The Arctic Circle isn't immediately where you'd think of taking a motorhome, but Rhodri Andrews takes to the ice to prove driving and sleeping in a motorhome is an adventure in itself
“Put your foot down,” repeated my instructor Markus Hilli for the fourth time. I hadn't been told that since my driving test nearly 10 years ago, when I was given four minor penalties for driving too slow. But this wasn't a driving examination, and I wasn't even the one being tested. It was the car being put to the sword, and in the unlikeliest of locations, too: Lapland.
I was at Test World, a Nordic winter-testing facility for vehicles. Days earlier, I'd joined up with a band of intrepid members from the Caravan and Motorhome Club, one of the UK's largest membership organisations, who were midway through an epic 8,000km road trip around Northern Europe.
I'd taken the far easier route of hopping on a flight from London to Helsinki, before grabbing a connecting flight to icy Ivalo in northern Finland, some 280km upward of the Arctic Circle.
Ivalo is exactly as you imagine: a world of white punctuated by thick bursts of pine trees, themselves wearing thick snowy hats. It was no place for a motorhome, I thought, but it's where the team choose for a few days break. Of course, the main reason was to pit their ice-encrusted caravans against the iron grip of a long, heavy winter through a number of tyre tests and braking distance measurements.
Motorhome at Test World (Alan Bond)
At first, it's somewhat surprising to find a premier testing centre so far into such a remote land. Here, you can count the number of roads on one hand. But Finland can be full of dangers for motorists, with black ice and greasy slush common in a country that's thickly wigged with snow for up to seven months each year. It's no surprise that specially adapted winter tyres are a legal requirement from December to February.
As I arrived at the facility, the surrounding wilderness was a reminder I'd be hard-pushed to stop my eyes from wandering. The endless rows of pines drooped with sugar-like frosting, while the crystal carpet shimmered in the sun. As for the test tracks themselves, they delicately whipped through the tundra like smooth channels carved by an ice cream scoop.
It almost seemed wrong to disturb this pristine scene, especially as I envisioned skidding caravans and slithering motorhomes dicing up the ice. But as I watched, they impressively held their own, as the Club's team busied themselves with braking distance tests.
Me? I wouldn't be behind the wheel in one of those, although I'd be sleeping in one later that night. “It was wise not to trust me with the vehicles they relied on to get home in,” I thought. Instead, I'd be taking charge of one of the centre's own cars.
As I was readying myself for what felt like like a Finnish twist on Top Gear's 'Star in a Reasonably Priced Car', I recalled the locals I'd seen over the past two days zipping across the roads as if the ice was freshly laid tarmac.
Car dragging caravan (Alan Bond)
Predictably, I drove with the opposite of the Finns' assuredness. Markus had laid out a slalom course on a frozen, rectangular lake for my first attempt. As I crawled at a snails' pace in and out of the cones, my mind firmly locked into 'UK mode', the fear of any hint of permafrost sending us spiralling out of control. But this was Finland and with its resilient, studded tyres, the car was more than a match for its terrain.
I wasn't, though. “You're not testing the car,” muttered Markus, as I rolled along in second gear. “In Finland, the combination of the winter tyres and anti-braking system (ABS) gives us superb traction on the roads.” I still had trouble trusting his words. I was happy enough trundling gently through the markers. But, sensing a tone of impatience from Markus, I decided to up the ante.
As I pressed firmer on the accelerator and moved into third gear, the car responded confidently each time I slalomed, leaving a snake of shallow tracks in my wake. As I slid into fourth gear, the car continued to react perfectly. I turned more sharply into the twists and turns and, contrary to my earlier fears, the tyres stuck fiercely to the snow. As I drove even faster, the tyres were ably backed up by the ABS, with any slight hint of skidding snuffed out.
At this point, my confidence was paralleled with the car's performance, ready for another stab on a second test track. I've never been much of a petrol head, but the combination of the tundra wilderness and a car more than matched for its snowy surfaces had me chomping at the bit.
The following track resembled something like a frosted Arctic doughnut, a large circular track with a central island filled with bare trees and white-topped shrubbery. This time, with my newfound verve, I attacked the throttle more enthusiastically to see what my car could really do.
Drifting around the floury oval, the car again tightly locked onto the powdered surface and I became more and more impressed by its effortlessness to buck the harsh environment.
A few loops later and the car had nothing left to prove. From something that felt pretty alien to me (how could car and snow combine so harmoniously?), I could finally understand how assured the Finns could be on the roads.
With my adrenalin sufficiently quenched, my next Arctic challenge was much more slumbersome: staying the night in a motorhome.
Rhodri Andrews in a motohome (Alan Bond)
My bed for the night was based in a campsite only a 15-minute drive from the test centre in Ivalo. From the outside, the motorhome looked unforgiving. Icicles hung like a full set of piercing, frozen teeth all the way around its lower fringes, while frost carpeted its exterior like a giant white tarpaulin.
It was impossible to imagine how this icy tin tent could be homely. But as I stepped inside, my chilly existence immediately defrosted by a toasty wave of air, my hairs stood on end to desperately suck in glugs of heat. Off came my gloves, thick coat and countless other winter garments. Room temperature had never felt so good. But while my heated cabin made me wholly appreciative of the warmth it provided, it also made the prospect of the icy dash to the campsite's shower block seem all the more wretched.
Inside, the motorhome had everything to ensure I was self-contained for an adventure, like those from the Club, including a toilet, shower, kitchen, a bed and seating area, while a supply of gas and electricity meant I was well-fuelled for any conditions, especially the sub-zero Arctic.
But as I climbed into my sleeping bag for the night and hunkered down on the sofa bed, I realised this balmy cocoon wasn't completely repelling the outside world. As I glanced towards the ceiling, I spied two skylights, where the frost had melted to make way for a potential in-bed Northern Lights show. I must have slept with one eye open all night. I awoke several times, not through discomfort but of eager anticipation that the Aurora were dancing above.
Sadly, it wasn't to be. I reflected over their failure to appear over a coffee, brewed in the motorhome, the following morning, before saying my goodbyes to the Club's members as they prepared for the second half of their journey.
As I saw them confidently pull out of the campsite and onto the main road beyond, it no longer made me think of my Bambi-on-ice driving back in the UK. Now, with some Finnish driving lessons and a night in the motorhome both ticked off, I believed that could be me. I was ready for my own Arctic adventure.
Rhodri travelled with the Caravan and Motorhome Club, which has over 200 Club sites and provides access to over 2,500 privately owned places to stay in the UK and nearby, with 300 sites throughout Europe.
Main image: Rhodri Andrews in front of motorhome (Alan Bond)