We got lucky when we decided to buy a van to live in, as it happened Dixie the Ducato was only the second vehicle we saw and we happily parted ways with our savings as soon as our eyes met her headlamps. But we had done our homework on the subject and knew what we were looking for, therefore we didn’t waste any time arranging lots of private viewings or hanging around in driveways and dealers forecourts kicking tyres. Some things were absolute deal breakers for us and being decisive like this made our shortlist even shorter. Moving back to Ireland from abroad, we needed to buy our home ready to move into immediately, and with no garage, space or tools to our name building one ourselves just wasn’t an option. The conversion vans we saw online fit our needs exactly. There are plenty of pre-owned vans on the market as people are always upgrading, and a second hand conversion van will come with all the necessary paperwork to satisfy your insurance company and the department of motor vehicles of the legality and roadworthiness of your new home on wheels. That can be a real headache we have heard, changing the papers from commercial to camper comes with a long checklist list of compliance. All this aside, if you are thinking about buying a conversion or you are lucky enough to be creating your own van to live in, here for your consideration is our rough guide to what mattered most to us when choosing our van for life.
# 1: MAX HEADROOM
Vanlife often carries with it an assumption of some space sacrifice, the idea that what you gain in freedom you lose in storage for your things and room for you yourself to live in peace and relative comfort. Some people when they hear about Dixie picture us eternally stooped over in cramped conditions, with all kinds of stuff overflowing from sagging cargo nets tacked to the walls and roof, contorting ourselves around each other to bend our way into bed in the evening. We can assure you this assumption is completely unfounded. Dixie (like plenty of other commercial vehicles) has a high roof, even after insulation and flooring, and William, at 6ft 1, can stand up straight inside. If he couldn’t stand up straight in comfort, he couldn’t prepare meals, bake bread or cook me breakfast as he does so well, he couldn’t get up out of bed normally or get dressed properly, he couldn’t even use the shower…. life would begin to get difficult quickly for him. We might as well be living in a tent.
But luckily we don’t have to sacrifice. If you are thinking of this lifestyle, don’t underestimate the amount of time you will spend in the van and make sure your new home is as vertically spacious as you can. We’ve been known to dance a ceili in here on rainy evenings, make sure you at least have the headroom for that. We don’t know much about the now popular pop-top style of campervan but a canvas roof in Ireland or England seems like a recipe for disaster, the potential for rips and tears caused by wind, the consequences of getting leaks…again, we may as well be camping.
#2: SIZE DOES MATTER
A van is one of those rare times in life when you shouldn’t necessarily buy as big as you can afford. Consider your own personal needs, what do you plan for your van, will it be your daily transport too, can it fit in a space in the supermarket? Will you be paying to park on private land or travelling to caravan sites, will you want to stealth park quietly on a city street? What is your ultimate dream vehicle for a home, how practical is that and how realistic is your budget? We have heard that newer motorhomes require electric hook up regularly and have lots of moving parts and components that can (and usually will) go wrong, could you afford the expense? We don’t like to draw attention to ourselves and that helps us park wherever we like, so take into account the kinds of places you’d like to go before you buy.
A good van in our opinion hasn’t too many bells and whistles, just a really reliable engine and a well-insulated cabin. That Dixie fit in one carpark space was very important to us, and that she can turn down any little road a car can. We didn’t want our size to inhibit our travels and it so far hasn’t. The most scenic spots are usually off the driven track.
