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Thursday, 3 December 2009

TURNING GAS INTO ELECTRICITY - Using a gas powered Generator

I see no hookups!

This article was first published in MMM magazine in May 2007. I have revised it slightly to include further experiences with the gas conversion to our Honda generator and some more photos.

One of the well known challenges faced by motorcaravanners, who like us shy away from the well beaten track, is that of extending battery power to maintain required services, particularly in the winter season.

Until a boffin somewhere develops an inexhaustible 12V battery there will be only four basic options to counter this:

(1) Never camp more than 20 yards from a mains 230v outlet
(2) Weigh down your van with extra batteries, and/or –
(3) Invest large sums in a set of solar panels
(4) Buy a noisy, smelly generator!

The two other options; the wind powered generator and the fuel cell, are not for the lazy at heart or shallow of pocket, respectively. Wind turbines are constantly noisy, difficult to store, require a secure pole to mount them on and lots of attention if it gets too windy. Fuel cells cost upward of £3,000 and require methanol to run, at around £30 per 5 litre can – which of course is not readily available at your local garage.

For us, option (1) is generally a non-starter because we just like to be out in the sticks, though of course some CL’s fit the bill, and also provide a 230V hook-up.

Option (2) is out because we don’t have the room or spare payload. However, there is considerable gain to be had from better charging equipment over and above the standard alternator – Sterling or CTEK Battery to Battery (B2B) charger, for example, and also ensuring that the leisure battery is well insulated from the cold.

Sterling Power - a good source of DC info and products

CTEK - a fine range of 12V chargers and equipment

Option (3) I am a late convert to solar panels, but they are only of significant benefit in sunny climes – a case of diminishing returns when you need them most. For us they are an indispensable aid to autonomy, but not a guarantee of autonomy. When the battery breathes its last on a bitter, snowy night in the French Alps, a solar panel is as much use as a chocolate fireguard!

A solar panel's not much use in this!

Option (4). There are some who say (Sue might be one) that I am just a sad old retired seadog who is lonely without a generator to play with – well, who am I to argue?

Our generator in action in Albertville, France

My vote goes to the little red Honda, the EU 10i, which we bought in 2004. Shop around and it can cost less than a solar panel and installation. If necessary we can run our 500 W fan heater on it and (don’t laugh) our 800W mini vacuum cleaner.

It’s easily handled and extremely quiet – situated underneath the back of our ‘van it is barely audible to us inside when just charging the battery. It uses "inverter" technology which means it outputs a pure electrical sine wave (just like the mains supply) and so can be used safely with modern chargers, TV's and laptops.

Honda Generators

Before anyone pops up and says “what about the poor campers outside having to listen to it”? I entirely agree, which is why I have invested in a solar panel to avoid disturbing the peace on balmy summer evenings. However, when up a mountain it is generally only the wild life we are disturbing, and as they are used to cars and ski buses all day long, piste bashers at night and avalanche blasting in the early morning, it's unlikely they are going mind too much.

There's nobody else here but the animals

On the other hand, on a popular winter aire you just have to put up with the noise as everybody is at it (running generators, that is).

A crowded aire at La Rosiere - my generator's bigger than yours!

One more thing. I wanted to avoid carrying a third fuel, i.e. petrol (as well as diesel and gas) around with us. It is illegal in some countries to carry loose containers of petrol (that could include the generator), and always on a ferry. That it because is potentially dangerous to our own health and safety, as well as others. Petrol under the bed? No way.

So began the investigation into gas powered alternatives. I discovered that these fall into two camps, the replacement of the existing petrol jet with a gas jet “spud adaptor” (the Brown Power solution) or the fitting of a venturi flange or collar into the air intake (used by Edge Technology and others). The advantage of the venturi is that the engine can instantly be changed back to run on petrol and is effectively “dual-fuel”.

The disadvantage, so I was told, is that the little Honda engine doesn’t run as sweetly with this conversion – though this is the method used for vehicle conversions. As I had no intention of running on petrol, I played safe and opted for the replacement of the petrol jet with the gas version.

Both systems require a gas demand valve or fuel controller which, it has to be noted, are smaller than a can of petrol. You may baulk at his extra bit of kit as being too much hassle, but I have a stainless steel snap connector fitted to the hose, so I can quickly connect it to the BBQ connection under the ‘van.

Note the aluminum mounting plate to keep the demand valve upright

The under-the-van connection might seem a bit of a fiddle, but in snowy/icy climates it avoids the danger of the connectors getting frozen up in snowy/wet conditions. I have never had any problems despite repeated connections and disconnections at well below freezing – keeping them dry is the answer.

The priming pin is in the middle of the face of the valve

The generator also has a snap connector fitted to its hose. Setting up is therefore just a case of plugging the demand valve into the outside BBQ connection and plugging the generator into the demand valve – quicker and less hassle than getting the petrol can out really. A couple of squeezes to the pin on the demand valve are required to prime the system, then a few pulls and it’s away. The choke is not used, nor do I bother with the fuel shut off.

To shut down, a valve on the BBQ connection is closed. Then the hoses are swiftly separated, the generator goes under the bed and the demand valve into the gas locker.

Storing the geny under the bed next to the heater – something I wouldn’t dream of doing if there was a trace of petrol in it – means that on a typical Alpine night of minus 10º C, I can lift the machine out of its nice warm refuge and have it up and running outside before its had a chance to protest, though the air intakes did frost up a bit at 6500 ft and minus 15ºC!

I have no experience of the Edge Technology conversion, I can only say that our set up  has been 100% reliable and worked very happily.

Minus 15 C and altitude 6500 ft - still purring sweetly

One other issue which should be mentioned is running at altitude. I raised this question before purchase, as obviously for a given jet size the mixture is going to get richer as the air gets thinner. For a standard petrol machine, the Honda manual recommends that you change the carburettor jet at altitudes higher than 1500m (5000 feet) and you could consider buying a special jet for this purpose. Without the correct jetting, fuel consumption will increase and the engine will smoke.

However, the prospect of changing jets as we went uphill and down dale would, for me, put an end to it, and no doubt I would do as other winter campers seem to do – put up with the extra fuel consumption and pollution. The manual also points out that even with the correct jetting, the engine horsepower will decrease approximately 3.5% for each 300 metre (1,000 foot) increase in altitude, so if the output from your machine is intended to run heating or other high current device that is a factor you need to consider.

When I mentioned the altitude conundrum to the technician at Brown Power, he confessed that, for a gas powered machine, no one had asked him this before. He promptly came up with the solution of fitting a small globe valve after the supplied demand valve, to throttle in the gas supply as required. Some gas converted machines have a tendency to run unevenly on light load (mine is one), and this extends into rest of the power band as the mixture gets richer. To alleviate this problem, I just take a coin out of my pocket, put it in the slotted spindle of the globe valve and tweak it until the geny sounds sweet. It seems like a crude solution but it works.

