After living in a car, a van would feel like a luxury suite, or so we thought.
We spent 10 months in New Zealand, mostly living in our wonderful self-converted 7-seater car (or ‘Bumi’ as we named him). So when it came to our 1st vanlife experience, we thought it would be similar (but just bigger and better).
And with the added luxury of a toilet and shower and electric power!
In some respects, it was…
In others…not at all.
We are in a foreign country, having only driven 6km in a big vehicle (learning only how to drive on the other side of the road yesterday in a tiny hatchback) and now we have around 3000km to drive… in a three and a half tonne van…
Oh boy this was going to be a journey.
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The van was a bog standard campervan. Double mattress at the back. Kitchen on one side, toilet/shower cubicle on the other. And two more seats and a table, with swivel seats in the front. The cooking stoves, heating (both air and water) ran off gas, supplied via 11kg gas bottles. Nothing over the top, but nothing innovative.
We made sure we knew what all the buttons did. Well…most of them…okay some of them…okay maybe only like 3 of them (most didn’t seem to do anything).
We packed all of our stuff (food for the next month, clothes, electronics, etc…), and ate a quick lunch at IKEA. We then set off from a Malmo petrol station to a city one hour north, since the motorway would be shut the next day due to roadworks. We got there, pulled all the window blinds up and settled down for the night. Our 1st vanlife expereince began!
It wasn’t long for us to discover inconvenient ‘conveniences’.
INCONVENIENT ‘CONVENIENCES’ = ISSUES
There were plenty of minor problems, little nagging things – some only a problem for us specifically. And a one or two big problems, in our opinion.
Since we designed our own car layout in New Zealand, we tailored it to how we wanted to use the space. But in our 1st vanlife experience, since this was a rented van, it was not our design. Nor could we tear it apart and redo it. Funnily enough, the available space and functionality of the big, rented campervan (Fiat Ducato) was more or less equal to the functionality and available space to breathe, in our 7-seater converted New Zealand car – despite the car being three times smaller in floor space.
Although the campervan was a solid OK, a 5/10, a pass, it was not any more than average.
Like I said, in other terms: adequate.
But who wants adequate?!
Not only that, but due to the fact we had started planning the layout design of our own van, we had ideas about what we wanted. Also, the fact that we had seen so many other peoples design on YouTube, we knew lots of the problems took little thinking/effort to fix or correct.
The van had one 120Amp Hour lithium battery. This was a good fit; lithium batteries are the same type in phones and laptops, allowing you to drain the battery nearly all the way down. Once drained, all you had to do was turn the van on and the engine would recharge it.
However, a few little issues:
Primarily the 230V outlets and the fridge.
There were two 230V outlets on the wall, allowing you to plugs things in like laptops, camera chargers and the like – the same outlets as a house.
However, we quickly discovered there was an issue. You can only use them when plugged into external power i.e. a campsite. Since we were staying at rest stops and laybys, plugging the external cord into a tree and hoping for lightning was most likely impossible (and it would probably fry the circuits).
This feature was done most likely to stop you being able to plug something in when the van is off overnight. This could result in a lot of power being drawn from the battery. Since the van has its own battery (the regular car battery) not connected to the lithium one, and the lithium battery is able to drain almost completely empty, it seemed unnecessary and made us have to go out and purchase a 12v to 230v inverter (which took five stores and a lot of translation of Swedish websites to obtain).
There were three 12v outlets which worked when the engine was off, without the need to hook up to external power supplies.
The fridge meanwhile could run on three settings: gas, 12v power or external power.
The external power was only usable when the van was connected to a hook-up and the 12v only usable when the engine was on. Similar to the 230v outlets, probably done for battery saving reasons. But, fridges use so little power that it really would not have made a difference and required a gas flame to be on constantly. This made our gas run out quicker and we were using non-renewable energy for this.
Also, there were no solar panels, a big downside. We never ran out of power, but the design made us overly worried about conserving everything. Actually, this was designed to be an on-grid camper despite them stating that it can go off-grid. Solar would have fixed that problem.
Our 1st vanlife experience wasn’t going so well…
Any electricity was better than the lack of electricity that we had in our car in New Zealand. (unless you count the 12v USB charger we had) but it wasn’t smooth sailing…or I guess, driving?
INSULATION AND HEATING
Rule 101 for building a house – you have some walls, and then you put insulation, then the inside walls. Heat from inside stays in house. Simple.
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‘To scale’ box template of the approximate loadable space in both Mercedes Sprinter and VW Crafter LWB.
Rule 101 for building a campervan – you have the shell of the van…insulate the inside!!
For some reason, despite it being advertised as a ‘4 season camper’ in Scandinavia (where temperatures easily reach -20°C (-4°F) in the winter), there was NO INSULATION on some vital areas like around the back doors, the sliding door and around vital pipework coming from the inside mounted fresh water tank.
It’s like advertising a 4 season sleeping bag as a black bin bag.
