Since I too am stuck at home if you want a chat about anything on this page do feel free to contact me and we can Skype or Zoom if you want to.
Footnotes: If you hover your cursor over any word Footnote This used to be a footnote. that has a dotted underline, you will see the relevant footnote.
Can I do that?
People often ask "what is the best vehicle?" or "could I do that in my motorhome?" when they read about the sort of overland journeys described on this web site. This page is an attempt to answer these questions. But first a disclaimer, a few definitions, restrictions and qualifications.
Because some of the opinions and advice offered on this web page relate to issues of safety and health, you are strongly advised to take expensive professional advice from several independent sources rather than believe anything I say. In fact if you are a USA citizen and/or of a litigious nature you might be better off not reading it. Don't say I didn't warn you.
If you do read it and think I have got something wrong please tell me.
What to call it?
I have heard vehicles designed or adapted for overland travel called lots of things - expedition campervans, expedition motorhomes even expedition RVs. I think expedition is a bit strong and both motorhome and RV a bit domestic, so I have settled for overland campervan.
By "overland journey" I mean something considerably more demanding than a two week trip to the South of France but less demanding than pioneering a new route across the Sahara. Most of what I call overland journeys would:
- Be more than (say) ten weeks long.
- Involve significant travel on poor, often dirt roads.
- Be wholly or partly in sparsely populated areas of the world without official campsites.
- Often involve travel at high altitude or in hot, cold or very wet conditions.
Cab, cabin, body and chassis
I will use the term "cab" for the part of a campervan you sit in to drive it and the term "cabin" for the part of the campervan you live in, Together the "cab" and the "cabin" will be referred to as the "body". The bit with the wheels and the engine will be referred to as the "chassis". I acknowledge that with some designs of campervan the distinction between these parts is not very clear.
Gas and petrol
I will use the term "gas" to mean
LPGLPG (liquefied petroleum gas) is principally a mixture of
propane and butane, stored as a liquid under pressure. (It is
usually referred to as LPG when sold in fuel stations.)
When sold in cylinders (also called bottles) it is often predominantly either propane or butane and sold under these names. Propane boils at -42°C whereas butane boils at 0°C, making butane unsuitable for use at low temperatures.
LPG should not be confused with CNG (compressed natural gas) sold in some countries as a motor fuel. CNG consists mainly of methane. It is not used for heating or cooking in campervans. Countries that sell CNG at fuel stations (for example Brazil) rarely sell LPG and vice versa. and the term "petrol" to mean the common motor fuel also known as gasoline Gasoline In the UK "petrol" is used as a short form of "petroleum spirit" meaning "a mixture of hydrocarbons containing 5 to 8 carbon atoms, boiling in the range 40-180°C."
It is called "gasoline" or just "gas" by almost everybody else.
As an aside, comparable hydrocarbons with 11 or 12 carbon atoms are called "kerosine" or "paraffin" and those with 13 to 25 are called "diesel" or (just to add to the confusion) "gas oil". .
Two people only
Although a number of overlanders travel on their own, or with children, or in large groups in one vehicle, this web page is concerned primarily with vehicles intended for two people. This is not only the most common arrangement, it is the one I am most familiar with.
Living in the vehicle, not beside it
Overland vehicles can be divided into three groups depending on what is expected of the vehicle. At one extreme is "transport only". All the vehicle is expected to do is to get you, and your luggage, from A to B (for example travel by car from hostel to hostel). At the other extreme is the "live-in campervan" where the vehicle is expected to provide both transport and the comforts of a "home".
In between these is the "live-beside" vehicle. This is typically a 4x4 (SUV) vehicle (often a Toyota Landcruiser or Land-Rover Defender) with a tent, on the roof or on the ground.
This web page is only concerned with the "live-in" type of vehicle, which I shall refer to, from here on, as an overland campervan.
As an aside whilst it can be advantageous to travel in groups, this works best if all the vehicles in the group are of the same type (i.e. all "live-in" or all "live-beside").
Almost every overlander I have met on the road (and many armchair overlanders) have strong opinions about the ideal overland vehicle. At least my prejudices are partially informed by experience. I have spent thirty-six months of the last five years on "overland journeys" totalling more than 150,000kms. I have spent two years designing and building my own overland campervan as well as both owning and renting conventional campervans. Many years ago I was a driver/leader for Encounter Overland.
Perhaps most importantly I have discussed "the ideal vehicle" with dozens of other overlanders.
What makes an overland campervan different?
Since a lot of research and development has gone into producing a vast variety of conventional campervans and mass production has made them relatively cheap, why are they not ideal for an "overland journey"?
Most conventional campervans are not designed to be driven over rough roads for long periods. On a recent journey one generally well built conventional campervan suffered from the following problems. The screws holding the furniture to the walls had to be tightened every week, the oven shock itself loose, the bed mounting failed, the windows leaked, the external lockers fell open even when locked and the leisure batteries fell thru the floor. On an earlier trip, an admittedly fairly old campervan fell apart to the extent that the floor separated from the walls.
On a long overland journey equipment will fail. Most conventional campervans do not have redundant systems, good overland campervans do. For example some overland campervans have solar panels and a generator. Others have both gas (LPG: propane or butane) and diesel heating.
Most conventional campervans have only a small payload available. A few hundred kilograms may be sufficient for a two week trip to France, but may not be enough if you have to carry extra water, fuel, food and clothing for an overland journey. As a result many conventional campervans are overloaded when used for overland journeys.
Most conventional campervans are based on a light goods vehicle chassis (for example the Mercedes Sprinter) that have relatively small wheels and hence little ground clearance. Far worse than this is that the campervan body often overhangs the chassis in such a way to reduce the departure angle. As a result they easily get damaged or stuck.
Most conventional campervans are not very secure from theft. The doors and windows are usually relatively low and thus easily accessible. In many cases the locks are flimsy.
However, in spite of these shortcomings, many people use conventional campervans for long overland journeys quite happily (although many owners that I have met have been planning to change their vehicle for the next trip).
A Checklist (General)
Before considering specific types of overland campervan it is useful to review some of the "features" that have to be balanced in a good overland campervan. For example vehicle size.
When parked most people would prefer to live in a large, rather than a small, vehicle. Whereas when navigating the back streets of Cusco anything larger than a car seems to be a liability. The balance people chose is a function of what they find important. People who are used to living in a small space and are very tidy may not value extra space much. On the other hand an (ex-)truck driver used to driving 40 tonne trucks thru small villages will not be intimidated by driving an eight metre campervan thru the back streets of Cusco.
N.B. Some of the legal and documentation points made in this section may only relate to the UK.
I have seen "live-in" campervans ranging in weight from under 2500kg up to about 20,000kg. The most common range however is between about 3500kg and about 10,000kg.
It is important to differentiate between the actual weight of a campervan on the road (as shown by a weighbridge), the
maximum legal weight
Maximum Legal Weight Note that the weight shown on the UK V5C Registration
Certificate is the "Revenue Weight" and this is the maximum "Gross" weight you are
allowed in the UK.
But the weight requested by the RAC on the ICMV (International Certificate for Motor Vehicles) application form is "Weight (Unladen) (in kilos)". However the RAC (at least in 2006) actually transcribe this number onto the ICMV as item 17 "Weight of car fully laden". This means that if you fill in the ICMV application form honestly you may find yourself explaining to an Argentinian police officer (in Spanish) why your vehicle is "over the weight limit" on your ICMV. and the maximum permitted weight (usually for each axle) as specified by the chassis manufacturer.
It is also necessary to consider the type of
Driving Licence In most "overland travel" countries you will probably want to
present to the police your International Driving Permit, rather than your UK
The important category here is "C" (on the common 1949 version of the IDP and "B" on the less common 1926 version of the IDP, needed for Brazil etc.). This category is over 3500kg, note that there is no upper 7500kg limit on the IDP. you, and anybody else who is going to drive the vehicle, has. If you took your UK driving test before 1997 (I think) then you will probably have a "C1" licence that lets you drive a vehicle up to 7500kg. If you passed your test after 1997 you may only be able to drive vehicles up to 3500kg.
All other things being equal you probably want a "light" vehicle under 3500kg because:
- You can drive it on (almost) any licence.
- You can cross nearly all bridges.
- You will pay less at some ferries and road tolls.
- You can drive in most city centres.
- You will get more kilometers per litre (M.P.G.).
- You will not get stuck in soft sand as often.
- It will be easier to push or tow out if you do get stuck.
However all other things are not equal! There are almost no commercial overland campervans under 3500kg, whilst there are many conventional campervans under this limit.
To understand the problem consider what contributes to the weight of a 3500kg conventional campervan. In very round terms you have a 2000kg chassis/cab, a 1000kg body (including the furniture, toilet, shower, fridge, hob etc.) and a 500kg payload (water, food, clothes etc.). The problem is that for an overland journey you want more fuel, more water, more food, more clothes, more spare parts, more gas (propane), more leisure batteries and so on! Also because many conventional campervans are right at the (artificial, driving licence induced) 3500kg limit the version of the chassis/cab selected will have small wheels (they are lighter), light duty suspension, a light duty chassis etc. All things that make it less robust.
Consider two conventional campervans both with a legal weight limit of 3500kg. One is built on a heavy duty version of the chassis (with a manufacture's weight limit of say 4000kg) but has a smaller less elaborate body. The other is built on a light duty version of the chassis (with a manufacture's weight limit of 3500kg). Both weigh 3000kg empty. Now load them with 1000kg for an overland journey.
Both of them are now illegal. If stopped in the UK and weighed you have a problem. But much more important (for an overland journey) is that after driving for 10,000km over rough roads the one built on a "heavy duty" chassis (probably with bigger wheels and better ground clearance) which has still been within the manufacturer's weight limit is far more likely to be in good condition. All 3500kg conventional campervans are not created equal.
Once in the 3500kg to 7500kg (legal) range there are a number of interesting combinations of actual weight and manufacturer's gross weight limit.
Consider a campervan built on heavy duty chassis/cab that weighs (say) 3500kg and that the manufacturer says can have a gross weight of 7500kg. Put on a 1000kg body and a 1000kg payload and you have a vehicle that is both legal and well within (75% of) the manufacturer's weight limit. This combination is, in my view, the optimum weight range for a two person overland campervan.
There are (particularly in South America) a lot of overland campervans that are built on small truck chassis with a manufacture's gross weight limit of 10,000 or even 12,000kg. These chassis/cabs often weigh around 5500kg. With a big 1500kg body but an unrealistic payload of 500kg they can just get under the 7500kg driving licence weight limit. Fully loaded with lots of water and fuel (and a motorcycle or quad bike) they often weigh 9000kg. Not legal; but still well within the manufacture's weight limit.
Most good two-person overland campervans are between 6 metres and 8 metres in length (a far smaller relative range than is found in weight). Short vehicles are easier to drive and park, and they may even fit in parking places allocated to cars. They are also cheaper to ship. However one metre of additional length makes a dramatic difference to the space available for living (if you remove two metres for the cab, then one extra metre can represent a 25% increase in usable space). It may be the difference between an permanent bed and one you have to "make" each time you use it.
The biggest downside of a long conventional campervan is the resultant reduction in the departure angle (see below). This is not an inevitable consequence of increased length, and many overland campervans are designed to maintain an acceptable departure angle even if quite long.
