I recently wrote a little blog piece about the reality of vanlife. With the focus being on how those glossy instagram pics and blogs are often not quite what they seem! So, following 30 years of travels, here’s our take on reality and the 16 must know facts of vanlife – for all those thinking of buying that motorhome or campervan.
First, if you’ve read the blog piece, you’ll know about the day when we met some, almost celebrity like Instagram Vanlifer’s. However – all wasn’t quite so glossy in real life!
We’ve seen and heard it all in the now bombarded world of social media. But who really knows their vanlife facts? Which bloggers are writing about any old stuff, just to get an extra advert on their web page or a “like” on Facebook or Instagram?
Now it’s time to lift the lid on what we know to be the most fabulous way of travel. The nomadic lifestyle that comes with this marvellous but often glossed over illusion of #vanlife .
Wild camping is certainly illegal in most of Britain – due to needing the “Land Owners Permission. It’s also frowned upon by locals in nearly every country we visit. Yet, there are still a large number of people claiming to park up night after night in the wild – often in idyllic locations.
Maybe some fail to admit that they arrive late and leave at sunrise, because they don’t want to get caught in the act. Then of course, many park on the road, with the whirl of passing traffic shaking the van every couple of minutes.
Goodness – I know what you’re thinking and yes – that’s not our idea of fun either!
For many, the thought of parking on a street or in a grotty car park is the last place you’d want to park overnight. But in reality, that’s exactly what some vanlife and motorhome travellers actually do.
So – forget those incredible beachside locations, waves lapping upon crisp white sands or even a scenic mountain backdrop – because they are rare!!
Even when a country is extremely campervan friendly, there are still big rules to follow. We’ve all seen signs to warn us off on numerous occasions in recent years – typically: “No Motorhome”, “No camping” or “No overnight stays in vehicles”. Sometimes, all three signs will tell you where to sling your hook!
To ignore them is to risk official warnings or even big fines. To put it simply – you can’t just park up where you like as many would have you believe, although once upon a time this was possible.
If we’re in a country that provides specific overnight motorhome parking as part of their furniture (yes there are many) these will certainly still have rules.
Often, there are detailed signs at specific areas, detailing which sections are permitted for overnight or daytime parking. Many also have notices telling you where not to park.
These will always have a restriction on the number of nights you can stop in a motorhome. More often than not, somewhere between 48 and 72 hours is permitted within a defined parking area. But this can vary and be as little as 24 hours or up to a week. Very rarely, there may be a location that allows extended stays, these will usually have a parking attendant on duty to monitor and receive payments.
Sometimes official parking areas are so tight, that you can just about open your door to get out – without banging into the side of next door!
In countries where you think it’s just ok to park up this isn’t always the case at all. Thinking back to our own trip to Spain in the Winter of 2016, there were dozens of motorhomes and campervans parked up at time. It was almost feeling overwhelmed by vans.
When we then read the local news – it turned out that both the local authorities and local residents just wanted the whole lot of wild campers banned. To be perfectly honest – we could see why.
Incidentally parts of Portugal (The Algarve) soon after began to introduce strict rules and fines within their problematic locations.
Finally, not all areas providing dedicated parking for motorhome and campervan’s are free. In fact some Aires can be more expensive to stop the night than a campsite, so it’s always worth comparing.
Even if you take your chances with a spot of wild camping, it doesn’t solve the problem of the dump!
If you’re a “newbie”, excuse the term but it seems to be the trend! This is getting rid of waste products in the van. That’s all the dirty water from dishes and showering and daily washing along with anything else that end’s up down the sink!
In Britain, the only way to do this is to book into a caravan site….Blimey….that’s extreme – I hear you say! But this is real life now and local authorities in Great Britain do not provide Motorhome dump or service areas.
Europe, of course, is completely different.
In many countries throughout Europe, a dedicate system of both motorhome parking and service areas are provided without stepping foot on a campsite.
So, drive over dumps are pretty much part of the furniture in towns across the Channel. Just look on your App – whichever one you choose to use or follow the standard dump signs.