Our actual 4 season sleeping bags kept us toasty warm in New Zealand in our car Bumi (which had no added insulation). We, therefore, did have to deal with freezing air and ice on the inside of the car a few times. This time around, having our 4 season super camper, we hoped for no problems…but no…
Our 1st vanlife experience failed us.
This lack of insulation resulted in us freezing our butts off at night. The cold outside air drafted through the back doors and the heater only pumped warm air out at the front of the van.
Not only that, but since the heater automatically turned off when the van hit a certain temperate, having the temperature gauge right above where the hot air comes out is not very accurate. The back of the van was at least 10-15°C colder than the front. We did find a heating vent under the bed in the back but all that did was heat 10cm in front of the vent. When it got really cold there was frost on the inside panels!
And finally…water expands when it freezes.
Pipes crack because of this reason, so having water freeze in pipes is not a good idea. It is also not a good idea to not insulate those pipes. Just saying…
Just because this was our 1st vanlife experience, we knew this wasn’t right…
We had a 100L fresh water tank and a 90L grey water tank.
In Bumi (our New Zealand car) we carried water in 2L bottles, using it for drinking and cooking, and washing up. Refilling our water bottles was easy, there were plenty of drinking water stations in parks and shopping centres. We used public toilets in every place imaginable (since we had no toilet in the car) and $2-$4 showers were quite the norm in New Zealand…either this or swimming pools.
In the rented van, we had running drinking water from the tap in the kitchen. It was used for cooking, drinking and washing. Oh, and flushing the toilet and shower (which is where most of the water usage went).
Even low pressure showers can use 4L/minute. So having a shower of an average time: 8 minutes x 4L/min and there are two of us…that equals 64L. Most people tend to shower nearly every day, so that water was gone really quick, in combination with multiple 2L toilet flushes.
Filling up our water via a tap and hose connection, especially after entering Norway, turned out to be very difficult. In Sweden, we later found out that petrol stations had drinking water available. But for Norway they kept telling us that it was not for drinking. Campsites asked us to pay for a night’s stay to fill up on water. Some places we found using apps were closed for the winter, as water freezes and bursts the pipes if the keep them open. Oh and some campsites were closed until it was winter (ie closed for the summer) – it got very confusing. Either way, for a country so open to campervans, water refills were a constant nightmare. We even paid 60NOK (£5.50, $7 USD) to fill up with water in Tromsø as we were that desperate!
So for the last bit, perhaps it’s not the vans fault, but more efficient showers are perfectly possible. Even though it used a lot of water and the hot water system was mediocre at best, the shower was very nice to have.
The toilet though deserves its own section.
Having a toilet in your full-time home is essential.
And for our 1st vanlife experience, the toilet was amazing! The freedom it gave you to park in the middle of nowhere for days if you wanted to, allowing you to stay put quite comfortably, and not have to drive 20km to the nearest public toilet was a solid thumbs up.
That being said, we learned three major things this trip in regards to waste disposal systems.
1) We are never ever having a chemical toilet...
2) We don’t want a water toilet system.………….
3) Chemical toilets are not fun to clean/empty.
Using water to flush a toilet in a system where you only have a maximum of 100L to work with is not sensible. Composting toilets and other water-free alternatives are very popular in many places. Chemical toilets can only be emptied at very specific places, due to the chemicals. (although not the van’s fault, they were difficult to find at times in Norway as well, since they needed a credit card magnetic swipe to open?!). No chemical toilets for us in the future, no way.
– The Skylights were very nice to have, but were very noisy when driving, especially on the motorway. Maybe some sound insulation or more aerodynamic shapes or no holes in the skylights?
– The general narrowness and tight corners of the design ensured we hit our heads and thighs on the various edges waaaay too often, hence a lot of bruises.
– The corridor to get to the bed at the back was just wide enough to fit down but too narrow for everyday use to be comfortable.
– The bed was no useable for everyday lounging/relaxy time because you couldn’t sit up. It was only useful as a sleeping area.
– The useless cupboard as we aptly named it, located beneath the fridge, had no shelves and could barely be opened in the narrow corridor causing it to be…well useless.
– The sink was waaaaay too small; we couldn’t even fit in half the pots and pans that came with the van.
– The gas hobs were too close together and after using them for 10 minutes, the knobs to turn them off got so hot you couldn’t touch it to turn the hob off…logic.
– The swivel seats didn’t quite fit the width of the van, we had to play a lot of Tetris.
– The freezer didn’t have enough space for hardly any ice cream 🙁
For our 1st vanlife experience, I think the best way to sum it up was that it was a very good learning tool. Without experience, you cannot design something great, and that’s exactly how we would describe this.
It was not awful, but we knew we could design a much better space, and we partially took this trip to do just that – play around with the space, draw up sketches and figure out what works and what doesn’t – hands on.
Was the van well converted and fit for full time living purpose?
Did it put us off VanLife?
Quite the opposite.
Time to get some renewable electricity flowing into the van batteries. Summer seems like a good time to install solar panels.