The Surf Van – Do you want one?

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The Surf Van – Do you want one?

One of the best travel experiences I’ve ever had came from living in a van for four months. It’s certainly a different way to live, but it’s a rewarding one, and allows you to see and experience significantly more than you would via traditional forms of travel, as well as surf as many different breaks as possible within a country or region. Particularly for those with limited time on their schedule – i.e. most of us – setting up in a van is a great way to ensure you see and do as much as possible in a short period of time.

Choosing your van

The ease of this step will likely depend significantly on where you are. We were travelling in New Zealand, where vans are a common way to travel, so there were plenty for us to choose from. It can be overwhelming to trawl through hundreds of different options, but the most important thing to remember is that durability is everything. How it looks is largely irrelevant – ours was a stocky old thing with an enormous dent on one side, but it ran beautifully and gave us no problems throughout the trip. The lack of beauty even becomes endearing after a while!

The other thing to consider is whether you want a van ready to live in, or one which you can make up yourself. We bought an old work van with nothing in the back but a wooden floor, and two weeks and thirty trips to the hardware store later, had ourselves a bed, a kitchen, and plenty of storage space. This is the cheaper option, but it is certainly more arduous, and relatively difficult for those who aren’t familiar with tools.

Must Haves Before You Go

Camping chairs

Essential. While your van may have a bed, and some room to sit, you’ll likely want to get out of the enclosed space for a few hours each night, and a camping chair is the most convenient way to do this.

Gas cooker

Eating out is the easy option, and the longer you stay in your van, the more regularly you’ll probably opt for takeaway. From a budget perspective though, being able to cook your own food will come in handy.


We survived without one of these for four months, but it was a huge  annoyance. Cooking on the grass and eating off your lap is novel for a couple of weeks, but after that a table is a must have.

Warm clothes

Wherever you are in the world, it’s unlikely that you’ll be fortunate enough to have warm nights every single night of your travel. The van itself won’t be much warmer than outside, so make sure you have warm clothes, and warm blankets.

Space for your boards

This can be done in a number of ways. A couple of pieces of rope tied to the roof can easily form a makeshift board rack, while roof racks are another simple way to transport them around. Or, if you’re like us, and have a big enough van and small enough boards, you can simply chuck them in the back, and take them out when you sleep.


Privacy is relatively minimal when living in a van, but curtains at least give you a chance to get changed without baring all to your neighbors.

Where To Sleep

Again, this is something which will depend on the country in which you choose to travel. In New Zealand, there is a huge camping industry, so there are plenty of places around to set up for the night. Often, though, they charge exorbitant prices for a piece of grass to park your car on, so the struggle is more around finding somewhere reasonably priced. Once you do that, it’s simple. Drive on in, pay a few bucks, park your house and you’re set for the evening. You’ll likely find that you’re far from the only person trying your hand at living in a van, and new friendships are easily formed over discussions of the trials and tribulations of the lifestyle.

The Downside

Clearly, living in a van requires you to concede a few luxuries. For some, these concessions will prove too much. Others won’t mind at all. For most of us, we’ll fall somewhere in the middle – exactly where, you won’t know until you live it.

Showers, particularly hot water ones, become a valuable commodity. Many campgrounds have them, but often they are cold. Cooking is a lot slower, and you’ll have many fewer options at your disposal than what you might be used to. And if you’re sharing the van with someone, make sure you really, really like them. These are problems you might anticipate prior to your trip, but there are plenty of unexpected surprises too. Standing upright in your home will rapidly become something you wish you hadn’t taken for granted in the good old days when you lived in a house.

And the rain. The rain is perhaps the single most important factor in your enjoyment of live living in a van. Never before have you been at the mercy of the weather like this. When it’s raining, you have two choices: stay cooped up in your van until it stops, or be prepared to bring endless supplies of water and mud into your home, and deal with the smell of wet dog for days on end. Unfortunately for us, the New Zealand Summer of 2016/17 proved to be one of the wettest in living memory, if you believe the locals.

The Upside

Fortunately, these downsides are well and truly outweighed by the benefits of living in a van. The sense of freedom is incomparable. You can, quite literally, wake up in the morning and decide where you want to live that night. You can chase waves with very little concern for how far away they are, because hey, you can probably sleep just nearby.

You will see more than you are ever likely to see travelling another way. We saw almost everything there is to see on the North Island of New Zealand in just a few short months. We had weeks where we were doing three or four major activities a day, all in a different location. One day we spent the morning exploring glowworm caves, climbed a mountain after lunch, and had a surf in the afternoon, all the while travelling 200 kilometres up the coast. The next day we visited the northernmost tip of the country, went sliding down enormous sand dunes on body boards, then had a surf at Shipwreck Bay. This high volume of activity is extremely easy when your home is mobile, and makes for an exciting and fulfilling trip.

How long is too long?

This depends on you. For some, one or two weeks will be more than enough, and you’ll certainly be able to see plenty in this time. For us, after four months we were still perfectly happy in our mobile home.

Either way, the experience is well and truly worth it. Whether you want to race around for a week or two, seeing and doing as much as you possibly can, or take your time like we did, and spend longer in the places you like, it will undoubtedly be a memorable experience. Personally, I can’t wait to do it again.


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