Learning To Live As a Fulltime Van Dweller & Digital Nomad

I’ve been fulltiming in France for 8 weeks now and there are still quite a few things that I am struggling with. I feel like I am fumbling, not really sure how to actually spend my time effectively each day whilst managing limited resources and balancing work, travel and general motorhome ‘stuff’.

Electricity Needs

This is by far the area with which I am having the most trouble. The difference between myself and many other people in motorhomes that I see on the road, is that I am not on a short term holiday, but I am actually living a new way of life, every day.

I get comments on social media such as “why worry about electricity? Just unplug and enjoy nature or read a book.” Well meaning comments I’m sure, and that might be sound advice if I was just on a one week trip perhaps, but the fact is that for me personally, being able to use my computer a LOT of the time is at the top of my priority list.

I spend a lot of time at this little desk working and doing computery things!

I run an online business, which now makes me a digital nomad. To complicate matters further, I’m actually in the process of building a new business which still has a steep learning curve for me, which means I need even more time at the keyboard.

Also, computers are actually a hobby for me which means that when there is inclement weather and I don’t feel like going outside, my favourite thing to do inside is use the computer. I’ve been a computer geek since I was 11, and as I don’t want to change that, I need to learn to better manage my resources (mainly electricity!) with this new way of life.

Electric Hookup

Electric hookup solves the problem of course. I can use my computer freely 24/7, as well as an electric kettle, heater (not that I’ve really needed that recently!) and my fridge, which is far more convenient to run on electricity than Gas.

But hookup is not without it’s downsides:

  1. it costs money
  2. there are limited places with EHU which limits where I can go
  3. there are no hookup points out in the wilderness!

 

The second and third points are the same thing really. I did a video recently where I showed where I was parked. I was at a completely free Aire on electric hookup. Free electricity! Amazing right? Well not really as this Aire was right on a busy road and the hookup point was at the service point which meant that I had people emptying their toilet just a few feet from the motorhome all day long!!

This was not fun and it was actually difficult to work because the environment was not relaxing at all! I’d much rather be camped at some beautiful, remote, wilderness location like you see in all the #vanlife images on Instagram!

Solar Power

I have two solar panels mounted on my roof which provide 200 watts of power – when they work. I am starting to learn that getting power into these panels is not so simple! There are three main factors to consider:

  1. Cloud cover
  2. Daylight hours
  3. Shade

Cloud cover is a killer. It can be a nice bright day; lovely to go out hiking, but the cloud cover blocks the direct sunlight to the panels. I’ll be lucky to get 0.5 amps coming into the panels. Compare that to bright sunshine – the highest value I have seen is 14 amps when I was parked in direct sunshine with clear blue skies. That’s 28 times more power!!!

The daylight hours are less of an issue right now as we’re getting towards the summer months and the days are long. By the time winter rolls around again the number of daylight hours will be significantly less but I am hoping that I will have learned to manage my electricity much better by then!

Shade is something I did not understand the implication of until recently. I thought that if the panels were in the ‘line of sight’ of the sun, they’d get power. This is not so. Any shadow cast on a panel, such as by a tree or a building can completely cut off the power to the whole panel!

This is something I have figured out when being confused by my control panel showing 0.0 coming in when I look out of my skylight and see clear blue skies! I’m thinking, what on earth is wrong? And then I realise the back end of the van (where the panels are mounted) is in the shade of a tree or something…

I am now starting to realise that many Aires and other designated parking places (and especially campsites) are shaded in one way or another. It’s fine to park in a shaded area over night but during the day time, if it’s a sunny day, I really should make the effort to find somewhere more open if I want to maximise my power.

What I am aiming for, is to get to a point where I can maximise the efficiency of the solar panels, and be economical with my electricity use so that I can get to a point where I always have enough solar power on a daily basis to power all my needs without needing electric hookup unless we really do have several days in a row of bad weather.