My personal prejudice is for a vehicle between 6.5 and 7 metres in length as a good compromise between driveability and liveability.
The relative range of campervan widths is very small. Probably between 1.8 metres and 2.4 metres.
Many of the arguments for wide and narrow vehicles are the same as for length. However two additional factors may need consideration. If you are tall and your vehicle is narrow and well insulated (i.e. the wall thickness is say 60mm) then you may not be able sleep transversely (this reduces your design options). At the other extreme if your vehicle is too wide (more than say 2.2 metres) it will not fit in a shipping container (it probably won't anyway because of height) nor on a single width flat-rack. As a result you may have to pay 50% more to ship it.
Most overland campervans are between 2.7 and 3.8 metres in height. Most of the variation comes, not from differences in the internal height of the living space, but from variation in the distance between the living space floor and the ground.
There are a few direct advantages of a tall campervan, these include a better view and increased security (your windows are out of reach of people standing on the ground). There are also a number of desirable features of an overland campervan that often result in a tall vehicle. These include large wheels and tyres, long spring travel and a torsion-free mounting of the body on the chassis (see below).
However there are a number of significant disadvantages of a tall vehicle. The most obvious being low bridges! More common are low gateways, wires and trees. Driving a tall vehicle thru a town with overhanging trees and low wires can be very stressful! Ending up at a camping place that you can not get into because of a low gateway is frustrating. Also shipping costs on many RoRo ferries are determined by volume and are thus directly proportional to maximum height.
A lot of low bridges (particularly in ex-soviet countries?) seem to be at 3.5 metres. For this reason I would consider a height of 2.9 to 3.3 meters to be a good compromise.
As well as the height of the vehicle it is worth considering how "wire friendly" the top of a potential overland campervan is. Imagine driving the vehicle under a strong wire hanging loosely across the road just below the maximum height of the vehicle. Will the wire catch under the solar panels (or roof box, or skylight, or CB antennae) and rip them off leaving a hole in the roof! Or will it slide harmlessly over the top?
I consider the departure angle of a potential overland campervan to be very important, and yet it is very rarely specified, even for commercial overland campervans and never for conventional ones.
The departure angle of a vehicle measures the ability of the vehicle to cross a sudden change in gradient. First imagine driving along a horizontal road that very slowly slopes upwards until it is climbing at an angle of 20 degrees. Other than having to change down a couple of gears this is not likely to be a problem. Now consider that instead of a gradual change from horizontal to 20 degrees the transition is sudden, for example driving onto the departure ramp of a ferry. Now it is very probable that the part of the vehicle behind the rear wheels will scrape along the ground. This may just make a nasty noise, or it may rip off the gas tank. It may also lift the rear (driving) wheels of the ground, then you are probably stuck.
For a genuine "off-road" vehicle a departure angle of 45° may be desirable. However for an overland campervan which is a "bad-road" vehicle (not an "off-road" vehicle) it is only necessary to have a better departure angle than the vehicles that normally use the roads you are on. For most overland journeys a departure angle of between 15° and 20° is quite sufficient.
The same argument applies to the front to the vehicle, the approach angle, but this is usually far better than the departure angle and will not be considered.
Ground clearance determines the size of object you can drive over without hitting it. For most overland campervans this ranges from about 120mm to 450mm.
Usually the the lowest point under a vehicle is the bottom of the differential, but sometimes it is the engine sump or a steering link or even the shock-absorber mounting. It is important to consider not only the absolute value of the ground clearance but also how much damage will be done by hitting (say) a rock.
A common problem on dirt roads is that other vehicles have created deep wheel ruts and if you drive in these your differential (or sump etc.) will scrape along the "raised" centre of the road. The photograph shows members of China 2002 trip in Tibet using pickaxes and shovels to fill in the ruts with stones and soil from the centre of the road to allow the five conventional campervans on this trip to pass. Note that the black Mercedes 811 van shown had sufficient ground clearance to pass this section of road without any "roadworks".
In most cases the thing that determines a vehicle's ground clearance is the size of the wheels and tyres. Raising the suspension (by fitting different springs, or different spring shackles, or air assisted suspension) can increase the departure angle but not the ground clearance. (It can also adversely effect the handling of the vehicle.)
A very small number of vehicles (e.g. Unimogs) have gearing in each hub so that the axle is not concentric with the wheel (portal axles). In this case ground clearance can be very high even with relatively small wheels and tyres. Some trucks (e.g. MAN) have a "flat" differential that increases ground clearance.
Wheel size is still (for some reason) measured in inches. To achieve acceptable ground clearance (and to some extent departure angle) wheels of 16.5 inches and upwards are desirable.
Departure angle is more important than ground clearance.
Front wheel drive, rear wheel drive and all wheel drive
Front wheel drive should be avoided! Yes I know examples of front wheel drive conventional campervans that have crossed Mongolia and Tibet and toured large parts of South America, but...
When driving uphill, even on a good dirt road the amount of weight on the front wheels of a fully (over)loaded campervan can be so low that traction is lost. (The front wheel drive campervan that I know of that crossed Mongolia had to towed up several hills.)
The constant velocity joints used on front wheel drive vehicles tend to be easily damaged by rough roads. Two of the five front wheel drive campervans that I know of that crossed Tibet had major problems with their CVJs. One of them had to be transported 1200kms on the back of a (rear wheel drive) truck.
All wheel drive (there are a few 6x6 overland campervans around!) is better than rear wheel drive, at a price.
It is very difficult to quantify exactly how much "better" a four wheel drive (4x4) vehicle is than the equivalent two wheel drive vehicle (2x4). The reason for this is that if a given chassis (for example the Mercedes 815D) is available in both 2x4 and 4x4 format then any 4x4 version you see is also likely to have:
- Bigger wheels (and thus more ground clearance).
- More "off road" tyres (and thus better traction in mud).
- Bigger springs (and thus a better departure angle).
- Differential lock[s].
- Low ratio gears.
It is also important to consider the difference in specification and cost between the 4x4 version of an "on-road" truck and a true "off-road" vehicle.
Take the case of the 4x4 version of the Mercedes 815D (an on-road truck) and a Mercedes U3000 Unimog (a true off-road truck).
Both vehicles have a maximum gross weight of 7500kg and both are 4x4. However the Unimog has 20 inch wheels (rather than 17 inch), twice the ground clearance (with portal axles) a 51° departure angle (rather than around 20°), front as well as rear differential lock, a raised air intake (for fording rivers) a pressurized transmission system (for fording rivers), disk brakes all round, a parking brake that will hold on a 45° slope (if you dare!) etc. etc.
It is also worth noting that the intended load distribution of the two vehicles is very different. The Unimog, like many true off-road vehicles is designed for a near equal load on each axle, whereas the 815D is intended to have substantially more weight on the rear axle (which consequently has double wheels).
But the Unimog also uses considerably more fuel per kilometre on the highway (say 70% more?) and is far less pleasant to drive than the 815D. The U3000 chassis/cab probably weighs 1000kg more than the 4x4 815D. Most importantly it costs a lot more.
In very round terms I believe that a 2x4 815D chassis/cab costs 45,000 Euros, a 4x4 815D chassis/cab costs 62,000 Euros and a U3000 Unimog costs more than 100,000 Euros!
In my opinion the extra cost of a 4x4 version of an on-road truck (if available) is worthwhile, but the extra cost of a true "off-road" vehicle is not.
Having said that I also think that if an otherwise suitable vehicle is available with 16 or 17 inch wheels, rear wheel drive and a departure angle of 15° then the fact that it is only two wheel drive should not exclude it from consideration.
Probably the single biggest reason for "stoppages" on the overland journeys I have done is tyres. On both the China trip and the Mongolia trip one vehicle I travelled with had a vastly disproportionate number of punctures (around eleven compared to one or two for the other vehicles).
The cause of this was using tyres of incorrect load rating. Consider a vehicle with twin rear wheels and a total weight of 6000kg. If "perfectly" loaded then each tyre must carry 1000kg. Very few vehicles are perfectly loaded (not many people take their vehicle to a weighbridge just before starting an overland journey, and even those who do may not weigh the axles separately and then repack the vehicle).
If possible tyres with a load rating of 150% of that strictly required should be used. In both the above cases the tyres were supplied by reputable tyre companies without considering the load rating required. In one case the tyres were only 60% of what was required even with "perfect" loading!
On a more recent journey one vehicle had significantly more punctures than the others. In this case the tyres had been correctly selected for load but had very little safety margin because no tyres of a higher load rating could be found.
When selecting a vehicle it is worth checking that tyres of a suitable load rating and tread pattern can be purchased.
The choice of tyres determines,
to some extent
Driver Skill Driver skill (or caution) is probably a bigger factor in
getting stuck. On one occasion I travelled with two similar rear wheel drive
2x4 campervans, both about 7 metres long. Over a 1000kms of poor dirt road one
had to be towed out of the sand five times, the other not at
Driving a vehicle with modest ground clearance and/or departure angle for long periods over rough terrain can be very demanding (and stressful, particularly if you are alone). Driving a very capable off-road 4x4 over the same terrain is far less demanding. (You know that if you misjudge the size of a gully there will be a big jolt, but you won't rip your fuel tank off!) your chances of getting stuck in mud, sand or snow.
Overland journeys are a mixture of good tarmac, bad tarmac, good dirt, bad dirt and off-road. There is no one tyre suitable for all these conditions.
On most journeys the vast majority of the distance is on good tarmac (say 70%) and less than 0.01% is "off-road". The sort of tyre that is normally fitted to conventional campervans in Europe is not ideal for mud, snow or sand. Tyres that are specifically designed for mud (think tractor tyres) are uncomfortable, noisy and possibly even dangerous at high speed on tarmac (they may have a top speed rating of 60kph). There are tyres specifically designed for soft sand, they are not particularly good in mud or snow, neither are they suitable for high speed driving on tarmac.
On 4x4 vehicles it is normal to use the same type of tyre on the front and rear. On 2x4 vehicles, with double rear wheels some people use "steering" tyres on the front and "traction" tyres on the rear.
Clearly a compromise is required. Before setting out on China 2002 I wrote to several tyre manufactures asking for advice on what tyres to use on my Unimog. Below is part of the reply I received from Continental AG. (I am not suggesting that the answer is necessarily applicable to other vehicles, or that Continental should be your manufacturer of choice, it is just an example of what needs to be considered.)
Dear Mr. Stewart,
In the size 12.5 R 20 MPT / 335/80 R 20 MPT we offer several different tread patterns for nearly all kind of services. Probably the original tyres on your Unimog were MIL pattern, which is a military standard. Nearly all tyre manufacturers produce them, but their performance is not very good.
Here is a small assessment of our patterns
(100% = MIL. More than 100% is a better performance).
For your purpose the 335/80 R 20 MPT81 seems to be the right tyre. It is released tyre from Daimler-Chrysler and fitted in high quantity.
We have tested it with success together with many special customers on expedition- and rally vehicles (Rallye Paris-Dakar, Pharaoh Rallye, etc.)
Most people give very little thought to how the body of their campervan is attached to the chassis.
Imagine a rigid box bolted directly to a perfectly rigid chassis. Now imagine driving along a slightly uneven road. There is no problem; the suspension absorbs the relative movement of the wheels keeping them all in contact with the ground. Of course there is limit to how uneven the road can be. Beyond a certain point the suspension will not be able to keep all the wheels on the ground. (True off-road vehicles are far better at this than on-road vehicles.) Even with permanent four wheel drive, unless you have differential lock, you will loose all traction with one wheel off the ground.
