It’s what many people call ‘living the dream’; setting off in search of adventure and sticking it to the faceless corporate man who only knows you by your employee number. Getting off the grid in your own tiny home is what many people daydream about, but living in a van is just the tip of the iceberg; travelling in a van is where you’ll find the real excitement! I’ve been living in my self-converted Vauxhall Movano since October 2017, and now I’m sat on the edge of a cliff in Spain with my trusty house just behind me. If you’re thinking about heading south for the winter or planning an epic road trip, then here are some top tips to help you get ready for life on the road and some helpful hints that will take the stress out of travelling.
Travelling in a Van – 10 Useful Tips To Help You On The Road
1. How To Find Good Parking Spots
If you’re travelling in a van and wild camping like us, then you’re going to want to find some good parking spots, and the definition of ‘good’ will depend on what type of vehicle you’re driving, your weight, size and off-road capability. We’ve been using an app called ‘Park4Night’; a community-based app that relies on members and locals pinpointing great parking spots and documenting them for others to look at and try out for themselves
Park4Night is great as a starting point when you first arrive in a country, plus it has some great ‘out-of-the-way’ spots that you’d never know about if you weren’t local to that area. Our advice would be to pick the ones that have pictures of the locations and not just choose one at random without any photos. If it’s worth uploading a picture of, then it’s got to be good. Also, the pictures and comments will tell you if the park-up space is suitable for larger vehicles, and each symbol that signifies a parking spot also holds information about the gradient, the type of parking, and if parking is free or comes with a fee. The app is also great as a starting point for you to trek off and add your own parking finds for other uses travelling in a van too, so help the van life community and start exploring!
One extra point; it’s much easier to find your way to a great location in the daytime, especially in areas that you aren’t used to. We prefer rocking up to a spot mid-afternoon and spending the rest of the day there as we can get a lay of the land and read any signs about the area being prohibited etc. It’s always harder to find your way in the dark, especially down eerie looking country roads and dirt tracks! Keep your passports and international drivers permit with you too as the police will ask for your papers from time to time. You’re not in trouble; they’re just doing their job.
2. Carry Extra Fuel In a Sturdy Jerrican
If you’re heading up into the mountains while travelling in a van for a long stint or planning on trekking through the desert, then the chances are that you might use a lot of fuel (especially with the twisty country turns that make the roads feel a lot longer!). For a little extra piece of mind while on your journey, and considering that there might not be as many petrol stations around, a sturdy jerrican full of fuel might make you a little more relaxed about going way off the grid (we’re taking Earthroamer territory here!). Our jerrican was a last minute feature that we added the day before we got the ferry, but it’s there for when we travel into the back-end-of-beyond in Morocco and further adventures in the future.
Get yourself a metal jerrican as they’re much more durable and don’t split (the plastic ones are quite flimsy and don’t last very long). It’s also a good idea to mount it in a lockable frame somewhere on the outside of your van, as you don’t want to be breathing in the fumes while in the living area or risk setting fire to your tiny house if it’s anywhere near an ignition source. If you’re confident that you won’t need extra gas on the go, then you could always fill your cannister full of water to use for drinking or your outdoor showers. You can never have too much H2O!
3. Pack Some Spares & Safety Equipment
It’s a legal requirement to have spare bulbs in your van in many countries in Europe, but having spares on board such as oil filters, drive belts, and other lamps and fixtures that you can change yourself is a good idea no matter where in the world you live or are travelling in a van. We bought ourselves an ‘RAC Euro Driving Kit’ with all of the necessary little parts, and it’s just under the passenger seat should we ever need it. We also bought a couple of additional indicator bulbs in case one of them breaks while we’re in a remote area. The last thing we want is to be pulled over by the police!
Having a spare tyre is also another biggy, but if the spare gets a puncture too then, it’s worth having some Holt’s Tyre Weld in your boot to help you limp onwards to a garage. This little beauty sprays in through your tyre’s air inlet and fills the casing with silicone that repairs the puncture from within. It makes your split wheel perfectly safe to drive on, but we’d still recommend getting a new one at the nearest garage that you come across.
4. If You’ve Got a Tow Bar, Carry Tow Ropes
We recently found this out the hard way, and the ‘hard way’ means getting stuck in a farmers field after not being able to get up a steep track. Luckily for us, the farmer passed by about five minutes later and towed us out, but he had to drive back to his house to get a tow rope to pull us out of the mud. You can’t always rely on someone having a tow rope on board with them, but you can rely on other bigger vehicles to pull you out and save your bacon (or Quorn if you prefer a vegetarian saying). If you’re planning on going through swampy or sandy conditions, then pack some sturdy tow ropes and a shovel to help dislodge any earth or sand around your tyres.
5. Download A Translation App
It’s not impossible to learn every language and dialect for all of the countries that you’re going to be passing through while travelling in a van, but it would take a very dedicated individual or someone who has a massive multilingual family to pull it off without losing their marbles. Modern technology has made the world a lot smaller, and translation apps allow you to get a message across to someone quickly and efficiently, and more importantly, in the right language.
