Down the Rabbit Hole of #vanlife on social media

When I started this blog (as “Rick on the Road”) in 2010, Instagram was yet to be launched, and it was another two years before Foster Huntington popularised the #vanlife hashtag on instagram. There were plenty of campervan-related videos on YouTube, but relatively few dedicated channels – at least compared to the massive amount that exist today. The first channels I remember watching were Chad DeRosa’s “Living The Van Life” and Where’s my office now (both US based) and Campervan Culture (UK based). Campervan Culture in particular raised the bar for the quality of video production as time went on, and was certainly the first time i’d seen drone footage in an “amateur” campervan video.

At time of writing there is a massive amount of choice of vanlife-related youtube channels, most of which have a parallel life in the form of an instagram account.

But what does “vanlife” actually mean?

This is a contentious issue, it seems. It’s a made-up word, with the word van and life joined together, and it seems to refer mainly to people who live in vans. I’ve seen comments on instagram and youtube where a full-time “vanlifer” will angrily claim the term for themselves, but with over 3.7 million instagram posts (at time of writing) using the tag, and i’d hazard a guess that only a tiny proportion of those pictures depict people living full-time in a van, so it’s a pretty generic term covering pretty much anything campervan-related whether it’s living in one, building one, or lying in the back of one looking at a sunrise while you pretend you haven’t just scrambled to set up the self-timer on your camera.

Is it possible to make a living making vanlife youtube videos?

It seems some people are, but they’ve had to work at it – regular videos with decent content, subscribers built up over a period of years, well designed thumbnails to draw people in (sometimes, dare I say, using clickbait tactics!). I was curious to know how much income some of these channels might generate, purely on youtube ad revenue – socialblade is a really useful site, if you want to get an idea. In short, even the most popular channels I watch aren’t making that much – a living possibly, but only if you have no rent/mortgage to pay because you live in a van! Having said that – youtube ad revenue is only part of the story, with sponsorships/ ad placement/ merchandise sales etc. also being a source of revenue. There’s also Patreon which is a sponsorship platform that some of the channels use for subscription-only content.

Vanlife community

While we were planning and saving up for our current van, I started regularly watching van-related youtube channels and it became like reality TV for me. Most of the vans in the videos have their instagram names displayed so potential followers (instagram) or subscribers (youtube) can easily find them online if you spot them in the real world.

Here are some of the channels i’ve been watching recently. I’ve realised these are all UK-based channels – this wasn’t intentional but i’ve found the content to be more relevant to me than most of the US-based ones i’ve watched (plenty of good ones, maybe i’ll do another post on those), so i’ve just gravitated towards these channels.

Indie Projects

This is probably the most popular uk-based vanlife channel – i’ve been following Theo and Bee on instagram before they even came up with the indie projects name. Their videos are a mixture of their own van adventures, initially in a VW T4, van tours of other people’s vans, their new van self-build sprinter van and their plans for a homestead in Portugal.

Youtube Channel

Instagram

Website

Beyond the van

Rich from beyond the van popped up in a couple of Indie Projects videos and I started watching his various van conversion and European trip videos. The van conversions range from a Renault Kangoo up to an LDV Luton van. Loads of practical content to be found on the channel.

Youtube Channel

Instagram

Website

From Rust to Roadtrip

A really good travel series from Lucy and Ben, a couple travelling Europe in their self-converted LDV Convoy. Nicely filmed and narrated, plenty of travel inspiration to be found in these videos, even with the frequent breakdowns!

Youtube Channel

Instagram

Website

Houseless not homeless

Martin has some funny content, I started watching this channel when he rapidly kitted out an old BMW estate to go travelling in when his van was off the road – if you’re on a budget and want ideas and a laugh, this is the channel to watch!

Youtube Channel

Instagram

Website

Finding Freedom

Originally a couple travelling Europe in a transit van, currently about Possy building her own LDV convoy camper on a budget – regular crossovers with Beyond the Van – the live streams are fun.

Youtube Channel

Instagram

A Bus and Beyond

All the channels mentioned so far cover self-build vans and vanlife on a budget – Shaun and Lizzy cover the other end of the vanlife spectrum reviewing new stuff that costs almost as much as a house, and staying on actual campsites. Very watchable, and it’s interesting to see what’s on offer to buy off the shelf if budget wasn’t an issue.

Youtube Channel 

Instagram

Website

Vanlife.tv

Lots of practical content on this channel – originally based around a VW T4 similar to ours, now building out a Vauxhall Movano.

