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12 Things No-One Tells You about Van Life

Classic VW Campervan on a Scenic Road with Happy People Driving and Sitting On Top of the Campervan - Things No One Tells You About Van Life

This summer I’ve been lucky to get out and about with my new travel buddy, Mabel the Motorhome.  Mabel and I have been exploring England since June, and I have certainly learned a thing or two I didn’t expect after living in a campervan full time.  If you are thinking of buying a campervan I highly recommend it, but there are a couple of things you should know before you take the plunge.  Here are 12 things no-one tells you about van life, that you really need to know!

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It’s Never Quite What You Imagine

Thanks to all of those fancy photos on social media (including the stock photo cover image of this post – don’t try this at home kids!) I had imagined camping out under the stars, with the fairy lights in the campervan adding a soft glow as I gaze out over an incredible view.  However, leaving lights on in the van with the door open attracts a whole range of creepy crawlies, none of which I want to share my bed with! 

The gorgeous views are less common than I had hoped as well – although of course, this depends on where you choose to camp.  Campsites often have campervan and caravan pitches lined up in rows which takes a bit of shine off the escape to the country vibe. Sadly, the weather in England often meant more cosy nights tucked up inside with a blanket more than laid outside in the fresh air, but that’s not really a complaint as I love being in the van no matter what the weather.

Unless you’re somewhere warm and dry without hoards of mosquitos don’t set your heart on the van life dream I had!

Looking Out of the Campervan Door to grass and trees - inside the campervan Claire's feet are resting on a seat next to a Flamingo Cushion - It's Still Not a Bad View - Before the Mosquitos Arrive!
It’s Still Not a Bad View – Before the Mosquitos Arrive!

Going Up Hills is a Challenge

This probably applies more to older vans than newer models, but Mabel hates going up hills!  I can feel her slowing down as the engine struggles up anything more than a hillock, although I suppose she is carrying much more weight than the average car or even average van.

Luckily sticking her into a lower gear and slamming my foot down usually does the trick, although if she loses momentum it takes a while for her to get going again.  Just be patient and try to ignore the queue of traffic forming behind you – that’s what I do! 

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Parking is Not Easy

I hadn’t realised before just how small some car parking spaces are.  They are never long enough for Mabel, and I always end up sticking out into the road or not being able to fit between cars in the tiniest of spaces.  Leaving a campervan parked on the road is possible in some places, but I never want to leave Mabel exposed, or end up crashing into someone else trying to squeeze into a place.

I’ve also come across some car parks which don’t allow campervans or motorhomes at all – presumably to stop people setting up camp there.  I don’t risk getting a ticket, so if I’m not supposed to park somewhere then I don’t – but it does limit my options a bit.

Before going anywhere, I check out the parking situation and get there as early as I can to bag a space.  Even in the smallest car parks, there is usually space in the morning if you beat the crowds.  If you arrive somewhere later, be prepared to have a backup plan!

Occasionally You Find a Great Parking Spot - Mabel the Motorhome in a Scenic Car Parking looking out over green fields with a stone tower in the distance
Occasionally You Find a Great Parking Spot

England Has Some Very Narrow Roads

Wow.  I don’t know if it is the same in other countries, but I have driven down some of the narrowest streets I have ever seen, desperately hoping that nothing comes the other way!   I have also discovered that my Sat Nav loves to send me down these roads, not paying any attention to the warnings that they are not suitable for vehicles over 2 metres wide. 

Some of these roads have stone walls on both sides to make for an idyllic country scene but also a terrifying experience when you’re driving a motorhome – or anything wider than a mini! 

When I’m planning my route, I always check which way is best to go, looking at more major roads if I can and ignoring my sat-nav if I see it’s sending me somewhere ridiculous.  There are special RV and campervan Sat-Navs you can buy which allow you to input the size and weight of your campervan so it will avoid the smaller roads for you, but mine isn’t that fancy.

Besides, a lot of campsites are in the middle of nowhere along narrow country lanes, so my best advice is just to get used to it!  Practise makes perfect, so take your time, go slower to give you more time to break if something comes the other way, and hope for the best.

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It Gets Cold at Night

I started living in Mabel over the summer, and during the day inside the van could be like an oven if the sun was beating down.  However, at night when the temperature drops it can get downright chilly, even in the summer!  Now we’re into November I can definitely feel it getting colder.

More modern campervans probably have better insulation than older models, but if you are converting a van yourself, make sure you have good insulation. 

I have a duvet, two blankets and a sleeping bag as my bedding, and I admit I have slept in a woolly hat on more than one occasion.  I also have a hot water bottle which helps keep me warm, although I’ve now decided that I need an electric hook up for colder nights, as I have a small electric heater that takes the edge off.  Although I haven’t slept in the van with freezing temperatures yet, I’m sure a few more layers of clothes will do the trick.

My bed in the campervan, with a pillow and blankets and duvet - Settling Down for the Night in Mable the Motorhome
Settling Down for the Night in Mable the Motorhome

Wifi is Often Non-Existent 

If you are on holiday and want to get away from it all, this probably won’t bother you as much, but if you are attempting to live and work in your campervan then having access to working wifi is essential.  Unfortunately, campsites are often in the countryside where wifi and sometimes mobile signal just doesn’t exist! 

Sometimes the campsites will have wifi available, but in the evenings when everyone is online it sometimes becomes impossible to use for anything.  I usually rely on my phone data package, but when there is no phone signal and no wifi it gets very frustrating.  Yes there is more to life than wifi and for a day I relish being without it, but for any more than that my work begins to suffer.

