Family Vanlife – What it’s really like

We have been following the van life movement for a couple of years now and I don’t know whether we notice this because we’re part of it or not but it’s an extemely fast growing movement. It seems to be all over social media at the moment and we’ve met lots of lovely van living couples and families, some are in privilaged positions of financial safety but many of them aren’t and some have sold up everything they own to live this life of travel and freedom. If I could sum up this life in one word it’s just that, freedom.

We all have memories of our childhood holidays, whether it was a two week holiday in a foreign sun resort or a holiday or camping trip at home and for me my holiday memories are by far my most vivid ones. Well this camper van trip is like that but we get to do it every day. We still don’t know how long we will be on the road but we have so much more to see and do and we hope it doesn’t end so we are trying to figure out how we can live this lifestyle for as long as we want to.

It seems we live in a society now where we’ve become obsessed with owning land, bigger houses, the newest cars, ending up digging ourselves deeper and deeper into debt all while the cost of living rises and our rights seem to be slowly taken away from us right beneath our noses and we find ourselves asking “are we allowed to do this?”, “can we do that”. That to me is a dangerous mindset, we shouldn’t need permission to do anything so long as we’re not hurting anybody. All this fear of freedom in a time when people have never worked harder and for what?! The working class has never seemed so bad off so it’s inspiring to see that some people have had enough of the norm and are seeking alternative lifestyles. We want to work less, not more and we want to spend our valuable time on this planet being with people we love, doing what we love and nobody is going to tell us we can’t do that.

I would love to say it’s an easy thing to do. It is an easy thing to do once you make the move and when you’re out and on the road. It’s like when you’re getting into the sea for a swim and everybody swimming around you tells you “it’s lovely once you’re in” and you’re like yeah right! It’s easier said than done but once you’re in, it really is lovely. The decision to do it is the hardest part.

We are in a priveliged position compared to most in that we have a house in Ireland. We have both worked really hard and scrimped and saved every penny to buy ouselves as much time as possible on this adventure. We still however, like most people, have loans and bills to pay for which is by far where most of our money goes unfortunately. Living and travelling in our campervan isn’t as expensive as you might think. We spend around €800 a month while living in our campervan on the road, less if we stop at a place for a few weeks and that’s all in, food, trips, touristy things, fuel, phone bill and things for the kids like art stuff and treats.

You may think you’re not cut out for living in a van, a few years ago I thought that too. I’ve heard many people say “I could never do that” with primary concerns being mainly about showers, washing, pooping, personal space and storage. Where do you put all your “stuff”! Although some parts of living in a campervan isn’t very glamorous, you quickly adapt and soon begin to think how can we go back to our old working 9-5 lives. You care less about owning stuff and you buy things on an absolute need basis so you can save both space and money. It can get cabin fevery if it rains for a few days at a time but other than that we get alone time if we each need it by going for a walk or find somewhere else to chill out for a while. We really enjoy being with our kids, we wouldn’t have chosen to homeschool or move the whole family into a van if we didn’t so getting time away from them isn’t a big deal for us. They do test us at times as all children do but we deal with it and move on pretty quickly. A campervan is no place to sulk or hold a grudge, we’re all in this together and usually an emergency hug fixes most meltdowns.

I used the shower only once in the campervan and I’m the only one in the family to try it. It uses quite a lot of water and it’s way handier and more efficient to just have a birdbath. A shower in the camper fills the whole space with condensation, the shower curtain sticks to you like a magnet, it half empties our water tank and afterwards you have to clean and wipe down the whole washroom, walls, sink, toilet and wipe all the excess water down the tiny drain in the corner. It’s just not worth all the bother. A birdbath with our trusty wash basin, facecloth and cup for scooping water over your hair does the trick. The basin is by far the most used thing we have in the camper. We use it for washing dishes, washing children, washing our hair and our clothes….not with the same water obviously. Plus it saves a whole lot of water. The camper van service facilities on continent are fantastic and you can find drinking water and waste water drains in most towns and villages. If we find a cool camping spot though and we want to stay put, we try and stretch out our water and drain tank as long as we can so we have become well used to being super efficient with our water these days.

Liam got used to driving on the other side of the road after about five minutes.

