With an established history of campervan ownership, Andy McCandish has bought, converted and ultimately driven them for more than 250,000 miles over the past 13 years. They’ve been his everyday vehicle and workhorse for travelling the country and now, with two children, they are firmly ingrained in family life. As his latest van is converted by local Glasgow firm Caledonian Campers, Andy shares some of the knowledge built up by himself (and them) over their 10 years and 100 campervan conversions on how to choose a base van.
Trying before buying
My first steps in campervan ownership were understandably tentative. Regardless of which way I looked at it, a lot of money was about to change hands in the wrong direction, so I had to be sure what I was about to get myself into. Was this ‘van thing really going to work for me full-time?
To that end, and to convince a non-camping wife that we would definitely get good use out of this expenditure, we hired a ‘van from a local camper company – a high-top Ford Transit – and headed for the hills. The rear was packed with hillwalking gear and our heads full of the possibilities of being at large in our own roving accommodation for the first time.
An autumnal west coast of Scotland played host to our week away, and it was an unforgettably enjoyable tie. We drank wine overlooking sunset-warmed beaches, our bed only a lever-flip away. and trekked the hills to come back to a full dinner and warm space in remote car parks. For me, used to duelling it out with the midges in a two-person tent, this was decadence on a whole new level.. I even looked forward to the rain on a few occasions, including waking up to a condensation-smudged beach view and dry – dry! – indoor coffee.
Inevitably, not only did we enjoy the experience, it also sowed a seed that would see me buying a base van within months and beginning a process of lavishly coating my sleeves in silicon, tar-and-feathering myself with carpet-glued insulation scraps and getting blasé about drilling holes in a vehicle I had only had for a short time.
Choosing a base vehicle
That initial hire trip was incredibly important in so many ways for my subsequent campervan conversion journey. The most decisive factor was the influence on our choice of base vehicle, and the type of conversion we ultimately wanted.
The Transit we hired was a short-wheelbase, so we could park where we liked in those beautiful Scottish coastal towns, parallel parking in centres and not needing to be concerned about hanging our tail into the thoroughfare at supermarkets.
We could see that longer-wheelbase vehicles were not so fortunate, having to park outside town and walk in, or only getting into car parks if there were two spare in front of each other.
So although a longer Transit or Transporter – or an even larger Mercedes Sprinter or VW Crafter – appealed for living space, it was never going to fit with our needs. It would have been sitting on the driveway for more than 300 days a year.
List your priorities
I was looking for something to replace my car, so it would, in effect, become a daily drive used for work. ‘Nimble and compact’ were high on the list of desirable traits. With work often taking me away for days on end and in need of convenient accommodation, a smaller ‘van seemed the perfect combination of living space and practicality.
Our hire trip proved that not only could we survive in a short-wheelbase, more compact ‘van, we could also very much enjoy it., too. It left us with firm preferences for the conversion itself: cupboard space, folding-table mechanisms, sink layout and more were noted and critiqued and the bed style and lighting rated for our project.
It was also clear from the outset that although a high-top is undeniably a luxury, it was off the cards in an everyday runabout. I needed to be able to slip into height-restricted car parks and keep my miles per gallon figures somewhere above that of a North Sea ferry.
We found that Isla Bisset, director of Caledonian Campers, knows all this well and has long made its VW Transporter conversions available as a ‘try before you buy’ option. Come in, borrow a vehicle for a few days (with a security deposit) and use the experience to help witth your decision-making.
When asked how people react to the test drives, I was surprised by her reply. “people generally return, sometimes after only half an hour and just hand their bank card over. ‘Just give me one of those,’ is usually their response when they come back. The drive validates a decision they have probably already made.”
That is great, and it’s likely all they wanted to confirm was how manageable the ‘van would be. Half an hour through town would convince anyone these ‘vans are a doddle, and, to many, that would be enough to take the leap. But don’t forget it is also a great opportunity to stop and at least go through the motions of living in a ‘van – especially if the campervan life is new to you.
Living in a campervan
Set it up for making dinner or even just a cuppa; turn the front seats and check out the space you have. Does it make sense to you? Imagine where you would put your usual volume of luggage – is there enough cupboard space? You don’t want to be knee-deep in holdalls when you stop to brew up or change for a walk. Then fold out the bed, have a lie down and see how it feels. This might seem a bit odd in your local superstore car park, but hopefully the windows are tinted!
Now imagine it all again when you’re returning to the camper sopping wet and chilly – where would you dry gear? Or the dog?
The test drive is also a chance to assess the work of the conversion company, so make sure you poke into all the corners, and check the materials and fit of the cabinetwork . Switch on the lights, open the fridge and try the stove.
My first camper was on a short-wheelbase VW Transporter, which I converted myself, with a converter fitting the roof and windows – it takes a confident man to take a grinder to his brand new van – and after that, I was hooked.
This time around, with less time to invest in the project, I bought another VW Transporter panel van and handed it over to Caledonian Campers to deal with the whole gluey, grindery bit – but that’s a story for Part Two!
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Our hire trip proved that not only could we survive in a short-wheelbase, more compact 'van, we could also very much enjoy it., too