One of the reasons I was so keen to sleep in a campervan this year (you’ve read my 38 Things for 38 Years list by now, haven’t you?), was to solidify my childhood longing to travel in a van, either by confirming it was something I want to continue to dream about, or discovering that I actually hate it and the fantasy is a massive waste of time.
Ever since I was a child, vanlife has held this place in my mind that is full of romance. It’s the epitome of all things outdoors and adventure and freedom. It’s all about sunrises and sunsets, big views from my bed, relaxing after long hikes, visiting cute little towns and villages, and drinking copious amounts of tea in between. The idea that I could get home from work on a Friday evening, bung some food and some clothes in my van and head off for a weekend of outdoors fun and relaxation appeals so much.
Some of you who already have vans warned me that borrowing that campervan for a long weekend (read all about my road trip to see the sea here) could only go one way, and I would be buying my own van before the summer is out… but I like to think I’m much more sensible than that. They are expensive beasts after all! What it did mean was that I could take that vanlife dream of mine and see what it was like in reality; to test it out to see if (one day in the future) I’d like to adopt a van of my own.
My Vanlife Dream vs Reality
My years of dreaming have certainly lead me to have a set of expectations (and hopes) on what owning my own campervan would be like, and having the opportunity to compare that minds eye view to the cold hard reality of it was hugely enlightening. I’m not naive, I know it can’t all sweetness and light, that it’s not all easy and stress-free, but I think we all are guilty of only thinking about the good, aren’t we? All the more important to try before you buy then…
I have always seen campervans as metal tent on wheels. I don’t expect lots of space inside, any real mod cons, or even a private bathroom. I’ve only ever been interested in small vans, the kind you can fit in an ordinary parking space, and so I was pleased to find that the T6 sized van I tried out was just right. The pros of the size were primarily about convenience on the road, whereas the cons were that there was little space to move around, especially with the bed made. But we got used to that on our short break and I have no doubt we’d come up with some kind of routine that meant that wouldn’t be an issue if we lived out of a van for longer.
Talking about finding a routine, I think that was the main stress for me over my weekend road trip. It’s fair to say that it always takes time to get used to any new space and new routine, something that I know all too well – it hits me every single time I head off on a motorcycle adventure or camping road trip. The ideal 10 minutes from driving to sitting comfortably with tea in hand didn’t quite come to fruition thanks to not really knowing how the van worked, not being sure where anything was stored, and not being used to working around each other in such a tight space. But all of this can be put down to this van not being mine; it wasn’t my stuff, it wasn’t my set up, and I was a first timer. Getting used to how things like the bed, pop top, swivel seat, windscreen cover and such worked took a bit of time. But I have to say by the time we parked up at our final of three camping spots we were much more accustomed to things and it was all very much more straight forward. The dream was that it would be simple as rocking up at a hotel – and I reckon it could be with practice.
Something that we would have to work out is the fact that if you are sharing a van with someone else, you both need to decide when you want the bed making up (and putting away again). I generally go to bed early and get up early, which means my evenings are much shorter than my husbands. It is difficult for one to sleep and the other to do other things at the same time, as you are basically in one room. I guess van owners just match their morning and evening routines so this isn’t an issue – or go alone!
Having done a lot of road tripping in my car and on my motorbike, I now know that doing so in a van is very different. Not in a bad way, it’s just not the same. I mean, when I’m motorcycle touring, the road itself – the journey – is the reason we’re there. We might stop for some sightseeing, a short hike, or for some food, but it’s the road that is the biggest deal. In the van, the road is much less interesting, it’s more about where you choose to stop and take a break from the driving – and the convenience of having everything to hand when you do so – that makes the trip enjoyable. The dream was that the van would be more like my motorbike than my car, but actually when you’re driving it very much is a car – with the added bonus of other campervan owners waving as you drive along.
But actually the van wasn’t quite like my car. I drive a Mazda 3, a bog-standard hatchback built for the masses. It is refined, quiet, gentle. It goes when I want it to, and pootles along without a care in the world when I am doing a long drive. The T6 we borrowed for our road trip was none of those things. Yes, it had power, and plenty of it, but that came at a cost – a very noisy cost. The van was just so noisy to drive. Everything rattled, and not just the huge selection of cutlery and crockery in the cupboards; the pop top rattled, the cupboards rattled, and there was nothing we could do about it. I think I was expecting it to be more refined. I’m sure not all campervans rattle like that, but I suspect a lot do, especially when the vast majority are after-fits or self-builds done cheaply because the manufacturer’s own versions are so incredibly expensive. On the other hand, I can’t sleep in my car – or make a cup of tea in it. Swings and roundabouts!
One of the negative things I always thought about campervans was that they are cold… but this is where reality was better than my expectation because the diesel heater in the van was so lovely to have. I was anticipating it being as cold as my tent, and bearing in mind we camped in 70mph winds and driving rain, I was 100% expecting to be terribly uncomfortable at night. But no, the heater was amazing, and even meant I enjoyed a rare lie in because I was just so happy snuggled in my sleeping bag.
