A one-week trial of vanlife. The good, the bad and the ugly.

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.

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The van was a self-converted long-wheelbase high-top VW Crafter. The Crafter is essentially the same as a Mercedes Sprinter, and this is the body size we’d most likely go with, so technically it was a good comparison.

The conversion was very different to anything we have in mind. The owner had sourced a written-off caravan and used the parts to fit out the van. He did a good job in many respects, but there was clearly a lot of bodging, and in the process the van inherited much of the design of the caravan, which was the source of many problems, more of which later. But in essence, it comes down to this: if I wanted a caravan, I’d get a caravan. I don’t; that’s why i’m looking at converting a campervan.

Let’s break it out.

The good

Insulation

It was a typical British April, with night-time temperatures dropping to about 7°C, but we experienced no condensation to speak of. You could see daylight from some part of the van, for example under the sliding side door, but it wasn’t especially drafty, and we barely used the fan, or opened the windows. This was with 2 people, 1 dog, and making use of the gas hob and heater.

I don’t know for sure how the van was insulated, but in places it looked like there was just basic white polystyrene sheeting behind the internal plastic cladding. Given the amount of hand-wringing that I see in build videos about condensation, this was a reassuring experience.

Swivel seats

This van had swivel seats fitted in the front, with the bulkhead removed. Though the rotation of the seats was limited due to furniture placement in the back, it was nice to use the seats up front. They’re comfortable, and even facing forward, it can be a pleasant environment – like a very small conservatory. It made us wonder it it would be possible to mount a temporary desk up in the front somehow, so you could us it as an office space.

Fuel costs

We spent £33 on diesel, for about 280 miles of driving. We intentionally didn’t travel far, but still, that’s not a scary amount.

Gas Heater

The van was fitted with a Truma ‘Trumatic Ultraheat’ space heater, running off either the propane tank or mains electricity, when using hookup power. We only used it as a gas heater, but other than having an awkward-to-see pilot light, it was excellent. Almost silent, and it warmed the van in a couple of minutes, even on the lowest setting. I wouldn’t want to put a heater this bulky in a van, but I am now convinced of the benefits of a space heater.

Ventilation

There was a fan fitted, but we found that opening the roof light provided plenty of fresh air, and we could have done without it. This might not work in a hot climate of course.

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No need for an expensive fan in mild British weather; this roof light was enough

Windows

One of the most clearly visible signs that this is part van, part caravan is the windows. There’s lots not to like about these windows, (see below) however, the double glazing seems to work, and does obviate the need for silver thermal screens. I suspect they’re also much lighter than the alternative.

The bad

I should say now that we noticed a lot of things we didn’t like about the van – that was part of the exercise, we were looking to learn some lessons, and our perspective is . But I don’t mean to rag on the owner and convertor, who did a pretty ingenious job with cheap, accessible materials. This was also an old van, which had been used by the owner for several years as a family motorhome. And they were super-helpful and nice people too. With that in mind, on to the bad stuff…

Boy, did it make a noise while driving! As we set off for the first time, there was an unholy racket of creaking furniture and panels, and clattering pots and crockery. I suspect much of the creaking could be fixed with better construction, and the clattering with some softer storage design.

Materials

Starting with the fundamentals, clearly I wouldn’t use caravan materials and components. I think – and I may be proved wrong – that it is possible to use other materials and construction techniques to meet functional, cost and weight requirements, without the compromises made by the mainstream motorhome conversion industry.

Floorplan

While managing the trade-offs in space is probably the most fundamental problem in any van conversion, I think it’s safe to say we’d just put a lot less stuff in our van.

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Too much stuff = not enough space

Some specifics:

  • The dog needs a place to sit while we drive (ideally where he can see out of the window, or get some fresh air. He doesn’t fit in the footwell or in the cab, so we’d need to remove the bulkhead and make space in the back
  • The storage units need enough room around them so you can open them without your own body being in the way. Similarly, it would be good if one person could use the kitchen while another was free to move about the van.
  • When we’re all in the back of the van, the dog needs a place to sit where we don’t have to keep moving him around. And ideally more than one option, so he can stretch out and move about.
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The dog needs a better place to sit

Bed

This van had a small bed that slidout from a bench sofa. It was about 100 cm wide when extended. This one was too small. Our bed at home is about 150 cm wide;  I think we could get away with 120-130 cm.
Up to now I’ve been in favour of convertible beds that can be used as sofas during the day, and allow for more floorspace. But now I’m leaning towards a bed that’s always out, so one person can go to bed without everyone having to get up and find somewhere else to sit. Our bedding also took up a lot of space in the cupboard, so this would be more efficiently stored on the bed. And this could be another place for the dog to mooch about, if we made it accessible.

Fridge

The heater and fridge were both gas powered (although the fridge could be battery-powered, we didn’t want to deplete it), so we had to remember to switch the fridge back on every time we stopped and opened the valve on the gas bottle. This would be much easier if you had reliable, rechargeable battery power for the fridge, which for us would mean solar charging.

Water

This van had a large plastic water container in the back. Water from that container was undrinkable, with a plastic taste that contaminated tea and boiled vegetables. The cause of this needs further investigation, but we need a water storage system that provides clean, safe, pleasant-tasting water. For this trip, we had a 5 litres water bottle that we refilled every couple of days and used for drinking and cooking. The water from the van tank we only used to wash up.

There was also no grey water tank, so the sink and shower just drained out onto the ground. This didn’t cause us any problems, but I think I’d build in a grey water tank, with an emptying tap, so at least you have the choice to store grey water.

Maybe it’s worth considering a small drinking water system, say a 5-10 litre jerry can, that can be easily refilled, with a separate tank for washing water.