Youtube Channel

Instagram

Website

Project Amber

“When life gives you lemons, piss off somewhere and be a hippy”. Wise words. Very entertaining channel following this guys European adventures in a converted ambulance.

Youtube Channel

Instagram

Sarah and the Bear

A relatively new channel, these two are very chilled travelling the country and national trust properties in their white VW T25 (makes me very nostalgic for Rocky, our previous van!).

Youtube channel

Instagram

Northern Explorers

I found this channel when I was looking for information on the retro-looking Barefoot Caravan. Then in a massive coincidence a few days later I bumped into them with their Barefoot at a campsite, and got a real-life tour, it was like stepping through the screen!

YouTube channel

Never read the comments on YouTube!

Youtube seems to attract the best and the worst when it comes to comments – I think the majority of the comments on these channels are positive, but there’s a lot of idiots commenting too – best avoided if you don’t want to come crashing straight back down to earth after a dose of vicarious vanlife!

Freerange Freelance on Social Media

No immediate plans for a Freerange Freelance youtube channel, though I wouldn’t rule it out entirely. But we are on instagram and twitter.

Do you have a vanlife channel/instagram channel that we should be following? Nudge us on instagram and let us know!

 

Running a home office using solar power – part 1

Photonic Universe portable 100 watt solar panel kit

Although I like to use our campervan as a mobile office, I mainly work from a home “office” built in an existing shed. The breeze-block building was already there when we moved in, and luckily it is big enough to create an area where I can work.

It’s a typical “ongoing” project, started a few years ago by partitioning off an end section to remain as a proper shed, and then building out an insulated area with it’s own entrance. Nowhere near finished, it still looks very much like a shed on the inside, but I have plans for wood panelling (inside and out) and stylish lighting to make it instagram worthy!

We do actually have mains electric running out to the shed, so it doesn’t need to be off-grid, but as I already have most of the kit needed, why not?

The Solar panel

I recently bought a 100 watt portable solar panel kit made by Photonics Universe to use with the camper van, but also wanted to see if it would be possible to use it to keep my home office powered. The kit has a waterproof charge controller mounted on the back, so all you need to do is attach it to the battery, either with the crocodile clips as supplied, or via eyelets. I bought a second connector cable so there is one permanently wired into the van leisure battery and one on the portable battery, making it easy to swap from one to the other.

Photonic Universe portable 100 watt solar panel kit showing charge controller

The “Office” kit

It’s a pretty minimal set-up – like when i’m in the van, I work mainly from the laptop, but with the added luxury of an external monitor, which is pretty handy when i’m working on any visual layout stuff for a website or web app.

My laptop these days is a 2015 era 13 inch macbook pro, and from looking at the plug-in current meter that I use, it looks though this requires about 20-30 watts to maintain an already charged laptop and 40+ watts when charging. The monitor requires a further 25 watts. In addition to this, I plan to occasionally run a USB powered fan and 12 volt LED lighting, both of which don’t require much power – at least in comparison to the mains appliances.

Minimal home office freelance web developer set-up

The Battery and electrics

A while ago I took a spare 90Ah car battery and built it into an old toolbox, with voltmeter, 12volt socket and USB sockets to use as a portable leisure battery set-up, so I have the solar panel charging this. Unlike the leisure battery in the van, this isn’t as proper leisure battery, so I need to be careful not to let the charge get too low, or risk permanently damaging it. The battery box has a fuse box inside with each item running off a separate fuse.

Leisure battery built into an old toolbox with USB sockets and voltmeter

I then wired in another external panel with voltmeter, usb sockets and 12 volt socket, which will eventually be mounted on the wall. I’ve then got plugged into this, an old Belkin 150 Watt (300 Watt peak) inverter that is usually in the van. I’ll likely replace this with something better – a pure sinewave inverter that gives a smoother AC output very similar to mains electricity.

12 volt panel with cigar lighter and USB socket

The challenge

The garden, whilst reasonably private for a city and offering plenty of shade, isn’t ideal for a solar panel. The light only reaches the garden from about 10am, and disappears about 6pm, even in mid-summer. The panel needs to be moved frequently to remain in the sun. I’ve spent time imagining building some kind of automated track system to do this for me, and although I have some ideas, I doubt I will ever have the time to realise them! We also live in the UK, not famed for it’s year-round sunshine…

Solar panel in a shady garden

From experience in the van keeping a powered coolbox going (~60 Watts), the panel will have real trouble providing 75+ watts constantly, unless it’s in decent all day direct sunlight, so the battery will likely discharge throughout the day, depending on when I finish, how much sun there is and how often I get up and move the panel to be in the optimum position.

