When we decided to do join this van-life movement last winter and started to really research and plan how to actually do it, we weren’t in the least bit reluctant or scared and we were super focused and worked ridiculously hard to get ourselves on the road.
One of the first things we did was joined lots of motorhome groups and societies and we watched the youtube videos of many van-lifers writing lists as we went.
We were a little overwhelmed to be honest, our list was long with things we needed to do and get to make our journey easier and as safe as possible. We didn’t manage to get everything and couldn’t afford many things on the list and thought we would pick up what we need along the way but we are always aware of staying safe. It doesn’t involve all the expensive gadgets, mostly it’s a feeling and here’s some things we do and tips to stay on top of it.
- Regularly talk through a plan on how to deal with a situation if it arises which prepares us for any worst case scenarios.
- Always keep the drivers seat free and the keys kept in the same place if we need to get away in a hurry.
- Have a weapon, whether its pepper spray or a bat. We have a hurley, a pelote bat, a big bright mag-light kept at the doors and other various items ready to be used as weapons if needed. Obviously these things are absolutely last resort and we hope we would never have to challenge intruders.
- Park the campervan reversed into a space, facing the exit & if we’re using chocks we usually reverse onto them. This way we can just start the camper up and drive away.
- Write down the address and sat nav co-ordinates every evening before we go to bed. It’s easy to forget the names of the towns and villages when you’re just passing through for one nighters so it’s important to know where you are in case you need to make that dreaded 112 call.
- Always close the blinds when we leave the camper and although we don’t have actually have much worth stealing except maybe the iPad and laptop which have their put away places. We also hide our passports and credit card in secret compartment.
- When you find a really good, safe place to stay, enjoy it, appreciate it and stay for at least a few days.
The apps we use are:
- Camper Contact
Parking in rural areas and urban areas feels completely different. We feel way more safe in rural areas, even if we’re the only campervan there.
So far, we have been spoiled with a big selection of safe places to stay everywhere we went, mostly free, some paid and there were almost always other campervanners parked alongside you. These sites are called “Aires de Service” or just “Aires” in France, they are designated parking areas for campervans and most of them have free or very cheap services. In Spain & Portugal the are called “Area de servicio para autocaravanas”. In Germany, Austria & Switzerland they are “Stellplatz” and in Italy “Area di Sosta”. Facilities in these areas can vary but most include free drinking water, drains for emtying grey water & for chemical toilets. Some have electricity for hooking up your camper van’s leisure batteries. Some even have wifi and shower facilities. Overnight parking can be limited to 24-48 hours in some, others have no restrictions.
In Spain the stopover and service areas are a little bit more sparce. This week after we travelled a little more west in northern Spains Basque country, we headed for Bilbao with the intentions of visiting the Guggenheim museum in the center of the city. Bilbao is the largest city and the de facto capital of Basque country. The roads were a really confusing network of highways, underpasses, slip roads and tunnels. Even the sat nav was confused and after taking a few wrong turns, the sat nav had a tough job of re-routing us so we left it. If you’ve read our blog before you will know cities aren’t really our thing, we don’t particulary enjoy them so we thought it wasn’t worth the stress and we picked a last minute site from the Park4Night app which had pretty good reviews near Bilbao port for a quick one night stopover. We arrived at Zierbena, another large carpark in a very industrial town with a large factory in front of us similar to the one in the Simpsons hometown of Springfield and the busy Bilbao port behind us. We took a walk around the nearby little village on the large quay which was full of mullet. We were jokingly looking for the mutated ones with five eyes. We found a nice new playground to spend the evening when we spotted signs placed around the place written in Spanish & Basque but we could just figure out the jist of it. It was basically a “what to do in case the factory explodes” sign and if the sirens blast one minute on, 5 seconds off, three times, then cover your mouth, close your shutters and wait for help or else just get the hell out of there. Jaysis, where were we after parking at all! We went back to the campervan for dinner and there was a bit of local activity around, people out walking, people fishing off the quay & oddly there was tens of feral cats roaming around the