At 54 years old I started living and travelling in my camper van ‘Lucy.'
Why did I choose to live in a camper van?
Ever had that feeling that there must be more to life? A life where you feel fulfilled and happy? Well, that was me.
I decided to do something about it, despite having what most people would consider a very desirable life...but one that was stuck in life’s conditioning of living in a house with a nine to five job and only having 4 weeks holiday each year.
A friend had previously mentioned about travelling the world in a van and for some reason, this thought had stuck in my mind. I had always loved the VW Campervans I saw on the road and often thought how nice it would be to have this kind of freedom. It was at that moment the ‘crazy’ idea popped into my head.
Why couldn’t I do just that?
I thought I was crazy to even think that could be possible, especially having two children, Gina 17 and Zach 13, but anything is possible if you really desire it to be.
I hadn’t had a clue where to start and whether I should buy a new van, could I even afford to do that?, or a second hand one, but how would I even know what to buy?
I am one of those people that once I have decided to do something, I just get on and do it. After an initial bit of research on the internet, I found ‘Sussex Campervans’, a company that converts new vans and also sells used camper vans. Perfect, right on my doorstep.
So the following weekend I went along to check them out. I knew as soon as I saw them I was going to buy one.
They were a lot of money, but I was investing in a home and a tangible asset. Fortunately, I was in good financial shape, so I managed to secure a loan pretty easily.
I had decided to buy a new van, as to be honest the price differential wasn’t that great between the new and used vans with low mileage. I decided on the new Nissan NV300 Tecna, as it came with a 5-year return to base warranty, and EU breakdown cover. I have also taken out a good camper van insurance which gives me full breakdown cover as well so I have complete peace of mind when travelling.
The only thing was I had to wait eight months to get the van. It was a new model and coming direct from the factory as a panel van and then Sussex Campervans would do the conversion. This would give me time to save as much money as possible for the journey, organise renting out my house and handing in my notice at work, as I had a 3-month termination clause.
My initial thoughts were that I was going to travel for one year, and after that, I would need to sell the van to pay back the finance.
However, it became clear very soon after I started the journey back in April, that I would not want to go back to my old conditioned life.
I had always wanted to write a book, something that I never seemed to have the time or inspiration to do, and travelling would give me the perfect opportunity. I have now written a few chapters, and it is evolving as I travel.
In nine months I have travelled to ten countries, Scotland, France, Belgium, The Netherlands, Germany, Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Spain and Portugal. I have reconnected with my heart and soul and am truly living life happily.
I have no idea where this journey will lead me but for now, I just hope to inspire others to step out of life’s conditioning and follow their dreams, whatever they may be.
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So if someone said to you “Would you like to live a life of freedom, simple and uncomplicated, free of stress, waking up and going to sleep in the most beautiful places, and being able to work wherever you are?,” would you say, "Yes?"
If so hopefully the below will help you get started. There are also books available online on the subject of ‘Living in a Van’ which are very useful.
Here are my 6 biggest tips to getting started in a camper van
1) What van to buy
I am by no means an expert on vans but I would say buy the best van you can afford if you want peace of mind about not breaking down somewhere remote, and maybe a more secure van, to prevent break-ins.
Newer vans will not only be more reliable and economical but equipment inside the van is likely to be safer, like the gas and electrics, and less likely to malfunction. You don’t really want to be in cold temperatures and have your heater stop working (yes, vans have heating). Some even have hot water, although mine doesn’t, which just means you have to boil up some water.
However, having said all of the above, you can pick up a 2nd hand van pretty cheaply, or even convert a van yourself.
I would highly recommend you watch some YouTube videos on the subject. There are plenty to choose from. Some of the nicest vans I’ve seen on the road have been converted by people who knew nothing about how to do it until they did it themselves. You will end up with a lot of life skills too. Of course, it will take time to do but with the added bonus if anything goes wrong you will know how to fix it.
The other thing I will say is that if you do have any problems with the van and there are other van travellers around they will only be too happy to help you, especially if you are a solo female.
The other consideration is the size of the van. I chose a standard panel van as I had never driven a van before and wanted to be able to park it easily when I was in cities and carparks, and it fits perfectly into a space for a car. It is so easy to drive and you soon get used to the extra width and length.
I also chose a pop-up roof, rather than a high top, as this allows you to get under all those height restriction barriers, particularly prevalent in the UK and France. This allowed me to stay in some lovely spots that I would otherwise not have been able to access.
A good leisure battery is a must-have, especially if you are going to wild camp rather than pay for sites with electrics. Even with my new van, there are limitations, especially if you are not driving for a few days and there hasn’t been much sun to charge up the leisure battery from the solar panel.
I have wild camped for most of the entire nine months of travelling, only plugging into electrics twice.
This saves a lot of money not having to pay for sites and for me is a big part of vanlife, being able to park up wherever I choose, with the best views. I have had van views that are not even available in five-star hotels.
