Thinking of Buying a VW Camper Van?
If you've not owned one before, there are many factors to consider. Camper vans are expensive, and the old adage 'you get what you pay for' tends to apply. There are two main ways to minimse the price: buy privately rather than from a dealer, and buy in late autumn or winter when demand is at its lowest.
Before you buy, take a good look at what's available. Camper vans aren't a 'one size fits all' product. There are various different layouts, and many possible extras which you might, or might not, find useful. Look at manufacturers' and dealers' websites for pictures and specifications, and look on Ebay and Autotrader to get an idea of what your budget will get you. Most campervan owners will be pleased to show a prospective newbie their pride and joy, and to pass on their top tips, so when you see one in the supermarket car park, don't be shy – go and talk to them.
I hope this page will take you a step or two closer to knowing what sort of camper van will suit you best. I bought my first van, a 3 year old VW Transporter T4 short wheelbase with a high top, converted by Aztec Campers of Swansea, in 2005. Many of the more reasonably-priced T4 and T5 camper vans on the UK market are similar to this one. It's a simple but practical approach to making the best use of the available space. Most come with only the bare necessities: simple cooking facilities, a water supply and a bed. For many owners there's no need for anything more.
The Volkswagen T4 is the most rugged base vehicle you will find. With a high top it looks somewhat ungainly. You'll also find vans with a standard height roof, and with 'pop-tops'. These look a little prettier, and have the advantage of being able to fit under height barriers. Pop-tops are not so warm in the winter, and as they age the canvas sides are prone to leak.
This is the short wheelbase model which is by far the most common. The long wheelbase versions are about 13 inches longer. In practical terms, with the 'classic' layout the longer wheelbase isn't much of an advantage. This van has tinted windows which help keep the interior cool in strong sunlight and provide an element of privacy which is great when you're having lunch in a supermarket car park.
The cab is functional and tough. The plastics feel unbreakable and everything is well screwed together so you won't get any rattles. No other van provides such a car-like driving position. The steering wheel is smaller than in most vans, and at a comfortable angle, and the dashboard is the same as you'd find in a Golf of a similar age.
A top-opening tailgate is preferable to side opening doors. With this layout there's a substantial 'boot' space at the bottom. It's big enough to accommodate a folding bike. The five gallon water tank is easily accessible. More sophisticated designs tend to have under-floor storage and waste tanks which are all very well except in really cold conditions (for example the Alps, where we braved minus 15 degrees at night), in which case they are likely to freeze solid and crack unless you empty them out.
The classic layout: cupboards along one side, bench seat on the other. Some vans have the seat positioned further back which provides more floor space but less storage.
The under-seat cupboard is where the table lives. There's plenty more space, quite possibly too much really.
Above the cab is a huge cavity which will swallow as many duvets and sleeping bags as the family could need. The side cupboards will swallow more, and above the back seat is a space where I kept clothes.
Interior, with the table up. A van this size is most comfortable for two people. Three is ok, but four starts to become something of a crowd. The table is within easy reach of the rear bench seat, but too distant to reach from the swivelling passenger seat.
Most VW T4 camper vans have a single passenger seat which swivels 180 degrees. The standard van version is more likely to have a twin bench seat here.
This type of conversion tends not to have the 'rock-and-roll' type of bed which you'd find in the posher Autosleepers, Reimo, Bilbos or Westfalia conversions. However once it's folded down there's no difference: it's a bed, and unless you're really tall it's pretty comfortable for one or two people.
Cooking facilities are simple: a two burner hob and a grill. The vast majority of campers with this layout have the same arrangement, though a few have a mini oven. The sink has just a cold tap, and drains 'straight out' – there isn't a waste water tank. When parked up anywhere where draining waste water isn't acceptable, a bucket can be placed below the outlet.
The high top not only provides more headroom, it can also be used as a bed with the addition of two wooden boards. If sufficiently padded (we used a double duvet folded over – there isn't really enough vertical space for an inflatable mattress) it makes an acceptable sleeping space for one small person, ideally a child. If you see a van like this descibed as four berth, don't be fooled: in reality it isn't unless your children are very small.
A mains hookup is usually fitted in vans like this. You need the correct type of cable to connect with the mains outlets at sites where these are provided. We never used the hookup. From my experience I would say that if you need high powered mains appliances this kind of van isn't for you. A 12v leisure battery (which I added after purchasing this van) can provide power at 240v via an inexpensive inverter, and is easily enough to provide power for phone chargers, laptops and other low-drain electrical items which you might find useful.
A diesel heater is one of the most useful additions you can make to a camper van. An Eberspacher diesel powered blown-air heater is the best option. This system has been tried and tested in ambulances and in trucks with sleeper cabs for decades. Typically it will draw fuel from your main diesel tank, with power for the fan ideally provided from a leisure battery. If properly fitted its fuel pipe will not reach the bottom of the tank, ensuring it can't drink the diesel you need to run the engine. Fuel consumption is about 1 gallon for 24 hours' use, and the power output is around 2 kilowatts which is plenty to heat the interior of a camper van on even the coldest night. A brand new Eberspacher fitted will cost around £1000. You will find used ones on Ebay for a lot less, but be aware that fitting is quite complex and must be done properly. Also, quite a lot of the Eberspachers on Ebay are the 24 volt ones from trucks. These aren't suitable for a camper van. You need a 12 volt version.
The standard fit 'Beta' stereo in a T4 is a Sony unit which is serviceable but far from great... and it plays the quaint old 'cassette', not CDs. The standard-fit speakers are of woefully dreadful quality. By replacing these with better speakers – I added some Alpine 4" units which cost just £30 for the pair – you can radically improve the sound quality. Replace the Beta with something better and you'll have great sounds when you're on the road. There's a handy slot just below the stereo where you can stash you ipod.
Home is where the van is, and my T4 camper van has been as often as possible. This year (2009) she has been superceded by a more comfortable Autosleepers Trident on a 2009 VW T5. We've stayed on sites for a handful if nights, but there are a million and one fantastic places you can pull up, enjoy the view, take a kip, enjoy the view again, and then move on leaving no trace that you were ever there, all for no charge. Wild camping is what a compact campervan like the VW T4 is great for. For info and lively conversation see the Wild Camping Forum.
Any comments? You can contact me via this page.
Le Roc Cornut in the Corbieres, deepest southern France.
A gorge in the Drôme, France.
Between Grenoble and Sisteron, a road not to be missed.
Near Newgale, Pembrokeshire, before I removed the horrid bull bar and red stripes.
Pyrénées between Spain and France. Luckily the snowploughs got there before me.
In the Spanish Pyrénées
Any layby will do if you're tired. After a 3am ferry, chances are you will be. This one is near Dunkerque.
Above Quillan in the Aude.
Closer to home, the winding road which crosses the Brecon Beacons between Talybont on Usk and Merthyr Tydfil.
See also more T4 campervan info