However no vehicle has a perfectly rigid chassis. In the case of true off-road vehicles the chassis may even be designed to twist significantly as part of the suspension. In the case of on-road vehicles the chassis will twist simply because it is not rigid enough not to. If the rigid body of a campervan were bolted directly to the chassis then it would be twisted each time the vehicle was driven over rough ground and the body would soon buckle or crack. For this reason the body of a conventional campervan is usually mounted on rubber blocks. However these may well be insufficient to prevent transfer of "twist" from the chassis to the body when the vehicle is driven over rough roads.
The real solution to this problem (found for example on all Unimog campervans) is a torsion-free sub-frame. This is in effect a second chassis mounted above the real chassis at either three points or more commonly two pivots at right angles. These type of mounting rely on geometry, not elasticity, to avoid the transfer of twist. However the torsion-free sub-frame found on Unimogs is expensive, heavy and raises the cabin by 200mm.
Nearly as good as a torsion-free sub-frame, and a great deal cheaper, is to mount the cabin of the campervan on two parallel rails that rest on the chassis. At one end (often the rear) they are bolted directly to the chassis. At the other end they are attached with springs, that may allow as much as 100mm of vertical movement!
Conventional campervans, driven for long distances over corrugated roads are often torn apart by a combination of twist and vibration. Making the body stronger may reduce the damage done by vibration (for example making the furniture of thicker wood and fixing it to the floor, walls and roof) however this will also make the body more rigid and thus more susceptible to damage by being twisted.
A good overland campervan should have a strong body (cabin) attached to the chassis by an appropriate torsion reducing mounting.
Many otherwise satisfactory overland campervans have a dust problem.
A "dust problem" does not sound too serious but it can be. Imagine that at the end of each day's driving somebody got into your campervan and tossed a handful of brown talcum powder over your bed, into your wardrobe, into all the cupboards and into your shower. Every day.
The vehicles that seem to suffer most from dust are panel van conversions with double rear doors. This seems to be the result of both the aerodynamics "sucking" the dust in and the movement of the rear doors due to body twist.
One new conventional campervan I travelled with had such a bad dust problem that the cab had to cleaned every day, and even then you could write you name on the dashboard (and read it) after 100kms of dusty road.
Old or New?
Overland campervans are often considerably older than you would expect. In South America many of the campervans you see are over 20 years old. The decision to drive an "old" vehicle is not just determined by economics. Some people specifically select a base vehicle that is over 15 years old, even if they then build a new body on it.
The reason for this is electronics. Old vehicles (my 1980 Unimog for example) have no "mission critical" electronics. The result of this is that the engine is not very efficient, it produces considerably more pollution than an equivalent new one would and at high altitude it smokes a lot. But it also means it is repairable by most garages and its performance will probably degrade slowly and "gracefully".
In contrast a more modern engines may simply refuse to work if the ECU (the heart of the electronics) believes that some parameter is out of range. The parameter may really be out of specification (the engine may never have been designed to work above 5000 metres) or it may be that a sensor has gone wrong (or even fallen off). In an ideal world the ECU would tell the driver what was wrong in plain language and offer the driver a choice of what to do (for example, stop, work at only 80% capacity, or ignore the problem.) Of course the ECU itself might fail. Again, in an ideal world, the engine would still work, perhaps in some reduced power mode. We do not live in an ideal world.
If your newish (but not too new) popular German vehicle goes wrong in Germany there is a good chance that in the next big town there will be an agent with an expensive set of hardware, software and wetware (operator training) who will be able to plug a cable into your vehicle and tell you what is wrong.
If on the other hand you are in Ushuaia and your relatively uncommon Italian Scam stops with a strange warning light you did not know you had, things may be more difficult! I have heard of people unable to get their vehicles fixed in South America, not because they can not get the parts shipped over, but because they can not get their ECU to tell them what is wrong! Some people have had to ship their vehicles back to Europe for a diagnosis.
The counter argument I have heard is that modern engines and their ECUs are now so reliable that it is no longer desirable to use a pre-electronics vehicle. (However I have recently seen a relatively modern vehicle from a good manufacturer that had the battery mounted directly above the ECU. When the vibration from corrugated roads caused the plastic overflow pipe on the battery to fall off, the battery dripped acid into the ECU!)
I am not sure what you can do to reduce the risks of having mission-critical electronics. Presumably some manufactures are better and/or more widespread than others (Bosch?). Perhaps you can carry your own diagnostic system running on your own laptop? It may be possible to get a copy of the software relevant to your vehicle even if you can not run it. It may be possible to find out if there are any unacceptable limits built into the firmware of your vehicle (e.g. it will stop above 5000 metres and below -15°C). It may be possible to have your vehicle re-programmed to remove these restrictions. It might be worth carrying some replacement sensors.
Many of the concerns that apply to engine management electronics also apply to immobilises.
An additional counter argument against older vehicles is the increase in "Clean Air Zones" in many European cites and "Emission Standard" restrictions in many European tunnels (Mont Blanc for example). Some countries/cities are also implementing blanket bans on vehicles over a certain age.
Diesel (also known as gas-oil) is the fuel of choice for an overland campervan.
For most overland journeys a fuel capacity sufficient for 1000km is adequate. 1500km is better. Anything above 2000km is probably excessive unless you have lots of chassis space available for extra fuel tank(s).
For several reasons I believe carrying at least one 20 litre Jerry can of fuel is worthwhile.
The ideal overland campervan chassis manufacturer would produce a range of suitable, extremely reliable vehicles and have a network of well trained, well stocked service agents in the countries you intend to visit.
If you intend only to visit Guyana then you might consider a Bedford (if they still exist as a manufacturer), for Russia a small Zil or a Kamaz might be worth looking at, for China a Dong-Feng truck would be easy to get fixed, in India and Pakistan a Tata would be welcome in many garages.
However for more more realistic overland journeys the manufacturer I would recommend is Mercedes-Benz. This is not only my personal prejudice. During the last five years I have completed four significant overland journeys, three of them travelling with other overlanders. On China 2002 three of the five vehicles were based on a Mercedes-Benz. chassis. On Siberia and Mongolia 2004 the figure was four out of six, on Central and South America 2006 the figure was five out of five. About 50% of the overland vehicles we met at Ushuaia (where many overlanders meet up at Christmas) were based on a Mercedes-Benz. chassis.
Left or right hand drive
On balance I would opt for left hand drive.
A Checklist (Habitation)
In my opinion a permanent bed (that is one that does not need to be assembled each time it is used) is very desirable in an overland campervan. (Actually I think it is essential!)
The mattress of a permanent bed does not have to serve other
functions (for example seat backs), as a result permanent beds are usually more
comfortable. They are also considerably more
Hint If you have a "boxed in" permanent bed (as in the photograph
above) I suggest using three equal sized foam cushions (divided latitudinally)
rather than a single full sized one.
This arrangement is equally comfortable and makes access to the area under the bed easier as well as making "turning" the mattress and changing the (fitted) sheets far easier..
If possible the bed should allow you to
sleep either way round
Sleep either way round This is particularly important for an expedition campervan
because you will often wish to "wild camp" and you may be unable to find level
Most people can sleep well even at a considerable angle if their head is higher than their feet.. To achieve this both the "head" and "foot" of the bed should have adjustable reading lights and a firm wall that you can lean against if you wish to sit up in bed.
There should be an openable window in the bed area (both for ventilation and as an emergency exit in case of fire). A low noise, low current adjustable fan above the centre of the bed is also a very good idea. There should be at least one metre of free space above the bed Space This is also for improved ventilation, but may exclude some "cab-over" and "pull-down" beds.. It is worth considering a higher level of thermal insulation in the bed area (this is one of the few places in a campervan where you may be in contact with the walls). The relatively small opening between a permanent bed and the rest of the vehicle is a good place to install a mosquito net. There should be no openings Skylights Skylights are notorious for leaking (and being left open). A water leak anywhere other than over the bed can be tolerated if necessary, over the bed it can not! in the roof above the bed.
Overland campervans are often exposed to a wide range of
temperatures and a high level of insulation (with no cold bridges) is
desirable, particularly in the area around the bed. A figure of less than
0.5W/M2K is desirable. This usually means a wall
thickness of between 50 and 60 millimetres. Many conventional campervans are
far less well
Insulation A very rough calculation is that with a "U" value of
0.5W/M2K an 8 metre long cabin 2.2 metres wide and 2.1 metres high
will require about 1000 watts of heating to maintain a temperature difference
of 25°C (say +20°C inside and -5°C outside.
In practice poorly insulated windows, doors and skylights as well as necessary ventilation will double this figure. than this.
The cabins of many commercial overland campervans are constructed using a sandwich of glass reinforced plastic (GRP) and foamed polyethylene, normally between 40 or 60 millimetres thick. This form of construction is light, very well insulated, and waterproof.
Note that good insulation is important for keeping cool in hot weather as well keeping warn in cold weather.
There are four OK five Yes, I know of campervans with wood burning stoves as well. energy sources that can be used to heat a campervan, and the same four sources can be used to provide hot water. These are diesel (via a furnace), diesel (via the vehicle's engine), gas (that is LPG: propane or butane), and electricity . An ideal overland campervan can make use of all four energy sources.
In my view the best single system is a "wet" diesel furnace that circulates very
hot water thru one or more fan matrixes and a calorifier (hot water tank). The
best known system of this type is made by Eberspächer and produces around
4kW of heat. The main advantages of a diesel heater is that you can always get
fuel (and you already have a big tank of it). The downside is that these
systems are expensive, noisy and may not work at
High altitude At high altitude there is insufficient oxygen to burn all the
fuel and soot is deposited inside the furnace. Some Eberspächer systems
are available with two switchable fuel pumps, one to be used at high altitude,
the other at low altitude. However even the high altitude pump is not suitable
for indefinite use above 2000 metres.
Some marine systems may not work above 1000 metres. for long periods. They are also susceptible to the diesel fuel "freezing" (more accurately the formation of solid wax in the fuel Diesel fuel Diesel fuel intended to be used at low temperatures is formulated to reduce the temperature at which solid wax forms. Problems often occur when fuel purchased at low altitude is used at high altitude. After a cold night neither the engine nor the heater will work.
Some diesel fuel additives are effective at reducing the "freezing" point. The same effect can be achieved by adding up to 20% petrol (gasoline) but only if the engine manufacturer specifically approves it. To be effective the additive must be in the tank, the fuel pipes, pumps and filters before it gets cold. This usually means it must be added the night before and the vehicle then driven and the heating system run for several minutes.) just when you need them most.
Diesel heaters that circulate very hot water (rather than heat the air directly) have the advantage that they can be coupled to the engine's cooling system. Depending on how this is done it may then be possible to heat the cabin (that is the living area as opposed to the cab) and/or the domestic hot water using waste heat from the engine. It may also be possible to heat the engine block and the cab using the diesel furnace. This is often done at night to make starting the engine easier, however for really low temperatures the fuel tank and fuel pipes must also be heated.
