Van-life. Choosing where to park, navigation and finding the best spots

We would be lost without one thing….a map! As long as you have a good old fashioned map, you can not go wrong….

Humans have looked to the skies to find their way since ancient times. Ancient sailors used the sun, the moon, the constellations in the night sky to figure out where they were and where they were going. We owe so much to the great explorers, some of whom we’ve learned about along our travels including Tom Crean, Marco Polo, Christopher Columbus.

These days, instead of stars, we use satellites for navigation. Now unless you’re bat shit crazy and think the earth is flat, the gps system (global positioning system) is a space based system with over 30 navigation satellites orbiting Earth. These satellites can tell us exactly where we are and where we want to go.

They do the maths for you dividing the planet into imaginary lines going from North to South (longitude) and from East to West (latitude) and pinpoints your location with precise accuracy in coordinates which are measured in degrees. Greenwich (gmt) is the 00 meridian or the Prime meridian and last year we would have been mostly West of Grenwich so for example in Lisbon its 38’North and 009’West, Madrid is 40’North and 003’West. We have become very familiar with our coordinates and find it interesting when we’re punching in the coordinates if we’ve moved on another degree. Currently we are East of Grenwich, so for example in Barcelona the coordinates are 23’North and 9’East and the coordinates in Rome is 41’N 12’E and the further east and south you go the degrees increase. Geometry innit.

Before we decided to move our family into a campervan, we had big ideas thinking we could see the whole continent of Europe in a year. They say it’s a small world but it really isn’t, its frickin huge! We learned quickly to forget our ideas and plans and to just go with the flow deciding each day or week where to go next. Here we are in our second year and we’ve traveled through several time zones and lots of countries, adapting to each culture as we go.

With a map you can pinpoint more remote places, off road. Going off road is not easy in a big camper so that depends on the type of van you have, ours is a 3.5 tonne 6 berth campervanny type camper, we would give anything for a smaller van conversion to allow us to live even more off grid. You have more options to park up for free, less height and weight restrictions to deal with but also less space so it’s worth a lot of research, weighing up the pros and cons and considering your own needs and wants.

You must also consider the season you’re travelling in or the unexpected weather that may come. Some areas require snow tyres in winter, if it’s very windy we won’t go on motorways, if its wet we won’t go off road or through any old cobbled towns and we use our phones to satellite image our destination just to be sure. We have been caught in a few sticky situations so we are learning to be more prepared by researching a little bit before we hit the road.

It can take a long time to get to places, especially in a campervan and especially when you have children sitting in the back constantly asking are we there yet. We tend to keep our journeys no longer than two hours. If we find a place that we can really relax, be productive and a place where the kids play with other children we will stay there for at least a few days, sometimes weeks. It’s easy to get carried away during your first few weeks of van life and feel like you want to go go go, just remember those first few weeks it’s important to allow yourself to wind down, chill a little so if you find a cool spot during those first few weeks….stay there for at least a week or two to adjust to the slower pace of life. Those first weeks are special, enjoy every minute.

We flick through our Aires books and lonely planet maps for each country picking out the places we would like to see and planning a basic overall route as we drive around each country. Aires are motorhome stopovers, usually car parks and farms that allow campervans to stop overnight, often for free and there are Aires books for France, Spain, Portugal, Italy, Germany and Scandinavia.

As well as our trusty Aires books and maps, our favourite method of choosing a place to park up is by using motorhome apps park4night and camper contact to pick out camp sites, free camping spots, service stations, launderettes, aires and camper van specialists all across Europe. Each listing includes pictures, reviews, list of services offered, any prices and of course the gps coordinates. We spend many hours browsing these, most probably too much time trying to pick the ‘best’ one and we would be lost without them.

France is by far the easiest country to explore in a motorhome. There are so many aires, mostly free and most have everything a motorhome could need, all the facilities, many even have free electric hookup. Lots of them are by parks and playgrounds, many with those community exercise areas and obstacle courses. We have spent most of our time in France for this reason. France however does have expensive tolls but if you’re not in a hurry, the secondary roads are really good and you get to see so much more of the countryside. Spain & Portugal are also great with lots of free areas to park, not as many as France but those countries see the benefit of providing sites to improve tourism in certain areas and new aires and upgraded ones improve each year.

All the European countries have different toll systems so it’s worth a quick google before you cross any borders. Most are simply pay as you go, some are electronic and some like Austria and Switzerland you have to get a toll sticker (vignette) to display on your windscreen. Motor homes under 3.5 tons can get a car sticker which is cheap enough €9.80 which lasts for 10 days but motor homes and larger vehicles over 3.5 tons must have a “GO-Box” that tracks your actual mileage. If you are caught without either, the fine is 220 euros. You can order these online or buy them at border post offices and gas stations. There is weight restrictions to consider in some countries too, for example if you’re over 4 ton you can’t drive on a Sunday in certain countries without a permit.

Spain has lots of toll free motorways so we tend to go for the toll free route but the toll system there is simple, you take a ticket when you enter the motorway and pay for whatever distance you travelled when you go off it. Portugal uses an electronic toll system which took us a ridiculously long time to figure out. It’s worth getting the Via Verde if you’re there for more than a couple of weeks. It is a device you keep in your vehicle connected to your bank account so you are charged automatically as you use the motorways.

Germany is basically toll free and the the best roads we have ever driven on, however it’s difficult to find free parkups but there is many paid parkups which aren’t too expensive. Belgium, Switzerland, Italy and the Netherlands was in our experience impossible to park for free. It is illegal, you will get moved by the police if you’re not in a paying park and the paying car parks or aires can be incredibly expensive so it’s great if you have friends living in these countries to go visit.

Speaking of friends, last but not least we’ve learned the best routes and got tips for the best spots from the people we’ve met along the way. It’s a great community of like minded curious people who would do anything to help you out and without them life on the road would not be same.

By the way, before we hit the road earlier in 2018, we didnt know any of this and learned it all as we went along. Just winging it to be absolutely honest. Don’t let any fears of the unknown stop you from doing anything, you will adapt and you will learn as you go.

We use this one Garmin Drive™ 52 & Live Traffic and it was kindly gifted to us before we left Ireland. It is fantastic and it has never let us down however it has tried to bring us down some very dodgy weight restricted roads
But if we had the money to upgrade or certainly if we had a bigger campervan, this is the one we would buy Camper 780 & Digital Traffic. Its made especially for campervans, trucks, just bigger vehicles so it will never lead you down the limited access road or through a low underpass, or through tiny hilly villages.
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