Living in a camper and living tiny has become a massive movement in the last few years. With the help of Instagram and #vanlife, this lifestyle has become a dream for many. It is a way to escape a tedious office job and see the world. Because living in a camper is all beaches and beautiful sunsets, right? Wrong. I’m here to tell you what it’s really like, as someone who’s actually done it.
All images are my own.
Where Was I Before Vanlife?
I’m from the UK, and before I started living in a camper, I was 20, working an events job that I enjoyed but wasn’t passionate about and renting a house with my boyfriend. I’ve known for as long as I could remember that I wanted to travel and see the world, but once I’d moved out of the comfort of my parents’ house, the realities of being able to save enough money on a not-that-well-paid job sank in.
With most of my income going on rent and bills, I began searching for a way to cut my monthly expenses. This was when the idea of living in a camper started to creep in- I could live in it, continue working and then travel in it. With vanlife, I was ticking two boxes at once!
What Van Did I Buy?
Six months later my partner and I bought a 2003 Vauxhall Movano (basically a budget Sprinter van for any non-UK readers!) with under 100,000 miles on the clock. We paid £3000 for the van and spent about another £2500 completing our conversion.
Buying an old van was a gamble, we’re not mechanics and know nothing about cars, so in an ideal world something newer would have been better, but we just couldn’t afford it. When buying the van we took our mechanic friend along with us to check it out, something I’d highly recommend if you are purchasing a second-hand vehicle. He was able to assure us that everything was working as it should.
Luckily, our van has served us well for the past three years. Yes, we’ve broken down a couple of times, but so far the repairs haven’t been anything too expensive and overall we are happy with our vehicle.
How Did I Convert My Van?
I love a good DIY project but, before building out my camper, I had no extensive experience in working with wood or wiring electrics, nor did my partner. Despite this, we decided to plunge in at the deep end and have a go. A lot of googling, reading and YouTubing later we were confident enough to take on the project.
I love my tiny home, and I couldn’t be happier with how we converted it. We went for a country cottage feel, with lots of wood and a focus on the kitchen. Compared to some builds, the mechanisms in our van are low tech. We wanted simplicity to ensure our conversion was easy to complete, easy to use, and easy to fix.
What Is My Camper Like Inside?
An example of simplicity inside our camper is the water system. It sits below the sink and is just two 25-litre portable containers, one for freshwater, one for wastewater and a foot pump to use the tap. This works for us as we can fill our water at any tap, even if we can’t drive right up to it and turning the tap on requires no electricity. When we want hot water, we have to boil a kettle which seems old fashioned, but you get used to it quickly.
We chose not to have a full bathroom in our camper van; instead, we have a Porta-Potti hidden away. Not having a shower means we can have more space for living in and we don’t need to carry loads of water or have a water heating system.
Besides the kitchen and toilet, we have a static bed with clothes storage below and a garage area at the back for our paddle-board and other outdoor gear. We also have a bench seat by our side door, a fabulous place to sit and admire the view. It also doubles as shoe storage and hides our diesel heater.
All of our electrics run off of two solar panels mounted on the roof of our van and the two batteries also charge via the split charge relay when driving. We have never had to plug into mains electrics, although the solar system did struggle slightly through a British winter!
Where Do I Live in My Van?
Throughout my vanlife journey, I have so far lived in the UK wile working, travelled around Europe for a year and am currently back in the UK (thanks Covid-19) staying on friend’s private land. These three experiences were all very different, all with pros and cons.
Living In A Camper In The UK
When we first started living in a camper, we decided to stay at our jobs and continue living in the same area. We did this for a year to save enough money to go travelling. The only bills we had were insurance, breakdown cover, phone plans, food and diesel- considerably less than when we were living in a house!
As we already knew the area well, we found it easy to find places to stay. We ended up finding a few spots that we’d rotate around, away from residential properties, so we didn’t annoy any neighbours! There is currently no law against sleeping in a vehicle in the UK, but we still decided to keep a low profile and most of the time you wouldn’t even know we were in there.
Over the year we had no problems with the police, local council, or residents. In fact, no one approached us as all. Without a bathroom, we went to the gym every other day for a shower; I found this is a sure-fire way to stick to a workout plan, the necessity for a shower is pretty strong! As I often worked until 10 pm, we found a 24hr gym, meaning we could go whenever suited us.