I raised my concern that I could damage my machine by running it too weak (a hazard if you changed jets on a petrol machine up a mountain and then returned to a lower level) but he assured me that the fuel/air ratio is so critical for a gas powered machine that if it is too weak, it just won’t run.

Bearing in mind that Autogas (LPG) contains a mixture of Propane and Butane, the blend of which varies according to your country of location and even the season, it is perhaps remarkable that a unit designed to run on bottled propane can be persuaded to run as happily as it does, never mind at high altitude.

One last point, the length of the hose between the demand valve and the generator is critical to performance and should not be altered.

Running on gas: Advantages

Safer – no need to store and handle another volatile and toxic fuel.
Cheaper to run – even more so if you use refillable bottles and Autogas.
More reliable, can be stored indefinitely – no need to drain tank and carburetor to avoid a build up of fuel residue.
Environmentally friendly – no danger of fuel spills, and cleaner emissions.
Extended running times without refueling – 24 hours or more.
Cleaner exhaust, plugs and oil – hence maintenance periods can be extended.
Tuning for running at altitude can be simply accomplished.

Running on gas: Disadvantages

Initial additional cost of conversion.
Cost of installation of BBQ gas point or dedicated supply.
Demand valve/fuel controller must be carried, though smaller than a petrol can.

What price being independent to enjoy mornings like this!

System types: Carburettor gas jet (Brown Power)

This replaces the original petrol jet, removing the float chamber and other parts, and once converted the engine can only run on gas. (These parts are retained and can be refitted in a few minutes if you want to run on petrol). The petrol pipe should be blanked off to prevent accidental flooding.
The demand valve uses a reduced (regulated) supply so the BBQ point can be used for both purposes.
Available from:

Brown Power - dealer and conversion specialist

PetePower - conversion, repair and useful, humourous info!

System types: Carburettor gas venturi (Edge Technology)
This is an aluminium plate or collar which fits between the carburettor air intake and the air filter, requiring some extended mounting bolts. The engine can now be run on gas and petrol (but not both at once!)
The combined fuel controller/regulator requires an unregulated supply, hence you cannot use a standard BBQ connection, you will need a dedicated, unregulated (high pressure) supply.
Available from:

Edge Technology - dealer and conversion specialist

Postscript: We recently returned from a two month trip to the Western Isles. October and November not being the warmest and/or lightest of months I anticipated that the generator was going to get a good deal of use. The snag for us was that Autogas (our usual fuel) is only available in one location, in Stornoway, hence we were going to have to use the vastly more expensive and still less readily available Calor gas.

So, I gritted my teeth, bought a 10 litre plastic jerrican in the motor accessory shop in Oban and converted the geny back to run on that smelly, splashy, toxic (to us and plants) liquid fuel.

The jerrican found a home strapped to the frame on the bike rack, but the geny, as always, had to live under the bed. Obviously I allowed the geny to run the tank dry each time, but this still leaves a spoonful or so of petrol in the float chamber. This was quite swiftly decanted back into the jerrican by taking off the inspection cover and slackening of the drain screw with a stubby screwdriver (a plastic hose fitted by Honda directs it out through the bottom of the casing).

However, despite these precautions and the additional task of allowing the open petrol tank to vent and dispel vapour before closing it up, we still got the odd whiff petrol from the machine, particularly when it was warmed up by the Truma heater next to it.
Not dangerous from an explosive point of view, or probably from the toxic, but not pleasant just the same.

I was glad to convert back to gas!

Wednesday, 2 December 2009


This article was first published in MMM magazine in August 2006. On our travels we have met a few couples who remembered the article and cut it out to keep, so I figured it might be of use to a wider audience.

A serious road traffic accident in a foreign country is an event that one really doesn’t want to think about, particularly when you are dreaming about your next adventure. The odds are that you will shunt it off to that part of your brain labelled: “Won’t happen to us.”
What follows is the tale of what did happen to us and what we learnt from it – some of it the hard way.

Our bad dream started in the Savoie region of France, 5 weeks into what was planned to be a six month trip, taking in the French Alps for some skiing and then down to Spain and Portugal for some sun.
We were in the busy evening traffic leaving Bourg St Maurice, on the RN 90 towards Aime, en route to meet up with some friends on the L’Eden campsite at Landry

The impact came out of nowhere, unseen, on the passenger side door. The car, glimpsed only as a blur, disappeared like a bullet ahead of us.
It’s at times like this that one’s brain goes into slo-mo, freeze frame mode. My brain was already trying to compute the extent of the damage on the passenger side when an invisible giant hand pushed us up the rock strewn roadside embankment. More terrible noises and I realised that the side was being ripped out of the ‘van. To compound my disbelief that this was happening I could feel that the van was about to turn over on its side. The van didn’t want to steer, one of the wheels wasn’t in contact with the road at all. Somehow we landed back onto the road with an almighty crash.

At this stage I was definitely in shock and I started to do irrational things. Seeing that Sue was physically OK, I legged it after the car, phone in hand, desperate to get his registration number. The Seat Ibiza had come to rest in a lay by, about 200 metres ahead. Panels were ripped off both sides, a tyre had come off and both air bags inflated. There was no driver. The traffic was milling slowly by us. It was getting dark.

A passing ambulance summoned the Gendarmerie and Sapeurs-Pompiers and they arrived in minutes. We spent a surreal hour on the roadside. The Ambulance wanted to take us to hospital, but we had to fill in a form in order to refuse. Sue had got our hi-vis jackets out, but we were the only ones wearing them – the Gendarmes in their dark blue uniforms came in and out of view, virtually invisible on the dark road.

Finally we drove to the local Gendarmerie. The other two drivers involved had what was left of their cars lifted onto trucks and went with the Gendarmes.
As there were three drivers involved, two sets of road accident report forms were filled out, the guilty driver filling in part A of both forms. I had to draw a sketch on the form and the police added details. These were signed by all involved. Then, still in a bad dream, it was “Bon Soiree” to everybody.

My sketch on the accident report form

The young driver who caused the accident and the driver of the car he hit first were lucky to be alive. We were lucky to escape serious injury. Now we were on our own to pick up the pieces.
We drove to meet our friends, who did their best to restore us with large glasses of Jameson’s and plates of Thai chicken curry.

In the morning, out came the digital camera and we started to record the damage. It was both better than we thought and worse than we thought. Although the main walls of the van had remained intact, there was damage to the valances on both sides and rear, the exhaust, waste tank and step underneath, and the interior. The tracking was out and the tyre scuffed. However, we could still use all services and still drive – just.

The first point of impact, deflecting the wheel and forcing us off the road

Damage to the front bumper and wheel arch

There were now three options – we could claim we were a basket case, get the insurance company to ship the van back to the UK and go home. We could get the vehicle checked out and repaired mechanically, and then drive home for the rest of the repairs. Or, we could try to get the van repaired entirely in France and continue on our trip.

