A typical free stopover and a little about how campervans work

Just in case anyone is interested and doesn’t know already, this is what a typical facilities are like at a freebie stopover.  In the UK it’s hard to understand that anything would be freely given, but in Europe this is very common. Of course, there are lots of stopovers which are not free and we are also staying on formal campsites too, but this is just an indication.

This stopover is in Castello de Paiva in Portugal and is on the corner of a very large market square.

The mechanics of the facilities are really straightforward, but we can still remember how daunting it seemed and how much complex stuff there was to remember when we hired our first campervan six or seven years ago.

The grating that you can see under the mothership is for grey water – this is the water from the sink, shower and washbasin.  There is a hundred litre holding tank and a big tap inside the mothership that dumps this water, so we just need to park over the grating and open the tap.

The metal drain cover with a sort of star shape in the top is for black water. That means the toilet cassette!  Our toilet is a Thetford unit – which is a really common brand. It has a removable tank that you can carry to the disposal point.  It holds about 20 litres. You add a chemical to the cassette each time you empty it and that helps to control the odour and to break down the contents a bit!  Sounds yeuchy but you soon get used to it! It’s best to use cheap brands of toilet paper in cassette toilets to make sure it breaks down easily.

The pillar on the left of the picture contains two taps – one is for fresh water and has a screw fitting.  We have a hundred litre tank on board and a hose dedicated for drinking water to fill up. Across Europe there are a couple of different sizes so we have some brass adapters which convert the different screw threads to a hozelock connector.  

On the other side of the pillar is a press tap for rinsing the toilet cassette. This separation is important and the tap for rinsing does not have a connector so in theory no mistakes can be made.  In practice when we are filling the fresh tank, we wipe the tap down first and we flush the first few litres away to make sure we are getting fresh water.

We tend to travel with the freshwater tank full.  There are two schools of thought. Obviously this loses efficiency – its 100 Kilos, but we are often not on hookup and sometime (like in Porto) in locations where there are no facilities at all, so we prefer the efficiency cost and the peace of mind that we are self sufficient.

When we are off-grid, the limiting factor is the loo – 20 litres does not go very far 😉  We have an extra toilet cassette but we left it in the UK – we didn’t think we would need it for this trip.  We may need to revisit that decision!

To locate the stopovers, we have a few tools.  Often there are signs at the side of the road indicating a motorhome dropoff.  We have smartphone apps from a couple of suppliers and a big ‘Camperstop’ book.

Once we research a few days of places to go and things to see, the camperstop network is the next thing we check.

Here you can see the grey water grate, the black water drain cover and the fresh water and rinse water pillar on the left.

Vehicle Insurance

When we bought our first camper in 2015, we were really surprised that our most expensive vehicle ever was also the cheapest to insure. It was less than £200 with Staveley Head (https://www.staveleyhead.co.uk/personal-vehicle/motorhome-insurance). That’s fully comp for both of us to drive etc and even allowed for us to add another driver (thanks Richard!) when Toby broke his ankle. Fast forward to 2018 and the limitations of this policy became clear as we were trying to arrange insurance for the new beast and for our big adventure.

There are two things that are critical for long tours – unlimited foreign trips and unlimited mileage. Our Staveley Head policy had neither – a pretty strict mileage limit and limited days abroad per insurance year.

Julie and Jason (http://ourtour.co.uk/home/) had a blog post about insurance and we went to their company, Safeguard (https://www.safeguarduk.co.uk/motorhome-insurance/). Safeguard have been great although we should say that the cover is really expensive (over £800) and they are also very funny about any form of communication via email – even the simplest query will get a terse “please call us to discuss this” even for a yes no question. But on the phone they are really helpful. Perhaps thay are not quite up to speed on the internet age yet!

The insurance ‘ace card’ is keeping the house – this is a grey gap not a permanent lifestyle change – and it seems that this is the key difference between being ‘on tour’ and ‘living in the van’. We were clear with the new insurance company that this would be a one year tour with possible trips home, but that we would be maintaining a UK address. No problem they said. We recorded the phone call in case there are any difficulties later!

The insurance comes with Europe wide breakdown cover including accommodation, relay and repatriation, which was an expensive bolt-on from the RAC. They also cover the genny (if we end up needing to buy one to help over the winter) and have a new for old clause (but this only applies for 15000 miles). So that £800 whopper for the insurance offsets the £300 RAC membership by quite a chunk.

We’ve had no issues with Staveley Head and guess we’ll be back with them once we don’t need the extra European cover features. 

Travel insurance has been another kettle of fish now we are 50, but we’ll leave that subject for another day!

Where are you going?

We are limiting ourselves to Europe. It is of course possible to travel overland much further and see many more sights and wonders, but there are various difficulties to overcome and the further East you drive, the more complex those issues become.

Harmonization of laws and regulations across Europe means that we can almost think of it as one country and that’s just one less thing to worry about! If we need to we can work without needing to get permits. Our driving licenses and insurance cover us Europe wide and with only a few exceptions, we only have one currency conversion rate to worry about. 

Outside Europe, the security situation gets a little tricky as you travel East. Many countries outside Europe will require a ‘carnet’ which is like a vehicle passport. As an example, if you drive overland into India, you need a Carnet which will cost a few hundred quid, but also you need to put into bond cash equivalent to four times the vehicle value! You get the bond back when you leave with the vehicle, but if the vehicle gets stolen while in India, you lose the cash. This would be bad for a £100K motorhome with a £400K bond. So then you need carnet and bond insurance. It all gets smelly – that’s the point.

So, for now, for this trip it’s Europe only. There is a lifetime of amazing things to see without travelling too far from home! We may still hop across the strait of Gibraltar or stray into Turkey, we’ll see!

