Winter Camping: Spain, France, Italy, Austria, Germany

We loved our first full season of winter camping… Christmas and New Year on the Costa Brava, northern Spain – winter sun, medieval villages, catching up with our pals Tom and Zoe, paddleboarding on boxing day, midnight grapes in Girona, the Dali museum in Figueres…

After that, we trundled across the south of France, through the Camargue region, where they speak Catalan, and have bull fights, and flamingos, more gorgeous medieval hill towns – like St Paul de Vence, all snickleways and art galleries.

We sped through Italy, through some areas that had really suffered in recent floods, stopping to admire some new places like Mantua, Valvasone, Palmanova. We had a fantastic and hilarious weekend in Trieste with our friends from Newcastle, Aston and Edy, who relocated there last summer with their kids, Daisy and Lily. Great place to park the van, 100 yds from Piazza Unita!

Then, with some serious weather threatening, we made a dash up to Austria – Bev driving us through the Dolomites and over the Brenner Pass. We made it to our campsite in Leutasch one night earlier than planned. Fortunately, they had space and we were all set up before a huge dump of snow on the day we would have been traveling. An amazing week cross country skiing, beautiful ‘winter wonderland’ scenery and great exercise.

Then into Germany, more lovely medieval towns (a bit of a theme!), a little detour to catch a gig by jazz guitar maestro Martin Taylor, even sneaking in an extra cross country ski trip at Bodenmais. Heading inexorably back to the UK, but no rush!

Wild camping vs. campsites

Feels like we’re really starting to get the hang of this. The only nights we’ve been on a proper campsite since we left the UK in December were our ‘holidays’ – 3 days at Christmas in Spain and for my birthday, a week in Austria, Cross Country Skiing. Mostly, we’re finding places using park4night, usually free, occasionally 1 euro for water or electric. That’s helping keep our costs down, which we’re having to think about a little more carefully now. I’m starting to pick up some freelance work – using my day job skills in data, programming, analysis and analytics – remote projects that I can deliver on the move.

Update on van life costs

Two of the most read posts on the blog are “How much does it cost to run a campervan?” and the update I did after a few months in the newer, bigger motorhome, “75 days into our van life and European adventure – progress and costs”. I promised another update – so here’s the fun facts, figures and stats after 9 months…

Average Daily Costs

Adding up all the costs – except the one huge outlay for the purchase of the van! – and dividing by the number of days gives a headline spend of £54.85 a day. Here’s how that breaks down:

As mentioned in other posts, we can’t treat everyday like a holiday. We try to spend at least a little cash in every town we stay, but we certainly don’t eat out everyday. For us, it’s part of the adventure – cooking in the van and entertaining ourselves, making it a home from home. That £21 a day on Shopping/Social covers, for 2 adults and 2 dogs: food, drink, boring shopping (scourers, loo roll, washing up liquid, dog poo bags), toiletries, new clothes and shoes when things wear out, dining out and socialising, art galleries, cinemas, attractions, etc.

Various Van Costs covers up-front, ad-hoc and regular costs like insurance, the GPS tracker subscription, MOT, servicing, repairs and purchases like chocks, winter tyres, snow chains. That covers about 18% of our total spend, which is probably more than we might have set aside for contingencies. Worth considering that if anyone is budgeting for a similar trip.

Fuel – about 15% of our daily spend – works out at about 18p a mile.

Our average spend per night on site fees is down to £6.20 – this is mainly due to us getting much more comfortable wild camping. Park4night has been invaluable, highly recommended. In December, we stayed just 9 nights on a site – so that’s over 70% wild or free camping.

Thinking ahead to winter camping in Austria, we invested in a fixed LPG tank. This has bumped our gas costs up for now, but every time we fill it costs just £10-12 instead of around £35 to swap a bottle. It will have paid for itself after another 10 refills. An 11kg bottle (which holds around 20 litres of gas) lasts 9 to 12 days at the moment, whereas in summer it lasted well over a month.

We avoid tolls mainly – in France, Spain and Italy, for example, you just don’t get to see the little towns and villages and while they might save time, they’re often longer journeys in terms of miles and diesel. This cost is mainly Eurotunnels, a few ferries and the bridges in Denmark.

Finally, I think we’ve been very well served by EE using our phones and mobile data abroad. 4G signal is usually available, with the exception of Germany where it was really patchy, which surprised us. Watch out in Andorra, which is not EU, so the free roaming did not apply – Flight mode on 🙂 Signs so far point towards us still being able to use UK allowances in Europe after Brexit – I really hope so. We’ve used a bit more data in winter, settling in on a night to watch a box set on Amazon or Now TV.

Miles, MPG and Diesel Costs

Average miles traveled per day: 45

I use an app called Simply Auto to track some of our expenses – diesel, lpg gas, camp site fees, MOT, repairs, etc. Plotting the mileage figures against the dates shows we’ve been quite consistently on the move around that 45 miles/day average:

Countries visited: 20

UK, France, Belgium, Luxembourg, Italy, Monaco, Switzerland, Slovenia, Croatia, Austria, Hungary, Slovakia, Czech Republic, Poland, Germany, Denmark, Sweden, Holland, Andorra, Spain

We’re on to our second ‘lap’ of Europe now, heading into Italy after Christmas and New Year along the Costa Brava and the south coast of France.

