We have been using Camper vans for just over twelve years so are relative “newbies”. Yet over this short period we have traveled over 120,000 miles and spent some 900+ days away in our van(s) as of December 2019 and we realise that we are just scratching the surface. We clearly still have a long way to go.
So, what have we learnt? Well we certainly believe that our initial views remain the same. There are basically two types of camper van owner – no right or wrong way – just different. Those that use their vans in similar ways to a caravan and those that use their vans to its designed use. One other very firm belief is that there is a world of difference between using a camper van in UK to using one in the rest of Europe. The whole European way is very different to the UK way and probably answers the question as to why you don’t see that many European camper van owners in UK while you do see thousands of UK camper van owners in Europe. There is a cultural issue here – Europeans welcome camper vans whereas here in the UK we tend to regard camper van owners almost as second class citizens or in the next category to New Age Travellers. Local authorities put up height barriers in many town car parks, and don’t allow overnight parking or even ban parking on beaches or on moors. The Europeans view camper van owners as revenue streams and by providing special areas (Aires) are able to prevent congestion in the centre of the village or town. European camper van owners simply won’t pay the high fees that many UK camp sites charge. Its ironic that both UK clubs ( CC and the C&CC) have a network of CL’s and CS’s that are basically no different to the thousands of Aires and Stellplatz found in France and Germany however there has been no attempt by either club to market these locations to appeal to camper van owners. In my opinion these CL’s and CS’s would make ideal spots for many of the owners of camper vans and markedly increase the viability of the CL/CS network. Europeans are totally unaware of their existence and they are not advertised in Europe by either club – why is that?
The Camper Van
Anyway – back to basics – It is logical however that the way you use your camper van should determine the equipment you purchase and use as it could save you thousands of pounds. It is in the area of equipment that has changed over the past few years as you would expect and the emphasis that owners place on equipment – again no right or wrong way – just different. In the first section we relate our experiences to changes in equipment and by detailing them perhaps we can offer advice to other wannabe camper van owners.
Our original thoughts were guided on how we wanted to use our camper van and they were based on our experiences in using a caravan over the preceding 35+ years. Layout was and still is the most basic requirement of all so taking time to get it right is critical. This cannot in our opinion, be done on viewing alone. Next would come available storage space – whatever you currently take with you will significantly increase over the years. Closely aligned to storage is available payload – we still see our friends driving away grossly overloaded. You almost need to buy (or hire) your first camper van as a trial run then after a few trips refine your requirements and then look for your long term van. This doesn’t necessarily mean wasting money on depreciation on your first van and I would say most certainly don’t buy new first time round.
To explore this important topic of storage space a little further. By this I mean “storage space” provided by UK motorhome manufacturers. Over the years I have sometimes felt guilty about not buying “British” and for me there is one very good reason – storage space or to be more accurate – the lack of it. Without exception every UK camper owner I have come across that doesn’t have a “garage model” or at least one large locker has either used the toilet or shower to store their loungers, BBQ or Safari Room, windbreaks or other bulky items. When UK camper van owners tour in Europe they also take (or buy over there) bottled water, beer, wine etc. then they take spares, tools and other odds and ends but where do they put them? I once asked a fellow camper van owner why he towed a small car on the back of his small camper and without a moments hesitation said “to store all my bits and pieces so we can get at the toilet when travelling”. UK owners tend to use their internal lockers to store bedding, winter clothing or boots, tools and odds n sods. Sadly it seems to me that much of the interior under seat storage space in UK campers is taken up with water tanks, heaters, pumps, battery chargers and ducting.
Its good to see that one or two UK manufacturers use the European idea of creating a double floor to store all these vital pieces of equipment and it would serve to protect these pieces of equipment from frost. You would be hard pressed to find a place to put an extra battery or Inverter in an older typical UK camper.. As an example – I recently looked at two similarly priced campers – the Auto Sleeper Burford Duo and the Frankia T640. Both had very similar layouts and both used the Mercedes chassis. The Auto Sleeper had two external lockers but the doors were very shallow – two small to fit any loungers in and too shallow to fit a BBQ. The Frankia had eight external lockers and at least three could accommodate both loungers and BBQ. Its not that UK campers are built using inferior materials nor is the build quality inferior. I believe that these UK designers have never tried their own products.
Your style of use should dictate the type of equipment you buy. It is almost pointless investing in solar panels and inverters if you exclusively use campsites and electric hook up (EHU) We know of several of our friends that are loaded down with solar panels yet exclusively use EHU (except maybe for a weekend away when the leisure batteries would cope anyway). Similarly it is pointless to invest in a generator for the same reason yet many do just that. If you use camp sites and EHU then you can save over 100kgs by not having items you don;t need or use. These items should only be considered for those that intend to travel for long periods and use the massive network of Aires/Stellplatz and Sostas etc. that are available throughout Europe.
I’m still tired of folks that continue to use the argument that “Aires are not safe and are used by cheap skates that try to do camping on the cheap” Such comments are used by the same folk that have rarely (if ever) been abroad and certainly never used these facilities and think of Aires as Autoroute service areas. These same folk probably fall into the category that mass book weekends at CC sites and only turn up when the weather is good, leaving many others not able to use the facilities of these sites as they show up full on the CC web site. In my opinion these comments are absolute rubbish and as said on other pages on this site, we use Aires because:-
1. They are mostly in or nearer to the centre of towns/villages that we want to visit.
2. They offer basic facilities such as fresh water, waste and WC drainage and little else – that’s all we need.
3. This way we don’t end up paying for facilities we don’t need or use (like in the UK) and can use our money to spend locally on restaurants, coffee stops and trinkets for the grand children etc.
