The Van –
You have to design and build your van for your needs. I chose a van that would be cheap to buy, tall enough for me to stand up in, good on fuel and a solid engine. I first bought an LDV Convoy minibus which had the above but sadly the rust was too much underneath, and parts are hard to get hold of. In the end, I bought a 1999 Ford Transit LWB, High roof, old school minibus with just 84k miles for just £900. The bodywork needed work but I knew I could work on this within my budget.
Setting a budget –
It’s a good idea to have a budget to convert your van. I wanted to spend around 2K buying the van and converting it. The total cost of my build was 2.5K. The reason you need to set a budget is so that if you do go over, and if you do like I did, you don’t go over too much. One of the main reasons I went over was due to the chassis rust and bodywork which I spend some time on as I wanted a solid van to last, wouldn’t leak.
The build –
The build took me longer than expected as I didn’t have great space, tools or facilities to use. I finished the build on my driveway of my house which my garage isn’t much wider than the van, so there’s no excuse for space. I would have been better parking in B&Q/Wickes and doing some of the work there. To see the build conversion step by step please watch my YouTube video https://youtu.be/_mXkwwm-LCw and subscribe for future helpful videos.
To convert a normal van into a Motor Caravan in the UK, the DLVA (Driver & Vehicle Licensing Agency) require the following features to be done and installed in the van. This proof then needs to be sent to the DVLA with your V5 document for them to review and send back (this can take 1-4 weeks)
- A door that provides access to the living accommodation – My van was a previous minibus so it already had a sliding side door and two rear doors, must vans have these so this shouldn’t be an issue.
- A bed, which must have a minimum length of 6ft, can be converted from a seat, but must be permanently fixed within the body structure of the vehicle – I bought a Rock & Roll style bed that gives me a permanent fixed seating area during the day, then folds out into a permanent 6ft double bed.
- A water storage tank or container on, or in the vehicle – I have 2 x 25-litre tanks under my sink fixed to a 12v pump to the tap, easy to take out and refill when I need.
- A seating and dining area, permanently attached to the vehicle – the table may be detachable but must have some permanent means of attachment to the vehicle. It’s not good enough to have a loose table – As I’ve previously mentioned the seat is my bed folded up, for the table I bought a fold up wall table from Ikea for £29.99, it folds very close to the wall and doesn’t get in the way of the bed when I fold this out.
- A permanent fixed means of storage, a cupboard, locker or wardrobe – I have 2 cupboards under my work units for my sink and cooker, I also have some shelves for my clothes, and 3 storage boxes under my set/bed, more than enough
- A permanent fixed cooking facility within the vehicle, powered by gas or electric – I installed a cooker hood from an old caravan and hooked this up to a refillable LPG gas bottle
- At least one window on the side of the accommodation – my van was a previous minibus so windows wasn’t a problem as I have 6 in the rear of the van, I did tint these for security and installed curtains to keep some warmth in.
All the rest of the things you choose to install in your campervan will be for luxury.
TIP: One thing I did was test the van in the UK for two weeks in Scotland. If I didn’t use something in that two weeks, it didn’t come on the road with me around Europe.
My mum always says “Best to be safe than sorry” and she’s right. Also “Prevention is cheaper than the cure”
We can make our vans as secure as we can but at the end of the day if someone wants to get in they will. So here are a few tips I’ve done and heard stories from other Vanlife friends while being on the road.
- Extra locks – good idea to install extra locks inside or outside of your van
- Disable central locking – if they break a window and try the handle, this can sometimes unlock all the doors of the van. I don’t have this issue as I don’t have central locking but sadly 2 friends of mine had this happen to their van in Greece
- Passports and Money – most thieves are after these and nothing else, I’ve heard stories of laptops, cameras etc all left after a break in, they just took money and passports. I always carry these and my laptop when I go and explore.
- Install an alarm – this is optional but this would scare people off and draw attention if it was sounding.
- Install a van safe – make sure it’s bolted and secured to the chassis, place smaller items that you don’t want to take exploring with you.
- I had to return home twice for personal reasons, I found airport parking very secure. I even got Split airport in Croatia for free.
