We bought our first Motorhome in May 2017. Since then, we've explored 11 countries (England, Wales, Scotland, France, Germany, Italy, Switzerland, Austria, Liechtenstein, Belgium and Luxembourg.) We've travelled over 17,000 miles, had two different motorhomes and have made many, (MANY) mistakes. Boy, has it been a learning curve. Time has gone so fast, and yet we've managed to do so much. So, to celebrate our first year of Motorhome Life, we sat down with a glass (fine, ok, a bottle) of wine and detailed what's been our biggest lessons learnt from a year of motorhome adventures!
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One Year of Motorhome Life- how it started
In April 2017, we decided to take our motorbikes to France so we could explore this beautiful country a bit more. We towed them down behind our car (using our Motolug trailer, which collapses to go into the boot of your car/ motorhome when you don't need it!) and headed for Bordeaux (NOTE- do not go to a region FAMOUS for wine when you're on a driving holiday. It's extremely unsatisfying!!) We had an excellent holiday but we felt uncomfortable being on our motorbikes as we entered the little estate where we had rented a lodge for a week. Not to mention that the lodge costs us £700 for 6 nights. In April. I dread to think what the price would be in August.
Still, we didn't even consider other options until quite by chance we passed a motorhome on the way back to the ferry. A motorhome towing two motorbikes.
I can still FEEL the lightbulb switching on, the rush of excitement as we looked at each other and just KNEW that was the answer to our financial & practical concerns with renting a lodge or apartment. Not only that, but we could then move around more easily to explore different areas without having to pack up all our things every two days. It made so much sense for a couple of wanderers who get bored easily.
This started Operation “Find a Motorhome.” We searched, we researched and spent HOURS looking at various models. People often accuse Mr WB and me of being impulsive, as we seem to make quick decisions (like buying a house 48 hours after deciding to get one… **cough cough**) But what we are is OBSESSIVE. We will spend many hours into the night doing as much learning and fact-finding as we can. Initially, we were overwhelmed by the range of choices and options available. Did we want a fixed bed, end lounge, end bathroom or overcab bed? Did we want UK or European layout? How old did we want it? How much work did we want to do? How much did we want to pay?
My only stipulation was that I didn't want a ‘project'. We've already bought, stripped out and completely renovated three boats- I really didn't want to do another building project. We also needed space for our teenage daughter, Jade, who would, of course, be travelling with us. And we wanted something big enough to spend a week or two at a time in without killing each other. There also needed to be space for Mr WB to work in without us being in his way.
I decided I wanted a fixed bed- I don't know why making up a bed each night seems such a chore but it really does, so we needed at least one fixed bed. There also needed to be separate sleeping areas for us and for Jade so we weren't sleeping on top of each other.
But the biggest consideration was cost. We didn't know if we'd enjoy the motorhome life. We didn't know if we'd be able to all spend time together in such a small space (crazy considering that most motorhomes are bigger than our first two boats, but there was only ever two of us in the boats, not three.) We also didn't want to get a mortgage or spend a lot of money on something which we weren't sure about.
Eventually, we found our van. Funnily enough, the layout wasn't perfect. In fact, I didn't even want to go and look at it. It was dated, the beds were small and there were loads of little things I didn't like about it- but as soon as we walked in it ‘felt' homely. Peaceful and like a place we wanted to spend time in. We loved it instantly. Within a week, we were the proud new owners of our first motorhome (sadly we never named her) and almost immediately we set off on our first adventure, which was to South Wales.
So, without any further buildup or explanation, here are the top tips we've learnt in the past year.
One Year in a Motorhome- things we've learnt
Lesson Number 1: Rent before you buy
If we could go back, we would possibly rent a motorhome for a week first. Admittedly, this would have taken a chunk of money out of our kitty, but I think we would have had a better idea right from the start about what worked for us and what didn't. Our first van had a rear end bed (it was actually bunk beds but they were doubles) and an overcab bed for Jade. She hated the overcab bit as she couldn't sit up, and we didn't like sleeping in a bunk bed. Also, the only seating area was the dinette. One tiny table area. For three people. For two weeks. It didn't work well. Jade spent most of her time during the day on OUR bed (where she could sit up) and we had the table. Poor Mr WB usually worked in the cab when he needed to spread his things out. I believe renting would have highlighted some of these issues and saved us having to sell on motorhome No1 so soon, although admittedly we only lost £500 on it- not bad after we added on over 10,000 miles!!