The other common means of heating a campervan is gas (LPG: propane or butane). Because gas heaters are fairly cheap (at least compared with diesel ones) and most campervans have gas available because it is used for cooking, gas heaters are very common. They are also reliable, clean and at least in the case of propane work well at high altitude and low temperatures. Indeed the only thing wrong with gas heaters is that they use gas, quite a lot of gas.
I will deal with the problems of buying and storing gas later. However if you only use gas for cooking (with a hob and grill but not an oven) you will use between 1kg and 2kg a month, if you use gas routinely for heating you may well use ten times this. In some parts of the world getting more gas can become a major obsession. If you have a campervan with gas heating and you intend to take it on a long overland journey it may well be worth adding a diesel heater and keeping the gas one for emergencies Emergency heat You can use your gas heater to heat water to pour over your diesel pipes and filters so that you can start your diesel heater and/or your engine.. Redundancy is a good thing (subject of course to weight, cost etc. etc.).
Electricity is of course an excellent source of heat and hot water when you can hook-up your campervan to mains power. Small fan heaters take up very little space and weigh little. An immersion heater element in your hot water system takes up no space and weighs only grams.
Electrical heating can also be useful even when then is no mains
electricity supply. If you have an inverter (to convert your 12/24 volt DC
supply to 220/110 volts AC) and (say) a 900 watt immersion heater then you can
effectively (if inefficiently) heat your hot water from your
Electric water heating To heat 15 litres of water from say 20°C to 50°C with a
900 watt immersion heater and a 90% efficient inverter takes about 35 minutes
and requires a "spare" battery capacity of around 50AH (at 12 volts). To
recharge the battery requires about three hours (driving) at 20 amps (allowing
for losses). Note that because you do not (in general) want to discharge your
battery below 50% you need around 400AH (at 12 volts) of battery capacity to
make this approach viable.
On a recent trip one campervan used this method for many months as their only source of hot water when a fault developed with the immersion coil of their diesel heating system. Redundancy is good.
As an interesting aside this fault allowed engine cooling water (with antifreeze) to enter their domestic hot water supply and thus possibly get used for cooking. The fault was only discovered because each morning the engine cooling water tank was found to be overflowing. whilst driving.
If you have a generator Combined heat & power Although I have never seen it done it should be possible to use the considerable excess heat of a water cooled generator to heat a campervan cabin and/or hot water. Think of it as a diesel heater that charges your batteries. and a small electrical fan heater then you have a second (or third) heating system that uses a fuel you can easily get (probably petrol rather than diesel if it is a small generator.)
Redundancy is a good thing in an overland campervan.
"Do you have air-con?" is a common question. When the temperature is above say 30°C air-conditioning (well cooling anyway) becomes attractive. The problem is that to cool a reasonable sized campervan by say 10°C requires a lot of power. There are only three viable sources of this power. The vehicle engine whilst running (we are not here talking about cab air-conditioning, this is inadequate to cool the cabin.) external mains power or a large (probably diesel) generator.
High capacity refrigeration units driven directly by the engine are available, but they are expensive and noisy. On an overland journey external mains power is probably only available 20% of the time. Only a large chassis mounted, water cooled generator is really up to the task of running a cabin sized air-conditioner for four or five hours a day. It can be done but budget on say 10,000 Euros and 200Kg.
It is now possible to buy small 12/24 volt air conditioners intended for use in the sleeper cabs of trucks parked overnight. They consume about 14 amps (at 12 volts) and have a built in timer to switch them off after an hour or two. If the design of your campervan allows the sleeping area to be curtained off from the rest of the cabin this type of air conditioner just might be of interest (I had one in my Unimog campervan). However they cost around 1000 Euros and only achieve around 5 degrees of cooling.
A couple of good (100 Euro) fans mounted above the bed are far better value.
All the cooling systems I have considered so far use a sealed gas/liquid system with a compressor and evaporator. They work.
There are also water evaporative Evaporative cooling To produce 450 watts of cooling (enough to cool just the sleeping area a few degrees) by evaporating water you need to evaporate it at a rate of about 5 litres an hour. The problem is that when it is humid (when you most want the cooling) the rooftop units sold for campervans do not evaporate anything like 5 litres an hour. And the more humid it gets the worse they perform. systems around that achieve their cooling effect by evaporating water with the aid of a fan. They are sold as suitable for cooling a medium sized campervan. They (almost) don't work.
I know nothing about cooking per se this section is only about the means of heating food and liquids, specifically:
- The hob (cook-top).
- Microwave oven.
- Electric kettle.
Almost all campervans have a gas hob with between two and four burners. (Although two burners may be enough for most purposes having a couple of spares can be useful.) Most modern gas hobs have electrical ignition and far more importantly flame failure detection (that is if the flame goes out the gas stops flowing after a few seconds).
When designing my campervan I was tempted to install a diesel hob. On paper these are very attractive, primarily because if you use diesel heating as well then you do not need to carry any gas. In practice diesel hobs seem to be a disaster! So far I have only met one person with a diesel hob who would recommend it. They are expensive, noisy, slow to start, slow to heat and unreliable. They may not work at all above 1500 metres.
Adding a grill under a four burner gas hob adds only a few Euros to the cost, but brings some of the benefits of an oven (and you can make toast and better bacon sandwiches). If you find you don't use your grill you can always use the space for storage.
A gas oven (don't even think about a diesel one) may be worth while if you are sure you will use it regularly and have the space. They do, of course, use a fair amount of gas.
Microwave ovens Because you do not want a microwave oven with a digital clock
or any other fancy features, select the most basic model you can find. My 220
volt 800 watt LG microwave oven cost less than 40 Euros and has survived two
Microwave ovens designed to work on 12/24 volts are very expensive and bad value for money. may be worth while if you have a suitable inverter How many watts?Although a microwave oven may be described as "800 watts" remember this is the heat output, not the power input.
An 800 watt microwave may well consume 1500 watts and really needs a 2kW inverter to run it! If you do not have an inverter capable of running your microwave then it will only be of use when you have mains hook-up (perhaps 20% of the time).
The power needed to heat up a meal for two is about 40AH (at 12 volts).
The calculation is informative. If we assume an 800 watt microwave oven consuming 1500 watts for eight minutes that gives 200 watt hours. A naive conversion into AH at 12 volts would give about 17AH. However a 2kW inverter running at 1500 watts from a 24 volt supply will draw about 78 amps (i.e. around 80% efficiency). Assuming a realistic sized battery bank of 200AH (at 24 volts) and using a Peukert's Exponent of 1.3 this is effectively increased from 78 amps to 144 amps! Eight minutes at 144 amps converts to a consumption of around 20AH (at 24 volts).
Or to put it another way an "800 watt" microwave oven uses about 5AH (at 12 volts) every minute it is running. Even so, given some of the problems with gas I think a small cheap microwave oven is still worthwhile. Think of it as a very cheap diesel oven. If you find you don't use it to cook you can always store thing in it. On balance I think a microwave, but not conventional gas oven is worthwhile.
An electric kettle is, in my view, very desirable in an overland campervan! I have one Electric kettle Mine is a Micromark Hotel Kettle (part number NEWMM9859) costing about 30 Euros. Boiling 0.7 litres of water, for two cups of coffee, takes about three minutes (using about 15AH at 12 volts). of a design normally used in hotels, where the base is secured to the counter top. Not only is boiling water in an electric kettle faster than using the hob, it can save significant gas.
Refrigerators, coolers and freezers
Refrigerators and freezers use the evaporation of a refrigerant liquid to "pump" heat from the inside to the outside of an insulated box, coolers use the Peltier effect Peltier effect The change in temperature produced at a junction between two dissimilar metals or semiconductors when an electric current passes through the junction. The direction of the current determines whether the temperature rises or falls. The effect was discovered in 1834 by J. C. A. Peltier (17851845). to do the same thing. Coolers, having no moving parts and no gas to leak out, are very reliable, however they are limited to producing about 30°C temperature difference and so can not make ice for your gin and tonic in the Gobi desert. They are not often used in campervans, but a small one may be ideal for keeping drugs (insulin for example) cool but not frozen.
There are two methods of circulating the refrigerant in a fridge or freezer. One is to use a mechanical pump the other is to use heat. Fridges that use a mechanical pump are referred to as compressor fridges, those that use heat as absorption fridges Absorption fridges In an absorption fridge the refrigerant (usually ammonia) is dissolved in water and later separated from it by heating as part of the cooling cycle.. Absorption fridges have no moving parts and most can be run from gas, 12 volts or mains. They are ubiquitous in conventional campervans. However they are not recommended for an overland campervan. Because of the amount of power they use they are often wired so that they will only run from 12 volts when the engine is running. When wild-camped they must be run from gas which can be difficult to get (see below). Older absorption fridges do not work well unless level.
Compressor fridges for campervans are far less common and considerably more expensive. A typical 80 litre 12/24 volt compressor fridge may cost Domestic fridge An increasingly common alternative is to use a high efficiency small domestic fridge running from a local inverter. These are far cheaper and if they do fail may be replaced far more easily. Selecting the right fridge and inverter can be complicated. as much as 800 Euros.
When the compressor is running this type of fridge uses about 4.5 amps at 12 volts. The proportion of the time the compressor runs is a function of the temperature difference between the inside of the fridge and the surrounding air, the level of insulation, the amount of "warm" food put into the fridge and how often the door is opened. It is worth adding more insulation to the outside of a fridge if space permits. Newer fridges are rated according the ambient temperature they are designed to work in (Climate Class). You probably want one rated "T" (Tropical).
Some fridges have a "cool store" Cool Store Sometimes called a "eutectic store" because a eutectic mixture is used to provide the latent heat at the desired temperature. that will maintain the internal temperature for several hours without the compressor running (so that you are not disturbed by the sound of the compressor at night). In my view they are a waste of money, if you can hear your campervan's fridge running two metres away then it is not properly mounted or it needs more gas or it needs a new compressor.
The heat generated (extracted) by a compressor fridge must be removed to the outside world as efficiently as possible. Great care should be taken to ensure a good flow of air over the condenser (usually at the back of the fridge). Getting this air flow wrong may result in the fridge not working (or using far too much power). A small fan can greatly assist and the small extra power used is well spent.
The commonest reasons why a compressor fridge fail to work properly is that the wire used to connect it is too thin or too long or both. (measure the voltage at the back of the fridge when it is running, it should not be less than 0.2 volts lower than the voltage measured at the battery).
The mechanical aspects of an overland campervan fridge should not be ignored. Many fridges do not have sufficiently robust mounting points and they may fall out! If possible the base should be bolted down and the top and sides clamped (with say 20mm thermal insulation). The interior construction should also be considered. The flimsy plastic used in some fridges will soon disintegrate when they are shaken up with (say) a couple of wine bottles inside. A stainless steel interior is better. It is also worth using two or more perforated plastic boxes that fit exactly within the fridge to store and organise food. Anything just placed on a shelf will soon get "re-arranged" by a couple of big bumps.
Gas: How to store it and buy it
You can store gas in a "tank"(usually mounted on the chassis) or in cylinders (bottles) stored in an externally accessible locker.
Most campervan gas tanks are cylindrical and are mounted
horizontally under the campervan body, with the mounting brackets bolted to the
chassis. They usually have a capacity between 20 and 60
Litre/kilogram Gas in tanks is usually measured and sold by the litre, gas in
cylinders is usually measured and sold by the kilogram.
