Enough of Tents – what are the alternatives?

Also useful for GoldWing rallies?

This Article develops the topic introduced by John Gratton in his recent Article, describing the cost effective solution he found in his quest for more comfortable camping.

Camping rallies of various sorts are an important part of many Wingers’ enjoyment of their hobby and many are perfectly happy camping in a tent; tents needn’t cost much and they can be small enough to pack on to the bike.  But as one Winger said to me recently, as we were sitting and chatting outside his tent in sunshine at a camping event, there comes a time when you’ve had enough of tents, even when it hasn’t been wet.  He’d reached that point and was thinking very seriously about the alternatives, even if it would mean towing his bike to the venue in future rather than riding it there.

It was this conversation coupled with seeing how well John Gratton had done, kitting himself out with a very reasonably priced motorhome and a lightweight trailer, which gave me the idea for this more broadly-based article, which outlines the wider range of alternatives to a tent which I have come across Wingers using over the years.

There is always more than one way of skinning a rabbit and so it is with the alternatives to tents.  As shown by John’s example even if you go for a motorhome, which is potentially the most expensive option, it doesn’t need to be all that expensive to provide very effectively for a comfort-seeking Winger’s needs.  I know another Winger who has a motorhome he has bought and refurbished for similar money to John’s and you would be hard pressed to tell it from a nearly new one.

And a motorhome is by no means the only viable option either – there is quite a range of possibilities and Wingers, who are often quite ingenious and resourceful people, have come up with some interesting ideas.

Budget and somewhere to park it

For Wingers who are seeking an alternative to a tent, there are almost always going to be two primary considerations: how much can they afford to spend and, assuming it involves either an extra or a change of vehicle and/or a trailer of some sort,  whether they have access to suitable parking and/or storage.  American RVs can be bought relatively cheaply when they are a few years old precisely because not many people have somewhere to park them.

Even if you haven’t got enough money for the more luxurious options, there are other, relatively low cost alternatives to tents.  And even if you are not short of funds, few people would be bold enough to jump straight in at the deep end by spending a very large sum of money on a brand new motorhome as a way of discovering whether they like it.  As John Gratton explained in his Article, it was important to him not to be in prospect of losing a lot of money reselling the motorhome if it didn’t meet his expectations – although it turned out to be just the job.  So if you are getting fed up with tents read on;  you might find that someone has come up with an approach which suits you.

Ageing RVs don't cost much - but have you the space to store one?

Luxury RVs

Of course if funds are plentiful and parking space isn’t a problem, we might all be tempted by the luxurious accommodation of a large American RV, with which we could either tow our GoldWing for use on arrival or even have the RV driven ahead for us while we enjoyed riding the bike.  Because they can be a problem to store when not in use and the demands of the well-heeled are always for new rather than used ones, these vehicles depreciate much more steeply than UK or European motorhomes, so if you have the parking space at or near home, an RV which is over 10 years old can be bought for a small fraction of its original cost.  And the older ones were very solidly built, so they may need very little in the way of refurbishment.  Spares for the engine, chassis and for the habitation equipment are often available in UK too, so you don’t even need to order from America over the internet.

There is something which I find very appealing about the style of some of the older RVs, the ones which avoided looking boxy and had lots of chrome bits – it’s a bit like the appeal of a GoldWing I suppose.  Unfortunately, or probably fortunately,  whenever I’ve toyed with the idea of buying one I’ve always decided against it but the urge never quite goes away.

One GoldWing family I knew went as far as selling their home in order to buy a large and modern RV.  It was as big as they come and cost over £150,000.  They lived in it for a couple of years or more, towing their GoldWing to camping events, together with their childrens’ bicycles and all sorts of other things, in a large box van trailer.  This arrangement seemed to suit them very well to start with, in spite of the need to base themselves close enough to Dad’s work to allow him to get there each day.  But at weekends they were free to travel in their home, with all it’s luxuries, to wherever the next camping rally was to be held.

In the end they sold the RV, with some delay and difficulty, and reverted to a more conventional approach to a family residence.  And curiously enough they had reverted to camping in a tent at GoldWing rallies to provide a change from living in a motorhome, even before they sold it.  Converting the family’s bricks and mortar into a depreciating asset like an RV may not have been such a good idea after all.

Van plus gazebo goes a long way towards providing all you really need

3.5 ton Vans and the like

At the other end of the spectrum of alternatives to tents, another Winger couple I know bought a big, old and distinctly, well worn 3.5 ton Ford Transit van (which was nevertheless still a reliable runner) for only £600.  They used it to carry their GoldWing trike in the back (it was just wide enough inside) and to provide what was said to be very comfortable sleeping accommodation once the trike was unloaded, simply by erecting a camping bed in the back and using camping-type portable equipment.

