definition of a campervan
why campervans are great
why campervans aren't so great
places to look for a campervan
suggested pre-purchase checklist
VW spares and parts
making the van habitable
A campervan is a van that has facilities for sleeping, cooking, and washing. They differ from caravans in that they are an actual vehicle with their own means of propulsion, and not simply a kind of trailer. Campervans are also known as motorcaravans, or Recreational Vehicles (RVs) in America.
Under Irish law, to qualify as a campervan, a van must have:
- a fixed bed (not just a mattress on the floor)
- a fixed sink
- a cooker, with a minimum of two burners, that is hooked up to its gas supply by copper fitting and connected to its gas cylinder by at least two foot (half a metre) of rubber tubing, and
- minimum head room of 1.8 meters behind the driver's seat. This is achieved by having either a permanently raised roof (a high top) or an elevating roof (a pop up)
Having your bedroom, kitchen, and transport rolled into one is a great way to travel. Instead of flying abruptly into a country, you move about it in the same way the locals do, at a slower pace that allows you to see more and meet more people. Driving a van gives you a brilliant view of the scenery, much better than being low down in a car or squashed on a bus. You're not restricted to the beaten path and can explore rural areas that don't have public transport. And of course, you can stop and stretch your legs any time.
Camping is really cheap, and many campsites have excellent facilities, especially in mainland Europe, where swimming pools and jacuzzis at campsites are not uncommon. Camping can even be free, if you opt to park by the side of the road, at a beach, or on common ground. Self-catering is very inexpensive, and gives you an insight into the markets and produce of the countries you're visiting that eating out all the time can't.
Having your own transport means you can go where you want and change your plans at a moment's notice. It's hard to beat parking near a city centre on a campsite with all mod cons one night, and the next night parking on a beach and waking up to sunrise and a refreshing dip.
It can be hard to maneuver a campervan around large cities or through the streets of small villages. This is more of a problem with a large RV than with a VW, though. And practice does make perfect. Just remember to swing a bit wider for turns than you would in a car, and be careful when passing on a main road, as the wind has more of an impact on a larger vehicle.
Campervans are harder to park than a car (although much easier than a car and caravan). If you have doubts about your parking, practice in an empty car park, perhaps between traffic cones, hay bales, or the cars of people you don't like.
If anything goes wrong mechanically with the campervan, or it is stolen, both your accomodation and your transport are gone until you get it fixed or replaced. Insurance isn't just a legal requirement, it's an essential, as is having a rainy day fund.
Before you start looking for a van, first be sure that you can get insurance. Only two or three insurance companies in Ireland handle campervan insurance, and they can afford to be picky. Especially if you're on the young side, or don't have a full licence yet, or have points/convictions/endorsements on your licence. So I suggest that you ring around the insurance companies and check you'll be eligible before you start van-hunting.
It's more difficult to buy a van or campervan coming into summer, just as it's more difficult to sell one coming into winter. So start looking well ahead of time. It took me nearly three months to find my first campervan.
Whether you plan to get a van and convert it into a campervan, as I did, or whether you prefer to buy one ready-made, your first port of call should the telephone directory. Ring a few campervan retailers, and be sitting down when they tell you the prices!
Next up, tell everyone you know that you want a van/campervan and encourage them to let you know if there's one you should take a look at. Word of mouth is hard to beat. Lots of campervanning folk have to give up going on the road when mortgages and babies come along, so plenty of people have campervans in their back gardens that they'd be willing to sell if the opportunity arose.
If you're in or near the UK, I've heard that there is a thriving informal market in second hand campervans, down by Vauxhall Bridge in South London, most Saturday mornings.
Try Autotrader, Craigslist, Buy And Sell and similar. A zillion vans and campervans are listed every week. The Motorcaravan Club of Ireland have a section for campers that are being sold. And don't forget eBay's motors section.
It sounds obvious, but don't buy a van without checking it out as thoroughly as you can beforehand! If you know engines, you're ahead of the game. If you don't, try to bring a friend who does, or hire a mechanic, or contact the AA for one of their (fairly pricey) inspections. Obviously I can't take any responsibility for any subsequent problems if you choose to follow the checklist below.
A mechanic friend of mine suggested taking a long hard look at the following areas:
- Before you do anything else, lay a hand on the engine cover and see if it's warm. If it is, then the engine's been run already that day. Therefore, it's hard to tell if it starts easily from cold.
