Wednesday, 1 September 2010

Life in a Small Van

Well I still think of it as a small van, despite Rob reminding me that there are plenty of folks travelling about in much smaller ones, and now that we have been in it full time for about 3 months and are a quarter of the way through our trip, we thought it would be a good time to pass on some of the good and not so good aspects of living like this.

On the whole we think of it as mostly good. The van seems reasonably efficient, giving us 30 miles to the gallon, which means we can go 1000km (600 miles) on 100 litres of diesel. As of Friday 20th August we had done 6000 miles since Calais.

Cooking in the van

We get about 48 hours of van electricity if we stop in one place. That covers lights, fridge and water pump on the 12v leisure battery. It will not run the laptop, phone rechargers or hairdryer. You need to be on a campsite and hook up to mains electrics for that. If we camp wild for longer than 2 days without moving we have to seriously start conserving electricity, turning off the water pump and not having loads of lights on, though running our engine for about ten minutes will give us enough charge to keep the fridge running for another half day if we need to. Solar panels are definitely on our list for a future buy, but the inverter we bought at a car accessories warehouse is brilliant for keeping the laptop, phones and camera batteries recharged when we are driving along. We use more fuel doing that I guess, but it’s a kind of invisible cost so we are not counting it!

Making a pot of tea

Keeping the inside of the van clean is relatively easy. We have to sweep it with a stiff brush daily, but since the floor space is all of 5 m² this takes minutes. You really need to have removable mats though. I’m sure our fitted carpet will keep us insulated in colder weather, but we are glad we cut some extra carpet to put on top as it can be taken out and beaten regularly. I know some people will plump for a hoover, but that’d be just another thing to recharge and the sweeping and beating works fine, besides, most people we’ve spoken to say the 12v hoovers are a waste of space.

We have become obsessed since Germany with what goes down our sinks. Foolishly, as naïve campervan owners, we assumed that since you have a sink in the kitchen area you can treat it like the kitchen sink at home. That was until a nasty, bad egg smell began to follow us around the German countryside. Once we established that it was us, or, more precisely, our waste tank, we found many useful suggestions for cures from the Motorhome Facts website (so worth the annual £10 fee). Our method for nice smelling waste is to always keep the plug in the kitchen sink, use a plastic washing up bowl and throw waste water into a nearby hedge. In the bathroom we allow the much sweeter smelling products (thanks Molton Brown) to drain freely into the waste tank, but we do try to rinse through the pipe system with a mix of dishwasher powder and biological clothes washing liquid to keep them grease-free as it’s amazing what gets washed off your bodies.

Hang out the washing

In fact, one really good buy has been a set of 4 plastic washing up bowls. Even Rob admits how useful they and says they are well worth the €3.90 he never wanted to pay because it was more clutter.

Surprisingly, for a small van, we still haven’t used up all the cupboard space. As we use up stuff we brought with us (including all our Mosel wine), we are finding that we’ve got even more room. We do stack some things on the floor at the back while we travel, such as the chairs, table and BBQ, as our “garage” is miniscule, and we have to move all of those things to the front at night when we put the bed up. We could lay them flat under the bed I suppose, but Charlie would be very miffed to find his lair taken up with our rubbish and I expect he would do his best to still scrabble about under the bed, lying on anything in his way.

Charlie reluctantly shares his chair

Having a bed that you pack away every day is not a problem for us. I know lots of motorhomers will groan and say they couldn’t live without their fixed bed, but I like having the space. It now takes us just a few minutes to set up or put away and is just a part of our routine. A couple of times, in the early days, we left the bed up if we were not moving on, but now I put it away whatever, as I like to have the space to move around and sit in different areas.

There are few things we miss being in the van. Radio 4 in the mornings is one, especially since we haven’t been able to pick up the World Service since somewhere in Sweden. We are completely out of touch with British news and politics, but know a great deal about polar bear attacks on holiday cottages in Svalbard. Stupidly, we didn’t manage to bring along our binoculars and we so wish we had them. One night we thought we saw a sea eagle, but couldn’t be sure without a closer view, and then of course there were Rob’s whales! That was more to do with the rush of packing up the house, unlike our lack of useful books, which was down to our lack of foresight. If we had known then what we know now… well, books for bird spotting, flora and fauna, our mushroom book and an idiot’s guide to all sorts of fishing would definitely be on our list. We would also have taken a lot more note of what the website for Vicarious Books had to offer, as they seem to have a wealth of books on wild camping, aires, stellplätze and camping with motorhomes for a huge number of countries. Maybe we should also have brought some better maps. Both finding places to stay and maps of areas have been covered by popping in to tourist offices though and we’ve survived so far, but we could have been better prepared.

Some of us have work to do

Luxuries I wish we had? Not a lot. Another laptop so we could both tap away or go on the internet at the same time would be useful, as would another fishing rod, because it is very, very boring watching someone fish.

Some sort of fly net for the large sliding side door is a must. It’s a real design fault that there isn’t one. There are nets on all the windows and skylights, but these are of little use because you have to open one of the four doors to get in and out and they leave gaping holes for zillions of gnats and midges to come in by. You can never be quick enough to stop any getting in, and one gnat, hiding away until you are asleep, does damage to your body that lasts for days. We found a cheap (the only cheap thing?) net in Norway, which I have painstakingly hemmed and sewn Velcro to (how quick that would have been at home). Oh yes – that’s another thing I wish I’d brought – not a sewing machine – but a thimble, as Velcro is a tough old fabric to hand sew.

Fly net in position and keeping out big fly (oh, and we don't crack open champagne every night)

Things we’d change? We wouldn’t bother with an oven. We thought we’d use it a lot, but it has ended up as a rather clunky cupboard. The grill is great and we wouldn’t want less than 3 gas rings – our 4 are just right for us, but really the oven has proved a waste of space. We could do with an electric hot-plate to use at a campsite’s expense and save our gas, which has proved as difficult to get in Scandinavia as we expected.

Apart from all that, life in a small van suits us fine, though I do keep jealously eyeing up wooden huts, especially the ones with turf roofs and the ones with wood fires and the ones with saunas. I would like something like that in my garden, if we ever go back to living in a house!

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