The majority of #VanLife on YouTube seems to be trust fund babies buying the massive old inefficient diesel vans and throwing infinite money turning them into a moving studio apartment. This isn't a cheap thing to do, but kicking the planet in the face also isn't my vibe. I wanted to see if I could do something simple, cheap, and entirely electric.
Since full-time working on the road cycling a few laps of Europe 2019-2021, life has changed a bit. Instead of being a desk jockey software engineer, I've founded a reforestation charity, which means I've got a lot more than a laptop and charger to lug around. For a while cycling around with spades and mallets was cute, but I picked up a few injuries and to continue supporting my team in planting tens of thousands of trees each year I found myself renting little electric cars from companies like Onto and Elmo.
Clearly I need a bit more storage space, and that little car is no good for sleeping. The idea of cracking out a tent after a long day of running up and down big ass hills in named storms just felt a bit much. Even in summer, after a long day of wildfire prevention, getting in an actual bed was always a lot more tempting than a sweaty bivy, especially with no water around but still horrendous amounts of mosquitos, so I tried renting a few vans off Camplify.
I was hooked immediately, but didn't want anything that big (scraping both sides of a Cornish hedged lane at the same time was stressful), and hated the diesel. I've got friends with diesel vans, and we decided that depending on how much you drive, how much you live there, and how polluting your home was, a diesel van could lead to a lower carbon footprint. That might hold up, but for me, if I've got to get a calculator out to justify it, I might be trying a bit too hard.
I prefer to say "fuck fossil fuels" and see how far I can get with that.
Say Hello to My Little Friend
I looked at a few small and medium vans. I couldn't afford the electric medium vans, and eventually picked a tiny little Nissan E-NV200 (2018), that I have named The Struggle Bus.
On the first day I had it I was off running errands for Protect Earth. Slap an air mattress in there and it's a camper van!
There was loads left to do of course, but it was a brilliant start. Next I popped over to the farm my mate works on and had him grind out the bulkhead that refused to budge, opening up the space and giving me a few more inches to sleep.
Then I got a camper conversion shop nearby to slap some electronics in! We added a 380w flexible solar panel (sneaky, aerodynamic), which charges up 2 x 110Ah Victron batteries, with a super efficient MPPT charge controller keeping them topped up. The batteries and controller live under the seats out of the way.
To access all that goodness I have a little charger panel at the back of the van, which lets me charge up all the USB things, and two 12v lighter sockets for charging electronics with bigger needs. My 12v-to-USB-C charger handles my laptop, powers an electric blanket on colder nights, and can even power two Makita battery chargers for charity equipment like the electric chainsaw and strimmer.
I don't have any sort of battery monitor, so I don't ever know how the battery is doing. Even connecting to the Victron stuff over bluetooth doesn't seem to give me straight answers on "what % we at", but thankfully I have never run out of juice on the leisure batteries despite ragging them rotating through batteries, recharging one set whilst using another, all day, several days in a row. Even when the van is partially of completely shaded for hours, I don't run out of juice.
The conversion person did add a DC-to-DC charger which can charge the leisure battery off of the primary battery, but I literally never want that, and a friend disconnected it for me. In a beautiful imaginary world that little solar panel would be occasionally chipping in a few miles to the primary battery, not stealing them to top up a battery which I might not even use before its had a chance to charge back up off solar.
I'll sell that, and put it towards costs of getting a battery monitor and inverter installed, because I'll need that to power anything that needs a mains plug: e.g. a heater. With only the electric blanket for heat I'm pretty concerned about next winter. This one was tough (lots of pneumonia, possibly unrelated) so I want to get my little desk heater set up ASAP.
Getting a proper bed installed at a conversion place seems wildly expensive, so I grabbed a generic MDF bed kit off eBay for £330, and had the excellent Leando Services knock it together and secure it in place for £150.
It took several hours and a lot of cups of tea but we got it done. The single bed can slide out to a double for when my partner comes to join me on the road.
I grabbed two pieces foam for £120 at Foam Cut To Size (the most literally named business in the world), which turn that hard wooden surface into a comfy bed I struggle to get out of in the mornings.
Underneath the bed is a decent bit of storage, which stores all sorts of tools, and "the guest room" (my hammock and tarp) which I can get in when folks come to stay in the van.
Moving loads of stakes and tree guards however was a bit more of a faff. We had huge surplus of kit in our storage unit, and various farms out in rural Wales struggling to accept deliveries, so I was mushing kit around all over the place. More than a few times I would struggle around Powys and Ceredigion (Wales), limping between chargers that may or may not be working, then turn up at some random field to fly tip all the gear out before I could get in bed.
Getting more of that on the roof with roof bars was the best decision.
This means that I can load up the roof rack with ladders, fence posts, random sheet metal I'm nicking for the allotments, flytipping I'm returning to sender, muddy bikes, and always wooden stakes.
I possibly overloaded the bars in that photo, but I can still move about 250 wooden stakes up top, leaving a lot more space inside so that I can utilize just the middle row, and not have to have potentially sheep-shit covered guards on my bed. 😢
At first I was just using my Toaks biomass stove, which runs off a hand full of twigs. It's perfect for bikepacking, but is pretty inefficient at boiling water, especially on a damp day.
I fixed that with a Kelly Kettle, which I now use to knock out cups of tea and coffee for volunteers in the middle of nowhere. I can boil water and even use the stove top to fry or steam something at the same time. The best thing? It runs off broken tree stakes. 🤣
Fire is of course not always the best choice for the environment, but in the middle of nowhere the smoke isn't harming anyone, and I quite often run it off of invasive species which need to be burned to avoid regrowing.
So far I've not been moved on by the cops, or shouted at by farmers, in fact quite the opposite: I used the van to block a farmer trying to illegally cut down a hedgerow on my friends farm in nesting season, then blockaded the lane to stop them coming back any trying it again over night!
There have been a few mishaps with broken chargers or being a bit too cocky, leading to me limping along on Turtle Mode - the van slows down to 30mph on a dual carriage way to convince you to pull over, but I just kept limping along until I found something.
I also accidentally left the headlights on too long whilst setting up a tarp and lost the secondary battery. The primary and leisure batteries all had infinite power, but the little battery thats charged up by the primary battery couldn't get charged up until the van turned on, and it couldn't turn on until the on button had power... serious "divert power from main engine to secondary systems" Star Trek vibes there.
Generally it's been fine, and when I'm working on farms its obviously farm more likely for them to say "Yeah charge up in the barn over there" than it would be for them to say "Here's a few jerry cans of petrol you can have for free", so that's a winner.
There's more to do! I want to install a battery shunt so I can see what the % is, an install an 1000w inverter so I can use an induction stove to knock up simple breakfasts and a pot of coffee without having to venture outside in the elements, or "make a fire" in public.
I've got all the kit, I just need the cash to get it installed.
I'm also working on building a wood-gasifier-generator, which will let me power the van off of wood... I have access to infinite woody invasive species (rhododenderon, cherry laurel, bamboo) so that should save me hitting the public chargers or the grid. If I get it right the only waste product will be biochar.