More and more people are discovering the joys of converting vans into mobile holiday homes.
We’ve spoken to people from lots of walks of life who have fallen in love with their campervan holidays.
Accountant Sherrie Woolf will even be spending her wedding night and entire honeymoon in a campervan.
Another person shares a moving account of how his old van saved his life in the most unexpected of ways after he’d become homeless.
You can even buy a van and fit it out for a few thousand pounds – although some people spend up to £50,000 on brand new vans with their own kitchens, toilets and beds.
What’s the attraction?
“It’s allowed me to shed some of the fineries and appreciate the smaller things in life,” says Sherrie from Tredegar in Blaenau Gwent .
She once held high-flying jobs in the accountancy world.
“I was travelling the world frequently, working incredibly long hours. I’d go to bed working and wake up working, dealing with global businesses. It was great, but it was exhausting,” she says.
“Without trying to get too deep, I’d burnt myself out entirely and I took some time off work and had to reprioritise life.”
She’s now set up her own accountancy practice where she can combine, and enjoy, work and leisure while travelling around in the van.
“Some people that have known me for a long time are very surprised that I’m sleeping in a van and enjoying it,” she laughs. “Everybody says, ‘That’s really cool, I would like to do that’.”
It’s the freedom and great outdoors that appeals to other campervanners too.
Keen amateur photographer and optical technician Duncan Spencer from Dolgarrog in Conwy sums it up: “It’s just the freedom to go wherever you want,” he says, telling me about how he prefers to do what’s known as wild camping rather than go to official sites.
With all of the north Wales coast and countryside on his doorstep, he can be amongst spectacular scenery in no time at all.
“Some of the spots where I wake up, you can’t put a price on that.
“It doesn’t matter how much money you’ve got, you cannot build a house and wake up in these locations.”
In Cardiff, nurse Anthony Coombes is able to take extended breaks in the self-built Renault Master van he calls Myfanwy.
“It’s not uncommon for me to go away for three weeks at a time, because I work shifts and compressed hours in work,” Anthony explains.
“The big attraction is the freedom. You’re not tied to hotels, rules and regulations and obviously, on a nurse’s wage, it gives me the freedom to get away six, seven, eight weeks of the year which I’d never be able to afford staying in B&Bs.
“You can’t beat being outside,” he adds.
“I sleep better in the van than I do anywhere else.
“I’ve been in the van when we’ve had thunderstorms and torrential rain and it’s been quite good fun – you’re safe in the knowledge you’re not going to get wet.
Craig Hyde’s story is different. He’s a tree surgeon and surfer who hasn’t yet fully turned his current yellow ex-AA Renault Traffic van into a camper as it’s full of tools – but he intends to.
Barefoot as we talk overlooking the waves at Ogmore-by-Sea in the Vale of Glamorgan, he tells me how he needed to live in his old white Peugeot Expert van for five winter months after becoming homeless.
“I was living in Cardiff, doing gardening, handyman work, stuff like that,” he says.
“One thing led to another, financial difficulties, work wasn’t coming in, people weren’t paying me, I’d been on time with the rent for over a year and a half, but the landlord wouldn’t give me any more time then I lost the flat, so I started living at Ogmore-by-Sea to get back on my feet.
“In the day I’d use the vehicle as a works vehicle and by night I’d turn it into a cosy bedroom,” he explains.
“I had a futon, which I’d roll up and it was quite cosy actually, I had a nice blanket, lots of pillows.”
Although that “campervan” experience was forced on him (and there are signs at Ogmore-by-Sea saying overnight camping isn’t permitted), it still had its attractions, he says.
“I had my particular spot, I’d pull up quite late every day. I’d have the back doors open, so my view was of the sea every night and that’s what I saw every morning.
“That helped my mental state, to be able to keep things together, keep focused, but I knew it was coming to an end at some point so, with that in mind, I enjoyed it more.”
Now living in a flat in Cardiff again, Craig’s planning to get a trailer for his tools and convert his yellow van (he calls it “his baby”) into a proper camper.
How they converted their vans – and what it cost
You can buy them from a dealer as a ready-to-go campervan.
But, for that, you’d pay a premium with a new Volkswagen California van costing upwards of £45,778, for example.
Accountant Sherrie tots up the amount they’ve spent and says it comes to around £8,000 in total.
“I bought the van for £1,700, then spent about £2,000 making it run correctly, it needed quite a bit of work.
“It’s been so much hard work, we’ve got cuts and bruises all over our hands, but it’s also saved us thousands.
- Rock and roll bed – a back seat that folds out to become a bed.
- Bulkhead – the partition behind the driver and passenger seats in a van which divides them from the cargo area. To turn it into a campervan, this has to be removed – and it’s not an easy task.