This past week I’ve looked up phrases to use in shops, written a long and apologetic sentence about how I needed to reverse all the way down a hill because I was too heavy to get up it, and learnt a few key phrases that we can use to navigate our way around Spain while travelling in a van. You can either have a go at speaking your chosen phrase out loud if you’re confident, get Siri or Google or whatever techno lady you keep in your pocket to speak it out loud, or pull the European shrug and hand them your phone to read. Whichever method you chose, it certainly beats scrolling through an age-old phrasebook that your uncle gave you with all of the different chat up lines circled in pen (we’ve all got this kind of uncle…).
6. Filling Up Your Water & Emptying Waste
While documenting our UK Vanlife Hardest Bits, you might have read about how we used to skulk in the shadows and get our water from outside taps at friends houses, and how we had to carry our toilet cassette up two flights of stairs to be able to empty it in Rose’s grandad’s garage. In Europe, however, these problems don’t exist.
There are so many points to fill up your water and empty your grey and black waster that we’ve lost count. Some pop up on apps like Park4Night, but others just appear out of the blue like the parking spot that we’re at right now! From inner city Motorhome areas to rural country vista spots, there’s plenty of places that you can stop and fill up/empty with ease. Waster goes straight down into a drain, and there are specific taps for washing out and refilling. The rest of Europe is totally geared up for Van Life, leaving you to stop wasting time worrying about waste and just enjoying your life on the road.
7. Measure How High Your Van Is
Most supermarket car parks seem to be underground if they’re in a city centre or a town. It pays to know how high your vehicle is to see if you can fit underneath the barriers; otherwise, you’ll have to find some outdoor parking further afield and hobble back with your shopping bags strapped to your waist. Some park up spots also have height restrictions too, so it’s well worth knowing how tall you are before you set off to your chosen cliff top or forest park-up to avoid being disappointed when you get there.
8. Get A SIM That Lets You Tether
No matter how great the country that you’re visiting is or how many times you’ve enjoyed playing Scrabble on the beach, sooner or later you’re going to want to watch a bit of Netflix or get online and take part in a bit of Mario Kart action. Just because you are travelling in a van around the world doesn’t mean that you can’t have some relaxing days at home, especially seen as though you’re taking your home with you everywhere that you go!
Get a SIM that lets you tether to a laptop or a tablet so that you can keep connected on the go, and try to find one with a lot of internet so that you don’t run out halfway through the month. We’re with VOXI, and we have 90GB of data between us + unlimited social data which really helps for our blogging and social media work. Having a SIM that lets you tether is also great for sending files while working remotely and browsing the web too. I would much rather be sat here on this cliff writing this article than in an Internet Cafe or squatting outside a MacDonalds!
9. Trust Your Instincts
Vandwellers are built with an emergency warning sensor that goes off if we think something is wrong. It’s called your gut, and you should go with it every time. If you feel that you’ve made a wrong turn and need to go back and double check your route then do it. If you don’t like the feel of a park up spot or think that it isn’t suitable or safe then go with your instincts and hot foot it out of there. No one cares if you decide to go back on a previous decision; they’ll actually think that you’re smart for trusting your senses and using your brain. Travelling in a van can be tough at times, but if you believe your initial instincts, then you won’t go wrong.
10. Make A Budget And Stick To It
It’s super easy to eat out every day and buy loads of pointless trinkets that no one is ever going to put up on their mantlepiece, but if you live like this, then your trip is going to be very short indeed. By making a budget and sticking to it, you can plan your meals and your mileage and make the most of your travel savings.
We’re lucky in the fact that we are earning a wage while travelling in a van, and we’ve budgeted so that our earnings cover our bills, food and fuel on the road. Sure, we’ve got money saved up for any emergencies that we can dip into, but not having any more Nutella in the van or being desperate to see the latest films at the cinema doesn’t come under the category of ‘emergencies’. Be smart with your cash, and you’ll have a much better trip. Just follow this rule of thought; do I need it, is it useful, will it benefit my life in any way whatsoever? If the answer to all three is yes then repeat the process until you get bored and walk away.
11. Have Faith In People
I’m adding an extra point in for good measure as it’s incredibly valid and one that people travelling in a van forget all too often. 99.899% of the people that you meet will be friendly and welcoming. They might not speak the same language as you, and they might not really get what you’re doing when they walk past and see you sat in your van, but that doesn’t make them aliens or evil people.
People are good natured and helpful when you’re in a bind; that farmer didn’t have to pull us out of the field that we were stuck in, and he certainly didn’t have to go back and get his tow ropes from his house. He did it because it’s a kind thing to do, and a little bit of kindness goes a long way. So, say hello to people when you walk by (in their language; don’t cop out by saying ‘Hi’), wave at a fisherman on the beach, and help locals by joining in when they’re out picking up rubbish. You never know when you might need someone to help you, and if you give a little help, you might just get a little back.