Campfire crew members had been debating whether to buy a campervan for a few years. They finally took the plunge by ditchin’ the kitchen. Here they explain why they’ve fallen in love with their VW California Beach.
We’ve loved tent-camping in the UK and Europe, but a bad back, too much bad weather and a bad dose of campsite van envy led to us selling our tent after last summer’s holiday. Since then, we’d enjoyed the freedom and luxury of AirBnB-ing, but couldn’t help ogling every campervan we’ve passed.
The things that have always put us off campervans were still in the back of our minds.
- Carpeted walls
- Hospital-style cabinets
- The cost
- Having two vehicles
- Having one vehicle (and so having to drive a kitchen to work)
- Feeling obliged to only use the van – no staying in houses or hotels or eating out any more!
Yet, as good as these reasons are, we were still hankering. We visited the motorhome shows to look at conversions and came to the conclusion that they all lacked a little finesse. There were either style issues, or some cheap bits and pieces, or some bad finishing-off. Some were much better than others, of course, but nothing came close to the made-as-a-camper VW California and for not a lot less money.
We went for a test drive in a VW California SE (now the T6 Ocean). And we didn’t like it. Fantastic to drive, looked great, well-equipped, but so much of it felt fragile and there were so many things to break! Not to mention the trauma of spending nearly £55,000.
Then, the idea of the VW California Beach slowly started to trickle into our thinking. It’s a campervan but without the fridge, stove and sink. It does have a rising roof, two double beds, electric hook-up, an awning, those nifty chairs that stow in the tailgate and table that slots in the door, plus a bit of storage. Many people think of them as day vans, but we could see more potential, thanks to the flexibility of being able to use it as a car, a load carrier and a camper.
Here’s why we chose a Beach
- A saving of around £10,000 on a full-fat California SE/Ocean.
- Better miles per litre because it’s lighter.
- Less to go wrong – no water or gas, fewer bits to break, a manual rather than electric rising roof
- Chance to configure the inside. Today it’s a people-carrier, tomorrow it’s picking up a sofa from Ikea, next week it’s a holiday home.
- We want to cook outside rather than making our mobile bedroom smell of food. If it’s raining, we’ll go to the pub. If we find we’re wrong, we could always add in a Maxxcamp or other kitchen module later on. Interestingly, you see a lot of SE campervans advertised as never having been cooked in. Makes your wonder why the owner paid for a kitchen!
- We like washing up at campsites because it’s a chance to chat to people from all over the world. And the sink in the SE is too tiny for pots and pans anyway.
- There are just two of us, so we can sleep upstairs and leave downstairs as a permanent lounge.
All in all, the Beach brought back the feeling of freedom. Perhaps the ‘real’ campervans were just too grown-up for us. We collected our new toy two weeks ago, and have already camped in south-west Scotland, the Yorkshire Dales and the Lake District plus two six-week trips in Europe. Here are our thoughts on the good bits (lots of those) and the bad bits (very few).
The things we love
- Putting on the electric kettle for a quick cup of tea after a walk (when on hook-up)
- Heated seats (not something we’d have chosen, but very cosy), cruise control, parking sensors, Bluetooth music
- The niftiness of the table and chairs that stow away so beautifully
- The swivelling front seats
- Plenty of lights for reading and plenty of 12V sockets, plus one three-pin socket
- Plenty of headroom, especially when the roof is up
- Two comfortable double beds!
- Gorgeous to drive
The extra bits we’ve bought
- A Quechua tarp (Fresh) – for leaving on-site when we drive off for the day, for UV protection, for a windbreak, for a side screen on our built-in awning. Any tarp will do.
- A water carrier. The one in the middle is beautiful and stands perfectly on the back multiflex board. The others are ideal for extras because they fold away flat.
- Waeco CDF26 compressor fridge – see fridge feature for more info. For more space, we’d choose the CFX35
- What do we cook on outside? We love the versatile Cadac Safari Chef for outside cooking and, for the odd time we need it inside, a teeny Campingaz Bivouac (window open for safety), which we LOVE and have had for years.