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Campervan Beds are Really Uncomfortable

Because they usually fold down from seats, campervan beds are made up of several different cushions with cracks of varying widths in between.  Many people swear by a mattress topper, but I haven’t found one small enough to tidy away during the day.  If you have a conversion which allows you to have a permanent bed, make sure you choose the comfiest mattress possible! 

For now, the best solution I have found is to lay a thick blanket over the bed cushions which helps to reduce the lumps and bumps and use the blanket as a throw and seat cover during the day.  If you have any more recommendations to help my aching back I would love to hear them!

The Living Area in my Campervan - Sofa on one side of the van with the kitchen behind next to the backdoor. On the right is another seat then cupboards and toilet and a narrow walkway between them
The Living Area in my Campervan

Long Hair Gets Everywhere

My hair is long and thick, and I love swishing it about.  However, it gets tangled and full of knots every day, so I have to brush it a lot.  Living in what is basically one room, where I sleep, work, cook and dress myself, things get messy pretty quickly, but I had no idea how much hair comes out of my head! 

I find long hairs everywhere – in the kitchen sink (conveniently located next to the mirror), stuck to blankets, in clumps on the floor, dangling from the fairy lights, everywhere you can think of there is usually a hair or two.  Not the most hygienic in the kitchen area, but mostly just frustrating.

I haven’t found a solution for this yet apart from perhaps shaving my head or brushing my hair outside, so if you have any tips for dealing with long hair, I’d love to hear them! 

On the Plus Side….

However, it’s not all bad news.  There are lots of benefits to van life, such as having the freedom to explore, to travel while being self-contained etc, but there are also some major positives that I didn’t expect to come from living in my campervan.  

Van People Are Really Friendly

I never realised before, although I hadn’t really thought about it much, but van people are really friendly!  For the most part, at least, there are always exceptions of course, but everyone I’ve met has been very nice. 

We like to nosey in other people’s vans, chat about décor, share tips on where to go and what accessories to get.  Although some people are still amazed that I am doing this by myself, once they’ve got over it they are very friendly!

I’ve met van people who have helped me reverse into tight spaces, a lady who have paid my parking fees when I didn’t have any change and a couple who offered to give me a tow out of a muddy field.  I’ve also had a lovely chat with a fellow woman camper with almost the exact same van as Mabel! 

It has been really nice to become part of the campervan community, and I look forward to getting to know more people next year at meet-ups, on campsites or on the road wherever I end up.

Mabel the Motorhome parked on grass with other caravans and campervans around her - Even if Campsites are Busy, Campers are Usually Really Friendly
Even if Campsites are Busy, Campers are Usually Really Friendly

Emptying the Toilet isn’t That Bad

OK so it is gross, and probably the worst thing about van life but it really isn’t as bad as I expected.  Although there is a reason that all the chemical toilet disposals I’ve seen are outdoors, after a quick flush you’re rid of it in a flash.  One good thing about my toilet is that the waste is all mine.  I have a theory that if some of it belonged to other people it would be worse, but as it all came out of me it can’t be that bad!! 

There is a knack to toilet cassette emptying though, and you need to press the air release valve at just the right time to avoid any splashback.  Yes, it is grim, but it is part of van life you get used to pretty quickly! 

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It’s Easy to Do it Alone

Like many things, having someone else there to help with navigating, directing you into a parking space and holding the hosepipe while you fill-up the water tank would be much easier, I admit.  However, if you’re a solo van lifer, you won’t have any trouble managing by yourself. 

Even though I often have to pull over to check my Sat-Nav isn’t taking me on a wild goose chase, my parking isn’t the best, and the hosepipe ALWAYS sprays water everywhere, I still love my solo van life.  If you are considering heading out alone for the first time, just do some prep work to make sure you know where you’re going, but with a level head and a few deep breaths, you will be totally fine. 

Claire sat outside her Motorhome in a field - Enjoying the Solo Van Life
Enjoying the Solo Van Life

Van Life Can Be Environmentally Friendly

Although driving around in a diesel guzzling van doesn’t sound like the most eco-friendly way to travel, van life can actually be one of the most environmentally friendly ways to travel.  I have become so much more aware of the resources I am using because I know that I have to refill the water and diesel and replace the gas canister, it is much easier to track what I am using.

As I have to fill up the water tank every few days, I have reduced my water usage to a fraction of what it was at home.  I don’t need to shower every day and washing at the sink uses much less water than the daily showers I had at home.

Thanks to living in a small space, I am not wasting resources heating up a whole house or having lights on in every room.   Driving around England has created far less carbon than I would have made on a couple of flights to Europe.  I didn’t expect it to be so green – as long as you use your resources wisely and are a responsible van lifer, then you can help protect the environment while you explore the world. 

I also donate money to plant trees in Scotland to help offset my carbon, and if I am wild camping, I am careful to leave no trace and pick up rubbish I find lying around so I actually leave the campsite in a better state than when I arrived.

So these are a few things no one had told me about van life, which I hadn’t expected!  If you are considering buying a campervan or taking a campervan trip, let me know in the comments below!  And ask me anything you like, I will try to help.

If you’re looking for travel insurance for your campervan trip, get a quote now from World Nomads.

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Last updated: November 10, 2020

2 thoughts on “12 Things No-One Tells You about Van Life

  1. Ryan K Biddulph says:

    Good breakdown Claire. I’d imagine parking to be a total pain in the rump, as I recall observing all those vans whipping around during my 3 months in New Zealand. That is Van and RV Central; crazy number driving around.


    • Claire says:

      It is a real pain! Uff I would love to travel around New Zealand in a campervan – I would probably have to leave Mabel at home and hire one over there but that is definitely on my bucket list!

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