Average miles between fill-ups: 392

Average fuel efficiency overall is at 30.6 mpg, but it’s been noticeably worse over recent months. We were a bit heavier with extra guitars and have occasionally had to run the engine to top up the leisure batteries. In the UK, with shorter grey days, the solar charger couldn’t keep up with our demands. (Mainly me, working on the album on the laptop!)

Average price paid for a litre of diesel: £1.22

Here’s how different countries compared…

Average price paid over 33 fill-ups from April to December 2019.

Several times now, we’ve found it’s worth a small detour into Luxembourg to fill up. Lots of French, Belgians and Germans do the same – you can see them queuing at the first station over the border. Andorra – a tax haven – was full of French and Spanish shoppers buying duty free booze, fags and fuel. I’ve never seen so many petrol stations in such a small area! The Spanish price was surprising low – but again that was just over the border from France, luring folk in. 

At the other end of the scale, Sweden, Italy and the UK came in at or over the £1.30 mark.

Estimated Annual Costs

Our house is still rented out, so we’re aiming to stay in the van for a full year. Looks like we’re still on track for around £20,000 – probably just over now, with a few repairs and additional van costs like the winter tyres and snow chains.

Questions?

Happy to answer any questions anyone might have. If you’re planning a similar trip or there’s something I’ve not covered here, you can message via the facebook page, @howaskew on instagram or on twitter. Go on, ask me how many times I’ve had to empty the loo. (You can probably guess how many times Bev’s done it.)

What’s the plan?

After a spell in the UK – band gigs in September, a trip to Scotland, recording the new album, catching up with our Newcastle friends and seeing our families for early Christmas celebrations – we set off early December, more or less back to our “the plan is, there is no plan” approach, practicing the art of bimbling…

  • seeing some sights and enjoying our freedom to travel around Europe (while it lasts)
  • living more simply and more healthily, being outdoors, eating well
  • spending more time together, and seeing friends and family
  • playing more music, writing new songs
  • heading towards Austria to test our winterised van and do some cross country skiing 

That should take us up till mid March. I’ve started keeping an eye open for stats and data science project work, but until then we’ll just keep rolling, looking for gigs along the way.

Icons made by Smashicon, Those Icons and OCHA from www.flaticon.com

Charts made in RStudio, using dplyr, ggplot2, countrycode, ggflag, maps, mapdata

Foraging, baking and fishing…

Part of van life is to try to make it feel like a home from home, especially if you’re using it as a long term base. For me, this means eating as healthily as we did at home, and to trying to ensure a varied diet. So, I’ve been out foraging – trying to find fresh, free ingredients on our travels. Sweden in particular was great for this, not just because of the timing of our visit there, but because foraging and fishing are allowed pretty much anywhere. Since then, we’ve kept our eyes open along the way – through Germany, Holland, Belgium, France and now back in the UK.

Things we have foraged include…

Elderflowers

Made some delicious refreshing cordial in Slovakia.

Blueberries and bilberries

I’ve made several pies and some lovely jam. I’ve also added them to our morning smoothie.

Samphire

On the Dutch coast, we found plenty and enjoyed it blanched with a sardine salad and also with tuna pasta dishes. It’s salty flavour really goes well with seafood.

Cob nuts

A type of hazelnut, I waited for them to go brown, toasted them and added them to our breakfast bars instead of almonds. We don’t have a nut cracker in the van… so I used the pliers!! Everything has more than one use, it’s about time those pliers earned their keep.

Apples and Blackberries

Now we’re back in the UK, there’s plenty of blackberries and apples, so I’m looking forward to long walks foraging with the dogs, and a surfeit of crumbles… mmm!

Wild raspberries too – Didn’t find a huge amount (Boo learned how to pick them, so we lost a good few!) but they were great on top of our breakfast cereal.

Fish!!??

Our good friend Guy has lent us a fishing rod, so if and when we head back to Europe, we’re going to be spending some time in the lakes of Germany and Sweden trying to catch our supper. We’ve had a first foray in the North sea at Robin Hood’s Bay, hoping to catch sea bass…will keep you posted…

Lavender

I made some scented wardrobe hangers from flowers we collected in Hungary and Slovakia.

Baking Update

In addition to baking breads and pizzas as previously reported, I’ve made all sorts – Here’s a selection of the best efforts…

Bread

Cracked this now – the secret is turning it 5 times in our Thetford gas oven. Home-made blueberry jam on home-made toast – perfect!

Melting peanut butter chocolate puds

Another favourite comfort pud from home, works a treat in the van.

Flarn

A Swedish recipe, from our friend Ucci’s Dad. They are thin, coconut and orange biscuit – deliciously with or without buttercream filling.

Pizza, Ciabatta and garlic bread

Thin crust pizzas, made from scratch – they require careful turning in the oven, but well worth the effort.

Chelsea buns

Sticky, cinnamon goodness – Another firm favourite!

Cookies

White chocolate and cranberry! We had mixed results with a certain batch of Italian butter, but these are usually a quick and tasty treat.