The gas locker door wouldn't open properly

The electric step was hanging off, the alarm sounding constantly

We have a French built Rapido van, there was a Rapido concession and a large FIAT agent nearby, so it seemed to make sense to go for the last option.
On reflection, (Technicolor hindsight, in fact) I would say that this decision is not for the faint hearted. We have only limited French language and certainly not enough to win an argument. We have an English specification vehicle and this can cause problems with spare parts. We were foreigners, in a part of the country where life is hard and unforgiving and we were not therefore natural candidates for oodles of sympathy and service from the native French.

The exhaust was bent right back, torn off its mountings

The waste tank drain was twisted and broken

However, we pressed on, desperate to continue our holiday. Besides, I told myself, anyone can eat an elephant; you just have to do it in small chunks.
To cut a long and arduous story short, we arranged, with the help of the Norwich Union office in Paris and the Rapido HQ in Mayenne, for all repairs to be carried out. First of all the van would go to a FIAT main agent (with its own body shop) for the steel and mechanical repairs, then to the Rapido concession (Curioz Loisirs) at Balme de Silingy, northwest of Annecy.
The hire of a motor home from Curioz Loisirs, whilst the repairs were being carried out, was arranged with the help of the RAC office in Lyon – cheaper than a hotel and a car.

The bike rack had buckled down into the rear bumper

We fell at the first hurdle. Namely the FIAT garage, who having taken a booking to start the repairs, backed out with a torrent of flimsy excuses and a great deal of discourtesy. Norwich Union in Paris pulled the plug and arranged for the repatriation of our battered home. C’est la vie.

The bed had bounced out of his mountings

We felt gutted, all that effort, an unhappy month of stress and setbacks, literally hundreds of pounds worth of mobile phone calls (enduring “call centre” hell) and now we had it to do all over again in the UK. Our holiday was well and truly down the Suwannee.

But our bad French dream was not over yet. Getting a suitable low loader to us (from Seville) would take the best part of a week, meanwhile the insurance company didn’t want us to drive the vehicle. We couldn’t possibly leave it by the side of a main road, in front of a garage with which we were not on speaking terms. Plus we had to return the hired motor home in which we now were living and contained lots of our kit. We took a deep breath, transferred all our goods and chattels back again, returned the hired ‘van and holed up in an aire de service near the pick up point in Albertville.

Holed up in Annecy awaiting news

Now we had to sort out our own repatriation. The RAC (in Lyons) was called to the rescue - our luck was in this time and we got a native English on the phone (Emma, you are a star), and a car was arranged for the day before the low loader arrived. The haulage company informed us that the bikes would have to come off the back of the van or they would disappear in Calais, if not before. To put them inside the van was unthinkable, especially if the Customs gave it a thorough going over, so they went into the car.

Au revoir, the dismal day matched our mood

Once at Calais, we would have to leave the French hire car, reassemble the bikes, board the ferry as foot passengers/cyclists, then reverse the procedure in Dover with the English hire car. (We had hoped that an English hire car would be available in Calais, but it rarely happens now.)
We finally arrived home late on a Sunday night. On Monday the gremlins were out in force again – the English haulier’s truck had broken down and return to our local nominated repair centre would be delayed. “Scottie – is your beam working?!”

Below is a distillation of what we learnt and our advice derived from that experience.

Before you leave home

Test drive your emergency phone numbers.
Call and ask if you are ringing the right number to report an accident abroad – you might get a surprise! Check that your insurance cover remains comprehensive where ever you intend to travel.

Get RAC and Uninsured Losses cover
For a combined outlay of £70 for this cover, we have the potential to save ourselves thousands of pounds. Plus you have informed, knowledgeable, English speaking people on the end of a phone – and that can be precious in itself.

Make a list of all your (checked) emergency numbers
Keep it with your vehicle details and policy document. Include the details of the dealer/repair garage of your choice should your ‘van have to be repatriated. Check that it is approved or acceptable by your insurer.
NB. If the cost of repatriation exceeds the value of your van, your insurer will not pay. In which case you face “digging deep”, completing the repairs abroad or writing off the van!

Essential items to have on board

Mobile phone.
Everybody has a mobile phone – but do you have a spare, and have they been “unlocked” to accept a foreign SIM card? This could save you a lot of money (and stress). Don’t forget the hands-free earpiece, it really does help to make long and difficult calls easier.

Laptop Computer
Many of us carry these – but do you have it set up to send and receive emails? Language translation software can be a godsend for understanding and preparing documents. Autoroute is a popular mapping program, extremely useful for finding locations and planning routes. Sat Nav is an alternative but the larger laptop screen makes life very much easier.

Smart Phone
Very useful if you are used to one, and can perform most of the functions of the laptop. (These days you can get them with a GPS receiver and Sat Nav included.)

Digital Camera
Get one. They are now so small, so cheap and so good that you’d be crazy not to. Most phones now have cameras but the extra definition and ease of use of a dedicated digital camera can ensure better results when you are under stress and in a hurry.

Spiral wound notebook
Sounds basic, and that’s its strength – you can fold it back on itself and shove it into other peoples hands for addresses and directions. You can tear out pages to pass on the same. Try that with a Smartphone. Store your pen in the spiral and you are ready for that incoming phone call. Ours formed the cornerstone of our recording and documentation. A refinement would be an A5 or A6 ring binder or filofax.

Pocket printer
Nice to have this – and I don’t. I made do with floppy discs and writeable CD’s (CDR) and got other people to print documents and pictures for me. (These days USB memory sticks are so cheap, most people with a laptop have one).

Fold flat luggage holdalls
When the game is up and you finally have to abandon your ‘van (even temporarily) you will be glad of these.

Hi-Vis jackets
They could save you life. Plus you could be fined for not wearing them, which adds insult to injury.

After the impact

We were so lucky to escape serious injury. Everything I say here is on the assumption that you should be equally fortunate.

Remember you are in shock
The adrenalin will be pumping, urging action. Be aware that your body’s response to what has happened will affect your ability to think and act in a cool and rational way - especially when your beloved home is in pieces.
Running along a busy road, in the dusk, without a hi-vis jacket, (as I did) in search of a fleeing driver, is not a sensible thing to do.

Get out the digital camera
Take pictures of the other cars involved, particularly the number plates, the damage and the position on the road. The damage to your own vehicle can wait, but try and get a general view of the scene, particularly the road markings.

Independent witnesses
If anyone comes up to you and says “I saw what happened” or similar, get their name, address and telephone number pronto. An independent witness can be very valuable.

The repair process

Take a break
For a few days after the accident, rest up and get your head together. If you decide, or have no other choice, than to have repairs done locally, don’t go rushing into them. You will have to wait for an assessor in any event, and you have the right to choose, within reason, when and where you have the vehicle repaired.

Don’t underestimate the emotional stress of the accident – seeing your beloved home damaged, and living with that on a daily basis is a continuing strain.
We all love the freedom of being able to move on when we feel like it. To have that denied is a much harder blow than we imagined.

