You may have just decided to take the plunge and buy a VW California (or another camper van) or you may be just about to take ownership. Either way, it’s a very exciting time and you’ll be looking forward to planning camping trips away. At this stage many people start to think: “so what else do I need ?”.
This is the subject of much debate – some of it quite heated – since everyone has their own personal preferences and experiences with camper vans and camping generally. The bottom line is that you need to make your own choices – but hopefully in this post I can highlight the choices we made and give you the benefit of my own and others’ experiences.
Options for the VW California
If you’ve browsed through the VW California brochure you’ll no doubt be mentally racking up a long options list. From climate control, parking sensors and leather seats to sat navs, an additional fifth seat and a roll-out awning there are a lot of options available. But at over £44,000 for a new Cali in the UK you can be forgiven for wondering whether any of thes extras are actually necessary.
It’s true tha the Cali is well specced – you’ll not find the range of standard features on any VW conversion – but it’s also worth thinking carefully about how you’re going to use your new van.
These are the options we ordered on our 2010 Cali, together with some brief observations on why these were important to us:
- Climatronic: having previously camped in France in 2003 at 42 degrees we see decent a/c as a comfort issue. We often find set the system at different temperatures in the front/back of the van – this is a 3-zone system;
- 17″ Neva alloy wheels: purely aesthetic;
- Detachable towbar: I’m not a fan of tailgate bike racks and therefore a towbar-mounted bike rack was my preference;
- Cruise control: comfort on long motorway drives;
- Front and rear parking sensors: the van is my daily vehicle – parking sensors save my stress levels;
- Front and rear mudflaps: keeps the mud off !
- Rear bumper cover: keeps the scratches off !
- Metallic paint: sand beige was our preferred colour;
- Privacy glass: I have to say that a Cali just looks strange without this. I frequently also get changed in the back of the van in a car park or layby when I’m out walking and privacy glass does what it says on the tin;
- Roll-out awning: my personal view is that this is the Cali’s ‘signature’ – this is a constant reminder that I’m driving a camper van and not a builders’s van or people carrier. It puts a smile on my face.
You may clearly come to a different set of preferences (leather seats, bluetooth connectivity and an electrically-operated side door also seem to be popular options) but this is what works for us. I would, however, point out that while towbars, awnings, cruise control, mudflaps, privace glass and parking sensors can all be fitted retrospectively, they’re all more expensive and a big hassle this way and so it’s worth thinking through these things carefully before you buy or place your order. For 5-person families you’ll clearly need an additional seat – here, an extra rail needs to be fitted in the Cali in the factory and so this needs to be ordered from the start.
Accessories for your camper van
Now this is where the fun starts ! There are lots of gadgets and “stuff” available to improve your use of your camper van and to personalise it. For example:
- how will you sleep in it (sleeping bags or duvets) ?
- do you need a separate driveaway awning (tent) to store your things when on a camping site ?
- do you plan to carry bikes/kayaks or tow a trailer ?
- what will you do for cooking equipment (pots, pans, plates etc) and how will you store your food ?
But before you go out with your cheque book in hand, think carefully about what you’ll actually need. In fact, before we bought our van I read some pretty good advice on the VW California forum: “don’t buy anything at first but live with your camper van for a while“. While the sentiment is correct (you can be tempted to part with a lot of cash if you’re not exactly sure what you’ll need), with the benefit of experience I can say that this advice isn’t quite right. In fact, there are a few things which I suggest are essential from day one.
The essential accessories …
- Seat covers: first, unless you’ve got leather seats in your van, you’ll find that the light grey cloth seats aren’t exactly the most practical colour. Irrespective of how careful you’ll be, you won’t be able to avoid small stains (eg water drips on to the driver’s seat from the awning on a wet morning) and if you have messy kids or dogs (or both) then seat covers are absolutely essential. In the UK there are basically two choices right now: Inka make very functional (waterproof) grey covers (these are very similar to the VW covers but cheaper) and Brandrup make close-fitting fabric covers matching the actual seat fabric pattern. I personally didn’t want my van looking like a builder’s van (and don’t have a dog, and the kids are old enough not to spill stuff) so deliberately avoided the Inka/VW covers, and managed to get some Brandrup covers secondhand on eBay. They’re great and so close-fitting that you’re unaware that you actually have seat covers.