place like they owned it and local men arriving randomly to feed them. The place just didn’t feel quite right but we couldn’t face more driving that evening. There was a police presence as they circled the carpark a couple of times and a UK registered campervan pulled in too but parked at the other side of the carpark so we decided to just sleep it out and leave the next morning. We should have trusted our instinct and left as we ended up having a terrible night in Zierbena, probably our worst night yet. We started watching a movie after the kids went to bed and a car pulled up beside us absolutely blasting out music till about 1am, Liam reckons it had the best sub-woofer in Bilbao. We woke again at 3am to a scratching noise underneath the camper and a tapping on top of it. We thought it must have been the local cats scattered around the camper but after another minute or two the noise got a bit louder and it sounded like the scratching noise was almost inside the garage of the camper. Liam and I sleep in the bed above the garage and as we could hear it getting louder, Liam hopped out of the bed for a look out the windows. He sat up in the drivers seat, pulled down the foil curtains that we put up around the cab at night and he spotted a man in the rear view mirror trying to break into the garage. The kids were still asleep in the bunk above the driver & passenger seats & I was lying in bed still thinking it was cats when Liam gave a roar out the window. Then, even worse, it was two men, he could see them clear as day in the lit up carpark and they didn’t give a shit. They shrugged at Liam as if to say whatever and strolled off into the darkness. It’s interesting how we naturally responded to the incident, Liam was up and ready to defend & I was out to protect the children. Liam got out to check the damage and we drove the camper van around to a brighter busier spot at the port and in beside the UK campervan. The kids were a little bewildered after waking up to Liam shouting and they both hopped into my bed. We told them it was cats he shouted at and I snuggled the hell out of them for the rest of the night. Liam stayed up in the front for a while to make sure they were gone and then slept in the childrens bed above with the window open to keep an eye out.
The following morning, after sleeping with one eye open for the rest of the night, Liam got out to chat to the owners of the UK camper. Our neighbour was a veteran van-lifer and had travelled around Europe a few times and a similar incident happened to him a couple of years ago. He said that there are some migrants hanging around near the ports looking to hide in campervans to get access onto the ferries to Ireland and the UK. He had a friend who found a migrant hiding in between bicycles in his bike rack under the rack cover when the camper behind spotted a shoe sticking out as they were queueing for the ferry. We couldn’t believe it, although we have discussed many times what to do in all these circumstances such as break ins, robberies, accidents etc, we never really thought it would happen. Thankfully there wasn’t too much damage. The men managed to open one of the two locks but Liam was able to fix it quickly enough. Whether they were migrants thinking we were on our way to the ferry or just asshole thieves, we learned a lot from the whole incident.
We left early the next morning and just as we started up the campervan in Zierbena, the two lads appeared again and sat at a nearby bench giving us looks. Liam recognised them immediately. We couldn’t believe the cheek of them, sitting there staring over at us. We made shapes pretty quickly and hit the road for somewhere safer. An hour of driving and we were out of Basque country altogether and into the Spanish province of Cantabria where we found a lovely campsite by an animal park. It is sort of an oasis, just what we needed, stunningly beautiful, calm, right on a lake with spagetti western mountains all around us. The lake is full of ducks, birds, geese, even the odd heron has flown by and at 7pm every evening the trees all around the lake are filled with hundreds of egrits and the display almost looks like there’s a hankerchief on every branch all around the lake. Just a few metres away, there’s a herd of elephants in a large enclosure where we have already spent hours just watching them. Every second camper is a UK registered one, the most we have ever seen on the trip so far and after chatting to some of them, we told them what happened at Zierbena. Nobody was surprised and a few of them said they never park within 10km of ferry ports on the continent for this reason. It made us feel pretty naive to be honest. Although we have read and heard some bad stories, we do tend to ignore them as many seem to have happened years and years ago, others are simply rumours and some just totally exhaggerated. We were simply unlucky that night. Most people live the van-life without any incidents at all and we will carry on with our journey unfazed, wiser and loving life.