We truly love travels. That has always been the shining theme of our lives. Vehicles have changed over the years though. The biggest upgrade of our camper family travels yet is here. After 7 years of Europe exploration with a caravan trailer, we are buying something radically new — a van.
Empowering the Freedom Spirit
Our target was always to be as free as possible. Not to be a slave of our material possessions and be able to do whatever we like while being able to make money on the road as rubber tramps. We would like to spend the life so when we look back, we are happy about the memories. Yes, it has a price tag, as everything else has, but we have already got the investment back many times. So we are now enjoying the addiction.
There are many shapes & forms of vehicles to live in & to travel with as a digital nomad or with family. We have seen many already and it would be a long article to showcase them all. But there is one important factor that should be the number one question you ask yourself before buying any camper. That question is: What is the proper size?
Because size defines most other features, such as: layout, storage space, fuel consumption, comfort level, insurance price, ferry fees, overall agility, narrow roads & city centres availability and most importantly seating and sleeping spaces.
While beginners usually fear of how would they possibly fit into such a tight space, that they compare to a brick house, they tend to start with an oversize rig. Avid camper travellers on the other hand, search for and realise, that the best approach is get the smallest possible vehicle to cover your needs as the World is your garden and playground anyway.
The smallest possible Van for us four, would be a VW California (Westfalia, Vanagon) or similar, but that feels a little too small for reasonable work and life efficiency as my friends experienced as Zebra na cestach in their T4. So we chose a little bigger camper van.
Main Reasons We Switched to a Van
- Quick start from home, we can park the Van next to our house
- Black colour, stealth paring would be easy at night in a city
- By removing the signature camping vinyls, it would look just as a van
- Way easier city parking with just 6 metres (20 feet) of length
- Smaller boondocking spots reachable, overall more agile car
- I would like to try sleep on farms (with France Passion card) or do wwoofing (helping on farms for free)
- The van we chose allows me to work at the table, while kids are sleeping
- Its all brand new and might last long
A Perfect Camper is a Myth
As you might know know, it’s always about priorities and a compromises. We experiment and share our experience here to help you think twice. And we hope you will be happy in your camper in the end. You don’t need to choose the difficult way as we did with our rigs.
Having a car+caravan setup made us 12 metres (40 feet) long and it clearly stated that we are outside turists to anyone looking or choosing a target to break into. But we had the comfort of a lot of payload availability and we could leave the caravan in a campsite and travel with just a car, but as we boondock more, we don’t disconnect the trailer as much. With a roof top tent that we tried last year instead of a trailer, it was the other extreme — small & agile, but the level of comfort and feeling of security over night was low — read further to get all the experiences we had.
So we chose a compromise. Big enough to offer a good nights sleep for two adults and two kids, small enough to fit in a passenger car parking lot and dark enough to disappear during the night in the city or at the beach, when we stealth camp.
Why to Change the Caravan to a Van
In a nutshell, we wanted to reach further and have more freedom. We were searching for a vehicle that would keep mine and Renata’s business running, while we could travel to more narrow places and we can visit clients quick, as needed. In quite some time, I would label this a more impulse purchase of sorts. Compared to the budget used caravans we had previously.
After a successful business results for recent years and my target to reach international clients in webdesign via my business website, it was also a reasonable reinvestment back into the business that would certainly pay dividends. Just imagine — I can now meet a client anywhere in Europe and work there with them closely for weeks or months. No matter the location.
Caravan — Still the Best Option for Babies & Their Parents
- Trailer & campsite parking is safer for kids under 5 years
- Way cheaper to buy and maintain than a Camper or Van
- Filling up and emptying water is easy in a Campsite, no need to move around
- You get dedicated travel and living spaces and plenty of payload
- Con: Some paid Camper spots doesn’t allow trailers to enter
- Con: Stealth camping is harder with Caravan
- Con: With a heavy camper you need to upgrade driver’s license and have a solid car to tow
What happened to the Roof Top Tent
In 2017 & 2018, I was thinking that we can downsize radically. I joggled with an idea of buying a rooftop tent for our Toyota Hilux and it turned out great. But. Unfortunatelly, for other use case, than ours.
We travel long term — several months a year — and so we need a reliable place to live in when it’s raining, when kids are sick or when parents need to work efficiently for several hours a day. And while the Hilux with a tent on the roof was turning heads greatly, and it was absolutely cool, it was also clear that the setup doesn’t work for a computer geek & a city boondocker family. If we were more outdoorsy and less addicted to our professions, tent would be great choice.
