For Those Thinking of Starting a Van Life

A few pointers to get you under way in exploring the various avenues of living small and mobile. First published 16 April 2018 on Wix.

I chose living in a camper van as a way to move from farm to farm and be able to easily carry my pet cat around. As it turned out, my cat ran off and found another family (which in hindsight was probably a very good move on him), and I wasstuck in Edinburgh trying to save money for a year, but I’m still super glad I chose this lifestyle and here are some reasons why.

Costs

The biggest one has to be the amount of money I save. House prices in London is now at a record high of 14.5 times average income. But then I looked closer at the figures – the average house price is £496,000 and an average income is £34,200. What? Who earns £34,200? A qualified teacher’s starting salary is about £10,000 short of the average. What do you have to do to earn that kind of ‘average’ money? It’s pretty clear that buying a property is not an option for us (properly) average men and women. And the dreaded rent – the only other option – was draining whatever little income we earned to pay someone else’s mortgage on a second home.

I did my fair share of 70 plus hours a week of work in my twenties and early thirties and it left no time or energy for me to do things that I love like spending time with people I love, going climbing, hiking out into nature or making music. And the thing that really frustrated me was that all that sacrifice and frugality left me with not a lot of savings. Certainly far from a deposit requirement of even the most modest houses on the market. Much of what I was earning disappeared in rent, council tax and bills.

Now, I pay my road tax of £140 a year, insurance £330 a year, MOT (depending on issues but I set aside about £1000 just in case), and any fuel use which depends on how much travelling I do.  I’d say my basic living cost is about £2500 a year at a reasonably stationary state that I’m in currently (a few big trips but mostly inner city driving). Note that this price includes an unlikely event that a MOT picked up a large invoice. All my electrical needs are met with my 150W solar and LPG gas costs about £25 a year. So theoretically looking at about little over £200 a month.

Smaller expenses meant that I didn’t need to earn as much. I could be working a minimum wage jobs at a leisurely 40 hours a week and still save as much as, or in some cases more than I did when I was working like a rat on a spinning wheel. In essence, I plugged the big holes in a leaky bucket. Now a trickle of water is enough to fill it up. I’d imagine for some people who find the prospect of saving up for a deposit on a mortgage daunting, this could be a very effective option.

Dolores in the Pyrenees

Vehicle

People have converted many different sizes of vans to suit their needs. The beauty of a self build is that it can be designed and customised to fit whatever your needs and quirks are. A working couple with a tendency towards cleanliness would have a different configuration to a surfer dude in search of big waves out there on a rugged terrain. I would highly suggest subscribing to these YouTube channels below for exposure to a whole variety of styles in mobile living – vans, yurts, tiny houses on wheels etc.

Dylan Magaster has very well produced tours of people’s homes. Predominantly on vans but some very good tiny houses too.

Exploring Alternatives features a wide variety of interesting alternative living spaces including yurts, tree houses and earth ships.

Living Big in a Tiny House has a rather annoying presenter but endure it. Some of the houses featured are absolutely stunning.

There are various other channels that I subscribe to but the most frequent, well shot and expertly edited uploads seem to come from these guys. I’m sure you’ll find other channels in the links as you go deeper.

But back to my vehicle. I decided to go for a small van – a Renault Trafic 1.9L diesel on a short wheel base for a variety of factors.

1. For me to move around with little or no income, I had to consider the petrol consumption. 1.9 litres was and still is one of the smaller engine sizes available and the Trafic had 6 gears which would save so much money travelling on motorways.  

2. My good friend pointed out at a time when I was looking for a possible vehicle for conversion, that Vauxhall Vivaros and Nissan Primasters were literally the same model albeit a different badge on the front. This, coupled with the ubiquitous distribution of the vehicle all over Europe meant that if it ever broke down, spare parts were easy and cheap to get hold of.

3. Unlike Sprinters and Transits, it has a galvanised body protecting it from rust formation. I wasn’t too concerned about it as I only intend to live in it for a limited time period but I’ve been impressed by how protected it is from minor scratches and bumps. If you intend to put your vehicle on sale at a later date, rust is a pretty big factor in prices.

