We can't all have vans, really for daily life unless you need it for work they are not as good as a car, and unless you get a well used one they aren't cheap especially if you go for a VW. Then there are those of us (me included), who like the versatility of not being rooted to a hotel or a BandB when on a surf mission (you can also read to skint to afford it), and not wanting to purchase and pitch a tent all the time, take to the world of car camping.
Now obviously car camping is not as convenient when it comes to the camping bit as a van, essentially you just have a space to sleep in. However it is so much more versatile. Fuel economy, speed of getting to places, comfort, and the fact that you are totally incognito work in your four. Space, not so much though, so as a very experienced car camper (I've never owned a van, and yet I very rarely stay in buildings), here are some top tips.
1. The Vehicle -
You need a hatchback at the very least, an estate is even better. Being able to lay out full length is essential in my book. Ideally think Passat estate, the biggest I've had the pleasure of are the Mondeo or a Skoda Superb, think king sizing sleeping area... But a decent hatchback is all good, I currently have an 06 Seat Altea, a more boring and inconspicuous, yet capable camping car you will not find.
Obviously if you really want to take car camping to the outer realms, go a 4x4, I know this is bordering on van life, and a lot of 4x4s are cramped but get an old Land Cruiser or in car form a Subaru Outback, and you're laughing.
If possible, get tinted windows, that way even if you're not allowed to overnight sleep somewhere, you can pull up on a street and no one will know you're in there (think south fistula haha).
2. Sleeping -
Comfort is everything, and three things are essential. A sleeping mat, or two. I never go super pricey on this one, you can spend a weeks worth of travel budget on a mat, but a couple of cheap ones will do it for under twenty quid. Where not to skimp is a sleeping bag though, get the best you can afford, they last forever, and warmth and comfort is essential.
Finally a pillow, I spent years going pillow-less, it is not worth it.
3 - Hot Drink Facilities
You can spend weeks and weeks of surfing budget on coffee and tea in cafes, I know, I still do. But the best investment you can make is a decent stove, I'm a jetboil addict, so simple, take anywhere, really easy. Then if you're a coffee sort of person, just get set up properly. I'm a firm believer in having a proper cup with you, filters and a funnel, but if you're int more convenience then definitely a press or something like that. Of course it's easier if you're into tea.
Then to compliment all of this get a good thermos, I'm loving Bamboo numbers, and they are smaller, means you can set up a cuppa for when you get out of the surf.
4. Separation and minimisation. The one thing that van life has over car life is space, so you really have to think about what you need. Then have a system for separating it all out.
I always travel as light as physically possible, but with everything I actually need. It's easy to chuck loads of stuff in a car, fill it up, but then you have issues of where it goes when you sleep. So I pack one bag of clothes and sleeping stuff and one bag of wetsuits etc. Makesure you either have a sealable box for the wet stuff or a dry bag. I always try and make it so they will fit on the passenger seat or behind the seats for maximum sleeping comfort as well.
Finally boards, obviously you can't always leave them on the roof, or under the car, so I rig up roof rack straps in the car to hang them from, or use the back shelf.
But the key is be minimalist, and organised.
5. Additional extras - These come down to room, but if I can fit it in I take a small cool box, just for milk and food, thats a bit of a priority especially if you're out of the way a bit. I also take a bivvy sack, I do like to spend the night under the stars where possible so a waterproof bag is perch. Then the final non-essential but quite essential is a travel shower. The black bags that heat up in the sun are awesome, and they heat up quick if it's sunny and you leave them in the car, and lets face although you don't know you stink, that doesn't mean you don't...
One last word, tool box for the car, regardless of where I am I always carry spare bulbs, plugs, battery jumper (I once fell asleep on a heated seat in the middle of nowhere in Iceland and lost a day finding someone to jump start the car...), all the usual little bits.