The weather did mean that my first experience of vanlife was anything but the romantic dream I had decided it should be. I commented in my road trip report that if we’d have been in the tent we’d have gone home, and I know that to be truth. There might have been a lack of beautiful views and alfresco dinners, but what we lost in scenery we gained in shelter. The fact that we could pull up in a layby and have a break from driving in the weather and make a cup of tea (always the tea, so much tea), was hugely appreciated. If anything the terrible weather meant we had the truest campervan experience going, and any other trip in the future will be an improvement on that. I maintain that campervanning could be all about those big views and sunsets and adventurous experiences – if the weather is kind. The fact that we enjoyed this trip has to be a good sign!
Spoiler: I’m Not Buying One Today…
The fact is that I can’t have one. Not yet anyway. There are at least two major and a hundred minor reasons for this – namely not having the cash to purchase one and not having the time to use it enough to make the cost worthwhile. I know there will be lots of you who think that’s phooey and I should just get on and buy a cheap panel van and kit it out myself, but I don’t have the time, money or skill for that either. But it’s okay, I’m not looking for sympathy or for you to persuade me otherwise (at the moment), I can wait for now – I’ve waited 30 years to this point so. It’s not like I’m unhappy with my current situation, far from it, but the dream will just have to remain a dream for the time being. Unless there’s a way to borrow one on permanent loan from a nice manufacturer of course.
My Campervan Wish List
But if I was going to buy one today, my trip with Goboony and my extensive getting in and sitting down in them at the Caravan, Camping and Motorhome Show earlier this year, along with years of dreaming and watching YouTube videos and reading blogs on the topic, means I have a long list of things I want when the time comes. I call this, Zoe’s campervan wish list…
I’m looking for a small van, with a short wheel base, VW Transporter size (but not necessarily a VW). My experience on this trip has definitely set that in stone. This is because I want to fit in a normal parking space, make it around all corners without having to back up, and drive through cute villages without having to worry about how wide I am. In my dream vs reality check, the size of the T6 I borrowed was absolutely fine; there seemed to be enough space for me to pack into without having stuff everywhere – I can pack light when I want to, I promise. While I’m sure a massive motorhome is nice, they are not hugely practical on UK roads and I don’t want to have to choose my route based on the size of my vehicle.
If I can afford it, I’d like a four-wheel-drive van. This is for the very simple reason that I want to be able to go everywhere. If not, then I would certainly fit some decent tyres so getting across camping fields and driving on dirt roads wasn’t an issue. And I’d want plenty of power and a refined an internal build as possible, I don’t like to be left behind on the motorway or struggle up hills, and I don’t want to have to shout over the noise.
I very much still see the van as a metal tent on wheels – somewhere to sleep, sit, eat and relax. I’m not too worried about the mod cons or luxuries (although some would be nice!). I’m not looking for a van with a loo, I’m happy to use public toilets etc, and I don’t need a shower. I can do my ablutions elsewhere.
I’m also not worried about having a fitted gas hob or sink with a water pump. I am very happy to take a gas cooker out of a cupboard and put it on the worktop or take it outside (you can’t take a fitted cooker out). I realise the sink with pump would be handy for wild camping on a long-term road trip, but actually I’m okay with pouring water from a container into a washing up bowl and using that. I wouldn’t complain if I had both fitted, but I’m not that bothered about it and it would not be the reason to choose one van over another.
A heater and a fridge (or cooler box) are a must. Yes, some luxuries are important! I am not just a fair weather outdoors lover, and would want to be able to use my van in the winter and be comfortable doing so – that diesel heater in the T6 I borrowed was an absolute lifesaver. A fridge would be one of the reasons to take a van instead of just bunging a tent in the car – the ability to carry a couple of days fresh food (and milk for tea…) would make all the difference to road trip life. And if I’m spending big on a van, I’m going to need to make sure I’m not eating out all the time!
On the layout side of things, I would want two individual seats in the front that both (easily) swivel around to face the back for when I’ve parked up and want to relax. This seems to create a lot of extra room when in camping mode, and means you can easily climb through from the front to the back without going outside when the weather is horrible. It also means if one person wants to go to bed, the other can still sit up and read without being too annoying. The three front seats configuration in the T6 I borrowed, both regarding the space they took up and the mechanism for turning the passenger bench around, was not convenient.
Regarding storage, I want cupboard space that is easy to access when in van and in sleeping mode so I can pack into the van rather than taking a holdall each time I go on a road trip… it’s difficult to know for certain what that storage would look like, but it is something I would research a lot before purchasing. For example, I would definitely want to keep one cupboard clear for bedding so I don’t have to have it out when not in sleep mode; a tidy space is a happy space!
Some of the smaller things I would make sure I had would be some kind of door mat by the sliding door, and a couple of old towels to mop up mud and rain water, to keep the inside reasonably clean so I don’t have to wear shoes inside the van. I’d also make sure I carried levelling blocks for a flat sleep. And finally, I’d try and get a front window cover that attaches on the inside rather than goes over the outside of the van, purely for convenience and for when the weather is bag; indoor window covers won’t get soaking in the rain or need taking off in the strong wind.
I think that’s it. I don’t want much, do I?! But that’s the thing with such long standing dreams – they come with a lot of decisions already made!
Do you own a campervan or are you considering it? I’d love to know what is on your campervan wish list – and why. Are they worth the expense? And is your dream and reality matching up?
In the interests of full disclosure, I should put here that my campervan experience a few weeks ago was courtesy of my now friends at Goboony, a super company that works a bit like Airbnb. But the campervan dream and wish list is all mine…