There is nothing quite as exciting as picking up a new campervan or motorhome
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You can’t wait to get out in your new motorhome and explore far and wide and become the envy of your friends and family.
The good news is – you’re in for a blast, the not so good news – there is a just a little bit of forethought required.
That’s why you’re here though right? You don’t want to end up shit creek without a paddle so you’ve gone on the internet to find out the do’s, the don’ts and the must haves. Well done!
As a helpful addition to this page, we also have the most comprehensive packing list for your motorhome on the internet… maybe
Well read on to find out what we think are the most important things every brand new motorhome owner should know about to get them through their first few trips.
This is far from a comprehensive guide to motorhome life as that is too much information for a beginner to take on, we cover that more in detail in other posts, but this should be enough to make your first few trips a success.
There are many terms unique to motorhoming that you may not be aware of when you first start out, so we are going to quickly cover the basics for you here.
Types of Motorhome
- A Class. Typically these are the largest and most luxurious type of motorhome you’ll find, often characterized by a flat front end a bit like a bus.
- Coachbuilt. This is what we typically think of when we think of a motorhome. It’s a typical van cab with a habitation unit built on the back, usually there’ll be over-cab bed/storage and a traditional open/close door (not sliding).
- Day Van. The smallest type of campervan these usually don’t have a fixed bed or as many mod-cons as their larger siblings. Useful for day trips, surfing and other outdoor pursuits such as mountain biking. A little trickier to use for overnighting but definitly do-able, often featuring a rock’n’roll bed.
- Panel Van. Similar in shape and style to a typical works van, these usually start life as a panel van and have windows and motorhome components added by a 3rd party company.
- Van Conversion. Extremely similar to a panel van, in fact, technically, exactly the same. The difference being that these are usually done by individuals to suit their own needs and not by a specialist company. You can outsource the work to a specialist company but this means you get a totally tailored van to your requirements as opposed to mass produced campervans.
Components on/in your motorhome
- Cassette – The plastic box your toilet drains into. Usually accessed from a mini door on the outside of your van
- Propane/Butane/LPG – The three most common forms of gas for use in your motorhome. Propane comes in red cylinders, butane in blue and LPG from a pump. Typically in the UK you will have either propane or butane which can be bought from stockists up and down the country – look here
- EHU. Electric Hookup. This is a full 240v electrical system found on many campsites and inside your home. You can plug into this where available to utilise the 240v outlets inside your van (if you have them) but only whilst your plugged in. Don’t forget to fully unwind your EHU cable to prevent risk of fire.
- 12v/240v – The two types of electric points found in a motorhome. 12v (usually usb outlets/cigarette lighter only) can be used anytime so long as your leisure battery has charge. 240v requires you to be plugged in – these outlets will be typical plug sockets.
- Inverter – Some motorhomes come fitted with an inverter, sometimes people add them afterwards, most don’t have them. Basically these transform the output from your leisure battery from 12v to 240v so that you can plug in any household appliance. Very useful but a big drain on your battery system.
- Rock’n’Roll bed – A bench sofa that can be ‘rock’n’rolled’ out into a bed, usually on rails.
- GVW – Gross Vehicle Weight. The maximum weight your vehicle is allowed to be including payload, most common is 3.5 ton which you can drive on a standard UK driving licence.
- Payload – The amount of weight you can carry in your motorhome including passengers and water. GVW – NVW = Payload
- Grey Water – Essentially this is used fresh water that has drained into a separate holding tank. You will probably have an indicator on your control panel to indicate how full this tank is
- Black Water – this is used toilet water. But poop water is probably too vulgar a term to use in everyday conversation, so it’s fondly known as black water.
Types of parkup
- Parkup – the generic, overarching term that encompasses all of the below.
- Wild Camping – Free spots in the wilderness away from people and civilisation. In the UK these are usually illegal (technically) but so long as you are smart about it you can often get away with it.
- Free Camping – Similar to wild camping but often without the ‘wild’ element. Think laybys & free car parks.
- Campsite – Need we say more…
- Pub stopover – Many pubs allow motorhomes and campervans to stay the night in return for a little custom -a few drinks or a meal. Some even offer EHU and waste disposal – but not many. Always ask before assuming you can stay or check out BritStops for a yearly directory.
