Commissioning your camper van. Hints and tips from the road.

Thanks for all the van spec questions on text and email asking what’s good and what’s not about ArchieVan. If you think that we can help you to spec your van better just drop me a note on kelvin@kelvincollins.com

As we’ll be gently cruising down through the forested tunnel of northern Sweden for a few days it seems as good a time as any to write about the ArchieVan spec. It’s a lot more interesting than trying to describe the gently changing scenery of a few billion birch and spruce.

Your biggest decision is whether to buy a van or a motor home. I’ve written about the considerations on the website – see Van v MoHo. Different vans for different people.

This article is for those taking the van route.

How many do you want to sleep?

Space will be at a premium – unless you have to take the kids then build it for two!

Toilet and shower?

The first van we hired had neither, and on a campsite that was fine.

Once you’ve wild camped for a few nights you’ll wish you had a toilet at least.

I’m not sure the actual shower is worth investing in – but a shower tray/toilet combination definitely is, with a few hooks or hangers over it. It gives you a home for anything wet, and ensures the bathroom is actually big enough to for you to be able to use the toilet.

I expect everyone is squeamish about the toilet cassette for the first few times of using it, but rest easy – it becomes natural, and if it goes wrong you’ll laugh about the horror for the rest of your lives!

Cooking and chilling.

The small electric only fridge is still my favourite thing in ArchieVan. To be able to keep food (and beer) fresh as the sun beats down, yet only using power from the solar panel is priceless. Gas fridges offer another power source, but don’t like gradients apparently.

The ice box didn’t really work so that has gone giving us a bit more room.

We have a small oven and grill that’s used most days, and a two ring gas hob. We don’t hold back, we cook as varied foods as we do at home and we eat well. I’ll write about van food one day.

Two rings good.

Solar panels?

Absolutely!

We never hook up.

Whilst a site might run out of hook up pitches, there’s always somewhere for ArchieVan to park up, so we’ve never been turned away yet. It also often saves a fiver a night on camp sites, but more importantly it means we don’t need to be on a site every night. Ours is 150w. We’re always charging stuff, we have loads of lights, and we’ve never run low on power. Even if we did we’d only need a short drive to charge up.

Materials.

This is a personal thing. See a motor homer’s eyes light up when they glimpse the inside of ArchieVan and you get an insight into the life of a world in beige! Invest time in deciding what you want. You’ll live with it, and very close to it, for a long time.

Life will be dusty – choose your colours wisely!

Our materials wouldn’t suit everyone!

Bed layout.

Many yearn for a fixed bed, if that’s you then a motor home may be a better option. Making our bed takes less than five minutes and it’s well worth the effort when you consider the interior space we gain. We also use Duvalet mattress pads, they’re expensive, but brilliant and save the effort of fannying around with a sheet every night.

If you’re both less than 6 foot tall I suggest sleeping across the van, again it’ll give you more space and may mean a medium wheel base is a realistic option.

Storage:

You’ll probably need less than you think.

If you’re a diva who needs fresh clothes a few times a day, a toolcase of makeup, and an armoury of hair tools, then vanlife might not be for you!

Lay out what you think you’ll need for a reasonable time on the road (say a month). Go away for a few hours, then go back and see if you can half it. We didn’t and two months in we know we have about twice as many clothes as we need.

Hooks.

You’ll need loads of hooks.

If you’re touring in the UK you will get wet. And if you’re on a long trip then you will need to do washing – it all needs hanging up somewhere.

Boring. But real life demands a wash day.

Swivel seat?

Yes. Definitely.

Our double swivel base was expensive and it’s a bit clumsy to use, but the van is a much better space with the passenger seats spun around.

Front seats, spun around.

Bikes in or out?

Bikes are great. Park up. Ride your bike where you want to go. Most European cities are far more bike friendly than anywhere in Britain too.

We have ours inside at the back of the van. That cost us about 400mm on one side of the back, but means we don’t worry about them, and they don’t get covered in road grit.

Space for the bikes, and bedding.

Colour.

Mention of road grit reminded me of this.

Chances are your van will start out white.

And when you sneak into the woods for a wild camping night you’ll stick out like a sore thumb (although you’ll be in good company on campsites).

A respray is punishingly expensive unless you have the ability to do it yourself.

Consider a wrap – our was done excellently by Wrap Capital near Exeter.

Did we get anything wrong?

Unfortunately yes, and it’s a big one if you’re going a long way south.

We opted for glass windows all around.

They look fantastic.

They’re almost impossible to see through from the outside giving you great privacy.

But they don’t allow you to create any airflow.

Cassette windows, as you see on motor homes and caravans, all open, have built in fly screens (also brilliant) and are a lot lighter too.

They may not look as great, but the versatility they offer outweighs the aesthetic.