Usually these are a universal bright blue with a white campervan outline to indicate what it is. Then just release the valves of the waste tank and let the dirty water flow!
What’s NOT the right choice and you know it – is to keep those drain valves open which then leaves those grey tanks to empty across various parts of the town and countryside!
This is the biggest motorhome faux pas! It’s something we just don’t encourage and we’d definitely say that if you decide to chance it – don’t get caught in the act.
We have, of course, seen plenty of vans and motorhomes doing just that. Not forgetting angry locals and other motorhome owners giving the look of horror and even running after the culprits.
Those committing the offence, usually deny any knowledge of the said deed when they are flagged down!
Yeh, we all know what they’re up to!
To poo or not to poo!!…..Oh goodness, yes we really are talking dirty now!
I’ve read so many social media and blog posts boasting about how good it is to wild camp in Great Britain in a campervan.
Hmmm – We’re not sure about that claim! Are these people just chancing their luck or maybe they don’t realise they’ve made the headlines in the local press the following day! This happens rather often in our own home region of North Wales.
I’ve also read so many tips on making sure you bury your poo – squatting away from water being the main contender for doing it right! Not to mention, digging a hole so many inches deep – Are people serious?!
Those rules may apply to people camping out in a tent when hiking up a mountain in harsh terrain, or on an expedition in the middle of some far flung location. But is this really what’s expected or should be what’s recommended of us campervan community?
If it is – forget it – count us out!
Personally, I don’t like the idea of having to poo in the bushes – amongst the wildlife and nature that we should all be protecting. On a trip in France this year and in Italy the previous Summer, we lost count of the number of people using the great outdoors as their shit hole.
People of all ages and from a wide variety of campervans and motorhomes would sneak off into the fir trees, toilet roll in hand. Amongst the debris left behind, we saw sanitary products, masses of toilet paper and plenty of the brown stuff – absolutely disgusting.
To be honest, I’m not sure why people would feel the need to spoil the environment – surely we all have a portable loo or a built in cassette toilet? Don’t we? If not, can’t people at least buy one as an essential kit list item or even wait to use a public loo?
If people are serious about living in a van. The loo will soon become very well used! A vital part of the routine on the road will then be emptying its contents – lovely! And not in the bushes either!
Finally, people have no shame – we were sat in our campervan last Summer when a French lady pulled down her pants, sat on our rear wheel and continued to wee down our tyre – there’s no hope!
We all think water would be easy to find. Unfortunately, that’s just not the case at all.
Sometimes, we’ve driven miles out of our way because we’re trying to find a tap just to fill up the tank. Even then, we’ll often finally find somewhere, only for it to display a sign stating – “not for drinking” or “out of order”!
We always say to anyone looking for a campervan or motorhome, to get really good sized fresh water tanks. Add a couple of portable containers too and if you have an opportunity to fill up – do it! Even if the tanks aren’t completely empty.
It’s relatively less complicated finding a dump area in Europe than having to use a caravan site in Britain. But for goodness sake – make sure you don’t use the toilet cassette tap and hose to fill the fresh!
Unless, you’re in Italy – where it seems to be the only option! If you are really stuck for fresh water then some filling stations may oblige, but don’t count on it.
It’s just drab in Winter in most of Europe. Those short days and dark nights with the inevitable cold and freezing weather – then wind, lots of rain and dull days with only a bit of sun – depending on where you go!
If you’re not able to sit outside for months on end, living in a campervan can be just miserable! It might not be what you want to hear but hey this is warts and all.
If you can head South to chance a bit of sun, there’s a downside – everyone else is doing the same!
As most of the younger population are in work for the Winter, this generally means sharing the warm spots of Europe: i.e Spain and Portugal with lots of older retired folk or as they say in Australia – “The Grey Nomads”. Who are, before I get corrected – heading North not South down under!!
As I’m no longer grey-free, or full of youth myself, this isn’t too much of a hardship. As long as they have a few tales to tell, I’m quite happy to listen!
Summer in Europe is great – the windows are open with us sweating buckets on top of the sheets at 3am! Then we get worried about security, so the windows are closed and we get hotter! Those sleepless nights then get longer!
