Anyone who is a campervan owner will be aware of the joys of ‘van life, as we experienced when we woke one sunny morning on Inch Beach, on the west coast of Ireland. We slid back the curtains and marvelled at the sun shimmering on the waves, just metres away from our ‘van.

The best campervans offer the freedom to explore and take in beautiful landscapes whenever we choose, as we were finding out. No hotel room could have offered us this view, nor the feeling of being at one with the environment. We were smitten. My wife and I had always wanted a camper and that moment cemented our full commitment to camper ownership forever.

I’ve now owned a camper for over 15 years, and in that time, I’ve experienced models based on some of the best vans for converting to a camper. Here, I’m taking a look back at the models I’ve owned.

Volkswagen T5

Our entry point into the ‘van market, some 15 years ago, was the ubiquitous small VW camper van – the VW T5. A lot has changed in the past 15 years, but back then, there were very few small companies converting vans.

We found one such firm in its infancy and they sourced a low-mileage van for us. With our teenage youngest son still at home, we needed a second vehicle that my wife could drive, so we plumped for the standard rear seat, rock and roll bed, side kitchen and pop-up roof set-up, a classic as campervan layouts go.

The Volkswagen T5
The Volkswagen T5

Unfortunately for him, our son would have to travel with us. With this very much in mind, the van was resprayed in Mercedes black and fitted with Lamborghini wheels, making it cool enough for him to be seen in!

We loved the ’van – it was ideal for short trips and before long, we were planning a longer journey, to Scandinavia.

We really enjoyed exploring Sweden and Denmark, but the bed was becoming a bit of an issue. Rather inconveniently, my wife and I had to get up at the same time and fold the bed away before being able to wash and dress. (Youngest son was undisturbed, in the excellent Khyam awning.)

The Volkswagen T5
The Volkswagen T5

The turning point came one morning, in Norway, when I woke up in agony. The rock and roll bed had finally done my back in. We loved the van life, but I couldn’t go on like this. I had to have a fixed bed.

Trigano Tribute

Our next purchase was a Trigano Tribute, based on a long-wheelbase, high-top Fiat Ducato and factory-built in Italy. It had a host of luxury features, including hot water, diesel heating, fitted window blinds (even in the cab area), a toilet, a washroom and most importantly, a transverse fixed bed.

I really didn’t think it could get better than this. The ’van was small enough to navigate country lanes. It was also supremely comfortable, had a six-speed gearbox and would cruise easily at motorway speeds.

We made two trips to Spain in the Tribute – one to the Picos de Europa, which, for our money, has the cleanest campsites in Spain, and the other to El Cid country, inland from Valencia.

The Trigano Tribute
The Trigano Tribute

The highlights of that trip included speeding along the amazingly smooth EU-funded new roads in the Maestrazgo National Park, with vultures hovering above, and visiting the wonderful city of Morella, with its castle, medieval walls and picturesque streets.

One of the best campsites we’ve ever stayed at was Camping La Fresneda. Owned by a Dutch couple, it offers 24 spacious pitches (all with electricity) to welcome guests who are looking for an idyllic place to enjoy peace and tranquility.

It was only the need to release funds for a building project that forced the eventual sale of the Trigano Tribute.

We were sad to see it go, but this did push us into thinking about what we really wanted in a ’van. With less cash to spend, the challenge was to choose the best budget campervan to suit our ever-changing needs.

I’d come to the conclusion that all campervans were a compromise to some degree and we could do better by designing our own, fit for purpose at this particular stage of our lives.

Our sons were now all at university or old enough to be left to their own devices, so my wife and I could resume peaceful trips on our own.

We didn’t need rear seats anymore, but we still liked many features of the Tribute – the high-top, storage space under the fixed bed, and the ability to pitch up on site, take our chairs out of the rear and grab a beer from the fridge.