What we found out, during this tent failure, was that we like cities with their coffees and restaurants, we love being on the beach and just hang out together with kids. And so we sold the tent and we’re exploring a new path — a #vanlife path.
Why #Vanlife is Better than Overlanding for Us
- I can’t force myself to be as outdoorsy as overlanding requires
- I choose city over forrest
- Asphalt roads offer more comfort for rubber tramps 😉
- I don’t need 4×4 in most European places, and agility is similar with a van
- It would be great if Toyota made vans
- Heating & cooking is difficult with outdoor kitchen and just a tent
- Having sick kids & working comfort is easier in a Van (or Caravan)
Not a DIY van for Vanlife? Whaaat?
Instagram & Pinterest is full of vanlifers getting a new or used van and rebuilding it to be liveable and to have a spiritual place to live in. And in some cases it’s also a money thing too. While I admire everybody who took that path, I also know that my strength is webdesign and therefor I’d better make money that way and then pay for a solid van, than building something that might often break or not be as well made — which would make our family life missearable and travels unsustainable. Even that I perceive myself as a hippie compatible. The reliability factor is a huge one for me.
Dan, from Mali.Mish family, who did their DIY van, in about 40 days, on a Sprinter basis told me that many travellers who started with a van or a trailer didn’t make it over 2 years. They just loved the idea, but probably didn’t have the persistence to overcome all the known downsides. So while a nice looking wooden van interior might feel great, the sustainability is at risk. We chose one of the biggest recreational vehicle makers in Europe and we hope that they made the homework for us.
Why Not a Do It Yourself (DIY) Van Conversion
- I fear about reliability, I had some unreliable cars previously and it ruins your life greatly
- I am faster at my work when things work as they should
- All required features are on compact footprint and have multiple uses — instantly
- Some clever german guys and ladies spent months thinking it out
- Van of the shelf might keep value easier than a imperfect custom made rig
Van Options Offered in Europe
From my experience, americans are more into custom rigs, vans and cars overall. They don’t fear to cut holes and modify things. Europe is conservative. We like original shapes and forms the most. Modifications for us, mean risk. So if we are looking for a new vehicle, these are the common options:
- Buy new or used camper van (made by a reputable producer)
- Take it from a dealer or current owner
- European platforms used by camper travellers: Fiat (80%), Sprinter (8%), Citroen (5%), Peugeot (4%) or Crafter (3%) — that is my qualified guess
- Two main variants of a van — Extended fibreglass roof & alcove (fixed sleeping above driver’s seat) vs Standard metal van with height H2 (wide offer on the market) or H3 (limited offer as it’s too high for most uses)
Choosing the Best Family Camper
What were my requirements was — being able to work all day all night if required, have sleeping space for 4 people while still being able to work, smallest possible van to go anywhere, not sticking out visually (stealth), solid sleeping comfort with quality mattress, reliable engine type ideally without AdBlue (some Euro 6 engines).
Benefits of a Van
- Shorter Weekend Trips hopefully Easier: with the tent it was not working
- Packing and prepping more simple
- We have everything in one car
- Heating and cooking simple in any weather
- Sick kids are no a problem
- We don’t need a garage for bikes, but we do have a stand-up paddle
- Option to move overseas sometime later
- Classic ‘off-the-shelf’ van is made in big series, easy to sell
Downsides of a Van
- Limited space, compared to a caravan, it’s gonna be next level minimalism
- Way less payload — about 590 kg, compared to 700+400 kg in car & caravan
- Expensive insurance (several times) and maintenance (oil changes, wipers)
- Price point — about 5 times more expensive than our second caravan
- More great downsides, in a nice article on OverlandBound: Why #vanlife sucks
The Options: 3 European Made Vans
After visiting a Caravan Expo and surfing the internet, these three types were in compliance with the requirements. None of them had the traditional two beds in the back (which I don’t like as you can’t use it as a playing space really) and were short enough to fit into most parking lots.
- Pössl Vario 545 — 5.4m long & 3.1m high
- Globe Traveller Pathfinder X — 6.3m long & 3.0m high
- Weinsberg CaraBus 601 DQ — 6.0m long & 2.8m high
- Knaus Box Star Solution 600 (same as Weinsberg, better equipped)
There are also many custom shops such as Tanja Vans, KRS and Eastwander, but that brings in similar risks as with DIY. They (or you) need to have enough experience to make things right for the first time. Or enough patience to re-make things later.
Ordering a Van in Busy Market Conditions
Once me & my wife decided to get a van, we started acting. We’ve visited one Caravan Expo in close city, to see what is on the market, together with friend Tomas, his wife & kids. And it started to be a little challenging from this point on.
