Four nights sleeping in a car - Our first trip in the Adventure Wagon!
#VanLife is becoming more and more popular and Instagram contains an abundance of bloggers documenting their road trips around the World, but what about car life?
Chris and I love the idea of going on road trips and sleeping wherever we want, but we both work full time and realistically we won't be away for more than a few weeks a year. Chris hasn't yet learnt to drive so we only need one vehicle between us, which I will need to take to work every day. Therefore we made the decision not to get a van, as it seemed very costly to buy and run, and frankly, it's embarrassing driving a van to work when everyone else owns cars! We could have just settled for a small, economical car and a tent for our future road trips, but then we'd remain restricted to campsites. As a compromise, we bought an estate car with a huge boxy boot and back seats that fold down. We had wanted a Volvo as they have amazing boots and run well for years, but we couldn't find one within our price range and time span, so settled for a VW Passat Estate. Turns out the VW is fantastic to drive and has pretty much the same boot space as a Volvo. And it's a beaut!
Our first multi-day trip in our Adventure Wagon came about rather suddenly, so we hadn't converted the boot at all. I was invited to a recruitment day in Wales on the Thursday, then two days later on the Saturday we had a friend's wedding to attend in Cornwall. Needing to save money for our move to Wales, we agreed to turn the two events into a road trip and sleep in the car instead of travelling to and fro or spending money on hotels. The plan for our Adventure Wagon had been to build a bed platform which would slide in over the back seats once they were lying flat. We would then slide storage units under the platform for food and clothing. On the platform, we wanted to have a thin foam mattress, which we would cut to size so it fits neatly and doesn't slide about. However, we didn't have enough time to start this conversion, so settled for a blow-up bed and blankets taped across the windows as curtains. Unfortunately, the tape didn't remain sticky for very long, so we resorted to pins from day two.
First things first, how comfortable is it to sleep in the back of a car?
Well... the blow-up bed was too big for the boot. The boot is slightly narrower at the back over the car's wheels, so when the bed was fully inflated, it didn't quite fit and slid up one side, pushing our legs into the dip in the middle. We tried deflating the bed a little on our first night, but this just made the bed really bouncy. I ended up spending the whole first night lying flat on my back trying not to move too much. The next three nights we made sure to blow the bed up more and accepted the fact that our feet would roll into the center. At least the firmer mattress meant I could sleep in my usual position on my side.
Getting the temperature right was another challenge. Cars get extremely hot on a warm Summer's day, but they are not insulated so don't retain this heat for very long. Getting into bed at night was fine. We left the front window wound down slightly to allow a little airflow and reduce condensation. The temperature in the car was just right as we got into bed and we had a duvet with us, so that kept us warm for a few hours in the night, but around 3-4am we would both wake up shivering and would have to tuck ourselves in a bit tighter. Then around 7am we would wake again, this time sweating because we were too warm. Even though we had made curtains using black blankets, they didn't fully diminish the light and there was a nice greenhouse effect as the sun started to pour in.
The other comfort issue was related to toileting. The chances of being able to park for free near a toilet block are slim, and even if you do find a public loo, they are usually locked over night. Our first and second nights had no nearby loo, so we used the bathroom in a service station before going to bed, then in the morning Chris peed in the street and I had to wait until we drove to a cafe. I am pretty good at holding it in when required, but Chris is not so skilled at this and woke me up early one morning so we could quickly find a toilet. Luckily we found a cafe which opened at 7.30am. Parking near a beach or park tends to be a good option as they usually have toilet blocks. Otherwise it may be wise to plan your morning bathroom trip before you go to sleep, so you don't waste time trying to find somewhere when you're desperate in the morning.
How easy is it to find somewhere to park up overnight?
If you know what to look for or who to ask, then finding a decent spot to park overnight is fairly easy. I grew up in a small seaside town and remember seeing the occasional camper van parked up overnight by the beach, so suggested we should find somewhere near the beach for our first night in Wales. We drove to what looked to be from our map, the suburbs of a small seaside town, and we stumbled across a nice, dark car park with no pay-and-display ticket machines. It was tucked around the back of a housing estate and was over-looked by a couple of houses, but we arrived late and couldn't see anyone about, so put up our curtains and locked ourselves in for the night. It felt really weird at first, as if we were doing something wrong, but it's not illegal to sleep in your car overnight and there were no signs in the car park saying we couldn't.
