We bought our first motorhome in May 2017. Since then, we've explored 17 countries across Europe, travelled over 30,000 miles in two different vans and made many, (MANY) mistakes. My goodness, motorhome life has been a learning curve! Time has gone so fast, and yet we've managed to do so much. So, we sat down with a glass (fine, ok, a bottle) of wine and decided to share our best lessons and tips to help you have the best adventures in your motorhome or campervan.
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Motorhome life Tip 1: If possible, rent before you buy
If we could go back, we would rent a van for a week first, or even just a weekend. 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 motorhome had a (small double!) rear end bunk bed and an overcab bed for Jade. She hated the overcab bit as she couldn't sit up in it, 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 change our motorhome so quickly.
Living in a campervan tip 2: How you live at home is NOT how you live vanlife
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??)
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.
Lesson 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!! 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 fold up 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 come travel with me?!?!) but we don't do those things. So we shouldn't be carrying those things.
Lesson 4: Motorhome Life will not make you healthier
In my dreams, 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.
SPOILER- it didn't work like that. I do actually wake up early, (which is when I'm writing this!) I have exercised a couple of times (in a year!) but mostly I feel like a complete idiot when I do. 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- why would I when there are 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. If you're looking for ways to stay fit on the road, these tips will help.
Vanlife tip 5: Size matters
Seriously. Don't go TOO big. Yep, I said it. We could have bought a bigger motorhome (ours is currently 7.5m, which is fairly well-sized). Any bigger makes 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 have 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!!
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 to get back under the 3.5t weight limit which affects us badly in parts of Europe (looking at you, Switzerland, you unhelpful country of excessive paperwork. Beautiful waterfall though!)
Motorhome Tip 6: Wild camping will (probably) 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), and wild camped in France, Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Luxembourg, Belgium, Italy, and even found things to do in Liechtenstein! 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.
Campervan tip 7- you are lazier than you think you are.
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 with your storage- 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 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 ‘turn right', 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:
Check your vehicle is safe
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. As we set off, we realised our brakes were completely useless and we only had 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 ‘ridden' 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. Please, before you travel, make sure your vehicle is safe.
Check your gear
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. 🙂
Tip 9: Most Useful Kit
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. With 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 sat-nav. This has taken us all over Europe with rarely an issue. Definitely a useful bit of kit.
- 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.)
Vanlife tip 10: Most Useless Kit we've NOT used
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.)
Do you have any vanlife tips?
So there we have it- the top 10 tips we've learnt from motorhome living. Over to you. What are your favourite lessons from vanlife? Which of these resonate with you most? Let me know in the comments below so we can all share.
How else can I help you today??
– I want to explore Europe by Road
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