Singletrack Issue 124 : The Real World Of Vanlife

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Anna Cipullo lifts the lid on the realities of spending a dream holiday in a camper van across Canada with an adventure buddy… and a whole load of damp clothing. 

Words & Photography Anna Cipullo

Stunt Driver Tom Johnstone

As I scroll through the endless reels of glossy photos on social media, the ‘vanlife’ movement is in full effect with hipsters taking to vans for touring and alternative living like the ’60s are back in fashion. Blogs are awash with perfectly framed images of vintage VWs parked up on beaches with bikini-clad women contentedly performing yoga in the doorways, or parked up in Moab with an Evil Wreckoning hucking off the roof. These glamorous images conjure up aspirations of fun-filled lives free from the constraints of fixed abodes and nine-to-five jobs, with trails forever on your doorstep and jaw-dropping views at your bedside.

I had stolen a moment to indulge myself in Instagram’s bottomless slide show of inspiration, but the view behind my phone was a much less filtered reality. There I was, sitting in a converted Ford truck with a shed-like caravan on top, sticky plastic seats and turd-coloured veneer cupboards, but at least I was in Canada. My adventure partner looked a little shell-shocked after a night parked up in a layby near the Vancouver Island ferry terminal and he was sporting a hairdo inspired by Doc from Back to the Future. There was no bikini yoga here, only shapeless jumpers and the occasional stretch to reach for the porridge oats that had rolled to the back of the corner cupboard yet again. This is #vanlife alright, but not as the media-hungry millennials would have you know it. 

Let’s just go.

Canada had always been a tempting mountain bike destination for me, but the airfare alone was off-putting. Off-peak September to early November offered a more frugal time period to explore this foreign land with out-of-season discounts. Flights were shaping up to be half the usual £1,000 price tag and a quick flick through RV rental companies’ websites revealed that a campervan would not only be as cheap as a hire car, but it would also eliminate accommodation costs. In fact, it became apparent that I could travel for a whole month on half the amount it would usually cost me to visit for only two weeks during the summer. And so the plan was born – a road trip across British Columbia (west coast Canada) by campervan. What could go wrong?

Our Ford C19 Compact was rather spacious and liveable, well, before we squeezed two mountain bikes and a month’s worth of riding kit into it. Barely a week had gone by before our living area began to resemble Pat Sharp’s Fun House, although ‘The Twins’ were two mucky bikes that constantly got in the way and the ‘fun’ obstacle course was more akin to a Chinese laundry business operating out of a kitchen. I can’t begin to describe the angst a wet glove to the face will give you on a midnight bathroom trip, or what the smell of a pair of used chamois shorts drying above your head will do to your appetite during a meal, but our vehicle was our home, our laundrette and our garage all (not so conveniently) rolled into one and there’s a certain satisfying simplicity to that at least.

Feel the power!

Our V8 engine sounded pretty mean when I turned it on, but it was all bark and no bite. The truck was an automatic that lacked grunt and had annoyingly ‘helpful’ features like ‘Tow Haul’ – a means of dropping the gears to get up and down steep roads – which in reality simply caused the truck to sit with 4,000 revs screaming at me down the hill like a kid on a bike with no brakes. The Ford looked tall and off-road-ish, much like every other vehicle in British Columbia, but it was all form and no function. If we drove over so much as a pre-squashed chipmunk, the crockery in the back cupboards would give us a taste of an earthquake in a tea shop.

In another attempt to save money we parked up in free car parks and on the sides of roads instead of using campsites (which were almost all shut down by October anyway). The Sea-to-Sky Highway offered a smooth coastal drive from our landing destination of Vancouver to our furthest location of Pemberton, with Whistler and Squamish nestled in between. Giddy with excitement to move on to our next location, we would don trucker caps to hide our unwashed hair and hit the gas… with a crash and bang. There was often a certain amount of irony to living in a moveable house and at times getting the truck ready to move on was like waiting for Miss Universe to get ready for a night out. 

So often one of us would be sitting in the driver’s seat tapping fingers on the dashboard waiting for the other to crawl to the back and fix any number of noises  – from an open shower door swaying back and forth, to clanging washing-up that had failed to make it to the cupboards – there was always something to pause the start of a new journey. Backpacks would fall on the floor and leak puddles, notebooks would fly off the dining table, and the driver would often need rescuing from flying pillows impatiently falling from the bed above the driver’s cab. Being the passenger came with as many responsibilities as being the driver, and we quickly learned that an RV is no place for a tired mountain biker with no sense of appreciation for slapstick humour.

Stealth parking ninjas. 

