Our Expert's Guide To Van Life
Campervans have grown in popularity in recent years offering the perfect blend between the freedom of camping and the convenience of not having to pitch a tent. But when it comes to investing in a van, or even hiring one for your next holiday there’s a little more to think about. To offer you an insight into van life, we caught up with Mark, in-store expert and project manager of Cotswold Outdoor Droitwich, who has been converting and travelling in campervans for the past 20 years.
Why do you choose to camp in a van rather a tent?
For me, it’s not one or the other. I use lightweight tents for backpacking and sea-kayaking trips, but I find the van more convenient for weekend trips and longer periods away. I also often combine the two. For example, when visiting Scotland, I’ll use the van as my base but take my tent for multi-day, wild camping adventures.
I find there's less preparation with the van, especially as I tend to have mine packed with clean bedding and dry goods. I usually only need to put fresh food in the fridge and pack some clothing before I'm ready to head out, which definitely helps when we decide on a last-minute trip.
I also find the van convenient. Whether pulling up for the night in a quiet spot or arriving at a designated campsite, it’s a matter of moments to spin the front seats around and get the kettle on. I’m happy to avoid having to erect a big tent in the dark or a downpour.
When did you start using a van?
I’ve been using a campervan for the past 20 years and have owned numerous vans. I started with quite a basic van, but the more time I’ve spent travelling in them, the more I’ve learnt about what works for me.
When I first started working for Cotswold Outdoor, I moved to a new part of the country at short notice and rather than finding a property immediately, I lived in my van for a few months. It was a great experience as I learned a great deal about what items are essential to make van life more comfortable.
What are some of the pros and cons of van ownership?
Buying a campervan means you have the associated costs like tax, insurance, maintenance and fuel of owning another vehicle. For some people, this can be a real drawback. But I think it depends on how you use it. I primarily see the van as an adventure vehicle, although it does get used to some extent as an everyday car, whether that’s getting the shopping, occasionally commuting to work or taking the dog to the local forest for trail runs.
It’s also great for days out too – we can have the fridge stocked full of cool drinks on a hot summer’s day or get some shelter with a warm brew when it’s raining.
With campervans, there is always a compromise on space vs practicality too. The footprint of a standard short wheelbase van is no bigger than the average family car and fits in a normal parking space which is great from a manoeuvrability perspective. However, space is at a premium, so it’s just how you respond to that. For people used to camping in a small backpacking tent, the additional space in a van will almost certainly feel like a luxury. But for those used to holidays in hotels, the logistics may seem a little more restrictive.
What are your campervan essentials?
I think a full camp kitchen is essential. As a minimum, I always carry a stove to use inside the van for a brew and a multifuel stove that I use to cook outside, and sometimes I’ll take a portable barbeque. I built my campervan cupboards to accommodate a built-in stove and sink unit, but generally, I choose not to cook inside the vehicle. Camping tables and chairs in the van are a must as well, so we can make the most of the outdoors.
I know lots of people who love drive-away awnings as they enable you to expand your living space and remain in place even when you're out and about, so avoid any unnecessary faff putting them up and taking down. I don’t have one as my trips tend to be more fluid, driving from place to place. I find a canopy attached to an awning rail on the passenger side works adequately and provides some shade on warmer days and protection from rain on the not so good ones.
What about kit for your activities?
I generally find there’s plenty of space to carry equipment such as walking and climbing in the van, but you have to be organised.
For me, it’s so important that everything has a place because otherwise, living in a small space can soon get on top of you. I store everything in a box, a basket or drybags for this reason, and it’s served me pretty well. I’ve managed to take kit for sea kayaking, climbing and mountain biking on a trip to Western Scotland in 2018, but it was quite a squeeze.
Tell us about your most memorable trip in your van.
Although I’ve taken the van all over the UK and across Europe, I think my most memorable trip highlights how versatile vans can be.
