So, I recently did a little blog piece about the reality of vanlife and how those glossy instagram pics and blogs are often not quite what they seem!
If you read it, you’ll know about the time that we met some, almost celebrity like Instagram Vanlifers, but 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 stuff and which bloggers, are just piling on any old info just get an extra ad on their web page or a like on Facebook and Instagram?!!
Well, now it’s time to lift the lid on the what we know to be, the most fabulous way of travel and the nomadic lifestyle that comes with this marvellous but often glossed over illusion of #vanlife!
It’s certainly illegal in most of Britain, it’s frowned upon by locals in nearly all the countries we go to and most people who brag about doing it, arrive late and leave at sun rise to avoid getting caught in the act!!
Goodness, I know what you’re thinking and yes, that’s not our idea of fun either! We hate the thought of parking on a road or grotty car park….But that’s what some actually do, so forget the nightly beachside location, white sands or mountain backdrop…they are rare!!
Even when a country is extremely camper friendly, there are still big rules to follow, signs to obey and lots of areas where “no Motorhome”, “no camping” or “no overnight stays in vehicles” or even all three 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.
If you’re in a country that provides specific overnight camper parking as part of their furniture (yes there are many!), these will still have rules, signs, specific areas to park and many will still have notices telling you where not to park!
They’ll always have a restriction on the number of nights you can stop, probably a few days at the most and very often it’ll be a marked parking space where 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, (I’m thinking back to our own trip to Spain, where there were dozens at at time), read the local news and you’ll soon see that authorities and locals alike, just want the whole lot of wild campers banned, which, incidentally parts of Portugal (The Algarve) have just recently started introducing.
One last word of warning, if there is a genuine place provided for campers to park up, they aren’t always free!
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) then this is getting rid of waste products in the van, think dirty water from dishes, showering, washing and anything else you decide to chuck 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 authorities in Britain don’t provide Motorhome dumps.
Of course, Europe is completely different, and the drive over dumps are pretty much part of the furniture in towns across the Channel. Just look on your Campercontact App or follow the standard dump signs, usually a universal bright blue with a white camper outline and away you go, release the values and let the dirty water flow!
What’s NOT the right choice and you know it, is to keep those drain valves open and just let your grey tanks empty in the countryside….this is the biggest camper faux pas, the don’t go there idea and the definitely, if you decide to chance it, don’t get caught!
Of course, we’ve seen plenty of vans doing just that, chased after by angry passers by, only then innocently denying any knowledge of the said deed!! Yeh, we know what you’re up to!!
To poo or not to poo…..oh goodness, yes we really are talking dirty now!
I recently read a blog about how good it was to wild camp in Britain in a van (hmmm, not sure about that claim!!), with a tip on making sure you buried your poo away from water, so many inches deep etc….are you serious!!! Those rules do apply to people in a tent when hiking up a mountain overnight, but is this really what’s expected of us vanlife community?!
If it is, forget it, count me out, I hate the idea of having to poo in the bushes, besides, I’m not sure why you’d need to do that anyway, as most professional vanlife folk do have a portable loo, built in cassette toilet or at least wait to use the public loos!
If you’re serious about living in a van, the loo will become very well used and a vital part of your routine will be emptying it’s contents, lovely!
You’d think it would be so easy to get, but that’s just not the case at all. Sometimes we’ve driven miles trying to get a tap to fill up the fresh and even then we’ll get somewhere and it will display a “not for drinking” sign!
I would say to anyone to get really good sized fresh water tanks and add a couple of portable containers too and if you get an opportunity to fill up, do it, even it your tanks aren’t empty!
It’s finding a dump station in Europe or a caravan site in Britain, but for goodness sake make sure you don’t use the toilet cassette tap/hose to fill the fresh! We see people do this all the time and it’s horrible, do they not realise what people do with that dirty bit of hose pipe?!
It’s just drab, short days, dark nights, cold, freezing, windy, wet, dull, some sun, depending where you go!
If you’re not able to sit outside for months on end, living in a van 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 and as most of the population are in work for the Winter, this generally means that you’ll be 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 and as long as they have a few tales to tell, I’m quite happy to listen!
Summer in Europe sees windows open and us two sweating buckets on top of the sheets at 3am! But then we get worried about security, so the windows are closed, we get hotter and the sleepless nights 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, but that’s not our thing and no amount of off-grid solar and batteries would be powerful enough to run an air conditioning unit, there are more important things that need the power and who wants that bulky looking system fitted in their roof anyway?!
So at the other end of the spectrum, when it’s cold out, the heating is on, but it’s often too hot when it’s fired up and too chilly in between. Getting the right temperature is a work of art, especially during the night. There’s always a cold spot, somewhere, usually in the cab and the shower room, well, this can be next best thing to a Sauna!
Winter without heating, no chance!! A van gets icy cold, it’s heating on before turning back the duvet in the morning for us two!
You’ve seen the pics and the blog claims, all this “wild camping” in exotic locations, not a power lead in sight!
