5 steps for converting a minivan into the perfect archaeology vehicle 4

Minivans are the perfect archaeology fieldwork vehicleA few weeks ago, while hauling my kids to a community archaeology project at 4AM, I realized that my minivan would make the perfect CRM archaeology field vehicle. With a few modifications, I could turn this old “baby hauler” into a cultural resource management archaeology beast– a petrol-fueled behemoth of comfort and productivity. It would only cost a few hundred dollars…and some permission from my wife.

Behold, one of the greatest contributions to consulting archaeology– the Minivan

I know what you’re thinking. “Minivans suck. My mom drove us around in a minivan when I was a kid for years. She even made me drive it to school when my 1973 Dodge Dart was broke down/outta gas/on punishment for some stupid crime I committed. Other kids laughed at me and it wasn’t just because I was interested in archaeology and a delegate in the Mock U.N. I hated the minivan when I was a kid and I don’t want to drive one now.

I just want you to know that you are right to hate on the soccermom mobiles. They’re very unglamorous and emasculating. I drive a minivan and know exactly how you feel. I’m FORCED to listen to hardcore gangster rap every time I’m driving down the street, en route to my son’s daycare. My four-year-old son and his toddler sister always giggle when they hear Snoop Dogg’s hilarious raps on “Doggystyle”. His teachers at preschool get a hearty laugh when my son teaches those lyrics to his friends at preschool because they understand I’m just compensating for the fact that I drive a minivan. My wife doesn’t mind either. <End fantasy>

I just want to make something clear. When I say minivan, I don’t mean your mom’s 1992 Astro Van. I mean something like this: a 2015 Toyota Sienna (http://www.caranddriver.com/toyota/sienna). I’d also settle for my minivan, a 2008 Sienna. Both models carry up to 8 people, have three rows with a fold-down back row, and four doors. You can check out the specs on that Car and Driver link.

The truth is: Minivans are one of the best field vehicles an archaeologist could use. Don’t believe me? Let me ask you some questions:

–How frequently do you go out on field projects where you TRULY needed a hardcore 4WD, off-road vehicle?

–How often do you COMPLETELY fill the back of the pickup with field and personal gear? (I’m talking overflowing into the passenger cab?)

–When was the last time you rented an “SUV” or “Truck” that only had rear-wheel-drive?

–How often do you end up sloshing around in some other dude’s sweat on the way back to the hotel in the back of a tiny Jeep because your cheap-assed company bought/rented a vehicle that is way too small for the robust, athletic crew required for this project? (Five grown men in a Wrangler or Cherokee? Seriously?)

–When was the last time you rolled out to the site watching a Redbox on the built-in DVD player in your company’s vehicle? (I’d guess, never.)

I would wager that well over 70% of your company’s projects do not need an off-road vehicle. Moreover, I’d also guess that most of the time you don’t even need a pickup. What you do need is enough space to carry your underwear, laptop, and ramen for the hotel stay; some screens and shovels; and a comfortable ride to and from the work site. With a newer minivan you get this and more.

Today’s minivans are designed to carry children from cradle to learner’s permit. That means they can definitely take all the beating an archaeologist can deliver and come back for more. Afraid your boots are going to stain the floorboards? A sippy cup full of Pedialyte slowly discharging into the upholstery over a whole week will do much worse. Does your boss complain when you guys crumble leaves in the corners of the seats? Tupperwares full of Pirate Booty are just as polluting. Worried about mud on the seat? How about a diaper full of infant feces? I think you get the point. Minivans are made to take abuse.

A minivan also comes with all the amenities that keep kids quiet for hours of driving. Air conditioning controls for the front and back, beast entertainment systems with DVD players, and three rows of comfortable seats with enough leg room for a 6’5” adult from front to back (trust me). They’re relatively cheap to repair, have fuel efficient V6 engines (what truck can you fill up for ≈$70 and drive over 400 miles on a single tank), and you can actually drive fast on the freeway (Ever taken a Jeep Wrangler on the interstate? Then, you know what I mean).

There are two main goals of modifying a minivan for archaeology fieldwork:

Goal 1: Comfortably transport the crew and gear in an affordable, economic vehicle.

Goal 2: Transform that unproductive “drive time” into something worthy of getting paid for.

Ever wonder why bosses are reluctant to pay the crew for their drive time? Because you aren’t doing any productive work during that drive. A minivan would allow the crew to help process field paperwork during the drive to and from the field. Assuming your company doesn’t yet use tablets for field recording, you can also digitize the paper forms. All of this will save your company a few thousand dollars and help get reports out the door faster because work isn’t being duplicated back at the office. More of the office work is getting done in real-time, which speeds up the whole reporting process.

The 5 ways you can transform a swagger wagon, soccermobile into an archaeology transport vehicle

Step 1)            Bring the office to the field– Get paid for your drive time by working while you drive down the road. You will need some laptops and/or tablets, which most companies supply to their employees. You can go the cheap route and grab some budget PCs or actually invest in your employees and get energy efficient laptops. Either way, the crew just needs something that can run the software used by the company (Adobe Reader, Microsoft Word and Excel, the payroll program, ect.).