- Before moving the van, take a look underneath and around it. Does this look like the usual parking space of the van? Is there a pool of oil or a heavy splattering?
- Take the van for a test drive. Try to stick to hilly areas. What is hill starting like? Go to a motorway or straight stretch of road and do the limit. What does the engine sound like? Drive around a congested area. Does the engine make any weird noises?
- Try the brakes. Try the hand brake.
- Check the whole body, especially door sills and wheel arches, for rust. Check underneath too.
- Take off each tyre in turn and have a look at the brakes. Do this even if you've already checked the brakes on the test drive. The brakes may work fine but actually be very worn.
- Check each electrical system: wipers, headlights, brake lights, indicators, dash lights... You may need a friend to help with this.
- Is the gearbox smooth? Can you access each gear easily, including reverse?
- Have a look at the logbook or Vehicle Registration documentation. The fewer previous owners, the better.
- Does the van have a Department of the Environment (DOE) certificate, or an equivalent such as the NCT or MOT?
- Is it taxed? What tax class is it in? See the taxation section for more on this.
- What's the spare tyre like?
- Dip the oil and check the dipstick for flecks of light coloured stuff, or anything weird. Grit in the sump indicates metal wear and serious trouble.
- Check the coolant levels.
- If it's a petrol van, check the spark plugs.
- Go through each interior fitting: open the cupboards, pop up the roof, try the cooker, try the sink, be amazingly nosey.
- Believe your mechanic, even if the van really tempts you. :)
- Trust your instincts.
There are four bits of paper that you need to have in order before you can legally drive a campervan in Ireland.
- Your full (not provisional or learner's) driving licence.
- The logbook, or, in the case of newer vehicles, the Vehicle Registration Certificate (VRC). You need to have your ownership of the van recorded officially in the logbook or VRC. You can arrange this by bringing the old logbook or VRC to your local tax office, and filling out a change of ownership form. You may not be able to do this at the same time as getting the van taxed. Some offices insist on posting the edited and stamped book or VRC back to you first.
- You need to arrange insurance for the van.
- And you need to tax the vehicle.
I insured my camper with Dolmen Insurance. Insurance with them costs from around 300 euro per year. They are extremely helpful and friendly, and I recommend them.
I debated whether or not to pay a little bit extra for their roadside assistance scheme and, in the end, I got the extra cover and was glad to have it, especially as AA doesn't offer roadside assistance cover for campervans. Well, they do if it's a new campervan, and if you're prepared to pay a hefty additional premium on top of your AA membership fees.
The MCCoI also have good insurance arrangements for members.
Insurance must be arranged before you apply to get the vehicle taxed. Check with your selected insurance company, but you will probably need the following items:
- Your full (not provisional or learner's) driving licence.
- The fee.
- The logbook or VRC.
- Proof of driving or proof of No Claims Bonus (NCB). Ask your insurance company to post you a copy.
- For most insurance companies that deal in campervan insurance, you'll need six photographs, especially if the van wasn't purpose built as a campervan. You need photographs of the van's front, rear, driver's side, passenger side, and gas connection at the bottle. Finally, a photograph of the interior should clearly show the cooker, sink and bed.
- A completed proposal form.
- A copy of your car's insurance policy. Insuring a campervan as your only vehicle is possible but twice as expensive.
Motor taxation in Ireland, or in any country really, can be an expensive minefield. Make no assumptions -- check the logbook or VRC carefully if you're buying a van to convert, or even buying a campervan readymade, as changing the tax class can cost you anything up to twenty per cent of whatever the tax officer thinks the market value of your van is, plus lots of hassle. Ring your local motor tax office and the MCCoI for advice, before you set about changing the tax class on any vehicle.
But here's the basic procedure. Assuming that you're converting a van to a campervan, you need to bring the van over to the MCCoI County Meath HQ for an inspection. Assuming the van passes muster, the Club will fill in a form for you stating that the van is in fact a campervan, and then you can apply to your local motor tax office to have the van's tax class changed. Standard vans/goods vehicles have to pay a higher rate of tax (300 euro upwards) than campervans (around 70 to 80 euro), so this may be well worth doing.
Check with your local motor tax office, but you'll probably need to bring some or all of the following documents there to get your van taxed.
- The MCCoI form.
- The appropriate fees.
- The vehicle's log book or Vehicle Registration Certificate (VRC).
- Evidence of insurance, such as the insurance disc, or the insurance policy number, expiry date, and insurance company name.