Actually it wasn’t quite that simple because the Winger couple themselves slept in a huge caravan, complete with the mother-in-law, and it was another Winger who slept as their guest in the back of the van, as the alternative to his tent.  Nevertheless the idea of using a big van to carry a GoldWing, or even a trike, and also to provide living space which is as big as many tents, clearly worked very well.

Interestingly this couple have since sold both the big caravan, the 4 x 4 which towed it and the old Transit van which carried the trike in favour of a motorhome and a converted car trailer for the trike.  I did wonder whether this change came about because the caravan was a bit too comfortable for the mother in law, who no longer seems to accompany them, but of course it would be tactless to ask.

The £600 which this Winger paid for his 3.5 ton high-top van might have been unusually cheap for what he got, but the basic idea of using a big old van to provide both bike-carrying capacity and accommodation is clearly viable.

Indeed some of the “new” motorhomes which are sold commercially are conversions of used large vans (a couple of years old, high mileage but clean and tidy) to which windows and then a complete motorhome interior is installed – and fine, good-as-new motorhomes they make too, saving significantly on the cost of a completely new motorhome.  So converting a used high top van into a motorhome (using permanent fittings) and towing the bike on a trailer is another option if you have the skills.

Used large vans also come in a variety of body shapes and special adaptations too; for example there are lutons as well as high-tops and even horse boxes which already have accommodation built into them for the rider as well as the horse.  There’s one on EBay as I write this; just sweep out the stable and then ride your bike up the ramp – couldn’t be simpler!  Minibuses, especially the ex-council community bus type, are potentially adaptable to bike-carrying and accommodation too and with a little imagination and the application of some inexpensive stick-on graphics, your new acquisition could look the biking part too.

So there is no limit other than your own resources and ingenuity in the extent to which you can fit out a  large van or minibus or ambulance for comfortable living as well as carrying your GoldWing bike or trike.  A 3.5 ton van is of course capable of carrying two GoldWings if that’s what you need to be able to do.

Large vans are also very useful for many other carrying purposes as a family vehicle too of course, or even as a way of earning extra money.  Having said that the downside of owning a large van, or indeed a van of any size, is that motor insurance is often relatively expensive these days – more expensive for example than equivalent (private use) cover for a car and substantially more than for a “proper” motorhome.   The insurance cost is worth checking before you commit yourself to buying a van.

Big vans are fairly spacious anyway compared with small tents but as with a tent it can be very useful to have a sheltered entrance, so you don’t have to keep the door closed all the time to keep the rain out.  Gazebos are widely available and inexpensive these days and they can be erected alongside the side door of the van to provide rain shelter or shade.

Box van trailer fitted out for living in as well as bike transportation

Trailer adaptations

Another way of avoiding sleeping in a tent which a Winger, well known for extreme thriftiness, has used on a number of occasions is to tow his bike behind his car in a box van trailer and once on site the bike is unloaded and the trailer becomes living accommodation, using portable camping-type equipment.  His one concession to adapting the trailer itself for habitation was to install a caravan-type roof vent.

This could perhaps be described as the sub-minimalist approach and a bit more effort to install folding or removable facilities wouldn’t go amiss, especially if you plan to go accompanied by a lady.

Caravans

A wife or partner who is comfortable towing a caravan without assistance opens up your options considerably because a caravan offers a very comfortable (and potentially affordable) alternative to a tent providing you have a way of getting it towed there while you ride your bike.

I know several Wingers who use this approach; she tows the caravan to the event and he rides the bike there.  Sometimes they travel together, sometimes separately.  I suppose the ideal wife would get the caravan set up on site and have the tea on the table, timed perfectly for His Lordship’s arrival.  (As a Winger friend of mine, who’d better remain nameless, is fond of pointing out, it’s all a question of getting them properly trained.  His own conspicuous failure to get his wife to drive anything at all speaks volumes.)

A lightweight GRP caravan (Freedom Microlight)

Caravans are available to suit modest budgets and I bought one a few years ago, similar to the one in the picture, for well under £1,000.  It had all necessary facilities and more, including heating and a fridge, although the bed, which converted from dinette seating, would have been a bit small for a couple who are as horizontally challenged as I am.   It wasn’t spacious or luxurious but it did the job and it even came with a full sized awning which more than doubled the floor area – but which was such a pain to erect we only tried it once.

Since the body shell was fibreglass it couldn’t leak or rot and it was also light and easy to tow.  Experiments trying to tow it behind a GoldWing sidecar outfit proved to be a bit ambitious (it was dangerously unstable) but behind a car it behaved perfectly.  When it became surplus to requirements I even managed to sell it on EBay for a small profit.