We soon realised that riding destinations and camping destinations don’t go hand in hand. Signs with ‘no overnight camping’ were rife, leaving us torn between riding immediately and parking later or vice versa. Of course we voted for riding first on many occasions, which meant we’d often come home to the impending doom of finding a sleeping location while hungry, with light fading fast and freezing temperatures creeping into the valley. While autumn relieved us of the hot and busy bustle of summer, not to mention its blown-out trails and heaving coffee shops, it also threatened to freeze our water tank and subject us to hire fines, so camping locations became far more critical than we had anticipated.

Our campsite-finding routine became quite predictable after a while: drive to a fire road that’s too wonky, drive to a car park with no overnight parking allowed, drive to a lay-by that’s too noisy, start to get hungry and bicker, park outside Tim Horton’s for doughnuts, use their Wi-Fi to search Google maps for a beautiful location, then end up in a Walmart car park anyway. One day I’m sure we drove 50km to get to a final location 5km away from the trail we had left an hour before, and the scenery was certainly not going to make it into the glamorous ‘#vanlife’ photo thread on Instagram. 

City car parks were a last resort, often being bright and noisy, but we usually had van-dwelling neighbours to keep us company, and nearby shops were handy for late-night beer runs. During subzero nights we retreated halfway up mountains on tree-lined fire roads and in woodland car parks to avoid overnight freezing. These locations came with the restless fear of being moved on, but they also came with a much more pleasing dawn chorus of birds instead of cars and the trees made a softer backdrop for my morning coffee. We met a young lad sleeping in the back of a Toyota estate car – complete with homemade bed, bookcase, tailgate kitchen and his bike – he’d eluded forestry officers for a week and secured himself sea views and world-class trails in his garden. 

It’s not a flaw, it’s a talking point.

A campervan will come with many character flaws that you will need to find ‘charming’ in order to survive a road trip. Our shower had an air pocket in the pipes, so it stuttered and spluttered and spat water at my face (well, mainly my eyeballs). Our single-pane windows did little for insulation (yet plenty for condensation and mould), but the benefits of a tiny home meant that it didn’t take long to heat the place up with the diesel heater provided. This was by far my favourite feature of the van, which offered warmth after an unsuccessful wash, and comfort akin to the feeling of fan heaters on your toes during a drive home after a long winter’s ride. 

Housekeeping chores might be disconcerting for a mountain biker on the trip of a lifetime in Canada, but they became satisfying daily victories. When I made a large batch of curry to store in the fridge for future quick meals, I would pour the hot water from the rice into the saucepan to soak it while we ate, which saved using our on-board hot water, and the cooker would help heat up our tiny abode. This efficient little dance routine often became a game of task juggling, forever trying to get as much done with as few gadgets and in as little time as possible. In fact, the whole wipe-down-friendly caravan could be cleaned with a dustpan and a cloth in a few minutes. 

We started our travels from the most northerly location and worked our way south to avoid the encroaching snow and cold temperatures. Pemberton offered stunning snow-capped mountain scenes and endless singletrack, Whistler treated us to epic boulder trails and mystical meadows, Squamish opened our eyes to natural Canadian steeps with lustrous old-growth forests, and North Vancouver gave us a plethora of trail centres and a proper introduction to old-school North Shore woodwork. British Columbia is like a sweet shop for mountain bikers and having a home on the road allowed us to explore all of these little gems as and when we pleased with minimal logistical dramas. Campervanning had its flaws, but it completely opened up the country, further broadened our riding horizons and led us to trail gold on a daily basis. Nothing was off limits and we were never sucked into settling for ‘OK’ trails or repeat trips when we knew we could explore elsewhere. I dare say there’s no better way to indulge in BC riding. 

Life was simple in the truck. There was never any anguish over what to do in the evenings, as these would be consumed by cooking, drinking beer, playing cards, or simply getting kit ready to ride for the next day. Life really was eat, sleep, ride, repeat, and then move on when your hunger grew for new trails. The day I returned to my UK semi-detached house, with its bills and its need to be hoovered regularly, its distance from the trails and its non-panoramic windows with no mountains nearby or lakes to drink beer next to, and with the same scenery every single day… well that, I can confirm, was a very sad day. 

How to do it:

Flights: Air Transat and British Airways were offering flights around £450 return in October/November 2018.

RV: We used Cruise Canada and paid around £850 for a four berth CAD C19 Compact for four weeks. Sanitary dump stations and fresh water can be found at campsites or mapped out on sanidumps.com, with many being free. 

Must see locations: Pemberton, Squamish, Whistler’s Sproatt Mountain, Cypress Hill, Mount Seymour in North Vancouver, and Galbraith Mountain in Washington, USA.

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