20 Must know facts of vanlife
I recently wrote a blog about the reality of vanlife and glossy instagram pics not always being quite what they seem. So, following 30 years of van travels, here’s our take on reality and the 20 must know facts of vanlife. After all, it’s an essential read for those thinking of investing in that perfect dream of motorhome or campervan travels.
First, if you’ve read the blog “what vanlife is really like“, you’ll know about the day we met some celebrity like Instagram vanlifer’s. However – all wasn’t quite so glossy in real life.
1. Selling the dream image
We’ve seen and heard it all in the bombarded world of social media. But who really knows their vanlife facts? And which blogs and vlogs are hiding the true reality behind vanlife?
In a world of beautiful people and exotic locations, the romantic image of a campervan, with its back doors open and relaxed human admiring a dreamy view, really sells well. But in reality, finding these spots are far from easy and many are not what the illusion implies.
At the end of the day, we wouldn’t still be loving van travels after 30 years if it was all bad and it isn’t. But, it’s time to lift the lid on what we know to be the most fabulous way of travel in the real life world.
2. Wild Camping
Wild camping is certainly illegal in most of Britain – mainly 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.
For others, the thought of parking on a street or car park is the last place they’d want to park overnight. But in reality, that’s what some vanlife and motorhome owners do.
3. Rules are Everywhere – 20 Must Know Facts of Vanlife
Even when a country is extremely campervan and motorhome friendly, there are still big rules to follow and lots of bans altogether.
We’ve seen plenty of signs to warn us off on numerous occasions in recent years – typically saying “No Motorhome”, “No camping” or “No overnight stays in vehicles”.
This Summer on a trip though inland regions of Spain, there were new signs in numerous locations even showing campervans with pop-up roofs with a line through. At the end of the day, there’s a big shift in countries attitude to the vanlife community in recent years, but having said that the sheer volume of campervans is unprecedented.
To ignore the parking rules is a risk, because the authorities not only patrol, but also hand out official warnings or 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.
Unfortunately, like many things over the last few years, the freedom to do as we please has become more and more restricted.
4. Signs and Spaces – 20 Must Know Facts of Vanlife
In in a country that provides dedicated overnight motorhome parking, such as Aires in France or Freedom Camping in New Zealand, these will still have rules.
Spaces are often really tight, so much so that you can just about open your door to get out without touching the neighbours van.
There certainly isn’t any fire break rules like you’d have on some campsites in Britain.
5. It’s not always ok to just park up
In countries where you think it’s just ok to park up this isn’t always true and it’s only getting worse.
Thinking back to our Winter trip to Spain in 2016, there were dozens of motorhomes and campervans parked all over the place.
Later, we read a news article about local authorities and residents wanting wild camping banned. And to be honest we could see why.
Portugal also began to introduce strict rules and fines around the same time and we’ve noticed the same is happening in parts of France too.
Finally, not all areas providing dedicated parking for motorhome and campervans are free. In fact some Aires can be more expensive to stop the night than a campsite.
6. Waste Water Dump – 20 Must Know Facts of Vanlife
Even if you take your chances with a spot of wild camping, it doesn’t solve the problem of dumping the waste.
In Britain, the only way to do this is to book into a caravan site or ask to use their dump area. Unless local authorities in GB start to provide Motorhome dump and service areas and only a limited number recently have, then it’s always going to be a problem for those not wanting to stay on a caravan site.
Where to Dump 20 Must Know Facts of Vanlife
When it comes to motorhome facilites, Europe and indeed Australia and New Zealand are completely different to Britain.
In many countries, there’s a dedicated system of motorhome parking and service areas without stepping foot in a campsite.
Drive over dumps are pretty much part of the furniture in towns across the Channel. Just look on your App or follow standard dump signs.
Dumping Waste water in nature
Dumping the waste in nature is not a nice thing to do, although many people think it’s harmless.
When we joined the NZMCA – New Zealands’ equivalent to The Caravan and Motorhome Club, they sent a welcome book in the membership. This gave details of why you should never dump your grey water tank and it read for some really unpleasant facts.
Not only does the waste water contain harmful bacteria, but this can then damage the environment where it’s dumped. To be honest the smell alone from the waste tank is enough to realise it’s not good water.
Last but not least, although there are “green products” that you can use to shower and wash up etc, these don’t kill the germs that thrive in the waste water.
7. Pee & poo
There’s been so many vanlifers giving tips on burying poo – usually squatting away from water being the main contender for doing it right. Not to mention, digging a hole so many inches deep, but we’ve never seen anyone taking a shovel with the loo roll into nature.
At the end of the day, we use our on board loo, but nowadays, peeing in public is commonplace on Aires and wild camping spots across Europe and NZ, where we spent each Winter.
It’s so bad that it’s even putting us off vanlife travel. Especially after this Summer when we saw a family camping out on an Aire with both children pulling down their pants to do a poo, right there on the tarmac in front of their small van.