I did a quickie Google search for laptops and realized your company could provide a variety of laptops for a couple thousand dollars. Most likely, permanent employees might get something like a ThinkPad or MacBook while the crew just gets hand-me-downs of older computers:


Apple MacBook Air (13”) $980– 12 hr battery life

Lenovo ThinkPad x240 $860– 20+ hr battery life

Lenovo IdeaPad U430 $630– 8 hr battery life

Acer Aspire E1-572-510P $450– 5 hr battery life


iPad Air 11” 16GB WiFI $499– Would still need laptop

Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.5” 16GB WiFi $325– Still need laptop, but you can expand it’s memory

Microsoft Surface Pro3 12” 256GB $800–1,000– Can do double duty as laptop and field tablet

These laptops would also be the work computer for permanent employees. A crew of 5 would only need 2­3 computers since one person needs to drive and another person could help with paperwork quality control, photo logs, provenience logs, and other things without needing a computer. Let’s say your company is cheap and only provided budget computers. Three of these babies would only be about $1,500 bucks, way less than the cost of a new Trimble. Hand-me-downs wouldn’t cost anything since they’re just distributed for fieldwork and returned to the office at the end of the project.

Step 2)            Add some storage space– The standard minivan can’t carry 8 people comfortably and all the gear necessary for an archaeological excavation without the addition of a roof rack storage container. However it’s the perfect field vehicle for a 5-person crew especially with the roof box. My solution: get a roof box. You’ll need an 8-foot-long one to carry shovels, breaker bars, and other long equipment. Any extra space could be filled with field packs:

Thule Force XXL Roof Box $600@REI– 8 feet long, more than enough for shovels and picks

You may ask, “If the minivan is so perfect, why does it need a roof box?” Well, if a pickup is so perfect, why does it need a camper shell? So your equipment doesn’t get stolen/destroyed in the rain/fly out of the vehicle. A minivan can definitely carry screens, wheelbarrows, buckets, and other stuff if you lower the back row of seats down. You could probably also stash the shovels in there as well, but a roof rack would make it so much easier.

Step 3)            Eliminate excuses for not working during the commute– Batteries die. Devices need to be recharged. The fact that your laptop has run out of juice is too easy of an excuse not to get stuff done during the commute. The solution is to get a portable, durable solar panel and solar generator system that can keep your stuff charged while on the go. I have experience with Goal Zero products and know they are tough, reliable, and work in all conditions. I’ve highlighted some of this gear below so you get an idea of how you can keep your technogadgets charged while out in the field:

Goal Zero Yeti 150 Solar Generator $200@GoalZero.com–1–2 laptop charges

Goal Zero Yeti 400 Solar Generator $460@GoalZero.com– 3–5 laptop charges

Goal Zero Nomad 20 Solar Panel $200@GoalZero.com–17-­34 hrs to charge Yeti 150; 40+ hrs to charge Yeti 400

Goal Zero Boulder 90 Solar Panel $450@GoalZero.com– 3­6 hrs to charge Yeti 150; 9–18 hrs to charge Yeti 400

Again, this may cost you some money but it is well worth it. I have a GoalZero Nomad 8 solar panel that I’ve been bringing out into the field for about 5 years now. It can directly charge MP3 players and cell phones. I’ve also kept an iPad charged for an extended period of time by plugging it straight into this little panel while in the blistering Arizona sun. You’ll need a bigger panel like the Nomad 20 or Boulder 90 to charge the solar generators. Personally, I think the Yeti 400 generator and Boulder 90 panel combo will give you the best bang for your buck even though it would cost over $900 for the initial investment.

If you’re a cheapskate/small business/grad student, you get the Thule box, Yeti 150, and Nomad 20 all for about $1,000. This would be enough to use 1–2 laptops all day long, charge Trimbles/Garmin, and keep tablets charged. The solar panel could keep providing juice to the generator which is in turn powering the electronics or you could just plug smaller devices like GPSes and tablets directly into the panel.

Step 4)            Stay connected with a hot spot– How are you going to connect to the internet while out in the field? Either through the WiFi that comes with your minivan (Chrysler Town & Country and the Volkswagen Routon have built-in wifi) or use a hotspot. I have no experience with the wifi that is built into a minivan, but have quite a bit of experience with mobile hot spots. They’re not the fastest devices, but they’re more than good enough to upload documents to a server or cloud storage device. I didn’t look too deeply into this, but here are some rough prices for mobile hotspots with the major carriers in the United States:

AT&T GoPhone Mobile Hot Spot 4G LTE (5GB/month)– $50/month

Verizon 4G LTE Hotspot MHS291L (2GB/month)– $20/month

Sprint Hotspot– Let’s not even go there. I have Sprint and cannot recommend them.

You actually don’t need internet to do work while driving back to the office, but internet is crucial if you’re interested in developing a streamlined integrated field-to-home office workflow system. More on that below.

