Overland evolution


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The Alu-Cab Icarus conversion makes anywhere feel like home – even this beach on an island off the coast of Croatia : credit: © Mary Hannah Hardcastle
Mary Hannah Hardcastle reveals her seven-year journey from ground tent to fully-converted Defender Camper

It’s 2016 and we’re breaking in our new-to-us Discovery 2 and escaping to the desert once again. Our set-up is simple yet effective for the task at hand: a two-person ground tent, an inexpensive cooler from Walmart, a secondhand two-burner propane grill and a couple of sleeping bags and mats. Our only goal is to get away and enjoy the outdoors. The word  ‘overlanding’ isn’t even in our vocabulary yet.

Fast-forward seven years, and we’re now travelling the world in a fully converted Defender 110 camper, complete with Alu-Cab roof conversion, running water, induction cooking, solar, a diesel heater and a fridge – the works. This wasn’t an overnight transformation. We’ve tried and tested countless set-ups – from a ground tent exploring the West Coast of the US, to a roof-top tent set-up down the Pan-American, and an internal bed platform up to the Arctic Circle. Every new terrain, climate, and experience, led us to make tweaks to our set-up which led to the one we have today.

Heading into the Montenegrin mountains, near the border of Bosnia, putting the Defender’s all-terrain tyres to good use

Back to the beginning though, and new to California, we’re on the hunt for a vehicle that will allow us to get out and explore. After a few weeks on the prowl, we find it: our dream Disco 2. A garage-kept silver beauty, for $1500, begging to be used for what it was built for: off-roading. Too giddy to wait, we almost immediately pack up and head out to the desert on its maiden voyage. I still remember that first drive – the taste of the open road and the sense of freedom that we felt knowing that we now had a vehicle that could take us wherever we wanted to go. It wasn’t fancy, but it was ours.

From Yosemite to Joshua Tree, to Utah and beyond, we were camping and hitting the trails as often as we could, our trusty ground tent and minimalist gear all serving its purpose every step of the way. As our trips became more frequent, we began to look for options to make life on the road easier and before long we upgraded to a Yeti 45 cooler to help with the never-ending battle with melting ice and were the proud owners of a secondhand rooftop tent.

Unknowingly, we’d entered the ‘overland’ world, which became apparent on our first drive around the coast with our freshly installed roof tent. We quickly noticed we were no longer getting waves solely from other Land Rovers, but also from fully-kitted out overland rigs of all makes, our roof tent acting as a vehicle-topped beacon to other enthusiasts. From the very first camp out, we were instantly hooked. There’s something about being elevated off the ground that gives you an instant sense of added security and comfort, with the added bonus of a five-star view. But, it’s the ease of folding the roof tent away, with all of our bedding inside, that was pivotal for us, allowing us to pack up quicker and easier, and head out to explore during the day. From then on out, nearly every single weekend we were out putting it to good use.

Early days: Andy Ellis cooks up a feast in the Bolivian Andes, on the couple’s Pan-American adventure

As time went on, the thought of living on the road full-time didn’t seem like a far-fetched dream and in December 2018 we were hitting the road south to Argentina from our cosy apartment in California. It was this decision that catapulted us into our first full-on build, a Discovery 3 that we’d recently bought at the bargain price of $3000. Our bulky plastic table was replaced with a cleverly-designed Front Runner table that fitted snugly under the roof rack. Our flimsy plastic storage boxes were swapped out for rugged Pelican cases, and a pull-out drawer system to make organisation a breeze. We finally invested in a new two-burner stove with a larger, 5lb propane tank. And for peace of mind, we upgraded our electrical system to a dual-battery set-up. We now had an awning, BFG KO2s, MaxTrax and even a Lifesaver jerrycan so we could finally filter and carry water with us. But the biggest improvement was the swap from a cooler to a Dometic CFX50 fridge. There are few products out there that I would deem a game-changer for long-term trips, but after using it for years, it is still one of our favourites.