You should have had air-con I hear you say! Well, if we wanted to be hooked up to power on a campsite every night – fine. That, however, is not our thing.
With no amount of off-grid solar and batteries being powerful enough to run an air conditioning unit, there’s more important things needing the power. In addition, who wants that bulky looking system fitted on the roof anyway?
At the other end of the spectrum, when it’s cold out the heating is on. Therefore, it’s often too hot when it’s fired up and too chilly inbetween.
Getting the right temperature is a work of art, especially during the night. There’s often a cold spot somewhere – usually it’s in the cab whilst the shower room is ultra hot – being next best thing to a Sauna!
Winter without heating – no chance! A motorhome or campervan gets icy cold, so it’s heating on, before turning back the duvet in the morning for us two!
You’ve seen the pictures and those the blog claims. All this “wild camping” in exotic locations, without a power lead in sight.
Reality check time!
Unless you’ve really got loaded up with solar panels, a big invertor for any household type plugs and very big battery power, you’re going to have to plug into a campsite power supply every couple of days.
Power is like water – it’s precious and needs conserving.
It’s no use having more than a couple of lights on whilst watching those favourite soaps on satellite TV, trying to keep the absorber fridge well chilled and blasting off the air con unit! That is going to almost impossible to achieve off-grid.
If you want all that and more then a powered campsite is the only way to go.
If you’ve built your own campervan fitting stacks of insulation or bought a motorhome based on skiing in the Alps rather than sitting on a campsite in Britain – then this hopefully won’t effect you!
I’m not talking about the condensation on the windscreen here. That’s something that is hard not to have at some point.
No – instead think about condensation inside the habitation side of the campervan or motorhome. We’ve experienced it first hand on a past Motorhome and it’s a menace!
It can cause wet bedding, damp cupboards and even a wet mattress – Yes, it can be soaking wet too. Then comes the mould and before you know it, warped wood, things peeling away off the fitments and inevitable damp smells.
The trick to help reduce condensation in a motorhome is to have well insulated walls and floors. If you can get a motorhome with double floors then this is ideal. Think about a mattress that’s raised off a solid base with air circulation below – slats or a Froli system – https://www.froli.com/en/bed-systems/ .
When it comes to cooking and showering time – it’s ventilate time with windows open!
Finally, build or buy wisely and condensation shouldn’t be on your annoyance list.
No matter how much insulation is lining those walls, floors and ceilings, these campervans will still leave you cold.
Heating can get costly, so what system is used to keep you comfy is super important.
If you’re living the vanlife, you need the easy life.
When it comes to keeping toasty on the road, we love Diesel heating. Yes, it’s from the engine, not a separate tank incase you’re too afraid to ask! It’s also a handy bonus to use while you drive….what’s not to love about that!
We’ve had lots of gas heating and if you’ve got it, you’ll know it’s a bit of a pain! Gas bottles or tanks both need re-filling or swapping and regularly.
It’s every few days in winter for bottles, so yes it gets costly too! Not to mention different gas systems and fittings in different countries.
Electric – forget it as that means a power supply and that has to mean a campsite which isn’t always what you want.
At best, finding a camperstop or Aire in the country you’re in with a high enough amp to power the electric heating is one solution but that’s not easy.
OK, so you don’t mind plugging in to an electric hook up at a campsite. But most European sites, if they are actually open at all – that’s another story in Winter – usually only have low amps.
So, that means just enough power for a low setting on the heating. That’s only if you haven’t got several other electrical favourites on at the same time.
Campervans wild camping, leaving litter, using the bushes as a toilet and having campfires at night. That’s everything that’s been thrown at the wild camping, campervan and motorhome community world wide!
Councils ban campervans and locals often hate the sight of them.
Between the two, it results in a bad name for all those who are responsible. Those civilised amongst us, become paranoid about getting tarnished with the same brush. There are too many bad ass vannies who overstep the mark.
Who knows what misgivings people get up to. We’ve seen first hand, local’s making just as much mess as those reported vanlife folk.