One litre of propane weighs about 0.5kg. (~10 to 30kg). The tank itself may weigh considerably more than its maximum contents. Care should be taken to make sure it is mounted very securely in a protected position.
Campervan domestic gas tanks are normally filled at fuel stations intended for LPG fuelled
vehicles. All gas tanks should have a system to prevent
Over filling!For safety reasons gas tanks and cylinders are never filled
beyond about 80% of their nominal capacity.
Under normal conditions the pressure in a gas tank (or cylinder) is determined by the type of gas (propane or butane) and the temperature of the liquid gas. As the temperature rises the saturated vapour pressure (SVP) also rises. Gas tanks and cylinders are designed to withstand pressures several times higher than the SVP of propane at the highest ambient temperature likely.
However if the tank (or cylinder) is filled to capacity (with liquid propane or butane) and sealed, then as the temperature rises the bulk of the liquid expands, and being almost incompressible, exerts a vastly higher pressure on the tank (or cylinder) which will eventually rupture or if fitted with a suitable safety device vent liquid gas. The gas released may then ignite.. Many gas tanks have a gauge indicating, very roughly, the amount of liquid gas is in the tank.
There are three common fittings used for LPG tanks around the world and it may be possible to determine which one is being used in a given country. It is simpler to carry all three.
In some countries LPG is widely available, in other counties not at all. In countries with natural gas, CNG is often available at fuel stations rather than LPG.
Domestic LPG tanks on campervans are illegal in some counties (Andorra is one I believe) and they must be removed before a vehicle can be registered there! I think that vehicles with LPG tanks greater than 47kg are not permitted in the Channel Tunnel (UK to France).
LPG tanks (and cylinders) should be emptied before shipping a vehicle, though they are rarely checked. Some LPG filling stations in Europe may refuse to fill domestic LPG tanks because of "insurance issues".
Overland travellers with only an LPG tank and only gas heating or a gas fridge often become obsessed with finding the next LPG filling station.
Gas cylinders (also called bottles) come in a wide range of sizes, shapes and fittings and contain either
propane, butane or an undefined mixture. Those used in campervans are usually
in the range
5kg to 13kg
Gas cylinder weight Note that a "5kg" gas cylinder will weigh about 8kg empty and
13kg when "full", that is when filled correctly to 80% of its physical
If filled to 100% of its capacity with cold liquid and sealed it will probably rupture when it warms up.
Ordinary gas cylinders, unlike most gas tanks, do not have any safety mechanism to stop them being filled beyond the 80% safety limit..
Local gas cylinders are normally exchanged when empty. In general gas cylinders acquired in one country are not exchangeable or refillable in another country. Even within one country there may be two or more incompatible ranges of cylinders provided by different companies. It is very rarely possible to get normal gas cylinders filled at LPG fuel stations.
Almost all countries have local gas cylinders available for exchange, often at fuel stations.
Most gas appliances (hobs, heaters etc.) require gas at a fairly low pressure, usually between 25 and 40 millibars Millibars A millibar is one thousandth of a bar and is equal to 100 Pascals..
In order to provide gas at this pressure a "regulator" is used. This reduces the (high) pressure in the tank or cylinder to the required low pressure. To allow the cylinder to be exchanged there is a flexible connection between the cylinder and the rigid pipe-work of the campervan. In the past the regulator was mounted directly on the cylinder and the flexible connection carried gas at low pressure. In recent years new European campervans have had the regulator mounted on the body of the vehicle and the flexible connection then carries gas at high pressure.
There are five strategies that can be used on overland journeys when using gas cylinders.
- Take it all with you. If you use diesel for
heating and use an electric kettle and a microwave oven then your gas
consumption is likely to be between 1kg and 2kg per month. Two 11kg cylinders
will last for most overland journeys.
- Try and get your existing cylinders refilled
by taking them to a local gas cylinder filling depot (not an LPG fuel station);
for safety reasons these are often found just outside large cities.
If you have a range of adaptors that fit your cylinders
you will increase the chances of getting them filled. However unless your
cylinder exactly matches the local ones (very unlikely) or you have an adaptor
that matches the local cylinders you may not be able to get them filled.
Sometimes the depot staff will not even try, sometimes they will make valiant
efforts to connect their filling system to your cylinders. Sometimes they will
only succeed in partially filling or far worse,
Over filling There is a real danger that if you
take your "foreign" cylinder to a gas depot that is used to filling larger
local cylinders they may put too much gas in your cylinder. If you do not
notice this (and quickly release some of the gas) your cylinder may rupture as
it warms up.
If you are going to try and get your gas cylinders re-filled whilst on an overland journey then you should take with you an appropriate range spring-balance. Before starting your trip you should weigh your cylinders empty and make sure this weight corresponds to the empty weight stamped on each one. Then calculate the expected weight of your cylinders when correctly filled. Write this weight clearly on each cylinder (it may already be stamped on them).
Immediately you receive your re-filled cylinder from a gas depot weigh it. If it is over the expected weight release some of the gas (obviously you should only do this in the open air a long way from any source of ignition.)
When filled to 80% you should be able to feel the liquid gas sloping around inside the cylinder if you hold it horizontally and shake it from side to side, if you can not you should release some of the gas until you can. your cylinder.
- Re-fill your own cylinders from local ones. If you have an appropriate pipe
(suitable for liquid not vapour) with the appropriate fittings you can fill your own cylinders from inverted local ones.
This should not be attempted unless you are very sure you know how to do it safely. Some USA cylinders
have vent screws that can be used to make filling easier and safer but most European cylinders do not.
- If your campervan has the pressure regulator attached directly
to the cylinder a far simpler and cheaper solution is to throw away your empty
cylinders and buy a new local one and a new regulator. You can then attach the
new regulator to your existing low pressure hose with a worm drive clip, and
check it for leaks with soapy water.
At the end of a long trip you may well have a fine collection of regulators but the total cost will have been far less than buying and fitting a gas tank, and far less stressful and possibly dangerous than trying to get your cylinders re-filled. If you can't take all your gas with you this is my recommended strategy.
If your campervan has a (new style) fixed pressure regulator (i.e. one not mounted on the cylinder) then unless you can buy the correct pre-terminated high pressure hose to attach the local cylinder to your regulator (you will not be able to) you can not adopt the "buy a new cylinder strategy".
However, if before you set off, you have a small modification made to the low pressure pipe-work of your campervan (by a fully qualified and registered gas engineer of course) then you can still adopt the "buy a new cylinder and regulator strategy".
- You can use one or more special
refillable gas cylinders. You can buy (for about 300 Euros) a
gas cylinder, that in addition to the standard fitting used to attach it to its
regulator, has a second fitting that is used to fill it as if it were a (small)
LPG tank. You can also put a "extension pipe" on this fitting so that you do
not have to remove the cylinder from the vehicle for filling.
This special type of cylinder incorporates a mechanism to prevent overfilling.
The 6kg yellow Gaslow cylinder on the left is refillable, the silver/blue pipe is an "extension pipe" that allows the cylinder to be filled from outside the vehicle. The grey cylinder on the right is a European standard one made of aluminium. The two cylinders are connected to a (new style) fixed regulator with pressure gauge. The regulator is connected to the fixed pipe-work of the campervan by a flexible low pressure hose that could be removed and connected to a cylinder mounted regulator if required (are you following this?)
The lower picture shows a number of high pressure pipes and adaptors. None of them fitted any of the types of cylinders used in Central and South America!
For a very very detailed coverage of this subject see Propane Systems for Expedition Vehicles.
Water: Tanks, pipes, pumps and filters
Conventional campervans usually have fresh water tanks that hold between 100 and 150 litres. Large overland campervans may carry as much as 1000 litres. Probably between 300 and 400 litres is optimal.
Most campervans are designed on the premise that clean potable water will be available from a nearby domestic tap. On an overland journey getting water is often a problem. An overland campervan should be able to fill up with water from a wide range of sources.
On a well designed overland campervan the pipe that leads from filler point to the water tank should be large bore (>60mm) short and direct. The water tank should have a separate pipe to vent the expelled air from the tank. Without such an arrangement it is often hard to fill up with water from a large bore, high pressure hose (found in many garages) or from a bucket or watering can.
As well as a short hose (say six metres) to use via the water filler point, it can be advantageous to have a ~30 metre hose reel mounted within an externally accessible locker. This hose can be directly connected to the water tank so that it is not necessary to remove the filler cap. Lay-flat hose-pipes sound like a good idea but can be very slow if the water pressure is low.
When it is necessary to fill up from a river or spring you may need to use a 12/24 volt submersible pump that can be attached to the far end of your filler hose.
It should be possible, but not mandatory, to filter the incoming water thru a metal strainer and 10 micron filter.
It should be possible to clean the fresh water tank. This may seem obvious, but the design of many campervans makes it almost impossible to gain access to the clean water tank. (After cleaning the inside of your water tank with a suitable brush and a pressure washer it can be sterilized with Sanogene.) A 150mm inspection cover and 100mm drain are worth having. It should also be reasonably easy to inspect and replace the 12/24 volt pump that supplies the domestic water. (You should carry a spare.)
A separate drinking water tap with a suitable filter (for example Nature Pure from General Ecology Ltd.) is highly recommended. If you must fill up with dirty water (you will) do so via a metal strainer (to remove snails, leaves etc.) and a 10 micron filter, then treat the water in the tank with Sanogene. (2009-05-26 Unfortunately this product is no longer available. However Accepta in the UK produce chlorine dioxide tablets.) A second 10 micron filter should then be used before your final drinking water filter. The first 10 micron filter is necessary to remove "large particles" so that the chemical treatment is effective. The second 10 micron filter is used to remove precipitates that may be produced by the chemical treatment. These are not harmful but they will dramatically reduce the life of your final 0.1 micron drinking water filter.
You should routinely switch off the 12/24 volt water pump whilst travelling. This avoids pumping 300 litres of water into your cabin if a water pipe comes off whilst you are driving.
To avoid freezing the fresh water tank should be within the cabin. (If the external temperature is below freezing for say 48 hours, then no amount of insulation will prevent it freezing, what you need is heating.)
All fresh and waste water plumbing should be by well supported, accessible, high quality flexible pipes. Rigid pipes (often made of white plastic and jointed by glued connections) should be avoided. You should have a plumbing diagram of your vehicle and be able to access all the pipe-work. The number of pipe joints should be kept to a minimum. Where possible joints should be made using stainless-steel connectors and stainless-steel worm drive clips.
If you have a hot water tank (calorifier) heated to (say) 80°C and a thermostatic mixer valve (many diesel heating systems do) then the pipe that connects the calorifier to the mixer valve should be of an appropriate temperature rating (the normal red 15mm food quality pipe is not suitable for use above 45°C, at 80°C it will eventually balloon and burst.)
The waste (grey) water tank should have a capacity of between 50 and 100 litres and should have both a drain tap mounted about 30 mm above the base of the tank and a 100mm dump valve mounted on the base of the tank. The waste water tank is normally emptied via the dump valve, which should be left open when driving. The drain tap can be used with a 10 metre dirty water hose when parked in the same spot for some time (this prevents stagnant water collecting under the vehicle).
If the grey water tank is mounted outside the insulated cabin then there should be a means of allowing waste water to flow directly from the cabin to the ground (for use when the grey water tank is frozen).
