Earlier this month, we went to an event up in Scotland hosted by our good friends at Dometic. While there, we met two climbers by the names of Charlie Low and Dale Comley. More commonly known on the internet as ClimbingVan (@ClimbingVan), the couple have amassed over 80,000 followers on Instagram and have even written a dead handy book all about what’s actually involved with van converting – it’s called The Van Conversion Bible.
After the event, we fired some questions at them to find out a little bit more about the highs and lows of campervan conversion as well as their approach to sustainability, their plans for climbing adventures, and what their families have made of their decision to live full time in the van. We also found out what the worst aspect of living in a van is (no prizes for guessing that one).
Just how difficult is it to convert your own campervan? When you did it, for example, what kind of gap was there between expectation and reality?
Dale: Some of the tasks that seem quite big and daunting can actually be very quick and easy. Fitting windows, for example, requires the scary commitment of cutting a massive hole in the side of the van! Luckily, once you’ve done that, they are surprisingly quick and easy to fit. Whereas some tasks that wouldn’t even feature on the radar, like cutting out a piece of wood to a certain profile (thanks to pesky curved van walls), actually ended up taking hours and hours to get right.
“The important thing to remember is that ultimately none of the jobs are too complex”
Charlie: The important thing to remember is that ultimately none of the jobs are too complex, so it’s possible for anyone to learn everything you need to do it yourself. It helps splitting it down into sections, so that you can tackle one thing at a time – that way it doesn’t feel too overwhelming. And it’s also okay to outsource something if you don’t feel confident doing it yourself! We ran a big survey last year of thousands of self-build van converters, and the jobs most frequently outsourced to professionals were window fitting and the electrical system.
What was the biggest challenge when converting your van? What part of the process surprised you the most?
Dale: The biggest challenge for us was trying to find a reliable source of information – we watched so many YouTube videos and read so many blogs, but it was so tricky to try and find a definitive source for everything. That’s partly why we decided to write our book when we finished our own conversion! Often the biggest challenge is knowing the question to ask in the first place, or discovering the ‘unknown unknowns’. YouTube videos are fantastic once you know what you’re looking for, and for learning how to use specific tools or master new techniques, but they don’t tend to be as useful when it comes to navigating the planning and design stage.
“The biggest challenge for us was trying to find a reliable source of information”
Charlie: I think the thing that surprised me the most was just how long certain jobs can take. Whenever Dale would say, “This will only take an hour!” you can be sure it would take at least double that!
How much did sustainability and the environment come into your thinking when converting your van?
Charlie: Sustainability is really important to both of us, and it’s a value that we try to live our lives by as much as possible. We’re both vegetarian, and we also try to cut down on our single use plastic to an absolute minimum and just be mindful of what we buy and where it is from. So we did the same when it came to converting the van, such as trying to use second hand materials and products where possible, and also powering the van mainly on solar power.
“Our carbon footprint is now a fraction of what it was living in a house”
Dale: And despite the vehicle being diesel powered, our carbon footprint is now a fraction of what it was living in a house. No more tedious commutes, no more flights and the opportunity to work for ourselves has allowed us to both cut our personal footprint, and to create a sustainable business from the ground up.
What’s the best thing about the van life? And, flipping that on its head, what’s the worst thing about it?
Dale: The freedom and flexibility to work when you feel productive, climb when you feel strong, and take your home and everything you own to wherever the sun is shining!
“The worst thing has to be emptying the composting toilet”
Charlie: The worst thing has to be emptying the composting toilet. We always share that job!
As climbers yourself, how inspired were you by personalities like Alex Honnold when it came to living in a van?
Dale: Climbing and living in a van is almost synonymous. Every climber I ever looked up to as a kid always had a van, and was off on adventures, living the weekend warrior dream!
Charlie: Alex Honnold is good proof that no matter how much money you have, you can’t beat living and travelling in a van! Even when we go and stay with friends or visit family, we’ll always stay in the van out of preference because it’s our little home and we love it.