Buying Your First Camper Van | Essential Advice - Outdoors Magic

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Buying Your First Camper Van | Essential Advice

Thinking about getting your first camper? Read our simple buyer's guide to help you find your perfect van

Many outdoor adventurers dream of having a home on wheels. A camper van gives you the freedom to take off on a whim and head to the hills. It has plenty of advantages. Unlike camping in a tent, you can store almost everything you need in a van. So you needn’t spend hours sorting out your kit before you hit the road. It also means you don’t have to worry about packing up a wet tent before moving on. In many ways, a camper is the perfect base for any adventure. But before buying your first camper van, there are a number of things you really need to know.

“A camper van gives you the freedom to take off on a whim and head to the hills”

For one thing, there are so many different types of camper vans around. And increasingly, they aren’t just conventional campers, RVs or motorhomes. Adventure-seekers across the globe have become far more creative in fitting out their own bespoke vans to create homes to suit their lifestyles, as well as their budgets. For many, it’s become a way of life that has even spawned its own social media hashtag. Just check out #vanlife on Instagram, for example.

Things To Consider Before Buying Your First Camper Van

So where do you start when thinking about buying a camper van of your own? You’ve likely heard the odd horror story where people have splurged all their savings on the van of their dreams. Then something serious and costly goes wrong. That’s why it’s so important to do your research. Take all the steps possible to make sure you are buying a reliable and affordable van.

When it comes to buying your first camper van, there are three main options. These are to buy a new camper van, buy a used camper van or buy a commercial van and convert it yourself. This decision will most likely be led by your budget. Do your sums to see what you can afford and go from there.

“If you plan to convert your own van, be sure you understand the scope of the project you’re taking on”

It might sound obvious, but it’s a good idea to take a weekend trip in a camper van first. Make sure it’s something you actually enjoy before committing to buying your own. If you plan to convert your own van, be sure you understand the scope of the project you’re taking on. For many it will be a labour of love and really satisfying to see your van taking shape. Others may find it a slow, arduous and sometimes thankless task.

Size Isn’t Everything

Think about how many people will be sleeping in the van. Consider how much storage space you need for your kit. If you plan to travel solo without much stuff then you can go for a smaller van. A climbing couple with all their gear will need something bigger. You may be tempted to get the biggest van you can afford, but remember that these often come with higher running costs.

“You may be tempted to get the biggest van you can afford, but remember that these often come with higher running costs”

Living Essentials

Think about how you will use the van. Will you be living in your van for extended periods of time? If so, you’ll need a kitchen area with a sink and a hob. Alternatively, would you be happy just using a camping stove and doing the washing up outside? Would a fridge or cool box be helpful? Think about whether you need potable (drinking) water on board. That will mean installing a water tank. Do you need a toilet too? Will you want a folding table? Is headroom important? If so you might want to look for a van with a pop top, so you can comfortably move around without having to stoop.

Sleeping space

Consider how to best balance living space and sleeping space. You could have a fold-out bed (sometimes called a “rock n’ roll” bed) that turns into a couch during the day, or you can have a fixed platform bed or bunk so you don’t have to worry about stowing it away. This also has the added bonus of creating under-bed storage below. If you have kids (or a dog), you might want to consider a secondary bunk. Of course, the cheapest option of all is just to throw a mattress or foam pad in the back.

“Think about how many miles you’ll be driving and fuel economy”

Cost And Affordability

How much can you afford to pay out for your van? It’s important not just to think about the purchase price. Also consider how much it will cost to convert the van, and ongoing running costs. Look into the annual road tax and insurance costs. Think about how many miles you’ll be driving and fuel economy. Will you have enough money to repair the van if something goes wrong? Many dealers sell both new and used vans with a warranty. This can offer peace of mind. But make sure you check the terms of the warranty and what’s covered. Look for any exclusions that could end up being costly if something does go wrong. Warranties vary drastically between dealers, so it’s important you understand what you’re being offered.

Buying A Used Van

Although it’s a more daunting prospect, you can get a lot more for your money if you are prepared to buy a used van. But it’s really important to make sure it’s in good condition and there are no hidden problems. It might be tempting to go for a budget option, such as an older van that looks good but has many miles on the clock. This can be a false economy, as needless to say, the older the van, the more likely costly problems will occur.

