Back in 2010 I started writing about “Remote Working”, initially on this blog, then split off into a separate “Rick on the Road” blog, written using my own (now abandoned) database-less blog software, which I called “eatStatic”. I even did a talk on this subject at the Anywhere Working event in 2013, talking about a summer spent freelance working from France, while touring France with my family in a vw beetle. A few years later, the blog morphed into “Camper Van Things” where the focus became more about the vehicle used for my nomadic working aspirations, than the work itself. Then I rebranded it as “Freerange Freelance”, to bring the focus back onto the remote working lifestyle. Just like this blog, each iteration eventually got a bit neglected, until some time last year, I mothballed it.
Seeing as I had already written some migration scripts to migrate content from my static blog engine to WordPress, it didn’t take much to adapt the script to pull content from the wordpress API and merge it with content from this blog. You can find all that content under the category “on the road“. I should probably take all of this as a warning about buying new domain names on a whim, and creating niche blogs!
When I started this blog (as “Rick on the Road”) in 2010, Instagram was yet to be launched, and it was another two years before Foster Huntington popularised the #vanlife hashtag on instagram. There were plenty of campervan-related videos on YouTube, but relatively few dedicated channels – at least compared to the massive amount that exist today. The first channels I remember watching were Chad DeRosa’s “Living The Van Life” and Where’s my office now (both US based) and Campervan Culture (UK based). Campervan Culture in particular raised the bar for the quality of video production as time went on, and was certainly the first time i’d seen drone footage in an “amateur” campervan video.
At time of writing there is a massive amount of choice of vanlife-related youtube channels, most of which have a parallel life in the form of an instagram account.
But what does “vanlife” actually mean?
This is a contentious issue, it seems. It’s a made-up word, with the word van and life joined together, and it seems to refer mainly to people who live in vans. I’ve seen comments on instagram and youtube where a full-time “vanlifer” will angrily claim the term for themselves, but with over 3.7 million instagram posts (at time of writing) using the tag, and i’d hazard a guess that only a tiny proportion of those pictures depict people living full-time in a van, so it’s a pretty generic term covering pretty much anything campervan-related whether it’s living in one, building one, or lying in the back of one looking at a sunrise while you pretend you haven’t just scrambled to set up the self-timer on your camera.
Is it possible to make a living making vanlife youtube videos?
It seems some people are, but they’ve had to work at it – regular videos with decent content, subscribers built up over a period of years, well designed thumbnails to draw people in (sometimes, dare I say, using clickbait tactics!). I was curious to know how much income some of these channels might generate, purely on youtube ad revenue – socialblade is a really useful site, if you want to get an idea. In short, even the most popular channels I watch aren’t making that much – a living possibly, but only if you have no rent/mortgage to pay because you live in a van! Having said that – youtube ad revenue is only part of the story, with sponsorships/ ad placement/ merchandise sales etc. also being a source of revenue. There’s also Patreon which is a sponsorship platform that some of the channels use for subscription-only content.
While we were planning and saving up for our current van, I started regularly watching van-related youtube channels and it became like reality TV for me. Most of the vans in the videos have their instagram names displayed so potential followers (instagram) or subscribers (youtube) can easily find them online if you spot them in the real world.
Here are some of the channels i’ve been watching recently. I’ve realised these are all UK-based channels – this wasn’t intentional but i’ve found the content to be more relevant to me than most of the US-based ones i’ve watched (plenty of good ones, maybe i’ll do another post on those), so i’ve just gravitated towards these channels.
This is probably the most popular uk-based vanlife channel – i’ve been following Theo and Bee on instagram before they even came up with the indie projects name. Their videos are a mixture of their own van adventures, initially in a VW T4, van tours of other people’s vans, their new van self-build sprinter van and their plans for a homestead in Portugal.
Rich from beyond the van popped up in a couple of Indie Projects videos and I started watching his various van conversion and European trip videos. The van conversions range from a Renault Kangoo up to an LDV Luton van. Loads of practical content to be found on the channel.
A really good travel series from Lucy and Ben, a couple travelling Europe in their self-converted LDV Convoy. Nicely filmed and narrated, plenty of travel inspiration to be found in these videos, even with the frequent breakdowns!
Martin has some funny content, I started watching this channel when he rapidly kitted out an old BMW estate to go travelling in when his van was off the road – if you’re on a budget and want ideas and a laugh, this is the channel to watch!
All the channels mentioned so far cover self-build vans and vanlife on a budget – Shaun and Lizzy cover the other end of the vanlife spectrum reviewing new stuff that costs almost as much as a house, and staying on actual campsites. Very watchable, and it’s interesting to see what’s on offer to buy off the shelf if budget wasn’t an issue.
I found this channel when I was looking for information on the retro-looking Barefoot Caravan. Then in a massive coincidence a few days later I bumped into them with their Barefoot at a campsite, and got a real-life tour, it was like stepping through the screen!
