Van Life. 5 things to consider before taking the plunge…

So we are now almost 6 months into our year-long family road trip, we’ve got the hang of things and the novelty has worn off. Living in a van feels pretty ‘normal’ now so we thought it was time to reflect on some of the things we’ve learned so far and perhaps offer some pearls of wisdom to anyone planning a similar adventure. Whilst there are a ton of wonderful things about long term family travel, we think it’s important to highlight some of the less wonderful aspects …so that if you are planning a trip you can go into it with open eyes. Here are just a few things to think about before heading off…

1.It’s not a holiday.

Despite the beautiful sunset pictures there is still work to be done. Just because you’ve left your house doesn’t mean you’ve left your household chores behind. There is still laundry, cleaning, shopping, cooking, tidying and washing up to be done. And you have no dishwasher, no washing machine, a tiny sink, fridge and freezer …and very little storage space which means you have to shop little and often. You can’t just say ‘let’s leave the washing up till later’ because then you’ll have to sit and look at it until its done…

…because the kitchen is in the same room as the lounge and the bedrooms.

Add to this the need to fill up with water, empty waste water, empty the toilet and pack / unpack the van every time you move and you can see that van life is not all about relaxing by the beach. Sometimes it’s bloody hard work.

Emptying toilet from the motorhome

Talking of chores – a word of warning – drain your waste water tank before setting off somewhere otherwise about 10 minutes into the drive the van will be filled with the most disgusting smell emanating from the stale kitchen water in the tank, which has been jiggled about on the drive. You can try to block the plugholes but this will likely be to no avail – that stuff is noxious.

 

2.Your children are with you 24/7

This can be great and it can be not so great. You know all those posts you see on Facebook in the summer holidays? The ones from parents complaining about how they don’t know how they’ll manage because their kids are home for 6 weeks? Well imagine your kids are home for a year, and that home is a 2m x 6m space. And they bicker. Every. Day.

Yeah that.

There is no 6 hour break from it while they are at school, they are with you all day, every day…and they constantly want feeding… I mean ALL the bloody time…oh how I miss school meals! Having said that, the plus side is fantastic, you get to show them some amazing stuff, they learn some great skills, develop confidence and learn new languages and you get to make some fantastic memories together.

 

     son and mother share a laughkids do the washing up

 

3.The toilet.

miserable looking man sticks arm into toilet You will develop an intimate knowledge of each other’s toilet habits and find yourself asking ‘is it a wee or a poo?’ on a daily basis. Due to the fact that the toilet in the van has a limited capacity and it needs emptying by the grumpiest member of our team, he has insisted that it is only to be used in the middle of the night or when there is no alternative. Woe betide the child who uses it when there is a perfectly good campsite toilet a short stroll away. Our two youngest have both been forced to assist in the smelly task of toilet emptying because they thought they could sneak in a poo when nobody was looking ..or ..er..listening. You’ll get to know which supermarkets have toilets or you’ll stop at motorway services because you’d rather use them than have to empty the loo often and so you’ll force the whole family – adults included to ‘go and have a try’ if you’re anywhere near a ‘real’ toilet. Discussing toilet habits is not pleasant and definitely takes some of the mystery out of a marriage – it will test your relationship. Talking of which…

4.It will test your relationship.

No matter how much you love someone, being with them in a small space 24 hours a day, 7 days a week will lead to irritations and arguments. This will likely culminate in a full blown row – probably in the North of Italy. You won’t really know (or remember) what the row is about – it’s probably just because your husband is being even more of a dick than usual -but it will be horrid. However, because your kids are asleep three metres away you can’t shout or stomp and have a proper row so you’ll do that whispery shouting thing, you know the sort, where the angrier you get the quieter and hissier your voice becomes. Anyway it will probably end with you saying ‘Ok then let’s just go home and get a divorce’ and he’ll say ‘ok then’ and go off and sleep, sitting up, on the sofa, in a huff so that he gets a crick in his neck. In the morning you’ll both decide that you’d actually quite like to ‘not get divorced please’ and you’ll make up and you’ll cry and have big puffy red eyes – but that’s okay because you can wear huge sunglasses, because – Italy.