If you can't get the form from the MCCoI, as I couldn't because I couldn't get an elevating roof installed in time, then consider taxing the van as a private van. This is more than four times the price of campervan tax, but at the moment, it doesn't require any other documents than your proof of insurance and your fee. That loophole will probably close pretty soon though.
Alternatively, at about three times the price of campervan tax, there's goods vehicle taxation, which requires the following additional documentation:
- A certified weight document, which can be got for around 25 euro from Roadstone out in Belgard (off the Naas Road) -- they weigh your van in its unladen state and fill out the document for you.
- A DOE is a Department of the Environment roadworthiness test, which costs from 75 to 120 euro depending on the weight of your van and where you get it done. Many garages test for the DOE while you wait. Check your telephone directory.
Buying a van that is registered and taxed in another country also may cause difficulties when you come to tax it in Ireland. Again, check with your local motor tax office and the MCCoI for advice, before you finalise the purchase. (Incidentally, if the van has the steering wheel on the left hand side, it's worth running this fact past your prospective insurers. Sometimes they may not want to insure you, or charge you an extra premium.)
Depending on the model and age of your van, it's possible to source some parts through the Volkswagen main dealers. Ring them first, even if just for comparison purposes.
For specific VW parts and expert advice, Emilio's Beetles, based in Fairview, Dublin, Ireland, are highly recommended. Although they deal mainly in the VW cars, they are enthusiastic about the vans too, and are very helpful, very knowledgeable, and will do their best to get you sorted.
Alternatively, try one of these online companies supplying VW parts:
(Note: Avoid at all costs The Old Volk's Home, a.k.a. Billy Moss, based out in Ashbourne, County Meath, Ireland. My experience: I left my van in with Billy and eventually got it back -- four months over schedule, 400 per cent over budget, and actually in worse shape than when I dropped it in. Several other people, as I only discovered later, had bad experiences with him too. So, be warned.)
If you are happy with a simple setup, adapting the interior is the easiest and most fun part.
To make a counter top, I bought wood with a waterproof laminate coating from a hardware store, cut it to size, and pop riveted it to the interior wall of the van. I used some right-angled aluminium cut to length and drilled to make custom brackets, and supported the counter with plank struts.
Then I bought a stove from a camping store, and bolted it to the counter top. A gas cylinder for the stove went underneath the counter. I drilled a hole behind the stove to run the gas pipe through, and made a fitting to hold the gas cylinder steady.
My local plumbing supply store sells stainless steel sinks and sink fittings. I bought a sink and cut a rectangular section out of the counter top to hold it. You also need a waste water container to put underneath the drain pipe. Some people prefer to drill a hole in the van's floor and run the drain pipe down through it, but I think that this encourages rust. Also, if you are going to do a lot of free camping, taking your soapy waste water with you to be disposed of at the next bathroom you come across is more environmentally friendly.
I bought some linoleum from a carpet store to make an easily cleaned surface for the floor, cutting it to size with a Stanley knife.
I bought a mattress and put it directly on the lino over the raised engine platform. If your van has a flat floor, you'd need to make a simple wooden platform to support your mattress. A bed that is above floor level is more comfortable, warmer, and easier to use as seating during the day.
I got some oil lamps, water containers and storage boxes from my local hardware store.
Using those plastic-covered springy wires that are normally used to hold up lace curtains and a few double tap screws, I put up curtain wires. I made curtains and lined them with cotton flannel for better insulation and light blocking. You can get the wires at drapery or curtain stores, and buy ready-made curtains there too, if you don't want to or can't make your own.
That's basically all there was to it.
Good light is crucial to enjoying living in a campervan. Particularly if you are going to be freecamping or visiting remote areas a lot.
If you are converting a van yourself, some models will have interior electric lighting. But in others, if you want electric lights, you will have to get an auto-electrician to install them. They are normally powered by a second battery inside the main living compartment. A fridge and water pump can be bought in a caravanning or camping store and run off this battery too.
Even if your van has electric interior lighting, consider packing an alternative lighting method. This is because, if you are using the interior lighting for extended periods when the van is parked up for a few days, your battery can get drained. Lamplight or candlelight is nicer than electric light too. Oil lamps have the advantage of being portable and weatherproof. They are not nicknamed 'hurricane lamps' for nothing. If you have to hoof it across a campground at night to go to the bathroom, you can light your way with one regardless of the weather, which isn't something you can try with a candle.
