Choosing the right van for YOUR family.
So, you’ve made the decision to travel Australia, now you just need to choose what to travel IN?
Well, for us, this was an easy choice. Originally we wanted to purchase an old school bus and do it up very slowly and carefully, however we came into some unexpected money and were bursting at the seams to hurry up and get on the road. This led to the purchase of our van. We have heard from many other travellers that “Family caravans” are almost impossible to come across second hand. This made us very nervous, luckily though we found a style we loved, which was suited to us (Jayco Sterling 24-75-1) and then found a second hand one almost immediately after it had been posted online on the “trading post” and we purchased it straight away.
In writing this post I just want to first explain that we do live in our van year round, we do not have a “home base” anywhere and because of this we chose a van that was very comfortable and homely. I’m 100% certain though that if we were unable to afford, at the time, any of the more luxury items; it really wouldn’t have been worth giving this experience up for. We all adapt to our living environment and we learn to utilise what we have and learn to live without whatever we don’t have, so it’s best to try not to be too strict about what you think is fundamental to your travel experience.
Below, I will compile a list of the features that were important to us, for our van and why we wanted them:
This was important as it means “self-sufficiency”, to us. If you choose a van with a shower and toilet you are able to save a shed-load of money by primarily free-camping. We find that we can have one or two nights a week at a caravan park (simply to fill up our water tanks) and in between that we can get by free camping. However if you enter a new town and wish to 100% free camp just ask the local council or tourist information centre where you may be able to fill your tanks for free or a small charge. An ensuite bathroom is a great feature to have in your van when you have children, purely for the convenience of being able to shower them easily before bedtime.
We have purchased a generator but we honestly don’t use it. I think the only time we would use it would be if we were free camping (a LONG way away from other campers) in an extremely hot climate (or cold) and needing to use the aircon or heater. Our van came with solar panels on the roof and battery packs under the bed and we are able to easily and efficiently run all of our lighting and our t.v off that. We can also use an inverter to charge phones/laptops etc. as needed. However we mostly charge these items in the car while driving on car chargers. Solar power is fantastic to have though!
Separate sleeping areas
We only have the one child, but we find it very important to be able to all get a good nights sleep. With this in mind we settled on the idea of a van with separate sleeping areas for us and our son. Our son sleeps in a bunk room at the end of the van and we sleep in a queen-sized bed at the opposite end. We wanted the room to be able to be closed off (with a door/concertina door) rather than just a curtain so that our use of the kitchen area would not be limited once our child was in bed. This was very important to us and resulted in us having to reject a lot of otherwise perfect “family vans”. I think the bunk rooms are absolutely PERFECT if travelling fulltime with a child (and you are a parent that loves their evening child-free time to relax!)
Fully functioning kitchen
Obviously a kitchen is good to have, however you can improvise in many MANY different ways with an outdoor kitchen. We love the convenience of our indoor kitchen. Having the kitchen so well organised and easily usable makes us far more likely to save money and eat at home. The upgraded (larger sized) fridge/freezer means we can store more food and once again save money. Once you’re on the road and are trying to make your money stretch as far as possible, little ways (like mealtime) to save money become very important!
The following are the features we wish we had OR would like to add down the track (or have added after purchase):
A bike rack
sure beats pulling the kids bikes in and out of the van at every stop! Bike racks are far more expensive than I realised though, ours was in excess of $300
An outdoor shower
this would be a major luxury but an awesome help when we all get dirty/sandy while free camping or camping near beaches. I think this would/will be quiet simple to rig up ourselves (in fact it’s something I plan on organising very soon!)
we would like to add one of these as we would LOVE to free camp at the snow for one ENTIRE snow season one year. I think it’d make the van nice and toasty warm!
the previous owners added a safe (so technically it wasn’t added after we purchased it) and its one of the greatest features of our van. We keep our birth certificates, insurance papers, rego, and emergency money in there. We also keep jewellery in there if we are somewhere where we wont be wearing it for a while. Being able to store all of these documents together means that in the event of one of us losing our wallet (which unfortunately happens A LOT to Brent) we have all our ID paperwork readily available!
These are the features we have found unnecessary, in our van.
The stupendous amount of storage space in the van
at first I thought “how will I ever fit everything we need into this little amount of storage space” but then I quickly realised that 90% of what I packed is “Crap” we didn’t use for our entire first year in the van (and its now been donated to charity). Also, if you actually fill (to the brim) each storage area (especially the MASSIVE under the bed storage area) your van is almost certainly going to be overweight. So don’t stress about finding a van with the largest amount of storage space, just focus on having the smallest amount of “Stuff” and don’t pack too much “just in case” stuff! For example we never use spare sheets, our sheets are always clean and dry before the evening so toting around a tonne of sets of sheets is just pointless and excessive.
The dining area
pretty much every van has a dining area, however we almost never use ours. Id happily trade it now, for a desk or a lounge. We mostly sit outside to eat dinner/draw with our son/do craft etc. So the dining table is more just there for “looks” it is the first thing we would porbrably get rid of if we were to renovate our van. With this idea in mind if we were purchasing a van again we wouldn’t be so concerned about having to choose a van where the dining table is converted into your main bed. Your life becomes all about “being outside” when you live in a van and lead a travelling lifestyle so the dining table becomes completely unneeded and instead you will find yourself option for a fold out outdoor table or, your lap.
Now, not everything about having a van is perfect!
We have found that we are somewhat limited on where we can go with our van. We are unable to take our van (because of its size and the fact that it is NOT an off-road van) to most off-road places unless they are very flat tracks to get to. This meant that we were unable to go to lake Eyre and we are unable to take the off road tracks through the Simpson desert etc.
Since we don’t want to live in a smaller van and our van IS our home base, we’ve decided to compromise by setting up our car with a car fridge, simple single burner gas stove and a roof top tent (as well as the other needed gear) so that we can explore more remote areas without paved roads. Other people I know have traded in vans for camper trailers or tents or even smaller, off road vans.
This is definitely something to consider when purchasing a caravan, do you prefer going off the beaten track? Will your caravan allow that? Are you willing to set up your car for independent travel away from your van?
Larger, family vans can also (apparently) be difficult to find spaces for in free camps, however we have not experienced this. We travel in the peak travel time (not the school holiday peak, the seasonal peak) and have not had any trouble, but we have heard some horror stories from others. I think that as long as you stop early enough at a free camp, there is always plenty of room!
Personally, we love our van because unlike a camper trailer, we step out of our car and into our van with everything ready to use, But – as I said – we are limited on where we go. Camper trailers are much more budget friendly and use A LOT less fuel to tow, than a caravan does. Fuel consumption takes up the biggest portion of our budget so this is something worth considering when choosing a “home away from home” as well as a “tow vehicle”.There are so many different options out there and we all have such different needs and priorities about what we want. Any money you plan on investing in your nomadic lifestyle is worth being spent carefully and properly so make sure you choose the right rig for you and your family. Make sure you remember to consider what you NEED versus what is “comfortable in your house” and remember that your entire life/style will be very different and much more focussed on being outdoors. Remember to consider the differences in climate you may experience and how you feel you will cope with experiences of scorching temperatures or freezing cold.
Take into consideration your children’s needs in regard to space, noise levels for sleep, etc. If you do your research, choose accordingly to your family and you are also willing to make changes and sacrifices in order to bring more experiences then I’m sure you will be content and comfortable with your choice! J