- Park with your gut feeling – there’s lots of Apps that give you places to park but if you don’t feel right in a place, don’t park there. Most paid parking is covered by security. Is it worth paying for a few hours for a few Euro’s to avoid losing 100’s if you get broken into?
- “Home is where you park it!” Just be safe doing it.
Be extra vigilant, Foreign number plates are a high target for thieves. From personal experience, my van window got smashed in Budapest but I have extra locks on the inside of the doors so they didn’t get in. Some friends I met on the road sadly got broken into and the target was Passports and Cash so try taking these with you when you explore. If your van has central locking please disable it as this is how the thieves got into their van. They smashed the driver window and once they tried the handle inside, this unlocked all the other van doors at once. My friends disabled this after and got extra locks fitted to the outside of the van.
For other items you don’t wish to take with you all the time, I would recommend installing a small safe that is hidden and bolted to the chassis of the van so it’s hard to rip out.
Fall in love with your van.
I’m travelling on my own, and if you do the same your van will be your best friend. You will get to know things about your van that you didn’t know at first when you bought her (mines a she by the way). Here are a few things I learnt about my van after I left for Europe:
- I get 30-34 mpg from its 2.5 diesel engine.
- it drives very slow uphill (Like 10-15 mph)….19 years old and no turbo.
- runs better in cool weather, hard to breathe when it’s too hot.
- doesn’t like to go faster than 60mph.
- my LPG refillable gas bottle lasts a long time – filled full in the UK and it’s lasted 3 months and still have some left, make a brew and cook every day, and just started to use the LPG heater again now it’s getting colder.
Few recommendations I would buy your van before you leave:
- New tyres and a good spare tyre – replaced 2 on the road in Greece after a puncture.
- Full service – new air filter, new fuel filter and new oil filter. Cambelt if required.
- New van battery – had to replace mine on the road
- Proper breakdown kit, first aid kit, fire blanket and extinguisher, fire alarms and carbon monoxide detector.
- Europe SatNav with Speed camera detector – I use Google maps too but it’s great to have a backup.
When I first bought insurance for my van, the van was registered as a LGV (Light Good Vehicle). After reading some blogs and asking fellow vanners, I found out that if you get your van registered as a Motor Caravan with the DVLA then this brings your insurance down a lot. To change this the facilities must be changed and sent to the DVLA (See facilities above for these)
I tested the van in Scotland for 2 weeks while I was waiting for the DVLA to return my V5 document, and when I returned it arrived so I was able to change my policy making it cheaper.
Motorhome insurance is cheaper due to mileage and usage is less than a normal vehicle. They think you’re not going to use every day and just use a few weeks of the year to go away on a break or a holiday for a few weeks.
You will need to buy a policy that covers Europe and to be used more than 90 days if you’re looking to travel longer. My policy gives me up to 10’000 miles a year, unlimited travel in Europe as long as it’s got a valid MOT every year and I have an address in the UK. I’m with Adrian Flux and my policy is £200 per year.
European cover in Europe doesn’t cover all countries.
You will need to buy a Green Card in Countries like:
Montenegro – 18 Euro for 2 weeks
Albania – 50 Euro for 2 weeks
I personally don’t have breakdown cover for Europe (but I do for the UK) The reason is that my engine is old, simple and parts are heavily available. It’s your call for breakdown cover and my best advice would be to either buy break down cover with your insurance company if they offer it, or a company called ADAC is highly recommended ( a bit like the AA in the UK) and European cover starts from 88 Euro.
Internet / Connectivity –
- WiFi is highly available in public places but harder to find out in the countryside. There’s an App called WiFi Map which finds locations but only near your current location. Best Wifi place I’ve found is IKEA and Hotels, Worse WiFi area is McDonald’s.
- You can buy a Sim cards with data from that country (Except Germany, unless you know someone there who you can use their address or get them to register for you).
Some UK networks cover Europe in their normal package. I’m with Three and I have the “3 feel at home” package. This gives me 30GB in the UK and 12GB in most places abroad, check your provider. (9GB abroad if you’re on PayAsYouGo).
- Wi-Fi boosters are available to buy so you don’t have to go inside the place, and you can connect a few devices to this.
Mobile App musts:
- WiFi Map – Locates WiFi sites near you and provides passwords. It tells you when that password was used last. This doesn’t work 100% of the time but it also allows you to update the password like 1000’s of others have done before you.