Higher gear numbers, good fuel economy, widely available models and less rust prone body are what I would suggest anyone thinking of taking the leap. I would also add that cheaper may not mean cheaper in the long run. I made the mistake of buying my van for £1700 on an impulse, only to discover later that all 4 tires needed replacing, all brake pads and disks needed to be changed and the entire front suspension and shock absorbers failed the MOT. They added to about £1500 on top.

Update: I recently moved to South of France from Edinburgh and the long journey took its toll. As soon as I arrived, the camshaft timer broke and the engine couldn’t be started. Then the turbo solenoid broke and I couldn’t go above 2000rpm. Then the flywheel cracked and I had to replace the clutch system. Then the front wheel ball joints buckled and had to be replaced. All within a month, costing upwards of £1500 again.

When the estimate for the repair came in, me and my girlfriend seriously considered buying and converting a bigger van as we planned to travel together in 2019. However, taking into account the extra expenses and time required to build another van, plus environmental impact of decommissioning a vehicle, it was cheaper and slightly more ethical to fix. It’s a risk that comes with older vehicles.

Downside

It’s important to note that van life isn’t all what instagram pics might have you believe. There are beautiful moments of course, and the inherent freedom that comes with this way of life is spine tingling at times. But it’s not for every one and here are few of my thumbs down to give you a realistic idea of what comes with the package.

1. Most of my first year was spent in Edinburgh, stealth camping, for economic and romantic reasons. I’d try not to worry any residents by making sure no lights escape at night, I check the streets before I exit so that I don’t frighten anyone walking past and move my location regularly. It’s been pretty successful. No one’s complained and I’ve never been asked to move. But stealthing takes a bit of effort and it can get frustrating when you can’t leave your doors and windows open at night to ventilate, or during the day when cooking.

2. I get asked about security quite often from female friends and I personally think it’s as secure, if not more secure than some houses. It’s got a decent lock, an immobiliser, an alarm, and I have a very sharp Japanese kitchen knife just by my foot. But I do get people sniffing around at night if I’m parked in a dodgy area and it’s scary at first. I can hear them trying out the doors and windows but eventually, they all wonder off. I’d imagine normal houses get the same treatment if you live in a rough neighbourhood. You just don’t hear it. I stress the fact that this only happens if I’m staying in a city, in a pretty dodgy area. No concern out in the wild, or on a roadside somewhere in the countryside.

3. I don’t have a shower in my van so I use one at a gym, climbing wall, at my friend’s house or at work. It’s been really easy to keep clean as I just carry my washing kit in my bag all the time and take a shower whenever opportunity arises, which is never more than 2 days apart. Toilet, on the other hand, is a bit more complicated. I opted for the simplest system possible to save space – bottles for urine (widest girth obviously), and a plastic bag over a small bin for poo. This took a long time to get used to, even for someone like me with considerably liberal views on faecal matter. But it’s funny how humans can get used to anything. I now find it uncomfortable, sitting on a proper toilet, closed in by four walls and not having all my belongings within my arms reach when responding to calls of nature.

4. I managed to hibernate in a lock up garage over this winter with an electric oil heater on full blast, keeping the interior at balmy 20 degrees constantly. But I sprouted out at the end of March, driven by the promise of spring Sun, only to be crushed by freezing blizzards, torrential rain and constant cold. Scotland’s winter is very long indeed. And on those nights when it’s cold, damp and miserable, I dreamt of having a wood burner, crackling and radiating warm dry heat. And a dog to cuddle.

5. Even if you’ve insulated your vehicle extensively, you’ll still hear the rain rattling on the body, cars zooming past and birds crash landing on your roof. On windy days, the van will feel like the interior of a small boat being rocked around by waves. I like being able to feel the environment in this way but it can be difficult to sleep and feel settled if you are sensitive to noise and motion.

6. Condensation is REALLY difficult to control in winter. With the oil heater on, the ambient humidity is low but they sneak into far corners where temperatures are lower and drip like hell, sometimes saturating the floor boards. I’m currently using a USB powered micro dehumidifier and it seems to be working somewhat but I would either make or buy a heat exchanger if I had more space.

These are some of my issues with van life in my current set up. Many of the points listed above could be amended if I install a few updates to the van, and travelled mainly in the countryside. So I’m not that fazed by it but it’s something to consider if you’re planning to self-build and live full time in it.

I hope this post has given you a few good ideas. Spring appears to have finally arrived in Britain and I have a few long road trips lining up. Time to take full advantage of living mobile.

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