I have tried to negotiate a deal with the Czech local van conversion dealers. That went south except one nice guy, who offered a discount of €1.000 from the list price. So I contacted one other Czech dealer by two emails — nobody even replied. So I went international, which means Mobile.de & AutoScout24, both strong mostly in Germany. I have replied to some 5-10 offers of vans that I liked. And luckily, one replied. So I had two real offers to compare. All others were busy, as the demand was high in 2018.
The Dealer: Sun Mobil Cars, Germany
The one who replied was Alexander Widmann. A young and helpful sales rep from Sun Mobil Cars, Germany. As it turned out, they had an offer that was simply a great deal from the start. They order cars in bulk from Weinsberg and so I saved some €10.000 compared to second lowest offer of Globe Traveller Pathfinder X. And already got a perfectly equipped van that was ready to pickup — within weeks, instead of months. The only missing thing was Truma dual heater. This van only has gas powered heater and not the 230V electric heater. And there are no solar panels, which we need to add to the roof full of windows and vents, so it would only fit some 200Wp of solar power.
Our Choice: Weinsberg CaraBus 601 DQ
What a romantic name! Well, it’s a van made in Germany, so if you translate it to English, it would be something like Wine Lover’s Freedom Van with 601 reasons to be happy and manufactured in Diamond Quality 😉 Am I right?
Honestly, it was a great deal. The price was fair and it was a ready-made car on the lot with solid set of equipment already built in. So these were the main reasons to go for Weinsberg:
- German quality and reliability
- Ergonomics inside
- Easier to sell in Europe
- Ideally keeping it forever
- Awesome price
- Fiat the no.1 in basis for RVs
- Black for stealth & free heating
- It is an option for overseas travel, caravan & a towing car would be to expensive to move around the ocean by boat
- Short enough and lowest roof, from the 3 options we had discovered
- Ready within a month, instead of half a year if you get it built
Get Yourself Inspired by Van Conversions & Overland Families
This is our view. And it might not be your cup of tea — paradoxically, as you’ve almost reached the end of this crazy long article 😉 Anyway, here is a list of better and more experienced and empowered road travellers, that we follow and get our inspiration from when it comes to van conversions and similar vehicles.
- Mali.Mish — family of 5 in a Sprinter van
- A2A Expedition — Land Rover family of 5 circulating the globe
- Surfwise — movie about family of 11 in an RV
- Nomadic Fanatic — RV camper guy cruising USA
- Zebra na cestach — family of 4 in a VW Transporter
- Ivo Dolezal — family of 4 in and RV for a year around Europe
- Naruby Life — family of 4 in an RV in Europe
- Usandthebigbus — a NZ family that we’ve met in our family’s winery camping spot in Czech republic
- Living 4 Wheel — couple travelling around europe in Volkswagen T3 called The Box
- White van star — young couple travelling in white Mercedes Marco Polo
- Combi Life — well known couple travelling the World in Volkswagen T2
- Nomadem.cz — Marketer & Illustrator, managing large Facebook nomad & van conversion community and a YouTube channel
- Eagles na cestach — young couple in DIY Mercedes Vito travelling Europe
- Vandog Traveller — Guy who quit a job in 2013 to convert a van into a home to travel Europe
- 4x Overland — The biggest 4×4 (AWD) & Overland oriented video production managed by a veteran in the area: Andrew St Pierre White
- A girl and a Commander — a happy young lady in a little old camper
- Mala cestovatelka — Klara made her own Sprinter Van conversion and travels Europe
The Brief History of our Travels
We are a family of four. We travel part of each year, mostly spring & fall to various European locations. I work as a freelance webdesigner & I do advanced User Interface design for clients all around the world. Renata, my wife, is a virtual assistant, she’s also mostly the teacher of our two kids and she cares about us greatly when I work or drive.
- We had our first caravan for 4 years, and second for 3 years
- First caravan trip in 2012 was to Croatia — our 2nd baby was just 4 months old
- We have visited all of south Europe from Morocco (Africa) to Turkey (Asia)
- All 8 bigger trips combined would be 59.000 km long (as of Jan 2019)
- And total of 550+ days on the road living, learning & working (as of Jan 2019)
- I have seen tens of magazine articles, TV, YouTube, Podcasts & several talks (simply too many)
- Many friends & families got inspired to do the same, many inspired us to reach further
We are greatly thankful for all the adventures. And we have created a huge set of memories that make us happier in life. They empower us and our kids for the future. And we hope we help you make your life more fun as well. That’s the main purpose of all our articles. We’d love to meet you on the road one day!