- Gas: second, you’ll need a gas bottle to cook on, connected up in your rear cupboard. For the Cali you’ll need the Camping Gaz 907 bottle), about £30 from Go Outdoors (or other camping shops).
- Hook-up lead(s): you’ll need a hook-up lead to get 240v power while on site. Get a long one (30m), which ideally winds around a drum to it’s easy to put away again. (Note: you’ll also need a hook-up lead adaptor so you can connect the lead from the into a 13A socket at home. This is advised if you’re not using the van for a period of time so the engine isn’t charging up the leisure batteries).
The ‘nice to have’ accessories …
So that’s about it on the ‘essentials’ list, but what about the other accessories you may need or want ? In no particular order here’s a list of the various things that we’ve acquired over the last couple of years, with comments and observations on our experiences of actually using them.
But before we move on, let’s just stop and think for a minute. A camper van signifies freedom, the open road, going where you like, and taking off at a moment’s notice. If like us you’ve previously got so fed up with the amount of “stuff” needed for just a weekend’s camping trip in a tent, why would you want to repeat the same mistake ? Too much stuff equals unnecessary weight taking up valuable space in what is inevitably a well-designed but compact camper van. Do you really want to have so much stuff to take that it becomes a chore ? (And – horror of horrors – do you really want to join the caravanners and take to the great outdoors simply to watch TV inside your camper van !!). So my advice would be to go lightly and pack smartly since you may regret bad purchases later on. Anyway, enough of my lecturing, what’s in my van ?
- Duvalays: our number one purchase. Forget sleeping bags. Now that you have a camper van you can afford some comfort and luxury so go for the convenience of an all-in-one duvet and memory foam mattress. They roll up and we fit four on the rear parcel shelf alongside our coats
- Waterproof roof cover: you’ll need this not only to keep heavy rain off the elevating roof (almost waterproof anyway) but more particularly to keep you warm ‘upstairs’. The ‘upstairs’ bed is a few degrees cooler in cold weather than ‘downstairs’. There are several makes available including the Vanorak (which we have but I don’t know if it’s still available), the Khyam Camper Cosi, the Cali Topper (the current favourite among many Cali owners) and the Mutze cap (imported from Germany and slightly more expensive). Brandrup also make a goretex inner liner (all of the others fit externally on top of the Cali’s roof) which can be left in situ when the roof is lowered. The Cali Topper seems to have the upper hand in design terms (using bungees rather than straps) and has improved the design weaknesses of some of the earlier products. [In the picture below you can see the Vanorak (nearest on Lydia), then the Khyam Camper Cosi and then the Cali Topper furthest away. Note that the Cali Topper is available either with or without windows].
- Carpets: similar to the light grey seat fabric, the standard Cali carpet in the front is also light grey. You’ll quickly want to get a more sensibly-coloured additional carpet. We have a good quality, dark grey carpet that’s a very neat fit in the cab (from QTM) which is highly recommended. They also do carpets for the main living area of the van but we just use an offcut from one of our house carpets for the meantime which I cut to size and does the job admirably
- Seat back organiers: essential for keeping pens, notebooks, kids’ toys and handy nick-nacks. Those with style and lots of money will go down the Brandrup route; others like us will buy perfectly functional seatback organisers from Asda for £5 !(similar to these)
- Headlight protectors: this is more a nice-to-have rather than an essential buy. We bought headlight protectors when we go to the continent, having already fitted headlight beam deflectors to them. It’s difficult to see where the beam deflectors fit on the Cali’s headlights but the protectors have markings on and are easy to fit (and save the hassle of having to remove the glue backing from headlights afterwards)
- DVD players: we already had DVD players in our previous car which strap to the front seat headrests. On long journeys we’ve found these a godsend so reduce the “are we there yet” pleas from the back seat.
- Levelling blocks: if you park on a slope of even a few degrees you’ll notice it. Not only will you slide down inside your Duvalay/sleeping bag but your wine won’t look steady. We’ve used our Fiamma chocks reasonably frequently and I wouldn’t be without them. They stay permanently in the van in the little space underneath the rear bench seat.