- Aire – Found across France these vary from motorway services to village car parks that allow overnight staying, often for free or a very small charge. Some provide facilities and some don’t.
- Stellplatz – Same as an Aire but in Germany.
- Sosta – Same again but for Italy
Getting to know your motorhome
Jot down the dimensions of your van and stick them to the sun visor… No actually, go and do it now. Right now.
Cool, now that you’ve done that there are a few more things you need to know how to answer.
We can’t advise you specifically on how to achieve them as every van is different, but a quick Google or YouTube search for your make and model and you should find what you need. Failing that ask on one of the many Facebook forums about.
We will go into a little more detail on each item further down this article in the relevant sections.
Pro Tip: if you’re yet to buy, when you actually find ‘your’ van ask if you can film whilst you are shown around so you have a record of exactly how everything works.
- Toilet – How do you empty it? How do you clean it? What chemicals do you have to put in the cassette? Are they compatible with your toilet and most campsites where you live?
- Grey water – how do you know if it’s full, how do you empty it? How do you stop it from freezing?
- Fresh water – how do you know if it’s full, how do you empty it? How do you stop it from freezing? Can you drink from it? How do you keep it clean?
- Gas – Do you have a carbon monoxide alarm? Is it in the right place? How do you check the gas level? How do you replace the gas? How do you turn the gas on and off?
- Electrics – Which electrics can run off the leisure battery (12v by the way)? What can you plug in while on leisure battery? How do you recharge the van? Do you have a hookup cable?
- Heating & hot water – How do you turn it on and off? Is there a thermostat? Is it gas, electric or diesel powered?
This is not a comprehensive list, however for beginners to be successful it essentially boils down to heat, water management, power and safety and the answering of the above should stand you in good stead to get stuck in.
Insuring your motorhome
Yes we know it’s boring but insuring a motorhome is often a little different to insuring a regular vehicle, particularly if you’re under 25, over 70 or drive a vehicle over 3.5 tonnes.
The most common and well regarded companies offering motorhome insurance:
- Adrian Flux
- Caravan Guard
- Life Sure
Packing your motorhome
This is so important to get right that we’ve written a post dedicated to it. Check it out, the most comprehensive motorhome packing guide on the internet… maybe.
You won’t get it right first time, or even second & third time, but so long as you get most of the basics and improve over time you’ll be alright.
If you’ll be venturing off in the winter for your first trip then check out our must haves for a winter road trip and if you have a dog in tow we also address that here: What to know road tripping with your dog
Planning motorhome adventures
Planning is all part of the fun. There. We said it. And we’re sticking with it.
Proper planning during the week and a well defined packing list seriously help.
You’ll get away earlier than just winging it, you’ll have everything you need, you’ll know what you want to do and get out of your weekend.
We have a packing template (yeah – nerds! We know!) which we gleefully pull out on a Thursday (note: not Friday!) and begin ticking things off as they get put in the van.
It just means you won’t forget anything, it’s quicker than trying to remember everything you need every time you head off and saves that ‘Ohhh no we left the dog at home’ realization 300 miles from home.
Motorhome Packing List – feel free to take a copy and modify it for your own use.
We also have a mini series dedicated to helping you plan the ultimate road trip – check it out.
Our Favourite Planning Tools
- Park4Night and SearchForSites apps
- These two apps specialise in the more wild type camping, but they also include services, some campsites and daytime parking spots for visiting points of interest
- Google Maps
- Google maps is such a useful tool when it comes to planning. You can save stuff that interests you right onto the map and the search functionality has greatly improved over the years allowing you to find that perfect little cafe, restaurant, pub or other point of interest
- Our go to website for finding campsites – usually sites have a ton of reviews so you know what you’re getting yourself into and the filter/search functionality is pretty good as well.
- BritStops is an annual catalogue (print based only) mainly consisting of pub and farmshop stopovers that allow you stay for free. You really should spend a small amount (whether it be just a few beers or a meal or a snack from the shop) as they are allowing you stay in return for potential revenue. Also a great option to reduce the stress on your little van toilet if it’s nearing capacity as you can use the facilities provided whilst you’re there.
- ST&Gs marvellous maps
- These maps are just stuffed full of useful and fun points of interest and facts and are grouped as to what you may be interested in, they have an adventure map, and a food and drink map, a literature map and many more – definitely get one or more of these maps into your arsenal.