Youtube seems to attract the best and the worst when it comes to comments – I think the majority of the comments on these channels are positive, but there’s a lot of idiots commenting too – best avoided if you don’t want to come crashing straight back down to earth after a dose of vicarious vanlife!
Freerange Freelance on Social Media
No immediate plans for a Freerange Freelance youtube channel, though I wouldn’t rule it out entirely. But we are on instagram and twitter.
Do you have a vanlife channel/instagram channel that we should be following? Nudge us on instagram and let us know!
Although I like to use our campervan as a mobile office, I mainly work from a home “office” built in an existing shed. The breeze-block building was already there when we moved in, and luckily it is big enough to create an area where I can work.
It’s a typical “ongoing” project, started a few years ago by partitioning off an end section to remain as a proper shed, and then building out an insulated area with it’s own entrance. Nowhere near finished, it still looks very much like a shed on the inside, but I have plans for wood panelling (inside and out) and stylish lighting to make it instagram worthy!
We do actually have mains electric running out to the shed, so it doesn’t need to be off-grid, but as I already have most of the kit needed, why not?
The Solar panel
I recently bought a 100 watt portable solar panel kit made by Photonics Universe to use with the camper van, but also wanted to see if it would be possible to use it to keep my home office powered. The kit has a waterproof charge controller mounted on the back, so all you need to do is attach it to the battery, either with the crocodile clips as supplied, or via eyelets. I bought a second connector cable so there is one permanently wired into the van leisure battery and one on the portable battery, making it easy to swap from one to the other.
The “Office” kit
It’s a pretty minimal set-up – like when i’m in the van, I work mainly from the laptop, but with the added luxury of an external monitor, which is pretty handy when i’m working on any visual layout stuff for a website or web app.
My laptop these days is a 2015 era 13 inch macbook pro, and from looking at the plug-in current meter that I use, it looks though this requires about 20-30 watts to maintain an already charged laptop and 40+ watts when charging. The monitor requires a further 25 watts. In addition to this, I plan to occasionally run a USB powered fan and 12 volt LED lighting, both of which don’t require much power – at least in comparison to the mains appliances.
The Battery and electrics
A while ago I took a spare 90Ah car battery and built it into an old toolbox, with voltmeter, 12volt socket and USB sockets to use as a portable leisure battery set-up, so I have the solar panel charging this. Unlike the leisure battery in the van, this isn’t as proper leisure battery, so I need to be careful not to let the charge get too low, or risk permanently damaging it. The battery box has a fuse box inside with each item running off a separate fuse.
I then wired in another external panel with voltmeter, usb sockets and 12 volt socket, which will eventually be mounted on the wall. I’ve then got plugged into this, an old Belkin 150 Watt (300 Watt peak) inverter that is usually in the van. I’ll likely replace this with something better – a pure sinewave inverter that gives a smoother AC output very similar to mains electricity.
The garden, whilst reasonably private for a city and offering plenty of shade, isn’t ideal for a solar panel. The light only reaches the garden from about 10am, and disappears about 6pm, even in mid-summer. The panel needs to be moved frequently to remain in the sun. I’ve spent time imagining building some kind of automated track system to do this for me, and although I have some ideas, I doubt I will ever have the time to realise them! We also live in the UK, not famed for it’s year-round sunshine…
From experience in the van keeping a powered coolbox going (~60 Watts), the panel will have real trouble providing 75+ watts constantly, unless it’s in decent all day direct sunlight, so the battery will likely discharge throughout the day, depending on when I finish, how much sun there is and how often I get up and move the panel to be in the optimum position.
I’ve already found that my external monitor isn’t happy running from the inverter – it keeps going into standby, then attempting to power up again then back to standby, as if switching it on causes a power spike that then causes it to go back to standby. Not sure if that’s the inverter struggling, or the battery not supplying sufficient current – if the battery is plugged into a mains charger, the monitor stays on, so the inverter is certainly capable, but maybe the battery isn’t. It will be interesting to see if a different inverter would make a difference here, or whether the battery isn’t up to the job.
I need to try this out long-term to get a realistic idea, but i’m sure that I would benefit from a higher capacity battery (or batteries), so I can rely more on falling back to battery power, which can then be topped up from solar charging over the weekend to keep me going during the week. Having said that, if we are away in the campervan, the solar panel comes with us, so that’s not going to work! If I had the budget to do this seriously, I think i’d at least double the solar capacity and the battery capacity.
Even though it’s well insulated, there’s no chance of heating the space using solar (photovoltaic) power – any electric heating appliance, such as the Daewoo 2500 Watt oil filled radiator which I use in the winter uses way more wattage than could be provided by my inverter, and even with a high power inverter, massive bank of batteries and thousands of watts of solar panels you would struggle. The only realistic off-grid heating option is a wood burner or something gas powered, both of which aren’t cheap and would need to be carefully installed for obvious safety reasons.
