Motorhome and campervans open up a whole new world of free-wheeling adventures, travelling on your own schedule and without the need for expensive hotels. Here's our guide to getting started
Having your pick of the world’s great drives is a big lure, but many just love the freedom. “Wherever you go, you take your house with you,” says Martin Dorey, author of The Camper Van Bible. “You can enjoy relative comfort and can just pack up and go at any time.”
Motorhomes are pretty well-equipped these days, with cookers, beds, storage facilities, a bathroom and electricity all standard features. With campsites commonly found in even the most remote places, suddenly you're not tied down to other people’s opening hours, but free to go your own way, and you can save money.
“These trips are never expensive,” says Lee Davey, a freelance caravan journalist. “The money you save on hotels and flights mean you can go on 10 motorhome adventures for the price of a normal trip abroad.”
After hiring your vehicle, the only real outlays are the minimal campsite charges, petrol and food, so you can put the leftover cash towards future trips, or simply splash out on extra activities or experiences.
Motorhome in the countryside (Dreamstime)
Motorhomes start at around 3.5 tonnes in weight and from the size of a small removal van (sleeping two-to-four). If you’re driving anything larger, bear in mind that if you passed your UK driving test after 1996, you’ll need to apply for a Category C licence. Those who passed prior to 1997 are covered. But if you’ve not driven a large vehicle before, it can take a bit of getting used to.
“There are plenty of driving courses available to help you find your feet,” advises Nick Lomas of the Caravan and Motorhome Club. “Plus, there’s lots of ‘how to’ videos online, and most hire companies offer a thorough briefing before you set off.”
Before you start, be conscious of how much you pack. Each motorhome has a maximum payload (added weight), so take note, or ask the hire company if you’re not sure. There’s even a skill to packing your vehicle. “Be sure to put all your heavy items over each of the axles,” adds Simon Howard of motorhome manufacturer Bailey. “Avoid too much at the rear or nose of the vehicle, so that it’s better balanced.”
Next up, plan your route as much as you can before you go, and book most of your campsites along the way, leaving some nights free for flexibility. Don’t rely on a sat-nav, as you risk being navigated down narrow country lanes or restricted roads. Instead, invest in a Trucker’s Atlas (UK) or Big Road Atlas (Europe), as they highlight wider roads and bridge heights.
Most importantly, pack an adaptor if you’re going abroad. You’ll need it to hook your vehicle to the campsite’s electricity.
Also, if you head somewhere with harsh weather conditions, like Arctic Lapland or the fringes of the Sahara, make sure you’re prepared. “For anywhere sub-zero, you will need winter tyres and winter diesel,” advises Martin. “Gas for cooking and heating is also important. Butane works in above-freezing temperatures, but use propane for sub-zero.”
Camper van in alpine France (Dreamstime)
Before you start out, check everything. “It sounds obvious but make sure things are packed away tightly and cupboards shut properly,” explains Simon. “You don’t want things flying out of drawers and breaking.” But as with any great trip, it pays to expect the unexpected.
“The beauty of a motorhome is that you can be entirely flexible with your itinerary,” says Lee. “I went to France for a few days and ended up visiting Belgium, Luxembourg and Germany, too.” However, if you’re going to cross borders, ensure you’re clued up on the speed limits and driving rules of each country.
Nick also notes that some countries require a permit for taking heavy vehicles on motorways. Sadly, there’s no skirting around the daily maintenance of your vehicle though. “Keep on top of your water supply,” says Martin. “And don’t take any shortcuts when you’re emptying the waste tank or the loo, or you could find yourself in a sticky situation.” As always, wherever you stay, make sure that you take any rubbish away with you.
Man overlooking the Grand Canyon (Dreamstime)
If it’s going to be your first time in a motorhome, staying on familiar territory helps. “Start local on your initial trip,” advises Lee. “Don’t try and cover too much mileage. Places like Dorset and the New Forest are great for first-timers.”
Alternatively, hop the Channel and widen your scope, with France being particularly well set up for motorhome trips.
You don’t need to stick to designated sites, either. In the US, national parks and forests are packed with tucked-away sites, meaning you can sleep within a stone’s throw of the Grand Canyon. Across Europe, look out for free stopovers in the form of aires, which can be found in farms, quiet car parks or even sun-drenched French vineyards, and will often allow you to stay overnight for nothing.
But know that each country differs in its laws regarding stopovers in public areas, so do your research and avoid getting into trouble.
The myth that motorhomes are only for UK family breaks clearly just isn’t true. They’re year-round, all-weather vehicles ideal for road trips near or far. “You just drive, stop and go again,” says Simon. That sounds perfect to us.
Wandelust assistant editor Rhodri Andrews recalls his own motorhome adventure with the Caravan and Motorhome Club in Finnish Lapland
Why did you stay in a motorhome in Arctic conditions?
I wanted to see what it was like. I’ve never stayed in a motorhome before, so staying in one in the heart of Lapland was something completely new to me. I was interested to see how it, and I, would cope in such harsh conditions and, in some ways, I wanted to prove that you could enjoy these sort of trips throughout the year and in all kinds of weather.
What was it like?
Very cosy. The heating worked fantastically well and, if you run out of gas, the vehicle can still be heated via the mains electricity. I actually forgot that our motorhome was covered in icicles and it was -7°C on the outside. That’s how toasty it became.
Converting the seating into an extra bed was also a breeze and incredibly comfy. This was great, as the numerous skylights meant I could spot the northern lights from the warmth of my bed. In the morning, thankfully, the water pipes didn’t freeze, meaning I could have a hot cup of tea whenever I got up.
What advice do you have for others?
If you’re going anywhere where the temperature is below zero (degrees celsius), make sure you lag (insulate) the water pipes of the vehicle to stop them from freezing.
Before you set off in the morning, make sure that any extra beds are stowed away properly and anything else you used the night before is safely stored away in cupboards. It sounds silly, but something as little as a baking tray rattling around in the oven can be extremely tedious on the road.
Would you do it again?
Absolutely. Now that I’ve stayed in a motorhome in extreme conditions, I’d love to have a go at driving one and taking it away for the weekend somewhere, before exploring further once I’ve built my confidence up.
The Caravan and Motorhome Club offer advice, training and holidays.
Main image: Campervan in New Zealand (Dreamstime)