4. We make use of facilities that are incorporated within our camper van – after all we’ve paid for them up front.
5. If we hadn’t invested in specialist equipment such as Solar panels, inverters, additional batteries, LPG tanks and large water tanks then we would use camp sites more often. We are no different than any other camper van owner but do smile to ourselves when folks mention that they “Toured Europe for 5 weeks” yet spent 4 of those weeks sun bathing at a lovely site in the South of France and it only cost €55 per night. I would rather stay in a Hotel for that price.
6. Its crazy to say people that use Aires are cheapskates – all of us have paid out tens of thousands of pounds to buy our little pride and joy – some of us pay over a hundred thousand – you don’t do that if you are “doing things on the cheap” As a rule of thumb camper vans cost on average some 5 times more than the average caravan – so not a “cheap option”.
Lots of new equipment have been introduced on the market over the past few years and if we were starting out again we may have done things a little differently. The new range of Efoy systems (mentioned on this site) produce more power, are more efficient and offer a good solution to people wanting a secure source of power – power that is available day or night, winter or summer and without the burden of significantly reducing the available payload. Most certainly if we were starting out again then Efoy would be high up the list of considerations. If we were to down size our camper van then again Efoy would be a must have item of equipment.
We spent over £100 changing over our habitation lighting from Halogen to LED – this should be a high priority item on the agenda. LED’s are now likely to be fitted as standard on many new camper vans but buying second hand your purchase is most likely to be fitted with Halogen – change them over – they last much longer and consume a fraction of the battery power of Halogen bulbs.
Awnings – we have had awnings for all our caravans and camper vans. We have spent hundreds of pounds on awnings for our caravans – fortunately all our camper vans had them fitted prior to our purchase. There is a fundamental difference between an awning for a camper van and that on a caravan. Caravan awnings are designed for bad weather, rain, hail, blow or snow whereas camper van awnings are designed as a sun shield – full stop. Since moving over to camper vans we have used our awning less and less for several reasons.
1. Even in light winds the awning flaps around and if not fitted with storm guys is likely to get damaged.
2. It can’t be used in the rain (well light rain is ok) – something that appears to happen on a regular basis – particularly in UK.
3. Unless you buy a Safari room or Residence then you cannot leave your bits and pieces in safety
4. Safari rooms are not weather proof or wind proof
If we were to go for another camper van then an awning would be very low on our list of items we must have.
As mentioned in the first paragraph we have just scratched the surface. Basically I’m not sure we would want to do things any differently. We have enjoyed travelling around Europe and we believe we have seen much more of each of the places we have visited than say some of our friends and relatives. It is interesting to speak to folk who have visited one place or another and comment that place x was nice but didn’t have this or that. We chime in by asking well did you see this, that or the other and very often look at blank faces as they didn’t notice this or that. So point one is that we believe that with the camper van we have been able to explore more detail in an area. By mixing in with the camper van community we have been able to learn more about each place we have visited and that has altered our view on a number of towns. For example St Tropez – after our first visit there we were not impressed – expensive, snooty and centered around the harbour. On subsequent visits in the camper van we discovered several new areas where the “locals” spend their time and now have the opinion that St T is a great town and we can highly recommend it. One early frustration was we carried several thousand pounds worth of camera gear, took literally thousands of photos yet only months later we had difficulty in identifying the location of some of our photographs. You need a camera with GPS so we bought a compact Sony camera with Geo-tagging and while it takes reasonable photos and we have updated the DSLR to include a GPS so we had the best of both worlds.The Sony and DSLR cameras both record where we were and when should we forget. It works really well as once we download all the photos the software fires up and shows the exact location of each photo, together with the height, direction the shot was taken – brilliant. Many DSLR camera manufacturers also sell GPS units as an add on so you can obtain the position etc. on any photo you take and if you use software such as Adobe Lightroom then it tags each photo on Google Earth. Of course in this day and age phone cameras have taken over in many places and for many are better than lugging around a DSLR. In reality now days we only use the smartphone as it has the best of all worlds.
What next – well if we have any regrets then it is that we have not traveled far enough afield – Eastern Europe, Agean Sea resort areas, Greece and more of Spain, Portugal and even Scandinavia. Having toured around Morocco in 2013 we can cross that off the list.
As we advance in years and health issues spring up unexpectedly we decided to “downsize” our Flair and bought a Hymer – but the Flair was a hard act to follow and I hope we have not made a mistake. Time will tell – and it did.
The Hymer is/was a good camper van as you would expect however we had spent 8 years moulding the Flair to what we wanted but we couldn’t do that with the Hymer. Put simply – there wasn’t enough space or payload. We found it hard to adjust to a smaller camper van. We couldn’t add in the options that we needed and were used to – there wasn’t any room on the roof to add any decent sized solar panels. We didn’t have enough room to add in big leisure batteries. Even the thought of adding Efoy would have presented problems as the Hymer control panel was not entirely happy about the addition of a B2B charger. The garage was big enough for sure but we didn’t have the overall payload to add in all our little “extras”. Surprisingly the 3 ltr Fiat engine didn’t have the same liveliness as the Iveco and the economy was little better than the Iveco. So as mentioned on here we decided to part company with the Hymer and are currently spending some time mulling over what we do want to do. Watch this space…..