TOP OFF GRID Vanlife ESSENTIALS
It’s often those top off grid vanlife essentials that you think you need that turn out to be completely useless!
One thing’s for sure, we’ve had our fair share of motorhome’s over the years! So, it’s no surprise that we’ve not only made some costly mistakes, but also learnt so much from them along the way.
So, if you’re going to get serious about life on the road, it’s really important to do some research. Of course, in such a small space, the main priority should be making it comfortable.
However, it’s also really important to remember that a van should be practical, reliable and above all functional.
Last but not least, if you want all-year round travel, think about those icy temperatures. Not forgetting batteries, which need charging without the need for a main’s electric supply.
So, it sounds simple, but just what do you need to make it work and just what are those top off grid vanlife essentials?
1. Insulation – Top off Grid Vanlife Essentials
This is our No.1 priority and when it comes to insulation, you just can’t have too much of it.
The most important thing to remember, is that it’s not just in the obvious places. Think about the floors, ceiling, walls and doors in addition to any surfaces that touch bare metal.
The construction of the walls, ceiling and floor should have insulated material built into the build. This of course, won’t be visible, so if you’re buying new, ask what the construction consists of.
It’s a good idea to check the build of any factory-built motorhome will withstand a European Winter. For example, Alpine temperatures, which can reach -17 or lower.
Internal wall and ceiling carpet-type Insulation
Insulation on surfaces inside the van is so important to help avoid condensation issues, as well as providing additional warmth.
Usually, it will be a smooth carpet-type insulation, covering the walls, ceiling and if you’re lucky the inside of the doors.
It may sound a bit strange, but it should look and feel luxurious and blend well into the decor of the fitments. Usually, they come in a pale grey or light beige colour and will be warm to the touch.
Any form of plastic type coverings (similar to those found in older caravans) won’t usually have the same insulation benefits.
The Bed – Keep an Air flow below
The bed mattress should have air circulating below it, preferably raised above the bed base. This really helps eliminate condensation, resulting in less mould on your mattress.
The Froli spring system is perfect to allow both extra comfort and the circulation of air. Alternatively, wooden bed slats beneath the mattress will allow air through.
A Double Floor
A double floor is really helpful for insulating the campervan or motorhome. It will also add valuable extra storage space into the floor area.
If there’s a double floor installed, usually, the manufacturer will have laid the water and waste pipes within it.
This is invaluable when it comes to preventing freezing and will save lots of heartache when those temperatures drop.
When it comes to window’s we prefer the flush window’s such as Dometic Seitz S4.
These not only look modern, but there’s little in the way of visual distortion when you look through them.
Most important is the insulation value on the PVC glazing. Due to the shape of the exterior, it’s also difficult for ice to form.
This flush profile eliminates icicle build-up, which can lead to the window breaking on a protruding style window.
Finally, the locking system prevents opening from the outside, which is obviously really helpful for security.
2. Water Tanks and Pipes
One of the most important things to consider if you want to do any form of Winter travel is the water tanks. Or more precisely, where they are located.
The freshwater tank is always better inside the van, not least to avoid freezing. Although, if the temperature drops low enough, despite being inside – it doesn’t always stop the tank freezing,
For example: We had a water tank inside the garage of our Swift motorhome, yet the tanks still froze. Leaving us without any water for a ski trip in the Alps!
Adding extra insulation over the tanks before leaving home didn’t stop the water freezing.
External water tanks just won’t withstand cold Winter temperatures, so we would avoid these altogether.
Waste Water Tanks – Top Off Grid Vanlife Essentials
Waste water tanks aren’t quite as easy to fit inside the van. Unless it’s a big motorhome which often have them in deep double floors.
In general, most waste tanks fit underneath the van. Obviously in Winter conditions, this is highly likely to freeze.
The only way around this is to keep the waste valve open so the water will flow straight out – always keep a shallow bucket underneath to catch the water.
What you want to avoid is freezing in the first place, because once the water freezes, it will probably stay that way!
We had one ski trip where we had no fresh water as well as frozen waste pipes, so we had no water for the whole 2 weeks.
That was one big “live and learn” moment from our early motorhome travel days.
3. Heating – Top Off Grid Vanlife Essentials
Heating the campervan is so important to keep you toasty warm and comfortable. To be able to have the heating on without needing to change a gas bottle every few days is even more important.
When the temperature drops, any gas heating system will eat through the gas in those gas bottles.
This causes other problems, such as needing different gas bottles and regulators for different countries. Of course, on top of this, is the expense and hassle of changing bottles all the time.
Our first motorhome had a “gas only” Truma system fitted. It was fine in Summer, but during Winter, we had to change the 9kg gas bottle every few days.
A gas tank is an alternative option, although it does still involve having to find a retailer to top it up.
On the plus side, Gas heating is both powerful and instant.
A Hidden Downside of Gas heating
It’s worth considering that Gas heating also uses electric to power it! Consequently, there is a need for mains electric at some point or a strong battery supply.
When it comes to electric heating, we always find it a bit limp.
