Hello you – before we talk about the van – tell us a bit about you, the driver, first!
Hi My name is C.J, I’m 30 and from the UK. I used to work as a coachbuilder/campervan builder working on a range of different bespoke vehicles, but I got tired of building other people’s vehicles so I built my own. I took a year off work to travel and along the way fell in love with the van lifestyle and 3 years on here I am! I now live full-time in my converted ambulance, Aptly named Amber and my dog, Lance.
What drew you to travel and live in a van?
For me it was to escape, I’d had 3 horrible years where I felt trapped and eventually I plucked up the courage to drop my whole life and try something different. It started as just taking a year off but became my new way of life because for the first time in a long time I was happy.
What kind of van do you own and why did you choose it?
I own a Mercedes Sprinter Ex-Ambulance. A little different I know and honestly it started off as a joke. But a quick search online put me onto an old ambulance for sale not too far from where I lived.
I went to view it and instantly I could see the potential, before I knew it I was driving a fully fledged ambulance home!
Those early days were fun, nobody cut me up or beeped at me, thinking I was a legitimate ambulance, even when I broke down, blocking a busy intersection!
Seriously though I chose this van because of it’s build quality and knowing that being an ex-NHS ambulance, it has been serviced properly and more often than any vehicle, with all genuine parts.
I could have never built a “box” anywhere near the quality of this, brand new these vehicles were £250,000! So I paid 1% of it’s original value and got a van with insulation, aircon, diesel heater, double glazing, aluminium structure & even aluminium furniture. Doors, windows, roof vents… the list goes on.
This van may have seen some blood & nasty sights, but my view on it is that this vehicle helped save countless lives, and deserved to be saved from the scrapyard. And in return it has gifted me with countless adventures and a whole new life, we’ve been through a lot, this old van and I.
Is the interior in your Mercedes Benz Sprinter made by yourself or did you hire a carpenter?
The basic structure inside is the original ambulance cupboards and furniture, the whole thing was stripped, cleaned and re-trimmed to suit a new colour scheme and the rest of the interior I built using either left over parts of the interior or from scratch.
How long did you work on your van until it was finished and ready to travel with?
Roughly a year, working on it in evenings and weekends, taking it on test runs to make sure things worked and changing things that didn’t, so just over a year until it’s original phase of conversion was complete. But as most of us know, your van is never truly finished, you are always adding and changing things.
Tell us your 3 most important camping gadgets of all time!
My log burner: the focal point of my van and life saver in the winter. Although the van came with a diesel heater fitted, I always wanted a log burner & this provides free heat when able to collect fallen wood.
My electric/power pack: It is not an expensive fancy thing, but it has a mini inverter built in, multiple 12v sockets and even a torch, perfect when on hikes, working outdoors or even in emergencies if the van batteries run low.
Recently I’ve added a roof deck to the van, I don’t know if that counts as a gadget but it’s my new favourite thing! It’s a viewing platform, an upstairs, a dining room, storage/bike rack, a solar array and all with no extra footprint.
How do you earn money while traveling?
Mostly I create videos on Youtube, although I despise the term “Youtuber” lol. But I have other projects and revenue streams online that combined earn me enough money to keep us going.
I used to work freelance helping people build their camper vans, but I’m now lucky enough to work completely online and remotely, but it took a few years to get to this point.
Which countries have you seen already with your Mercedes Benz Sprinter?
My first trip was 9 months long, and in that time me and my dog went through France, Spain, Portugal,Italy, Austria, Germany, Belgium & Luxembourg… However being totally honest the last 2 I can’t really count. My gearbox exploded in Germany leaving me with 3 gears and no reverse, so I limped through them in order to get home and make repairs. Those 700 miles were not fun!
Since then I have travelled a lot of my home country the UK, Wales & Scotland. I’ve also recently done another tour of Portugal to buy a plot of land.
How long are you on the road already and do you live in your Mercedes Benz Sprinter full time?