For the next five or so months we spent nearly every night in a roof tent. At first, our love for it was unwavering, but the reality that we were no longer in sunny California soon set in. The combination of the rain, the wind, and the daily set-up and tear down soon got to us. I can still hear the curse words flying as the zipper on the cover refused to cooperate yet again, as we attempted to fold away the soggy canvas. Before long we decided that although roof tents are phenomenal pieces of kit, a soft shell is not the best solution for long-term travel, especially in the rainy season. It was here that the seed was planted for an easily poppable hard shell option.

As we neared the end of Central America, preparation for winter in South America began. Just before shipping, we quickly engineered a fold-down bed platform inside our Disco 3, just in case the weather got rough. In an ironic twist of fate, our rooftop tent was damaged during the shipment from Panama to Columbia, so our backup plan became our only sleeping option. It worked an absolute treat, shielding us from the elements, wind, rain, and snow, for the entirety of the continent.

It was here, while in Bolivia, that we purchased our now beloved Defender 110, Tango, from a UK auction website in preparation for the next leg of our trip. With Africa in mind, and 200,000 miles on our Disco 3, we were trading comfort for simplicity, with the hopes that a Defender would be easier to work on in the bush. When all was said and done, we’d built an Africa-ready set-up complete with a drawer system, gullwing, Front Runner roof rack with all the accessories, our trusty Lifesaver jerrycan, BFG KM3s, and our beloved Dometic fridge. For sleeping we kept an internal sleeping platform and the final piece of the puzzle, a roof tent, would be picked up in South Africa to finish it all off.

It was during a trip to the Arctic Circle that the set-up was questioned

Fast forward through a pandemic and we’ve rerouted to the Arctic Circle. With the freezing temperatures, the internal bed platform quickly became a multi-functional space. It’s here, on Christmas Day, in -23°C temperatures (without a diesel heater), bundled up inside in the back on the bed platform attempting to escape the relentless wind and frigid temperatures, and simultaneously make a cup of tea from melted snow without spilling it on my sleeping bag, that we decided it was time for a big change. We not only needed a place to escape inside while we were sleeping, but also for days when the weather was less than inviting. It was time to go back to the drawing board and completely reimagine our set-up with everything we’d learned to date.

The moment we were back on UK soil we were plotting and planning. What was the ultimate set-up for us? I’d be lying if I said we were both convinced it was our Defender. My heart was leaning more and more towards a 4x4 Sprinter. As fate would have it, a month later I would be flying back to the US to try out van life for myself for the first time. It was nine days of pure bliss – running water, a sink, a fridge, a fixed bed, ample built-in storage space, a diesel heater, a built-in two-burner stove. There was even a toilet and a hot shower. What more could you ask for? Off-road capability.

For us, it’s always been about getting further out there – the places that most set-ups can’t or don’t dare to venture to. The other beauty of a smaller rig is international shipping, and with some bigger trip plans on the horizon we didn’t want to limit ourselves to where we could go and how easily we could get there. So back to the drawing board we went. Would it be possible to fit all of the luxuries of a bigger, full-size van into the footprint of a Defender? It was time to try.

One thing remained constant throughout the builds: a trusty Dometic CFX fridge

We needed to narrow down our must-haves. What makes home feel like home? What pain points have we had to date that have made life on the road frustrating? What would allow us to stay on the road longer without needing to retreat to a hotel every now and then? These are the questions we kept turning over in our minds, discussing at the dinner table, and quite literally dreaming about. We learned CAD, endlessly researched potential layouts and hunted for clever solutions for small spaces. The possibilities were endless, but we knew there were a few non-negotiables: the ability to sleep inside at a pinch, the ability to comfortably sit up inside if the weather was poor, the ability to cook inside if needed, a fridge, heat and running water. We were also striving for a propane-free set-up, adding to the peace of mind of being completely reliant on one fuel source.

The further along we got in our planning, the more we recognised that there was one thing that would completely transform the build and help us to fully maximise the internal space of the Defender. A few months later, after years of dreaming about it, Tango was getting our biggest upgrade to date: an Alu-Cab Icarus roof conversion. A few labour-intensive months later, the eight to 12-hour days were starting to pay off, and the camper was beginning to take shape.