Our second night was spent on a residential street next to a church. We had aimed to drive from Wales to Cornwall in one night but were both getting tired, so used the loo at Bristol service station, then drove a couple of miles off the motorway to a small town called Clevedon. Heading into a large town or city is a bad idea because there are more street lights, people, noise and cameras. And the car parks tend to have stricter rules about staying overnight. We drove around Clevedon for a bit, before finding a dark, quiet street that led to a private track. It looked like the kind of neighbourhood where everyone would know each other and people would spy on suspicious vehicles from behind their curtains. Nevertheless, we parked outside someone's house, pinned our blankets around the windows and got into bed. I even did my teeth by the side of the road. We were gaining confidence by this point.
The following day we were up early, awoken by cars pulling out of driveways, heading off to work. We drove the rest of the way to Cornwall, did a bit of sightseeing and made our way to the beach. Our main goal for the day was to find a shower as we needed to freshen up before my friends' wedding. A surfer beach felt like a good choice, but frustratingly, the showers were closed for renovation. Instead of wandering around aimlessly, we went for dinner and re-evaluated our options. I had just heard back from the job I'd had an interview for on the day prior, and was really excited to have been offered the position, so we went to a nice restaurant to celebrate. The waitress was lovely and asked us about our trip; she advised us to try a car park on the hill above the beach and said she often sees vans parked up there overnight. It was the perfect spot! There were at least 5 converted vans full of surfers and road tripping couples, and a guy in a Volvo Estate, who had converted the back into a single bed with storage along the side. The car park was free overnight and had an awesome view over the beach. We parked in the middle of the car park, slightly away from the noise of the other campers and watched the sky turn pink and orange as the sun set over the sea.
The final night was spent on my friend's parent's farm, next to the tents of other wedding guests. I have to say, I felt a little jealous of their tents by this point; we couldn't sit fully upright and the bouncy blow-up mattress was getting irksome. When morning came around though, we were pleased with our car camping decision because we were able to wake up and get on the road within 5 minutes, whereas the campers all had to pack their belongings and dismantle their tents.
What about showering?
We never did find a free shower, so we ended up pouring water over each other's heads in a car park in order to wash our hair before the wedding. Chris helped me wash my hair the night before, so I could let it dry and plait it overnight to tame any frizz. We then we got dressed into our wedding outfits in a lay-by on our way to the venue.
Some service stations have showers, but these are usually reserved for truck drivers. Our other option would have been to drive to a different surfer beach, spending more money on fuel and car parks, or to pay to use a leisure centre. I actually looked up 'free showers near me' on Google and found an article aimed at homeless people wanting to maintain good self-care; it directed me to the options I have already discussed. Brushing teeth is a lot easier as it's possible to brush teeth without water and a sink; you can lather up your toothpaste without water, spit down a drain or under your car, and then suck the brush clean once you're done.
Would we do it again?
Yes, we absolutely would! Despite some planning requirements to find loos and showers, and the less-than-ideal bed set-up, it was really fun! For longer trips, we would definitely need to build the bed platform with storage space underneath, as it was getting difficult to organise our belongings when they were shoved under the seats. We would also need to remove the spare tyre from the boot and attach this to the back of the car so it's easier to reach if needed. A top box would probably be a wise decision for longer trips too, as it allows a bit more storage space for a tent, tarp, kayak, games and anything else we might want to bring with us. Then we can keep the storage units under our bed for clothing, food, cooking equipment and toiletries. Having a duvet was great as it was really warm and cosy, but if we were planning to camp in a tent on the trip as well, for example if we did a kayak camp for a couple of days, then we may just bring sleeping bags.
Although a van would give us more space, we are happy with our car. Neither of us would want to live in a vehicle for a long period of time, so the financial benefits of owning a car rather than van are definitely worthwhile for us. We can't wait to convert the boot properly and head out on more travels across Europe!
You can check out our #CarLife video diary here. We'd love to hear other people's experiences of #carlife vs #vanlife; please feel free to comment below!