I was one of those “shower every day” girls and embarassingly never left the house without at least mascara and eyebrows on. Those days are long gone and these days we could go weeks without even a hot shower. Now that’s not to say we’re going around the place all mankey, we are clean, I promise! When we are wild camping we are mostly living by the coast so we make plenty of use of the beaches, after a swim we shower in the free cold beach showers which are on practically every beach we’ve stayed at so far and if it’s shitty weather for a few days we stay in and have birdbaths.

Rainy day “me time” looks like this….

The water in the van turns on at the mains switch which runs off our leisure battery so if that isn’t switched on, no water will come out of the taps. It has happened the odd time during our first few months of living in the campervan that we have left a tap on when the switch was off so when we turned the switch on then we got a flood of water pumping out of the tap. It happened with our toilet a couple of times too, our flusher is a push down thingy also connected to the main water switch and that gets stuck sometimes so if it gets stuck when the water is turned off that’s fine as no water will come out of the flusher but if you then turn the water on with the washroom door closed and the radio on, then the whole washroom gets flooded so bad it spills out into the main campervan bit, you know the hall, the kitchen, living room, bedrooms. Yes that’s happened to us on two occasions and now, much to our delight, the kids have a fear of using the flusher.

We’ve parked at some amazing places

Then there’s the logistics of emptying our toilet cartridge. The cartridge lasts up to three days before it needs emptying or switching as there’s a spare one. I think it’s a pretty disgusting but obviously necessary job. There’s a certain way to pour it which Liam has down to a tee so much to my delight, it has become his job. These can be emptied at the campervan service areas which are mostly free or else they cost €1 or €2 in some places. We find these places in most towns and villages through our campervan apps.

Beautiful coastal driving is our favourite, would be easier in a smaller van though

We pull into a campsite every so often to charge up and clean out the campervan and make use of the hot (sometimes cold) shower facilities and washing machines. The ones we stay at in Portugal cost around €10-€15 per night but they are much more expensive in France and Spain. This is busy season here in south Portugal and Spain when during the winter months people travel down from northern Europe to spend winter in these campsites. In summer, the sites are mostly full with Spanish and Portuguese campers so the campsites have pretty much full occupancy all year round.

We’re all well used to this life now having lived in our campervan for the past six months. We each have our own little daily chores and routines. We get up every morning about 8am and Liam makes me coffee in bed while the kids have breakfast and chats. I roll out of bed and weather permitting onto the yoga mat by 9 (ish) and when I’m finished Liam does his Wim Hoff breathing and then after a little clean out of the campervan, we’re both ready to take on the day full of play and chill with the kids. If we’re on the move, we usually spend the morning searching for our next parkup and prepare for an afternoon of driving and exploring a new place. The next place always has to have a few key features like firstly it has to have good reviews of safety and it’s got to have somewhere for our dog Buckie to run around and then the extra pluses after that is if the place has electricity points, drinking water, a place to yoga, beach, playground, skate park or touristy things to do. The worst thing ever is when you pull into the place that you have researched and it’s not what you expected so we have to pull out our app and pack up again to find another spot.

We plan and cook our meals together and the main evening meal is our favourite time of day when we sit, eat and chat for an hour or so before bedtime when we read books for our kids. We’ve read many amazing books so far, some we have picked up along the way and our favourites are our ‘Stories from around the World’, lots of Usborne books, Enid Blytons ‘Enchanted Wood’, David Walliams ‘Mr.Stink’ and ‘The Midnight Gang’. We’re currently reading ‘Artemis Fowl’ by Eoin Colfer which is just brilliant and this week we saw the trailor for the movie which will be in cinemas next August 2019. I had goosebumps watching the trailor as I’ve read all those books as a teenager and absolutely loved them. I love getting to read them to my kids now so we’re all up to date before the movie is released. After the kids go to bed with their head torches and easy read books, Liam & I either stay up and chat over a glass of wine or else go to bed and tuck into Netflix on the iPad and we usually sleep like babies unless it’s thundering rain which is rather noisy in a campervan or even worse…if there’s a mossie in the house. It has to be one of the worst noises in the world when a mosquito floats around you at 2am.