Windows

While I appreciated the double glazing, and the blackout blinds were effective, I’d like to find a less ugly option for fitting windows.

They’re the bulging plastic type you see on caravans and motorhomes everywhere. They’re ugly from the outside, and feel cheap and janky on the inside. The windows themselves are made of plastic, as are the bits of trim that hold the blinds in place, and the blinds seem to be made of some kind of paper. They’re awkward to lean against when sitting in the van, and the window mounted to the side door fouls against the side of the van when the door is open, so the owner had to fit a stop to the door to prevent it from being opened fully (and therefore latching in place).

While any window decreases the stealth factor, a flush-mounted window would be a little less obvious.

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Plastic caravan windows with bulky frames for blinds

Solar power

This is essential for us. Campsites are fine for a hit of convenience, and maybe a hot shower or laundry facilities, but they’re not where I want to live. The van has to be able to keep going without plugging in.

A good 12V system

This van had no USB sockets, and only one cigarette lighter socket running off the leisure battery. Given the power supply is all 12V DC, it seems crazy to invert this to 240V AC, only to transform it back to 20V, 12V or 5V DC to charge phones, laptops, batteries, etc.

I still haven’t figured out how to charge some DC appliances such as razors and toothbrushes, which all use chargers with built-in transformers, but I assume there is some way round this.

Coping with state change

Especially when you spend a lot of time outside, you need to be able to cope with things in different states: hot/cold, dry/wet, clean/dirty. That means a place to dry a tea towel, to drain dishes, to hang wet clothes, to store rubbish and laundry.

It also means a kitchen system that lets you prepare food in one state, and wash dishes in another. A washing up bowl is helpful here, but it needs to fit in the sink, and allow a cutting board, dish drainer or sink cover to fit on top.

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The kitchen did not convert well between food prep, clearing up and driving off

Storage details

Lots of campervans use these push-button latches, which you have to press in every time you open the door. They fail frequently enough to be annoying or dangerous while driving, and they’re a pain to use. There must be a better system.

On open surfaces, it would be useful to have some barriers or restraining cords in some places, so you could leave some things out (salt and pepper, washing up liquid, etc.) when driving.

Some compartments could perhaps be replaced with soft fabric containers, to stop rattling. Or maybe we could experiment with fabric/foam linings or dividers.

Small surfaces are useful in many situations. A place to charge your phone at night, somewhere to put a drink while you sit on the bench.

Seating

We only need seating for 2, plus a dog. I’d rather have more open space, than fill the van with benches and sofas.

A van can shift between being an inside and an outside space, and this is one of its main benefits. The seating should make the most of this. So I would try to go for a floor plan that gave access to the rear doors (tricky with a permanent bed), and also fit seats facing forward and back next to the sliding door. This lets you treat the van like a porch, or a garden; sitting ‘at home’ but still welcoming in the outside world.

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This is a great spot to put a little seat, but it needs to be more confortable.

Toilet and shower

The cassette toilet was more useful than we anticipated, and it was nice to be able to disappear into the ‘bathroom’ to use it, and to brush teeth, etc. We didn’t use the shower as a show, just a place to wash with a flannel, and I’m still not sure on the best compromise here. This room did take up a huge amount of space in the van, and I don’t think it warrants that much.

Table

This van had a self-supporting folding table. It was poorly designed and heavy, but it did mean we could take it outside. I think I’d be looking to use a pedestal- or rail-mounted table.

Gas and water storage

These were in the rear of the van, accessible via the back doors, and largely sealed off from the living area, in the style of a caravan or motorhome. I can see the advantages, but I’m concerned about what happens if you’re shunted from the rear.  But maybe the same applies to anything you put there. It would be good to be able to switch the gas on from inside the van.

The ugly

There were a few fundamental design decisions which might have been right for the owner, but weren’t for us.

Firstly, it was really designed with either access to hookup power in mind. Either short trips where you could charge at home and run down the battery over a weekend, or longer trips with stays in campsites with electric hookups. The van had 240V appliances like a microwave, heater, TV, and fridge, and 13A 3-pin sockets for running other devices. Without mains power, none of these worked, and the van felt crippled. After 5 days, we had to stay over at a campsite just to recharge the leisure battery, and our own devices. It was surprising how the van took on a different character with and without mains power. On the road we felt crippled; plugged in, everything felt convenient, and the van was in it’s element. Fine for some, but not what we want.

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Fine for one night, but this is not where I want to live

Secondly, it was packed with stuff: furniture, storage, seats, appliances and facilities. There was a shower and toilet, microwave, 4 ring hob and grill, fridge, TV, water heater, clothes hanging closet, large overhead cupboards, and more. I’d rather trade some of that convenience for more space. It was difficult to use the storage space because there was so little room for people. We didn’t need the TV, and could have done with much simpler cooking facilities. We used the toilet, and the shower cubicle, but only for washing with a flannel, not using the shower head. I don’t want to see how much we can pack into a van; I want to see how little we can get away with.

Thirdly, it looks like a caravan, inside and out. While some caravan components are well-balanced in their tradeoffs between weight, utility, price and other factors, on the whole, I think they’re just ugly and feel unpleasant to interact with. The materials are cheap and flimsy, and the style is – to my eyes – hideous. I imagine modern caravan designs may be somewhat better, but from what I see on the roads, I have little hope. It seems to be a market devoid of taste (subjective, I know) or that values good design (which I think can be argued more objectively).

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Yep, looks like a caravan 

 


So that went long, but there was a lot to cover. We had a great trip in a flawed but fun van, and learned a lot. Here’s what Loki thinks about it all:
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Blogging? Not interested