Van Life: On the Road #2

© Chris Perry

It's a climber's dream to have a home on wheels and the freedom to travel to climbing destinations without the need to fork out for expensive accommodation or make do with a cold, uncomfortable night in a tent. The cost and effort required to obtain a van and "pimp it out" - so to speak - is unfortunately a limiting factor for many wanting to lead a life on the road.

In this new series, we will be featuring a variety of vans and their owners and getting into the geeky details of their vehicle and its set-up. Whether you're looking for vanspiration as a seasoned dirtbag or you're a VW virgin, you might pick up some helpful hints and tips...

Swanage Bivvy.... well sort of  © K Pez
Swanage Bivvy.... well sort of
© K Pez

UKC user Chris Perry from Portsmouth got in touch as he was keen to tell us a bit about his set-up and share some advice. Chris is currently on the road in the USA but still had time to provide content for this article!

When did you decide you needed a van to live in and why? 

After several months away with work I had saved a fair bit of money which was burning a hole in my pocket. I considered buying a house but thought I'd use a van more.

Chris' VW T5  © Chris Perry
Chris' VW T5
© Chris Perry

Secondly being a bit of a weekend warrior, Portsmouth to Scotland in a weekend for winter climbing and skiing was something I did for a few weekends a year in my Ford fusion. Leaving at 1500 on Friday from Portsmouth would mean getting to the Tarbet Visitor Centre by 0100 to bivvy in the car park and use the toilets before waking up at 0600 to carry on driving for an hour to Fort William for a day on the Ben. What if, instead of sleeping on a toilet porch in the freezing cold you could pull over at any lay-by and sleep in the luxury of your own van? I toyed with the idea of getting an estate car with seats that fold flat to sleep in the back of, but actually I thought if you are going to own a car of that length you might as well go the whole hog and get a van.

What make and model is your latest one?

Volkswagen Transporter T5 2010 Long Wheel Base.

What is the sleeping arrangement?

Double rock and roll bed (a sofa bed with seatbelts to the uninitiated) with a side bench (can sleep three comfortably) and an inflatable mattress to go across the front seats (if required) so four at a push.

Swivel seats  © Chris Perry
Swivel seats
© Chris Perry

How do you manage storage?

Loads of storage under the rock and roll bed and in the side unit (have got my 7'9” surfboard in the side unit). T5s also have a lot of storage under the front passenger seat. I have since put 4 eye bolts in the ceiling as a kind of internal roof rack for surfboards.

How do you manage food storage and water supply? 

A big water container and a coolbox to keep food in that is kept in the side unit. Very simple but practical and also cheaper than buying a purpose built campervan fridge that requires holes drilling into the side of the van, the same is true for a purpose fitted stove as well, more holes required for excess gas to escape. If you are going away for more than a week and like to cook, I would suggest looking at built-in fridges and stoves.

How much power/electricity is available in your van, and from where? (solar, car battery etc)

I have a 110Ah leisure battery under the driver seat with a smart relay that isolates the van battery when the voltage drops below a threshold. It is simple to install and doesn't require messing with the alternator, it charges straight off the van battery. It is enough to power a TV, laptop, charge several phones and run the coolbox for a couple of days using an inverter. Most leisure batteries require venting to the outside of the van via piping as it gives off gas in its cycle. T5s have a grommet under the driver seat which is ideal for this. 

Power!  © Chris Perry
© Chris Perry

What is one essential item that makes your van life easier/more comfortable?

Fold out table for food, cooking with a portable stove and other general admin.

Do you have a luxury item which you might not expect to find in a van set-up, but which you can't do without?

Tablet holder swivel arm. Makes watching climbing films in the evening seamless when cooking.

How easy is it to relax in when not sleeping - does the set-up change?

It is a great setup in the back, I can easily get three people in the back on the rock and roll bed in seat mode and side bench. The front double passenger seat swivels to face the rear. So it feels very cosy with everyone in there, especially when it is pissing with rain outside.

Seating arrangement  © Chris Perry
Seating arrangement
© Chris Perry

What is your most memorable van spot?

Glencoe Mountain Resort car park. 

Glencoe Mountain Resort Car Park  © Chris Perry
Glencoe Mountain Resort Car Park
© Chris Perry

Have you had any nightmare situations involving your van?

Parking on a laybay near to Stanage Edge (but not inside the North Lee's estate because it is private land and you will get moved on by the ranger at 6am). The rain overnight caused the ground to soften up. It was a nightmare trying to tell the RAC operator where and what Stanage edge is; apparently there is a place the other side of the Peak with Stanage in the name?! This is where the first RAC rescue van went.

What advice would you give to someone wanting to buy and convert their first van?

I would say the most important thing is having the right base van for what you want to do. There is no point spending £10,000 to convert a van that is worth £6,000 with 170,000 miles on the clock because you will loose money hand over fist. However, if you want a basic van with a mattress in the back that you want to run into the ground then I would suggest the latter (As a rule of thumb, if you intent to spend more than £7,000 on a conversion, make sure the van has less than 100,000 miles on the clock if a T5, less if you are going for a Renault traffic or Mercedes Vito as these vans depreciate more...not that I am biased in any way).