#3: DIRTY TALK
We have seen and heard a lot of differing opinions on the unfortunate matter of human waste disposal while living in a van and making space for a whole separate room to contain and facilitate such things seems to be less important to some than others. Good for those who happily keep a port-a-potty tucked under the bed to utilise at their discretion but I’d prefer not to have to make awkward eye contact with William while administering my business into a box in the middle of the living room. A van with a bathroom was therefore a must for us, The Ensuite we call it, a fibreglass shower cubicle tucked between the driver seat and the kitchenette. More often used for storage than showering, the en suite has many practical uses, we carry a couple of 5 litre bottles of water with us, where safer to store them than in our wet room? Once, Dixie met a speed ramp a little too enthusiastically and the resulting bounce meant the toilet got a good shake- I’ll spare you further details suffice to say thankfully the mess was completely contained within the cubicle and cleaning out the shower is as easy as…well, cleaning out a shower I suppose! This cubicle is also great for drip drying towels and wet gear. It might be worth considering visitors to your van when you plan space for your facilities and of course there is the associated smell involved. Our cubicle is well ventilated with a large roof opening, perfect to increase airflow in the entire van and keep condensation at bay without freezing us as we can simply close the colourful curtain over and forget about whats behind there for a while.
Another point to note about facilities is your vans water tanks, two of them, for fresh water and grey water, and how much water you will need to carry day to day. This depends obviously on the availability of fresh water around you. Dixie has a very large fresh water tank which can last us almost a week from full. If you plan on wild camping this can be important, factor in how long you’d like to be away from civilisation for and ensure your tanks are adequate in size! We have stumbled upon public showers in forest parks and in rural adventure centres and in our experience we’re never too far from a tap. Petrol stations will fill a large bottle to tide you over even if they don’t have a hose for your tank.
#4: STORAGE WARS
The amount of storage you require obviously depends on the amount of stuff you have, and chances are anyone considering moving into a van would have downsized considerably before the time came to pack everything in and go. Although Dixie didn’t come with any fixed storage except in the kitchen, some conversions are equipped with drawers and cupboards and sliding boxes to keep your things safe and secure while the house is in motion. We would be wary of any fixed storage accessible only from the back doors, in our Irish climate it doesn’t make sense to ever have to leave the house to get something you may need.
Life in a van is cyclical, an ever-changing and delicate balance and your things need to be flexible to work to your best advantage too. A good example of this is storing your clean clothes in a plastic box. As you wear them and dirty them the box becomes emptier and presumably a laundry bag somewhere else in the van appears and begins to get full. The box lends nothing to the space situation like a bag would as it doesn’t shrink along with its contents. It’s all part of a constant circle of filling, emptying and refilling, sometimes we find the van full to brim with supplies and nowhere to store it all, then two days later half the stash has been consumed and the bin is now full of packaging… so it goes.
You will of course figure your own preferred methods of storage out once you play around with what you own and the space you have to work with. We do have one sturdy box for clothes (it doubles as a seat or side table too) but mainly we use bags under the benches. They slide in and out easily when the bed is made up. Just make sure the bags are waterproof, just in case.
Here is one thing that should be flexible, the layout of the bedroom area and the mechanics involved to make the bed up into a couch. When we drove Dixie away she had one massive steel bed, it would be considered a triple if such a mattress size existed, AND two single bunkbeds taking up precious space hanging uselessly from the wall panels. The van was probably capable of sleeping 6 adults comfortably! We stripped it down, removed the bunks completely and took an axle grinder to the bed frame to reduce its footprint significantly. A good conversion will also be readily convertable, tweek-able to suit your needs with minimum effort. In other words, what went in when it was built should come right out again if you decide. We cut a strip of steel from the bed frame, added another hinge and now we can make a couch configuration too. Bedding is also very customisable, we ditched the many foam bricks that made up Dixies previous matress and bought two single futon matresses instead, much easier to manage and with a memory foam mattess on top it guarantees a great nights sleep wherever we are parked.
When viewing vans obviously the main consideration should be the engine. Now, we’re not experts and unless you are you should take along somebody who knows their pistons from their pinions. Don’t buy a vehicle so rare you can’t source parts for it, or so old it really belongs in a Vanlife museum. Rust is a huge concern buying any used vehicle I’ve heard, but I’ll stop right there because I’m simply not qualified to advise further and my ignorance will quickly show. I can’t even drive. After the many above considerations, all I care about now is that Dixie goes vroom. Hopefully every time we ask her to 😉