What else do we want to do to ArchieVan?

We’ll probably change the dual passenger seat for a single at some stage. The fixed seat is a bit too upright for comfort.

We need a footrest that’ll double as a shoe store, for when the passenger seat is turned around. Its swivel base lifts it by 40mm or so it’s not comfortable without. I’ll write a spec for Andy Sweeny, the excellent joiner who made our furniture, for when we nip home for the MOT next year.

Anything else?

Buy the most powerful van you can afford. Having a great van spec probably means you’ll have more weight to pull.

Find one with air conditioning if you can (it will cost more and take some searching out, but they do exist).

Don’t bother getting a fancy stereo with sat nav and a load of other functions, it’ll never stay ahead of your phone’s and Google’s ability.

Although there are certainly things we’d do differently and things we’d still like to do, we love ArchieVan as he is!

Yesterday we went to a massive Swedish motor home sales centre with vans costing up to £200k. We suspended reality for a bit and asked ourselves what we’d like if cost weren’t an issue. And weighing up all the pros and cons we’d still have ArchieVan.

A big thank you to Mylo at Cornwall Van Conversions and Andy Sweeny who built the cool furniture.

In a few weeks I’ll write a ‘100 days on the road’ post with other practical learnings, but first we have to last that long!

 

and here’s a travel post thrown in too…

Midnight sun at Camp Alta, Kiruna.

Cruising through Swedish Lapland.

And. As if by magic. We’ve arrived at HappyPanda (Haparanda) on the Swedish/Finnish border.

We’re on a two night stay to gather strength at Haparandaham, a camp site and marina at less than £10 a night with a great shower (only one) and good swimming too.

On the way here we spent:

  • Three nights (a length of stay record for us) at the excellent CampAlta just outside the ore mining town of Kiruna in the north.
  • One night north of that near the Abisko National Park – and narrowly avoided being blown up by some amateur fire starters.
  • And a mozzie hell night in an otherwise great layby.

This post is getting long already. Stop here if you need a rest.

 

Abisko National Park.

After the craggy dramatic scenery of the Lofoten Islands and northern Norway it was going to be interesting going back to Sweden.

The road climbing from Narvik to the border was different again with a rocky landscape peppered with gorgeous little huts, many inaccessible from the road.

Over the top and it’s all change, but still good.

We’re high and soon in the Abisko National Park. This is Lapland, home of course to Santa, but also the reindeer herding Sami people.

The much photographed Lapponian Gate is clear from the road and is a distinct landmark in this otherwise heavily forested and lake filled land.

The Lapponian Gate.

It’s all very well but we want to see reindeer!

And the reindeer oblige!

At the excellent Abisko visitor centre we learn about the 425km Kings Trail – maybe we’ll save that one for when Minty’s ankle is better! But it does sound a great experience. We roll on for another 15kms to park at an excellent layby and dine in the little communal shelter that’s provided for picnics, and indeed shelter.

Dinner indoors – roadside shelter.

Ice fishing.

On the lake side we ponder the use of the many huts that seem too small to sleep in. Then I have a moment’s inspiration as I remember Minty reading how the lake is excellent for long distance skating as it freezes very early in winter. These huts are the shelters that the crazy Swedes drag out onto the ice before lighting a fire and cutting a hole to spend a cosy day or two ice fishing.

We’re getting better at spending time outside, it helps us experience what’s going on around us, and avoids cabin fever too, but I suspect I’ll never convince Min that sitting on the ice for a few hours is a good idea.

The ice fishers’ huts.

Fireworks avoided.

In the morning while I enjoyed my espresso a young Swedish girl came and asked if we had matches.

I offered our taser-like gas lighter, but no, she needed fire apparently.

I’d encountered the need before at Mill House in Sennen when a builder needed to light a huge gas burner and so I knew the answer.

I clicked the little cooking head onto the Camping-Gaz bottle and showed the girl how to light it.

Great. Off she goes to make her breakfast for her friends.

We go back to contemplating the map, and supping coffee, and all is well.

Until a few minutes later the girl comes running back shouting, utterly panicked, “Help! It’s on fire!”

Holy shit.

Gas is convenient, but it doesn’t half go bang when it goes wrong. As a school boy I had to walk past a house where a gas bottle had exploded – there wasn’t much left and it stank of burning for years afterwards.

I haven’t moved as fast in ages and I sprinted down to their little camp.

They’d lit a methylated spirits burner, then fear had hit them.

My little camp stove was raging away on its side, setting fire to all in its wake, and for whatever reason they’d piled saucepans on top – which were now glowing red and threatening.

In that amazing split second thinking that only happens when it’s absolutely necessary I figured that if it all went wrong I was too close not to get severely burnt anyway – so I might as well try to rescue the situation.