5. It’s not as spontaneous as you think.

Before we set off I had visions of us just stopping where we liked, moving on at the drop of a hat, a free, spontaneous lifestyle. But it’s not quite like that. Yes, we are free to go where we choose but not at the drop of a hat. If we are going to be wild/free camping we need to make sure we have an empty toilet, full water tank, fully charged electrical devices and enough gas for the hob and fridge. Whenever we move the van there are a ton of things that need to be done before we can set off, whether we are heading to a new destination or just going to the supermarket. Even if we ignore packing up the outdoor table and chairs, bikes, washing line and kids toys we still have to secure everything before the van can move off. We have a checklist which goes something like this:

  • Awning in
  • Steadies up
  • Chocs removed
  • Ladder put away
  • Gas appliances off
  • External blinds secure
  • Bikes and bike rack secure
  • External hatches locked
  • Windows closed
  • Roof-lights closed
  • Step up
  • Door locked
  • Surfaces clear
  • Nothing hanging
  • Bathroom surfaces clear
  • Condiments rack covered
  • Bed locked up
  • Internal cupboards secure
  • Fridge on 12volts and locked
  • Bathroom locked

This checklist has grown with experience: not having clear surfaces or locked cupboards means stuff flies about the van. The kids nearly got decapitated by a chopping board which flew out of a cupboard as we went around a roundabout on our first trip out. Our habitation door swung open on a busy road because we’d forgotten to lock it properly, and our window blind scraped somebody else’s van because we hadn’t rolled it away and secured it. Unfortunately, the ‘somebody else’ was a gang of German football fans during Euro 2016 … they weren’t at all pleased – I sent the kids out to stand by their Dad while he negotiated – I figured that would make it less of a macho confrontation!

Anyway we’ve got into quite a quick packing up routine now that we’ve been on the road 6 months, it’s almost like a dance now – we each know each other’s moves, we each have our own tasks and it gets done fairly smoothly, still, moving on is not quite as spontaneous as I’d pictured.

So that’s just a few things to consider if you are planning a long family road trip (or even a short road trip) I have some more in mind but they are for another post. I guess the ‘take home message’ from this is that if you think the trip will be all roses, smiles and sunshine, the kids laughing while you sip a chilled glass of Prosecco then you’re in for a rude awakening. However, if you understand that it will be hard work at times and that sometimes you’ll be utterly sick of van life then you’re probably in the right mindset and should definitely give it a go. Despite the hard work, despite the bickering, even despite the toilet I would do it again in a heartbeat.

Van life is no good if you’re looking to run away from something. It’s like taking your home life and distilling it. The good bits become amazing and the not so good bits well, you’ve just read about those.

 

A simple life doesn’t necessarily mean an easier life, but it can mean one that is richer, fuller and way more intense.

 

Hymer motorhome caught in sunset

 

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24 thoughts on “Van Life. 5 things to consider before taking the plunge…

Leave a comment

  1. Sandra 6 months ago

    Enjoyed reading this !
    I would advice you to use a grey waste cleaner now and again to avoid that dreaded smell or just a cheap bottle of coke in a empty tank while you drive will help………enjoy the rest of your year

    1. Lottie 6 months ago

      Thanks Sandra,
      Glad you enjoyed it.
      Yes we’ve discovered the green stuff – thank heavens!
      Had heard about using cheap orange cordial too …not heard about coke though so thanks for the tip 🙂

    2. Ged Mead 3 months ago

      A Dutch couple on the camper stop you guys have just left (Sierra Espuna – a great little gem of a place), advised us to use Citric Acid for cleaning both the waste water tank and loo. 50 grams of citric acid powder to a litre of water. Cheap and effective.
      The Bio washing liquid in place of toilet fluid can sometimes be a bit overpowering with the smell.

      1. Chris 3 months ago

        It is indeed a gem. Beautiful site in a lovely area. We were sorry to stop for just one night but are on a mission to get our puppy certified for re-entry from Morrocco…
        The citric acid thing sounds great, and makes sense of why Coca Cola might work. Can you buy citric acid powder in a supermarket in Spain or is it a Farmacia?

        Also, totally agree about the bio tablets in the loo…we found out the hard way!

  2. Ross Humpage 6 months ago

    Great info and entertaining – thank you 🙂

  3. Ross Humpage 6 months ago

    Having the same S660 as you guys can i ask about showering – is it a problem for you guys – do you go onto sites to shower or leisure centres ect?

