Van life reality- Considerations for living off the grid

Most of these reality posts have focussed on the negative aspects, which are also usually the funniest, however I think that it’s time for some serious conversation!!

Earlier in this trip we were hassled by a police officer for camping/parking at the side of the road, it was a little weird that he focused all his attention on us, as there was loads of vans on this strip. He threatened fines, taking us to the station and took our paperwork. All the while we kept cooler heads and just rolled on with whatever the outcome was. As it turned out, the continued refusal from us to give him money eventually wore him down, and so he left with one righteous statement “no one can camp for free”…well, I’m calling bullshit on that one, as nine months from the day we set out we have still not paid for a days camping. In all seriousness it can be done and although it takes preparation, at times it’s a bit of a hassle and a faff, it does add something to the adventure, rather than staying on campsite after campsite and burning through your money.

As I said previously it takes preparation, for us this came down to how we renovated our van. Being climbers, we knew we needed a van that could be off grid for up to a week at a time. So in the planning stages we made sure we had the van set up for such circumstances.

Power

We have adequate power in the form of two banner bull leisure batteries. These were hooked up to our vehicle battery via a split charge system, so the batteries charge whilst the vehicle is running. Secondly they were hooked up to two 100w solar panels on the roof. We could have gotten one battery and one solar panel that would have given us the same amount of energy, however as a climber I believe in having a back up and that by having two, if one failed we would still be able to function. Although I have yet to put this to the test, as I’ve not needed to, the logic is still there. Thirdly I have a mains attachment to connect to ‘shore’ power if needed, however as the start of the post states we have yet needed to use this, and I still don’t know if it even works??

Water

We wanted to have permanent water storage, and it needed to be as big as possible without being too big and weighing ton! After research online and looking at similar vans we decided on a fiamma a 60 litre tank. When full this is enough for us both to have water for around a week depending on usage. If we have showers or wash clothes, it obviously does not last as long! It is also adequate for the amount of water we need for our tea drinking habits, as Brits we drink more tea than is healthy and therefore need a decent water supply to fulfil our addiction!

As for filling up, we use Aires when we can, although we also have used water directly from the mountains or the fountains you find in some towns, in other instances, for example in Monaco we used a garden tap. In most cases water has been easy enough to find, and so far we have only filled up with bottled water a couple of times, and even at these times we have filled the minimum to save on plastic waste.

Only once have we had an alternate problem and that was when all our water froze. It was minus 12 ish, and we were up in the mountains, when we returned all the water was frozen, even though it is stored within the van and is insulated, if we had stayed I’m not sure how we would have overcome this problem, as we were in the arse end of nowhere. As luck would have it, we were moving on that day to Italy and warmer climates, and within a few hours we had defrosted enough to work normally, however I thought I would put this in for anyone planning on visiting winter locations to think long and hard about insulation of all water containers and pipes.

Gas

If you plan on going abroad for long periods of time the only realistic option for gas is to buy a refillable LPG cylinder and link this up to your appliances. We purchased nearly everything we needed from a company called gas it, although there are other reputable brands. On average each fill lasts us around three months and our cylinder is about 21 litres when full. At around 15-20 Euro a fill depending on where you are, it’s a good return.

We use gas for our hobs, oven and water heater. As for the hobs, these are common place in every van conversion, however I would recommend an oven for long term van usage. It opens up the options for what you can cook and is definitely worth it when you really need a pizza and garlic bread!

As for the water heater, we have a shower on board and this again is a need. If I did not have the shower then there would be no need, as all other hot water comes from the kettle on the hob. We have a Propex Malaga 5E Water Heater, with 13 litre water storage, which is enough for us both to have a short shower, before loosing warm water. On average we shower every few days, might sound bad to some, but so far I have not noticed a difference in my personal hygiene from when I used to shower everyday. This appliance also allows all the combustion products to be completely sealed from the van interior, and are expelled outside. Some cheaper options do not do this and as you are playing with your life, so it’s worth the extra investment.

Bathroom

When we started out on this venture I was quite set against having a shower and fixed toilet. I thought a better use of space would be to have a stored toilet, and solar shower outside or use trucker stops. As it turns out, I’m quite glad to have both of these things, it’s great to park at an Aire and fill up the water whilst the water heater is on, and then have a shower, with no hassle.

The same with the toilet, to be able to go when you need is a god send, as I’ve been on too many wild camping trips where finding a toilet has been a nightmare. We have a chemical toilet and most Aires have disposal facilities for this waste, and for all the dreaded horror of emptying the toilet, it’s not been that bad! If I had known I would have brought more blue tablets as these seem to be hard to find, and we have used liquid instead. This is one thing we have visited campsites for as it seems the only place to buy toilet liquids.

Waste water

We have fitted a jerry can turned upside down, and mounted on the underside of the van. Due to space restrictions, we have only been able to fit a small waste water container and therefore often have problems with it getting full rather quickly. This is a problem that is unique to us, as when we brought the van it already had the eberspacher heater installed and the exhaust for this is slap bang centre of the largest space under the van, so we were forced into a corner on this one. One future modification I might make is to install a second small waste tank to cope with the overflow.

Size of van

We went for a medium wheelbase sprinter, although a long wheel base would have made the conversion easier as many parts are tailor made for the long base models, water tanks etc. There is also a little more room in the long to fit everything in if you are going to live in your van full time. Although parking becomes harder with a long base, and in my medium wheelbase I can park in normal spaces and just let my bum hang over a little, whereas this would be impossible with the long. As well as this, driving through some of the narrow roads is hard enough in my van, never mind anything bigger. We avoid built up areas like the plague, not only are they stifling, busy and smelly, we have had most of our run ins with the law in these areas and mostly steer clear unless needs must. This is something we have found most campers/full timers seem to do as the small towns and wilderness is much more accommodating and just nicer all around.

As you might already be thinking, this is a lot of stuff in such a small van, and to be honest it was a bit of a game of Jenga getting it all in. The toilet sits high on a throne, as the water heater is underneath. Our double bed needs extending at night and putting away in the morning. I’m happy with it’s limited space, as the more space you have the more I would fill it with crap I don’t need. We have lived comfortably for nine months and I know the next few we will be just as comfortable.

Even as is write this, I know that going home means that I have work to do on the van. As time has past, I have broken parts and come up with ideas to make sure that the innards of the van run more smoothly or look nicer, such as more venting for the fridge and oven, replacing both roof lights, as I smashed one and the other has started to break under its own poor design, build the overhead storage above the sink… the list is pretty long, but I think that improvements and ideas come as you use it, and the van will continue to evolve with time.

I hope this helps someone who is thinking of doing something similar. I had said I would do this for years before I actually set out to do it, and I’ve met so many people who say they want to do it, or dream of doing it! How many people have said to me, ‘I would if I could’, there are a million and one reasons to block the path, however each of these can become obstacles to overcome, and one by one these can be removed and life can be changed to make this happen. It’s a great experience and one which I will never regret doing.

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