I kicked the pans away, snatched up the now searing hot camp stove, and simply turned it off.

Phew.

I hadn’t shown her how to do that.

The girls were close to tears.

I’d had the best adrenalin rush since a Norwegian police car tried to run us off the road.

But no one was hurt.

In the event of all that heat my coffee went cold.

Writing up the fire story, immediately after the event.

Kiruna and Camp Alta.

Sweden’s steel town, or at least its iron ore extraction centre is Kiruna. To one side of the E10 there’s the town, to the other there’s the most massive open cast mine where LKAB, the state owned mining company, employees about 4500 people. The town is typical in that it looks like it was built in the 50s/60s and has a few depressing looking shops (and a good System Bolaget). It did though have some interesting monumental sculptures.

A little down the road we realised why the town is dead – a huge retail park was humming with activity and there we shopped at ICA, the best Swedish supermarket we’ve seen so far.

Camp Alta – for the first time we stayed in the same place for three nights! Yay! Even then leaving was hard.

Minty on the water. Free use of canoes at Camp Alta.

Leif, the owner, popped us lakeside where the sun was on the van for 24 hours a day. It’s a bit scary for the planet that we were enjoying 25 degrees plus within the Arctic Circle, but it was a joy to be in.

Swimming, canoeing, cycling, long walks through the forests of biting beasties and trees, coming across a Huskie farm where a huge pack lives, good van food (including sprouts – in July!) and long sleeps.

Why did we leave?

It’s only the aim of getting a long way south before the temperature starts dropping in the autumn that makes us move on.

Here the lupins of the drive up have been replaced, largely by drifts of rose bay willowherb, toadflax, yarrow and harebells. Sweet peas and vetch creep along together. Strangely I notice – there are no stinging nettles, no brambles.

We stopped at another lake at Gallivare, Sweden’s other centre for ore extraction.

We swam, snacked, intended to stay over, but then didn’t.

Mossi madness.

After a swim I was refreshed and proposed a few more miles. That took us to a rest area (basically a huge, well planned lay-by) near Lansjarv.

I say near Lansjarv. We walked into the village, through clouds of hungry mosquitos. There’s a smattering of houses, most have seen better days. A few properly odd looking folk (think St Just if the gates had been shut for ten years), and some very sad horses. All by yet another beautiful lake.

There was a hell of a lot more going on at the very quiet rest area than in the little town. Although I’m sure it’s busier at the nearby farm where they breed babies for solstice sacrifice (or was that just a vicious rumour?).

Back in the van with the door shut it seems hard to imagine the horror of being swarmed by mosquitos, I’m not sure if you’re better off with, or without hair. At least I can simply wipe them off my shiny head, but perhaps hair would protect me.

 

Tomorrow Finland. Today the sea, the Gulf of Bothnia. If you’d mentioned it to me before we’d come here I’d have suspected you had a speech impediment preventing you from saying Bosnia.

A lovely site, part marina, part camping, as messing about in boats probably was at home before it became a rich man’s game. I sit here now outside with my mossi mates, it’s way past ten in the evening, the kids are still swimming, I might see my first sunset in a few weeks. And we know just how fortunate we are.

Still noble, still travelling.
Ancient, stronger now than its rider. My 30+ year old Orange P7.
Right outside of the van.

5 Replies to “Commissioning your camper van. Hints and tips from the road.”

  1. Lovely update Kelvin, and I’d be happy to oblige re. the footrest (I’m about to do the same in my own van so will have ideas on what works.)
    So – Finland. My two abiding memories from a few years back – the best rally drivers in the world come from Finland, and for a very good reason : they all practice a lot. All the time.
    Secondly, beware anyone who offers you iced vodka before about 8.30 am.

    Apart from that, enjoy it. It’s a beautiful country, and if you get a chance, or invitation, to visit the islands off the coast near Helsinki – do it. A most extraordinary experience.

    Best, A

    1. Kelvin Collins says: Reply

      Thanks And.

      We’re really looking forward to Oulu – it feels like we’ve been in the woods too long.

      A Voddie breakfast – now there’s a thing!

      KC

  2. Judith Hunt says: Reply

    Great KC and was fascinated with the logistics of travelling in Archievan and how you seem to have thought of most things but the airflow problem can be fixed too. Have just really enjoyed reading this to Richard in bed sipping Ringtons tea. He remarked many times, I must look that up.
    Loved the ice huts and the use for them in winter…I will stay with Minty in the warm…feel free KC!!

  3. Kelvin Collins says: Reply

    Thanks Judith – the whole frozen north concept is hard to get your head around when it’s hotter than Cornwall ever gets day after day.
    KC

  4. […] I’ve written about choosing your van before. Here’s a link to how we chose the van. And an update post on the subject – link. […]

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