Electricity: Batteries, charging, mains power and inverters
Electrical problems are very common on overland journeys. Most of them affect the cabin electrics rather than the chassis electrics.
Nearly all campervans have two [sets of] rechargeable batteries. The battery used to start the engine is referred to as the vehicle battery, the one used to run the cabin lights, water pump etc. is (in Europe) referred to as the leisure battery. They are used very differently.
The vehicle battery is really only there to start the engine Start the engine The current needed to start the engine can be very high, several 100 amps, but is only required for a few seconds.. All the other electrical equipment on the vehicle (e.g. the head lights etc.) are run from the alternator when the engine is running. When parked for a couple of days the vehicle battery does nothing. The leisure battery on the other hand is supplying power to the cabin lights etc.
The capacity of a leisure (or vehicle) battery is measured in
amp hours (AH)
Amp hours(AH) Because the useful capacity of a battery is actually dependant
on the rate that it is discharged it is important to understand what discharge
rate is assumed when the capacity of a battery is given.
Most manufacturers quote the capacity of their batteries when discharged in 20 hours. Thus a "100AH" battery should be capable of supplying 5 amps for 20 hours. When discharged more slowly the useful capacity will rise. However at very low currents the self-discharge of the battery will tend to offset this. More importantly when discharged very quickly (for example when supplying power to an inverter running a microwave oven) the capacity may be very significantly reduced.
Even theoretically, a 100% charged 100AH (20 hour rate) battery will only supply 100 amps for about 25 minutes (i.e. you only get 40% of its rated capacity - "40AH"). Also to do so would involve fully discharging it and significantly reducing its life.. Thus a 100AH battery is capable of supplying one amp for 100 hours (or two amps for 50 hours)
If only it was that
Campervan Electrics By far the best treatment of this subject I have seen can be found in the book
Motorhome Electrics by Collyn Rivers.
My only caveat with this book is that it is written from an Australian perspective and generally assumes a lot of sunshine, easy access to gas and only moderately low temperatures. As a result I think some of his recommended compromises are not applicable to the design of a worldwide expedition campervan. However his detailed knowledge and clear explanations make this a must-read book for understanding this subject..
You can not just permanently join your vehicle and leisure batteries together. If you do then two undesirable things will happen. Firstly when you start the engine you will take massive current from your leisure battery and possibly damage it. Secondly if you leave all the cabin lights on for a week you will discharge both your vehicle battery and your leisure battery. You will not then be able to start the engine and you may damage your vehicle battery. (Even leisure batteries should not be left discharged if possible, but they are designed for it, vehicle batteries are not and are far more easily damaged.)
There are five common solutions to this problem:
- The cheapest and simplest solution is a split charging
relay. This effectively joins the leisure battery to the vehicle battery only
when the engine is running.
- A more sophisticated version of this system uses a computer
to control the split charging relay. By measuring the state of both the vehicle
and leisure batteries more intelligent decisions can be made. For example the
vehicle battery may be used to supply some power to the cabin, but only when
the vehicle battery has plenty of power to start the engine. When the engine is
running the vehicle battery will be charged first.
- Instead of a split charging relay a solid
state split charger can be used. Having no moving parts this solution
is probably more reliable than a mechanical relay. However cheap solid state
split chargers can drop up to 0.7 volts and should be avoided. More
sophisticated (and expensive) ones only drop around 0.2 volts.
- Probably the best (and most expensive) solution is to have a second
alternator dedicated to charging only the leisure battery. This should have the
sophisticated electronics necessary to charge the leisure batteries to 90% of
their capacity. An additional advantage of this solution is that with the
addition of a little wiring and a relay or two you have a system where both
batteries can be charged by either alternator (Redundant systems are good).
- A relatively new approach is the intelligent battery to battery charger. This takes power from the vehicle battery (usually only when it is being charged) and if necessary increases its voltage to charge the leisure battery in a controlled and efficient way. Some battery to battery chargers are bidirectional charging the vehicle battery from the leisure batter when appropriate. Battery to battery chargers are available for mixed voltage systems, for example 24 volts vehicle batteries and 12 volt leisure batteries.
Fully charging a lead-acid battery is
very hard work
Charging Expensive, intelligent, three or four stage mains chargers usually do it well. Vehicle alternators poorly.
Old solar regulators somewhere in between. New solar regulators very well.. To get a battery charged to 100% of its capacity requires a sophisticated electronic charger (99.9% of vehicles do not have one). A vehicle's alternator may only charge the leisure battery to about 70% of its capacity. Worse still to get 100AH out of a 100AH battery requires you to fully discharge it. This is very bad for the battery and if done often will dramatically shorten its life. In practice, with a 100AH battery you may only get to use 20AH! (Between the 70% you can charge it to with the vehicle's alternator and the 50% discharge limit required to give the battery a reasonable life.
Imagine you bought a chocolate bar that was only 70% of the expected weight and you were told it was unsafe to eat the last 50%.)
Other things being equal a big leisure battery (or more probably several batteries) is a good thing. But leisure batteries are very heavy and expensive. Conventional wisdom has it that you should always use special leisure batteries in your campervan. These are made to withstand being heavily discharged whereas ordinary vehicle batteries are not.
If you have a good three/four stage charging system (from the alternator, the mains and from solar) then it is certainly true that leisure batteries (i.e. Deep-Cycle, Traction, Gel or AGM batteries) will perform far better than vehicle batteries, but at a very significant cost. However if you have a poor charging system and routinely abuse your batteries the benefit of proper "leisure" batteries is less certain. Leisure batteries are also impossible to find in many "overland travel" countries.
Towards the end of one journey my expensive, four year old leisure batteries failed (both of them). I replaced them with four very cheap (25 Euros) Russian car batteries. They work well enough to get me home without freezing. I think in any future overland campervan design I would make sure the area allocated to leisure batteries was sufficiently large and flexible to allow the use of say four or six car batteries in emergency.
The minimum capacity for an overland campervan is probably 150AH (at 12 volts). Between 200 and 400AH (at 12 volts) is probably optimum. Anything more than 400AH is hard to justify.
If you drive for six hours each day, and during the remaining 18 hours you make liberal use of the (compressor) fridge, lights, fans, laptop computer, phone charger, diesel heating system, electric kettle and microwave you will only use around 100AH (at 12 volts). A fully charged 400AH leisure battery will comfortably supply this and the next day's driving will replace the AHs used.
At the other extreme, if you are wild-camped and use gas instead of the electric kettle and the microwave you may use around 50AH per 24 hours. A 400AH battery, charged by your alternator will last you about two days. If you want to wild-camp for longer than this you will need: more battery capacity, solar power or a generator.
Another 400AH battery will get you two more days of wild-camping. (After four days you may have to drive for quite a long time to replace 200AH you have used.)
Solar power is attractive, but more expensive and complicated than most people think.
Solar panels are effectively sold by the watt (in 2019 they cost about one Euros per watt). You might think that a 75 watt "12 volt" solar panel would produce about 6.25 amps of charge for most of a cloudless summer day in (say) Spain. Say a total of 70 or 80AH. You would be wrong.
The very best you will get is about 45AH. With a little
Types of solar panel There are three types of solar panel in common use.
Mono-crystalline and polycrystalline panels are fairly compact but may not
perform well in cloudy conditions, they are also very sensitive to even small
Amorphous panels perform better in dull conditions but require twice the area per watt. Some amorphous panels are flexible and can be attached to curved surfaces. this will probably fall to about 20AH. With four 75 watt panels (total cost around 1000 Euros) you will probably be able to wild-camp indefinitely in some parts of the world at some times of the year. You will, of course, have to park in the sun (not in that nice cool spot under the trees). Even if your solar panels do not fully re-charge your batteries each day they will still considerably extend your days of self-sufficiency. Once you have 400AH (at 12 volts) of battery capacity I think up to 300 watts of solar panel is worth while.
The other way to extend the time you can wild-camping is to use a generator. The ideal generator for an overland campervan would be one able to charge your 12/24 volt batteries at say 40/20 amps and would use diesel fuel. It would recharge your leisure batteries if run for a couple of hours a day. If it existed it would be small (under 700 watts).
Unfortunately I have never found such a generator. The smallest diesel generator I have found is around 4kW weighs over 70kg and costs over 4000 Euros. If you want a small generator at a reasonable cost it will be a mains (220/110 volts AC) one running from petrol. To charge your batteries from this sort of generator you will need to use your mains charger.
Unfortunately the combination of a small mains generator and a modern electronic battery charger does not always work well. The waveform produced by many small generators does not seem to agree with some chargers. Either the charger does not work at all or it is quickly damaged. For example my 24 volt 10 amp (say 280 watts) Mobitronic mains charger worked happily with my 900 watt Honda EU10i generator, but my 24 volt 25 amp (say 700 watt) charger died after a few hours use. A friend's 24 volt 20 amp (560 watt) charger refused to work at all with my 900 watt generator (it worked with his 2kW generator).
As a rule of thumb your generator should be three times wattage of you battery charger.
If possible your generator should be stored externally in such a way that it can be used in situ or removed from the vehicle to reduce the noise level.
For more information on generators for overland campervans see here.
There are two approaches to mains (220/110 volt) power within a campervan.
One approach is have the mains equipment within the campervan (say a microwave oven, electric kettle, small immersion heater, power sockets etc.) connected to the external mains hook-up (when available) via a residual current leakage detector (earth leakage trip).
The other approach (and the one I recommend) is to have all the
internal mains equipment connected to the output of a 2kW continuous power,
Inverters Inverters, like many other pieces of electrical equipment, are
not always helpfully described. My 2kW inverter is described as "4kW peak".
Unless you are interested in starting large motors the "peak" power rating is
irrelevant (it is only deliverable for a couple of seconds). What you want is
the continuous power rating. For an 800 watt microwave oven a 2kW inverter is
Inverters come in two types, "sine wave" and "modified square wave". These terms describe the shape of the output wave form. Real "mains" is "sine wave" and this is what most electrical equipment is designed for. However "sine wave" inverters are still expensive compared to "modified square wave" ones. For things like immersion heaters, electric kettles, hair dryers and lights there is no problem with "modified square wave". Some electronic equipment (computers, DVD players, TVs etc.) may not like "modified square wave", for this reason some people have a 2kW "modified square wave" inverter and a 200 watt "sine wave" inverter. and only use the mains hook-up to charge the leisure batteries via a relatively small charger say 12 volts 20 amps or 24 volts 10 amps.
There are three advantages to this approach. Firstly because the battery charger will never take more than say 2 amps (even when the microwave is running) you are unlikely to blow the fuses of even the most fragile campsite. Secondly you will only need a small (500 watt) auto-transformer to plug into 110 volts (or 220 volts if your campervan is 110 volts). Thirdly you will achieve some electrical isolation between your electrical equipment and the external supply.
Lead-Acid vs Lithium LiFePO4 Leisure Batteries.
Almost all overland campervans built before 2017 use Lead-acid leisure batteries (either Wet, AGM or Gel), however in 2018 several makes of Lithium LiFePO4 leisure batteries suitable for motorhomes started to appear on the market, some promoted with dubious statistics.
