown up loving. Eventually, he settled on the Ram ProMaster City’s cargo van edition.
Today, for $7,000, Cascade Campers can convert any 2015-and-up Ram ProMaster City into a Cascade Camper. Customers simply purchase the van and the team takes over from there. Make no mistake, Cascade Campers are not luxury vehicles. They’re small and not designed for adults to stand up inside. But their size allows them to go places other campers can’t.
“We believe the camper van experience shouldn’t be limited to the mechanically adventurous and the affluent,” Yeager wrote on his company’s website. “Our vans are solid, reliable, economical adventure mobiles equipped with everything you need for a killer outdoor experience and nothing you don’t. They’re small enough to drive anywhere and big enough to call home. They’re ready for your bucket list road trip and your daily commute. With the right attitude, adventure is everywhere.”
NOT YOUR GRANDPARENTS’ RV
“The hippie campers of the ‘60s were small enough to park anywhere but had enough space to call home for short-to-extended periods of time,” added Yeager. “RVs are cumbersome beasts built for wide, smooth roads and wide, flat RV parks.”
By contrast, the Ram ProMaster City vans are made for any road and can reliably serve as a person’s only car. Donned a “vehicular Swiss Army Knife,” the vans are “as comfortable on a trip to the grocery store as they are on an adventure through the Rockies.”
GRASS VALLEY OR BUST
In 2018, Yeager and his wife, Ashley, moved the company to their rural property in Grass Valley, a place Yeager says “feels more like home than Seattle ever did.”
While Ashley focuses primarily on upholstery and curtains, Yeager, now co-owner Ilsa Chapple and an assistant do all the building and conversions of each van. A longtime friend and VW fan, Chapple was the “obvious choice” to become a partner in the growing company, said Yeager. Plus, she’s the only one who can keep up with Yeager’s work pace while still making it fun.
“We’ve really grown — we hit a niche and people have mostly found us through internet searches,” said Yeager. “First we built two a month, then three, then four, then six. Going forward, we’re planning on building eight a month.”
When Yeager first posted a video of the fifth van he built, it garnered more than 175,000 views. The interest hasn’t stopped. Of the 90-plus vans they’ve converted, 78 were built in Grass Valley.
They hope to have finished their 100th van by mid-March.
New owners love to come out and meet the Cascade Campers staff face to face, and many have formed a network online.
Standard features include a couch that converts into a 42-inch-wide, 6-foot 4-inch long, two-person bed and a 5-gallon water tank and sink. The water tank has quick-release water lines for easy filling and the sink drain leads out to the back bumper, meaning no dealing with a gray water tank.
The “house” battery system charges while driving, and a roof-mounted 100-watt solar panel takes over charging while the vehicle is parked. Also included are two USB charging ports, two 12v ports and a 400-watt power inverter for a laptop, phone, or other 110V “necessities.”
A Dometic CF-25 fridge keeps food cold with no need for ice. The temperature is adjustable so it can act as either a refrigerator or a freezer.
Interior camp lighting includes soft white LED light bars on both sides of the van and have two brightness settings. There are also dimmable red LED bars which preserve night vision and are create a warm atmosphere. A single-burner butane cook top is stored in a cubby near the sliding passenger door for easy access, and is used on the counter next to the sink.
Five storage bins are located below the bed and there is a long, narrow storage space behind the bed, as well as different sized storage pockets found throughout the interior. Privacy curtains secured in place with magnets sewn into the sides of the curtains, meaning no one can peak in and light is blocked.
LABOR OF LOVE
“We love doing as much of the building as we can here in the shop,” said Chapple. “We love what goes into each van and knowing that the pieces aren’t made in a sweatshop somewhere. I also love the fact that our van owners have formed a network online, where they share information. They recognize each other on the road and some have even gone camping together.”
“We’re all excited to meet the customers face to face when they come out to pick up the van,” said Yeager. “There’s a handmade aspect to this and the customers know it. The best part is seeing the transformation in people’s lives after they get a van. They talk about taking off on a trip on a whim, and being more adventurous. Women feel safe traveling on their own.”
STRIKING A BALANCE
But at the end of the day, Yeager says their goal is not to work themselves into the ground — there needs to be balance in their lives. Time for family, friends, and, of course, adventure.
“The two weeks off that the average American gets is sick and wrong,” said Yeager. “Making money isn’t everything. We need to make time to take our own road trips. After all, we need to know we’re making a good van.”
To contact Staff Writer Cory Fisher, email her at Cory@theunion.com.
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