When viewing a van, follow all the readily available advice on buying a used vehicle. Pay particular attention to the following:

  • Check for rust patches on the bodywork, especially wheel arches and sills
  • Look out for white deposits on the engine block and whether the coolant is cloudy – this could indicate engine problems
  • Check the oil level, and look for drips, leaks or damp/oily patches underneath the vehicle
  • When you start it up, does any smoke come from the exhaust? This could point to a few different problems including an engine coolant leak or worn valve seals
  • Poke around inside the van. Is there any damp or discoloration suggesting things have got wet? Check the door seals
  • Look inside all cupboards and drawers and remove beds, seats etc to look behind them and check everything’s in order
  • Look at the electrics and wiring, including any additional batteries and lights that have been fitted. Make sure everything works
  • Check all the safety equipment, from fire extinguisher to cupboard locks and seatbelts too. With things folding away it can be easier for belts to get caught, causing damage
  • If the camper has a hob and/or fridge, check the gas system
  • Check the water tank

Get It Professionally Checked

As this is likely to be a big purchase, you may want to get the van checked out by a professional before you commit to the sale. With the sellers’ permission, you can arrange for an AA or RAC-approved mechanic to inspect and road test the van, and check the vehicle history too before the sale goes through.

“Check the vehicle history too before the sale goes through”

It’s also important to ask for a valid MOT test certificate, and look at how long is left on the MOT. If you are buying privately this is an important consideration. Most dealers will offer a 12-month MOT as part of the sale, and do the work to rectify any major faults or advisories.

Converting a Van

For many this is the most attractive prospect, as you can buy a standard commercial van and convert it to meet your needs. A number of different vans make good campers. Some of the most popular models for conversions include the Volkswagen Transporter, the Ford Transit, the Citroen Berlingo, the Renault Trafic, the Vauxhall Vivaro and the Mercedes-Benz Sprinter.

When it comes to designing your van, use graph paper to sketch out an interior plan of your van’s loadspace. It’s best to do this to scale. Once you’ve got a design down on paper, use coloured tape to mark out your plan inside the van. This should give you some idea of how you’ll be able to move around the van. Check your plans are sensible. Don’t get downhearted if this doesn’t work out first time – be prepared to go back to the drawing board. Pinterest and Instagram are good places to get inspiration from others. Consider weight distribution at this stage too. You don’t want to have all your heavy items on one side of the van. This isn’t good for fuel economy or handling, and can cause uneven tyre wear.

Be Flexible

Sometimes the space available will dictate the best configuration, as well as the time you have to convert the van. Don’t fix anything in until you’re sure you have it how you want it. If possible, take it on a test camp before you finalise your structures, to check it works well for you.

Storage Solutions

What will you take on the road with you? Do you have climbing gear, mountain bikes or even a kayak to store? Remember you have to be able to sleep comfortably each night. Think about where all your kit is going to go when you head to bed. There are innumerable clever ways to create storage space, but be mindful of how much space kit takes up. Also think about ease of access, as some of your storage is likely to be harder to get to quickly.

“Think about ease of access, as some of your storage is likely to be harder to get to quickly.”

Power and Electricity

Think about getting a solar panel fitted, especially if you’re going to be travelling around sunnier climes. This can be a cost effective way of powering your van life. If you’re sticking to the often grey skies of home, do your research into leisure batteries, thinking carefully about how much power you’ll need and where you can store your battery.

Don’t Forget The Boring Stuff

It’s easy to get carried away when planning a van conversion, but don’t forget the less glamorous aspects – like where your rubbish and dirty laundry will go. And don’t forget to consider insulation and ventilation for the van, as these are both critical functions. Insulation is the major factor when it comes to warmth, but also helps with soundproofing. Good ventilation can help to prevent condensation build-up.

“Whatever you do, don’t convert the van while you’re living in it”

Whatever you do, don’t convert the van while you’re living in it. It might sound obvious but this is an important one. You may be eager to get on with van life, but if you’ve moved all your stuff into the van already it’ll make it near impossible to complete the conversion.

If you’re in the UK, inform the DVLA of the changes too. It’s a legal requirement that your vehicle is classified correctly. Check your camper meets the minimum requirements and then send your log book, photos of the conversion, a description of the work carried out and any receipts to the DVLA for amendment.

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