So, how can the leftover rubbish, excrement and litter, always be identified to the motorhome and campervan people. Unless there is proof of the offender, often it’s too easy to presume blame.
At the end of the day a Campervan, van or Motorhome is an easy target for blame. So we should all stick to the rules. Leave no trace and give none of the locals ammunition to hate us!
Last but not least, parking overnight in a dedicated motorhome area where authorities and locals can’t complain is always the best option.
However, we see so many vanlife vans not using Aires or campsites, instead choosing to park away from the authorised area. Usually these are non-self contained vans without the room for a toilet. Sure enough, you’ll spot the occupants peeing in the bushes the next morning whilst brushing their teeth over the ground and bathing in nearby water – be it the sea, river or lake!
So the heat is on, picture the scene. It’s Summer in a hot Europe or any other part of the world. The windows are down, the roof vents open and doors flung back. Then, a plume of dust fills the air from a gust of wind or a passing car. Quickly, it rises from the unsealed road, gravel parking spot or even parched campsite!
Suddenly the inside of the van resembles a fog filled Victorian London! If you weren’t quick enough to close those doors & windows, the inside of the van from bedding to sofa and cab to kitchen become coated in a powder of red, yellow or just plain old grey!
When the dust has settled, a thin layer then sits proudly across the furniture.
It’s now you wish you hadn’t just spent money at the laundry, washing the fresh cotton linen bedding that morning. Worse still, not covering up the light cream upholstery, that looked so good on display in the show room.
Your living in a tin box, not much bigger than an average sized spare bedroom. Sharing the smallest of spaces together 24/7 can become difficult.
You HAVE to get along in every circumstance before you set foot in a van. If you don’t, be prepared for cabin fever!
Bickering, arguments, differences of opinion and even more annoying – not having the same goal in mind. Not to mention, not enjoying the same interests or hobbies on the road and then wishing you were somewhere else!
Then there’s the inhibitions! There’s not much you can hide in a small space. You hear every little noise, ranging from toilet duties and snoring to farting. In fact, every bodily function from getting dressed and undressed to showering and washing.
You so have to want to be with that person. Know them inside and out, to get the best out of sharing the same dream.
If you need a little space and it’s been raining cats and dogs for days on end, there’s not much way of escape from each other.
In a nutshell, there’s no quick getaway to friends or family for a couple of hours a day. It may be several weeks or many months with just you and your chosen on road partner. Unless, you’re a solo vanlifer, when the only person you have to get on with is you!
Back to the dirty business! Something we witnessed in Spain a few years ago really sunk to new levels of crap things to do – pardon the pun. We couldn’t believe our eyes but our nose felt the after effects for some weeks afterwards!
We happily tucked into our egg sandwiches, alongside a lovely sandy beach. Surrounded by Motorhomes & campervans I may add, suddenly out came a guy from a nearby motorhome, he was carrying his cassette toilet to the sand dunes right in front of us.
You know what’s coming, but here it is anyway – he actually did it – he emptied the brown contents straight into the sand. There he had no shame, no checking to see who was looking, no digging holes….yuk, yuk, yuk!!
No wonder, the locals in many places are so keen to get rid of us all!. Not for the squeamish, but thankfully our European friends provide the Motorhome dump for doing the said deed.
So there we are at the dump, waiting patiently for the person in front to get on with the it – why do people take so long?
We know what to expect – to see half the contents of the previous person’s waste matter splattered across the toilet drain. If not, then certainly you get a down wind whiff, as they pour the contents hastily down the pipe and hope that no one else is looking at what’s coming out!
I know, you just can’t help but catch a sneaky peek! As hard as you try not to look, when you think it’s all over, you suddenly notice you’ve caught sight of the contents of last nights vindaloo…..this is such a dirty business!
Back in Britain, the loo emptying is a rather more hidden affair. Often out of sight behind closed doors, on a caravan site is where you’ll find the rather private toilet emptying facility.
Doesn’t it sound so much more sophisticated?!
