Thinking about a campervan or motorhome holiday for the first time? Outdoor expert, Ewan Mearns, shares his tips and hints on campervan hire in the UK and getting the most out of your motorhome rental experience…
Perhaps you love camping but are ready to swap mud for mod cons on your next trip. Or maybe you get restless staying at the same place for a whole holiday. Either way, hiring a campervan may well be your ticket to freedom. Just imagine: the open road, the flexibility to move on and explore when you want, a solid roof and a place to keep the wine chilled. It’s camping, on wheels, with bells on. Sounds appealing doesn’t it?
Rather than diving in and spending your savings on buying a campervan or motorhome, why not rent one? It’s an increasingly popular way to see the world. Whether you’re thinking about a weekend at Glastonbury, a coast-to-coast road trip in Cornwall, or a fortnight’s family holiday to Europe, campervan hire is an ideal option. But first… which one?
Mention campervans and many people instantly think of the iconic vintage VW. These can be a great, cost-effective option, as well as looking cool! But after doing a bit of research, you may find that a modern equivalent ticks the right boxes for you. Less romantic of course, but a well-equipped VW California, a converted VW T6, or a luxurious motorhome may just give you the comfort and space for that all-important, relaxing experience. We’ve given our verdict on the options below but, truly, the choice is all yours. The trick is to think about what you want from your campervan holiday and select the specification accordingly.
Splitscreen or bay-windowed VWs are certainly the classic option and perhaps the coolest too. Provided your hire company has maintained their classic campers well, and you’re in no rush to get from A to B, there are many possibilities. Vintage campers are generally most suitable for one or two people, and although some vintage vans may ‘officially’ accommodate up to four, the reality is that more than a couple is a squeeze, especially when you factor in storage for the extra luggage.
Pop-top options increase the sleeping space, but if there are four of you going, consider taking a small tent to pitch next to the van as an extra bedroom. Our holiday to the island of Islay was the perfect destination for our hired mid-70s Bay: we camped out among the dunes besides miles of beach and explored at a laid-back top speed of 55 mph. Be warned though, a crunchy gearbox, non-adjustable seats and a pop-top roof with a decidedly musty aroma soon dulled the shine of our romantic road trip. The lesson? Read reviews of your hire company first to ensure the vehicles are well maintained.
Verdict: Best for couples, and shorter distances.
More recent campervans based on the VW Transporter, Mazda Bongo and Toyota Previa may offer a more reliable and practical option. They generally drive like a large car (which makes them better than a motorhome if your itinerary includes exploring towns and villages) with a ‘high up’ driving position, and their modern diesel engines are quieter and more fuel efficient than vintage options. Choose a VW California or similar Transporter conversion to sleep up to four adults. Bongos, Previas and other campers are slightly smaller so will sleep two with up to two younger children. This size of camper offers a good compromise between practicality and style and more recent iterations are ingeniously configured to maximise every inch of possible storage and get the most out of the available space.
You may hear people talk about ‘conversions’ and ‘factory’ models. In general, conversions refer to vehicles that started life as panel vans before being converted into fully-equipped campervans, usually by specialist companies. Factory models are built as campervans by the manufacturer, which can mean a higher spec and better storage configuration, a good example of which is the current VW California.
Verdict: Best for families, and trips with town driving.
Moving up in size again, motorhomes are a very popular hire option in the UK. While they won’t win any prizes for style, they win hands-down on space, practicality and comfort. They generally sleep up to six in a range of fixed and fold-down bed configurations, and normally come with mod-cons such as a toilet, shower and TV. You can often find pet-friendly motorhomes, too, if you plan to bring your dog along. All this space comes at a cost, however. You’ll certainly be conscious of driving a larger vehicle and navigating smaller roads and car parks may concern those of a nervous disposition. But if your trip is more long-distance motorway driving and wide open countryside, the motorhome option is a good one.
Incidentally, if you passed your driving test before 1997 and are aged under 70 then the C1 category on your driving licence will allow you to drive any motorhome up to 7500kg. Those who passed after 1997, or who are over 70 and haven’t renewed their C1 category, will be limited to vans weighing less than 3500kg.
Verdict: Best for large families, and long-distance driving.
Whichever option is right for your circumstances, it’s worth understanding the kinds of facilities to expect in a hired campervan or motorhome. The basic cooking facilities include a fridge, two-burner gas hob, water tank, sink and tap. Some may also have a grill or oven. This might not seem much but it’s a considerable step up from cooking under canvas and you can be surprisingly resourceful cooking on two rings.
