Article Words : Rob Ganley | 05 June

Travelling the world in a camper van

You don’t have to be a hippy to hit the road in a camper – there are few better ways to see the world, and here's how to get started

While exploring America’s mother road – Route 66 – in a campervan, I found myself lost in Bryce Canyon National Park late at night. Tired, I pulled over and wild camped, the big advantage of driving your own ‘hotel’. The next morning I realised I wasn’t far from a 2,000m-high lookout – at which I arrived, bleary-eyed, at sunrise, completely unprepared for the landscape spread out before me.

From my randomly found vantage point I watched the day break over a 30km-long series of bizarre amphitheatres and pinnacles, all rich-reds and yellow-oranges; the kind of image that burns into your memory. And it was a fluke made possible only by travelling in a campervan.

The USA is made for campervanning. Other countries can be less hospitable, but still doable to those with a van and a spirit of adventure. The open road lures campervanners. Speak to any camper owner and the sentiment is much the same: these vehicles give you the freedom to go where you want when you want, knowing you’ve got a comfy bed waiting for you at the end of the night.

This freedom also means you’re not held to ransom by outrageous prices for a cuppa at a tourist spot, and you won’t ever be caught short in a public place. Plus, campers carry all the facilities you need to live ‘off-grid’, away from mains electricity and water supplies. But where should you go on your campervan adventure?

New Zealand

Nature pulls out all the stops right outside your window – a conveyor belt of peaks, beaches, fiords and glaciers

New Zealand’s landscape changes constantly. You can be driving through a valley, with mountains soaring either side, then round the corner to find a wild coastline or the tip of a glacier field. That’s the beauty of New Zealand – it crams a world of drama into its small proportions.

The joy of exploring by camper is that, if you like an area, you can stay the night: local law permits you to free camp as long as you’re at least 15km from the nearest large town and off the public highway.

The winter months (Jun-Aug) are a great time to see New Zealand in all its elemental glory, when waterfalls cascade off the mountains and the seas are still crowded with whales. Avoid peak season (Jan-Mar) and you’ll have the roads pretty much to yourself.

Best drives

Te Anau to Milford Sound Drive: through beech trees into the golden meadows of Fiordland National Park, before winding down to the Sound. A simply stunning route.

Coromandel Peninsula: The region that extends from Waihi in the south to Port Jackson in the north is a superb, forested mountain drive.

Essential reading

Although the country's road networks are great, some of NZ's best bits require a little leg work to reach. Get off the road and onto a bike: you'll find a vast network of cycling routes, for every ability. Perfect for exploring where four wheels simply can't go...

Live the dream

Rental information is similar in New Zealand and Australia, so this section applies to both countries. For convenient one-way trips, rent from a multi-depot firm which has rental locations in most of the major towns. This is particularly important for long trips in New Zealand – the inter-island ferry is expensive so you want to avoid making the crossing twice if possible.

Britz offers seven camper types, ranging from the simple, two-berth VW Rookie, to six-berth motorhomes with fridge, stove, shower and toilet. For serious off-roading you can hire Toyota Land Cruiser-based 4WD vans.

Australia

Drive where scale is everything – never-ending horizons, big skies and the longest open roads ever

Australia is vast. In the Outback you can drive all day and not see a soul, an absolute dream for self-sufficient campervanners and perfect for off-road desert adventures. But at its edges things aren’t so extreme – a varied and unique mix of reef-meets-rainforest, long sandy coasts, vibrant cities and fascinating hinterlands, well set up for vanning exploration.

Watch out for road trains, though – these trailer-towing behemoths can be over 35m long. They churn up a lot of dust, and overtaking them takes time. There’s significant (if fascinating) wildlife to avoid too – many rental campers will be fitted with bull bars to protect against roaming cattle and kangaroos.

Best drives

Adelaide to Melbourne: Includes one of the greatest drives in the world: the Great Ocean Road.

Fraser Island: Spend days wildlife-spotting and nights around the campfire. Also, 4WD vanners will love nipping up and down the massive golden beaches.

Cape York’s Overland Telegraph Track: A favourite of serious off-road enthusiasts; includes a wilderness peninsula of tropical forest and savannah, only suitable for hardy 4WDs in the dry season (May-Oct).

Essential reading

It's easy to dismiss rural Australia as an empty, barren environment. Yes, it's stark, but there's plenty of character off those razor-straight roads. Meet the Aborigines of the Red Centre's Pit Lands, just south of Uluru, or follow Simon Reeve's advice on unearthing Australia's greatest surprises... 