Lesson Number 2: How you live at home is NOT how you live a Motorhome Life
At home (or on our boat) we spend a lot of time separately. Jade is normally in her room, music blaring and watching youtube. Mr WB is in his office and I'm normally curled up in the spare room (my office) writing this blog or doing accounts. (Or on social media. For research or promotional purposes. Honest. Talking of which- are you following me on Facebook?? Just click the box in the sidebar (or at the bottom, if you're on a phone!) We have lots of fun on the Facebook page. Anyway…)
But in the van, we spend time TOGETHER. Talking. Playing games. We rarely watch TV. I think in an entire year we've only watched a movie twice, maybe three times. We don't even carry a TV onboard, we just use a laptop. (The obvious exception to the TV rule is me and the F1. Watching that is non-negotiable, although I often watch it later in the evening when everyone else is in bed. Those are the days when you don't see me anywhere near Social Media!!) The point is- don't try and replicate your home life in a van. It won't work and you'll never find a layout which works for you as you'll be looking for too many things you don't need. Talking of which…
Lesson Number 3: You don't need as much STUFF as you think you do
Ok, confession time. In our first motorhome, we carried four warm, snuggly blankets with us. FOUR. There are only three of us onboard!! What were we thinking?? At various times over the past year, we have also carried a juicer, blender, hand whisk and cake tins. None of which we have used. There's also an iron and foldup ironing board in here somewhere. Pretty sure it's still in the box.
I'm not saying YOU shouldn't carry all these things. If you juice every day or bake cakes once a week- AMAZING (and can you send your address??) but we don't do those things. So we shouldn't be carrying those things.
Lesson Number 4: Motorhome Life will not make you healthier
It was my dream- vanlife would make me… better. I'd wake up earlier, do yoga and meditate for an hour, go for a run, eat carrots for breakfast and feel ‘inner peace'. In a week I'd be stick thin, with blonde beachy waves (no idea where the blonde came from!!) and I'd be able to prance around in a bikini without holding anything in. SPOILERS- it doesn't work like that. I do actually wake up early, (which is when I'm writing this!) I have exercised a couple of times but mostly I feel like a complete idiot. My exercise of choice is HIIT- which is 20/30 minutes of High-Intensity Interval training. I love it- mainly because it's over so quickly- but I feel so self-conscious doing it outside where people can SEE. I try to ignore the twitching curtains and people walking their dogs, but it's hard. So I use every excuse not to do it. I have never, EVER eaten carrots for breakfast, and why would I when there's pain chocolat to be had?? Or croissants? Or warm crusty bread? And I have moments when I feel at peace- but then I wake up. Vanlife doesn't change YOU or the people you travel with. No matter how much you want it to.
Lesson Number 5: Size matters
Ok, seriously. Don't go TOO big. Yep, I said it. We could have bought a bigger motorhome (ours is currently 7.5m, which in boat terms is average but in motorhomes it's fairly well-sized). Any bigger would make it difficult to park in loads of places, both free and paid across Europe. We struggle occasionally with our trailer and there are some spots we just cannot fit into, so we need to move on or park in coach parking, where we generally get told off! If we had a bigger motorhome, this would be even harder.
Also, think about height. If you are above 3m, you are classed as a CAT 4 vehicle on toll roads in Europe, which more than doubles the price you pay on some motorways. Our first van was 3.2m (that pesky overcab bed) and we didn't even realise what that would mean. Our first European trip cost us over £200 in toll fees alone- for a two week trip!! It was crazy.
Don't get me wrong- we upgraded from a 6.5m van to a 7.5m and the extra space is AMAZING. But we wouldn't go any bigger. If anything, we'll probably downsize slightly when Jade leaves for University to get back under the 3.5t weight limit which affects us badly in parts of Europe (looking at you, Switzerland, you iunhelpful country of excessive paperwork!!)