Foldable beds (that are stowed away for driving or living) are the standard option but you may also find fixed bunk beds and even double beds in a motorhome. The pop-top roofs of some campervans (some that lift at the touch of a button) are great fun for little ones and an exciting ‘upstairs’ play space in inclement weather. If you’re used to camping under canvas and leaving your beds out all day, it’s worth remembering that if you opt for a campervan, you may not have that luxury. Your van is both bedroom and vehicle and beds will likely need putting away every morning and making again every night. The need to be organised may put paid to notions of lazy lie-ins!
In terms of washing facilities, it’s usually only the larger motorhomes that will have fixed toilets and showers although many hire companies will include a portable toilet (a porta potti) with a hired campervan. Remember, though, most sites have wash blocks, so unless you’re not planning to stay at campsites, this is unlikely to be a deal-breaker.
Campervans can be the most inventive and ingenious vehicles. Their multi-functional design means that fold-out tables, swivelling front seats, ingenious storage solutions and internal lighting are de rigeur. Also common are wind-out awnings (attached to the side of the van). I never get tired, for instance, of demonstrating the way the two picnic chairs in my VW campervan are stored in the tailgate, with the outdoor table neatly stowed in the sliding door. But try not to feel too smug when you roll up at your latest Hipcamp and have a cup of tea served al fresco within minutes while your neighbours have only just located their tent pegs! You might even want to make friends with your fellow Hipcampers by making them a brew too.
When you pick up a hired campervan or motorhome you should only need to take your clothes, food (best bought en route and unpacked straight into the storage cupboards) and other personal effects such as games and sports equipment. Rental companies should provide the basics, including bedding, cooking equipment (cutlery, utensils, crockery) and an outdoor table and chairs, but make sure you know what you’re getting so you don’t get caught out. Some companies may offer extras (some of which may be chargeable) such as DVD players, bike racks, roof racks and driveaway awnings. Pets can often be accommodated at an additional charge.
While you should be well equipped, just make sure you know how to use it all before you set off. Least familiar will probably be the ‘utilities’—electricity, gas, water and toilet/disposal. This needn’t be a faff but ask your hire company at the handover for written instructions and a demonstration. Most motorhomes and campervans (even upgraded vintage ones) can be plugged into a campsite’s electric hook-up, powering 240v plug sockets, internal lights, fridges and ovens/grills. Hobs (and sometimes fridges) run off gas so you need to know how to switch the gas on and off. On-board water tanks can be easily refilled at a campsite and portable toilet waste should be emptied safely at campsite disposal stations. Most rental companies expect you to drop off your vehicles with your waste water already empty or they will charge you extra.
Expect to pay between £350 and £1,200 for a week’s campervan or motorhome hire in the UK (lower rates are for smaller campervans out of high season), plus extras such as an awning. While not the cheapest option, campervan hire offers good value for money compared with staying in hotels and eating out, or renting self-catering accommodation and hiring a car. But before you book, it’s important to check the small print and make sure you are happy with the arrangements on the following details:
When budgeting for your holiday, you’ll also need to allow for overnight campsite fees and fuel costs (larger motorhomes may only manage an eye-watering 12-18 mpg, for example).
The temptation may be to cover a lot of miles and pack a lot in (literally!). But remember that once you’ve collected your hired campervan, part of the enjoyment is in the journey, not just at the destination. So try to take it more s-l-o-w-l-y than you would in a car, particularly if you’ve hired a vintage camper or motorhome. Relax, take it easy and enjoy the novelty of the ride.
The driving experience is different for starters. While modern campervans will feel similar to a (heavy) car, vintage campers are a different story altogether and you’ll need to treat them gently. The lack of power steering and engine power will often dictate your pace of driving anyway, while you’ll have to use side mirrors much more frequently and will need to get used to parking. But, blind spots and nervousness can be overcome by hiring a campervan with front and rear parking sensors, common on many modern campervans and most motorhomes.
Before you hit the road, be sure to download the Hipcamp app, too, which has built-in maps and works offline for accessing information about your bookings and where to go. Some of the more remote Hipcamps in the UK (and even some of the less remote ones) are in areas with poor mobile phone signal, so it’s worth downloading the app in advance so you have everything you need. There’s nothing worse than getting lost in the final miles before the campsite and not having enough signal to find your route.
So you’ve picked up your camper and tootled along, soaking up the experience. But where to camp? If you’re holidaying in a quieter month then you can probably afford to be spontaneous and just pitch up at your chosen campsite. In peak times, however, it’s advisable to book ahead to avoid turning up after a long drive to find the site’s already full, particularly in popular places like Cornwall, Devon, and the Lake District. You can book campsites on Hipcamp, of course, by honing in on the destinations you want to visit and seeking out the Hipcamps that accept campervans in that location. Once you’re on the road, as mentioned, it’s worth using the Hipcamp app, which lets you book easily from your phone and explore more places along your route.