We were heading for Chamonix in the French Alps, but the weather forecast for the week ahead was constant rain. Since the only thing we’d booked was a return ferry trip two weeks later, we just kept driving south until the forecast improved. We ended up in Roubion in the Maritime Alps, just north of Nice, with spectacular mountain biking and hiking. We enjoyed stunning mountains scenery, blue skies and friendly locals. As the forecast changed, we moved to Haute Provence and then the Ecrins National Parc before finally arriving in Chamonix ten days later than planned.
Do you have any tips for finding the best routes?
I like to avoid the popular tourist routes, so my advice would be, don’t be afraid to explore. Scotland’s NC500 route, for example, has become very busy, yet there are routes throughout Scotland’s beautiful landscape where you’ll see limited traffic all day.
Part of the appeal of van life for me is the ability to slow down. It gives you the chance to choose the more scenic, less direct route and make the most of your journey, not just the destination.
Where’s your favourite place to camp?
I’m a big fan of the camper scene in Europe, whether heading to the Pyrenees, Alps or Dolomites. Not only are there are lots of commercial campsites with good facilities, but there is a huge network of ‘Aires’ or Camper stops. Anyone who has driven in Europe will be familiar with these on the French Autoroute network, but they can be found in many towns and villages right across Europe.
Cost and facilities vary, but I’ve found many with all the amenities you’d expect from a commercial campsite for a fraction of the cost.
Do you need anything extra to travel with your campervan in Europe?
Travelling in Europe can seem daunting, and there have been some changes since Brexit, but it’s just about getting organised.
When it comes to paperwork, you need to take a valid in-date passport (with six months left), but you also need to carry your driving licence, V5 logbook, green card and International Driving Permit (IDP). It’s also important to check that both your campervan and health insurance covers you for travel in Europe, and you should carry the documents with you just in case.
When it comes to equipment, you need to carry a first aid kit, a warning triangle, a hi-vis jacket and spare light bulbs, but in reality, we should all have these bits for trips in the UK anyway.
Another thing to bear in mind is that if you’re planning to travel to Europe in winter, it's compulsory to fit winter tyres and carry snow chains in many countries.
It’s also a good idea to fit headlight deflectors; you’ll be driving on the opposite side of the road, so your headlamps will be pointing in the wrong way on European roads.
Do you have any advice for anyone thinking about buying a campervan?
If you’re thinking about buying a campervan but haven’t holidayed in one before, then I’d recommend hiring one for a week first to get a feel for it. I have quite a few friends who love their vans and, like me, use them as a base for outdoor activities and adventures, but I’ve also seen people in rented campers for whom the reality doesn’t match their expectations.
There are loads of campervan hire companies now, so it’s easy to give it a go and really the worst that can happen is that you discover it’s not for you.
What options are out there for people looking to buy a campervan?
Buying a ready-built camper is the easiest route to ownership, but it can be pretty expensive. I think that’s why one of the more popular options is purchasing a van and having it converted by a company. You may have to wait a little longer until your camper is holiday-ready, but you get the skills and expertise of someone doing the conversions day-in and day-out, yet it usually works out cheaper than buying one ready to go.
I actually choose to do all the conversion work on my vans myself. It means the setup may not be quite as polished, but it’s bespoke to my needs, and the costs are significantly lower. I’ve converted quite a few now, and each one has been different, depending upon my needs at the time.
My first conversion was very basic and completed with just a few hand tools and some simple 12v lighting, but I’ve gradually stepped it up and I’m already working on plans for the next van, which will be something far more evolved.
How do you explore sustainably in a campervan?
It’s challenging to think of ways to travel sustainably, but many of the areas I travel to have limited public transport links, so using a vehicle is almost unavoidable. But by choosing a smaller van, I get a fuel consumption comparable with many family cars.
I try to offset emissions from my adventures as much as possible by using my bike to commute to work and using my partner’s plug-in hybrid for local journeys where possible. I’d like to think that we’ll see fully electric vans with good range become viable options.
I also think it’s important on any trip to support local businesses. I try to buy provisions from village shops and put something back into the local community. And, of course, it’s always important to leave no evidence of your passing by choosing cooking spots with care and disposing of your rubbish responsibly.
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