Yes I live full-time in my van and have done for 3 years now, and I have no intention of stopping yet. It was the best move I’ve ever made and in the today’s world, with the virus and such uncertainty, I have been saved from a lot of worry and pain living this way.
Some people prefer campsites for the night, others love free camping somewhere in the middle of nowhere. What do you prefer and why?
Mostly I enjoy being in the middle of nowhere, and I push my van through terrain a lot of people would not dare in order to find some truly wild places, it is well worth all of the scratches and dents!
But I will admit, you can not beat a “luxury night” or 2, Plugging the Mercedes Benz Sprinter in to shore power, endless electric for the appliances, PS4 included ;). The ability to fill water and empty the toilet, have long showers and park up worry free knowing you will have no issues of being moved or disrupted.
If I had to choose only one though, it’s wild camping all the way.
How do you shower in your Mercedes Benz Sprinter?
I have a small bathroom cubicle in the van called the “Shoilet” (Shower/toilet) and yes I have used both at the same time! It’s a little tight and with an 80ltr. water tank you have to be sparing with the water, but the instant water boiler is a dream, within 10 seconds you have 30-40 degree C showers.
What kind of kitchen do you have in your Mercedes Benz Sprinter?
I have a small kitchen consisting of a 4 burner hob, a cutlery draw and fridge below it, and fold up work station a chopping board. To the right of it, built into the original ambulance furniture is a nice big sink. No oven which would be nice, but I find ways around it easy enough. I often cook on top of the log burner too which I love doing.
What makes travelling and living in a van such a great experience?
The freedom. The lack of timing and schedule, the “point the van and go” days with a destination unknown. It’s something our society has been turned off and made to fear, but the nomadic life releases you from the shackles of mortgages, 9-5 work, that car you have on lease, and all the bull**** we’re told we need to be “successful”. Remove that and you find you can put your house anywhere and live in both society and nature. As long as you respect where you are and leave the places tidier than when you arrived, this can & should be much more accepted and welcomed.
Nothing is perfect – what´s the down side of vanlife?
Oh there are plenty of downsides! I’ve had police called, fire service called (log burner, someone thought I was on fire), rocks thrown at the van whilst asleep, people trying to open doors at night. I guess the biggest downside is just that, small minded people that want to cause you problems, but that comes with every walk of life. It will break some people that are new to Vanlife, getting used to that feeling of “am I safe here?” is a tough pill to swallow, but you adapt. My van now has extra locks on each door, CCTV and a panic switch that turns on all spot lights and the siren. The self defence inside the van, well I won’t go into that haha!
But the fact of the matter is that the vast majority of the time you are absolutely fine and there is nothing criminal about parking and staying in a van overnight, so after a while you come to terms with it, I mean, are you any safer in a house, really?
What tips would you give new vanlifers?
Be prepared to be pulled completely out of your comfort zone, and let it take you.
Because once you start to go with the uncertain flow of this lifestyle you’ll realise life is so much more interesting this way. It’s not for everyone and it DEFINITELY is not the fancy crap you see on Instagram, but within 3-4 weeks you will know if it for you or not, you just know.
Do you sometimes make new friends on the road/meet other vanlifers?
All of the time! Being on Youtube now I get more people coming to say hello that watch the videos, but even before that you bump into people all the time that are either weekenders or fulltimers, but cool likeminded people that you just click with. I’m quite the introvert yet this lifestyle has forced me out of my shell and I’ve met some incredible people I still talk to now because of it.
What are your future plans when it comes to traveling/living in your van?
Well, given the current times it’s been tough being a fulltime van dweller, but I don’t think I’ll be giving this way of life up anytime soon. I have, however, just bought a plot of land for a base. Somewhere to call my own and retreat to in the event I want to settle or I need to come off the road for a bit due to, say, a global pandemic…
But I do honestly believe we will recover from all this madness and we will all once again be free to do what we do and life nomadically once again. That may sound like blind optimism, but it’s blind optimism that’s got me to where I am up to now.