Everywhere I looked online, van travel was stylishly portrayed. Elegant people draped over beautiful hand-made bedspreads; friends laughing, beers in hand and the soft golden light of dusk illuminating the happiness that only life on the road can bring. Vans were always shabby-chic and set against the backdrops of white-tipped waves and mountain backdrops.
Yet all I could think of was my childhood holidays in my parentâ€™s third-hand caravan.
Old-School Van Life
It had been old, decrepit and decorated in those hideous oranges and browns of the seventies. There were only four beds and five of us, so every night at bedtime; I was relegated to a camp-bed in the draughty awning until morning. To be honest, I didnâ€™t mind that as much as when it rained and we were forced to squeeze up round the small table that became my parentâ€™s bed each night to watch the raindrops smudge the windows; trapped and slowly driving each other up the thin, tin walls.
I started to wonder if I had missed something as a child, or if all those online photos were just the travel version of airbrushed fashion models?
I decided to see for myself.
The Evolution of Van Camping
I spent two and a half days taking it in turns with my boyfriend to drive to the south of Spain from my home in the UK. It had been a mad rush to get the van ready to live in before leaving and I still wasnâ€™t convinced that the make-shift system in the back would suffice.
The first two nights, parked on the side of the motorway as cars and trucks hurtled past, I spent the night trying to convince myself to sleep. I was literally on the road but unlike the photos I had no beer, I was grumpy and there was very little laughter. It was van travel at its least glamorous.
On the third morning, I woke up to the dull light of dawn and my breath hanging in the still air. It was cold but my body was still warm underneath the many layers of crocheted blankets and thick winter sleeping bags. I shuffled up to a seated position and slid open the door.
The view that met me was like a feast after a fast for my tired, motorway-dulled eyes.
As far as I could see, they were snow-covered and beautiful.
Having pulled up late the night before, in the dark, I had not been prepared for the view that would greet me. It was our first stop and it was stunning; the small ski resort in the Sierra Nevada National Park. Suddenly the drive didnâ€™t seem so bad.
I brewed a strong coffee on the stove, still sitting in my bedclothes as I made and then drank it, before pulling on my ski boots and hitting the slopes, a mere 20 yards away.
Suddenly I got it.
The Realities of Van Life
I had traveled by public transport, by bicycle and by horse, but had never had freedom like I had now. I could go wherever I wanted, sleep on the edge of the world and wake up to the most stunning views.
Over the next few weeks, I learned that living in the van is full of those highs and lows that so many of us seek from travel.
I spent a few more nights on the sides of roads traveling from one place to another but they were worth it for the places I managed to reach that public transport canâ€™t, or wonâ€™t take you. I slept at the bottom of crags, rolling out of bed on a morning to spend the day climbing in the sunshine; I slept by the sea, waking up to the crashing waves and the sound of gulls; and I slept comfortably in the warm mountains thanks to the coziness of the van around me.
Free camping in the wild places of dry, southern Spain meant limited, or sometimes no, access to clean water. Laundry and showering were sparse and space is limited so by the end of the second week I was sniffing the few clothes I had to see which ones smelt least bad.
The flip side to this was that showering meant jumping into perfect pools of ice-blue (and icy) water, invigorating both my skin and my soul.
Of course, it wasnâ€™t always as glamorous as the internet might have me believe but it was a far cry from the cramped caravan holidays I remembered.
As I sat watching the sun set, drinking Spanish wine and eating local cheese, olives and Serrano ham on freshly baked bread, the sky emblazoned with colors of fire, I knew that this would not be the last van adventure I had.
Written by: Laura Ricketts
Laura loves the wild places of the world and is always looking for journeys that will take her to the remote corners of the globe. She enjoys traveling slowly, taking the time to explore a place before moving on to the next. When she is not writing, she likes to cycle, rock climb and camp on beautiful beaches. Follow her at: www.wanderlustforwildplaces.com