There are two (almost) undisputed differences between Lead-Acid and Lithium LiFePO4 Leisure Batteries. Lead-Acid batteries weigh more than their Lithium LiFePO4 equivalents, (e.g. 57kg versus 27kg for a 200AH/12volts) and Lead-Acid batteries cost less than their Lithium LiFePO4 equivalents (e.g.220 to 650 Euro for Lead-Acid versus about 2000 Euro for Lithium in 2019 ). From here on the comparison gets more murky.
Most Lithium LiFePO4 battery suppliers chose to compare their batteries with very poor (and in some cases very old) Lead-Acid batteries. If you compare them with the “best” Lead-Acid batteries (say the Victron AGM Super Cycle, which can be discharged to 100% DoD three hundred times!) Things are not so clear cut.
There is little doubt that over the next 10 years Lithium batteries will replace Lead-Acid batteries in new overland campervans, however in the mean time I am not convinced that the time has yet come to upgrade existing systems.
Current Lithium batteries (in 2019) are best used with Lithium specific charging systems that can protect them from damage, particularly at low temperatures. These systems are currently rare in Europe and unless you are very technical you are unlikely to be able to get them repaired in the sort country you probably want to go to. But if you have a Lead-acid system you can in emergency use a couple of car batteries and/or an off-the-shelf mains battery charger.
Toilets and showers
The vast majority of European campervans have plastic cassette toilets made Thetford. These contain a removable cassette (tank) with a capacity of around 20 litres. They are emptied by removing the cassette (usually from the outside of the vehicle) and emptying the contents into a suitable toilet (or, on many overland journeys, by the roadside). If you "wild camp" in a public car park in the midst of a large city, it may be toilet capacity (say four days) that determines how long you can stay without moving.
Some campervans have a ceramic toilet, and a "black" water tank of up to 80 litres instead of a cassette. This gives you considerably more "capacity". However emptying a "black" water tank (often via a two metre long, 100 mm diameter pipe) can be difficult even in a (non-USA) campsite.
One compromise worth considering is a "black" water tank that can be drained (20 odd lires at a time) into a cassette for disposal as an alternative to a drain pipe.
To prevent odour problems with cassette toilets, it used to be common to add a chemical to the cassette before use. Nowadays most overland campervans have a small extractor fan (a SOG unit) fitted to the cassette.
Toilets emptying into a "black" water tank are fitted with a water trap and the tank is vented externally.
Showers in overland campervans come in two styles.
The common style have a "damp proof" room with a part of the floor covered by a shallow plastic shower tray surrounded by a shower curtain.
The other style (right) have a
Wet room There are several reasons for preferring the "slatted floor"
You can walk into the shower in your boots without damaging the shower tray.
The shower will drain at any angle.
You can slop water about anywhere, when washing clothes for example.
You can easily wash the walls and toilet with the shower head. with a removable slatted plastic or wood floor over a large a large stainless steel "funnel" that extends to the full size of the room. I prefer the second design.
Shower rooms in campervans are used for other things than showering. They are often used for washing, rinsing and drying clothes. The type of delicate plastic wash basin provided in most shower rooms is totally inadequate for this use. I recommend that rather than a "wash basin" a firmly mounted stainless steel sink is used.
The plastic taps used in many campervans are not very robust. I recommend using domestic metal ones instead.
Windows and a Hatch
Most campervans of European origin have double glazed plastic windows made by Dometic/Seitz, these usually incorporate mosquito screens and roller (black out) blinds. Even small ones are expensive.
A few, very up-market, campervans have metal framed double (or even triple) glazed laminated glass windows. These are unbelievably expensive, very heavy, but scratch resistant and more secure.
There is a trade-off between window size, security, cost, weight and insulation.
One alternative (one I highly recommend) is to have a large hatch, incorporating a couple of small windows. Hatches of this sort are currently a trademark of the German campervan manufacturer Bimobil.
If the hatch is positioned by the dining table then many of the delights of alfresco eating can be had without getting out the folding table and chairs. A big hatch is also, in part, a replacement for an awning.
Theft: Locks, lockers, safes and dogs
Do many things get stolen from overland campervans? (How do you know?)
I have reasonably reliable information for about 15 campervan-years of travel (three mine and the rest people I have travelled with). During this time I know of about ten "thefts". Four of these were from vehicles being shipped (see below) the other six were items left outside the campervan, usually at night.
At the risk of stating the obvious the best way to avoid having things stolen from outside your campervan (chairs, tools cell phones etc.) is not to leave them outside.
I now (January 2009) know of one instances where an overland campervan was broken into on the road (a VW Westfalia in Oaxaca's downtown business district). I also know of one instance where an overland campervan was itself stolen Reynolds Boughton RB44 in London.
Most conventional campervans are very insecure, I knew somebody who casually opened the door of a conventional campervan with a jerk without realising it was locked! You can not make a campervan thief proof but you can make theft less probable and more difficult.
Any passing opportunist thief can break a cab window, open the cab door and grab what he can in 30 seconds. Alternatively if he can force the main cabin door without obvious external damage he might be prepared get into the cabin with the door closed for several minutes.
You can reduce the chances of the first type of break-in by leaving nothing of value visible in the cab, by having a visible division between the cab and the cabin and by having dead locks on the cab doors.
If the main cabin door has a metal frame and has locking pins top and bottom then it should be possible to make it immune to being forced by hand or light tools. It is not a good idea to have strong handles and knobs. The less there is to get hold off the harder it may be to force an entry. If you take hold of your door handle and pull hard what is going to happen? A broken door handle is better than a break in (particularly if you have a spare handle with you). It should not be possible to open the main cabin door by reaching in thru a forced or broken window.
I think that a split "stable" door is worth having. It is often useful to be able to open the door without making it too easy for somebody to enter.
The plastic windows used in most campervans are quite difficult to break, but it is reasonably easy to break the catches and then open them. You can deter people from doing this by having them mounted high up and/or by having "bars". The bars do not have to be real, they just have to look real.
In my Unimog campervan I had two 40 litre metal lockers each with a substantial pad lock. In these I keep my computer, printer, satellite phone, camera etc. It took several minutes to pack everything away into these lockers every time I left the campervan. Lots of people just put their computer in a cupboard.
In addition to the two equipment lockers I have two safes. The one in the cab (bolted to the floor between the seats and not visible from outside) has a simple digital push button combination lock and is used to hold a small amount of money, any documents needed that day and a modest digital camera.
The second safe is hidden in the cabin and is sufficiently robust that even when found I believe it could not be removed or opened with common tools in less than an hour. Within this safe is a hidden compartment that is unlikely to be discovered (This is so that should I be forced to hand over the "contents" of this safe under duress I would still have some cash and credit cards.)
For some reason many German campervans in South America carry a real dog. You can get most of the security advantage of a "dog" without the cost of dog biscuits with a "beware of the dog sign" and an electronic barking dog alarm. I have known people to put out a water bowl and hang up a lead for their nonexistent dog.
Theft from campervans whilst they are being shipped is a problem. There are three common ways of shipping a campervan: in a container, on a flat-rack or on a RoRo.
If you can supervise the loading, sealing, unsealing and unloading of your container this is the most secure way of shipping a campervan. You do not have to give anybody the keys to your vehicle and the container is both sealed and anonymous. Unfortunately most live-in campervans do not fit in a container.
If you can supervise the loading and unloading of your vehicle onto a flat-rack then you may not have to give anybody the keys, However your vehicle will be very exposed whilst it is being shipped. Your flat-rack may well sit for days in a deserted corner of a container park.
(As I write this I can look out of the porthole of the RoRo ship taking my campervan back to the UK. On the dock, leaning against the stacks of containers and flat-racks, are half a dozen people selling souvenirs to the crew of our ship. There is no discernible security at the dock gate. We are in Dakar, Senegal.)
When I shipped my campervan from India to the UK on a flat-rack I had my horn stolen (they unbolted it and cut the wires). Far more seriously a friend had one external locker of his conventional campervan completely emptied. He lost all his expensive tools and one of his spare wheels. The theft probably took place in Europe when the vehicle was being loaded onto its flat-rack by crane.
It is also quite common for vehicles on flat-racks to be damaged when adjacent containers are loaded and unloaded. I have heard it suggested that it is worthwhile wrapping your vehicle with bubble wrap, cheap fibre board and steel strapping. This not only protects it from minor damage it also makes it considerably more difficult to get into.
When you ship your campervan by RoRo you nearly always have to leave it in a dock-side car park, unlocked with the keys in it! If your campervan is designed so that the cab and cabin are separate then you can at least lock the cabin. It may be worth adding extra pad locks or bolts to all the doors and hatches to be used only when shipping. Some people also add window bars (fake or real).
If you cannot separate the cab from the cabin then you may be able to protect the contents to some degree by buying three or four cheap metal trunks, putting these on the floor of the cabin, bolting them together internally, putting the campervan contents into them, locking them and strapping them with metal banding. The resultant "three trunk" lump should be too big and too heavy to move. (You give the trunks away when you arrive.)
The two RoRo shipping thefts I know of both occurred on a Grimaldi ship between Europe and South America (via West Africa). Grimaldi is very unusual in that you can travel on the same ship as your campervan. This gives you the possibility of looking after your campervan whilst the ship is in port (the most dangerous time). However remember that the ship may arrive in port at 02:00 and stay 48 hours. If sitting in your campervan below decks for several days does not appeal then then one other possibility is to put steel banding round your entire vehicle. (Bring your own steel banding machine, share the cost with your fellow passengers.)
Types of overland campervans
A [modified] conventional campervan
All three of the conventional campervans above have successfully completed at least one major overland journey.
The EuraMobil (left) is above the snow line crossing into China from Pakistan via the Karakoram Highway, it went on to cross Mongolia and Siberia. The Elddis (centre) is driving in deep mud in Georgia on its way to China, Tibet and Nepal. The Hymer (right) is driving along the bed of a flooded river in Bolivia, it visited every country in South America (except Colombia) including crossing the Chaco in Paraguay and a 3000km loop thru Venezuela, Guyana, Suriname and French Guiana.
Some conventional campervans can make good overland vehicles. I recommend you start with a campervan that has:
- Rear wheel drive.
- Twin rear wheels (or at least wheels that you can get high load rating tyres for).
- A Mercedes diesel chassis.
- A high chassis weight limit.
- A short body (less than 7 metres).
I would then suggest at least some of the following modifications:
- Fit as large wheels as the chassis can accommodate.
- Fit new "mud and snow" tyres with a high load rating, get a second spare.
- Fit heavy duty rear springs and/or air assisted suspension.
- Fit heavy duty shock absorbers.
- Reduce in height any rear lockers until your departure angle is better than 12°.
- Fit a strengthened rear chassis cross member (that is replace whatever bit of metal will scrape along the ground with something stronger and rounder (so it skids along the ground rather than digs in).
- Fit substantial towing points (both front and rear).
- Strengthen the door and locker locks.
- Strengthen the leisure battery mounting.
- Replace the absorption fridge with a compressor one, make sure it is well mounted.
- Replace (or augment) the gas heating system with a diesel one (Eberspächer or Webasto). Mount it as high up as possible for fording rivers.
- Modify the gas system so you can adopt the "buy a new cylinder and regulator" strategy.
- Mount a good quality fan over the bed.
- Add up to 300 watts of solar panels.
- Add a drinking water filter.
- Remove any TV antennae (so that it does not catch on overhead wires).
- Remove any roll out-awning (you need the weight for other things).
- Remove anything you don't need to reduce the weight.