There are specialised small caravans which can be towed behind GoldWings, or at least behind trikes or sidecar outfits, but these are not cheap and nor are they even remotely spacious – so in terms of home comforts they are little more than sleeping boxes and the only advantage they have over a tent is that you don’t have to unfold and erect them before you crawl inside. Taking off wet biking gear inside and finding somewhere to stow it could however be quite a challenge.  With these types of mini-caravan (and also folding camping trailers which you can tow behind a bike or trike) there is no heating or seating and you’re potentially not much better off than in a tent, which is what this article is about leaving behind.

So if you want the advantages of proper caravan-type comforts: comfortable seating as well as a bed, heating as well as cooking facilities, a toilet and maybe even a shower as well, then you need to compromise by finding a way of towing the thing to the rally site and getting your bike there separately.

With one of these outfits you would be allowed to tow a GoldWing on a second trailer

Towing two trailers

Unfortunately it is illegal in UK to tow more than one trailer behind a vehicle, otherwise you could have a lot of fun, and probably cause spectacular traffic hold-ups, by using a combination of two trailers, one to live in and the other to carry your GoldWing.

There are exceptions to this legal limitation but only for recovery vehicles and showman’s vehicles.  I suppose it might be possible to sleep in the cab of a recovery truck but I wouldn’t fancy trying to persuade my wife to join me.  A proper showman’s outfit would cut a dash on arrival but the speed limitation might be a problem if the camping rally is some distance away.

Bus Conversions

Whilst we’re on the subject of legal limitations there are maximum length and width (but not height) limits which apply to motorhomes and therefore to any vehicle which can be re-designated for use as a motorhome.  Gone are the days when you could buy any retired bus or coach cheaply and convert it to a mobile home and/or bike garage.  A motorhome cannot now exceed 12 metres in length or 2.5 metres in width, including any protuberances other than driving mirrors.  DVLA got themselves into an embarrassing mess a few years ago by allowing imported US RVs to be registered in UK without bothering to measure them.  Forty feet in length is a popular size in the US and this is just over the 12 metre limit, so they were unwittingly allowing over-size vehicles  on to our roads.  Not that these vehicles were all getting stuck anywhere or having lots of accidents because they are no bigger than coaches anyway, it was just that rules is rules and they were discovered to be negligently failing to apply them; they now measure everything scrupulously and interpret the rules strictly to make up for their past mistakes.

Fun, but oversize for UK roads

Standard modern buses and coaches all exceed these motorhome length and width limits, so if you want to convert a bus or coach you will have to chose one of the smaller ones.  Double deckers are OK so in theory you could create a garage/workshop downstairs and living accommodation upstairs if you wish.  Unfortunately bendy buses cannot be re-designated as motorhomes.  This is a pity because with one of those at your disposal for adaptation you really could get creative with really luxurious living facilities.  There must be some vehicle category which the Formula One guys can use to register and tax their huge transporter/habitation vehicles but whatever it might be, it isn’t as a motorhome.

Incidentally insurance companies aren’t keen on DIY motorhome conversions anyway, so if you do convert a big transit van and then decide to re-designate it as a motorhome (which DVLA will let you do subject to a vehicle inspection) you probably won’t get the cheaper motor insurance which branded motorhomes attract.

Easily convertable?

Ambulances

There is no size limit for ambulances and if you buy and convert a vehicle which was originally an ambulance it wouldn’t matter how big it was as long as you retain the original vehicle categorisation.  Quite what you have to do to achieve this and how you get an ambulance insured I don’t know but it must be possible.

One Winger I spotted a few years ago seems to have got away with converting a coach-sized ambulance (or maybe just a coach) into a habitable vehicle behind which he towed his GoldWing on a trailer.  This vehicle was, according to its tax disc, registered as an ambulance.

Maybe the EU hasn’t yet got around to making rules for the size and natures of ambulances – meantime more or less anything seems to be acceptable as an ambulance as long as it’s labelled as such.  And ambulances, even privately owned ambulances, get free road tax in UK too!

In the example I spotted at a camping rally the coach’s windows were of darkened glass (thereby obscuring its internal configuration nicely) and it was painted in plain blue colour with the word “Ambulance”  (discretely, in small letters) front and sides – looking much like one of the “Jumbulances” which are used to transport pilgrims to places like Lourdes to take the cure – and which, incidentally, are available for hire if you ever need one, click here for details.

Doubtless this Winger’s vehicle’s primary and usual purpose was something similar and by using it to live in at a GoldWing camping event he was merely taking it on its holidays with him rather than misrepresenting its true role.

If size was not a problem?

Toy Haulers

In America permitted vehicle sizes (including what can be driven on an ordinary driving licence) are far less restrictive than in UK and a wide variety of what they call “Toy Haulers” are manufactured.  These vehicle are purpose made to provide garage accommodation as well as living and sleeping space.  Toy haulers can be RVs (i.e motorhomes with built-in garage space at the back) or trailers (what we would call a box van trailers) or fifth wheelers.  Sadly most of these will be too long or wide or both to be registerable in UK, but the ingenuity with which ramps and other devices have been employed to load and secure bikes on board in combination with habitable accommodation is well worth studying for ideas.