The Weather

Before travelling I had the very simple idea that I would just ‘follow the weather’. On nice days I would go out and explore, go hiking, go to the beach or whatever and then on cold or rainy days I would stay inside and work.

Nice in theory, harder in practice!

First of all, consider that on the lovely sunny days that I want to be outside, that’s when I get the most solar power! On the cloudy, rainy, overcast days I get very little power, and those are the ones I want to stay inside all day! It’s backwards, but that’s just the way it is!

I try to get outside every day if I can. But there are some days where it just rains all day and I simply do not enjoy walking in the rain no matter how many times people say “oh just get a good jacket and boots and it’s lovely!” Nope! Not for me it isn’t! Each to their own 🙂 This is what it looks like when I walk in the rain:

On those kinds of days I will be on the computer for 12+ hours a day and of course, with the usually low amounts of power coming in from the solar panels on those days, there simply is not enough power to cope.

So, what I try to do is to plan for those days by going somewhere that I can get on electric hookup but this has proved to be far more difficult than it sounds. I have repeatedly run into the following two problems:

  1. The weather forecast is just plain wrong
  2. There is nowhere for many miles (other than a very expensive campsite) that I can hookup

 

I avoid campsites if at all possible. There has been only 2 exceptions so far and both times it was annoying as they were very shaded pitches so whilst I could use my computer freely whilst there, my batteries are charging up painfully slowly because of the amount of shade.

Paying 20€+ per night for a campsite is simply not worth it for me. I’d rather not work and indeed, “unplug and read a book” than pay that kind of money. Perhaps when my business is well established and making millions then I’ll change my outlook but for now, I must remain at least moderately frugal!

When I shot that video next to the toilet dump above, I had been at that place for 5 days! Why? Because of the incredibly wrong weather forecast! I had been using AccuWeather as my website of choice for weather and after this week, I am now seeking a more reliable alternative.

I really wanted to go to Rocamadour and so I wanted to stay closeby. Last weekend the forecast showed 4 days of continuous rain and thunderstorms. I found the above mentioned free Aire with electricity about 9 miles away from Rocamadour. I figured I could stay there 1 or 2 days to ride out the bad weather before my visit.

But what actually happened is that every day was actually lovely! There was some rain and thunder in the evening but none in the day. But still, every day the forecast said that the next few days would rain all day long so I stayed put! I thought that if I moved and went to Rocamadour I’d get caught in it and be stuck inside with no electricity.

As it turns out, I could have gone a week earlier! Should I have just ignored the forecast and just gone? Well with hindsight yes of course but on a day to day basis I try to rely on the forecast and it’s a real pain in the ass when it’s wrong!

Now one problem which is introduced by the reliance on solar power, is that on those days where we have lots of lovely sunshine, I’ll of course try to park in direct sunlight to benefit from the power but this has the side effect of making the inside of the motorhome incredibly hot – it can get like a greenhouse, even with all the windows open!

I’ve noticed that in the South of France, the hottest part of the day is late afternoon / early evening. Around 4-7pm ish. On Very hot and humid days it’s virtually unbearable to be in the van even with my fan right on me.

So, I’ve had to adapt. I have a small window over the cab area where I sleep. I leave this open, with the blind up over night. Not only does this give me a breeze through the night (it can get very stuffy up there otherwise), but it also means that I am woken up naturally in the morning by the daylight and the sounds of the birds.

I’ve never liked alarms and in my opinion this is the best way to wake up! So I’m getting up a LOT earlier than I used to back in the UK. I was often a night owl, staying up past midnight on most days. But moving my day earlier works better in these conditions as I can have productive time early in the morning even on the hottest days. Then I can work or go for a hike or whatever.

By the time it starts to roast late in the afternoon I can be done with my productive stuff for the day and try to find some shade outside somewhere to relax with a book or whatever. I’ll also go to bed pretty early which means less lights on, to save a little more power heh 🙂

Walking / Hiking

This is another area where the weather plays a big part because as I said, I don’t enjoy walking in the rain! I don’t mind clouds, that can actually be quite nice as it makes it cooler but I do prefer it to stay dry.