Decide your objectives
Whether you are ready to embrace the fact or not, you are now a project manager.
Consider your options carefully. Try and make your head rule your heart.
A crucial objective could be to get the van driveable – then you are not faced with repatriation on a truck. Other damage could be considered merely cosmetic or inconvenient and you could continue your holiday – but get it properly recorded, assessed and accepted by the insurance company now.

Find an interpreter you can trust
Unless you speak the language fluently and know the culture intimately, a vital requisite is dual language speakers who are on your side, or who at least are willing to offer help over a sustained period of time. We got help above and beyond the call of duty from the Paris office of NU and the Rapido HQ in Mayenne, but the RAC office in Lyon was also wonderfully helpful - providing you have cover they have your interests at heart and enormous knowledge resources to call on.

Select your repairers with care
If alarm bells are ringing, ask to see their workshops, confirm every stage and item, until you feel as confident as possible. Try elsewhere if necessary. The RAC will not get involved in accident damage unless instructed to do so by the insurance company, but they may be able to direct you to a competent repairer.

Nurture the experts
Try and persuade the motor home concession to take charge of the entire repair, nominating their own body shop. If not, insist on the assessor examining the ‘van at both body works and motor home concession. This is important in two ways – it convinces the repairer that you mean business and that they will get their money, secondly, the input from a skilled repairer on how to go about the repair can be crucial.

Communicate, communicate
Don’t expect anything to go according to plan. If someone says they will phone at a given time, or call you back, allow them half an hour’s grace and no more (it’s your blood pressure remember). Try your best to maintain politeness and your sense of humour. Ring to confirm again if you have the slightest doubt about an arrangement or agreement. Try and share the telephoning load between you. Remember, call centres were put on this earth to reduce the population – deaths from stroke, apoplexy, suicide etc!

Surviving repatriation

Do you fit?
Make sure the haulage company knows the exact dimensions of your van, to the inch - did you include the awning? Remember the vehicle will rock on the trailer when under way - is there sufficient clearance?

Have you, er, put on weight?
Give a realistic estimate of your all up weight - if the haulage company is under the impression they are repatriating an empty panel van (ours were) there may be a drastic change of plan!

External additions
Any bikes, skis or storage boxes will have to be removed - the haulier will not accept responsibility for damage or loss to any of these.

The Customs are likely to inspect the interior of the van - looking for persons, drugs, cigarettes and booze. They may not leave the place tidy or close cupboard and locker doors or drawers - move all fragile or heavy kit down low or in open topped boxes on the floor. The haulier will not accept responsibility for any interior damage.

Take pictures of the van before it departs on the trailer. The driver will ask you to sign a damage inspection form, but your pictures can be conclusive.

Registration Document
The driver will also require this for Customs, better to have a copy ready.

Don’t forget to phone your tracker HQ!

Postscript: Little did we imagine that repairs to the van would never be satisfactorily completed, or that it would take the best part of two years to get to a stage where we could draw a line under this painfull saga and walk away - from Brownhills at Newark (never to return!)

In fact, on the reccomendation of our Insurers (Norwich Union) we accepted a pay off of over £2000 for outstanding work, their view being that it was unlikely that Brownhills would ever complete the work to our satisfaction and we should engage another repairer of our choice.

Saturday, 15 August 2009

ALPINE WINTER CAMPING - Preparing and Protecting your van

Alpine winter touring and camping is a real adventure - it can be hard going, but also beautiful, exciting and satisfying - meeting the elements and surviving in comfort, hopefully unscathed by any disasters.

Enjoying the view at La Rosiere

This year we travelled the length of the Deutche Alpentrasse – a scenic alpine route that traverses southern Germany from the Black Forest to Berchestgarden near the Austrian border.

Oberstdorf, the morning after a large dump

Over 8 winters we have visited the French, German and Swiss Alps, the Spanish and French Pyrenees, Spanish Sierras, Italian Dolomites and even Liechtenstein.
But, every year we seem to forget some of our “winter craft” and have to re-learn it the hard way. Hence our guide below.

As we have sadly discovered, as the big ski resorts get bigger the facilities for hardy winter-loving motorhomer’s get smaller – they put up height barriers to car parks and build apartments on land previously used for aires, in effect they don’t need the income from motorhomers any more.

Nesselwang. Great facilities just across the road from the lift

So we have to find smaller resorts that are still keen to receive our income, and there are plenty of them if you are prepared to look - along the Deutche Alpenstrasse we found literally dozens, some with dedicated aires where you can get access to water and waste in freezing conditions and hookups for a nominal sum (coin in the slot).

Ibergeregg. In small resorts it is possible to park and walk to the piste

Elsewhere we have found suitable carparks (often on the advice of tourist offices) where we can stay for a few days (sometimes with direct access or a passing ski bus) and visit the mountains before travelling a few miles back to habitation to stock up on food, gas, water and dispose of our waste.

Dont be suprised to be awoken by a snow plough!

Obviously lots of winter sports enthusiasts choose to stay on dedicated winter campsites (caravan neige) but they are getting hugely expensive, particularly as motorhomes increasingly have electric heating and numerous other gadgets. Many are also fully booked for the season so you may struggle to find a place in the resort of your choice.

But you can do as we and thousands of others do – follow the snow, go where you choose, discover new resorts (some with well organised aires), and stay as long as you like. You just have to be prepared and remember a few procedures.

Some smaller campsites can be a challenge

PREPARATIONS - your van and equipment

Most modern engines have a 50% solution of coolant additive that not only protects the engine from internal corrosion but also from freezing, down to -35 degrees C. If you have your vehicle serviced by a reputable dealer each year, this should be one of their checks, but if you’re not sure, “solution strength” indicators are available from Halfords and motor factors. If you do need to top up, make sure you use a product compatible to the one in your engine.

He knew he'd left it around here somewhere!

Screen wash
Refill your screen wash bottle with a strong solution to protect from freezing, if in doubt, make it stronger! Due to the effect of wind chill on the jets, the solution should be good for -20 C or you can loose your screen wash as the jets freeze up, even when the engine is hot. Driving in slushy, dirty conditions without screen washers is a real pain and obviously can be dangerous.

Conditions like these can happen very quickly and be treacherous

Snow chains
These are compulsory in alpine areas. We have never been stopped by the police to check if we have them, but you would be foolish to go without.

Update: Since this article was written, many more European countries have introduced regulations making the fitting of winter tyres mandatory in the winter months. Tyre technology has moved on as well, with very capable all-season tyres available that can be used all year round and meet the requirements of the authorities in winter. Check out my articles posted January 2013 –
Winter tyres Part 1 – Do you need them?
Winter tyres Part 2 – Selecting the tyres
Winter tyres Part 3 – Buying and using the tyres

Choose the quick fit type of chain with the heavy wire cable loop, they are more expensive but much easier to fit, bear in mind you may have to remove and refit them several times over a day’s travel if going over mountain passes!
Just as important, have a practice fit before you leave – trying to read the instructions and make sense of that pile of chain in a bitter blizzard in the dark is no fun at all!
Buy from a commercial chain retailer (e.g. Brindley Chains) – they are a lot cheaper than “recreational” suppliers.