    1. Lotie 6 months ago

      Hi Ross,
      Yes we tend to use sites for ‘proper’ showers and the van for more of a quick wash … we have used the shower in the van when off site for a while and it was surprisingly good, but our water heater isn’t working now so we’ve not used it for a while. We definitely shower less on the road than we do at home though …I don’t *think* we smell too bad 😉

      1. Ross Humpage 6 months ago

        Thanks Lotie 🙂 Aside from obvious Solar and refillable gas – are there any mod’s / accessories / items that either you have done/ brought or have thought would be a good idea for long term touring?

        1. Chris 6 months ago

          Hi Ross,

          Quick reply from me in Lottie’s place while she makes scrambled egg for the kids before a visit to the Alhambra. 🙂

          The refillable gas is probably the most expensive but the best value mod we did. Just need to make sure that the fill point is external – that way nobody questions when you fill up, they just assume it is an LPG converted van. Also need to make sure that you have all the adaptors as the connectors differ from country to country.

          We’ve used a lot of strip LED lighting and LED bulbs. I used the ‘warm white’ strips with two touch sensitive dimmers to divide the overhead bed for the kids – so they each have control of their own lighting. Lottie made a curtain for the middle and two ‘extenders’ that hook over the driver and passenger seats. This has been great as it means they can share the drop down bed but have their own space if/when they need it.

          Spare toilet cassette. No matter what anyone says, if you are travelling with kids the day will come when you are glad you had a spare toilet cassette.

          For internet access we use an Alfa R36 router/AP, connected to an Alfa wireless card and an omni antenna fixed to the mirror arm. Total cost is about £100 but it does 3 great things. On sites where the internet is ‘one device only’ we make the router the device and then can all have access. When off site it gives us range to pick up wifi that our devices can’t (a directional antenna gives way more range but you need to know where to point it which can be a faff). Lastly the R36 will also work with a USB dongle enabling us to share mobile data throughout the van using a local sim.

          I’m sure there is loads more, probably simple stuff that we’ve forgotten we do. we’ll have a think and get back to you or maybe post something on it!

  4. Ginny 6 months ago

    Am completely distracted at work by your wonderful website … your Five Things to Consider is the perfect description that I know will put some people off but just makes we want to down tools at work and get back in the van – a 23 year old Hymer! We have done several family trips since we got her in 2009, sadly the longest only a measly in comparison six weeks but your posts and pictures are so familiar. We are a family of six, ‘children’ now aged 12 – 20 and the most recent jaunt was this summer, so that #2 and #3 could go to a dubstep/hip hop festival in Croatia that I refused to let them attend, unless we were somewhere in the vicinity! Shall follow your site with interest and wistfulness … have included our hopelessly outdated blog – should update it with our most recent trip! Safe travels!

    1. Lottie 6 months ago

      Hi Ginny,
      So glad you enjoyed the post – and great to hear from a fellow Classic Hymer lover. Am full of awe – wondering how you survived in a van with 4kids!! Huge respect! (understand the whole keeping an eye on teenagers thing – our eldest is now 21)
      We also need to update our blog – we are several months behind. The facebook page gets updated regularly but the blog is harder to do…we are planning to do some work on it this week.
      Right I’m now off to have a nosey at your blog…

  5. Iain 6 months ago

    When I watched the video of the inside of your van, I thought “Wow, they leave an awful lot of loose stuff about”. After many years of motorhomes, my default position is to put everything away and shut cupboards all the time as I go. Even the kids got the hang of it.

    The way to sort the waste tank is to fill it 2/3 full with clear, clean water, then rinse a crushed up dishwasher tablet or two down each plughole. Take the van for a ten kilometre trip round lots of roundabouts to slosh the tank clean and empty the tank completely. You may need to do this twice.

    Toilets? No worse than baby nappies or picking up dog poo.

    I stopped using the horrid chemicals. Just add a socket of bio laundry liquid each day. Cheaper, easier, less smelly (unless it it heavily scented wash liquid) and more effective, in my experience.

    1. Chris 6 months ago

      Hi Iain,

      Thanks for the waste tank tip, genius! That’s exactly what we’ll be doing when we move on from here. 🙂 Haven’t tried the bio laundry liquid in the toilet but have heard it works well, will definitely give it a go and report back!

      We don’t leave much stuff out when travelling – apart from the kids, they react badly to being put in cupboards…
      We learnt our lesson early on and secure most everything now – especially since we lost our air suspension!

