This August, we bought a 2001 Mercedes Sprinter which we want to convert in a functional camper van. It’s something we’ve been talking about for a couple of months and although we’re not that much into living full time in a van, we’re quite thrilled with the idea of a camping van holiday.
We took the car for a driving test the second day after we bought it. We drove it for about 1300 KM from Bucharest to Caras-Severin and Semenic mountains, where we spent one-week camping in the woods. Since we took it for a spin that soon after we bought it, we just didn’t have time to clean it properly… and it was soooooo dirty on the inside we just couldn’t imagine ourselves sleeping in it.
After we returned from our trip to Semenic mountains, we scrubbed the interior of the car until we discovered its real color. It wasn’t an easy task, but at least at the end of that day, we eventually got the courage to imagine ourselves sleeping in it. And that meant we were ready for our first camping van trip, which we planned for September.
Long story short, for my birthday this year, we went on a 5-day snorkeling trip on the beautiful island of Thassos, in Greece.
We explored about 2 beaches per day, traveling and sleeping in our camping van, spending the night in parking spots near them or in close-by cities. We had all the room we needed for our snorkeling equipment, luggage, food, inflatable mattress, a USB cooler and well, all of the crap I usually take whenever I have enough space. You know, useful things like watercolor aquarelle paints and a drawing block. But that’s a story for another time.
Before I go on with the 6 things we learned during our first van holiday, let me tell you a little bit about the van.
Originally, the van was fitted to work as an ambulance and was used during motorsport races. However, the person we bought this van from, used it to transport goods for his grocery store, and the interior walls were scratched and spotted. Behind the driver’s and the passenger’s seats he built a sort-of a bed, on a metallic frame. Because of regulations, there is also a separating wall between the driving area and the actual goods area.
What works and what doesn’t:
- The AC was (and still is) broken
- There is a cassette player instead of a CD or USB player, but at least the audio quality is really good
- The seats are really comfortable, although the upholstery needs a bit of work
- The indoor lights are really cool and work really nice
- The windows are covered with wood plates and the previous owner did a really good job sealing the interior, so it’s cool in there when it’s hot outside
- The indoor handles in the back of the car are really faulty and need to be secured
- There are no shelves, no storage spaces
- There is a lot of rust we need to get rid off and we recently discovered that on heavy rain, water can infiltrate in back of the car
- We still haven’t figured the mileage meter on the car dashboard, we believe it’s broken. It’s in KM, but the speed it displays is about 30KM slower than our actual speed.
- On the other hand, the engine, tires and all that jazz works really nice.
There’s a lot of work we need to put into this van, but the plan is to give it a decent transformation and then sell it. We plan to do it by the end of next year, so fingers crossed.
Now, that we got that out of the way, here’s what we learned from our first camping van holiday.
1. Making tight turns in a van is anything BUT easy.
Our day-to-day car is a tiny one. Even when we rent a car, we choose the tiniest one available. Making the switch to a van is not exactly seamless and when you’re squeezing on the tight roads of Thassos, suddenly turning your car becomes an actual challenge. We’re lucky Catalin is an awesome driver and we managed to make really tight turns in impossible places.
I put this at the top of my list because it’s something we have completely forgotten about when we arrived on the island. Blown away by the thrill of being there, the first night we followed Google Maps to a secluded beach near Chrisi Ammoudia. Looking at the satellite image, it seemed like we had enough space to park and turn, however when we got to the end of the road, instead of a large parking spot, we found ourselves in the someone's driveway. We turned the van mm by mm, in a steep slope, at night, carefully maneuvering the driving wheel to avoid the man’s trees, boat and the ravine on one end. It was the slowest turn ever!
Needless to say we learned our lesson and the next time we entered a dirt road, we first scouted by foot to make sure it’s spacious enough for the van and a turn.
2. Always secure your stuff when you go on the road
Obviously, this is a no-brainer.
However, in our excitement, we forgot about it completely. We initially wanted to buy storage boxes to keep our stuff in, but that didn’t happen. Ideally, we would have had some elastic bands or nets to keep things in place. Eventually, we worked something out by creating a puzzle from our luggage. I know, not safe, not practical, but hey, it did the job.
3. Don’t overpack
All year-round, whenever we went on a holiday, we had to pack really light. For example, in June, we went on a one-week camping tour in the Peloponnese region of Greece and we flew from Bucharest to Athens with only one check-in luggage in which we packed our tent, 2 sleeping bags, one blanket and a snorkeling mask. All our clothes (and shoes) were packed in our hand luggage.
Now that we had so much space on our hand, it was really easy to go crazy with our luggage. I think we took 3 trips from our apartment to the car just to carry all the luggage before we left. We overdid it with too many clothes, cooking supplies, food, a foldable table, two chairs, a lot of water bottles, two laptops, two cameras, books and the list can go on for a little bit more. You can also add to the list our snorkeling equipment, towels, beach umbrella, sun tent, neoprene suits, three pairs of shoes each… Oh, and in the back of the car, we had our inflatable mattress, two pillows and a cooler. Oh boy, it was crazy.
All that was missing was our cat, Bro. I’m joking.
4. Always keep a broom close-by
If you’ve ever been to a beach, and my guess is that you have, you know how sand gets into every little spot. You might try to take your shoes off before you go in your car, but somehow it will still make its way in there and drive you crazy.
We learned this the hard way and by the end of day 2 there was sand everywhere and we didn’t have a broom. However, we did keep our cleaning supplies in the car and instead of a broom we had a brush. We used that to clean up after every beach session and not only. Dust, pine needles, and leaves will make their way into the van without notice, especially when you’re exploring nature.
5. Think of a system to air-dry neoprene suits & towels
Another obvious one, but yet, one more thing that we missed when planning our campervan trip. After our snorkeling sessions, we had a bunch of wet things that needed to be hung out to dry. Our towels, swimsuits, neoprene costumes and sometimes, even clothes. On hindsight, a rope would have been really useful to have with us, but instead, we used what we had available: the handles in the back of the car and the metallic frame behind the driver’s and the passenger’s seats.
6. Finding parking spots in cities can be a challenge
Fortunately for us, we visited Thassos in the middle of September and the island wasn’t so busy. However, finding a parking spot for our van near the city center wasn’t exactly easy. The streets are narrow, crowded with tourists and local people, the parking spots are few and meant for tiny cars, so you have to be really creative with finding a good parking spot. Oh and trust me, nobody will be happy with a noisy van in the middle of a tight street, trying to squeeze through.
Google Maps was our friend. We looked for spaces right outside the city center and were quite lucky to find really nice spots. In Thassos, we found a great spot, only 5 minutes away from the center. In Limenaria, we parked on top of the hill, near Palataki, just 5 minutes from the seafront. And if you’re ever in trouble and can’t find anything, a good place to look for a parking spot is in the marina.
I’m sure this is just the beginning of what this camper van thing is going to teach us. The hard part is about to come. The best is yet to come. And it's so exciting. We’re going to start working on this van’s transformation by the end of this year and it’s going to be a thrilling experience! Stay tuned, we’ll be sharing updates soon.