Reality check time!! Unless you’ve really got loaded up with solar panels, a big invertor and very big battery power you’re going to have to plug into power every couple of days.
Power is like water, it’s precious, you need to conserve it, it’s no use wanting to have more than a couple of light on for hours on end, whilst watching you’re favourite soap over the satellite TV and keep the absorber fridge (we have a compressor fridge for power reasons) well chilled whilst blasting off the air con unit!
If you want all that and more, a powered campsite is the only way to go.
If you’ve built your own van or bought a van based on Skiing in the Alps or Overlanding the world, rather than sitting on a campsite in Britain, then this hopefully won’t effect you!
I’m not talking the windscreen here, that is something that is hard not to have at some point. No, think inside the van, we’ve experienced it first hand on a past Motorhome and it’s a menace! Wet bedding, damp cupboards, wet mattress, yes, it can be soaking wet too, then comes the mould and before you know it, warped wood, things peeling away and damp smells.
The trick is to have well insulated walls, floors, double floors, a mattresses with air circulation below etc etc etc!
When it’s cooking/showering time it’s ventilate time, windows open!
Build or buy wisely and condensation shouldn’t be on your annoyance list.
No matter how much insulation is lining those walls, floors, ceilings, these vans 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 and when it comes to keeping toasty on the road, we love Diesel heating and yes it’s from the engine, not a separate tank in case you’re too afraid to ask! It’s also a handy bonus to be able to use it while you drive….what’s not to love about that!
We’ve had lots of gas van heating and if you’ve got it, you’ll know it’s a bit of a pain! Gas bottles/tanks, need re-filling or swapping and regularly, often every few days in winter….so yes it gets costly too! Not to mention, different gas systems and fittings in different countries.
Electric, forget it, that means power supply and that has to mean a campsite or at best finding a camper stop in the country you’re in with a high enough amp to power it and that’s not easy!
OK, so you don’t mind plugging in at a campsite, but most European sites (if they are actually open at all, that’s another story!) usually only have the low amps, so that means enough for a low setting on the heating, so long as you haven’t got several other electrical favourites on at the same time!
Isn’t it all just so trial and error!
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 van community world wide!
Councils ban campervans, locals often hate the sight of them and between the two, it results in a bad name for all those who are responsible, civilised and paranoid about getting tarnished with the same brush as any bad ass vannies who overstep the mark.
Who knows what misgivings people get up to, but we’ve seen first hand the locals making just as much mess as those reported vanlife folk. So how can the leftover rubbish, excrement and litter be possibly identified to a definite individual, once all have fled the scene?
At the end of the day a Campervan, van or Motorhome, is an easy target for blame, so we have to stick to the rules, leave no trace and give none of the locals ammunition to hate us!
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, doors flung back and then a plume of dust fills the air from a gust of wind or a passing car, as it passes over the unsealed road, gravel parking spot or even parched campsite!
Suddenly the inside of the van resembles a fog filled Victorian London and when the dust has settled, you’re left with a thin layer if you’re lucky or, if you haven’t been quick enough to grab doors & windows shut, the inside of the van, from bedding to sofa, cab to kitchen are layered in a powder of red, yellow or just plain old grey!
It’s now you wish you hadn’t just spent money at the laundry washing the fresh cotton linen bedding that morning or even worse, not covered up the light cream upholstery that looked so good on display in that show van or glossy pic when you chose the colour scheme.
Your living in a tin box, not much bigger than an average sized spare bedroom, sharing the smallest of spaces together 24/7.
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 enjoying the same interests and hobbies on the road and 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, snoring, farting, in fact, every bodily function to getting dressed, undressed, showering, washing.
You so have to want to be with that person and 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!
As we tucked into our egg sandwiches alongside a lovely sandy beach (surrounded by Motorhomes & vans I may add), out came a guy from a nearby motorhome. He was carrying his cassette toilet into the sand dunes in front of us, you know what’s coming, but here it is anyway….he actually did it, he emptied the contents straight into the sand, 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 to expect to see half the contents of the previous person’s waste matter splattered across the toilet drain, or certainly get a down wind whiff as they pour the contents hastily down the pipe, and they hope that no one else is getting to look 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 of course, 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 and unless you’re any good at holding your breath for several minutes, which we are not, then this can become all a bit overwhelming. As 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 behind 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, cattle bells (if you’ve toured Austria, you’ll be with me on this one!), 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 having to deal 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, have past experience or have at least 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, as 9 times out of 10 it’s something really simple that’s wrong and nothing that needs more than a bit of thinking out, elimination and common sense.
But, 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 or 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 and they 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 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 functional, it’s governed by a limited supply of hot water from those small boilers which need heating up, that’s about a 30 minute wait and then, it’s a 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!
If it’s hot outside, it gets too hot inside, so it’s time for another shower at the end, so that’s 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, and 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, just adds to the adventure!
A beautiful Freedom Camping Spot in New Zealand