The Essential Guide to your Camper Van Vacation

May 22, 2020

Man relaxing inside camper van

Whether you love it or loath it, the #vanlife trend has been spreading like wildfire over the last few years, with over 7 million hashtags on Instagram and counting. While it's true that some folks have made a viable, happy life living out of a van, it's easy to see how this over-romanticized dreamworld has made just as many people second guess the reality of doing this full time. Just ask Carrie and Fred. The great news is that you don't have ditch indoor plumbing and 90% of your belongings to get a taste of this minimalist life, even if it's just for a week at a time.

Camper van trips are a stellar way to keep your vacation on the go while saving money on nightly accommodations. Many come with a small kitchenette so you can get off the grid without sacrificing a warm meal. Just plain bored of the same old same old? There's nothing more freeing than getting in the car and driving at a moment's whim.

Have we piqued your interest? Wanna learn more? We're breaking down the essentials of camper van vacations to help you decide when, how, where, and everything else in between.

 

When to go

Green old school vw camper van

Summer often coincides with the high season for most camper van companies. It's a popular time of year for obvious reasons, but consider the shoulder and off-peak seasons instead, and you'll still get a great experience that's a bit easier on your wallet:

  • Rental rates are almost always cheaper in the off-peak season. Most companies offer seasonal prices where shoulder and off-peak months are anywhere from 10-30% less than high season rates
  • Campsites are less crowded. Some sites request an advance booking, but they're usually fine with same-day reservations in the off-peak months. This means your itinerary is a lot more flexible and you can choose your campsite based on whatever location you want, not the one you booked that's still 4 hours away
  • You can enjoy decent weather without the crowds. Shoulder season travelers can maximize the warmer temperatures without battling the tourist crowds that often overwhelm popular destinations

 

A little advice for every kind of traveler

Girl standing in front of old school yellow camper van

The Fundamental Planner

Before you go, you might spend some quality time planning your route and any specific sights and activities along the way, and by all means, do that! But a word to the wise, you probably won't see everything on your list. Moving from one place to another isn't as easy as just hopping in a car and following Google Maps. Consider packing and unpacking times, getting lost, or stumbling upon something awesome that wasn't originally planned. Just go with the flow stop worrying about that one place you read about in someone else's blog. 

The SUPER Planner

This is for all you type-A's who always have a plan-B. Kudos. Your preparation means you won't likely experience a meaningless gap in your schedule because Mama's Taco Shack decided to move their food truck. That said, leave some room for spontaneity. Or at least forgo your plan when something tempting comes along. Just because you haven't pre-screened a place for ratings and reviews, doesn't mean it won't be a stellar spend of your time. 

The No-Plan Planner

Thank the travel gods for all you free-wheeling, laissez-faire folks who are just content to go where the wind blows. There's nothing more satisfying than discovering the perfect little hole in the wall bar or secluded sea cliff with unobstructed sunset views. Your exploratory attitude will get you far, but there are a few essentials you should keep handy on your GPS, like gas stations and potential campsites for the area when the late afternoon rolls in.

Regardless of which Planner you are, don't be fooled by the time estimates on Google Maps when driving from one place to another. Some older vintage van models have a maximum speed limit that is far below the legal highway limit, which means you have to take a lot of backroads instead. That might sound inconvenient, but you'll get to see all the small towns and scenic routes you would normally skip. So allow yourself the extra time to slow down and enjoy the ride. A camper van vacation is road tripping at its finest. 

 

Where to set up camp for the night

Old school camper van in a field

Local laws will vary from place to place on where you can park and camp, so be sure to research your options in advance. Most van rental companies are more than happy to share recommendations for campsites or free camping areas that won't have a uniformed officer tapping on your windshield at 3 am.

Regardless of where you plan to camp, have a list of backup options throughout your route. The reception desks at some sites aren't 24 hours, so if you get lost, delayed, or take an unexpected detour, you might have to find another alternative on the fly before the campsite gates close in the evening.

 

What to bring

Camper van interior

Above: Pura Vida Campers of Portugal

A good rule of thumb is to pack smart, but pack light. Most camper vans have tried to optimize storage spaces so you can tuck your things away, but if you're sleeping inside your van, as opposed to pitching a tent outside, you'll cramp up what little space you have when it's time to set up your bed, cook or just hang out. And unless you're a seasoned camper, cramming everything into a backpack can be challenging but certainly not impossible. 