The fun part - taking the chains off after leaving a campsite

A cheap pair of woven, plastic coated gardening gloves gives you enough “feel” but will save your fingers and help stop them getting numb and useless! Use “Marigolds” underneath them if it’s really cold and wet. A tough plastic bag to kneel on saves your clothes getting dirty and wet, and folds up to put away afterwards. I carry a cheap pair of nylon waterproofs as well for the job in really bad conditions.

In our experience, winter road clearance is so good on the continent that if you are careful to pick your travel times, chains are rarely needed except for getting in and out of aires and campsites.

Are both your batteries (engine and leisure) in good condition? If they are more than 5 years old replace them anyhow.
Cold conditions affect the performance of 12V batteries drastically (a 0.1 Volt drop for every 1° C drop in temp) and if your battery is fitted in an exposed metal case or locker this can be very significant.
A weak battery will soon be shown up, usually when you need it most. If one battery does not hold a charge well it can affect the ability of your charging systems to charge the other battery with the result that both give poor performance.

Our generator earning its keep high above Val Thorens - minus 15 C

Solar panels and Generators
Sub zero temperatures can give your battery a real caning when running your heater more or less continuously. Solar panels can boost your autonomy if you are not going to stay on campsites all the time, but think seriously about getting a generator - it’s the battery boost package that keeps you going when all else fails! Also if your gas heater packs up, your fan heater can be used as a backup.
Our generator has been converted to run on gas (via an external gas BBQ connection) and has been very reliable, even at the highest altitudes and lowest temperatures.

Check out my article on converting generators to run on gas – 
Turning gas into electricity

NB. Don’t consider using your vehicle engine as a generator if you value its reliability and long life – continued “cold” running can cause permanent and expensive damage.

We use the Gaslow refillable system, which enables us to top up with gas before we go to a resort without having to discard a half full bottle or worry about how much is left.
If you do over extend your stay on a campsite it’s handy to have spare “pigtails” or adaptors for different countries so that you can still hire a gas bottle. The Gaslow brochure has a comprehensive set of adaptors and hose connectors to allow local “pigtails” or bottles to be used. One of my bottle supply hoses is a 1.5 metre flexible stainless steel item (available from Gaslow) which normally remains curled up on the bottle, but is long enough to be extended outside the locker to connect up a local bottle.

Aires can be found in the most surprising places!

There is a small snag however with using LPG Autogas on the continent instead of the usual exchangeable propane bottles. It has some butane content (the proportion of which can vary with the season) and because this does not flow below freezing you may not to be able to use the entire contents of your refillable bottle - the butane component remaining behind despite the bottle appearing to be empty. This loss can be compounded after several refills if you have not burned the butane content, resulting in less and less usable capacity. The only solution is to go somewhere warm and use up an entire bottle!
In practice, though we have observed this phenomenon, over a six week skiing trip its not been a real problem.

When was your gas heater last serviced?
Get it checked out professionally for peace of mind. Fit a Carbon Monoxide (CO) detector if you think you are going to sleep with the heater running – you probably will, so fit one anyhow. When cooking, Carbon Monoxide can build up very quickly inside a small van – we were stunned how quickly the alarm was activated when we fitted one – another important reason to have a good CO detector!

Electric Heating
Consider getting a fan heater purpose made for boats and caravans – the 500 watt setting can be a life saver if the current supply is restricted (as it often is on continental campsites in the winter) or if you have other important items to connect. (TV, laptop, fridge, water heater, battery charger, etc).
These heaters are more expensive but worth it, and can safely be left on when the van is vacant to protect your systems from freezing. They are also a backup if your gas heater fails. (Truma now make a combi heater with electric blown air heating but unfortunately we don’t have that luxury).

Screen and door insulation
These can be a chore to fit and store but are very effective. In icy conditions the exterior “Silver Screen” type are the only ones to have – they keep snow and ice out of your door edges and seals, protect your wipers and save you having to scrape ice off the inside and outside of your windscreen.

Keep the ice outside with "Silver screen" type covers

Consider using your internal screens together with your external ones – it really does make a difference in extreme temperatures. An added bonnet cover will stop snow and ice getting down into the ventilation slots and engine compartment.

Pushing your dashboard vent switch to “recirc,” can help to keep the cold draughts to a minimum, but don’t forget to have sufficient ventilation elsewhere.

NB. Fiat gear lever links can get frozen up in extreme cold, and if you left it in gear – you have a problem – you will have difficulty getting your engine started until the weather warms up!

How exposed are your water pipes?
Some vans, such as our Rapido, have the blown air heating ducts follow the water pipes (and around the toilet cassette) to keep them from freezing, providing you leave your heating running of course, but if you have fridge vents near your water pipes or taps – beware!

We have found that when the temperature gets below minus 10° C strange things can happen, even when the heating is running.
Wherever possible lag the exposed hoses with domestic style pipe insulation, commercially available black rubber “Armaflex” or even bubble wrap, in difficult to reach places.

There are electrical “trace heating” tapes on the market that operate on 12V or 240V and can be fixed to pipes that are particularly exposed. They use little current, can be self regulating from a temperature standpoint and will keep a pipe from freezing. This obviously requires some additional electrical installation, switches and fuses, etc, but can be the answer if you want to keep all your services up and running on site. A qualified electrician should be consulted if you are interested in this.

Waste tank
Our exterior waste tank is unlagged but has now been fitted with an underneath gate valve and 12 volt heating element. On a campsite the heater can be left switched on continuously and is claimed to keep the contents of the tank liquid down to -25C.

This arrangement can give us a water collection facility lasting several days, depending on our consumption, and water can still be decanted off if necessary. It does not always keep the dump valve from freezing up however, but a blast with a warmish water hose or a couple of minutes with a hair dryer does the trick.

Insulated waste tanks (unless they have a foolproof means of avoiding freezing) can be a mistake – once frozen they can take a very long time to thaw out!
We have been caught out with our waste tank freezing up a couple of times, allowing a block of ice to form, which then took several days to thaw out and empty, even when we had come down the mountain to a temperature a few degrees above freezing!

Update: From 2013 a new product has come onto the market called TankBlanket, basically a self adhesive, thermostatically controlled, thermal pad that can be applied directly to the base of an exposed fresh water or waste tank to prevent freezing. A pipe-wrap thermal blanket is also available, together with tank and pipe insulation. An ambient temperature controller can also be inserted into the supply circuit(s) to give automatic switching (on/off) of the blankets.

This is a relatively simple retrofit that could be the answer to frozen tanks and/or outlet pipes. The snag of course is the amount of current consumption (the smallest blanket draws 4 amps, the  largest 5 amps), so unless you are really well endowed with power generating capacity, their use is probably confined to areas where a hook-up is available. That said, with really good insulation, the current draw will be intermittent as the thermostatic control switches on and off. The only real proof is in actual conditions – the amount of power consumed will depend on the degrees of  frost, and the quality of the insulation.