Lesson Number 6: Wild camping will NOT get you murdered. Or convicted
Oh, wild camping. How you used to terrify me. Our very first trip away was to South Wales (which is amazing. If you haven't been- go!) and the subject of wild camping came up. To be honest, I didn't even really know what it was- I just knew it SCARED me. I honestly thought we'd be breaking the law and get arrested. Or murdered. I didn't know how to find places to stop at- and what if it was all full when we arrived? Where would we stay then? We'd have to drive around ALL NIGHT and then we'd crash and DIE. Nope, I'm not dramatic at all.
If the idea of being self-sufficient and paying very little for your overnight stops appeals to you, then please please believe me when I say that IT'S OK. Our first trip where we wild camped was Scotland. The first night was hard and we didn't sleep well. I panicked and worried and woke up to every little sound- and that's after we spent ages worrying about where to find somewhere. The second night was easier. By the end of the first week it wasn't even an issue anymore. In fact, when we stopped at a campsite for a few nights so we could safely leave the van whilst we rode the bikes, I resented the £27/night fee. That's how quick it was to adapt. Since then, we've travelled the rest of the UK (including Cornwall), France, Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Italy, Leichtenstein, Luxembourg, Belgium and wild camped in all of them. We class aires as ‘wild camping' as you don't book in advance and you don't pay very much for them, but we have also found places where we've stayed for free. It really can be done. There's more information on how we do it below.
Lesson Number 7: If it's not easily accessed, you'll make do without it. (Motorhome Life tips for lazy people)
By their very nature, vans have a lot of storage under the seats. Some of this stuff is pretty easy to get to, and some of it is a pain in the backside. Be flexible- we found that how we first arranged our cupboards wasn't great so we rearranged them to a better solution. But we've also discovered that if something isn't easily reached, such as our spare plates or bowls for guests, we just won't bother to get it out. We keep 3 large plates and 3 pasta bowls, as well as small plates and cereal bowls in an easy access locker for daily use. The rest are stored at the back of the van in a really annoying nook. We've found that if we have guests, we just serve dinner in a pasta bowl instead of bothering to dig under the seat for an extra plate. The exception to this is wine, which is stored securely in a cupboard as far from the heater as we can, so that it stays cool. Funnily enough, we are always motivated to move the seat cushions and dig a bottle out.
Lesson Number 8: Our biggest Motorhome Life mistake(s)
Happily, we had to really think about this one. There have been LOADS of little mistakes (like forcing the fridge door shut and bending the catch or learning that just because the sat nav says to go down there, doesn't mean we should ignore the ‘low bridge' signs,) but we haven't made many BIG mistakes **touch wood**. There are two we can think of:
The first was trusting our motorhome dealer when he said the brakes on our first motorhome had been serviced. We took his word and didn't even check the brake fluid, which was a mistake when we were about to visit the Alps! (For anyone wondering, the brake fluid will either be vanilla or red. Just make sure it's not murky or dirty.) Because we tow an unbraked motorbike trailer, there's a lot of extra pressure put on to the motorhome, especially when we're travelling down a steep mountain. Like in Switzerland. We didn't fully appreciate how much extra force it was until we pulled into a car park and our brakes were on fire. Literally- there was smoke. Even two hours later, there was still smoke. We probably should have called our breakdown assistance at that point, but we decided to head for the local garage- which was at the bottom of the mountain. Which we travelled down with only the handbrake to slow us down! It was the most scared I've ever been in the van. We did make it to the bottom safely, and got to the garage who replaced our brakes, but it was a sobering lesson.
What we should have done was stopped more often, used engine braking (low gears) and not ‘rode' our brakes all the way down. What we do now is stay in or around second gear, let the revs creep up to 2000RPM, then brake down to 1000RPM (ish), then come off brakes and let it roll again. This allows the brakes to cool between each ‘pulse'. There are lots of ways to do this and if you search enough forums you'll find many heated opinions on the best way to bring a motorhome down a mountain, but we've just transversed Germany, Switzerland and Austria with an unbraked trailer without any problems or burning brakes using this method, so it works for us.
The second BIG mistake was forgetting Gas when we went to Europe. We found ourselves without gas, at the start of the Easter Bank Holiday weekend, and not able to use any of the gas bottles we could buy from supermarkets because they didn't fit our UK system. We weren't in any mortal danger, but we felt very stupid and angry at ourselves for forgetting something so essential to our holiday. (Seriously, there was a brief time period where we considered just sulking our way back to the UK- luckily we didn't!)