- Check and strengthen all the furniture and equipment mounting (particularly the fridge, water tank, batteries, cooker, hob etc.).
Because they are produced in large quantities, conventional campervans are often excellent value for money, they are relatively easy to find second-hand and there will be a ready market for you to sell yours (if you do your modifications carefully they will not reduce the value much!).
They are often considerably more attractive than "real" overland campervans with lots of free space. Indeed if you travel with "real" overland campervans you will find your conventional campervan is the "venue of choice" for communal meals.
Conventional campervans often have bigger windows and far better views than "real" overland campervans. They are also easier to insure and less conspicuous in Europe (I have been refused entry in a UK camp site because my Unimog was "not a proper campervan"!)
You may occasionally get
Getting stuck Even if you don't get stuck you may find the fear of getting
stuck spoils your enjoyment. I met one overlander driving a nine metre long
"fifth wheel" campervan (not recommended) in Argentina who had driven 100km in
the wrong direction on a raised dirt road because he dare not try and turn
round for fear of getting stuck.
An off-road 4x4 is no guarantee against getting stuck. Getting stuck is the result of exceeding the capabilities of your vehicle (or your own skill). I got my Unimog stuck in a rather nice campsite in Iceland, none of the 2x4 campervans did. I wanted to park on a rocky promontory, they were content to stay on the grass.
There turned out to be a very soft marsh between me and the promontory. in soft sand and mud and you may have problems getting on and off ferries. So you will either have to plan your route (or alter the time of year you travel) to avoid these things or travel with a big 4x4 A big 4x4 You should try and find a big macho off-road 4x4 (a Unimog is ideal). It is not that you really need the off-road capability (any 4x4 that is heavier than you will do) but the owner of a real off-road 4x4 will not resent towing you out of the sand, mud etc..
That is why he bought the 4x4, that is why he is paying for twice as much fuel as you are, that is why he puts up with all the noise and vibration. You are doing him a favour (justifying his expensive, uncomfortable vehicle). at least on the difficult bits.
Conventional campervans are not very secure. Worse than this they may not feel very secure.
If you are unlucky (or more likely ill prepared) your conventional campervan may fall apart bit by bit and your overland journey may become an unhappy crawl from one garage to the next.
You may find that whilst spare parts for your (Mercedes) chassis are freely available, parts that have been changed or added by the campervan manufacturer (Hymer for example) are not. This applies particularly to things like front windscreens, door fittings and lights.
In a conventional campervan (even if you have driven it across the Bering Straits in winter) you will never be a full member of the "overlander's club" that forms when overlanders meet up to boast of their exploits, and look down on conventional campervans.
Custom panel-van conversion
Converted panel vans can make good overland campervans. But only if the chassis is a good one and the conversion is well done. Many six to seven metre long panel-vans are in the right weight range and even when fully loaded for an overland journey they are well within the manufacture's weight limit.
However unless you are very lucky you will have to buy a new one if you want a 4x4 chassis (second hand 4x4s are very rare). If you do buy a new one you may be better off with a chassis-cab and a GRP foam sandwich body, rather than a metal panel van (see below).
Long panel vans on a 2x4 chassis often have a poor departure angle.
Panel vans are relatively easy to convert into overland campervans because you already have a waterproof body shell. They can be very secure and some do not look like campervans (above left), this can be an advantage when "wild camping" in city centre car parks.
I have yet to meet anybody with a commercial panel van conversion done in the UK who is happy with it. Most paid a great deal more than they expected to. For this reason this is not a route I would recommend! However I do know of at least one successful self-conversion of a new 4x4 panel van.
There are some disadvantages inherent in panel van conversions. Depending on the design of the "box" it may not be possible to increase the departure angle. Because many panel vans have slightly curved or tapered walls, when 50mm of insulation is added, the available internal space may be just a little less than is required. Most panel vans have twin rear doors, this can lead to dust problems. The way the body is mounted on the chassis may not be ideal for an expedition campervan.
The design of some overland campervans allows the cabin to be transferred to another chassis/cab or vice versa. You can not do this with a panel van conversion. Rust may be a problem with older panel vans.
Standard commercial overland campervans
There are lots of commercial overland campervan manufacturers in Germany, at least one in Austria, one in Holland and one in the UK. Most of them build only custom (bespoke) vehicles but a couple have [semi-]standard offerings. The two above are from www.bimobil.com (left) and www.woelcke.de (right). Both of these are built on a 10,000kg chassis (one Mercedes the other MAN) down-rated to just under 7,500kg for licencing reasons.
The BiMobil EX480 vehicle (interior pictures above) sells for about 230,000 Euros (2018). I am not suggesting that it is the "ideal" overland campervan (although I now own a second-hand one), however it is certainly well built on a new 4x4 Mercedes or MAN chassis.
In my view the standard EX480 require about 20,000 Euros of additional equipment to make it ready for use as an overland campervan.
- Diesel space and water heating.
- At least 200 watts of solar panels.
- A 1.5kW inverter.
- A microwave oven.
- A drinking water filter.
- An enlarged food preparation area.
I believe a number of people have paid considerably more in the UK for an inferior panel van conversion. This is a good vehicle to keep in mind as a benchmark when considering new bespoke vehicles, self build and panel van conversions.
Overland campervans with GRPFS cabins
Because overland campervans are made in very small numbers (compared to conventional campervans) they are rarely made of moulded GRP or formed aluminium. The most common form of construction is glass reinforced plastic (about 2mm thick) and foamed polyethylene (about 50 mm thick) sandwich (GRPFS). The cabin is usually a simple box made from flat sheets of GRPFS. A few have rounded corners (Ormocar: right, centre row, below) and a very few have bowed sides (Action Mobil: left, centre and bottom rows, below). These little embellishments can raise the price of the box by thousands of Euros!
Overland campervans with GRPFS cabins (Over 7500kg)
Particularly in South America there are a very large number of large overland campervans with a GRP foamed polyethylene sandwich cabin mounted on a truck chassis. Most of them are 4x4 (or even 6x6). Whilst many of them have a "legal" weight limit of 7500kg most of them are based on 10,000 or even 15,000kg chassis (nearly all of them Mercedes or MAN).
I estimate that about 50% of them are at least partially self-built. The most well known manufactures of this type of vehicle are:
- Unicat (Germany).
- Terra/Cross (part of Unicat).
- Action Mobil (Austria). Beautiful but very expensive.
- Füss (Germany) Often on old chassis.
- Woelcke (Germany).
- Ormocar (Germany) Make "cabins only" often for self-build.
New overland campervans of this type cost between 150,000 Euro and 1,000,000 Euro. Füss specialize in building new cabins on old (often ex-army) Mercedes chassis. Ormocar do not (I think) make complete campervans but they do supply GRP cabins to other manufactures and for self-build (a four metre long cabin cost around 10,000 Euros).
Because they are built specifically as overland campervans by companies that specialize in this type of vehicle, they are often very well built, with lots of storage and sensible cabin mounting. Because the cabin is high off the ground they are usually very secure (and you feel secure inside one). Even when fully loaded (including the motorcycle or quad bike) they are usually well within the manufacture's weight limit. Being made of a 50/60mm GRPFS they are very well insulated. Most have large (20 to 22.5 inch) wheels and have good ground clearance and departure angle. Suitable tyres are available.
As well as being tall, they are also heavy, and unless you have a licence to drive a vehicle over 7500kg this may be a (legal) problem.
Overland campervans with GRPFS cabins (Between 3500kg and 7500kg)
This form of construction, and weight range is, I think, optimal for a two person overland campervan. (However this must be a minority view because there are few of them around.) All the ones I have seen have been based on a new[ish] 4x4 chassis, probably because old 4x4 chassis in this weight range are rare (except Unimogs).
Since first writing this page I have received several e-mails suggesting I mention the Mitsubishi Fuso FG as a suitable chassis for this type of expedition campervan. I agree. See here for several examples of expedition campervans based on this chassis.
Because they are built specifically as overland campervans by companies that specialize in this type of vehicle, they are often very well built, with lots of storage and sensible cabin mounting. Most are built on a 4x4 version of an on-road light truck/van chassis. Even when loaded they are usually well within both the legal and the manufacture's weight limit. Being made of a 50/60mm GRPFS they are very well insulated. Most have medium sized (17 inch) wheels and have adequate ground clearance and departure angle. Suitable tyres are available. With the right choice of chassis they have good fuel consumption.
Compared to conventional campervans of the same length they often have far less living space, less windows and poorer views. Because the cab is not integrated into the cabin the driving seats are not available in the cabin. Compared to conventional campervans they are expensive (around 100,000 Euros).
Overland campervans with GRPFS cabins (Under 3500kg)
This type of campervan is usually built on an SUV or 4x4 pick-up. The three examples above are (left to right) a Toyota Landcruiser, a Mercedes G Wagon and a Ford F250. Whilst it is possible to build a viable overland campervan this way it demands great discipline if the weight is to be kept within both the manufacturer's weight limit and the legal 3500kg weight limit.
With many vehicles of this type there is only about 300kg of payload weight available.
If you only have a licence to drive vehicles up to 3500kg then this type of campervan may be the only alternative to a conventional campervan. If can live with the weight and size restrictions of the chassis then these vehicles can make very good overland campervans. You will have no height restriction or weight restriction problems. You can park in most car parks. They are cheap and easy to ship (they may fit in a container). Fuel consumption should be low. They usually have acceptable ground clearance and a good departure angle. Well insulated.
Because of length and weight restrictions these vehicles can be very cramped. If a permanent bed is available it will probably be very cramped. If overloaded (as they often are) they may not be very reliable. Although often based on an SUV the off-road performance when [over]loaded may not be very good. Because they have a relatively narrow track width you may have problems driving in (or avoiding) the ruts made by local trucks.
There are few true off-road vehicles in the 3000kg to 10,000kg range manufactured in large quantities and available to the general public. Vehicles made by Haflinger, Pinzgauer, Reynolds [Boughton], Bucher [Duro], Mowag [Duro], Scam [SMT] and Bremach are available but they are primarily made for the military or other niche markets and they may not be easy to get spare parts for.
One exception is the Mercedes Unimog. Unimogs have been available for more than forty years and have formidable off road capabilities. The current (2007) model range is the U3000, U4000 and U5000. A new U3000 with a GRPFS body makes a very capable 7500kg overland campervan (unfortunately at about 100,000 Euros more than the same body on a Mercedes 4x4 815D).
Very expensive to buy new. Old ones are noisy, uncomfortable to drive, slow and have poor fuel consumption (20 litres/100km).
Do you agree with everything I said? No I didn't think you would. Why not tell me about it?
A very good source of additional information is the book "Build Your Own Overland Camper" written by a SRMN member (Steven Wigglesworth) and published by Haynes Publishing UK (ISBN-10: 1785210769, ISBN-13: 978-1785210761).
Available from Amazon and other book sellers.
(Declaration of interest: I wrote the foreword.)
Overland Campervans with Problems?
Below are some photographs of overland campervans in interesting positions. They are not here for any particular reason, except that I rather like them, and some of them help me justify driving a Unimog campervan for the last five years. But, I repeat, I do not think a Unimog (or other real off-road vehicle) is worth the cost and discomfort except perhaps for some parts of Africa.
Overland campervans are bad-road vehicles, not off-road vehicles.