We’ve always loved the freedom that any sort of leisure vehicle brings. We actually started our van travels with a tiny 2 berth caravan. This was over 30 years ago, not long after we first met back in 1988! It was in those early days that we learnt our biggest lessons from life on the road. So, it brings us great pleasure to pass on some of our long-served knowledge, our Campervan Castaways vanlife Top Tips!
At just 17 and 18 years old, we hooked up the caravan onto our Fiat tow car and drove off for our first weekend away. The destination, wasn’t far from home, in our local region of Snowdonia.
It was a welcome break from the hard working week and a proper little home from home. Sadly, we had to sell the small Sprite caravan to buy a more essential item – a washing machine!
After living in a caravan for two years, we got married and bought our first house. By now, we had a baby Son and began hiring a touring caravan for trips away to Anglesey.
By the time our 2nd Son arrived, we’d bought our own touring caravan for breaks away any time of year. Accompanied by: travel cots; bottle warmers; prams; toys and bikes, our boys certainly got used to touring life from the the day they were born!
As we got ready to celebrate the millennium in 1999, our travels began to take us across the Channel into Europe.
Then in the early 00’s we hired a motorhome for a couple of tips to New Zealand. The seed had been planted for change! When we got home after our 2nd trip down under, we realised the touring caravan was holding us back.
On a trip to the Loire Valley one summer, we finally made the decision to swap to a motorhome. We’d booked onto a campsite for 2 week and began to realise that we really wanted to move on regularly.
Back then, motorhome’s were hardly seen, touring caravans ruled the van travel world. On that same Loire trip, we got to see our first European motorhome, hard to believe now.
When we arrived back in Wales, we sold our caravan and bought our first motorhome – a Swift Bessacarr 735. Our choice of layout was a fixed bed at the back with a garage below and we loved it!
It didn’t take long to realise that the Swift Bessacarr wasn’t all that we thought it was. In 2005, we took our first Ski trip to the French Alps and this was one of the biggest learning curves for us in motorhome living.
The temperatures en-route to the Alps were extreme. We hadn’t even reached our pretty alpine campsite when the internal fresh water tank froze. This was despite Nigel adding extra insulation over it before leaving home!
As we settled on the campsite, it wasn’t long before the waste pipes froze too. For the rest of the 2 week ski trip, we had no fresh water from the taps and no way of defrosting the waste pipes either.
On top of that, the condensation inside was terrible. The over-cab bed was soaked from the wet dripping off the ceiling, inside cupboards were damp too. The gas only heating was a real nuisance, we couldn’t leave it on all day and night, so had to use a portable household electric heater – not ideal with low power supplies in Europe.
The other motorhome’s, mostly German manufactures, coped effortlessly with the harsh conditions. We knew if we wanted to continue on a yearly ski trip to the Alps, that we’d have to think about changing our motorhome.
After a couple of years, we swapped the Bessacarr for a German motorhome. This time, we’d done as much research as we could on the essentials that we’d overlooked first time round.
Our next motorhome choice was based on the unseen: insulation, heating and double floor! As well as all those off-grid essentials to keep us on the road throughout the year without the need for a campsite.
The Carthago Chic i47 proved a perfect solution. There weren’t many of them around at the time, back in 2008 and only one UK dealer. This big A-class design was ideal for our family trips away with our teenage Son’s.
Although the A-Class motorhome looked good and gave plenty of space inside, the overall ride was really disappointing.
The heavy weight of that huge windscreen on the Fiat Ducato chassis proved for an uncomfortable driving experience. With little room for the suspension to do its job, we were left with a bumpy, heavy ride, even on the smoothest of roads.
Despite fitting expensive air suspension to the front, the improvement wasn’t great. In addition, we needed a new clutch, new brakes and often hair-raising moments on steep mountain passes. The brakes would sometimes smoke, so now we began to think about a change again.
In our early days of motorhome travel, we really learnt the hard way. For instance, the first time we travelled into Europe, we booked several weeks of campsites before we left home.
We thought we’d be touring in a similar way to what we used to do with our caravan. Planning ahead and booking a campsite for each night away. The first adventure into France was a big learning curve. Each day we were passing beautiful villages and amazing scenery just to reach a campsite.
After a few days our first lesson was well and truly learnt. Those campsite bookings were cancelled and we discovered that all the French motorhome’s were parked together. On something called an ‘Aire de Camping Car’ – finally, we’d discovered Aires!
It’s hard to believe looking back now, that we didn’t even know about Aires back then. There was no English Aires book and certainly no mobile phones data to use abroad, let alone an app!
We did, though, find a French publication that gave us a rough idea of what we were looking for. I remember meeting an elderly British couple on our first Aire in Bergerac. They’d neatly typed out a list of every Aire they’d found, and kindly gave it to us to use!
This is how we began to find our parking spot for the night and we never looked back! Some vanlife top tips certainly would have been helpful back then.
When our children became adults and began their own lives, it was time to sell the Carthago. During a Summer trip to Austria, we stopped at a view point on a mountain pass and saw our first overland campervan.
As we glanced down at a beautiful lake below us, two 4×4 campervan’s were parked up on the shoreline. We knew that’s exactly what we wanted and so the search began for our own 4×4 motorhome.
After a couple of years looking at The Dusseldorf Show, we narrowed our search down to just 3 manufacturers.
We’d decided on a Sprinter 4×4 and at the time back in 2014, there were only HRZ, CS and La Strada building a campervan on this base.
After a trip to The Stuttgart Show, we spent a few days checking these designs, finally choosing the La Strada. Our Regent S 4×4 came with the German quality, insulation and more essential off-grid fitments that we now expected as standard. After 10 months waiting for the build to be finished, we took delivery!
Over the years we learnt many top tips and tricks to get the most out of a trip. It’s also about how to deal with things when they go wrong.
Everything from those dreaded moments when the heating stops working or the lights go out to vandalism and wild camping.
We’ve also heard a tale or two along the way! It certainly reminds us that nearly all problem solving has a back to basics approach, 9 times out of 10 there really is a simple solution to every issue.
We loved motorhome life so much that in 2008 we opened a motorhome hire business. Our fleet consisted of family motorhome’s but we never hired out our own. At the same time, we had a motorhome stopover, welcoming visitors to stay overnight on our yard or just empty and fill the tanks.
The experience from dealing with the hire business and the problems, faults and damage that would often happen brought another dimension to our knowledge.
It was a busy time for us and by 2016, we’d decided to quit the worklife for vanlife! Embarking instead on a 6-month overland trip across Australia.
We hope to enlighten you with a little of our knowledge. Even if you learn just one thing, it could be enough to jog the memory when on your own travels. Most importantly, we want to keep it real for everyone. Vanlife isn’t about parking at a deserted beach or amongst the Sunflower’s! Vanlife top tips and lifestyle is usually far less glamourous.
There’s so much information to give, too many tips and tales to tell in just one article, so follow our blog and social media.