Bad habits getting worse
We’ve lost count of the number of people using the great outdoors as their toilet.
People of all ages, from a variety of vehicles sneak off into fir trees, toilet roll in hand. Amongst the debris left behind, are used sanitary products, masses of toilet paper and plenty of brown stuff. As we don’t often travel in Britain any more, we can’t say what it’s like now here in the UK.
8. Water – 20 Must Know Facts of Vanlife
Sometimes, we’ve driven miles out of our way trying to find a tap to fill up the tank. Even then, we’ll finally find somewhere, only for it to say “not for drinking” or “out of order”.
So good sized fresh water tanks are essential and portable containers as spare then fill at each opportunity.
Many countries in Europe provide water at motorhome Aires or similar.
Winter can be miserable in most of Europe with short days, dark nights and cold, freezing weather.
If you can’t sit outside, living in a campervan can be miserable. Then if you head South for a bit of sun, there’s a downside – everyone else is doing the same.
As most of the younger population are in work over Winter, this generally means sharing warm spots of Europe: i.e Spain and Portugal with older folk or as they say in Australia – “The Grey Nomads” – which is exactly what we are!
10. Hot and Cold In the Van
Summer in Europe can be hot with windows open and 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.
You should have had air-con I hear you say. Well, if we wanted to be hooked up to power every night – fine, but we don’t.
Getting the right temperature in Winter is also 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.
11. Power – 20 Must Know Facts of Vanlife
You’ve seen the pictures of “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.
12. Condensation – wet wet wet
20 Must Know Facts of Vanlife
I’m not talking about the condensation on the windscreen, that’s something that is hard not to have. Insulation in a motorhome is so important to help prevent condensation.
We’ve experienced it first hand on a past Motorhome and it’s a menace, causing wet bedding, damp cupboards and even a wet mattress. Then comes mould and before you know it, warped wood and inevitable damp smells.
No matter how much insulation is lining those walls, floors and ceilings, motorhomes and campervans can still be 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.
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. Not to mention different gas systems and fittings in different countries.
Electric needs an EHU and finding one in the country you’re in with a high enough amp to power the electric heating is not always easy.
Top Off Grid Vanlife Essentials
14. The Locals
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, but we’ve seen local’s making just as much mess as some vanlifers.
So, how can excrement and litter, always be identified to the motorhome and campervans. Unless there’s proof of the offender, often it’s too easy to presume blame.
15. Dust, it gets everywhere
It’s Summer in Europe with the windows down, roof vents open and doors flung back. Then, a plume of dust fills the air from a gust of wind or passing vehicle.
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 is soon coated in a film of road dirt.
16. Your Travel Buddy – 20 Must Know facts of vanlife
You’re living in a tin box, sharing the smallest of spaces together 24/7. So, 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. You may want to wish you were somewhere else.
Ditch the Inhibitions
Then there’s inhibitions! There’s not much you can hide in a small space. You hear every noise, from toilet duties and snoring to farting.
If you need a little space and it’s been pouring for days, 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.
17. The loo now you’ve got to empty It
Something we witnessed in Spain 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.
As we happily tucked into egg sandwiches, alongside a lovely sandy beach surrounded by Motorhomes & campervans, suddenly out came a guy from a nearby motorhome. He was carrying a cassette toilet to the sand dunes where he emptied the brown contents straight into the sand.
No wonder, the locals in many places are so keen to get rid of us all.
Emptying the loo – 20 Must Know Facts of Vanlife
Back in Britain, the loo emptying is really only available at a caravan site, where you’ll find a proper toilet emptying facility.
The Europeans prefer an outdoor toilet emptying point and many countries provide them at dedicated motorhome dump areas. The UK only has a few of these so don’t dump the loo in nature like the Spanish incident.
20 Must Know Facts of Vanlife
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 it is noisy at times.
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.
Once, we we’re woken up by the town’s automated grass sprinkler system firing up right under our van.
The chances are, they’ll be something big or small that’s not working at some point and it can be a pain to get fixed.
With the habitation side, it really helps if you’re handy or have some kind of van experience. But, we always “go back to basics” and 9 times out of 10, it’s something really simple that’s wrong.
Problems – 20 Must Know Facts of Vanlife
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 from where we are, so if possible we’ll drive there to get sorted, rather than sit it out waiting.
Roadside Assistance – 20 Must Know Facts of Vanlife
Before you ask, yes we’ve had to call out roadside assistance a few times.
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 go wrong that counts.
20. Taking a Shower
Of course, it’s great to have a shower in a van, but they are purely functional and don’t provide a long relaxing experience like you have from a mains shower.
To put it in a nutshell, there’s a limited supply of hot water from small boilers which need about a 30 minutes to heat. So a quick hose down is usually all you’ll manage to get from that motorhome shower.