Storage in the campervan is easy because we don’t have a lot of “stuff” since we got rid of so much of it at the start of this year. Actually we have too much storage. The kids have their clothes, a box of puppets, a box for lego and small toys and their bikes. There’s also presses for books, art stuff and board games. Liam and I have our clothes, Liam has his banjo and bicycle and I have a box of crochet stuff and that’s it. In fact, what little we have we still feel like we have too much and we have de-cluttered on a few more occasions along the way. We might even sell this campervan and buy a smaller one as we feel like this one is just too big for us, you may laugh but a smaller van would suit us better, easier to drive and it would be handier and cheaper to get around the place.

The kids are great at this whole van life and they have never been happier so at the moment it’s really working out for us. They meet new children every week, there’s always other van families around from all parts of the world and the kids don’t ever hesitate to go over to say hi. They have naturally learned so much about geography, history, languages, nature and have made so many friends along the way and they have documented some of their wonderful memories in their travel journals. My sister got them for the kids before we left Ireland and they are the best little travel journals made especially for kids by Lonely Planet with games and lots of fun learning exercises in them. We would recommend them for any kids even perfect for short holidays.

We have heard many people back home say “I would love to do that” and immediately follow that with but what about your kids schooling, your job, your pension, driving on the other side of the road, money, home-sickness, safety. When you make the big decision to do something like this and then actually make it happen, you find you become more open to new opportunities and no longer fearful of the what if’s. You get to live more and want less. There are so many options out there for people who want a change, new adventure or just want to get away, there’s house swaps but then it might be pretty hard to find a family who would like to live in rural Ireland in the depths of winter (maybe that’s just me), there’s woofing where you work daily on an organic farm for a few hours for your food and accommodation, you could volunteer or simply rent a cheap place for a while, opportunities are endless once you drop those fear barriers.

Our first Happy Birthday cake in the campervan

Many other van living couples and families live for a lot less than us while making money picking up little jobs along the way. Many of the lovely van living couples we’ve met are retired and every one has a different life story but the one thing they all have in common is they all wished the did it sooner. This life is short, talk to any elderly person and they will tell you that so it’s important to fill this short life with adventures and let go of our fears. When we look back at what our own fears were at the start, they are totally irrelevant and seem ridiculous now. We don’t need anybody to tell us that we’re doing the right or wrong thing, we know we’re doing the right thing. It’s right for us. I worry that some day it may be made illegal or something so it’s important that we keep these options open, continue searching for alternatives, face your fears, push boundaries and at the end of the day, do whatever makes you happy, this isn’t a trial run.

Ellen joins me for yoga
Forever on the lookout for a nice place to do yoga
The song ‘Time’ by Pink Floyd, gets me every time. Here’s the beautiful lyrics:

Ticking away the moments that make up a dull day 
You fritter and waste the hours in an offhand way. 
Kicking around on a piece of ground in your home town 
Waiting for someone or something to show you the way. 

Tired of lying in the sunshine staying home to watch the rain. 
You are young and life is long and there is time to kill today. 
And then one day you find ten years have got behind you. 
No one told you when to run, you missed the starting gun. 

So you run and you run to catch up with the sun but it’s sinking 
Racing around to come up behind you again. 
The sun is the same in a relative way but you’re older, 
Shorter of breath and one day closer to death. 

Every year is getting shorter never seem to find the time. 
Plans that either come to naught or half a page of scribbled lines 
Hanging on in quiet desperation is the English way 
The time is gone, the song is over, 
Thought I’d something more to say.

Published by Niamh & Liam Colfer

Niamh & Liam Colfer currently livin' on the Hook peninsula in County Wexford offering yoga and breath-work classes, personal training and hike the Hook walking tours. All about healthy balanced lifestyle, home schooling, travel, outdoor life, sea swims and on the Hook / off the Hook adventures.

6 thoughts on “Family Vanlife – What it’s really like

  1. Great post☺ You guys are truly inspiring and I’m sooo glad I have met you. Long may your travels and adventures continue. Oh, and Liam kept that quiet about the banjo!! Bon voyage Jane 🚙🏝

  2. Perfect summation! Even though this sums up our current lifestyle and choices too, we must confess to be hugely inspired by your adventures also. Your children are so lucky and there can be no better start in life than living a real life! It’s been a pleasure to meet you albeit too briefly this time. I’m sure our paths will cross again very soon … x

  3. Great blog Niamh. What great memories your children will have… Best classroom they could ever have.. Happy travels

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