Letting your water drain into a bucket is a useful ploy - most of the time!

If your waste tank is under slung (as most are) then the alternative is to leave your drain tap open and place an empty bucket under it. Disposing of the ice in the bucket then becomes a daily ritual, but at least your tank is safe from damage and will not fill up!
However you may find that once the night time temperature gets below minus 5ºC and hovers around zero during the day, this strategy no longer works – as the frequent trickles of water freeze and gradually block up the drain pipe. 

Consider your Freshwater strategy
If you intend staying on site for a few days it may well be impractical to move the van just to top up the water. Most people just use the heated facilities for showering and washing up. If you have a small water capacity or want to use more, a couple of 10 litre jerricans for topping up are invaluable.

Additional “essential” items:

1) Tow rope for pull-outs and assisting others
2) Anti-skid mats (x2 pairs) for icy car parks
3) “Dirty” waterproof clothes for fitting and removing chains
4) Snow shovel (we have a light, two section plastic type)
5) Long handled or telescopic brush for clearing snow off roof and windscreens
6) Good stiff plastic spatula for removing icicles off locker doors and windows
7) De-icing spray for door locks
8) Powerful hairdryer for thawing-out duties

ON TOUR - How to deal with Snow, Ice and Sub zero temperatures

Winter Diesel Fuel
Keep an eye open for garages selling winter fuel, this can prevent wax forming deposits down to –20 degrees C and can make the difference between continuing your holiday and being marooned. Alternatively use an additive to prevent this happening.
Our fuel tank is well sheltered under the van and we always use a bonnet cover - so far we have not had a problem, but I do buy winter fuel when I see it available.

Put your snow chains on before you park up on site
This may seem like overkill if the conditions are good at the time, but after a few days the conditions may be drastically different. If the ice and snow builds up around you wheels you may have difficulty getting your chains on – let alone moving off the site. Every time you get new snow, clear the path for your wheels onto the track cleared by the campsite  snowploughs– it’s so much easier to move when it’s fresh!

You could see the tarmac yesterday!

Clear the snow regularly from the roof and windscreen/bonnet
When it snows hard and your van looks like a picture postcard, say: “ooh aah”, take your photographs - then get the brush out! Clear all the snow off the roof, doors etc.

This is known as getting a head start.

If it warms up during the day the snow will melt into the door seams and every other nook and cranny, then when it freezes again at night the doors, locks, bonnet, etc. can become immoveable and remain so indefinitely.
Our cab steps are a particular trap, the ice builds up on them very swiftly and prevents the doors from opening.

The cab steps collect their share of snow and ice

This “freeze-thaw-freeze” is a menace and can change state radically during the night.
A cautionary tale: If you are about go to bed and its dropping wet snow, but you see the locals out brushing the snow off their roofs, it’s a safe bet they’ve heard the forecast and there’s going to be a hard freeze during the night!

Pretty it may be, but it can cause serious problems

I was once too lazy to heed this warning, and in the morning the side door was covered with a frozen sheet of icicles and immovable, our only exit was through the passenger cab door with the silver screen over it – tricky!

Worse still, the ice had piled up behind the awning and forced the awning away from the van, breaking a securing bolt. (We now have some special rubber strip from Fiamma fitted to bridge the gap between van and awning to prevent this).

Park your van on a tilt!
This is to try to ensure that any melting snow and ice on the roof drains away from the side door and awning, if it doesn't it can block access and cause damage to the awning as above.
Think about your solar panels and/or satellite dish if you have them.

The icicles expand their grip day by day

On one campsite we had to park on a six inch thick bed of ice that had accumulated during the season. During the day some of this would become soft as the sunshine warmed the air, and each night when we returned from the slopes the van had altered its attitude as the wheels sank  unevenly into it!

Make a check of what’s happening morning and night. If you put ramps out to level up/induce a tilt, clear the snow away from them every day or they may be set into several inches of ice by the end of your stay - you may even loose sight of them after while! (I found the best way to shift ramps that had stuck down after a night was a long screwdriver from the toolbox, hammered down underneath the ramp and then used to prise it up). Likewise a portable step should be shifted/taken in every night or it may anchor itself down in the ice.

NB. When it’s only a few degrees below freezing a jug of hot water can help loosen up the ice, but when it’s seriously below the hot water only adds to the problem by freezing instantly – you are talking hammer and chisel, hair dryer (perhaps) – or a long wait!

Check your door and locker seals
Wipe them dry with some kitchen towel before closing – then you can get access next time you want to. A smear of Vaseline or silicon spray around the seal will also help to avoid sticking.

Lift your electric cable up every day
This will prevent it merging permanently into the frozen mush on the ground. It’s surprising how far a light cable will sink every day in the freeze-thaw. Once it has submerged into the ice you might have to leave it there!

We generally set our thermostat to around 10-15 degrees for its overnight running temp. Perversely though, the colder it is outside, the hotter we have to set it to stop our water pipes from freezing. We always turn the water pump off at night, just in case a hose should give way and flood the van in our sleep!
At the very least it’s a good idea to leave the hot water on so that there is no danger of the heater dumping its contents. Should you get caught out with a dumping water heater, remember that all you have to do is lift the drain plug up and switch on at the same time – no need for pegs or other clamps!

Condensation in cupboards can be major problem – we get round this by storing clothes in light bin liners and books/magazines in plastic Ziploc bags and wallets.

There is always more to learn and new tricks to discover, and of course every van is different – with its own strengths and weaknesses – but the sheer satisfaction of surviving a season, or even a week or two in alpine conditions is worth it for the beauty of the mountains, and the ability to enjoy them straight out of the door of your van.

For days like this, the hassles can all seem worthwhile

Monday, 27 July 2009

Europe trip 2009 - Montgenevre to Home

25th June.

The morning was crisp, clear and bright, and after slipping €10 into the machine for a ticket to open the barrier, we left the aire at Montgenevre and enjoyed some more spectacular scenery to Briancon.

Where has all the snow gone!

Sue then decided she wanted to have a look at Risoul - what she thought would be a small village ski resort suitable for a possible winter visit.
I love driving the van up mountains (sometimes) so I readily bent my arm behind my back and agreed. As it turned out there was a spectacular view over the valley 1925 metres up, but Risoul resort was a purpose built village of modern apartment blocks, the original settlement long since submerged in development.

The view from Risoul (1925 metres up)

After lunch we came down the hill again and checked out Camping Cariamas, but left under whelmed by its lack of views, proximity to the main road and rough and ready set up – who in their right minds sites the rubbish bins next to the shower block where the flies and smell migrate inside?

Camping Le Roustou on the shore of Lake Serre Poncon was a different ball game. On its own south facing peninsular, it offers a nice swimming pool, a boat jetty and slipway and tennis courts. After a lengthy walk around the site we discovered a pitch on a hillock with 180 degree views of the lake and only one adjacent pitch, backing onto some static homes.
The lake already had a stiff chop on it in the increasing wind, but a dip in the largish swimming pool put us to rights.

