Liz and Ian are keen campervan owners, having previously owned a converted VW T4 Multivan. When they needed a van that could be insured for business purposes they swapped the Multivan for a brand new VW California Beach, spending their kids’ inheritance in the process ! The Beach has a similar layout but with many more features. Being experienced owners, Liz has been kitting out their new Beach with accessories they know they’ll use – including washable seat covers, an insulated roof cover and a towbar-mounted bike rack.
‘Happy Campers’ is a series of posts featuring camper vans and their owners. It’s designed to offer advice and inspiration to new and existing camper van owners – featuring members of the WildaboutScotland community. To take part, please send an e-mail to me answering the standard question format below together with a good photo or two.
1. Introducing myself and my camper van
I’m Liz, and with Ian, my better half, I want to introduce you to the VW California Beach. We bought it a couple of months ago – an ex demo with just 10 miles on the clock. I’ve never had such a new vehicle but we decided to spend our three boys’ inheritance and enjoy it 15 years before we can consider retiring and might be less fit! The van is called ‘Snowy’ – it’s white and it’s about adventures (but there isn’t a Tintin). What we get in the Beach is all that we loved in our previous van… with far more beside. This post describes both our vans to illustrate how a van can work really well without a built-in kitchen. If you are looking at buying a camper and haven’t had one before, this might help you to prioritise what you want and compare with the fully-fitted SE.
Four years ago we bought a 15 year old VW T4 Multivan, The Womble. Ian cut a hole in the roof of this brilliant vehicle and added one of the excellent side-lifting Space Roofs so that he could stand all the way along its length. That wonderful Surf Blue T4 took us on our honeymoon in Wales (both on our second marriage), transported big teenage boys to and from university or first home with loads of stuff, carried building materials for our house renovation, and provided a wonderful holiday home that carried bikes and our inflatable canoe.
Features that led us to choose and subsequently love in the Multivan were:
- full-width bed
- washable floor
- side-lifting table fixed to the side
- the option of having 7 seats – with two of the seats being removable.
We chose not to have a kitchen built in because we wanted the added space without it and we just didn’t want the smell of cooking in the van. For cooking and storage we used our pop up tent from Decathlon which was tall enough for Ian to stand in. It’s shown here with our old van (as we haven’t put it up with the Beach yet) and can be placed very close to the door. We also bought a simple cassette burner (best reviewed is the Camping Gaz Bistro) for making hot drinks when out and about and for cooking in the open.
There wasn’t a built-in hook up electric point in the T4 van, so we pushed the hook-up lead through the sliding window and used duct tape over the window opening to stop rain coming in. This gave us three sockets – there were already several 12v sockets for the cooler box (£40 or so) – and we bought a 3 pin to 12v converter for when we were using hook up so that the main battery wasn’t drained.
Water was stored in 2 litre bottles that can be chucked at the end of a trip – I don’t like the thought of water sitting in a large plastic store for long.
But we had to sell our beloved Womble to go from three vehicles to two (two cars being needed for work). We found that we would not be able to insure a van conversion for Ian to use for work. Very quickly, this led us to the VW factory fitted models. The California Beach fitted our needs exactly and, as there were few on the second hand market that differed much in price or met our preferences, we found ourselves on the road from Oxford to VW Commercial Vehicles in Preston to see this gleaming new van…
2. How do I use my camper van ?
The T5 is such a lovely drive so we use it for anything and everything that requires a vehicle – and want to spend more time in it on trips but life doesn’t let us quite yet. Its front and rear sensors make parking easy, and the gears easy to use, even for a shortie like me! It’s used for work, for transporting the boys’ worldly goods to new homes, for overnight trips and long stays, for day trips, and to carry up to 7 people (although the removable seats are somewhat heavy to lug in and out). It has not been used for carrying building stuff yet but that might happen before long…
In mixed driving, the 114 bhp 2 litre BlueMotion engine has averaged 44 mpg over 2,000 miles. Not bad… and that’s not crawling along on the decent roads. There is plenty of power in the lowest spec Beach engine.
3. Best thing I love about my van ?
The space and versatility. See above for all the things that our T4 had. And then add:
- a wonderful night heater that is incredibly economical, running off the diesel without smell or sound. We’ve taken Snowy out in December and kept lovely and warm;
- a wind-out awning which will add so much to the living options;
- a table that is bigger than in the T4, can be fixed to the side, and also removes as an independent table for sitting outside the van;
- the brilliantly designed tailgate that stores the folding chairs;
- lots of little lights;
- a leisure battery so we don’t need a hook up for the lights or heat;
- a built in hook-up with electrics for when we want power e.g. for work on laptops;
- the option to have a huge boot by sliding forward the bench seat;
- the option to have a tiny boot and huge sitting area by folding the multi-flex board down;
- blinds which are more convenient than curtains (although the front window curtains are a little fiddly!);
- the option of using the mattress from the top bed to cover the seats that make the bottom bed. We found that the bed from the bench seat and boot bench is OK – but firm;
- it’s about 8 inches bigger than the short wheel base T4 – not as big as a long wheel base but just a little more room;
- the range of plastic moulded holders in the front and rear – holding a big bottle of water, a whistling kettle, games, maps, first aid, duct tape, spare plastic bags, torch, wind up radio, bungees etc etc;
- the neat sliding closer above the front cabin that conceals the roof mechanism;
- front seats that turn to face the rear to make a sitting area; and
- it’s factory fitted and incredibly quiet – no rattles anywhere.
