I bought my first van during my travels after university because I got fed up with trying to sleep in noisy dorm rooms! My YES moment to buy the van was actually quite spontaneous and was based on the need for better sleep, more freedom, and knowing that I could also handle any DIY required.
I instantly fell in love with the freedom it gave me – I could choose where to go based on how much I liked a location. I was no longer constrained by cost or the availability of a dorm bed.
I have always been fond of living the simple life, unrestrained by unnecessary ‘stuff’ and owning things, which end up becoming a huge anchor! Planning what colour of sofa or wallpaper to buy has never interested me – what appealed to me far more post-uni was drawing a scale plan of a tiny space and figuring out how to live most comfortably in the confines of that space. And I still feel the same way.
My first van was a Toyota Liteace. I bought it from a few travellers so it was already kitted out and ready to go. However, I always fancied doing one up myself, so in 2011 I bought a Nissan Serena and installed a bed and curtains. It’s a small van so there’s not much room for anything else.
My latest van has definitely been my biggest project. I bought it as a nine seater VW Transporter; the first thing I did was reduce the seats to five and levelled the floor (seat anchor points are a converter’s nightmare!) Other upgrades include a new elevating roof, solar panel, second battery, low consumption LED lights, swivel around passenger seat, fridge and a small unit with a wash basin. In total there are two double beds: one in the roof and one down.
I bought my latest van during a period of uncertainty in 2015, during a redundancy situation at my work. However, the uncertainty was motivating, and encouraged me to part with my hard-earned savings – this felt better than simply hoarding my pennies and fretting about what to do next!
I knew that, worst case scenario, I could just move into my van permanently and therefore free myself of all the expenses of renting an apartment in Barcelona. After all, I’d lived in a van for 18 months previously. Living in Spain also meant I could head south and enjoy milder weather even in winter.
In the end, I retained my job, so I still had a source of income to fund the renovations to make the van my dream home on wheels! I could also take more time to think about how I would upgrade it, rather than having to move into it and then improve it based on immediate necessity.
A priority for me was upgrading the van so that I could live in it as self-sufficiently as possible. I installed a fridge but wanted to avoid the use of gas canisters to popwer it – so I turned to solar panels.
Whenever I hear the thermostat click on, I’m still mesmerised by the simple brilliance of the fridge being powered by a square black 100w solar panel on the roof. My little cooker is butane but I’m eyeing up some neat compact solar ovens for the future.
I’ve spent 24 months making incremental improvements to my current van.
The van heals
Having a van means space is limited, and this has been a helpful constraint as it tempers a less-welcome side of me: a need for more. Living in a van means you are restricted to only buying and retaining things that are genuinely useful.
This is hugely freeing and means I take more pleasure from the few possessions I do have, as well as from situations, such as when I find a new spot where I can park up the van and make some food, camp up for the night, and decide the next day if I want to stay or carry on the journey.
I still toy with the idea of full-time van dwelling. I’ve recently discovered the joy of making and drinking spinach, melon and kefir smoothies – perhaps one day I’ll set up a smoothie business, selling out of the van to passers-by.
However, as life unfolds, the realities of this existence, and the footloose and fancy free lifestyle, are becoming less plausible. But that’s ok: I’ll always have the van and can still take shorter trips with my fiancée, who owns the new elevating roof! The van has become a labour of love, a shared love that represents our thirst for adventure and our enthusiasm for the simple life.
Some advice if you’re thinking of buying a van and/or living on the road for a period of time:
1) Start with the basics
I’ve known a few people that kitted out their dream van from day one and they have all regretted it. Get the basics in there, probably a bed, and see how you interact with the space. Small, incremental improvements are wise – this could be as simple as making a pocket in your curtains in a strategic place to store your glasses! Experiment with the space by doing some trips and then adjust according to your needs.
2) Magnets and clothes pegs
These two simple things can solve a lot of issues when you are too scared to drill your precious home on wheels. Drilling is scary, especially when something is brand new. My current curtains have magnets sewn into the corners, and I use a mosquito net pegged around a half open window to keep the mozzies out at night.
3) A sock and cat litter
As odd as that one may sound, condensation is always an issue. Cat litter is hugely absorbent so throwing a load in a tied sock and just placing it under a seat or in a cupboard will keep your van nice and condensation free.
4) Making furniture
If possible, work right alongside your van so you can constantly cut, and test out. This speeds up the process enormously. For my latest van I built all the installations on my balcony of my flat which made the whole process far more challenging. If you have the same dilemma, try using paper or card to test the addition of new pieces into challenging shapes and spaces.