GPS: 44.5218 N, 6.4301 E

Another fantastic pitch, Caravan Club eat your heart out!

26th - 27th June
A gentle couple of days spent swimming and relaxing. The site reception has some fast, free wi-fi but you have to sit on tiny wooden stools – good for some high speed downloads, but keeps your browsing to a minimum!

If the lake's too cold, try the pool!

28th June
Reluctantly leaving Le Roustou behind, we picked up the N94 through Gap, Serres, Rosans and down towards Nyons. Uphill and down dale, it’s a scenic transit route popular with motorcaravanners (judging by the regular use of our waving arms) and passes through attractive limestone gorges between Rosans and Nyons.

It was another meltingly hot day and we made the mistake of stopping too early, despite finding a delightful France Passion outside of Mirabel Aux Baronnies. (GPS: 44.3319 N, 5.1113 E)
Parked on gravel, with a view over the fields but no shade, we nearly fried, only the fan dragging a cooling draught in through a small side window saved us from expiring.
Once the sun went down we opened the large side windows, but it was late before we felt like eating.

At last the sun goes down, that was a hot one!

29th June
Visting the “cave” in the morning we bought a litre of AOC olive oil for €20. Perhaps it was the seductively cool cellar and friendly chat from the owner, but the oil tasted superb and magicked the money out of our pockets. Try to remember chewing on the freshest piece of grass you ever tasted (as a kid of course) and imagine that as a liquid in a teaspoon, it didn’t taste oily at all. Applied liberally over fresh salads, meat, fish, pasta or potatoes it really is a treat - though nearly the same price as a drop of malt whisky!

Down to the cellar for a little oil tasting

We drove into the little hillside town of Mirabel Aux Baronnies, a charming, quiet place, with steep cobbled streets and flower baskets everywhere. There is an aire for four or five vans a few minutes walk away from the centre. (GPS: 44.3129 N, 5.1002 E).

Unusually there was a donation box, but also a notice thanking the “Camping-caristes” for their generosity, which according to the notice had paid for a children’s day out and a ceremony for the local fire service.

Deciding we needed a few days by a pool we crossed the Rhone and booked into Le Medieval near St Thome. This is a lovely wooded ACSI site by a river gorge with a very laid back atmosphere. There is a popular restaurant used by the locals, two pools and free wi-fi on the restaurant terrace. It was fairly empty and the ACSI discount still available.
We gratefully settled ourselves on the river bank with plenty of shade and a limestone cliff opposite. Above the cliff we regularly saw birds of prey wheeling about on the thermals, looking for their next meal.

GPS: 44.5057 N, 4.6201 E

Camping Medieval, calm and tranquility - well almost

30th June - 2nd July
The only downside to this near perfect spot was a Dutch couple two pitches away, the man smoked the most disgusting pipe tobacco - amazing that the smell could travel so far in the evening air. Their dog barked endlessly too, perhaps he couldn’t stand it either. Fortunately they left the following day.
The pools however got visited on a regular basis, the smaller one unheated and blissfully more refreshing.

3rd July
Once more reluctant to leave, we headed north and stopped markedly later in the day at a France Passion based on a fruit farm at Chateauneuf Sur L'Isere. (GPS: 45.0162 N, 4.9602 E)
This time we had a pitch (to ourselves) by a bank of trees giving us complete shade, but also a tantalizing glimpse of a swimming pool in the accompanying Gite.

4th July
The farm specialized in fruit, including rare varieties and a cross between a Prune (plum) and an Abricot (apricot), imaginatively called a “Prunotte”. We bought some and they were actually very nice, dark green skin revealing a reddy-orange flesh that was tangy and sweet at the same time. The automated packing shed was in full swing when we left and we picked up some nectarines and apricots and some cherry confiture.

Another sunny, uplifting morning in the French countryside

Now we hit the N7 for Lyons in search of some goodies for the van at various motorhome concessionaires.
One item purchased was a new set of Thule (Omnistor) leveling ramps. They are 1 cm higher than our Fiamma equivalent and stronger with two spines instead of one. Usefully (for free campers), they are less conspicuous in black rather than yellow and come with a tidy carry case - for only €3 more - no contest.
Another essential item was some new insulating screens, but we struggled to find the French make we like for our 2002 Ducato. Eventually at the fourth try we lucked out, the screens being on a promotion and only €50!

With some time to spare we looked at some new Esterel motorhomes (Rapido groups premium brand), and were shocked at what we saw. The exterior bodywork was as beautifully finished as ever, but inside we found a toilet compartment without a hand basin to wash your hands in, a shower room with sticky-back vinyl lined walls (the exposed edge of the vinyl already peeling off!), awkward cupboards with stiff doors and cheap exposed hinges, a tiny kitchen work surface with a water tap folded down in the sink (WV camper style), and all in a van costing over €100.000!
The trend to huge walk around beds just seems a pose too far, especially when the space taken up means you are reduced to ridiculous compromises elsewhere - what are they thinking of?

On other "high quality" vans, Bavaria and Autostar we found locker doors with no positive locking, only spring loaded catches - useless to prevent stuff flying out on bumpy roads. Also the hatches to the double floor storage were just loose plywood lids, ready to fly through the air in the event of a collision, or even hard braking!
Our accident in 2006 showed how vital these features are, the only spring loaded catch in the whole van allowed the bathroom locker to discharge its contents, causing considerable damage to the shower and bathroom door as heavy toilet chemical bottles smashed around.
At the same time, inside the other lockers and drawers (which held fast as we teetered on the edge of rolling over onto our side), the contents re-arranged themselves in an unbelievable fashion, top to bottom and side to side. If the lockers had burst open the chaos and damage would have probably finished the van off, and us - maybe.

We tackled the salesman on the design and cost of the Esterel, but surprisingly he said the factory could not produce enough to meet demand, reckoning they could sell twice the quantity they could lay their hands on.
He also went on about costs of homolgation, the approval of design process that will hit the British manufacturers in a few years time. You tend to wonder where their designs started from (before homolgation), if they are getting away with some of the features we’ve seen.
One other interesting comment he made on the recession: the high end was still selling well, but they were piling up stocks of second hand vans – hang on for prices to free fall!

After we were thrown out of the Rapido dealership (closing time), we looked for the nearest aire from our part of Lyons and back tracked a bit to St George d' Esperanche, a largish village south east of the city centre.

The aire at St George d' Esperanche

The aire is by a roundabout on the outskirts of the village, with a tarmac area assigned for motorhomes, but a couple of French vans had already parked themselves on the grass, so we joined them. (GPS: 45.5559 N, 5.0745 E)

Later we walked around the town, finding only one restaurant open, and had a rather expensive and mediocre pizza. A bottle of the house Chianti, two pizzas and two blobs of ice cream came to €36.