  6. Melanie Green 6 months ago

    Brilliant!!! And yes I had considered those things, we have a VW T5 and I know we couldn’t do it in that (although we love him dearly) Anyway, my biggest question is this. How, do you get around kids schooling? Our daughter is 9 and son is 2 years from finishing senior school. It’s the only thing that I cant get my head around, as in the law and how to school them in academia (of course the school of life would be well sorted) Have you any advice? Melanie and Jason xx

    1. Chris 6 months ago

      Hi Melanie,

      It was maybe a little easier for us because we had one who was 21 and half way through medical school (she didn’t want to come but visits now and then!) and then two younger ones who were 7 and 9 when we left. So Libby, who is now 10, will hopefully slot straight back in to her year group for one term before she goes to high school. Before leaving, all we did was contact the person in our local authority who was responsible for homeschooling. They then said that we had to notify the school in writing that we would be de-registering the kids and then the school would pass that information on to the education authority. So, in practical terms, that is all we did.
      I’m sure if there were any concerns about Libby and Stanley’s learning or development then questions would have been raised, but as it was the feedback from the school was very positive about what they would learn while they were travelling.

      We carry maths books with us and they do these regularly now (less so when we first set out) and actually the ‘lesson time’ has become a nice thing for all of us.
      Aside from that they are bilingual already (Welsh and English) so they pick up languages really well. The cultural, social, historical lessons are kind of absorbed as we go..we hope. And this kind of fits with how they are taught at school now – its all in themes rather than subjects.

      We don’t homeschool normally so it has been a steep learning curve for us in some ways but we have met families that do homeschool full time and have great success – 16 year old doing an OU degree springs to mind! So it is definitely possible. Their confidence and awareness of the world has grown so much I can’t help but think it is ultimately a benefit.

  7. Pat Orr 6 months ago

    Interesting blog! Not unlike sailing – I can identify with a lot of your points!

  8. Terry 5 months ago

    Hello Tinnies ,
    thanks for the heads up on Portugal camping , hope you are all in good fettle and having a fab time. We are Terry and Helen and looking to purchase a Motorhome to pursue an adventure too. It’s inspiring to see your blog and I do hope your fun filled sunny exploits diminish the road back to Divorce Ha ha ! .

    Enjoy be safe be happy x

    1. Chris 3 months ago

      Thanks Terry! We’re still travelling, still married and all is good 😉 We’re now just trying to sort out blood tests for our adopted puppy so we can cross to Morocco – and get back again with puppy in tow. More on this later I think. 🙂
      Despite our toilet mishaps, divorce threats and bits falling off the van…I would totally encourage you to do it!!! Its been an amazing 9 months for us and we can’t believe we only have 3 to go.

  9. Jean Elizabeth Williams 5 months ago

    I enjoyed this very much. Thank you,
    Jxx

  10. Gail 3 months ago

    Hi thanks for sharing, we are doing the same soon as house sold,can you tell me what health insurance do you have ?? X

    1. Chris 3 months ago

      Hi Gail, We initially had travel insurance with our bank but that only covered trips up to 45 days…no much use for us. We shopped around and settled for travel insurance that covered the family for a year. I will look up the details for you and give you cost/company etc. It may be a couple of days before I get back to you though as we are rushing down to Algeciras to meet a vet that can sort our puppy with the Titer test for re-entry from Morocco…I will dig out the info for you though, just might take me a day or two. 🙂

      1. Chris 3 months ago

        Quicker than I expected…

        We are insured with traveltime.co.uk which is a trading arm of Explorer insurance services, based in Westcliffe on Sea. Their policies are underwritten by a German company established in 2001 – Union Reiseversicherung AG. We haven’t had cause to make a claim so I can’t review their service and so this is not a recommendation, but hopefully this info will help a little.

  11. Kerry 2 days ago

    Yes Yes YES, this is all so true! Intimate knowledge of significant others toilet habits and near divorces on a weekly basis. And we don´t even have an kids to deal with yet, it´s all downhill from here! Love it though, even if it´s not as romantic and spontaneous as instagram makes it out to be. We just got back from 6 moths through Europe, was our first big trip and I can´t wait to do it again! Next stop: Morocco.

    p.s. we found that a teaspoon of bleach in the grey waste tank takes care of the stinky smell. We also quickly learnt not to drain tuna and bean cans into the sink, as that makes it smell awful even faster.

    1. Lottie 11 hours ago

      Yes I agree, despite the tough bits it’s been an amazing experience. Have a great time in Morocco, we loved it.