Choosing a motorhome

We’d had our campervan – a converted T5 transporter van, nicknamed “Voyager” – for 3 years and had some fantastic adventures. We really caught the bug. As well as regular weekend escapes, gigs and festivals, we’d done 2 longer trips around Europe – first for 2 weeks and then 3 weeks. We loved it and wanted to go further afield and stay away longer, much longer e.g. months.  On our last trip we found more wild camping sites – Bev’ll do a post on the Park4Night app at some point – and again loved the freedom (and low cost) and wanted to do more of that. For a few reasons, we started to think that a bigger van might be required:

Living and storage space. We’re not just thinking in terms of taking a long holiday, we want to take our lives on the road to some extent. We’ll look long and hard at what we need – we are downsizing after all – but it’s likely we’ll have to take more ‘stuff’ than we do currently. (And that already includes the dog’s beds/coats/food, Bev’s paddleboard, my guitars, etc.)

We were lucky with the weather on our longer trips – it was sunny, dry and warm. I think if we’d had more rain, we’d have struggled a bit with wet coats, boots and 2 wet dogs! So, if we’re going to be away longer and we intend to keep on camping through winter, we should prepare for that.

Also, we love being outdoors and have the picnic table and chairs but we may also need space to ‘work’ indoors, especially through winter.

A made up bed. It might be part of the fun for some, making up a bed each night from the sofa but we love the idea of a separate space for sleeping. We’re both quite tall so sleeping widthways is not an option for us in a normal van. In Voyager, we came close by sleeping ‘upstairs’ – in the pop top. We could leave the bedding up there during the day and when driving. This also meant one of us could have a lie-in while the other got up to sort the dogs and make a cuppa in the morning. Of course, with the bed ‘down’ there isn’t much headroom so you have to do all this hunched over! We began to dream of doing this morning ritual without stooping and it became a ‘must-have’ for our new van.

Facilities for wild camping. Although the VW van was easy to drive on narrow roads and could get us into places that we’d never reach in a motorhome, there were a few drawbacks. The fresh water capacity in the conversion was a bit limiting at 12 litres, and it was fiddly to fill. So, more fresh water and an integrated waste tank were required. Having lived with 12v electrics and a Waeco CR50 compressor fridge and a Truma gas-only heater, we also knew we wanted more fuel/power options for storing food, cooking and heating the living area. Ideally, this would include solar.

Full winterisation for year-round travel. That means better insulation, decent heater, frost protection on the water supply, etc.

Although we’d got into to a fairly slick routine for setting up and packing up, we still imagined ways to make it easier. In an ideal world, it would be effortless to move from driving to camping modes – just pull up when we find the perfect spot and drive off whenever we felt like it. We began to look at motorhomes admiringly, and pondering… if we wanted to wild camp for days, we’d probably need a loo and a shower, so we’d need more water, and a built in waste tank, and what about the comfy captain’s chairs for driving long distances, that spin round to make a dining area with the adjustable table… And, ooh, built in cab-blinds… Classic van envy!

When you start looking at motorhomes, there’s a huge range of styles, layouts and of sizes. Some are absolute monsters. We decided on a few more criteria:  

Not too long! Neither me nor Bev have much experience driving big vehicles and I’d already had a ‘minor altercation’ with an underground car park in Heidelberg. We don’t want to have to avoid back country roads entirely. The van was 5m and we knew this would be bigger, but ideally under 6m as we’d heard this can be a size limit for some ferries in Scotland and sometimes vans over this length get charged more.

Reasonable fuel efficiency. The VW was fantastic, averaging 36 mpg. We’d seen online some motorhomes did less than 20 mpg which seems boggling. Ideally, hoping for something around 25-30 mpg.

Of all the different brands, types or classes, and layout options, we soon homed in on just 2 layouts and there weren’t many options in our price range:

French Bed layout – fixed bed, with storage underneath accessible from outside, separate bathroom, kitchen area, lounge.

Transverse Bed – fixed bed, even more storage accessible from outside, separate bathroom, kitchen area, lounge.

A chance encounter at Marquis Motorhomes in Birtley, where Bev ambushed a chap bringing his motorhome in for it’s annual service and he generously showed us around, convinced us that there was only one make and model that would tick all the boxes – the Benimar Mileo 201, a low-profile coachbuilt motorhome with a transverse bed layout.

Benimar Mileo 201

Typically for us, we had to be even more particular – it had to be a late 2015 or later model, as the earliest versions weren’t fully winterised.

Elddis had a transverse bed model, which was a cheaper option, but it wasn’t winterised, didn’t seem as well finished, and even the brand new models just had a ‘dated’ look/feel to them, like your Granda’s old caravan.

Benimar have a French Bed model, the 231, but we saw that it lacked a preparation space in the kitchen – something Bev was keen on. (A cooking and baking post coming soon!) We also liked the L shaped lounge, thinking there’ll be a bit more room when the whippets want to climb on our laps.

There’s a review of the early 201 models here. We watched this video countless times, despite the terrible spanish puns, while we scoured the second hand sites for a decent late-2015 201 to come up.

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