I’ve already found that my external monitor isn’t happy running from the inverter – it keeps going into standby, then attempting to power up again then back to standby, as if switching it on causes a power spike that then causes it to go back to standby. Not sure if that’s the inverter struggling, or the battery not supplying sufficient current – if the battery is plugged into a mains charger, the monitor stays on, so the inverter is certainly capable, but maybe the battery isn’t. It will be interesting to see if a different inverter would make a difference here, or whether the battery isn’t up to the job.

I need to try this out long-term to get a realistic idea, but i’m sure that I would benefit from a higher capacity battery (or batteries), so I can rely more on falling back to battery power, which can then be topped up from solar charging over the weekend to keep me going during the week. Having said that, if we are away in the campervan, the solar panel comes with us, so that’s not going to work! If I had the budget to do this seriously, I think i’d at least double the solar capacity and the battery capacity.

Heating?

Even though it’s well insulated, there’s no chance of heating the space using solar (photovoltaic) power – any electric heating appliance, such as the Daewoo 2500 Watt oil filled radiator which I use in the winter uses way more wattage than could be provided by my inverter, and even with a high power inverter, massive bank of batteries and thousands of watts of solar panels you would struggle. The only realistic off-grid heating option is a wood burner or something gas powered, both of which aren’t cheap and would need to be carefully installed for obvious safety reasons.

Fitting a swivel seat base to a vw t4

One of the first jobs on the list when we bought Hercules was a swivel base for the passenger seat. T4 vans come with either a double passenger seat, so you can fit three people up front (would be handy actually, as we only have four seat-belted seats), or a single passenger captain seat. Hercules came with the latter.

There are two main different types of seat swivel – a swivel plate, which fits between the seat and the standard seat base, and a swivel base, which replaces the standard seat base. After a bit of research I chose the latter, on the basis that this would leave the seat at the same height as it would be on the standard base, whereas a plate will usually raise it slightly. I actually used a swivel plate on Rocky, our last T25 camper.

I ordered one from SVB Accessories , on the basis that it was crash-tested and a good price. They also do a version with a built-in safe which I was tempted by, but i’m kind of reluctant to put a (visible) safe in the van, as to me it kind of advertises to a potential thief where you keep your valuables. Or maybe you could double-bluff and have a visible safe as a distraction, but keep your valuables somewhere else!

Having had much older vehicles, I wasn’t sure how long this job would take, but luckily it went entirely to plan. Firstly, I slid the seat all the way back, and undid the allen bolts which hold the seat rails to the base.

Then I slid the seat all the way forwards and undid the allen bolts at the rear of the rails.

Then you can remove the seat, with rails still attached.

Using a socket wrench, you then undo the four nuts on the bolts which attach the seat base to the cab floor.

Then you bolt the swivel seat base in, and attach the rails to it. The base came provided with bolts, but I used the original allen bolts (as they sit flush inside the rails) with the nuts from the provided bolts.

All in all probably 25 minutes, which is a miracle for me, as I have been known to make a 25 minute job last all weekend!

Introducing Freerange Freelance!

Those of you who have followed a link to campervanthings.com might be confused to see a different domain name and site title “Freerange Freelance”. Let me explain!

The first version of this blog was called “Rick on the Road”, which started as a travel blog years ago, when my wife and I started looking at the idea of spending the summer touring france, with our (then) young son while I carried on working as a freelance web developer, attempting to keep an old plastic macbook with a two-hour max battery life charged from an inadequate portable solar panel, and attempting to keep in touch with clients and upload code over sketchy campsite wifi.

After that trip, the blog lost momentum until we bought a camper van and I enthusiastically relaunched it as “camper van things”, and wrote almost exclusively about camper van things.

It then lost momentum again, particularly after we sold the camper. This year having bought another van I thought I would give it a refresh and start writing again, and in doing so, I decided that the name of the blog didn’t really reflect what this blog is about.

So what is this blog about then?

I’ve worked (mostly) as a freelance web developer for over ten years now and the goal has always been flexible working. I’m lucky enough to have built a career that revolves around the internet and remote-working tools, and so most of the time I only need a charged laptop and a decent internet connection (wifi or 3G/4G)  to do my job. Moreover, I prefer flexible work hours, and not having to commute to an office “day job”. All of those aspirations can be difficult to achieve sometimes, which I will talk about on this blog.

But you’re still going on about camper vans?

Yep! As far as i’m concerned, a camper van makes the perfect mobile office, and is the best way to combine travel, adventure and freelance work. Plus I just love camper vans, so they will still feature prominently, particularly the one we own.