One of the first jobs on the list when we bought Hercules was a swivel base for the passenger seat. T4 vans come with either a double passenger seat, so you can fit three people up front (would be handy actually, as we only have four seat-belted seats), or a single passenger captain seat. Hercules came with the latter.
There are two main different types of seat swivel – a swivel plate, which fits between the seat and the standard seat base, and a swivel base, which replaces the standard seat base. After a bit of research I chose the latter, on the basis that this would leave the seat at the same height as it would be on the standard base, whereas a plate will usually raise it slightly. I actually used a swivel plate on Rocky, our last T25 camper.
I ordered one from SVB Accessories , on the basis that it was crash-tested and a good price. They also do a version with a built-in safe which I was tempted by, but i’m kind of reluctant to put a (visible) safe in the van, as to me it kind of advertises to a potential thief where you keep your valuables. Or maybe you could double-bluff and have a visible safe as a distraction, but keep your valuables somewhere else!
Having had much older vehicles, I wasn’t sure how long this job would take, but luckily it went entirely to plan. Firstly, I slid the seat all the way back, and undid the allen bolts which hold the seat rails to the base.
Then I slid the seat all the way forwards and undid the allen bolts at the rear of the rails.
Then you can remove the seat, with rails still attached.
Using a socket wrench, you then undo the four nuts on the bolts which attach the seat base to the cab floor.
Then you bolt the swivel seat base in, and attach the rails to it. The base came provided with bolts, but I used the original allen bolts (as they sit flush inside the rails) with the nuts from the provided bolts.
All in all probably 25 minutes, which is a miracle for me, as I have been known to make a 25 minute job last all weekend!
Those of you who have followed a link to campervanthings.com might be confused to see a different domain name and site title “Freerange Freelance”. Let me explain!
The first version of this blog was called “Rick on the Road”, which started as a travel blog years ago, when my wife and I started looking at the idea of spending the summer touring france, with our (then) young son while I carried on working as a freelance web developer, attempting to keep an old plastic macbook with a two-hour max battery life charged from an inadequate portable solar panel, and attempting to keep in touch with clients and upload code over sketchy campsite wifi.
After that trip, the blog lost momentum until we bought a camper van and I enthusiastically relaunched it as “camper van things”, and wrote almost exclusively about camper van things.
It then lost momentum again, particularly after we sold the camper. This year having bought another van I thought I would give it a refresh and start writing again, and in doing so, I decided that the name of the blog didn’t really reflect what this blog is about.
So what is this blog about then?
I’ve worked (mostly) as a freelance web developer for over ten years now and the goal has always been flexible working. I’m lucky enough to have built a career that revolves around the internet and remote-working tools, and so most of the time I only need a charged laptop and a decent internet connection (wifi or 3G/4G) to do my job. Moreover, I prefer flexible work hours, and not having to commute to an office “day job”. All of those aspirations can be difficult to achieve sometimes, which I will talk about on this blog.
But you’re still going on about camper vans?
Yep! As far as i’m concerned, a camper van makes the perfect mobile office, and is the best way to combine travel, adventure and freelance work. Plus I just love camper vans, so they will still feature prominently, particularly the one we own.
Naming a blog is almost as difficult as naming a band. My wife is also freelance (TV/Video production/Copywriting) and we threw around a few ideas before coming up with this, then impulsively reserving the domain name and instagram handle. Twitter username character limit wasn’t long enough, so I left that one as @campervanthings for now. I think Freerange Freelance better covers the scope of this blog and any associated social media accounts.
Web development stuff
I’ll refrain from talking too much about web development on this blog, as I have another blog for that – if you’re interested in code, take a look at rickhurst.co.uk.
We are using a Quechua tarp fresh as an awning/canopy. We already had the tarp, which we used for tent camping to provide some outdoor rain cover or shade. We bought a couple of spare poles to give us more height and options to set it up as standalone canopy.
Our T4 had an awning “C” rail fitted in the roof gutter, and a quick bit of research showed that you can attach a “kador” strip to these. I ordered a length of kador strip off ebay and wondered if I should sew it to the tarp, but in the end I decided to put some brass eyelets in the strip then attach to the awning using toggles and some elastic shock cord.
The advantage of this over sewing is that if we need to move the van, the toggles can be removed and the kador strip pulled out, without needing to unpeg the awning. Plus I can’t sew!
Our T4 is the short wheelbase version – the awning is slightly wider than the rail so I tie either end down across the windscreen and tailgate.
Far longer in the planning than i’d like, but we now have a campervan again! This one is a 2001 VW T4 2.5 tdi short wheelbase which is mostly converted to a camper already – rock n roll bed, side windows, sink with running tap, leisure battery, insulation etc.