But motorhoming is a learning curve and there's always something to improve. After one year, we are definitely still improving- even after all our travels. In fact, we find that the more complacent we feel, the more mistakes we make! Stay sharp, people. 🙂
Lesson Number 9: Most Useful Kit we've used in our Motorhome Life
Apart from the actual motorhome, and basic stuff which we all use daily, (like the toilet, for example. Or plates…), here are some of the most useful bits of kit we've bought this year:
- Folding sofa/ double chair. This is BRILLIANT- you can put your feet up and read a book in comfort, or two adults can sit and share dinner and a glass of wine. We carry this and several folding chairs and it collapses to about the same size as the other chairs. One of my favourite things we've bought and we use it pretty much at every place we stop.
- While we're talking about outside things, our collapsible BBQ is also really useful. Many places allow BBQs, but not open fires on the ground. So in this, we can have a fire, but it's kept off the ground. We bought a metal plate from B & Q (UK hardware shop) which sits underneath and catches any stray sparks. Leave it overnight and it's cool in the morning to empty out (somewhere safe) and pack away. We carry some fire logs and if possible we'll use any wood/ twigs we find lying around in a wild camping spot.
- Indoors, we LOVE our Le Creuset kettle. It's a little pricey, but we honestly believe the quality is worth it. A solid base allows for quick boiling, it whistles (which I thought I'd hate but actually is so useful when you're sitting outside) and it has happily survived a year of travelling in our sink (make sure it's cool first.) Definitely worth the investment.
- We also love our navigation set up. We use a cheap, second-hand ipad and installed Co-pilot on it. This App is so easy to use and so far has been spot on. You input the dimensions of your van and your route preferences (tolls, no tolls etc) and it will find you a route pretty much anywhere. Occasionally, I step in and navigate us somewhere using my phone- but that's usually when there's signs on the motorway for traffic & we decide to detour. The app can alert you to traffic, but we don't always agree with its detours. You want the ‘caravan navigation' package, which is normally £49.99 but currently on sale for £34.99- one off payment, no subscription.) Click HERE to find out more – this isn't even an affiliate link- we just love it.
- Vent system. We spent a fortune on gas heating up the rear seating area over the winter as there's no engine heating there and Jade was freezing. What we've now made is a vent which goes over one or two of our cab vents and feeds the warm air back to her. It's pretty nifty and cost a whole £9.99 Patent pending. #notreally
- DC laptop chargers so you can charge laptop computers whilst driving. Genius. Although I've just updated my laptop to a Macbook Pro and I'm struggling to find a charger for it. Boooooo.
- Inverter power pack. This thing is awesome. We use it to charge our motorbike headsets and most of Jade's electronics, as she NEVER seems to remember to plug them in while we're driving. EVER.
Lesson Number 10: Most Useless Kit we've NOT used in our Motorhome Life
I alluded to this a little earlier, but here's some of the stuff we have on board that we haven't touched for over a year:
- Hand Whisk
- Cake tins
- Blender (no longer onboard)
- Juicer (again, no longer with us)
- Iron and ironing board
- Spare plates & bowls. (see No 7)
- Spare ramps. (Ramps (for levelling the van) are awesome. Spare ramps….?? Why??)
- (I'm sure there are some others, but as most of these things are MY fault, I think I'll leave it there for now!! 🙂
(P.S- if you carry any of this stuff onboard and you love it, then that's great. Everyone's list will be different- this is just for guidance. And possibly comedy.)
One Year of Motorhome Life- Conclusion
So there we have it- the 10 lessons we've learnt from a year of Motorhome Life. I wasn't really aiming for 10- it just sort of happened! It really has been an incredible year and by far it's been the most life-changing decision we've ever made. Who would have thought 12 months ago that I'd be sitting here, in my motorhome on an incredibly sunny bank holiday, having quit my job so we can travel more frequently and completely rearranged our lifestyle to allow us the freedom? This Motorhome Life should come with a sticker: Warning- can be addictive and cause you to do crazy things!! 🙂 Can't wait to see what happens in year two!!
Over to you. What are your favourite lessons from Motorhome Life? Which of these resonate with you most? Let me know in the comments below so we can all share.
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