Oil lamps, replacement wicks and lamp oil are available from most hardware stores. Lamp oil is also widely available from supermarkets as well. (I've heard that some people plait their own wicks from cotton or linen rag, and use olive oil as their lamp fuel, but I haven't tried that myself.)
From camping stores and some hardware stores, you can get gas lamps that run on the same little blue gas cylinders that tent campers use for their stoves. Their advantage is that they do give a brighter light than oil lamps, but the disadvantage is that the gas cylinders don't last long, and the lamps and their mantles -- the bit that glows inside the glass shade -- are extremely fragile. Some people find the hissing sound they make a little bit irritating.
It depends on how sophisticated you want your water system to be. You can install a sink and a simple drainage setup, as described in the making the van habitable section above. In my experience, the simpler the system, the less can go wrong with it. Or you can go to a good caravanning and camping shop, purchase a proper pumped water tank and all the trimmings, and install those instead. Bear in mind that most of the time, you'll be staying on campgrounds, all of which have showerblocks, with hot showers, lavatories and hand basins, plus a separate area with rows of dish-washing, and another room for laundry. If you're freecamping, naturally you're going to park up next to a river, lake or seashore. So your actual need for a complicated water system is minimal.
But undeniably it's useful to at least have a sink and some containers of water. I bought a couple of forty-litre water containers, the kind with a tap, from the gardening section of a hardware store. I also bought a garden hose, and cut a metre off it, fitting it with the kind of attachment that can be pushed onto a tap and then tightened. This saves a lot of hassle when re-filling. I used to buy mineral water for drinking, keeping the water in the containers for bathing, laundry and dish-washing.
As I mentioned above, under Irish law, to be eligible for the campervan taxation class, your van needs to have a minimum of 1.8 meters head room behind the driver's seat. This is achieved with either an elevating roof (also known as a pop up, or a lifting roof, or a raising roof), or a high top (also known as a fixed high roof or a high shell). On a practical level, they also stop you banging your head on the ceiling every five minutes.
An elevating roof has the advantage of folding back down for travel, so you can drive anywhere and are not limited from going into certain car parks. Vans with elevating roofs are also less conspicuous. On the other hand, they don't have any storage space, they do have to be folded down before you drive off, and if they are old or badly maintained, they can leak.
If you're converting your own camper and need an elevating roof, it's extremely tricky to get your hands on one. I even went around asking other campervan owners on campsites in Europe, just out of interest, but no one I spoke with had any idea where to source a new one. The only way that I know of to get one, is to buy a cheap trashed van that already has one and transfer it to your van. If you know where new elevating rooves can be bought, kindly let me know!
I did track down a company in England, Camper Shop at Ingenious Interiors, that sells the parts for elevating roofs, so if you can only find a damaged one, they may be able to fix you up with the spare parts for it.
High tops, because they have no moving parts and are made of fibreglass, are more durable. They contain storage space, and even bunk beds, depending on the type you get. And you don't have to fold them down before driving off. On the other hand, you can't park in certain places that have a height restriction, there'll be the odd bridge that's too low to go under, the van is more noticeable as being a campervan, and the high top slightly increases wind resistance and therefore fuel consumption.
I would have preferred an elevating roof but I couldn't track one down. I did find several companies that can install a high top. They are:
- High Top Roofs Direct. They are a small company based near Leeds, in northern England. These are the guys who installed my high top. The service was quick, efficient, very cheap compared to the Irish installers's quoted prices -- about a third of the price, and the whole thing only took three hours. I have had the roof for over six months and have never had a problem with it.
- Country Campers. They are based in Kent, southern England. They do full interior conversions as well as fully kitted out high tops, I'm told, which might come in useful if you have a bit more room in your budget or you'd rather delegate the conversion.
- Here are the details of various people on or near the island of Ireland who may be able to install a high top for you.
Stephen Buchanan, telephone +44 (0)48 822 42751.
John Lenihan, telephone +44 (0)77 96 277 600.
Tom Turner, telephone +353 (0)69 644 00.
- The Motorcaravan Club of Ireland may be able to give you the numbers of other firms in Ireland who do high tops also.
The price for a high roof obviously depends on the make of your van and the kind of roof interior you require. A luxury roof kitted out with skylights, lighting, bunk beds and fitted storage is obviously going to be more expensive than a simple fibreglass shell.
I was quoted similar prices by the companies the Motorcaravan Club of Ireland suggested, and by Country Campers, so I decided to go with the much cheaper High Top Roofs Direct, and they worked out great.