South America

Wild routes for intrepid vanners

Planning a camper trip in South America is more an art than a science. Work out what you want to see and plan a rough route around that and the seasons – remain flexible and you’ll be rewarded with real adventure.

From barren wilderness, stunning mountains and vast plateaus to coastal roads passing oceans busy with penguins and whales, this is a continent ripe for exploring. Argentina is perhaps the most camper-friendly country in the region, thanks to its well-developed highway network, its national parks and its wealth of commercial campsites with electric hook-up.

Best drives

To Tierra del Fuego: Journeys down both the west and east coasts of Argentina to the very tip of South America are spectacular, with some unsealed road surfaces making 4WD vehicles popular.

The Lake District: Spanning both Chile and Argentina, this mass of waterways offers spectacular driving on good roads.

The pampas: Just south of Buenos Aires, these wild grasslands, full of birds, offer fabulous long drives.

Essential reading

The list of must-dos for South America is never-ending, so take inspiration from Alistair Humphreys' top-10 destinations and start planning from there... Of course, while you're in this neck of the woods it'd be rude not to experience life at high altitude: head to the hills of northern Argentina, and tackle the 'Highest road in the Americas'. It's breathtaking stuff.

Live the dream

There are a few well-established rental companies. Buenos Aires-based Ruta Sur hires out vehicles in Argentina, Chile and Uruguay.

Gaibu has six rental depots in Argentina. It offers dismountable-type campers that fit onto the back of 4WD trucks, and a range of campers from small two-berths up to five-berth motorhomes.

Canada

Play ‘join the dots’ between glittering lakes and snowy peaks

Canada’s vast and varying wilderness makes it perfect territory for an extended camper tour. Most vanners point their wheels at the dramatic Rockies and the Great Lakes, but along the way are fabulous stretches of forest, rippling wheat fields and unique wildlife – elk, caribou and maybe even a grizzly or two.

Best drives

The Alaskan Highway: Connecting the continental US with Alaska across gold-rush Canada, this is an absolute must for the barren wilderness experience.

The Yellowhead Highway: Drive along Highway 16 into the stunning Wells Gray Provincial Park, where you can camp overnight and then visit the awesome Icefields Parkway to visit the Athabasca Glacier.

Sea to Sky Highway (Highway 99): Head out from Vancouver along the coastal mountain region of British Columbia.

Essential reading

Want to get off the beaten track? Try tracing the St Lawrence River from Quebec to the coast, to spy beluga whales and mystical forests. Or, if you fancy a break from the road, try an Arctic cruise to meet Inuit locals, as well as polar bears and ice bergs...

USA

The home of the campervan experience – with a wealth of classic routes to choose from

No country is better set up for exploring by camper – or RV (recreational vehicle), as they’re locally known – than the good old US of A. With its breadth of landscapes – from rolling plains to epic mountains – tiny towns, superb road networks and historically cheap fuel (though it’s getting pricier), it’s a campervanning paradise. The vast national parks are often busy with RVers in high season, but book in advance or off-peak and enjoy your own slice of this uniquely American way of life.

Best drives

Big Sur, California: The quintessential winding coastal road, dotted with all-American diners overlooking the crashing ocean.

Crater Lake Rim Drive, Oregon: This 53km trail skirts the deep-blue caldera of Crater Lake NP.

Badlands Loop Road, South Dakota: Drive through wildlife- and fossil-filled prairie.

Going-to-the-Sun Road, Montana: This National Historic Landmark is an 80km stretch of glorious vistas in Glacier National Park.

Essential reading

There's so much road to cover, it's easy to feel overwhelmed - so make sure you do your planning first. Heed Lucy Pearson's hard-won tips for planning the great American road trip, or plot an adventure on the USA's little-driven roads. Yes, some roads are (almost) traffic free, and they're perfect for road trips!

Live the dream

This section covers rental information for both the US and Canada. Cruise America/Canada (cruiseamerica.com; cruisecanada.com) is one of the best-established multi-depot RV rental and sales firms.

Europe

Glide through a string of different countries, with history on every street corner and spectacular scenery

Western Europe is well geared up for independent campervanning. You can zip quickly and easily across national borders, and take in the tiny, out-of-the-way villages and scenery that organised tours don’t have time for.

Eastern Europe is a different matter – it’s not used to campervan traffic and roads can be in poor condition. You may feel quite conspicuous in your camper, but the rewards are offbeat stretches where you have the road to yourself.

Best drives

Helsinki to the Arctic Circle: Tree-lined roads turn into Arctic tundra, a silent wilderness spotted with reindeer.

Highway One, Iceland: The country’s only highway loops dramatically past all the main attractions.

