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 campervan envy led to us selling our tent after a last summer holiday. We AirBnB-ed for a while, but couldn’t help ogling every campervan we passed. So, this is what happened next…
A campervan? No thanks
The things that had 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 were, 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. Plus the price difference wasn’t all that big.
We went for a test drive in a VW California SE (now the T6 Ocean). And it wasn’t for us. 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 around £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 some good 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 VW 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.
- Being able 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. Interestingly, you see a lot of SE campervans advertised as never having been cooked in. Makes you 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.
- The most life-changing day van – a place to go back to for a snooze after a walk, a writer’s den, a you-name-it. Who’d have thought!
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 three years ago now, and have camped in south-west Scotland, the Yorkshire Dales and the Lake District, Denmark, Germany and on four six-week trips throughout France, Italy and more.
We chose the two-person rear bench seat model (which gives you an underseat drawer and a big storage bench at the side where the SE/Ocean kitchen would be), by the way, Here are our thoughts on the good bits (lots of those) and the bad bits (very few).
Why a VW California Beach works so well
- Sleek interior that feels spacious and comfortable
- The pleasure of putting on the electric kettle for a quick cup of tea after a walk (on hook-up)
- Heated seats (not something we’d have chosen, but very cosy), cruise control, parking sensors, bluetooth music
- Great storage under the bench seat and in the side bench
- 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
- Lots of headroom, especially when the roof is up
- Two comfortable double beds!
- Gorgeous, gorgeous to drive
The extra bits we’ve bought
- A tarp – for leaving on-site when we drive off for the day, for UV protection, for a gazebo area or for a side screen on our built-in awning. Any tarp will do. Oh, and a windbreak – this is the two-panel, quick-to-put up Regatta one (cheap too).
- A water carrier. The one we’ve used most is the four-litre Source Liquitainer. Hang it from a tree or a thumbscrew in the awning rail.
- 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 Utility 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.
- An Andes kitchen storer for all our bamboo crockery and kitchen stuff.
- Protective bits for the bumper (VW), rubbing strips (VW), stick-on bits from Halfords for the wing mirrors
- A small ceramic fan heater like the Pro Breeze with tip-over protection. An option we’re currently trying is the oil-free Eco Chico Dimplex – because it’s fast to heat, small, light and safe to leave on overnight. See our article on options for heating campervans too.
- A Calitop roof cover – Excellent. Very easy to put on and take off. People seem to like the cheaper Khyam Kamper Cozi too, which is more easily available in the UK, but we prefer the German one because it comes in four separate sections, which makes it easier for one person to handle.
- A super-quiet Igenix 1-litre electric kettle. Fits in the panel area behind the passenger seat or 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 Calitop.
- Smart grey lino to protect the multiflex board (now that we’ve removed the mattress).
The things that could be better, or need a solution
- The roof canvas 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. We’ve removed the mattress and fitted smart grey lino to protect the board. You just need to get creative with your organisation!The ugly boot shade. Watch this space for my haute couture version coming soon!
- We wish we had the factory-fitted heating for those cold days out. Update: Webasto heater retrofitted and fabulous (but £1600!!). See all the heating options here in our buyers’ guide.
- An awning? We’ve been testing them. See our article on lightweight, easy-erect awnings.
- We leave the boot open a lot when we’re camped. On the last trip in VERY hot sun, I rigged up a very inelegant shade using our beach rug. I’ve now bought neodymium magnets and shade mesh and am planning to construct a very elegant curtain that will stay in place and roll up when not in use.
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 four-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).
This looks a terrifying amount of kit. We overdo it…probably. Remember, though, that pretty much all of this can stay in the van. Food and clothes are all you need to add.
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 nice grey lino (looks factory-fitted!) 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
- We experimented with a folding cupboard, but you can’t get at the contents from inside the van. Great if you plan to take it out and use in an awning on a longer stay, though. We’ve gone back to a kitchen storer bag, with pans, plates, bag of cutlery, glasses, mugs, utensils in its side pockets etc. The Andes bag is great and costs under £30. Might even try another one for clothes.
- Two (stacking) plastic boxes with lids. The underneath one has swimming things, snorkels plush microfibre towels, hammamas (we cover the back seat with a hammama too, to protect the fabric), Decathlon’s great £5 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), bivvy hammocks, 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 (the pull-out section from the Andes bag mentioned above). We keep in it tea, coffee, a sharp knife, a couple of plates, salt and pepper and other things that are regularly needed. Good for picnics too.
Kitchen roll, a tea towel and the latest food shop 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.
- Water storage – we use the gorgeous stainless steel Sansone, but also the flexible four-litre Source Liquitainer. On a long journey, we might add in the Platypus for refilling the other two.
- Right at the back, the beach umbrella, tennis and badminton racquets and a Kubb game
- 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 clips and bungees, 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.
- Sometimes we take a Khyam Screendome ‘awning’ (see below). Or a Regatta Camila windbreak (finding a good windbreak has been tricky…see other windbreaks we rated)
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.
- A folding bucket with lid – just in case there’s no loo!
- Hooks take great Reisenthel hanging toilet bags and sometimes the hilarious Happy Going toilet roll thingy.
- 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 biodegradable Aqua 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 Luminoodle lights for the awning.
Latest addition…a Khyam Screendome
It’s not an awning as such (see more of those), but it is incredibly versatile and is up and down in 20 seconds…truly! Lots of head height, big windows and two full side doors, plus a sun canopy that can be attached to the side of your van using tarp clips and bungees (or another clever workaround of your choice!). The jury’s still out on this as we didn’t use it at all on our last trip (reverting to the tarp instead). More for wet weather cooking in the Lake District perhaps.
- Size: W300 x L300 x H205
- Pack size: 102 x 21 x 21 cm
- Weight: 9.5 kg
- Price: £260
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.
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 and the how to camp in your car article.
A few thoughts on the new VW Grand California…we still prefer the Beach!
Hot off the press (well, straight from the German Caravan Salon 2018), comes the Crafter-based BIG boy of the California range. First of all, this is NOT a campervan. It’s a motorhome and, while many will love the California-ness of it, there are actually a lot of swanky motorhomes to choose from.
However, just look at it….beds for two adults and two children, a separate bathroom and a living space; an optional panoramic skylight, plus the standard swivelling front seats, dining table and sliding side door. We don’t like the kitchen-y bits in the door opening, but that’s fairly standard on a small motorhome. One of the beauties of the Beach (and the Ocean) is the sense of space and light you get with the door open.
A big plus for many will be the separate bathroom – a 84x80cm compartment with a toilet, shower and fold-out sink. There’s also integrated shelving and cupboards to store toiletries and towels. There’s a 110-litre water tank and a skylight so it doesn’t get steamy. Motion-sensing lights are standard.
We love the idea of the external temperature-controlled shower. There are also Bluetooth speakers in the living area. You’re going to have to wait till 2019, however, and expect to pay around £60,000 (base).
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?