There are so many things that I love!
4. Pet gripes ?
The Beach is brilliant but there are a few little design things that could have been included to increase functionality. The most frustrating aspect is that the front plastic window in the roof canvas that you see in the SE is not a feature of the Beach. I have no idea why – but I really miss the light from a window there. I don’t like the dark canvas much either – at least there are two fly screens at the side for light when the roof is up.
There is one useful but small corner shelf exposed when the roof and bed are up – but it’s not mirrored the other side; and there is a reading light in the tailgate on one side but not the other – no logic in that. Having these the same each side would have made a big difference.
Finally, a couple more moulded hooks in the upper frame would have added useful coat storage.
As has been pointed out with the SE, it should be easier to rotate the driver’s seat without risking scratching the side pillar or having to take the handbrake off.
5. Favourite accessories ?
I think that our pop-up tent from Decathlon has to be the favourite accessory: when I watch the time it takes for other van owners to erect and dismantle their awnings (having helped a few out on site), I feel very happy that the 2.25m squared tent literally throws up, and takes just a few minutes to put away as you tame the springy frame into its circular bag (have a look at the video and you’ll see why I say ‘tame’). It is such a brilliant design in every way and the one we bought 4 years ago is still going strong.
The other really important accessory is the Jackyards washable sailcloth seat covers. They really brighten up the rather dark interior and we love the seaside feel of the turquoise. These also mean that it doesn’t matter if we spill drink or bring muddy clothes in.
For those who want the space of the Beach and a removable built in kitchen, there are some clever units that can easily slot in behind the passenger seat like this one but I don’t think we’ll be buying one as we still prefer to keep cooking out of the van.
We have two bright canvas messenger bags (£15 each from Amazon) over the back of the front seats and these carry our basics very tidily so that we are ready just to pack water and food and go… I have no wish to spend huge sums on the purpose built seat-pockets when these do well and can be taken out as messenger bags.
We are keen cyclists but thought that the VW bike rack took too much light and was very high to lift dirty bikes onto… so we had a towbar fitted and have started using the Atera 3-bike rack which means that the van tailgate can be lifted to access the boot with the bikes still on.
We’ve just bought a breathable cap for improved insulation and heat deflection but haven’t used it yet. I’m looking forward to extended Snowy seasons.
6. Best tip for new owners ?
Get used to raising and lowering the roof so that the canvas is not trapped in the mechanism. We have bought one of the recommended canvas bungees and this makes a lot of difference.
Buy waterproof seat covers: we researched for ages and think that the sailcloth ones from Jackyards are the most comfortable, well-made and attractive around. Even though you pay a premium for them, they protect beautifully.
7. Best trip in my van ?
It’s still early days for our life with Snowy and we’ve only tested her at a very muddy farm in Brecon (you can see the cows through the window as we had to park in the yard – the field was too boggy to drive onto) and a lovely little marina site with warm bathrooms at Uphill near Weston Super Mare. With the Womble our best trip has to be our honeymoon when we toured Wales that wet summer of 2012. We preferred the van to a yurt that we booked for a couple of days; and we ended up with a visit to the delightful puffins on Skomer.
8. Dream trip ?
When we have fewer work pressures we really want to explore Scotland – those beaches around the Hebrides look amazing, and the cycling would be so much quieter than roads round here. That’s what drew me to the Wild About Scotland blog! Later this year we’re looking forward to some short trips about an hour from home where we can explore different locations by bike – lots to see, and lots of good cycling thanks to Sustrans routes.
9. Favourite campsite ?
We don’t seek much from a campsite but there are some features that make a site memorable – clean loos, hot water and a mirror for shaving, showers that don’t make your clothes wet, and friendly people. Many have lovely views, happy memories and interesting variations on facilities (in one, the shower drained onto the field…). Our favourite is Cliff Farm near Pickering. It was a simple site with beautifully clean, well-designed showers, great washing up facilities under cover with lovely views, a freezer full of local produce for sale and the option to buy the farmer’s free range eggs, a lovely owner. Oh, and delightful donkeys.
10. When I’m not camping I’m …
… working, cycling, volunteering and planning our next trips away – the anticipation is such fun.