Van Life: Choosing a decent camper van

We’re spending three and a half months here in Australia, driving around the country in a campervan. Three months isn’t really enough time to see even a good portion of this ridiculously huge country, so we’re having to miss out the west coast entirely. I’m sure if we really tried, we could drive around the whole place in the time we have, but we wouldn’t be able to take our time and explore each place, and have little side trips off the beaten track whenever we want to, which is what van life is all about for us.

We picked up our van in Brisbane from a company called Let’s Go Motorhomes. It took ages to decide which company to go with, as a little research into any of them unearthed some pretty terrible reviews. In the end, we lost patience with the endless options and picked the one that sounded the least awful. We figured that people are much more likely to leave reviews of bad experiences than good ones, so it probably would all be fine.

We didn’t know what to expect when we picked it up, but the Brisbane branch of Let’s Go were friendly and helpful, and the van came to us shiny and clean, with lots of extra little goodies we weren’t expecting. They gave us a full tour of the van and how the mains power, extra battery, water supply etc work.

Loving the van life in Byron Bay

We went for a Jayco Hitop van, which is kind of mid-range. It’s not a huge beast lumbering around the place (and costing an arm and a leg) but it’s still got some creature comforts. It’s tall enough to stand up in, which is a major plus, but too tall to go through drive thru’s, which is obviously a great hardship… we’d actually have to get out the van to get our McNuggets. Shocking.

It came equipped with a decent kitchen – two hobs, a microwave, fridge, toaster, even a kitchen sink. The sink drains away underneath the van so we don’t even have to empty buckets of used sink water. All cutlery and crockery was provided, along with pots and pans, chopping board, tupperware, kettle and cafetiere. It even came with washing up liquid, sponges & tea towel, so we haven’t had to buy any of that.

Van kitchen, complete with two-ring hob, sink, fridge and microwave

There’s a pretty big seating area in the back too, with a table and wrap around sofa area. The table collapses to form the base of the bed, and the sofa cushions slot in next to each other to form the mattress. Occasionally the jigsaw of cushions will come apart a little in the night and I find myself slipping down the cracks, but generally it’s pretty comfy.

Bed area, complete with solar powered fairy lights sellotaped to the ceiling

There are two standard power sockets in the back of the van for charging electronics and plugging in the toaster. I assume newer models will probably have USB ports, but our 2015 model just has standard sockets. We can use these sockets and the microwave when we’ve got the van plugged in to mains power, but not when we’re parked up at an unpowered site, as it would hugely drain the battery, then the fridge wouldn’t work and our beers would get warm, which would be tragic.

Power, water and gas bottle – all easy to access

We never use the indoor table, as we also have a camping table and chairs, so we just keep that area as a bed. We can put out the camping chairs under the awning, which is conveniently attached to the side of the van above the sliding side door. The awning is pretty tricky to construct as the poles have been slightly bent over time, so sliding them out and into position requires two of us wrestling with it and swearing. Once it’s up though it’s a nice little shady spot to chill out under and eat our food, as the van gets pretty hot when the sun comes up.

There’s also a fold down table attached to the side of the kitchen unit, which is really handy. When you’re parked up you can just open the side door and fold out that table and you’ve got an instant food prep area so you aren’t getting the inside of the van smelly and gross.

Pretty proud of our first van meal – halloumi burgers and salad

The camping table and chairs slide into the storage area at the back of the van, accessed by opening the boot. We also shove the power cable, bucket, washing line and hosepipe into this section to keep it all out of the way of the main living area. We’ve since added walking boots and back-up beers to this area so we can kep the main space uncluttered.

There’s plenty of storage in the main living space too, including two ceiling storage shelves. One above the driver’s cab and one above the sleeping area. Even with the shelf above the sleeping area, you can still easily sit up in bed without cracking your head. We’ve each claiming one of these shelves as our own personal storage area so our stuff doesn’t get all mixed up together and will help to avoid the inevitable argument over messy belongings which would have definitely happened otherwise.

There’s cunning storage areas in the kitchen units which are much bigger than we first thought – you can shove a whole load of pot noodles into those cupboards, they just go on forever. There’s even more storage under the bed – both cupboards and the hollow area under the table, which is where we keep our day packs at night.

Heaps of storage space in the back of the van

The cab is just your usual van cab, with air conditioning (thank god) and all the standard bits and pieces. The radio is better than we hoped – it’s got bluetooth, USB and an aux port so there’s loads of music playing options. I think we’re going to need it for the long drives through the outback!

I worried that as the van has a fridge, we’d have to stay in powered campsites every night, which would be severely draining on the funds, and also limiting on the adventure. However, happy days… the fridge and sockets run on a second battery, which charges whilst we drive. There’s also a solar panel on the roof which gives it some extra juice. This means that we can limit our powered sites to every other night, or even one night in three at a push.

The van cost us $5700, which works out as about £3000, so if we have the van for 100 days that’s £30 a day, or £15 per person. On top of this, we also have to pay fees to stay at camping grounds. There are free camping sites available but usually these don’t have showers, and the toilets are pretty grim. Camping sites/holiday parks in Australia are pretty nice – they usually have swimming pools and decent showers & toilets. They can be around $35-$45 per night for powered sites (where you can plug in your van) or $15-$35 for unpowered (where you just use your van’s battery). With this in mind, the van is probably costing us, per person, an average of £25 a day, maybe £35-£40 each with fuel.

It sounds expensive, but when I think it’s transport as well as accommodation and cooking facilities, it’s not actually that bad. The freedom that it enables us to have is worth the cost.

There were cheaper options available – either converted station wagon style cars or transit vans – but we figured those kind of campers would be too cramped for a three month trip. If we wanted to go for the budget option it would have been easy enough to do, even going for a van without a kitchen. Australia is definitely a country which encourages an outdoor lifestyle – all the national parks and beach fronts seem to have BBQ facilities and public bathrooms. Showers would have been trickier but not impossible.

In the end though we decided that if we’re going to live in a van, we’re going to at least be comfortable. That’s maybe a perk of travelling when we’re 30 rather than 18 – our funds stretch a little further. Our little van is still far from an all-singing, all-dancing motorhome, but it’s comfortable enough for two people to live in and not want to kill each other after day three.

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