We were considering getting a bare van and doing the conversion ourselves, but with the summer getting closer by the minute I thought i’d see what was around already ready to camp in and this one had just been advertised – we all decided it would be perfect.
So far we’ve added a cooker and table, the cooker is a Vango Combi IR Grill Cooker, which is now screwed to the worktop.
The table is DIY, and attaches to the side unit using a Reimo sliding table rail.
Future ambitions include a pop-top, swivel passenger seat (or both seats, but leisure battery would need to be moved), and to create, or buy, a full length side unit for extra storage.
The van came with a cab bunk, but our son is too tall for that now, so during an experimental overnight camping trip we worked out that he could actually sleep on a self-inflating mattress on the floor, mostly under the bed but with head and shoulders in the space at the foot of the bed. Not ideal, and he’ll more likely be in his own tent until we get the pop top, but it’s good to know we can all sleep in the van as it is if we need to e.g. at an Aire du camping or other stopover where a tent can’t be pitched.
A year on from saying goodbye to our last campervan, we are really missing vanlife, so making plans for the next one. Our last van came to us fully converted as a 4-berth camper with pop-top roof, cooker, fridge, rock and roll bed, table wardrobe, cupboards etc., but this time we are planning a full DIY conversion ourselves, on a more modern van.
Being the master of unfinished projects, I don’t want to spend months and months converting it before we get to use it, so the idea is a phased approach, starting from the bare minimum, then adding to it over time.
So what actually constitutes a campervan? It will be a van, a short wheelbase panel van of some kind – we need to be able to park it on our crowded streets and drive it as a family car. Obviously, we want to be able to camp in it – sleep, cook and have somewhere to sit comfortably inside.
In theory, all you need then is to use it like a “tin tent” – chuck some camping gear and airbeds in the back and you have a campervan, but the basic DVLA criteria to be able to officially reclassify a panel van as a motorhome in the UK include:-
A fixed bed
Sink and tap
My first campervan didn’t meet these criteria, it was a very minimal conversion – a fold-down single bed made from an ikea futon frame, a freestanding gas cooker from a caravan bungeed to the rear of the passenger seat, and some rugs and stuff. At a push you could sleep 3 people – one on the bed, one on the floor and one across the engine bay diagonally, but only one of these options was remotely comfortable. That van was more of a hippy ex-student road-trip bus, not a family campervan.
I’ve also read that some campsites and festivals won’t accept a van unless it appears to be a camper van – nominally for safety regulations, but probably also to stop people just turning up in hired vans or builder’s vans with an airbed in the back and binbags taped over the windows.
So there’s some “official” criteria we need to meet eventually, if we want to reclassify it as a motorhome but there are also some minumum requirements of our own, to enjoy it as a family campervan. We want to be able to sleep three people comfortably – two adults and a taller-by-the-day teenager. This will be the biggest challenge until such a time we fit a pop-top to gain an extra double bed. I have some ideas, which may or may-not work, but there’s always awnings/ pop-up tents if we can’t all sleep comfortably inside straight away.
We need to cook, so I plan to build a unit to house our existing camping gas cooker, to keep it secure and to be able to store the gas bottle securely underneath. We can survive without a sink initally – even with the sink and tap in our last camper, we tended to wash up on a table using a washing up bowl.
We also need to be able to sit comfortably inside – many of our UK trips have been rainy and cold, so whatever bed arrangement I build needs to be able to be reconfigured during the day to allow us to sit around in a mobile living-room.
I’ll certainly want a leisure battery to keep interior lights, music and phones/ laptops running away from electric hook-up for a weekend. I have a plan for that, which i’ll cover in another blog post.
Though I have no current plans to live in van (or indeed, currently, a van to live in), i’m very interested in ideas for nomadic/remote working – the original subject for this blog. I did actually live and travel in a van for six months in my early 20’s, with a vague plan to “travel europe” and, like Mike, started off with a few grand in savings, and no fixed timescale. Aside from busking, I had no other income stream – this was in the mid-nineties when the internet was in it’s early days, and the term “digital nomad” was (probably) yet to be invented, so I needed to live as cheaply as possible to make the savings last.
So, like many people I suspect, I initially skipped straight to the “Making money on the road” chapter to see if I could pick up any tips. I then went back and read through from the start. He covers pretty much everything, other then details on conversion (covered in “From van to home”).
Thoroughly recommended, and inspiring – Mike tells me that a hard copy version will be available after the ebook, which I will happily buy to add to my coffee table/ toilet reading library!
Camper Van Things is taking a break for a while. It’s been fun, but Rocky has moved onto new adventures with a new owner, and therefore our current camper van adventure has come to an end. I’m not sure whether the content from this blog will be rolled back into my personal blog, or whether it will continue down the line if/when we get another van. So long for now!