Conversions cost anything inbetween £1k-15k from the very basic to the outright exuberant. You can save a lot of money if you do things yourself, but there is a false economy. For instance you can fit widows yourself but if you get it wrong or aren't patient you could make some very costly mistakes costing you more than if you got the job done professionally. 

Front view  © Chris Perry
Front view
© Chris Perry

If you have never owned a van before, beware of the running costs. Tax can be quite expensive, the pre 2010 T5 costs £240 to tax whereas the post 2010 models with the newer 2 litre diesel engine are half that at £120 per year. Medium size vans: T5s, Traffics, Transits and Vitos get anything from 28-42 MPG as the advertised figure. Larger ford transits, VW Crafters etc will typically not give anymore than 30 MPG. Smaller vans like the VW Caddy are some of the most efficient if you don't need the space. It is worth noting that the MPG will be considerably less than the advertised figure if you have it packed with climbing gear and a rock and roll bed. The Ford Transit custom has recently come to the market as Ford's reply to the T5. I don't know a huge amount about the van apart from it is light and very efficient so could be one to watch in the future.

Any recommendations on rock and roll beds? 

There is a huge variety in rock and roll beds, in terms of cost, quality and safety. At the very least make sure that spreader plates are fitted as standard otherwise in the event of a crash the bolts securing the bed to the van will rip through the floor panels. The van will stop whilst the passengers and the seats will carry on going forward. Some beds are M1 certified (again be careful, the M1 certificate is specific to the van model). Also some insurance companies ask that the bed is M1 tested and fitted professionally.  

Under construction  © Chris Perry
Under construction
© Chris Perry

Long or Short Wheel base?

I thought I would struggle parking a LWB T5, but actually it has been fine and unless I was living in a city with limited bay parking, I would go for the LWB every time. To put it into perspective a Ford Mondeo estate is 4.83m long and the T5 SWB 5.0m. T5 LWB is 5.3m but that extra foot of length gives you more flexibility for not a lot of faff when parking and negligible reduction in MPG, the LWB is especially good if you surf longboards as you can fit a 9 foot board internally.

It is also worth working out how you want to attach furniture to the inside . A lot of furniture is just screwed to the inside metal skin on the van which probably wouldn't fair to well in a crash. I secured the side bench by bolting it to the former tie down points in the van. From memory all you need are M8 bolts to screw into the captive nut in the floor.

Any issues with parking vans? 

If you are going to use your van as your main vehicle remember that a lot of car parks for supermarkets or even open car parks in the middle of the Peak have height barriers, these are typically 2.1m and above. You will be fine in most mid sized vans as long as you don't have a mid/high roof, roof rack or pop top roof. 

Side View  © Chris Perry
Side View
© Chris Perry

Van or Campervan?

Do you register the vehicle as a van or campervan? There are pros and cons to both. Firstly, converting to a campervan, you need to meet a criteria set by the DVLA i.e. have a wardroom, a bed of a certain length a cooker amongst other things and apply for camper van status. There used to be a rule saying that the camper had to look like a camper (i.e. no stealth campervans) but this has since been rescinded. It is generally cheaper to insure as a campervan, also you are not limited to doing 60 mph and 50 mph on a dual and single carriageway respectively as you are with a van.

Any advice or experience on where to park a van overnight?

You can stay the night in your van in public lay-bys (as far as I am aware). But make sure they are public as I got a knock from the police at 2am for parking in a non-public lay-by by the Swanage ferry. Because my friend had met me there in his car, which was parked next to the van they thought we were dogging. If you stop at a service station for the night, many now charge for staying more than 2 hours. Camp sites are good if you want a shower, but otherwise all you are paying for is access to water, toilets and possibly an electric hookup.

Van interior pre-conversion  © Chris Perry
Van interior pre-conversion
© Chris Perry

Anything else you want to tell us?

I get asked why do T5s cost so much. Yes, they do cost significantly more but in my opinion you get what you pay for. VWs are galvanised and therefore are less likely to rust, good if you live by the sea. Case in point: how many transits from 2001 do you see around compared to the amount of T4s? Furthermore which one has signs of rust in all the usual places? That is not to say VWs are superior to every van out there, but if you are going to spend big bucks doing a conversion you want something that keeps its value.

So in summary, depending on how you use them, vans are a good way to save money if you can afford the initial buying and then running costs and don't mind not showering over a weekend if you are going full dirtbag!

View previous articles in this series:


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3 Jun, 2015
"VWs are anodised and therefore are less likely to rust, good if you live by the sea." Anodised! really? do you mean galvanised? like most vehicles these days, or am I missing some new way of anodising steel.
3 Jun, 2015
My mistake mate, yes galvanised is what it is supposed to be.
3 Jun, 2015
1k for a conversion? I have bought a van and converted it for that!
4 Jun, 2015
This reads very like a VW Transporter advertisement. Lets see some climbers with weird and wonderful vans doing crazy trips! £1000 for a van conversion is definitely not the lower end!
4 Jun, 2015
classic statement!
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