I would highly recommend you work out a monthly budget and of course, this will depend on how much savings/income you have and keep track of your spending in a book so you can see how you’re doing. A
s I am living on saved money I set myself a pretty tight budget of £300 for petrol and just £120 for food, but I don’t eat out. I pretty much achieved this although, in some countries, like Norway, where it is more expensive, I did go over budget. But I made up for it in Spain, where it is so much cheaper.
You will also need money for incidentals, like tolls, (these can really add up so my advice is if you are not in a hurry don’t use toll roads), ferries, hot showers etc.
Park4Night is the best app and it is free. You can find places in advance of arriving somewhere or just look for places ‘Around me’ once you decide you have driven enough for the day. I also have the Camperstop app but you have to pay for it, unless you purchase the book and you get a years free subscription. I purchased this before I knew about Park4Night.
4) Van Living Practicalities
The first thing I will say is that I have not had my van broken into and have only had a problem once at night with some locals. There are a number of things you can do to help prevent either of these things from happening.
I have authentic stickers on the windows of my van saying “equipped with video recording equipment” (which incidentally I do not have) although I did buy a webcam but it requires a wi-fi connection to work and I never did manage to sort this out. See wi-fi versus data section.
A recording of a barking dog on your phone so that if anyone does try to enter your van whilst you are in it you can play the recording to scare them off. I have never had to resort to this.
When parking in a city ensure it is a safe location, as this is where you are most likely to have an issue. Parking near other vans is always good as you will find van travellers look out for each other and at night ensure you park under some lighting.
When I was wild camping in nature I was often in the middle of nowhere on my own, so I always tried to tuck myself away somewhere and also ensured the driver seat was clear so if I needed to drive away quickly for any reason I could. Again this is something I have never had to do.
I would recommend a compost toilet. This will save you having to find somewhere to dump the contents of a porta-potty and it is not the most pleasant job. In some countries, like Norway, this is really easy but I found it particularly difficult in Southern Spain unless you go to a camping site.
As I wild camp I use nature, or a public toilet as much as possible so as not to have to empty the porta-potty quite so frequently. Make sure you have a trowel with you so you can dig a hole to cover everything up. There is nothing worse than seeing toilet paper/wipes littering the beautiful countryside.
Have the largest possible water container and a secondary smaller container (I have 10Litres) as a backup. That way you know once you put the last drop from your back up into the main container you need to replenish your supplies. This way you will never run out. You do however learn quickly how to be economical with water.
When I first started travelling I used to hunt for water, worrying that I was going to run out, but I never have and I no longer hunt for it. A lot of petrol stations in Europe have water taps.
I found the UK one of the hardest places to find water as a lot of petrol stations no longer have taps it seems. However, pubs often have an outside tap but tend to remove the top part so you can’t use it. My tip is to buy the top part of a tap. I also always carry 5 litres of drinking water.
The Park4night app is also very useful for finding places to fill up with water.
What clothes to Pack
This will depend on how long you are travelling for and where you are going.
As I was going to be in both cold and warm places I had to think about this in terms of shoes and clothes. Also, it depends on how much storage space you have. I have one cupboard and no hanging space, so all my clothes needed to be relatively crease-resistant. I find rolling clothes up helps with preventing creases.
However, I still brought far too many clothes with me and have only worn a fraction of them as you do tend to end up wearing the same ones until they need a wash!
5) Wi-Fi versus Data
I bought myself a mobile router so that I could use wi-fi but I couldn’t seem to ever get more than 3G on it when it was supposed to be a 4G router. So I have ended up just using data and upgraded to an unlimited data sim.
Be aware that there could be limits on the data depending on where you are travelling in the world, so if you are out of your home country you don’t actually get unlimited data. I only found this out after upgrading to Three’s unlimited data sim.
A lot of van travellers use Motorhome wi-fi so this would be the best option if you would prefer to use wi-fi over data.
If you are spending a lot of time in cities then you can always use the free wi-fi in bars and restaurants. McDonalds is always good for free wi-fi.
6) Making money on the road
Making money on the road has never been easier. The internet is a great resource for finding out how but below are a few examples of what you could do:
-Digital nomad if you have internet access and know how to use a computer. Check out Wired Creatives if you're interested in building your own online brand but don't know where to start and get $100 off their course with the link above.
-Workaway website/app to find an array of interesting work like seasonal or farm work
-House sitting to take a break from the camper van at times. TrustedHousesitters is a great website to start with.
-Teaching English online. If you're a native English speaker from the US/Canada, VIPKID is an excellent company to work for. If you don't fit those qualifications though, check out DaDaABC, PalFish and Cambly.
I am gradually becoming a digital nomad, but it has been/still is a steep learning curve for me. Understanding how to build a brand to look professional, getting my head around social media and building an audience, having a website to showcase my blogs and getting affiliate links to earn from recommending products I use. It all takes time and it can be a while before you even have the smallest income stream.
Living a mobile lifestyle is an alternative choice. No hostel costs or rent.
With a van you have your home, your transport and your place of work right with you. You can live and travel wherever you want.
Home is where you park it.