- Leisure battery – a separate battery which powers fittings and appliances like lights and a fridge in a campervan. It means the van’s main battery isn’t flattened when the driver needs to set off again.
- Captain’s seat – a driver or passenger seat which can be unbolted and swivels to face the opposite way, creating more space in the camping area of the van.
- Wild camping – camping away from official sites. In Wales and England you generally need the landowner’s permssion to do this, although right-to-roam rules in Scotland mean it’s widely accepted there.
Sherrie and fiancé Malcolm needed to fit their powerful motorbikes inside and it was that which led them to having a van in the first place.
“I bought the van to carry my motorbikes around,” she says.
“It’s quite a big van, but all I used it for was carrying my bikes around and then I thought, ‘Let me put a bed in it, so if I do a track day I can just crash in the van.’
“And now it’s morphing into a proper campervan. I’ve now put windows in, I’m looking at kitchen units, I’ve redone the bed.
“We’ve taken out the bulkhead, stripped everything back and done everything from the insulation, the lining, carpeted and all sorts.
“It’s taken us six weeks of working every spare minute in the van and we’re not finished yet.”
Duncan Spencer’s Volkswagen T4 Transporter is his second van, the first one was already converted.
“The first one I bought had all the cupboards down the side, but I didn’t like half the features in it, so I decided to buy an empty van and convert it,” Duncan recalls.
It took him three months to carry out the work on the ex-delivery van he owns now.
“I put a full-width rock and roll bed in and a sink. I’ve got a little portable stove and a leisure battery.
“I’ve got nice little fancy lights, I like it to look nice at nightime,” adds Duncan, whose Instagram account @Dunkymagic shows the van in beautiful surroundings around Wales.
“It’s got a passenger seat which spins around, quirky little bits and bobs and a night heater, that is a must in the winter.
Duncan agrees it’s not a cheap pursuit, but worth the money for him.
“I spent £5,000 for the van and I’ve probably spent, with the heater, maybe another £2,500. So that’s not too bad.”
Anthony also bought an old delivery van. It came from a department store which was closing down and, although he doesn’t have any off-road parking outside his Cardiff home, he managed to do all the work he needed over six months.
“It was an empty panel van basically so I took it from a panel van to a full camper van,” he says.
His priorities included a fridge which he wanted to be able to run off-grid at festivals and other sites, so he fitted a solar panel too, as well as a comfortable bed, a sink with running water and a cooker.
“I went back to GCSE maths and worked it all out on graph paper and did it all to scale, then I got tradesmen in to get windows fitted, I couldn’t do that on my own.
“We wanted it to be warm in the winter, cool in the summer, so we put in a lot of insulation.”
And the cost?
“Probably all-in, including the kitting out, about £6,000 to £7,000 at a rough guess,” Anthony says.
Tree surgeon Craig reckons it’ll cost him about £700 to kit out the van he already has.
“When I get a different set-up of trading, so I no longer need the back of the van for equipment, I’ll have a trailer,” he explains.
“I’ll convert the van to go surfing down to Cornwall and stay and have a cooker, all the mod cons.
“I’ve already started the process tentatively,” he says. “I’ve put insulation throughout the van, I’ll rip out all the boards that are in there, to be replaced with new ones, I’ll put a second battery in, a water pump, rejig the electrics, so I can have light in there.
“It’d definitely be a space for the surfboards and wetsuits and stuff and I’ll get a captain’s seat so you can turn the front seats around and make it more spacious.
“But, at the moment, it’s just full of chippings from the wood and stuff.”
Their best camping spots?
Whether it’s an official site or a hidden spot, they all have their favourite places.
Wild camping, as it’s known, isn’t a right throughout the UK, but many van enthusiasts prefer seeing if they can camp for free and away from a formal, managed campsite, often with amazing views.
This can cause tensions, as more and more people try to do the same thing and there are lots of blogs and forums which urge van owners to be responsible.
At Ogmore-by-Sea, Craig says the locals tolerated his enforced stay when he was homeless as he’d help keep the area clean.
“Sometimes the kids would come down and party and I’d clean up in the morning then, which went a long way with the local dog walkers and stuff,” he says.
“Some people would come down and they’d tell me their life story and we’d sit and maybe have a beer and that was quite interesting.
“There were a couple of people who’d been kicked out by their wives or partners and were sleeping in their car for the night and stuff,” he says. “So, it was kind of like this hobo community,” he laughs.
“Then, some people would come back and drop food off and make sure you were all right. It was quite heartwarming.”
Duncan’s goes away every weekend, is a fan of wild camping and has his own favourite locations
“I can go two minutes up the road and find somewhere that’s absolutely stunning,” he says.
“Anglesey, the Llŷn Peninsula, Morfa Nefyn, the lakes.
