Van life has transitioned from cult movement to mainstream travel mania. Travelers are converting vans to traverse the Outback while European families bump slowly along coastal roads during their summer holidays.
The appeal is obvious: waking up in the middle of a pristine natural setting— but with a bed, a kitchen and a bathroom all on hand. Traveling by campervan can be a rad way to experience small towns, rural life, and some of the more difficult to reach (and often better preserved) destinations. It’s an updated version of tent camping, a way that today’s modern pilgrims can access the inaccessible.
If you’re thinking of jumping on the bandwagon and taking your first campervan adventure, be sure to heed these 5 camper van mistakes that we learned the hard way:
Don’t: Ignore the weather
While sleeping in a van is technically like sleeping indoors, that doesn’t mean that you’re not susceptible to extreme and sudden changes in the weather. Even vans that have built-in insulation can get cold, especially at night when the temperature drops. In the summer, the exact opposite is true — a metal box on wheels heats up surprisingly fast in the sun, and all of a sudden that afternoon nap you wanted to take turns into a sticky and sweaty afternoon sauna.
Pro tip: If possible, consider planning your van trip during the shoulder seasons (spring and fall) to maximize your enjoyment. Just make sure that the forecast isn’t calling for too much rain, as being trapped inside of a tiny van is no fun. If you can’t avoid a bad patch of weather, hit the shops and get yourself some sturdy outdoor gear. A thick coat and some rubber boots can turn a rainy day into a fun adventure, and it’ll keep you from going stir-crazy in the camper.
Don’t: Overpack or overplan
Van life is great because there aren’t any rules! When you’re traveling by caravan, you have few responsibilities: your whims, the weather, and the open road. When you’re tired, you can simply pull over and have a nap on your full-sized bed. Hungry? Stop at a local market and create a home-cooked meal in a meadow. The convenience of having everything you need with you allows you the freedom to go with the flow. You don’t need to book hotel rooms, so you can arrive at new destinations whenever it suits you.
Planning too much can detract from the feeling of freedom on the road. Strict agendas can lead to fatigue, caused from too much time driving to keep up with your scheduled stops. You also risk missing out on the serendipitous moments, like when another van family clues you in on a secret paradise cove.
Don’t: Forget to BYOT (Bring Your Own Toilet)
You want to get off the beaten path, but where there’s no path, then there’s definitely no toilet. Taking a poo on the roadside may be fine for you, but hikers, the locals, and the natural environment probably think otherwise.
Several cities, towns, and even countries have started to restrict campervan use, primarily due to the increased amount of toilet paper and human waste being left behind. Besides being an eye (and nose) sore, human waste isn’t actually part of most natural environment cycles and can have negative effects on important things like water quality.
South Iceland is one region that recently joined the growing list of governments that have banned camping outside of designated campsites. Besides the ecological effects of leaving your waste everywhere, residents were finding it just plain gross to have to deal with it.
Pro tip: If you’re renting a van, make sure that an on-board bathroom is included in the deal, and dispose of your grey water in designated places (many sewers are for runoff only and go directly into the sea). If you don’t have a built in toilet, opt to staying at campsites or other locations with public restrooms nearby. Part of traveling is being a responsible global citizen, so treat every location you visit as if it was your own well-loved home.
Don’t: Free Camp
Free camping is a trend that now exists thanks to countless idyllic instagram pics. The term simply means camping anywhere outside of a designated campsite, which sounds both lovely and liberating. However, due to a lack of good sense on the part of some caravaners, free camping has come under some serious scrutiny.
Instead of parking in designated campsites, caravaners often prefer to stop butt-up at the best view they can find, even if they’re driving over protected national park land or through clean water sources to get there.
Queenstown, New Zealand is one popular tourist destination that got fed up with campers not adhering to the camping regulations. When they saw signs of water contamination from van families washing their clothes and dishes in source rivers, the government stepped in and banned free camping entirely. Campers can now expect a $200 fine if they’re caught overnighting outside of designated campsites.
According to Radio New Zealand, “The surge in freedom campers this summer had resulted in overcrowding, public health risks due to human waste, and environmental risks as some bathed and washed their dishes or clothes in the district’s lakes and rivers.”
Even if you do have an onboard loo, park wisely. That awesome view you’re after might be destroying the beautiful natural setting that you’re so keen to enjoy.
Don’t: Cut your trip short
The freedom of the road can be liberating, but it can also be addicting. Once you get into the pattern of moving slowly, meeting the locals and enjoying the great outdoors, you’ll understand why. The simplicity of traveling by van allows you to truly relax and leave all of your big-city worries behind surprisingly quickly. It’s easy to get comfortable and to imagine a life rolling through verdant hills and across open parkland for months on end.
Even if it’s your first time on a caravan trip, make sure you plan enough time to enjoy the route you’re taking. Nothing is worse than feeling rushed on the road. The only regret you’re likely to have when you get home is taking too short of a trip. Van life is magic because van lifers leave space for magic to happen. The road is open, so keep your plans the same to ensure you fully enjoy it.