- Brandrup Utilities seat-back storage – massively expensive, but fits perfectly and very useful (pictured lower down)
- A very nifty tray that sits flat on the side bench so that you can use it as a sidetable. The sides fold up and then fold flat. Ingenious.
- Fitted carpets – Brandrup again, and in a darker grey than the original carpet, which was going to get very dirty. They seem to insulate well and make us feel cosier
- Homemade cushions and matching tablecloth – a cover for the storage box seat-pad, cushions for the back bench seat and a tablecloth for the built-in table. Made with remnants from a curtain shop for £8.
- Second skin seat covers for the driver and passenger seats – VW original and just like the seats underneath.
- Protective bits for the bumper (VW), rubbing strips (VW), stick-on bits from Halfords for the wing mirrors
- A small ceramic fan heater (we didn’t get parking heaters). The Anna fan heaters are slim and stylish with a choice of 700 and 1200W output, plus tip-over protection, but we eventually went for the expensive Ecomat fan heater instead.
- A super-quiet Igenix 1-litre electric kettle. Fits in the panel area behind the passenger seatort the underseat drawer.
- A Builder’s Brand 2m telescopic ladder – small, light and neat – for getting into the roof bed (though we’ve found that you can manage without unless you have an injury!) and getting access to the roofbars (that we haven’t bought yet!) and the fantastic Calitop. UPDATE: removed from our pack list as we never used it.
- A Calitop roof cover – comes in four parts for easy fitting. Excellent. Very easy to put on and take off because it comes in four separate sections.
The things that could be better, or need a solution
- The initial disappointment of the roof canvas. It wasn’t completely waterproof at first, which was a shock. We bought the Calitop mentioned above. After a few nights of rain, the canvas weave improves, but the Calitop also means you don’t have to retract a wet roof onto your bed.
- The cover on the tailgate brake light pops off when it feels like it. Replaceable under warranty.
- The stupid multiflex board. Don’t get me started! It’s a rigid board bolted to a rigid frame with nothing multi or flexible about it! It acts as parcel shelf and part of the downstairs bed, but limits boot storage and makes it hard to find things. Our fridge won’t fit under it! No-one likes it and it’s a bit of bad design in an otherwise perfect package. Some clever people at the VW California Club have come up with ways around this.
- A slightly awkward swivel to the passenger seat that seems to have knocked out our heated seat. UPDATE: Fixed. The wires had been misrouted and had been cut in half by the swivel.
- We wish we had the factory-fitted heating for those cold days out.
How we pack the Beach
Part of the fun of a new campervan is working out the best way to organise yourself – well, it is if you’re slightly obsessive about these things!
After lots and lots of trips, we’ve refined our pack, worked out what we do and don’t need and found the best place to put everything for easy access and quick set-ups and getaways.
The following is our pack for a three-week European trip in early summer. We live outside the van most of the time, so need to get at things from the boot rather than from the inside (we pack differently for UK trips where we can’t be sure of the weather).
Inside the boot
Aside from our grumbles about the inflexible multiflex board in the Beach, the main question is whether we’ll be using the downstairs bed. We prefer to sleep upstairs (and that’s what we’ve always done except in terrible weather or in situations when the pop-up roof would be too obtrusive). If you’re on a noisy site, downstairs is s better option, by the way.
We’ve now removed the bottom mattress and put some protective transparent plastic sheeting over the board. We’ve found you can comfortably use the downstairs bed without this back ‘parcel shelf’. Swivel the front seats, lower the bed to flat and you’ll find it’s long enough. We put two long sun lounger pads on both downstairs or upstairs bed to make them softer. They’re used outside as needed too. We love multi-purpose!
