A Beginner's Guide to Vanlife with a Mountain Bike
July 28th, 2017
July 28th, 2017
Anna is a jack-of-all-bikes, and has been riding and racing in a myriad of genres for over seven years; from World Cup level cross-country, to grass roots coaching kids on the road.
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So #vanlife is a thing now, and it seems the cheaper you live, the more kudos you get. Instagram is a wash with new-age hippies living out of vans, travelling the world, and uploading "Insta-bangers" of coffee being brewed on a stove in front of a chrystal-blue lake or a wall of mountains. It seems like the good life, right? But what if you want to live the life for just the weekend? What if you live in the city, or the South of England and Insta-banging views aren't on your doorstep? And what's more, what if you want to take a pesky bicycle with you?! Well, I'll tell you what...
Firstly, let's point out that you don't need a VW T5 Transporter with pop-roof and handmade, live-edge work top and all the kitchenware of a mini yacht to get involved in 'vanlife'. The very nature of vanlife derives from simply being able to drive until you've reached a place you want to stop, and then sleep in the back. It's all about the freedom of parking up wherever you want; a lay-by, a derelict car park near a lake, a woodland, a [insert location here] location where you feel you will best enjoy your weekend away from everything and maybe even everyone. You don't need to turn your nose up at campsites, but the beauty of having a van you can sleep in means you don't need to go to places like that to set up your bedroom. Your bedroom is now following you on the motorway, and it's ready for you when you finish riding, and it's easier to pitch-up than a tent, both terrain-wise and faff-wise too. Sleeping in your vehicle is a bit of a legal grey-area here in the UK, but as long as you're not on the side of a road, or outside someone's house, the worst that can happen is that someone asks you to move on. Hence, sticking to free car parks in rural locations is better for the public as well as your soul.
I'm new to this, and I struggled to find information about what vans were good for 'stealth campers' and which vans were good for mountain bikes too, because, obviously, they're all good, depending on what you want. Yes, Transporters are popular; they drive well, they have plenty of space and they don't look like you work for a courier company, but unfortunately, on my struggling salary as a journalist (hint hint, boss), and as one who would sooner buy a new bike than spend in excess of £5k on a vehicle, a Transporter would not be an option for me. Though I must admit, after seeing so many turn up to races fully kitted out, it does seem like the best option if you are planning to create permanent beds and bike storage areas.
While I've owned a Mazda Bongo before, and spent some years being very impressed with the ridiculous amount of space, both upstairs in the pop-roof and downstairs with the fold-away/fold-flat seats, I wanted something economical that I could also enjoy driving, and the Bonngo wasn't going to cut it. And so, with space and budget in mind, and after having test-driven some horrid wallowy excuses for vans (I'm looking at you, Berlingo), I settled on a VW Caddy. It drives beautifully, it was about half the price of a Transporter and two grand cheaper than a Caddy Maxi, and getting the 2.0 SDI instead of the 1.9 TDI saved me about another grand too.
Bikes in Vans
Now, I'm not going to tell you how to configure your van, but I did notice everyone seems to do the same thing, more or less, and I wasn't sure it would work for me. I needed a van. I need to take masses of bikes to trail centres for tests and photoshoots, and I like being able to pick up things like sofas to help friends move, so permanent furniture in the van was a no-no for me. I didn't want the weight dragging down my fuel economy either. I've spent many years sleeping in tents at races and I've got no complaints, other than it's annoying on windy nights, so my van is now my portable tent, and my living space will be made up on-site much like I would with a tent, but with way less faff time.
I chose an inflatable bed that can be stuffed behind the front seat when not in use (there's actually tonnes of room behind both seats in a Caddy), along with a pillow, a sleeping bag and a 12V bed inflater, which means everything can stay in there for literally whenever 'the need' arises. The inflatable bed is a good temporary solution, and it folds away smaller than a camping bed, so I still get an empty van during the day. Being a Caddy, and not being a Caddy Maxi (which incidentally could easily fit a double bed and still have room for two bikes), space would not be on my side. The Caddy is enough room for either a double bed, or three to four bikes fully built, or a single bed with one bike fully built down the side. I wanted a double bed, but I wasn't keen on leaving my bike outside, and I didn't want to put its muddy paw prints on the front seats like some of my friends do, so I needed to be creative. Sat in the back of the van I couldn't help but think that the ceiling was a disused space. I was not satisfied with the Caddy arrangements I'd seen previously; with raised beds taking up precious head height and creating 'dead spaces' underneath them. Nor did I like cupboards, shelving and storage units further closing in the space. And, to be honest, I really like simplicity. So, like a good storage solution to a tiny apartment, I figured, why not mount the bike to the wall? So, I did. A hook allows me to hang the bike from the saddle, and with the front wheel off (which incidentally fits neatly into the inside indent of the Caddy wall), the bike lays flat and only takes two or three inches out of my living space, and still leaves 100% floor space for living. Phase Two would be a second hook on the other side to allow for two people to sleep underneath the (probably mud-dripping) bikes quiet peacefully. At present, I have the side of a gazebo (tarpaulin would also work) stretched over the rear barn doors to create added shelter too, but there are a number of pre-made tents and awning available to extend your dwelling, or at least create an indoor/outdoor space for getting changed out of mucky kit.
Viva Caddy Life!
So, in conclusion, get whatever the heck van you like and get on with it. Sleep wherever and whenever, and look forward to feeling very smug when you drive up to races and are already set-up to get into bed. I've found most trail centre car parks to actually be tolerant of over night sleepers, but some of the best riding spots are in the middle of nowhere anyway, so you immediately have an advantage over staying at local accommodation, in that it'll be closer to the trails, free, and probably has a better view than that nearby hotel anyway.
Look for handy small space storage solutions on Pinterest, Google Images, or even Ikea. Some of the best ideas I've found so far are for small apartments, not vans. My kitchen fits into an 18L box and probably cost me £100 in total - folding table, folding tripod chair, two gas stoves, folding saucepan, toast maker, espresso maker, crockery, cutlery and lamp - I can make eggs on toast in the morning, boil pasta at night, and bubble coffee whenever I like. And above all, I can ride straight out of my bedroom. What more do you want from vanlife?