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Rain or shine, an awning is always a good idea on any overland build

Now, after three full months of testing this set-up across Europe, ranging from the Alps to the Mediterranean, we can confidently say that it has completely changed life on the road for us. I know that may sound like an exaggerated claim, but it has. We no longer crave home, or a hotel, or a campsite – this is big coming from someone who almost requires one of those three every week to stay sane. We no longer are searching for propane and have what feels like an endless supply of power with our lithium battery and solar set-up, thanks to the team at RV Installations.

Having filtered running water at the twist of a tap dramatically improved life on the road

We now have, for the very first time, the ability to shower, wash the dishes, and get filtered, pressurised water at the twist of a tap, plus the added bonus of being able to fill up our water tank directly from any freshwater source. We have the ability to sit up inside, even with the roof down, plus the ability to cook and live, completely internally, if needed, if the weather isn’t friendly. We have two sleeping options: one in the Alu-Cab and one pull-out option down below, which we recently learned doubles as the perfect guest bedroom when Andy’s mum joined us in Croatia for a few days. We have built-in cabinetry, complete with Dometic fridge, ample storage, and two fold-out tables for eating, cooking and working on the road. And in preparation for colder temperatures down the line, we finally bit the bullet and invested in a diesel heater. For the first time, it’s no longer a build, the Defender feels like home.

Expedition rig outside and cosy camper inside, complete with the comforts of home

This set-up is giving us the ability to go further, stay longer, and truly enjoy the road in a way that really fits our lifestyle now. I say now, because I recognise that our needs have also evolved over the last seven years – both as we get older, and as our travel styles change. There’s no doubt that there will be tweaks to be made in the future, but for us, for now, this really is our dream build. Most of all, though, this set-up is allowing us to continue to get out there and do what we love most, which is to explore the world. Ultimately there is no right or perfect set-up out there. The perfect one is the one that encourages you to leave the comfort of home, and gets you out doing what you love.



Base vehicle
2010 Defender 110 2.4 TDCi

Exterior Upgrades
• Alu-Cab shadow awning
• Front Runner slimline roof rack (tall)
• BF Goodrich KO2 tyres
• Safari-Equip rear storage locker
• Dometic S4 camper window
• Lightforce lights
• WARN winch
• ARB bumper
• Front Runner prep table
• MaxTrax
• Front Runner gullwing

Mechanical Upgrades
• 45-litre auxiliary fuel tank
• Polybush kit
• Gwyn Lewis uprated propshafts
• AlliSport intercooler
• EBC brakes

Interior Upgrades
• Mudstuff double DIN replacement fascia
• Double DIN screen + JVC reversing camera
• Cruise control
• ARB air compressor
• Upgraded sound system (Mudstuff)
• Bison seat box corner protectors and trim
• Steering and seat box carpet from Mudstuff

Interior Build-Out
• Custom-designed cabinetry using 12mm laminated birch ply shaped using CNC machining
• 7mm foam, cut to size using GB Foam Direct and covered in Abbotsford Textiles’ wool and fabric
• 19mm bamboo worktop
• Vinyl wood-effect flooring

• Alu-Cab pop-top
• Backup slide-out sleeping platform

• 65-litre Safari-Equip chassis-mounted water tank
• Dometic water pump (7 litres per minute)
• Guzzle H2O built-in water Stealth filtration system
• Guzzle H2O portable stream filtration system (for filling from rivers and lakes)
• External shower point

• Dometic CFX3 55IM fridge with ice maker
• Sterling induction cook top 1500W (built-in)
• Sterling induction cook top 1500W (portable for cooking outdoors)
• Dometic sink
• Dometic tap

Heating & Electric
• 2x Dometic Büttner MT 210 solar panels (420W total)
• 2x Dometic Büttner MT LI120 lithium batteries (240Ah total)
• Dometic Büttner MT LB90 DC to DC charger
• Dometic 2000W inverter
• Webasto Air Top 2000 diesel heater


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