It’s fine for touring in the UK, where campsites generally have a good 16amp supply to plug into. But once you travel in Europe, the power supply often is only around 10amp or even 6amp.
So, what does this mean? Well, it basically leaves the heating struggling to cope. It will often manage on the lowest setting but won’t work on a higher heat output.
Then, there’s the problem of having to use an electric supply in the first place to power the heating!
For anyone wanting to get serious about off-grid van travel, then diesel heating should be up there amongst the top off grid vanlife essentials.
The heat is not only instant and powerful, but the overall advantage is that it uses the same diesel that fuels the engine. So, as long as there’s enough fuel in the tank, the heating will work.
The other advantage, is that you can use the heating whilst driving.
It’s a simple, fuss-free option, which can come with an electric option too, such as our Truma Diesel 6E. This gives a mix of both diesel and electric if required or the option to use either independent of the other.
One thing to take into account, in order to be self-sufficient, there has to be a really good habitation battery. Once again, the heater still uses an element of electric power, which needs an adequate battery supply.
Alde Wet Heating System
An Alde system is a wet heating system, similar to household heating, which is silent in addition to having radiators.
The hot water system will usually use the same method as the heating.
4. Power – Top off grid vanlife essentials
Keeping the habitation battery topped up is one of the top off grid vanlife essentials to think about.
The last thing most people want is to be relying on an electric supply to keep the battery charged. Not only that, but most people will need some sort of power, even if it’s just the minimum such as charging devices
There is one major item you’ll need to be self-sufficient and that’s a Solar supply. Solar panels on the roof will trickle charge the habitation batteries, which will in turn keep the the 12V system running for longer.
The bigger the Solar panel and battery or batteries, then the longer they’ll charge up and consequently, you won’t have to worry about an electric hook up.
Finally, with the correct Solar and battery set up, along with all the other off-grid essentials, there shouldn’t be any need to rely on regular charging off mains electric.
Not relying on EHU
In our Sprinter campervan, we don’t rely on mains electric. It’s great because we can be on the road for a few months without having to worry about a hook up.
Likewise, the self-build campervan in New Zealand it had no mains power supply. Instead it ran solely off 12V from Solar and battery.
A few USB charging point’s is an ideal way to charge those portable devices. Running off 12 volt saves the need for mains power.
5. Fridge – Absorber or Compressor?
A Compressor Fridge
A compressor fridge is superb, not only because it’s 12V but it’s also neat looking and keeps a really cold temperature with no effort. It works constantly on 12V, so there’s no need to switch it on when you stop driving.
They can look small, but are deceptively spacious. Above all, they don’t need mains electric or gas to keep the beers super chilled and the food fresh.
An absorber fridge on the other hand will work off 12V when driving, but once you park up, it will usually have to run off Gas to keep super chilled in extremely hot temperatures.
Although it can use mains electric, this will need a power supply. The power supply in Europe may be a lower output than the UK, so it may not chill the fridge sufficiently in hot temperatures.
We used to use a mix of gas and electric when we had an absorber fridge.
This would help keep it chilled in very hot weather, although you can’t drive whilst having the gas on unless fitted with a crash sensor, but this is still illegal in some countries.
6. Invertor – Top off grid vanlife essentials
An invertor converts the 12V supply into mains electric. It’s not on everyone’s list of top off grid vanlife essentials, but for us it’s important.
Yes, our invertor will power my GHD hair straighteners and even my household hairdryer, if I use it on low.
The battery has to be big enough, as well as the invertor itself, not to mention the all important solar charging.
It’s a good idea to make a list of what you’d want to use it for and get professional advice on the size that would be best.
7. The Toilet – Top Off Grid Vanlife Essentials
To start with, in an age where caring about our environment is so important, it’s inconceivable why people continue to buy or build campervans without a toilet.
Worse still is the fact many then choose to use the great outdoors as their bathroom facility or even worse, empty their cassette contents in the bushes.
So firstly, one item on the list of top off grid vanlife essentials should always be a toilet and preferably one that doesn’t use chemicals.
A SOG Chemical-Free System
The conventional way of dealing with nasty smells in the toilet cassette is with chemical liquids. Other kinder products are available which also work to dissolve the waste in the cassette and eliminate smells.
Not only does this not bode well for the drainage systems that they end up in, but also the environment. Especially if they are the conventional products.
The SOG system eliminates the need for any chemical or indeed anything at all.
Instead, it uses a fan to dispel smells from the cassette, in a similar way to a soil stack vent pipe on a household loo.
So, this in turn leaves the campervan smell-free and the need for chemical’s a thing of the past.
8. Shower Room – Top Off Grid Vanlife Essentials
One trend in recent years seems to be the need to do without a proper shower room. This may be all well and good if you don’t mind using campsites regularly, but to to keep self-sufficient a shower room is the way to go.
In reality, most people want a shower. Although some may think it’s ok to take a shower outside, this isn’t good practice on a regular basis.
Not only because it upset’s the locals and leaves soap and body washed water on the ground, but also because the weather isn’t always hot and sunny!
Add biting insects into the mix and you’ll be glad of the indoor shower room!