Step 5)            Integrate office and field work using technology– Chris Webster of Field Tech Designs, LLC has written extensively about how computers can be integrated into archaeology fieldwork in order to increase efficiency and lower labor costs. Using tablets and field computers to record information, eliminating paper, is the first step. Making this data available to employees through the internet is the second step.

Imagine if you could collect all field data on a tablet, digital camera, and handheld GPS; then, each day, this data was automatically backed up on a server or cloud-based storage vehicle while you were driving back from the field. Each day, while you were out in the field collecting more data, the GIS specialists, report writers, your boss, and other folks back at the home office could look at your data, help you clarify any inaccurate/incorrect data, and put this corrected information back into the cloud. Then, while you drive back to the hotel from the field, you could look at the comments on your paperwork from yesterday and take action to remedy its deficiencies (Remember, the tablets and digital photos are automatically backed up to the cloud once you turn on your WiFi hotspot or get close to the minivan’s WiFi signal). Just think of all the time you could save.

The minivan is only secondary to the process of streamlining workflow between the office and field, but the minivan can give you the space for your crew to actually work while you drive. In the future, all CRM companies will operate in a manner that field crews collect and digitize data that is uploaded to a group account or server for employees back at the base to refine, correct, and prepare for the final report. In fact, some companies are already doing this. The report could be almost finished by the time the field effort ends.

Once you’ve done your digital work for the day, you could just kick back and watch a Redbox for the rest of the drive. Or, you could multitask and turn on the DVD while you roll.

Won’t an extended cab, full-size pickup work? Why insist on the minivan?

Yes and no. Huge trucks are usually overkill for archaeology fieldwork. We’ve been using them for years and feel like they’re the best archaeology vehicle out there. But, they guzzle gas and don’t have the ability to carry more than 5–6 people. Minivans are efficient, functional, durable, ubiquitous in our country, and, with the right modifications, could become actual field offices or field labs (more on the mobile field lab minivan at a later date).

I’ve driven all types of trucks, cars, and vans for archaeology fieldwork and have finally come to the conclusion that a minivan is the best of all worlds. Minivans are more practical given the fact that we rarely off-road on roads that are so horrible that we actually need 4WD (some minivans have AWD which makes them like big Subarus). Most trucks and SUVs are also totally uncomfortable when crammed full of people. The back seats are tiny/non-existent, which means you can’t work as you commute. Huge passenger vans also suck down a lot of gas and don’t give you much leg room either. None of these vehicles have the entertainment systems that are nearly standard for a good minivan. Finally, the comfort and amenities a minivan provides helps turn your van into a mobile field office. Some minivans have wifi, but you can always get a hotspot or tether your laptop to a cell phone if you really need internet. Demonstrating productivity while on the road is crucial because it turns the commute into work time, saving time and effort back at the office.

Remember the old Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles cartoons? Remember that van that April O’Neil had? Well that’s what I’m talking about only, instead of mutated reptiles, the van carries archaeologists. And, the archaeology version has two sliding doors. I’m going to turn my minivan into an archaeology field vehicle as soon as possible.

What do you think? Convinced that minivans are excellent archaeology fieldwork vehicles? Write a comment below or send me an email.

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4 thoughts on “5 steps for converting a minivan into the perfect archaeology vehicle

  • Alexis McBride

    I drive a minivan and I love it! It’s a 2013 Honda Odyssey and I sure can cram a lot of stuff and people into it. I have never been a car person, so am unashamed about my love of the minivan, and to be honest, I don’t quite understand why other people think they are so odious.

    When my husband and I were shopping, we met other couples hesitating over the Honda/Toyota minivan or SUV. They would ask why we had chosen the minivan over the SUV, and we would tell them the minivans had more cargo space, seated more people, and had better fuel economy. They would stare at us, and then turn back to the SUV.


    Anyway, I fully agree that a minivan is the way forward with lots of people and lots of stuff. The Honda minivans 2014 model onwards even has a vacuum cleaner installed!

    • SuccinctBill Post author

      My thoughts exactly, Alexis. My wife and I test drove an odyssey, but the very back row didn’t have enough head room for me (I’m 6’5″). We also thought about an SUV but pretty much had to get the minivan to haul all our kids and their stuff.

      Now we just need to convince CRMers of the functionality of the minivan.

  • Chris Webster

    My only comment would be, what about that one project where you actually do need a vehicle with 4WD and high clearance? Rent? Probably not a bad option if the project is short.

    I’ve been looking at an extended Toyota Tacoma for fieldwork. Only holds 4 comfortably, but, that’s the size of our crews. You’ve got me thinking of a mini-van, though!

    Nice job.

    • SuccinctBill Post author

      Nice. On the seventh day of archaeology, I spoke and said, “Let there be minivans.” And it was so.

      We should really be renting any specialized vehicle that we won’t be using for 80% of our projects. When you need a 4×4, just rent it and have a tire place hook it up with beefy tires that won’t get flattened on desert plants. When you have a huge crew, rent a massive van to haul all the people. But, for most projects a minivan is probably your best bet. Especially if you only have 4 crew.

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