The downsides of the Tribute were those things that took up space and either didn’t really work for us or were unnecessary, specifically the toilet/shower cubicle and the rear seating area. Apart from barbecuing, we rarely cook anything when travelling in our camper, so we didn’t need a cooker or a grill – just a simple gas ring.

Fiat Ducato conversion

This time, we plumped for the same base vehicle – a Fiat Ducato, which had spent its formative years as a carpenter’s van. We found three very helpful individuals to help us with the conversion.

One put the windows in the side panels and installed a roof light. The next insulated, carpeted, and added the interior lighting.

The third fitted it out. In went the fixed bed with a custom-made 10-inch pocket-sprung mattress –meaning we slept as well in the ’van as we did at home – a simple side kitchen and some storage. We left the bulkhead in to save money on captain’s seats.

The Fiat Ducato conversion
The Fiat Ducato conversion

I had reached an age where I needed to get up in the night if I’d had a few beers, so a Porta Potti was accommodated in a purpose-made buddy box. Not just any Porta Potti, either, but the Thetford Excellence, which is as close to the real thing as you’ll get in a chemical toilet. If you need one for your ‘van, check out our best portable toilet for a campervan guide to see our favourite picks.

The ‘carpenter’s van’ served us well. We toured the UK, and also enjoyed plenty of trips further afield. On one memorable occasion, we took the ferry to Santander, on the north coast of Spain, explored the spectacular Rioja region and its world-renowned wine, then drove back through France, picking up a whole ’van-load of fabulous antique furniture en route.

The room in the motorhome was fantastic. Instead of the space-sucking bench seat, we had a brilliant chill-out zone, devised by my wife covering the double bed with cosy sheepskin rugs and plentiful velvet cushions. Just the place for a lazy morning watching the waves roll in while reading the Sunday papers.

The Fiat Ducato conversion
The Fiat Ducato conversion

Compared to the other ’vans we’d owned, there really was enough space to swing a very large cat, but in a way that also ensured its downfall.

Our sons were moving out and I was roped into using the Ducato as a removal van on many occasions. It was starting to look tired, I wanted out of the removals business, and we had our first grandchild on the way. It was time for another change.

With the Ducato sold (to a stuntman who used the ample space to store his collection of prop swords!), we mulled over what should replace our trusty ’van. In the end, we went full circle and reverted to a smaller ’van with a pop-top, rock and roll bed, and (newly important) belted seating in the rear.

Nissan Elgrand

Prices for VW Transporters have just skyrocketed in recent years and Ford Customs are not far behind, so we researched an alternative and bought an imported Nissan Elgrand.

A luxury people-carrier popular in Japan, these vehicles have something of a cult following in the UK.

With a 3.5-litre V6 up front, it is a delight to drive, if a little thirsty. The rear conversion was done by New Dawn Conversions, in Birmingham – they specialise in converting such vehicles and did an excellent job.

The Nissan Elgrand
The Nissan Elgrand

We haven’t done a major trip as yet, but we have taken it to west Wales.

On the plus side, the rock and roll bed is much more comfortable than the one we had in our first camper.

The Nissan is far more practical as a second vehicle than our previous, larger models, because it’s easier to park and fits beneath the height restriction bars at many car parks in holiday destinations around the UK.

Interior of the Nissan Elgrand
Interior of the Nissan Elgrand

As I write, my wife and I have just returned from an overnight stay at Tucker’s Grave Inn & Campsite, near Frome, in Somerset. This 200-year-old cider house is on the National Inventory of Historic Pub Interiors and has hardly changed since World War I. It’s one of only six in the country with no bar.

We had an enjoyable evening there, chatting to other campervan owners about their experiences of long-term ’van ownership. My conclusion? There is no single campervan that can cope with the ever-changing demands life throws at you. You know what? I do love the new ’van, but I’m missing that pocket-sprung mattress already!

A self-build campervan has been an increasingly common sight on the roads in recent years – we take a look at the pros and cons to consider if you’re thinking of taking that route.

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