If a combined shower and toilet set up is all that will fit, then that’s fine to keep you fresh each day.
To make the most out of the van space, storage is crucial.
Think about things such as an outdoor table and chairs, spare towels, blankets and any other items that you may have to take. Even basics like somewhere to hang wet coats or keep the laundry pile!
Tools and spares
It’s easy to forget about some of the more practical top off grid vanlife essentials. How about a spare tyre or air compressor, possibly a spares box with extra parts for any repairs that need doing.
Cupboards and drawers
Try and utilise the overhead space for cupboards and shelves along with plenty of drawers on the lower levels. Remember it’s easier to access the space in a drawer that pulls out rather than reach the back of a cupboard.
Fixed Bed – Top Off Grid Vanlife Essentials
A fixed bed is perfect for that instant place to relax, as well as having the benefit of a full all in one mattress.
Also, any bed that needs making up from seating, then has the problem of where to store the bedding during the day.
Best of all, a fixed bed will allow for plenty of extra storage below it, often having access from the outside, for those mucky vanlife items.
When it comes to those ski’s, a bike, kayak or paddle board, there’s a whole lot more to think about. With a fixed bed, there should be plenty of handy storage space below, especially if you have a high transverse layout.
Otherwise, you’ll have to consider roof racks, allowing for solar panels and reaching up to lift things on and off.
Bike racks on the back can be heavy, especially on the doors of a panel van, let alone get in the way of opening the back doors on one.
We make do with folding bikes, stored underneath our fixed bed and compromise on taking too much bulky kit.
On the other hand a large garage on a motorhome can be the perfect place to store those bikes. It also means their clean and out of the way of prying eyes.
10. Interior – Top Off Grid Vanlife Essentials
We love a practical layout and fitments with everything fuss-free and easy to clean.
It’s good to have an industrial type floor covering, keep the carpets out and use a washable rug or two to add a touch of home.
Leather upholstery is a really good idea, as it’s so easy to wipe over.
Fly screens are so important to keep out unwanted guests and it’s not just on the windows! It’s just as vital to keep those open doors covered to stop those insects flying in.
Travel can be a dirty business and when the wind picks up, that dry dusty road can end up covering the inside of the van in a layer of dirt.
Keeping windows curtain-free and using washable throw’s to brighten up a seating area can really help on those cleaning duties.
Condensation is not only annoying but it’s also destructive, leading to mould and warping of materials.
To eliminate it needs a careful balance between the crucial ingredient of excellent insulation, as well as ventilation and a steady constant source of heat in cold weather.
For poorly insulated vans, the condensation can build up inside the cupboard’s, making clothes and other items damp. On top of this, it can form on the walls and ceilings and underneath items such as the mattress on a bed.
Condensation Wet Bed and Warped Timber
Our first motorhome had soaking wet bedding every morning in Winter, because of the condensation dripping off the walls and ceiling and absorbing into the fabric. Soon, the mattress was mouldy and the fitments warped from damp.
On a well built and insulated campervan, condensation shouldn’t be a problem.
To help prevent condensation, open the roof vents when cooking and showering and generally allow as much fresh air to circulate as possible. The only place that condensation will always remain is the cab windscreen.
In cold weather an external silver screen will help stop any condensation overnight.
12. Oven and Hob
In a small space something has to give and for us, this meant having no oven. As outdoor and stove cooking is more of our thing, it didn’t matter to us to give up the gas oven.
One thing we did want was a diesel hob, but when we looked into buying one, we discovered that they can be rather slow to use. However, several years on, these may have improved so it’s worth looking into.
So, unfortunately, we couldn’t be totally without gas altogether but our only gas item is the hob.
However, gas for cooking uses a considerable less amount of gas than heating and hot water. So much so, that our last French gas bottle lasted an incredible 5 years!
The only downside is that we do still have a gas bottle and that takes up space in what could otherwise be extra storage!
For some though, an oven is classed as essential. In our last motorhome – a Carthago, we had a Tec Tower. This all in one Fridge and Oven Unit is great, but remember any gas oven takes much longer than a household one.
13. Solar Panels – Top Off Grid Vanlife Essentials
We may have touched on these earlier, but there’s no underestimating the need for Solar Panels on a motorhome.
There’s now a vast range of solid, flexible and portable solar panels out there on the market, so there’s something out there for every need.
Our campervan solar panel is not quite powerful enough for Winter use, so we’re about to add an extra panel.
This will hopefully then provide enough power for when the heating is in use. We’ve found the firing up of the heating system takes too much draw out of the battery.
Blown Air Takes Electrical Power
This isn’t because of the type of heating, e.g Diesel or Gas, it’s the electrical charge drawn to fire up the blown air that needs the electric. So when this is on a thermostat, firing up regularly when the temperature drops, the power from the Solar panel we have isn’t good enough.
Although the battery itself is powerful enough, it’s the lack of extra solar panel power to charge it that prevents the heating from working at certain times.
So, we’re hoping to get around 250Watt to 300Watt of solar panels in total which should then be adequate.