Freerange Freelance

Naming a blog is almost as difficult as naming a band. My wife is also freelance (TV/Video production/Copywriting) and we threw around a few ideas before coming up with this, then impulsively reserving the domain name and instagram handle. Twitter username character limit wasn’t long enough, so I left that one as @campervanthings for now. I think Freerange Freelance better covers the scope of this blog and any associated social media accounts.

Web development stuff

I’ll refrain from talking too much about web development on this blog, as I have another blog for that – if you’re interested in code, take a look at rickhurst.co.uk.

Using a cheap Quechua tarp fresh as a campervan awning

Using Quechua Tarp Fresh as campervan awning

We are using a Quechua tarp fresh as an awning/canopy. We already had the tarp, which we used for tent camping to provide some outdoor rain cover or shade. We bought a couple of spare poles to give us more height and options to set it up as standalone canopy.

Our T4 had an awning “C” rail fitted in the roof gutter, and a quick bit of research showed that you can attach a “kador” strip to these. I ordered a length of kador strip off ebay and wondered if I should sew it to the tarp, but in the end I decided to put some brass eyelets in the strip then attach to the awning using toggles and some elastic shock cord.

C channel in the roof gutter of a VW t4, fitted with kador strip

The advantage of this over sewing is that if we need to move the van, the toggles can be removed and the kador strip pulled out, without needing to unpeg the awning. Plus I can’t sew!

Awning attached to kador strip using toggles and eyelets

Our T4 is the short wheelbase version – the awning is slightly wider than the rail so I tie either end down across the windscreen and tailgate.

Awning attached to kador strip using toggles and eyelets

We have a van again!

New (To Us) VW T4 campervan

Far longer in the planning than i’d like, but we now have a campervan again! This one is a 2001 VW T4 2.5 tdi short wheelbase which is mostly converted to a camper already – rock n roll bed, side windows, sink with running tap, leisure battery, insulation etc.

We were considering getting a bare van and doing the conversion ourselves, but with the summer getting closer by the minute I thought i’d see what was around already ready to camp in and this one had just been advertised – we all decided it would be perfect.

So far we’ve added a cooker and table, the cooker is a Vango Combi IR Grill Cooker, which is now screwed to the worktop.

Vango combi IR Grill cooker in campervan

Vango combi IR Grill cooker in campervan

The table is DIY, and attaches to the side unit using a Reimo sliding table rail.

Making the table

Table attached via Reimo sliding table rail

Reimo sliding table rail

Future ambitions include a pop-top, swivel passenger seat (or both seats, but leisure battery would need to be moved), and to create, or buy, a full length side unit for extra storage.

The van came with a cab bunk, but our son is too tall for that now, so during an experimental overnight camping trip we worked out that he could actually sleep on a self-inflating mattress on the floor, mostly under the bed but with head and shoulders in the space at the foot of the bed. Not ideal, and he’ll more likely be in his own tent until we get the pop top, but it’s good to know we can all sleep in the van as it is if we need to e.g. at an Aire du camping or other stopover where a tent can’t be pitched.

Sleeping three people in a two berth campervan

Minimal campervan conversion – what actually constitutes a campervan?

Minimal campervan

A year on from saying goodbye to our last campervan, we are really missing vanlife, so making plans for the next one. Our last van came to us fully converted as a 4-berth camper with pop-top roof, cooker, fridge, rock and roll bed, table wardrobe, cupboards etc., but this time we are planning a full DIY conversion ourselves, on a more modern van.

Being the master of unfinished projects, I don’t want to spend months and months converting it before we get to use it, so the idea is a phased approach, starting from the bare minimum, then adding to it over time.

So what actually constitutes a campervan? It will be a van, a short wheelbase panel van of some kind – we need to be able to park it on our crowded streets and drive it as a family car. Obviously, we want to be able to camp in it – sleep, cook and have somewhere to sit comfortably inside.

In theory, all you need then is to use it like a “tin tent” – chuck some camping gear and airbeds in the back and you have a campervan, but the basic DVLA criteria to be able to officially reclassify a panel van as a motorhome in the UK include:-

  • A fixed bed
  • Cooker
  • Side Window
  • Fixed table
  • Sink and tap

My first campervan didn’t meet these criteria, it was a very minimal conversion – a fold-down single bed made from an ikea futon frame, a freestanding gas cooker from a caravan bungeed to the rear of the passenger seat, and some rugs and stuff. At a push you could sleep 3 people – one on the bed, one on the floor and one across the engine bay diagonally, but only one of these options was remotely comfortable. That van was more of a hippy ex-student road-trip bus, not a family campervan.