Now there’s one big downside to this enclosed situation. Unless you’re any good at holding your breath for several minutes – which we are not – then this can become all a bit overwhelming.
Yes – the aroma of freshly poured sewage, quickly fills the air. You soon realise why the Europeans prefer the outdoor variety!
If you’ve ever slept in a tent, you’ll know that sounds in the night are hard to silence! Well, sleeping in a van is loads better. But, if you’re a light sleeper, those noises in the dead of night, will soon have you twitching the curtains. To check what’s going on in the wilderness.
From road noise to birds, dare I mention the cockerel! Then there’s wind, rain, hail, waves, rivers, waterfalls, trains, lorries, aircraft, farm machinery, people, animals, church bells and cattle bells. If you’ve toured Austria or any Alpine regions, you’ll be with me on this one!
Lastly, there’s sirens, the unexplained, the unidentified and the plain old unimaginable!
Thinking back to the time when we we’re woken up by the town’s automated grass sprinkler system firing up in the middle of the night. Unbeknown to us, we’d parked right over it!!
We’ve always been fortunate to own our vans from new. Now you’d think that would make a huge difference in dealing with things going wrong and yes – you are right!
But, as with all things new or old. It doesn’t always mean that it will be a fault-free experience from the start.
The chances are, they’ll be something big or small that’s not working as it should and when you’ve set off from the dealer or driven off in your pride and joy self-build, it’s an absolute pain to have to sort out problems.
With the habitation side, it really, really helps if you’re handy. Having past experience or at least having spent some time away in a campervan, motorhome or even a touring caravan.
When a fault occurs, we always say to people to go back to basics. 9 times out of 10, it’s something really simple that’s wrong. Nothing that needs no more than a bit of thinking out, elimination and common sense.
Sometimes, it’s more than that and it’s then, that we have to be prepared to sort a problem ourselves.
Thankfully Nige is handy and knowledgeable. If it’s really something that we can’t tackle, it’s a case of grabbing the bull by the horns and making off to a dealer or repairer to get looked at properly.
Even if it is something we can sort ourselves, sometimes we’ll need parts. These may be far in comparison to where we are, so it’s usually easier to just drive there and get the problem sorted, rather than sit it out for weeks waiting.
Before you ask, yes we’ve had to call out roadside assistance a few times. One time, we’d just arrived at an orchard in rural France. When our Fiat suddenly started wallowing out bucket loads of steam.
Within an hour, our Fiat Assist in the UK had arranged a local garage to come to us. The part was repaired first thing the next morning without having to move the camper.
The key is preparation and not to panic. Have a spares kit on board for the basics and always have European breakdown cover. Regardless of age of the van, this is crucial for peace of mind and avoiding expensive recovery bills.
One thing’s for sure, at some point something will go wrong. It’s how you manage it when things do go tits up that counts!
Yes, a shower in a van is great to have and pretty essential in Europe. Where public showers are few and far between.
Well, forget the good old shower that you’d have in a hotel or back in your bathroom back in Britain! A van shower is purely functional.
It’s governed by a limited supply of hot water from small boilers which need heating up. That’s about a 30 minute wait. It’s an on/off process of lathering up, hosing down and hoping there’s enough hot water left to condition my hair as well.
Poor Nige is always left with the remnants of the hot water tank. Rather than wait another 3o minutes for the boiler to heat up!
Then If it’s hot outside, it gets too hot inside. So it’s time for another shower at the end of the day – which is often when we go al fresco!!
Yep, the outdoor shower gets whipped into action for a quick hose down in the open air!
Given the good with the bad side of #vanlife , for us, it’s still the best way to see the world.
We just love everything there is about it. Over the years, we’ve learnt that it’s how you deal with things that matter.
Seeing the best out of everything and everyone and learning from those mistakes, experiences and issues.
The most important thing, is having a great sense of humour. Whilst laughing about the weird stuff, taking it in our stride and not taking life too seriously. It all just adds to the adventure!
That concludes our 16 must know facts of vanlife. Read more blogs here:
A beautiful Freedom Camping Spot in New Zealand and a real-life Aire in France.
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