“Or I go to Pembrokeshire, all over Wales, I just love Wales.
Anthony built his van around his love of kitesurfing, paddle boarding and mountain biking.
“I spend quite a lot of time down west Wales kitesurfing or the Gower and Cornwall, going to festivals, any opportunity I get, all year round,” he says.
“It’s quite good fun to go to festivals, because a lot now have campervan parking, you’ve got a warm, dry bed to sleep in at night and cold beer in the fridge,” he adds.
“Last year, my ex-girlfriend and I went around Europe. I think we did seven countries, through Europe to Croatia and back.
“We were away 23 days that time. That was a big adventure, absolutely amazing.
“Northern Spain was absolutely stunning and Scotland is hard to beat, as is Wales to be fair.”
- Set a budget and stick to it. And don’t forget to budget for accessories too.
- Research the type of campervan you want and then visit a consumer show where you can look inside a wide range of different vehicles.
- Think carefully about the layout that will work best for you inside the unit and consider renting one like this to see if it’s suitable.
- Don’t travel too far on your first outing.
- Make sure you pack your sense of fun and adventure – it will be brilliant!
Sherrie is only just starting off camping in her van and when we spoke had had her first “amazing” weekend away on a campsite alongside the River Severn in Tewkesbury.
Last year, she went off with her fiancé around Europe, but they were pitching up in a tent.
“We spent three weeks on the road with the tent,” she says, “And I found that a little annoying with the whole packing up and putting away, so I thought I’d rather us put the bikes in the van, do the motorway miles in the van and get somewhere, set up for a few days and then we can explore on the bikes.”
Having now bought and kitted out the van, that’s what they’re going to do on honeymoon.
“We’re getting married on June 29,” she explains.
“We’ve got lots of friends coming in from around the country, so we’re going to camp the night before the wedding and have the wedding night in the van, then we will probably come home, load up the van for the longer trip and head off for at least a month.
“We’re going to Europe, we don’t have any destination in particular in mind, then we’ll head to France first and then we’ll look at a weather map and follow the sun.”
Surely, there must be some negatives? A tiny space, limited privacy, no shower or loo?
As a relative newcomer to camping and someone who admits she was used to the finer things in life, there are a few things Sherrie’s not too sure about.
“The main downside is I don’t have room to put a shower and a toilet in there,” she says.
“So I’ve just bought myself a pop-up privacy tent and a bucket loo, so that kind of solves that one.
“The main thing is going to be showering and having to carry all your toiletries to a shower block and you’re at the mercy of a campsite as to how clean the showers are.”
Duncan and Anthony say they can’t think of many downsides.
“If you’re a genuinely outdoorsy-type person, there are no negatives,” says Duncan.
“But I know people who’ve bought them, done it, not liked it and then sold them, so people are trying it but then only a few like it,” he admits.
“The running costs, I suppose,” says Anthony when I ask him about the negatives. “I run two vehicles because I need a car for work.”
Craig’s enforced stay in his old van didn’t come at the best of times in his life, but it’s a situation one good friend in particular helped him recover from.
“It was desperate sometimes,” he says.
“It was always tricky to keep the phone charged and stuff, because the phone port wouldn’t work and you’d be out of touch with people then, or even just speaking to people.
“So, it was quite lonely at times, but it was an experience.”
Things took a bleaker turn when he returned to Cardiff that winter.
“I’ve got bad memories of that vehicle,” he says.
“It was Christmas Day, years ago, and I was in the van in Roath.
“I couldn’t charge my phone, I’d lost my wallet, so I couldn’t get any money, I knew everyone was away for Christmas and I got really down.”
He thought about taking his own life so he “jumped in the van and it wouldn’t start”.
“That was the only time it wouldn’t start in the years I’d had the vehicle,” he says.
“Twenty minutes later, my friend knocked on the window and she was like, ‘Craig, is that you?’
“I was asleep on the front seat with the duvet over me, my head down and she was walking her friend’s dog and she said, ‘Come with me now,’ so I went back to her house, she put me to bed, she made food and kept me warm and safe and then things turned around.”
After saving money for a flat deposit, he got back on his feet and is now living in the middle of Cardiff, having qualified as a tree surgeon and working all around the country.
Their advice to others?
Anthony’s advice to anyone thinking of kitting out a van themselves is: “Figure out what you want it for, then plan, plan and plan again and get tradesmen for the right things.”
“Go for it, definitely,” says Duncan.
“I don’t see the point in owning a car, because what can you do with the rest of it?
“You can only sit in the driver’s seat, you can’t pull over or make a brew in the back.
“If I take the kids somewhere and they want to go and play with their friends for a few hours, I’m quite happy to sit in the back of the van and watch programmes or whatever.
“They’re so functional, it’s not just a campervan, it’s everything.”