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The Basics - Choosing your first Motorhome


One of the most common recurring questions in letters to motorcaravan magazines; Which van should we buy?  Or which one is the right van for us?  It's a difficult question of course because everyone's needs are different, it all depends on your age, your lifestyle, personal preferences and ambitions.  Some people rate having their own loo as no1 others will tell you they've never used it, ovens are regarded as essential in British 'vans but we once bought a second-hand one where the oven had never been used.  Our latest 'van has' picture windows' but I know a man who would describe this as 'like living in a goldfish bowl' - so everyone is different, really they are!

Let me give you some examples to get you thinking...

We are great tourers of wild places, always moving on, in all seasons and in all weathers too.  Much of this takes place down country lanes and tracks, sometimes a very long way from the nearest campsite so until recently we ran a smallish but well equipped motorcaravan - a reasonably drivable 'hightop' or 'panel van conversion'.  For its size the hightop had a decent toilet, shower, blown air heating, a hob and oven, fridge, extra leisure batteries and reasonably large on-board fresh and waste water tanks - all essential for our wild touring lifestyle.  And the drawbacks? - well it was a bit cramped at times even for two, storage was rather limited and the double bed a bit lumpy being made from several separate sections.

To overcome these drawbacks, we bought a small coachbuilt to provide added space and comfort and a permanent overcab bed. We also wanted more berths to accommodate our new grand-daughter and to be able lend it to my daughter as a family 'van complete with adequate seat belts for everyone - which is more difficult to find than you'd expect!  But as a result of its extra width there are small lanes that are now 'off limits' to us - in the end every motorhome choice will be a compromise.

We have friends who are keen on motorcaravanning but only use their vehicle as a 'day van', preferring to stay in a bed and breakfast.  Despite having a similar liking for wild places their requirements are quite different - the bed and shower are now redundant but living space is important and so is convenient storage capable of taking bags and cases since they need to remove and replace them most nights and mornings. 

Different again are those who stay on well equipped campsites in major holiday locations, often near the sea.  Toilets, showers, cooking, restaurants, etc are all on-site and some campers will not leave the site at all during their stay of one or two weeks save for a daily walk to the beach or pub or into the surrounding countryside.  Some will have families too in which case the ample space and comfort of a larger coachbuilt van with permanent or semi-permanent beds will be extremely attractive.  Electric hook-up to mains electricity is a must when staying in one place for long periods.  Winding narrow lanes just don't come into it (unless they hire a bike!).

Finally (although by no means the last possibility) are those 'full timing' - touring the UK, or indeed the World, at a leisurely pace going on or staying put as they please.  Plainly you need a little comfort and space to do this - you'd have to be a very special kind of person to spend your life in the confined space of a little 'volky' - especially if there are two of you!  And how big are you?  Over 6 feet?  Five foot four?  Ten stone, Eighteen stone?  It all makes a big difference to your choice - especially over beds which are not necessarily standard sizes.

I hope you will see that no two sets of requirements can be the same - so the real question is not, what is best? or what should I choose?  but how do I prioritise my needs?  What is essential - top of the list, what is second, third and so on.  

Given the limitations of available budget, this is the way to decide on your perfect van.  There is a final sting in the tail though - everyone will tell you that however hard you try, your first motorcaravan will never be your last, nor as perfect as you thought it would be - the fact is that your ideas will change once your start motorcaravanning!  The good news though is that motorcaravans hold their prices well, so trade-ins are often much less painful than with a car.

Seat Belts are a surprisingly difficult topic. The twin sofa and rear u-shaped lounge have been popular UK layouts based on earlier caravan designs. Neither has seat belts and neither can have them retro fitted. (in fact retro fitting belts in motorhomes is always very difficult often impossible). If the vehicle is pre-October 2007 there is no requirement for passenger seat belts to be fitted in the rear and so no requirement to wear them. BUT and it's a big but the police can prosecute for carrying passengers in an unsafe manner - this is most likely if a loose passenger injures another during an accident or emergency stop. For vehicles after October 2007 motorhome manufacturers have to designate the number of travelling seats and provide them with seat belts. Insurers then limit the number of insured passengers to the number of designated and belted seats. This applies even if there are more seats available, you are only insured to carry the designated number. There seems to be a trend to apply that retrospectively to pre-07 vehicles so do be careful over this - ask your insurer!  

While on the topic how much would you expect to pay?  Well, second-hand, I've seen everything from 500 to 200,000!!  Many new vans will be in the 18,000 to 45,000 range but it's not difficult to find new 'vans advertised under 10,000 to nearly 250,000.  Once hooked you might even want to run a cheaper car and a dearer motorcaravan as we do!  Consult the pages of Motorhome Monthly (MHM), MotorCaravan Magazine (MCM), Motorcaravan Motorhome Monthly (MMM), AutoTrader and of course our own Classifieds pages.

See Also:  Types & Names  Base Vehicles  Basic Services

Size Matters

Hightops and rising roof 'pop-tops' based on panel vans are generally lighter, shorter and narrower than coachbuilts. A 6' width and 16' to 19' length is normal for these vehicles, which usually have a 'maximum permitted laden mass' of less than 3.5t even 3t.

In practice this means you can drive a panel van conversion almost anywhere since the most common restrictions are 3.5t and 6'6" width, though there are a few 2t restrictions and that means cars only!

In contrast coachbuilt bodies are usually about 7'4" wide (more across the mirrors) and lengths of 19' to 24' are commonplace. Many are still under 3.5t. The 6'6" restriction on smaller roads and motorway 'narrow lanes' will affect you however.

Almost all motorhomes are tall, usually between 9' and 10' with some a bit higher. Most road bridges won't be a problem but some access underpasses - to coastal car parks under railway lines for example -  will be lower and allow only the smaller hightops and pop-tops to pass. Multi-storey car parks will rarely accept anything other than a pop-top.

Quite a few coachbuilts are made with a 3.85t to 4.2t or even 6t MPLM and that means additional regulation since these are now classed as 'heavy goods'. In this case there are licence restrictions, additional tolls, medicals after a certain age, speed restrictions and more. Younger drivers will have to take a special test and older drivers a special medical.

Then there are the big boys of course, up to 40' long and 7.5t or more but this isn't the best place to discuss those!



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