Caravan and motorhome sales are booming – but they can be a dangerous, costly hell on wheels
From sleepless nights in pub car parks to trips to A&E, it’s not always fun and adventure on the open road
The photos are usually a variation on the same theme: sun rising over the sea, hills or still waters of a lake, framed by the doors of a campervan; the promise of a beautiful day ahead. Each image elicits a mix of nostalgia and envy within me. And there have been more of these pictures than ever this summer because of the surge in popularity of campervans and motorhomes.
Figures released last week showed a record 16,608 new motorhomes registered last year, totalling sales of £1.15bn, according to the National Caravan Council (NCC).
And Volkswagen has had a 621 per cent year-on-year rise in its VW California van, which costs £52,000, being financed this year. The second-hand market is also booming.
John Lally, director general of the NCC says that vans offer “social distance by design” and the industry is successfully attracting “new, younger customers while retaining existing ones”.
I too am a campervan lover, and used to be the proud owner of an applejack green 1977 Volkswagen Westfalia. It offered freedom, the constant promise of adventure and a frequent escape to the sea; things many people are craving after 18 months of lockdowns.
It’s the only vintage vehicle I have owned. My sister-in-law’s dad, Roger, aware of my negligible knowledge of engines and that I might be charmed by beauty, sent a mechanic along with me to check that I wasn’t investing in a van that would probably break down on my first trip.
Each holiday started the moment we got into the van. My nephews spent hours in a traffic jam to Dover pulling camper curtains over their faces to play seated hide-and-seek.
I travelled with friends down the west coast of France and into Spain. On another trip to south Wales, Rhubarb met Custard, a yellow vintage VW and befitting suitor. I loved the trusting, open community of van lovers; the waves as we passed, always slowly, on the road.
Rhubarb had character. If I didn’t take her out for a fortnightly runaround I’d be faced with a jump-start; I quickly learnt to park facing downhill so gravity was on my side. But the only time she refused to run was when a friend used diesel rather than petrol, leading to spluttering and smoke.
My campervan dream ended abruptly. Rhubarb was stolen in April 2017 while in the safekeeping of a campervan building and repair business that had filed for liquidation weeks earlier. Many other campervan-lovers lost deposits for vans they never received from the same business.
Debi Alper lost her £20,000 deposit. “When my father died, we decided to use the inheritance for our long-held dream of owning a campervan,” she explains.
“Unfortunately, the business we gave our money to went bust a year later, after we’d been fobbed off for months and before we’d received our van. We were devastated. Not only had we lost our dream van and my parents’ legacy, we’d also lost our faith in human nature.”
In my naivety, I didn’t realise that vintage vehicles appreciate in value. So I bought Rhubarb for £11,000 and insured her, on fixed insurance, for that amount. When she was stolen, she was worth more than £20,000.
Other campervanners living in outer London are now having to say goodbye to their van dreams because of the extension of the ultra low emission zone in October.
Charlie Giles is selling her Bongo van because it would cost an “unaffordable” £12.50 a day to keep it on the south London streets.
“It’s been perfect for us. We have three children and go camping a lot, but there’s no way we can afford to keep it now,” she says. “All five of us are totally gutted.”
But even looking back through rose-tinted glasses, van trips offer adventure rather than guaranteed relaxation.
One friend found this out to her detriment. Zara Lamb*, who works in public relations and lives in Leeds with her husband, had dreamt of travelling the NC500, the 500-mile route along the north coast of Scotland, for years.
“With the uncertainty over travel abroad, we decided to book for June – and were really excited,” she says. “The driving was fine, even with small Highlands roads. But the first evening made me question whether we’d made a mistake.”
The couple had pitched up at a rainy campside and pulled out the van’s awning. Zara’s husband then went to bed. A huge gust of wind blew the awning over the side of the van, breaking it.
“My husband jumped down from bed, but the step-ladder became disconnected and he fell,” she remembers.
“There was blood on the floor and a deep cut on his arm.” They bandaged him up, but Zara didn’t feel confident enough to drive to the nearest A&E, which was over two hours away, on unlit roads in the dark. The following morning, they visited a doctor’s surgery.
“They stitched my husband’s arm up with six stitches,” she says. “We lost our security deposit due to the damage. I’d definitely travel the NC500 again, the views and scenery are breath-taking, but I’d go in a normal-sized car – and I’d look at camping, or staying in hotels.”
Meanwhile, journalist Tracey Davies is currently vanning in a damp Yorkshire campsite with her three teenage children. “We’ve been here 24 hours and they have spent at least 20 of those on their phones,” she says.