We also think it’s a form of poetic justice that we plan to be away from the UK when the brexit actually happens, although brexit may affect the trip – we’ll have to wait and see!

Fuel, LPG and the Gaslow system

Mothership II is currently doing about 21 to the gallon. That is down on Mothership I which managed 35 or more, but we have to allow for it being double the weight.

Another first for us a few days ago was our first ever LPG fill-up for the gaslow system – this is the permanently installed LPG gas bottle system that can legally be refilled by the user.

The great big hiss disconnecting from the pump made us jump even though we knew it would happen! 39 litres for £24. At the local Calor dealers, it’s £22 for a 6KG (11.7 litres) and that’s already cheaper than camping supply stores, so you can really see the saving – about a quarter the price.

But the big benefit for European travel is the hassle saving. Although there is now a European standard for regulator pressure, there are still national gas bottle providers in each country so it’s not practical to have lots of different canisters. Campingaz is a solution and the canisters are pretty common all across Europe, but it’s expensive and the largest size is just 3KG.

For refillable systems, there are still differences across Europe but it reduces to just three different filling connectors (plus the UK) so it can be achieved with a bag of 3 brass adaptors which screw into the UK system. So our only constraint is LPG filling stations. We’ll probably carry a small LPG generator too so the LPG supply will also double up as our emergency power supply if the sun fails to shine! LPG filling stations are pretty common all across mainland Europe, but tend to get harder to find on islands, so the fix is to attach a locally sourced pigtail and just use whatever propane source is hand such as the Campingaz bottles noted above.

We’ve tended to be pretty frugal on propane in the past, and have only got through two or three 6KG bottles in a year. That works out to about 15 bottles over 12K miles. With the new system being double the capacity and filling both bottles at once, that works out to about four refills over 10,000 miles for the same usage profile. Our power budget estimates that the fridge will run for around 50 days on the full gaslow system and that’s by far the biggest gas user. We still have a couple of tricks up our sleeve to reduce that further, but it does depend on getting the solar panels working efficiently!

Dog Tags

Once you hit 50, even with a set-off checklist, stuff will still get forgotten. Trust us!

Driving with the LPG on is irresponsible, driving with the corner steadies down will plough fields and also cause sparks like an F1 car (cool!) and trying to move off over the top of your chocks just makes everyone laugh at you, so we made these dog tags to attach to the steering wheel to remind us of the most important stuff to fix before driving off.

Which dog tags do you think would be the most important for your van? Do you like these? We can make them for about £5 each. They are double sided with the warning text one side and an icon on the other and they are on a wrist sized mini lanyard. Most people already have a system like this we think!

Selina and Toby are proud parents again!

10,000 pounds with deep baby blue eyes. Well, orange daylight running lights actually. Born after 6 months labour. German labour. So we have the new beast, Mothership II has landed! A long day made up of train, tube and bus journey to the dealer near Colchester and a 100 mile trek round the good old M25, and she is home. We have spent the weekend tracing cables, pressing random buttons and even reading the manuals. She’s swallowed everything from MS1 and we have plenty of space left. So we’ve been doing the thousand tedious things to learn the new camper.

We are working through a couple of issues – the solar system is not really performing right, so some diagnostics over the next few days and there are a couple of odd setup issues to iron out in other systems, but we are working them through.

A big ticket item is whether we can run the laptop off-grid long term without buying a genny. So we have started making an energy budget to try and predict how long we can go without gas fill-ups and battery recharges. We specced the solar system based on the laptop so we’ll try to factor the solar power into the energy budget.

Mothership I has also gone to be mended, and then we can try and sell it – then that should be it. Pretty much the last thing tieing us to blighty sorted! Oh and the last few music festivals!

Mothership II

Mothership II or ‘Eff Off’ as Selina has christened her (EF18OVV so it does make some sense) is a Dethleffs Alpa. The Alpa is a cracking layout that has a large garage, but still has a rear lounge. It has a big bathroom and twin fixed beds over the cab. It’s a tall beast with a double floor – meaning plenty of storage, good insulation and plenty of carrying capacity. The compromise is no dinette, but we worked out that in three years we only used the old one for additional food prep.

There are three alpas in the range – ours is the ‘baby’ alpa. It’s a lot more cost effective then the next model up and we have used the savings to have various upgrades fitted based on advice from other alpa owners.

The Alpa is meant as a couples luxury tourer and has only two belted seats as standard, but we think that’s a little selfish, so ours has two extra ‘jump seats’ fitted in the rear lounge. This costs some under seat storage but means that we can move family and friends when we need to!

This is one advantage of buying new – extra seat belts can’t be fitted as an aftermarket option due to safety reasons, so they have to be ordered from new.

We have seen ‘baby’ Alpas both new and used and have never yet seen the jump seats fitted, so we knew that we would be buying new to get the layout we wanted.

In terms of spec, she has twin leisure batteries and twin solar panels. Dethleffs have an inverter option as part of the enhanced electrical package, but it was £4K so we couldn’t justify that.

We have the Gaslow twin refillable system fitted so we should be good for cheap LPG on the trip.

There are a few bits and pieces like air suspension, awning, tow bar, external gas point etc, but we’ll go into that another time!

Mothership is (unexpectedly) an Automatic. Neither of us like autos and we ordered a manual, but having taken her for a spin, we think it will be fine. The automatic box fitted to the Alpa is an Iveco unit and it’s actually a manual box with a added servo shift mechanism and clutch rather than a viscous coupling. More on the Mothership soon. Hopefully less than two weeks to go before we pick her up!