The more hiking I do, the more I want to do. In an ideal world I’d go out hiking every day, or do some other outdoor activity, then come back and work just in the evenings. Of course, it rarely works out like that.

One issue that I have is that the motorhome and my feet are my only modes of transport. I have made the mistake on more than one occasion where I plan out a walking route only to find that I actually can’t get the motorhome anywhere near it.

A bike of some kind would greatly ease this problem (and solve a few more) and is definitely something I will look into for my next vehicle but for now, I have to find somewhere I can park this big beast within walking distance of the actual route.

I’m going to do a separate blog post about hiking in France as it’s now become something of a focal point in my travels. I’m more interested in finding somewhere to go for a hike, than to explore yet another pretty little French village. Even after just a few weeks, they are starting to look the same!

Overnight Parkups

A large part of my time is spent on researching where I am going to park for the night. I get quite annoyed when people tell me to just drive off into the sunset without a map and just see where the road takes me! That might work for other people, but not for me!

Because of everything above, I am trying to find places that are near somewhere I want to go – such as a POI on my map of France, or a walking route, or of course, an electric point when I need one.

Trying to balance these things on a day to day basis seems to take up a huge amount of time and this is where I feel like I need to improve. Being able to live more off grid and rely more on the solar power certainly opens up the places I can stay.

Of course sod’s law says that I always seem to find that when I get low on solar power and the weather starts to turn bad, there’s no electric hookup to be found for miles around and when it’s sunny and I have no need of it, it’s everywhere!

Wifi / Internet Access

As mentioned above, I run an online business. This means that 99% of the work I do requires an Internet connection. I just don’t have any offline work unfortunately.

Here again, I have another conflict. In an ideal world I’d find nice remote parkups, where I can get away from other people and have some peace and quiet to work. France is a big country and there are spots like that available. The trouble is, very often they simply don’t have phone signal and that means I can’t get online!

This happened to me a couple of days ago. I found an extremely quiet parkup where I had planned to go for a walk (which went a bit wrong but that’s for another post!) but there was no signal.

In the end, I did stay there and I did indeed spend the evening just reading and wistfully gazing out of my window watching the bunnies running around. It was very nice but whenever I am inside the van I feel this compulsion to work or be productive in some way and I found myself checking my phone every few minutes to see if I could get signal, which compromised the relaxation!

Upon leaving, I had already plugged in a new destination the day before when I did have signal. I try to get into the habit of inputting 2 or 3 destinations in case they don’t work out. Unfortunately, when I got there, it was not somewhere I wanted to stay and I still didn’t have signal so I had no way to get online to find another spot!

I found myself in the situation that I said earlier how much I dislike – having to just drive! Luckily my navigation app, CoPilot works on just GPS signal (doesn’t need a phone signal) so what I did was just look on the map, and picked a random town in the general direction that I wanted to head and started driving. Along the way I kept an eye out for places I could pull over and eventually I got 4G, pulled over and then researched a proper place to park!

Unfortunately by the time I got there it was 6pm, the Aire was full and I ended up parked on a building site next door to it! Yep got great 4G signal here but the view is not exactly scenic views and bunnies!

2 thoughts on “Learning To Live As a Fulltime Van Dweller & Digital Nomad

  1. Erika Ann

    Hi Caroline,

    Watching your Youtube videos make me want to travel on a van as well! It looks so fun and exciting. Any tips financially on how to be a van dweller? About your solar panels, it is really a good idea to find a place where there is no shade and its sunny and park their for about 1 to 2 hours to get the most out of your panels. Travelling and helping nature through sustainable energy; now that looks like a life I would love to live.

    1. CarolineM Post author

      Hi Erika, I’m glad you like the videos 🙂 I run an online business which I have done for many years so it was something I was just able to continue on the road so I am not the best person to ask for advice on that! There’s actually a lot of videos on YouTube from other van dwellers who have done videos about ways to earn money on the road. There’s lots of options!

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