We did rely on family to fill up our water, dispose of our toilet and do our laundry. This made everything a lot easier for us as we didn’t have to squeeze going to a laundrette or campsite into our already busy schedules.
But Wasn’t It Cold?
To be honest, yes, through the winter, it did get pretty cold. At the time we had a small wood-burning stove instead of the diesel heater so when it was on we were super toasty. However, it just wasn’t practical to start a fire before work, so we often got dressed under the covers and had a couple of hot water bottles on the go. In hindsight, a heater would have been a good option from the start, but we fell in love with the idea of a wood-burner.
Would I Do It Again?
I enjoyed living in my van in the UK, and while there were no significant problems, it isn’t personally something I would choose to do again. The thing I found most difficult was feeling as though we had to stealth camp all the time, I often worried about being asked to leave as we spent so much time in one area. Although I wouldn’t want to do it again, I would still 100% recommend it to other young people looking for a way to save money quickly.
Living In A Camper In Europe
After a year of living in a camper in the UK, heading over to Europe was incredibly exciting. We didn’t know what to expect but found travelling in a van fun, relaxing and easy. We used the Park4Night app to find places to stay and after over a year of travelling, only paid for a campsite once.
Wild camping is legal, or accepted, in many European countries (although it is worth checking before you go) which made the experience stress-free. Gone were the days of stealth camping. We have so far travelled through 13 countries and have stayed on countless beaches, in forests, by lakes, hot springs, rivers, small villages, motorway truck stops and city car parks. It’s great to be able to spread out, open the door and change your view whenever you like.
Throughout Europe, you will find motorhome stops, car parks with designated camper van bays and a place to dispose of waste and fill up your water. They are well kept and usually completely free! These stops are the biggest difference between living in a camper in the UK compared to the rest of Europe. The facilities make it easy to travel while ensuring you have access to everything you need.
Staying connected is essential for us, so before we left the UK, we found phone plans that we could use throughout the EU without any additional charges. This means we don’t have to get a new SIM card in each country. Our phone plans allow us enough mobile data that we don’t need or miss WiFi, and yes, we still watch plenty of Netflix.
Keeping Clean On The Road
Showering on the road looks a little different. No longer anywhere long enough to have a gym membership we had to improvise. There are several different options, we have an outdoor solar shower bag to use when we are somewhere secluded enough, or we just have a wash in the sink with a sponge. You could also head to a campsite, local swimming pool or just enjoy a dip in a lake.
When it’s time to do laundry, it isn’t difficult to find a laundrette. We love using the laundrette; the huge washing machines mean you can do a lot in one load, and people watching while you wait is always fun! In between washes, we hand wash t-shirts, swimwear and underwear using our Scrubba wash bag so that we’re always fresh.
Would I Do It Again?
Yes, absolutely! Living in a camper in Europe is easy, and there are still so many places to see. We plan on heading back out as soon as we can to continue exploring. I would recommend travelling through Europe while living in a camper to anyone!
Living In A Camper On Private Land
If you want to stay in one place for an extended period, then living in a camper on private land is an excellent way to go. Personally, I much prefer it to stealth camping all the time! The only problem is finding some land; we are currently on a friend’s farm, so they have plenty of space and everything we need to live comfortably.
If this is something that you want to do, then I’d recommend reaching out to family, friends, friends of friends or your local community. You might be surprised what you can find, especially if you’re willing to contribute a small amount of rent.
Would I Do It Again?
Yes! Although this is the current stage of my vanlife journey, it wasn’t planned and only came about as a solution to the Covid-19 pandemic. We plan on travelling again when it is safe to do so, but if there comes a time when we want to live in one place, then this is the route I would go down.
I love living tiny, and living on private land would allow me to save more money if I needed to, before investing in owning property or land. If you’re living in a camper and want more space, privacy and stability, then I would recommend this option.
Living in a camper looks different for everyone, when we were on the road our home for the night often was beautiful, but sometimes you’ll find yourself in a supermarket car park. Whether you’re living in a camper to see the world or to save a house deposit, anything is possible. Don’t forget to enjoy the journey along the way! Find more vanlife stories by following Van Clan on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.