Sophie Scott, a charity worker, is a third generation campervanner. So when she bought a “posh” campervan in March, she was prepared for the work involved.
“It gets into your blood. I knew what I was getting myself into, but I think it was a bit of a shock to my husband’s system,” she admits.
“If you look on Instagram, no one posts pictures of emptying out the chemical toilet and it spattering on your feet, or children not sleeping when you’re in a pub car park. But you end up going away more because you’ve got the van – although we could go on a lot of glamorous holidays for the same cost.”
Ellie Weidman, an interior designer living in south London with her husband and two children, has also been vanning since she was a child. She agrees that it is not all plain sailing. As a child, her parents owned a van so difficult to start that, after bathroom stops, she and her brother would jump aboard while it was moving at a snail’s pace, reminiscent of the family in the film Little Miss Sunshine.
When Ellie pitched up in East Sussex for her first camp this year, in 32-year-old van Betsy, she was warned by the site owners that the path was wet.
“I should have noticed that ducks were floating in the middle of the field,” she says. “But I didn’t, and instead sunk half-a-wheel deep into the field. So we stayed overnight where we’d stopped.”
There were gale-force winds and driving rain. “Luke’s glasses kept flying off his face as we failed to secure our event shelter with a tow rope,” she remembers.
“We had to wedge both children’s car seats in the pop top to stop it collapsing while the children slept and at one point a table went flying through the floor, creating a hole in the middle of the van, which we tried to patch up. And we weren’t on flat land, so I spent my night trying not to roll onto my children.”
The following day they were towed out of the field, feeling exhausted. “It was fun and awful at the same time,” she says. It hasn’t put her off: she’s now campervanning again. But she has bought an air awning, which she recommends. “Now we can be in driving wind and rain and stay dry.”
Tim Aldiss, a digital marketing consultant and campervan-lover living with his family in Hove, East Sussex, spends many weekends maintaining his vintage vehicles.
He’s had some incredible adventures, from dancing through vineyards overlooking Château de Chinon on the banks of the Vienne river in the Loire Valley of France, to watching the sun rise over the mountains of Albania from the roof of his campervan on board a ferry to Greece.
He hopes to pass on his love for campervan travel, which he inherited from his father, to his own children. His adventures have also included dramatic breakdowns.
“When you contemplate getting into your vehicle, you’re on holiday straight away,” he explains.
“And you never know if you’re going to break down or not.” He’s had engines blow up on trips and in both France and Bosnia, his 30-year-old van has taken more than a week to fix because of the time it took for new parts to arrive.
“I don’t deliberately go out to break down,” he says. “But it’s up to you how you react to it. And to my mind, the pros still outweigh the cons.”
While my van dream ended in disappointment, the theft of Rhubarb was one of the catalysts for me to move to live beside the sea. Now, rather than a van on my doorstep to make frequent escapes, I have waves and the South Downs close by. But those sunrise photos of van life will always make me yearn, just a little bit, to set off on an adventure.
As you would with any vehicle, check your tyres, oil and lights before setting off, and make sure you have good breakdown cover.
- Tips for new campervan converts from Tim Aldiss, author of campervanman.co.uk blog
- Pack games in case of bad weather. An excellent one for when you’re on the road is the card game Mille Bornes, which is French for a thousand milestones. Likewise, an awning extends your dry living space if there is rain.
- Van life can be like a game of Tetris: there’s an order in which to cook or move around in a confined space so you don’t bang into your family or friends. Learning the order that works for your van will make your experience easier.
- Don’t expect to drive your campervan everywhere. If you’re driving a large van it often won’t fit through narrow village streets, so consider taking bicycles or using public transport. It’s worth being happy to adapt: in Dorset, we took the steam train that runs from Corfe to Swanage.
- Find excellent stopovers in France via France-Passion.com. People with land list their sites and let you sleep for free: it’s customary to buy some of their produce, whether it be wine or fruit. In the UK we have Britstops, which is not quite equivalent. You can also stay in some pub car parks in return for buying a meal.
- Don’t drive with a full waste water tank, nor full fresh water tank, because of the weight it adds to your van. But remember to fill your fresh water up on arrival, before you set up camp: we’ve been swept away by the excitement of reaching our destination before and totally forgotten to fill up.
- Keep a separate set of everything in your van, from salt and pepper cellars to knives and a kettle, so you don’t have to repack each time you go on an adventure.