We’re almost 6 months into our conversion, and the van is still looking very van-like. However, we have some basic utilities in, and it seems like a good time to test them out. So we’ve headed to Wales, to the Brecon Beacons, looror a week-long holiday and alpha-test. A quick recap – what’s in:
Roughly made bench base and panels to convert to a double bed
Solar panels and charge controller wired up to 12V distribution
Window in the sliding door
Half the USB sockets
Half the task lights
About 1/3 of the insulation
A very roughly made kitchen unit with MDF work surface and sink
A water pump and waste pipe to and from the sink, connected to two 5 litre water bottles from the supermarket
In practical terms, what does this mean? On our last trip we slept on the floor and cooked on a barbecue outside, whereas on this trip we have a proper bed, and can prepare food and wash up while standing up. We can read books in the evening with electric light, and charge our phones from the USB sockets. We can keep food cold and we have some control over the ventilation.
In other respects, we’re still living in a metal box:
We have no gas hob, so we’re cooking on a trangia meths stove.
We’ve bought a gas heater, but we haven’t fitted it yet, so we can’t warm the van in these cool British evenings
We have almost no built in storage, so everything is piled up in boxes on the floor and secured in transit with bungee cords
Bar one finished section, there is no cladding and little insulation on the walls so it’s chilly and looks a mess, with electrical conduit and bare metal everywhere.
So this is the scope of our experiment, and we have some results
A place for everything and everything in its place
The problem is exacerbated by the lack of furniture in the van, but nonetheless it’s annoying to be always looking for a place to stuff things, and hunting around when you want to find them again. No different to camping, but there’s a lot more packing and unpacking when you’re driving around as well.
There are some particular situations worth noting:
When you’re lying in bed and want to charge your phone or check it for a weather forecast, or pick up a book, eye mask or bottle of water
When you want to brush your teeth (which for now means going outside) and need access to toothbrush, toothpaste and water by the side door
When you’re preparing food or clearing up on the limited counter space and need to move things out of the way so you can work on the task at hand
It makes sense to keep the inside of the van clean, especially when you’re hopping in and out of bed, but it’s tricky to enforce a shoes off rule when you also jumping in and out of the van so frequently. Maybe easier in hot climates when going outside means putting on a pair of flip flops, but not so easy here when you’re wearing thick socks and slippers inside, and walking boots outside.
A door mat is also a big help.
Making the bed
This is the core compromise all van designs take a position on. We’ve opted for a convertible bed that also functions as a bench during the day, with the removable panels doubling up as tables. Currently the removable panels don’t have any fittings to take a table leg, so we just slide them on top of the fixed part of the bed when converting to a bench. But either way, they’re heavy, and awkward to move. We haven’t figured this one out yet. A fixed bed is easier in so many ways but it leaves very few options for sitting at a table and makes half the van unusable for anything else.
The current situation is made no easier by the fact that our bench is a little too high, and very deep. The latter can be solved, I hope, by folding over the mattress to form a double thickness for the seat back, but the height is another issue.
Take a seat
Our current seating options are limited. The bench/bed is designed to be the primary seat, but it’s currently not working as it should.
We can also sit on the step at the side door, which is a good bridge between inside and outside worlds. There’s a similar spot at the back doors, but with the bed down, there’s no direct route between the kitchen area and the back to carry cups of tea or plates of food.
Power and control
Our 12V distribution box is on the floor behind the drivers seat, which is also where the dog bed goes. So every time we want to switch off a circuit, we have to get down on our knees and shift the dog out of the way. Given our current cable runs, we don’t have much flexibility here, but we do need to figure out a more accessible place to put these switches.
We have wooden battens bolted up on the roof which will eventually form the mounting frame for the roof cladding. But right now, they’re a useful place to hang towels dog leads and other stuff. We need to find a way to replicate this functionality once the cladding is up and the battens no longer available. Maybe shock cord strung between eye hooks …
We have a plastic tub which just about fits in the sink, and we can use as a washing up bowl. It’s remarkably useful! We should definitely find a bowl that we can use like this on a more permanent basis.
We also have a small water pump (8l per minute, which was the smallest pump we could find). But this is way too powerful for the small amount of water we want to use. So I think we might switch to a hand pump.
It’s nice to sit in the van in the evening with the doors open to let a breeze flow through. But it can also be a bit midgey. I’ve seen van conversions where people have sewn midge nets around the rear and side doors, and I think we need to build these in, especially for any trips we may take to Scotland.
The dog (about 30kg of Belgian Shepherd) is big, and takes up a lot of space. When driving, he likes to look out of a window, and ideally sniff the breeze. So at the moment, he sits on the front passenger bench with us, which works OK for short journeys, but it’s not very comfortable for anyone, and can make it difficult to see the passenger side mirrors when he decides to sit up.
In our plans, there is just about space behind the drivers seat for a raised platform that the dog could lie on while we’re driving. I’m not sure how happy he’d be there, so this is something we need to test out on another journey.
Note the dog on the bed
We have a very temporary water arrangement right now, with two 5 litre plastic water containers under the sink, one for fresh water, one for grey. We’ve noticed a distinct plastic taste in the water, and bitterness in our tea, which we suspect comes from chlorine in the tap water breaking down the plastics in the water containers. These aren’t Jerry cans, they’re just reused mineral water bottles; not intended to have a lifespan beyond their original use, so that could be the root of the problem. However, we’ve also noticed a similar taste in water supplies in other caravans and motorhomes, so it may not be that simple.
Draining the fridge
Our fridge (a Dometic CRX50) is working fine, but there’s a lot of condensation which we can either wipe up on a regular basis, or drain off. We don’t have the housekeeping skills to keep wiping it up, so that means I need to build in a drain to the kitchen unit where we’ll house the fridge.
In the cab
The cab is one of the nicest places to be in the van. You’ve got a panoramic view through the huge windscreen, comfy seats that you can adjust at will, and plenty of places to store books, glasses of wine and snacks.
However, bizarrely for a van on sale in 2012, long after the death of physical music media, it’s fitted with a radio and CD player. No bluetooth connection beyond phone calls, and no line-in for an arbitrary music device. Apparently a line-in can be hacked, so that’s what we’ll have to do, in order to live in the 21st century.
No surprise for experienced caravanists, but it’s amazing how much difference 5 degrees makes. We need to invest in some parking ramps.
Our 350W solar panels and 110Ah battery have served us well with power for lighting, the fridge, and charging devices. It is summer, but we’re also in Wales, where it’s often overcast. So a tentative, “so far, so good” on that front.
This Easter, Amy and I hired a camper van to get a taste of vanlife. We recorded our throughts about what worked and what didn’t, and I’m sharing them here. I should stress that this focuses on the bad and the ugly (we were trying to learn lessons), but the trip was good.