On top…from left to right
- Previously, we used an Outwell kitchen storer bag, with pans, plates, bag of cutlery, glasses, mugs, utensils in its side pockets. In fact, all the cooking and eating gear. These don’t seem to be available any more, which is a shame, so we’re currently testing a folding cupboard in its place. The downside is that you can’t get at its contents from the inside of the van. It’d possibly be perfect if it had a zipped opening on both sides rather than just the front, but it wasn’t ever designed for picky Beach owners. See our camping cupboard feature, by the way.
- Two (stacking) plastic boxes with lids. The underneath one has swimming things, snorkels, hammamas (we cover the back seat with a hammama too, to protect the fabric), water shoes, sunscreen and fill-up toiletries). The top one is a larder with tins, spices etc – all our non-perishable food, plus some cheating readymeals (our favourite is the Firepot range of proper food…dried).
- A Waeco compressor fridge, plugged into the 12v socket by the sliding door. Enough for wine, milk, butter, cheese, salad and all chilled foods. It’s quiet, keeps its temperature in 37 degrees of heat and can even freeze if we need it to. We’ve written a fridge guide and review here, by the way.
- Another plastic box with lid for the hammock (a featherweight double Ticket to the Moon one), beach/picnic mat, tarpaulin, other odds and ends loosely categorised as leisure stuff. On top, either a clothes bag (reachable from inside because it’s raised to the height of the seat back), or a welly bag of shoes.
- In front of these, a smaller lidded box for our washing up bowl (cloths and liquid inside it) and our ‘in use’ food basket. This is a smallish wicker basket (a plastic box would be just as good, but we had this one left over from a hamper present). We keep in it tea, coffee, a sharp knife, breakfast cereal, salt and pepper and other things that are regularly needed. We move things in and out as we need them, and the whole basket comes to the table when we cook or have breakfast. It means fewer trips to the back of the van.
- Kitchen roll, a tea towel and the hilarious Happy Going are usually sitting somewhere on the back shelf too, along with a recycled plastic ‘carpet’ for under the awning. The Green Decoré ones are lovely and very versatile.
- Right at the back, the beach umbrella, tennis and badminton racquets
- The gas bottle and Cadac Safari Chef Deluxe
- A second clothes bag (we often end up moving clothes bags inside – one sitting on the back of the storage chest, and the other behind the passenger seat)
- A deeper plastic lidded box for electric hook-up, triangle, spare bits and pieces, tarp grips, guylines, window cleaner (one of us is starting to behave like a caravan owner and it’s not me) and a small toolkit.
- On top of these (but still under the shelf) is a foldable aluminium table. This one is much more stable than any other we’ve found and pops into place so easily. It’s less damageable than the VW one, we can cook on it and we can leave it out in any weather or to mark our pitch
Inside the living room
- Bedding fits into the storage box (which I’ve made a cushion cover for, by the way)
- Under-bench drawer has electric kettle, fan heater/cooler, hairdryer, cab curtains (Never used. We use a simple suction silver screen) and Calitop. Awning handle there too, of course, plus room for extra things when needed.
- Hooks take great Reisenthel hanging toilet bags and sometimes the Happy Going.
- Expensive, but indispensable Brandrup seat-back store on the driver’s side for torches, matches and lighter, maps and guides, bin bags, cards and cribbage board, iPhone and iPad chargers, polarity tester, survival tin(!) and room for more.
- Side and door cubby holes take all-pure wet wipes (we use them a LOT when we don’t have easy access to showers), first aid bag, water bottles when on the move, all-natural Incognito mosquito repellent, sunglasses and hats and solar lights for the awning.
We seem to have acres of space and it’s amazing how accessible everything is. What’s great too is that most of this stays in the van when we get home and is ready for the next trip.
We’ve recently come across a new UK company making pull-out kitchens and more for the back of the Beach. We’re not convinced that it would work for us, but worth a look. You might even get Slidepods to make you a custom model.
Of course, the Beach is glampervanning…you can have just as much fun in a cheap van that you’ve customised to suit you. For inspiration, have a look at the article on turning a Berlingo into a mini campervan.
Do let us know about your Beach (or your alternative camper). What have you bought for it? Where do you go? How do you pack it?