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Most of us can relate to the fun we had canoeing at summer camp when we were young. But that was nothing compared to the experience of whitewater kayaking that came next for me. I have always loved canoeing, though it always seemed difficult to participate. It has only been in the last decade that the development of inflatable canoes has made a big difference. You can more easily access rivers, you can store a canoe in your car, you can even take them on a plane. They are very light, very cheap, with little loss of functionality. Perfect for weekends away or campervan holidays. Social networking was the other big change. You can now use Facebook, etc to join canoeing adventures in your local region or abroad.

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Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Selecting a campervan

Its very difficult to select a campervan without first using the vehicle under the conditions you intended. For most of us that is not an option. Nevertheless there are plenty of forums where you can at least get the views of people who have first hand experience – assuming they are not vendors stealthily promoting their own product. I am happily independent in that respect. J Though I would qualify this posting by disclosing that this posting is targeted at a young audience. The problem that I have with the selection of campervans on the market is that they are targeted at retirees. This is evident in:

  1. The size – they are big and cumbersome, suited to slow drivers whom are unlikely to take the vehicle off-road
  2. They are fully-fitted with the luxurious features
  3. They are fitted with a lot of features I don’t want.
  4. They are too expensive – I’m not willing to pay $70-100K for a campervan

Its understandable that this is the way campervan manufacturers are going because when you consider that the babyboomers are retiring with huge wads of cash, and they want all the comforts of home, then its understandable. But from my perspective, I’m not even interested in a heavily discounted 2nd hand ‘mobile retirement home’.
I have been looking at campervans for a few years now, firstly in Australia, then I was looking at importing a cheap one from Japan, and now I am more inclined to buy a cheap chassis and fit it out with the features I like. In coming to this conclusion I have given a lot of thought to the intended use of the vehicle as well as the lowest cost approach. A considered approach really demands that you outline what you will do thoughtout your day, and how you will perform those tasks in a campervan. Eg. Where are you going to shit, can someone see you through the window, will the smell of it prevent you from working on your computer. Unless you ask these very profound philosophical questions you wont know how suited the vehicle is for your intended use. You also need to consider what will change – are you going to get married, go overseas, will it still suit you, and where can you store it. Lifestyle objectives I personally like travelling and spending time in different places. I would prefer to have several cheap homes rather than a single expensive base. Basically I would happily live in a camper, though I need to consider the interests of my GF. Basically all I need is a cheap, small 5acre block of land with a large shed on it, so I can store the campervan an accessories in it. I was actually thinking to build a insulated home within a country shed but maybe I can more cheaply buy a weekender-style home when there is a credit crunch and city farmers are forced to sell. All I need is a link to an international airport to leave the country. My bases are Japan-Philippines-Australia, but since Australia has a ‘Closer Economic Agreement’ with NZ I can freely travel and invest there. My motivation for getting a campervan is:

  1. I love the outdoors/nature
  2. I love doing activities like mountain biking and canoeing that require travelling to remote places
  3. It’s a great way to see the world
  4. It saves a lot of money on food and accommodation
  5. Its more flexible than having a holiday house – where you are stuck in a single location
  6. Its suitable for weekend trips or extended holidays – so its flexible enough to adjust to any lifestyle change like buying a house or having a family

The options Given the current economic expansion, there is a lot of money floating around. Which means things like campervans are really priced for ‘how much you can afford’ as opposed to the cost+profit margin that drives a competitive market? For this reason I am steering away from these ready-made solutions, which offer a fairly basic campervan for $70-100K (depending on the number and quality of fittings). Another reason for steering away from these factory-made designs is that their functionality is not sustainable. Coastal caravan parks are disappearing because of the rapid rise in the value of the land, and its redevelopment. The traditional caravan park was often on an attractive beach, but now they are quickly disappearing or rising in prices. You now have to pay $27-50 per night to stay on-site with a campervan, when all you really need is a shit, shower and a battery recharge. The ‘retiree’ is perhaps comfortable using these facilities because they have loads of cash, and value the security, but I would prefer to:

  1. Select a more flexible design that allows me to stay anywhere
  2. Select a design that allows me to stay off-grid for at least 4 days
  3. Select a design that allows me to inconspicuously spend the night in residential areas, in the middle of town, next to a mountain stream or along a quiet beach.

Design features I don’t want to pay a premium for services of marginal benefit. For that reason I want to economise on features. I want the flexibility to have a shower, but I don’t need a dedicated shower. I don’t need a hotplate because I would prefer a steamer. I don’t need a TV or video because I can use my laptop. Australia is a mostly dry country, so I will content myself with a fan. I do however want a quality 60litre refrigerator because I want to stock food for >3 days. I need a table and chair that converts into a double bed. The intention for cutting back of features is to increase my access to remote places as well as make driving the vehicle less cumbersome. There are just too many places you cant take a big vehicle, and the cost of insuring such a beast is not worth it. I want to customise a campervan to have just the features I need…and I want it all contained in a tight space, so that requires some design. More challenging is to make it a place a woman would feel comfortable. The features I am looking for are:

  1. Fuel economy – a 2-2.4 litre engine for good fuel efficiency but reasonable power.
  2. Basic features – 60L fridge/freezer, water pump, double bed, chair, table, windows, sun & fly screen.
  3. Accessories – computer, handheld devices (GPS, camera, cell phone), toaster, steamer, shaver, fan, fire extinguisher,
  4. Energy supply – power points, solar panels, generator, deep cycle batteries (3x), diesel generator (1hp), inverter, diodes, etc, with the intent of getting solar panels when they become cheaper and more energy efficient.
  5. Good clearance – whether from short wheel base or good vertical clearance
  6. Vehicle length – I don’t want the vehicle to be too long so I can easily turn around on rural tracks.
  7. Good shape & design – inclined windscreen to reduce the likelihood of breakage, flat rood for storage and solar panel mounting. Good internal shape for fitout and interior design
  8. Height – I have not decided if I want a hi-top or normal level because although its nice to have head clearance in the vehicle, this needs to be weighed up against the possibility of hitting overhead trees in the bush and wind shear while driving. I was originally against pop-up designs because I saw idiots puncturing the canvas with knives. But I am inclined to only use the pop-up feature if I am in the sun during the day, and leave it down at night when I am less mobile anyway.

Approach to purchase

At this point I see 3 options:

  1. Buying a 2nd hand campervan in Japan – export to NZ or Australia. There are a multitude of companies that export cars from Japan.
  2. Buying a 4WD chassis in Japan (say a Mitsubishi Delica), exporting to Australia before fitting out the interior. Japan drives on the same side of the road, their cars are fully accessorised and they are under-loved after 5yrs of service despite limited road kms.
  3. Buying a 2nd hand or new chassis in Australia and fitting it out here. The basic chassis is likely to cost $20-25K for a 5yr old vehicle. See

Possible Chassis

There are a large number of possible chassis available. I identified the following models on the websites:

  1. Volkswagen: This is the chassis for the campervan I used travelling from Darwin to Sydney. The engine torque was great, though the gear shifts were difficult for me. I was often stalling finding 1st gear. I also find this vehicle to big and thus awkward to park and certainly impossible to take off-road. Transporter: This is a VW van. It is a good size and comes in a high-head room model.
  2. Mitsubishi: Mitsubishi don’t have the best reputation. Arguably they are not designed for Aust, but I’ll look at the kilometres on the odometer of a few models to judge their performance. Anything over 300K is doing well. Delica – I like this vehicle because its very popular model in Japan, thus an easy 2nd hand purchase. There is a 4WD version, it has a short wheel base with very good clearance. Express 4WD: There are not many models, so maybe hard to find parts. StarWagon 4WD: There are not many models, but they might be ok, but bad for parts.
  3. Toyota: Toyota offers a range of models. They are a popular car manufacturer and its generally easy to get parts for these popular chassis. Hiace – The Hiace is a popular chassis for the hi-top ‘bubble’ style campervans you see around. Some of these are 4WD. I like these for security reasons over the ‘pop up’ type roofs because its more discrete campervanning (since no one knows your inside if you close the curtains). The downside is the high profile which can be dangerous in wind gusts on the open road. A sudden wind gust could push you into an oncoming truck. Townace: This is a basic van – the 1994 and 2000 models are very different looks. They are a small van. Landcruiser – there is a’hi-top’ version which I like since it has just basic features. The problem with this is again the high roof (good & bad) as well as the small storage space. The other bad feature is the high fuel consumption. The good news is that you often have a 2nd fuel tank so you have greater range and you need not pay exorbitant prices at petrol stations with a ‘remote’ market monopoly. You can get a 2003 model with 200K for $20-23K. I think this is not a city vehicle. Models can have an eski or standard style frig. It comes with a sink and burner I don’t need. Coaster: This is a Toyota bus of moderate size. Too big for my needs I think. It has a rear door, some with seats. Problem with low clearance. You can get a 1995 bus fitted out for campervanning for $72K. An older unit strikes me as a good vehicle to place on a block of land? Or might a shed be better?
  4. Iveco: They produce a range of commercial vehicles. Daily Van: This is a good shape vehicle.
  5. Ford: There are a range of Fords that would make good campervans: Econovan: Some people have fitted these out with hightops. I saw a 1991 model with fittings for $7400 at I don’t trust the odometer reading though – 103K – nonsense. But I could always buy a later model say 2002 for $10-12,000 and fit it out. Transit: There was a 1998 diesel model for sale for $5500 that had done 450,000kms. That’s good to know. This is a wider vehicle with a hitop. There are shorter wheel-based models as well.
  6. Nissan: They have several camper/van types. Urvan/Camper GL 1983: This is a longer wheeled bus-type.
  7. Mercedes Sprinter Van: This is a good van for conversion.
  8. Renault: They are not a popular car supplier to Australia. Ducato: This is an appealing van I have seen converted into a campervan.

Ultimate decision
The ultimate decision upon which chassis to buy will depend on:

  1. The price of the vehicle – new or 2nd hand
  2. The vehicle which will comfortable fit all my features
  3. The vehicle that offers the best selection of parts in Australia
  4. The vehicle with the best road handling characteristics and durability

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