For those used to camping under canvas, campervans are much quicker and easier to set up: just make sure you select a flat pitch (avoiding wet or boggy grass) and choose one with an electric hook-up only if you intend to plug in 240v appliances such as kettles and heaters. Just raise the roof, wind out the awning, put the kettle on, et voila!
It’s a fairly common question for first time campers. While in theory the self-sufficiency of a campervan means you could ‘wild camp’, in practice it’s advisable to stay at campsites for two main reasons. First, choosing a spot just off a road will lack essentials such as electricity, toilets, hot showers and washing-up facilities, and may potentially be unsafe. Is this really the experience you want and is it really worth the £20 you’ll save?
Secondly, so-called wild camping in densely-populated Blighty is difficult and actually illegal in England and Wales. In addition, Scotland’s Outdoor Access Code is widely misinterpreted, since it doesn’t apply to motorised vehicles, so in Scotland too, wild camping in campervans is technically prohibited. In remoter spots, such as certain beach and countryside car parks, informal camping is sometimes tolerated across the United Kingdom as long as you use common sense. This means obeying signs and bylaws, parking away from others, considering the cumulative impact of wild camping on local habitats, taking all waste away with you and never staying more than a night or two. Wherever you choose to camp, make sure you leave no trace and respect other campers and local residents. But we would always advocate for campers to use proper campsites and Hipcamp’s list of sites that accept campervans and motorhomes across England, Scotland and Wales is the perfect place to start your planning.
Cooking is great fun in campervans. But with only two rings (plus a fridge and water on tap) you’ll need to be inventive with your meal planning! Quick-cooking meals involving pasta, couscous and chilli are staples, matched with ingredients such as pesto, chorizo, fresh seafood and herbs to provide that extra zing. There are plenty of purposefully practical ideas in The Camper Van Cookbook by Martin Dorey and online including in this Hipcamp round-up of three of the best camping recipes. When it comes to smelly foods such as fry-ups and kippers, my advice is to cook these outside on a barbeque or small stove—it took several days for the odour of fried kippers to disappear after we decided to cook them in our brand new campervan.
While younger children can go to bed at their normal time in a larger motorhome or campervan with a pop-top roof (given separate sleeping areas), many families may find that it’s easiest just to share the same bedtime. Older kids tend to play outside until the usual 10pm Hipcamp ‘quiet time’ in summer anyway, and it’s often not worth fighting for an earlier bedtime. You are on holiday after all.
When it’s time for bed you’ll quickly learn that organisation pays dividends. From several years’ practice, our ‘system’ is this: at night, pack the family off to the wash block en masse and get some much-needed space to make up the beds. In the morning, the earliest riser gets washed first, then packs up the beds and makes a start on breakfast. It may sound regimented but it works with the minimum of fuss—you try cooking breakfast when half the family’s having a lie in!
Similarly, it pays to think ahead about your belongings and pack wisely. Leave those hard suitcases at home and take soft bags (packing cubes are great for compressing clothes). Give everyone their own storage space and find a designated place for everything to save arguments. Clearly, there’ll be less storage than you would expect in a typical hotel room or apartment so packing lightly is essential. Do you really need four pairs of shoes? How often will those smart clothes be worn? Inevitably, though, you’ll want to take along bikes, dogs, kayaks and other paraphernalia. Your campervan hire company should be able to provide bike racks and roof bars at an additional cost, and a driveaway awning is well worth considering if you plan to be on a campsite for more than a couple of nights. Awnings will give you that extra space for relaxing, for a dog and for storing your gear, keeping things safe when you’re off site.
In conclusion, hiring a campervan or motorhome gives flexibility to travel and is a great option for singles, couples, groups or families. As long as you keep a healthy balance between driving and camping it will suit kids of all ages, and providing your vehicle has heating for the living area there’s no reason why you can’t take off at any time of the year. It’s also a great way to thoroughly ‘road test’ the idea of buying a campervan at some point!
North America is buzzing for the upcoming total solar eclipse hitting our skies on Monday, April 8, 2024. And as…
We're exploring how farm-to-table living can actually translate to farm-to-RV practices for traveling families. Camping trips and RV travel allow…
To help you find the best camping in the country, each year Hipcamp compiles data from bookings, reviews, and ratings…
Every few years, typically between early March and late June, California's pretty poppies and ethereal desert lilies sprout in unison…
If you think Yosemite National Park might make for a lackluster experience in winter—think again. From mid- to late February,…
Lupines, poppies, blue bonnets, and more—wildflower season is upon us, with waves of new color coming over the next couple…