Just as we have to find a way around the rules or to avoid unnecessary taxation sometimes, so do Americans who build or adapt their own toy haulers.  In Florida any vehicle (including a trailer) which incorporates habitable accommodation of any kind attracts annual property taxation, which is substantial, as well as the cost of a tag plate, which is equivalent to our road tax.  A way of avoiding the property tax element is to install habitation facilities discreetly – so for example by using a box van trailer, which in America might be 40 or more feet long,  and installing all sorts of kitchen, seating and sleeping facilities and of course air conditioning, but no windows.  That way the vehicle escapes the notice of the relevant taxation authority.

Summary

Anyway, back to the realities of avoiding tents for purposes of GoldWing camping rallies in a UK climate.  There are plenty of options and even if you need to stick to a modest budget with a bit of ingenuity you can contrive quite a presentable as well as a comfortable solution.  The minimum requirements are:

  1. Must provide better warm, dry eating, seating and sleeping facilities than a tent, otherwise there’s no point.
  2. Mustn’t turn the transit journey to the event into a burdensome or risky family ordeal, so don’t try to make the wife tow a caravan or she’ll find a way of getting her own back.
  3. Must be compatible with whatever parking space/storage is available/affordable when not in use.
  4. Must be affordable overall, depreciation being potentially the most important element of the extra cost compared with tenting.

In ascending order of desirability (but descending affordability) the options are:

  1. Buy a cheap box trailer (maybe even costing under £1,000) and use camping type kit to live in it and either travel alone or accept the need to find a new female partner for each outing.
  2. Buy a big old van as an extra/replacement vehicle and adapt it for habitation as well as transporting your bike or trike.  Cheap to buy and should have plenty of life left in them; spares and many repairs are also cheap.  Depreciation not important but insurance might be expensive.
  3. Buy a decent box van trailer (£1,500-£3,000) which your existing car (might need to be a fairly big one) can tow and can also cope with the bike – and adapt it properly for habitation, so decent ventilation and better-than-a bucket amenities.  Still going to be fairly cramped but might still have dual purpose value as a load carrier and good trailers depreciate only very slowly.
  4. Buy a old/cheap caravan to tow either with the family car (wife has to do the driving) or (better) with a van which can carry the bike and other kit too.  Depreciation relatively low but probably need some refurbishment and it won’t gain value.
  5. Buy an old/cheap motorhome which is capable of towing the bike on a trailer (avoiding any which have any signs of dampness and therefore hidden rot) and do it up.  Cheap insurance and depreciation will be low – might even gain value if you improve it by refurbishment.
  6. Buy a more modern caravan for much better comfort (wife still has to do the towing unless you also have a big van).  Depreciation becomes a significant factor.
  7. Buy a better/bigger/newer motorhome, enjoy both travelling together as a couple and real comfort.  Buy a box van for your bike to keep it clean on the journey.  Depreciation of the motorhome (but not the trailer) inevitably becomes a significant factor.
  8. Win the Lottery, buy a luxury RV and hire a driver to pre-position it at the venue for you while you take the scenic route on your lightly loaded bike – now that really would beat sleeping in a tent!

Related Articles

Motorhome on a Budget

Towing a GoldWing on a Trailer

5 Responses

  1. John Gratton says ........

    Spotted this device on the web might be very useful. It’s a gas detector which not only detects Carbon Monxide etc. it also detects Butane, Propane so logically will warn you of leaking gas, also it detects narcotic & ‘knockout gas’ which I believe is a common method of burglary on the Continent (they spray the ‘knockout gas’ while you are IN the motorhome/caravan and commit the burglary while you are unconcious). Link: http://www.sola-larm.com/sla863.html


  2. Stuart says ........

    Nice gadget and well worthwhile purely as a carbon monoxide detector. In theory modern motorhomes are so well provided with floor level vents to take away any butane or propane which leaks but better safe that sorry. Not sure I believe this “knock out gas” business. It’s a story that has been going around for years but the reports of actual, officially verified incidents aren’t there to back it up. There is lots on the subject on the motorhome forums if anyone is interested.


  3. John Gratton says ........

    Yes, like you say Stuart may be an ‘urban myth’ don’t know anyone personally who it’s happened to but it is a widespread story


  4. Alan Munro says ........

    Its not an Urban Myth for HGV drivers in sleeper cabs on the continent. I used to do some HGV driving on my time off from my ” real” job and a few drivers had been robbed using this method.
    Alan


  5. John Gratton says ........

    Therefore Alan it may well be worth getting one of these, £60 isn’t much to pay for “peace of mind” bearing its other detection qualities