A few tips for packing light:

  • Choose a medium-sized backpack that is compact and easy to move around with. Picking your bag first and what to bring second will force you to stay within the smaller size limit
  • Pack versatile clothing items that you can mix and match easily and opt for medium to dark colors that are more visibly stain resistant  
  • Don't pack your entire bathroom. Instead, embrace your curly hair and scruffy beard. If you're flying to your camper van pick up destination, skip the toiletries altogether to lighten your bag weight and buy locally once you land
  • Share the essentials. If you're sleeping in the back of a van with someone else, chances are, they won't mind sharing the toothpaste
  • Re-think your shoe choices. They're bulky and hoard tons of space in your bag. If you're bringing boots, wear them while you travel
  • Be realistic and skip your "what if" choices. If you've never done yoga but think you might be inspired to start your practice on that beautiful seaside cliff overlooking the ocean, just wear your shorts

    Once you've removed all the non-essential stuff, you can prioritize things like backup batteries for your camera, collapsable water bottles, first aid, and basic medicines. You don't want to interrupt your trip looking for a pharmacy because you felt adventurous and ate some questionable looking shellfish. 

    When you book your van, look into the additional accessory options available for rent instead of hauling extra things with you from home. Most places offer bed linens, towels, kitchen and dining essentials, tents, folding chairs, sports equipment, and even portable toilets. Don't go crazy, but choose things that will genuinely make your trip more enjoyable. 

     

    Where to go

    Since recreational and full-time camper van-ers started trending, an increasing amount of rental companies have popped up all over the world. Your ultimate destination will depend largely on what kind of activities you are interested in, your budget, and how rugged you're willing to go. Here are just a few ideas to get you inspired:

     

    The French Riviera

    69 Campers Van Life

    Above: 69 Campers of Southern France

    Famous destinations like Saint Tropez, Cannes, and Nice are all within drivable distances of each other, but bigger cities are harder to navigate in terms of traffic, parking, and where to spend the night. Off the beaten trail destinations offer a much more authentic experience of the French coast and countryside, with tons of campsite options that provide various amenities like electrical hookups, showers, pools, and small restaurants. Spend the day at the beach in Cassis, Toulon, or Antibe, explore the river canyons and mountains of Verdon Gorge or the quaint, historic towns of Saint Paul de Vence and Grasse. 

    Budget: $$$

    Rentals can run anywhere from €900 - 1,200 per week. Gas isn't cheap, especially if you're renting a vintage van that requires premium only fuel. If you're eating out and doing other activities, you can expect to pay on the higher side of most European destinations.

    Best for: 

    Foodies, hikers, beach lovers, and art & history buffs. Just because you're sleeping in the back of a van, doesn't mean you can't enjoy fine French culture.

    Recommended rental: 69 Campers

     

    Portugal

    Pura Vida Camper Van at the beach

    Above: Pura Vida Campers of Portugal

    Portugal's gorgeous west coast is a prime location for living that van life. Much of it is still totally untouched, so you can really detach from city life. With most companies operating in and around Lisbon, you can be setting up camp at your first destination hours after landing. Portugal has been a hot travel spot in recent years, and the well-established surf community leads the beach towns' general vibe. That means that many camper vans also offer surfboards rentals for anyone interested in getting in the water. Whether you're hitting the waves or not, keep Portugal on your shortlist.

    Budget: $$

    Rentals will run €700 -1,000 per week, especially in the high season, but the rest of your expenses in Portugal are substantially lower than many places in Europe, offsetting the total budget for this kind of trip.

    Best for:

    Surfers, free-spirited wanderers, and travelers who prefer a more chill, laid back experience. Ditch the itinerary and just drive.

    Recommended rental: Pura Vida Campers

     

    Iceland

    View of Iceland waterfall from camper van

    Fewer places in the world offer a higher concentration of untamed, dramatic landscapes than Iceland. From glaciers to active volcanoes to geothermal lagoons and stunning waterfalls, it's easy to see why this destination is a major draw for those interested in a more extreme camping experience. Due to the island's rugged and often-unforgiving nature, rentals are typically newer models with a lot more features that come standard, like 4-wheel drive and heaters. 

    Budget: $$$$

    Rentals are about €1,000 - 2,000 per week, and most companies offer a mix of hybrids, SUVs, and vans. Daily expenses in Iceland are also among the highest in Europe. Things like gas, groceries, eating out, and tickets to attractions and tours are much higher than your average city. But don't let that deter you; it's worth every penny, so start saving now.

    Best for:

    Extreme nature seekers, photography fiends, and those wanting to test their survivalist skills. Get ready to bombard your Instagram followers.

    Recommended rental: Go Campers

     

     

    Ready to get started? Already been on a camper van adventure? Hit us up with your questions, advice, tips, or recommendations in the comments below to share with your fellow travelers. 




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