5th July
Strolling into town in the sunshine for a few groceries, I found a long queue outside the bread shop but some rather fabulous pastries inside - some real works of art and selling like hot .…. pastries. A young and rather exhausted looking boulanger was attentively watching his night’s labour fly off the counters.

Back down to the aire, the French campers had their awnings out in the morning sun, one even had a BBQ going - free camping!
However, there was some dark menace in the sky and we packed up. An hour later we pulled over in Vienne as a mighty downpour flooded the roads.

Our satnav once more showed abject confusion over the renumbering of the French roads and we reverted solely to the map book to avoid any more wrong turns.
A France Passion at Demigny gave us a quiet refuge for the night. (GPS 46.9215 N, 4.8350 E)

6th July
The vineyard owner seemed too busy to be bothered with us and we departed with just a friendly wave.

We're missing it already

A visit to the medieval town of Beaune was on the agenda and we found the local aire, within easy walking distance of the centre. (GPS:47.0175 N, 4.83668E)

You won't catch a Frenchman at a table without a tablecloth!

The famous multicoloured tiled roofs of Les Hospices drew our attention but the €6 entrance ticket just to get a decent look at them didn’t seem worth it in the time we had allowed ourselves.

Our final France Passion was at Humbécourt near St Dizier (GPS: 48.5831 N, 4.9042 E). The charming owner, a retailer for local produce, opened up his barn doors for us to drive through to his paddock at the back “to get away from the road noise”. He seemed keen for his wife and teenage age children to practice their English on us, but they all shyly declined to be drawn into conversation.
We collected another pot of jam on the premise that it was something that his wife had made, and therefore all the value of the sale would go directly to them, but to be fair he didn’t seem the slightest bit bothered whether we bought anything or not.

7th July
Leaving early, the vast Caravan and Motorhome centre at St Dizier was still closed so we pressed on up the N4, through Chalons-en-Champagne, picking up the D966 out of Reims, a lovely clear straight road through unspoilt rural scenery.

The Sunflowers have had their fill, but the rain is coming

At Vervins, we took the N2, then at La Capelle the D1043 to Catillon sur Sambre.

The aire at Catillon sur Sambre is a familiar refuge for us, we spent several days there last year waiting for some spare parts to arrive for the van’s front suspension. It’s on a nice spot by the canal and has the added benefit of free electricity, though the noise from the lifting bridge as the road traffic thunders over it can be intrusive. There is additional parking on waste ground on the other side of the canal if the clanging of the bridge disturbs you, but without electricity. (GPS: 50.0760 N, 3.6465 E)

Mid afternoon, a mobile grocer turned up and opened up his counter just for us. Feeling compelled to buy something I chose a large bunch of brilliant red tomatoes.
Then two more British vans turned up, one a six wheel Hymer containing Michelle and Eddy, who were off on an extended tour over some of the same ground as us, and hopefully well into next year. We enjoyed a cuppa and a lengthy chat with them before opening a beer and continuing. I think they were still on English time and later were a little surprised to find it was 9 o’clock and no supper!

8th July
Said cheerio to Michelle and Eddy, slightly jealous that they were on their way out and us the opposite.
Our steadfastly non-peage route then took us through Cambrai to Arras and the D937 to Bethune, then the D943 past St Omer and to Calais.
After stocking up on fuel and groceries we parked in the compound at Calais to await the Sea France ferry at 2300. Sue tried to get an earlier ferry but they wanted £26.50 to upgrade our cheap ticket to the 1730 one.

Off to the ferry we were pulled over for a search by the English customs officials and were relieved to find they were only interested in where we could hide an illegal immigrant! A glance in the bathroom and under the bed and we were on our way.

9th July
Coming off the ferry in light rain we parked in our usual spot on the seafront in Dover - free parking for van’s between 2100 and 0600.
After a couple of hours kip we rose at 0330 to hit M25 before the rush hour, though it was still busy.
The new Solstice business park across from Stonehenge was the venue for a proper breakfast, though it would be nice if they provided some open parking instead of having to use KFC’s litter strewn car park.

We stopped for a power nap at Cartgate picnic site (GPS: 50.9695 N 2.7395 E) - there are signs up for no overnight parking, but we’d give it a go another time.
Our race to get home to deal with a domestic problem produced its only casualty as I burnt my arm loading Autogas. The first time I’d done that, the awkward British spigot catching me out. Advice to deal with a freeze burn is the same as a hot one – stick it under cold water, it relieves the pain and reduces the burn.

A welcome pint and fish and chips for lunch (we did that last year!) calmed the frayed nerves, but by the time we had unpacked the van and returned it to its campsite storage it was late and we were utterly knackered.

Still, we were safely home (just) after 5 ½ months and 5 ½ thousand miles through 7 countries, in ice and snow and baking heat, up and down mountains, precipitous coastal roads and an amazing 12 ferry trips.
We saw some sights that will stay with us for ever, had some laughs and some anxious moments, made many new friends and visited (and re-visited) old friends - it’s the only way to travel, autonomous and free to go almost where we please.
Where next? Turkey? Sicily - Sardinia - Corsica? Morocco? Scandinavia? The Baltics?

A few figures just to finish off.
We were away for 168 nights, of which we spent 116 in campsites at a cost of £1802, or an average cost of £15 per night. Not the ratio or expenditure that we normally have, but it’s difficult to avoid staying in campsites on Croatia’s islands and coasts and though of high quality they don’t come cheap. None the less, the ACSI card saved us a bundle and also helped to choose a site. Be sure to get yours early next year as this year’s quota has long since sold out in the UK.

5562 miles burnt up £995 of fuel, which works out at 5.6 miles per pound or 18p per mile. We don’t travel light and all that mountain climbing takes its toll on consumption and brake pads.

We also spent £568 on ferries and boat trips (including cross channel). The ferry from Dubrovnik to Rijeka was £152 plus £55 for a cabin, which saved a return journey of over 400 miles, and for us, another ferry trip to avoid the 10 km dash through the Bosnian coastal enclave. Using the coast road, we would probably have taken 3-4 days over it and would have added the cost of campsites, so for us it was a no-brainer, we had an enjoyable time and saved a day or three retracing our steps for the same money as the ferry fare (minus the cabin).

Incidentally, we spent £134 on Autogas, £75 on campsite laundry machines and nothing on toilet chemical thanks to the SOG! A worthy fitment for long term motorhomers.

Another worthy fitment was the fabulous Fantastic-vent, it not only gave us a quick and efficient way of clearing the air when our new Carbon Monoxide alarm showed us we had insufficient ventilation for cooking, and safely kept the inside of the van cool when we were out - thanks to its automatic rain sensor, but above all gave us a wonderful cooling draft when the temperatures soared into the 30’s and upwards. When the air was still and stiflingly hot outside we found we could actually be cooler inside the van than out!
As our wise friend Brian said: “look at one of these before you consider air conditioning”, it’s certainly a cheaper, lighter, less power and space hungry option than either conventional or evaporative systems.