I’ve also read that some campsites and festivals won’t accept a van unless it appears to be a camper van – nominally for safety regulations, but probably also to stop people just turning up in hired vans or builder’s vans with an airbed in the back and binbags taped over the windows.

So there’s some “official” criteria we need to meet eventually, if we want to reclassify it as a motorhome but there are also some minumum requirements of our own, to enjoy it as a family campervan. We want to be able to sleep three people comfortably – two adults and a taller-by-the-day teenager. This will be the biggest challenge until such a time we fit a pop-top to gain an extra double bed. I have some ideas, which may or may-not work, but there’s always awnings/ pop-up tents if we can’t all sleep comfortably inside straight away.

We need to cook, so I plan to build a unit to house our existing camping gas cooker, to keep it secure and to be able to store the gas bottle securely underneath. We can survive without a sink initally – even with the sink and tap in our last camper, we tended to wash up on a table using a washing up bowl.

We also need to be able to sit comfortably inside – many of our UK trips have been rainy and cold, so whatever bed arrangement I build needs to be able to be reconfigured during the day to allow us to sit around in a mobile living-room.

I’ll certainly want a leisure battery to keep interior lights, music and phones/ laptops running away from electric hook-up for a weekend. I have a plan for that, which i’ll cover in another blog post.

How to live in a van and travel – new book from Vandogtraveller

How to live in a van and travel book

I was lucky enough to be sent an advanced copy of Mike Hudson’s (AKA Vandogtraveller) new book How to live in a van and travel”. I’ve been a fan of the vandogtraveller blog since the early days, and bought a copy of his previous book “from van to home”.

Though I have no current plans to live in van (or indeed, currently, a van to live in), i’m very interested in ideas for nomadic/remote working – the original subject for this blog. I did actually live and travel in a van for six months in my early 20’s, with a vague plan to “travel europe” and, like Mike, started off with a few grand in savings, and no fixed timescale. Aside from busking, I had no other income stream – this was in the mid-nineties when the internet was in it’s early days, and the term “digital nomad” was (probably) yet to be invented, so I needed to live as cheaply as possible to make the savings last.

So, like many people I suspect, I initially skipped straight to the “Making money on the road” chapter to see if I could pick up any tips. I then went back and read through from the start. He covers pretty much everything, other then details on conversion (covered in “From van to home”).

Thoroughly recommended, and inspiring – Mike tells me that a hard copy version will be available after the ebook, which I will happily buy to add to my coffee table/ toilet reading library!

Taking a break

Camper Van Things is taking a break for a while. It’s been fun, but Rocky has moved onto new adventures with a new owner, and therefore our current camper van adventure has come to an end. I’m not sure whether the content from this blog will be rolled back into my personal blog, or whether it will continue down the line if/when we get another van. So long for now!

Where is Rocky?

From reading this neglected blog you’d be forgiven for thinking that Rocky has been abandoned for the last couple of years in a warehouse, but happily this isn’t the case.

While stashed away a couple of winters ago, he got a bit of TLC, including a fresh coat of paint using the roller method. This worked out really well – highly recommended if you want to spruce up an old vehicle on a budget.

VW T25 rustoleum roller paintjob

VW T25 rustoleum roller paintjob -front

Rocky hasn’t been abroad for a couple of summers but has been on numerous festival and camping adventures in the UK, and has proved to be a great mountain bike hauler over the last couple of years – there’s nothing like a mobile changing room, fridge and coffee/cooking facilities after a day mountain biking!

VW T25 at lakefest

VW T25 mtb hauler

Mechanically he is going well, since tracking down a boost leak he has been taking advantage of the legendary TDI torque. He’s been through two MOT’s – some welding and an overhaul of the front end including new spring and bushings.

VW T25 TDI vag-com

The interior got some love as well, the locker door under the rear seat had virtually disintegrated, so I made a new one from a pine shelf using the original fittings.

VW T25 devon locker door

But there’s a new kid on the block – a 2006 VW Touran. Having had Rocky as our only vehicle for over a year, we needed something a bit more modern for a runaround/ long motorway trips, and while it’s not exactly a campervan, it’s big enough to be used as a microcamper/ weekender. It’s also a great T25 parts hauler!

VW Touran parts hauler

We don’t want to be running two vehicles, especially with the very limited parking availability where we live, so a painful decision had to be made, and reluctantly Rocky will soon be up for sale. I’m sure there will be another campervan (or other portable home on wheels) in our lives, so hopefully it’s not the end of this blog – watch this space…

VW Touran parts hauler