Romantic Road, Germany: A well-travelled (don’t do this in peak season) but beautiful route through medieval towns and past fairytale castles.

Amalfi Coast, Italy: Out of season, this rugged, Unesco-listed shoreline is one of the most stunning drives in the world. Too passé? Try the lesser-visited Adriatic coast instead.

Essential reading

Short on time? See Tom Hawker's account of driving the Fairytale Route in Germany, which threads though the forests that inspired the Brothers Grimm to pen their infamous stories. Liz Edwards has a similarly enchanting time in northern Italy's South Tyrol, where alpine pastures meet snowy peaks. For an island escape, follow in the footsteps of Will Gray on a jaunt around Norway's Lofoten Islands.

Live the dream

For regional listings of UK camper hire firms try Motorhome Facts. McRent is one of the best multi-country rental firms, with depots in Germany, France, the Netherlands, Portugal and Spain.

Hiring in the UK allows you to take all your own equipment (bedding, bikes etc) plus, for short ferry crossings, you pay for the vehicle rather than per person. However, if it’s just the two of you, a cheap return flight will save you time and money (on fuel and ferry crossings), plus you’ll be renting a left-hand drive, better suited to mainland Europe.

Asia

With a bit of planning you can head off the tourist trail and break out on your own four wheels

Asia is the least-charted territory for overland camper travel, although a few countries are beginning to wake up to the possibilities. Once you’ve wrestled with the red tape of visa applications though, it’s epic territory, and doing it by campervan means you’ll reach areas untouched by public transport, including the Himalaya, wild China and the enigmatic 'Stans.

Best drives

The Karakoram Highway – Pakistan to the Chinese border: The road is at 4,000m, hemmed in by 8,000m peaks.

China into Tibet: Spectacularly beautiful and, doing it in a camper, you can stop whenever you want.

The Silk Road: Still a pilgrimage for some brave campervanners. The northern route cuts through the Chinese province of Gansu and splits into three further routes, two of them going around the Taklamakan Desert, and the other going north through the mountains into Kazakhstan.

Essential reading

Perhaps the most high-profile 'route' through Asia is the Mongol Rally, which sees teams race from Europe to Mongolia in cars that most people wouldn't venture to the shops in. We chatted to founder Tom Morgan, and Wanderlust's Peter Moore signed up for a stint with team Genghis Carnage: read all about his adventures here... If a clapped-out little car can do it, maybe a campervan could too?

Live the dream

An extended trip through Asia is likely to take months, and is best done in the company of other similar campers. With this in mind, you’ll probably need to buy a camper; a 4WD is preferable for the uneven roads you’re bound to encounter. Expect to wild camp too – commercial campsites are few and far between.

Plan well – take into account the seasons and weather, and ask for advice from someone who’s been before – visit the Silk Route Motorcaravan Network, which specialises in overlanding by motorhome.

China is beginning to offer RV rental. However, at the moment rental companies insist on you hiring a driver too. One such company is China Exploration. Rental vehicles include rugged 4WD campers and European-style A-class motorhomes. Also, check out rvingchina.com.

Southern Africa

Watch elephants lollop and whales breach from your van window

Southern Africa’s popularity as a motorhome destination has boomed in recent years – South Africa is well set up, while neighbouring Namibia and Botswana offer more rugged adventure. This is perhaps the ultimate voyage into the great outdoors: drive amid shifting sands, big cats, wild coasts and pan-flat plains that go uninterrupted as far as the eye can see.

Best drives

Garden Route, South Africa: Classic African bush, desert, beaches and mountain passes, plus great national parks.

The Ocean Road to Cape Agulhas, South Africa: Where oceans collide at the southernmost point of Africa – spectacular.

Etosha National Park, Namibia: Its waterholes ensure some of the best self-drive game-viewing anywhere in the world.

Namibian wilderness: With surprisingly good roads, you can drive through epic desert scenery with vast skies and biblical horizons; try the Namib Desert and Damaraland.

Botswana: Visit in winter (June to September) for sublime game-viewing and possibly the best-value way to see the country – many of the smaller reserves are open to self-drivers, though you’ll need a 4WD to cope with the terrain.

Essential reading

Check out our guide to self-driving in South Africa: it's the perfect destination for first-time campervanners. If you're up for something bigger, Lizzie Matthews recommends you try Nairobi to Cape Town, perhaps Africa's most iconic overland route, but one which will give even seasoned adventurists the buzz they crave...

Live the dream

Most of South Africa is fine for 2WD campers. For Namibia and Botswana you’re better off in a 4WD camper if you want to get off the beaten track. The big rental players are Maui and Britz.