- Driveaway awning: we inherited a Khyam awning (now discontinued) which we only really use when we’re on a site for more than a couple of nights. We find that it works in certain but not all conditions. It’s best in hot weather (all four sides can unzip and roll up), if it’s warm but wet (somewhere to eat or stretch out in) or if we’re wanting to have somewhere to store our bikes on site. But it does take up quite a bit of room so we don’t bother with it for a weekend. (Note: I’m keen to buy a large tarp-style awning, either in cotton or preferably sailcloth, which will be very flexible. They’re popular in Holland and unfortunately almost impossible to get hold of in the UK. These would easily be my preferred awning for European holidays but Scottish weather isn’t quite as kind …)
- Spirit level (or iPhone app): the easiest method to check you’re level is to pour a glass of something cold. However, assuming you’re not cracking open the wine while still maneovering into your parking space (it’s been known, though …), I would recommend the TiltMeter iPhone app.
- Portable stove: don’t make the mistake we did and cook smelly fish in the camper van when it was still new … instead, go to Go Outdoors and buy a cheap single-burner stove and cook smelly and fatty foods (sausages, bacon) outside to save your interior. It uses butane gas canisters, available in packs of three. Ours just stays in the boot until needed.
- 3 piece saucepan set and frying pan: ours came from a second-hand shop
- Kettle: there’s nothing to beat a kettle with a whistle (even if the ‘whistle’ keeps falling off the spout !). The silicone Wacky Practicals kettle is now becoming popular which is a neat design, and I see they also make buckets and bowls
- Plates, bowls, cutlery, utensils, mugs etc.: not forgetting essentials like tin opener, veg peeler, bottle opener / corkscrew, kitchen knife, wooden spoon, sporks, chopping board, tea towel and a metal stove-top coffee pot (still the best design for good, strong coffee). Our melamine plates/bowls came from Cath Kidston, the coffee pot we already had for camping and everything else is best bought from Ikea
- Collapsible colander: collapsible silicone designs are great space-savers. Ours came from Amazon
- Orlieb waterproof carrier: this was our star buy last year. It always seems a hassle to get your dishes washed after a meal – what do you stack dirty dishes in to take them to get washed ? We spotted someone on a campsite in Holland with one of Ortlieb’s large 20 litre waterproof buckets and immediately wanted one. It’s so versatile and folds down really small. According to Ortlieb, “it can be used for a whole host of chores including doing dishes, washing clothes, berry-picking, as an outdoor aquarium, feeding animals or even bathing young children“
- BBQ: we have a simple and classic bucket BBQ from RE that works really well. I don’t think they sell it anymore but others are available
- Bike rack: as I mentioned above I think that a tailgate-mounted bike rack (the VW one is most commonly purchased) not only impedes the rear view but also lowers fuel economy. Instead, we have a towbar-mounted rack which I only fit when I need to (the detachable towbar literally takes minutes to fit). We use the Thule bike rack I used on my previous car which unfortunately doesn’t tilt backwards enough to allow the rear tailgate to clear it completely. This is a minor hassle given that I need to take the bikes off before I can open the tailgate but acceptable given how frequently this happens. However, from what others have said I think top-of-the-range Thule bike rack and the Atera Strada rack tilt back much more and so it you’re buying from scratch these are the ones to go for.
- Odds and ends box: in the boot I keep a plastic lidded box with various items for camping such as the hook-up leads plus the continental versions, a 2-person tent (in case of ’emergencies’ or surprise visitors !), BBQ utensils, a short piece of hose with a funnel on the end to fill up the water tank, tools and gaffa tape, and a crab line and hooks.
The accessories we haven’t found or needed (yet) …
While these are the accessories we have, I’m aware that there’s a lot of discussion about other accessories that other Cali owners rate. These include:
- Silverscreen windscreen covers: while the internal windsreen cover cuts out most of the light and retains some heat on cold nights, it’s not that great at reducing condensation. The Silverscreen fits on the outside of the windscreen (attached by looping around the mirrors and two front doors) and I’m told is very effective in reducing condensation. (See the third Cali from the left in the photo above).
- Rubbish bin: more organised campers have a bespoke rubbish bin (we use plastic bags !). Ikea make a bin (the narrow ‘Rationell’ waste sorting bin) that fits neatly behind the front passenger seat
- Cobb BBQ and/or Remoska cooker: others swear by these convenient and flexbible additional cookers … I guess we just haven’t felt the need.
I hope you find this useful. I’d stress once again that much of this is down to personal preference – I’m only providing our experiences and highlighting others’ choices. Enjoy accessorising your camper van and remember: accessories are only a means to an end, so the most important thing is just to get out there and enjoy the great outdoors !
For those interested in buying an awning or canopy for their camper van you may be interested in my Buyers’ Guide (posted August 2013).