- Public Toilet App
- This app is super useful and does what it says on the tin. Hundreds of toilet stops all over the UK right there at your fingertips.
Your first motorhome outing
So that’s it – you know your terms, you’re all insured, packed and planned and now you’re off on your first adventure. Sweet!
We know it’s tempting to set off on the ultimate road trip with your new toy. In fact it’s probably all you can think about.
Outrageous scenery, new and exciting food, meeting like minded people, fresh air, long scenic drives on ridiculous roads, awesome sunsets, new towns, cities and countryside to explore – the list goes on.
But please, we implore you, go on at least one test run close to home first to make sure you know how everything works, work out any kinks with the van.
Most vans will have issues to begin with, new or second hand, so a close to home test outing is a great way to get to know your van when you have the safety net of running home if required.
Think of it like a first date – most first dates are a dinner or activity in the local area – rarely do people jet off to a far flung destination with someone they barely know. That would be incredibly silly – treat your van in the same way.
Arriving at your first parkup in your motorhome
filling your motorhome up with water
We usually leave home with a full tank of fresh water ready to go. However if you’re short on payload weight (1L of water = 1KG in weight) then you might need to wait until you get to your destination.
Some people are also concerned about the impact travelling with a full water tank will have on their MPG. But our thinking is, we’re driving a 3.5 ton vehicle already, we’re not going to quibble over an extra 50 or 60 kg of weight affecting the MPG.
If you’re filling up at a campsite then find the fill up station and park as close as you can. Whip out your magic hose (Get your mind out of the gutter!) and get that tank filled up. Usually the access point is a little plug on the exterior of your van.
Getting your motorhome level
Cue the arguments!
The first thing you’re gonna want to do is make sure that your camper is nice and level. Notoriously difficult to get right for beginners it will surely take a few attempts.
Line up the chocks (usually in front of your front wheels), step well away from the van and slowly drive up onto them. Work out clear and concise hand or voice signals before hand for ‘slow down’ and ‘stop’.
Sometimes if you’re not level in two directions you’ll need to place one of the chocks slightly further in front of the wheel than the other to combat this, or you can simply use a chock under one wheel and not bother with the second.
Getting the electrics and gas working on your motorhome
If you’ve paid for EHU then close to your pitch should be the EHU point. Fully unwind your cable and plug one end into your van (to avoid walking around with a potentially live cable in a moment).
Now you can plug the other end into the EHU unit and that should be it. Your 240v light should have come on in your control panel and all outlets should be good to go.
If you’re not using EHU then turn on your 12v switch on the control panel (we leave ours on 24/7) and any 12v outlets should be ready.
Gas depends on each type of vehicle. But typically you will have an isolator valve located on or near your gas tanks which needs to be released.
Releasing ours is the opposite to what you’d expect – righty loosey, lefty tighty, just to confuse you. So bare that in mind before engaging in a full on wrestling match with your valve.
Getting your motorhome fridge working
Most motorhomes come with 3-way fridges so that’s what we’ll deal with here.
Fridges work best the more level that you are – so hopefully you’re nice and level by now.
You’ll probably have a gas dial with small, medium and large flames, a numbered dial and an orange, green and red switch.
Flame dial and orange switch are for gas
The orange switch should start to click when you turn it on (ignition spark), then hold in the flame dial on the large flame until the clicking stops as it lights (just like a gas hob). You’re fridge is now running on gas and you can turn off the orange switch.
Adjust the gas level according to your needs. High gas level for getting to temperature, medium for normal use, low if you’re in cold temperatures.
The red switch is for running the fridge whilst you drive. Think Red for Road.
The Green switch is for running the fridge whilst on EHU – think Green for Garage.
The fridge won’t run on 12v electric when you’re parked up so if you don’t have EHU you’ll have to run it on gas – this is fine as fridges typically don’t use a lot of gas (approx. 250g per 24 hours – so a 6kg gas bottle will last roughly 24 days if only using gas for the fridge!).
Get a beer!
Set your camp up as you’d like and you’re done. You’ve successfully got everything working for the first time and you’ve earned a beer.
This process will become like second nature and take next to no time as you get more experienced.
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Your first motorhome experience!
So now you’re all set up and you can enjoy your first motorhome experience – so get out there and start exploring!