If you already have a car or a jeep, instead of buying or converting a campervan, you could buy a caravan instead. You just need a tow hitch, and to make sure your insurance cover is adequate. Obviously caravans are mechanically a lot simpler than campervans, so they are an easy purchase to get right. Towing a caravan is a little bit trickier than driving a campervan, but it's doable.
Even simpler, you could buy a tent and sling it in the boot. Setting up a tent every night is a lot more hassle than just opening the door of a campervan or caravan, and people in tents seem to get more grief from the authorities, as well as having less security than people in campervans or caravans. You'd need to be seriously hardcore to live under canvas for more than a month, but living out of a campervan or caravan for the long term is comparatively pretty common. But buying a tent is certainly cheaper and easier than the campervan or caravan route, and therefore worth considering.
If you don't have a car or a jeep, consider a bike trip instead, for the same reasons.
It sounds obvious, but measure your campervan before you head off on the road. This avoids unpleasantness with bridges. :) It also is a help when making ferry bookings, as the ferry company will need to know the exact size (at least height and length) of your van.
If you have a choice, do get a diesel rather than a petrol van. Diesel vans are significantly cheaper to run, because although diesel is roughly the same price per litre as petrol, it lasts longer. (Also, in some places, such as extremely remote parts of Eastern Europe, there is no petrol available, only diesel, because that's what farm machinery runs on.)
I strongly recommend getting an awning, if you can afford it. An awning doubles your living space. This may not seem important to you when you're setting out, but after a month on the road, it's a great help. In good weather, you can sit out or sleep out in them, and in bad weather, they keep the worst of the elements out of your van, like a porch. Consider a second hand one if you're on a budget.
If you haven't oodles of storage space, or even if you do, put up lots of coat hooks so you can hang stuff up. You can get them from any hardware store. It gets your things out of your way -- important in a small space -- and also an item that's hanging from a hook can't fall over and smash while the van is in motion. I hang anything breakable, such as oil lamps and coffee mugs, from hooks.
Go for a test drive once you've packed your stuff for your trip, and then eliminate or repack anything that rattles!
If you are planning an extended journey in your van, and don't have time to go on a short test trip beforehand, park your van near your house and pack it as you plan to do for your journey. Then live it in it for at least a full day and night before you leave. This makes it easier to see what you can leave behind and what you may have forgotten.
Bring a basic kit for van maintenance. Some suggestions:
- Engine oil.
- Tyre irons and a properly inflated spare tyre.
- An oil filter, in case a service comes due while you're on the road, and the local garage has difficulty getting the right one.
- Some coolant of the type suitable for your van's cooling system, unless you're driving an air-cooled model.
- A spare fan belt, just in case.
- Some diesel or petrol in a jerrycan. Stow it securely, away from heat sources.
- A can of WD40 and some duct tape. If something's supposed to move and it doesn't, spray it with WD40. If something's not supposed to move and it does, tape it down.
Check your fuel, oil and coolant levels regularly -- preferably daily or at least every 100 miles. I keep a package of babywipes near my oil rags so I can clean my hands easily afterwards.
If you're driving in Europe, you are legally required to have the following items in your van. They are all cheaply available from your local motor supply store. If the police catch you without any of them, you might be subject to a large fine.
- A warning triangle. If your van breaks down, steer or push it out of the way of incoming traffic and place the triangle a good way behind you before calling for help. It stops people driving into you.
- A country sticker (IRL for Ireland, GB for Britain, DE for Germany, etc) near the rear registration plate.
- A first aid kit.
- A bulb kit.
Given the choice of where to park, always park on a slight slope, facing downhill, and leave it in first gear. Then if the brakes fail or the engine needs push-starting, you're covered.
Stash a grand for emergency repairs and fuel in your money belt and don't touch it. Hopefully you won't need it. If you don't, it'll make a great cushion for when you get back from your trip. If you do need it, it'll make all the difference between the need for a spare part being a bit of an irritation, or the end of your whole holiday.
When leaving your van for the day, close the curtains. A long-time caravanner gave me this tip. If passing strangers can't see your stuff, and can't be sure that there's no one sleeping on board, it's better for security. Don't leave anything valuable in your van, though, obviously. Money, passport, driver's licence, logbook or VRC, and your insurance certificate should be kept on you, ideally in a money belt under your clothes.
Fill your fuel and water tanks every chance you get, as you never know where you are going to end up next. That's half the fun.