- MeetUp.com – If you’re in a location for a longer period of time and you wish to meet some locals or other travellers, this is a good App to find local events happening around you. I used in Athens, Greece and attended a Life drawing session, and solo travellers meet.
- Park4Night – It has locations were other people have stayed before, it also shows facilities available at that site.
- Google Maps – Great pp to use if you have a location to drive to, doesn’t use a lot of data and it’s great to avoid toll roads if you’re not in a rush.
- Phone tracker – Find My Phone app is brilliant if you have 2 phones. I once got my phone stolen and used my spare PAYG phone to track it and I got it back.
- Couchsurfing – I didn’t start my journey with this App but was told about it very late in my journey. I’ve used this to meet other solo travellers, sleep at places to used facilities like WiFi and washing machine, and I’ve met some cool future travel buddies.
Travel money –
If you use your normal bank card to draw out money you will probably get charged a fee to do this and a bad exchange rate. I have a Halifax Clarity card which allows me to draw money out from any cash machine, pay for items using my card as long as it supports Mastercard. I get the best exchange rate and no charges if I pay off within that month, Another option is the Travel Money Card from the post office or Travellex, these are cards you can top up and use like a normal card to draw money out at the ATM.
Budget/ Cash –
Track expenses, if you’re looking to save money then this is important. I started my travels with enough saved but after 3 months I really started to track my spendings.
For example, one meal and drink in a tourist area can equal to a full weeks worth of shopping.
Compensate costs, Is spending 1.50 Euro on a coffee for free WiFi?, Toilet? and warmth when it’s cold outside worth it?….for me yes.
Going in Public places, using Portaloo’s, Wild “No2’s” are all options. I personally don’t have a portaloo but I think I would bring one next time. There are lots of toilets on the road like services when you fill up for fuel, cafes, building site portaloos….I’ve used them all. I normally scout a place close to where I’m staying if I’m in the city. One thing I will request is if you go to the toilet in the wild, dig a hole and use biodegradable tissue. I’ve seen too many places of tissue paper just left….normal tissue doesn’t break down.
Accommodation, Where to Park for the night? –
- Campsite are great and secure but can become very costly, if you’re working to a budget then this isn’t a great idea. The only people I’ve seen use these all the time are retired campervan owners who have the money to use and spend.
- Wild camping is my favourite, the saying “difficult roads lead to amazing places” is normally true, but be careful and don’t drive on land you’re not supposed to. If signs and barriers are present these are there for a reason.
- Park4Night App, covered in the section of mobile Apps to download this is a must. I only downloaded the App 3 months into my journey and helped a lot. It has locations were other people have stayed before, it also shows facilities available at that site. I’m currently in a free carpark with public WiFi, water source and free. Like always use with caution and use your gut feeling again.
- Always leave the area clean and tidy, around Europe you see a lot of waste bins on the roadside. It’s so easy to place your rubbish in a biodegradable bag and throw away. I’ve even got my gloves on and cleaned some areas left from other selfish campers from before, respect the environment.
I have 2 x 6V 240 Leisure batteries installed that are linked to the 175W solar panel via a solar charger, plus a split charger from the main van battery. I have a hookup cable with me but only connected twice in 4 months, it’s just there for a rainy non-sunny day.
It’s available in lots of places. I only drink bottled water and I buy 6-12 x 2 litre bottles at a time from cheap places like Lidl (about 17-20p a bottle), I always recycle these bottles after use.
For water I cook with, Wash, Shower etc fill up every time you see places even if you don’t need a lot, you never know where you’ll be able to fill up again, especially if you’re in the countryside.
Garage /Petrol stations are my most used place, I fill up my water when I fill up my van with fuel.
Aires are also a great place to fill up water, like service stations without the Gas/ Fuel service.
You can also find water in public areas like parks and city centres for the public to use, take your bottle and fill up, this is why I chose to install bottles I can take out the van instead of fixed ones.
Running fresh water streams like in mountain areas are another great source for your water, I’ve done this a few times near ski resorts in Slovakia and Italy.
Adrian Flux Insurance
ADAC Breakdown Cover
WiFi Map App