A few pro tips to make life easier during the course of your trip
- Wipe plates and pans clean with kitchen roll before washing up. This prevents bits of food and grease getting into the grey water tank
- Don’t drink from the fresh water tank. Some people do – but our advice is that it’s not worth the risk – nasty bacteria can build up in the tank. It’s usually fine for cooking, cleaning, hot drinks and showers but not to drink straight from the tap. We carry a 10L jerry can of water which we dispense into a water filter jug in the fridge before drinking.
Emptying your motorhome toilet
Yeah it’s not pleasant to talk about but it is something that must be done.
First thing to do is find the Elsan point on the campsite. The toilet cassette will be heavy once it’s full so you don’t want to carry it all around the campsite while you search for the emptying station.
Once you’re at the station unscrew the the filler cap and empty the cassette into the facility.
Note: there will usually be a button on the cassette. Ensure this is facing upwards (trust us – this is important!) and press it whilst your emptying. This allows a little air to get in to prevent the toilet chugging as it empties and splashing everywhere (gross!).
Once empty there will be a water pipe available. Put a few litres into the cassette, close it, give it a good shake, and empty again.
Now ensure you leave the area as clean as you found it (or cleaner if it wasn’t clean when you arrived) by ensuring everything has been washed away in the hole.
Add your new fluid (quantity will be stated on your fluid bottle) add a litre or two of fresh water into the cassette as well and you’re all done.
This all might sound a bit complicated but it will be fairly self explanatory whilst your actually doing it.
Unfortunately at some point you’re going to have go home. But don’t worry – it’s only until next weekend (hopefully!)
A few tips to make sure you get this right (we stick a list of things to do before driving off to the sun visor)
- Don’t forget to unplug the EHU before setting off (and pack your cable up)!
- Take yourself off the leveling chocks! It is so easy to drive off without remembering that your are raised up on chocks. Perhaps put a note in the windscreen to remind yourself.
- Make sure all the cupboards and fridge are locked shut
- If you have an electric step – bring it in
- Turn off the gas
- Empty the grey and black water
- Close all windows and sky lights
- Empty out all of your clothes and perishable food
- Refill the fresh water tank ready for your next trip
- Ensure the cab vents are open – we find this is the easiest way to keep the van fresh whilst not in use.
Generally speaking there’s not too many rules for campervan life but we still have a few little pointers just to keep you on the straight and narrow.
Little things that to begin with can seem so innocent can actually cause issues for people who live and work in the area you’re visiting which is of course the last thing you want to do, as at the end of the day you are visitors to their home.
Some simple and easy rules to follow:
- Don’t litter. Just, don’t. It’s easy.
- Don’t empty your van bin into public bins. They aren’t designed for this and collections of these bins aren’t frequent enough for holiday makers to be disposing of days and days worth of litter at a time. Doing this is a sure fire way to piss off locals, and give the van community a bad name.
- If you’re wild camping – don’t drive off road. It might be tempting to get a bit further away or to edge closer to that perfect view, but campervans and motorhomes are big heavy vehicles and can very easily damage habitats, erode the ground or get stuck!
- Don’t empty your grey waste on the ground. Some people think this is okay, but we’re not here to have that debate. However it is generally considered bad form and gives the community a bad name. It’s not difficult to plan ahead to make sure you’ll be able to empty your grey waste in an appropriate manner so we recommend doing that.
Our motorhome community
We are a community – we’re very friendly.
We don’t bite.
Vanlife has such a fantastic community. So many places to turn to for advice and inspiration.
From YouTube Vlogs to Bloggers to social media groups and actually meeting people on your travels.
We’ve all been new to vanning once upon a time and we all know that as exciting as it is it can be daunting.
So ask questions, get involved, comment on great videos and blog posts, speak to fellow vanners you see in car parks and at campsites.
Just go over and say hi and I guarantee that as a minimum you’ll have an interesting conversation, probably learn something new, probably hear about a place to visit or activity to do that you hadn’t heard of/considered.
Who knows – you might even make a friend for life.
And finally, once all of the above is done and dusted – get out there, have fun, make mistakes and kick ass.
Check out our destinations page for some inspiration!
If you have any further queries or worries, then please do not hesitate to get in touch with us and we will do our level best to answer any question you may ask. Nothing is too silly or trivial to ask – if you’re unsure about something, then guaranteed others, and ourselves, have been unsure at some point as well.