Winterised: Winter Camping in the Benimar Mileo 201

We’ve really put our van through its paces in terms of winter camping this year, and it’s been great! It’s a Benimar Mileo motorhome, model 201. Ours is from late 2015 and includes various extra features that are supposed to make it fully ‘winterised’:

  • Thick insulation on the roof and floor
  • A 6 KW gas and electric Truma for central heating and hot water
  • Fresh water stored inside the insulated space, so no worries about freezing
  • The waste water tank under the van is insulated and has a heater to prevent freezing
  • Fridge vent covers and an external thermal windscreen cover

In addition, we added winter tyres front and back and bought some hefty snow chains, both legal requirements in many EU countries. We had the garage check the antifreeze levels in the radiator coolant and it was good to -36°C. We used a screen wash fit for -70°C in a 1 to 1 ratio with water, so again it would work in similarly freezing temperatures. And earlier in the year, we’d made the big decision to invest around £400 in a fitted LPG tank. I’ll post soon about how that’s gone, was it worth it, etc.

So, how did it perform? We spent 10 days or so in on a site in Austria in early February – lots of snow, temperatures down to -15°C – and it was fantastic. Then we had a few days wild camping in the German/Czech borders and again the van performed great. It was easy to keep the van toasty warm, everything worked*, life carried on pretty much as normal.

Bev had sourced this snow brush… (thanks to my sister Wendy for an early Christmas pressie!)

…and couldn’t wait to try it. Good job we had it. Our Italian neighbour’s on the site had ladders but no brush, so we pooled resources and cleared both van roofs after the heaviest dumps of snow.

We took a spade also – just a normal garden spade rather than a snow shovel. We cleared snow each morning from the door of the van to the main path through the site (which they kept cleared with a snow plough). We also kept the snow clear at the back of the van, so we could reverse out when required. Didn’t fancy having to battle it out through a wall of thawed-frozen-thawed-frozen snow and ice when it was time to go!

We’d read a lot – on sites and forums like winterised.com – about running a ‘dry van’ in winter. This means for example: Draining all the water from tanks, pumps, pipes, taps, etc; filling up water bottles for use inside the van; and leaving your waste open so the tank doesn’t freeze and split. This means you have to catch the waste in a watering can or similar and empty it before it freezes.

Well, we didn’t go that far. We used the taps as normal, but tried to reduce water use where possible to minimise the amount in the waste tank. We were on a site for the coldest spell, so this was relatively easy as we could use the site showers. I tested our waste every morning and it was flowing freely. We moved the van maybe twice to empty it at the waste point – which sensibly was indoors.

*We had one glitch. Our pump started playing up towards the end of our time on site. I’d noticed that the only patch on the outside of the van that showed any sign of the cold was under the lounge window. Turns out this is where the pump is housed, in a compartment under the sofa. It was screwed to the van wall and so fairly exposed to the external conditions. It must have frozen at some point. After googling, and trying the fuses, we gave it a knock and it started running again.

A few weeks later, the pump stopped again so we took it to bits and cleaned it thoroughly. It limped on for another month, but eventually died. We found a replacement in a motorhome dealer in Belgium. It’s a slightly more powerful pump but was a fairly simple swap.

Old Pump New Pump

For convenience at the time, we put in back in the same place – fixed to the outside wall. But for our next winter trip, we’ll definitely move it to the inside wall of the compartment under the sofa. Might make the pump a little noisier inside the van, but we can live with that.

So would we say that the Benimar Mileo 201 is ‘winterised’? Yes!

Winter Camping: Spain, France, Italy, Austria, Germany

We loved our first full season of winter camping… Christmas and New Year on the Costa Brava, northern Spain – winter sun, medieval villages, catching up with our pals Tom and Zoe, paddleboarding on boxing day, midnight grapes in Girona, the Dali museum in Figueres…

After that, we trundled across the south of France, through the Camargue region, where they speak Catalan, and have bull fights, and flamingos, more gorgeous medieval hill towns – like St Paul de Vence, all snickleways and art galleries.

We sped through Italy, through some areas that had really suffered in recent floods, stopping to admire some new places like Mantua, Valvasone, Palmanova. We had a fantastic and hilarious weekend in Trieste with our friends from Newcastle, Aston and Edy, who relocated there last summer with their kids, Daisy and Lily. Great place to park the van, 100 yds from Piazza Unita!

Then, with some serious weather threatening, we made a dash up to Austria – Bev driving us through the Dolomites and over the Brenner Pass. We made it to our campsite in Leutasch one night earlier than planned. Fortunately, they had space and we were all set up before a huge dump of snow on the day we would have been traveling. An amazing week cross country skiing, beautiful ‘winter wonderland’ scenery and great exercise.

Then into Germany, more lovely medieval towns (a bit of a theme!), a little detour to catch a gig by jazz guitar maestro Martin Taylor, even sneaking in an extra cross country ski trip at Bodenmais. Heading inexorably back to the UK, but no rush!

Wild camping vs. campsites

Feels like we’re really starting to get the hang of this. The only nights we’ve been on a proper campsite since we left the UK in December were our ‘holidays’ – 3 days at Christmas in Spain and for my birthday, a week in Austria, Cross Country Skiing. Mostly, we’re finding places using park4night, usually free, occasionally 1 euro for water or electric. That’s helping keep our costs down, which we’re having to think about a little more carefully now. I’m starting to pick up some freelance work – using my day job skills in data, programming, analysis and analytics – remote projects that I can deliver on the move.

Update on van life costs

Two of the most read posts on the blog are “How much does it cost to run a campervan?” and the update I did after a few months in the newer, bigger motorhome, “75 days into our van life and European adventure – progress and costs”. I promised another update – so here’s the fun facts, figures and stats after 9 months…

Average Daily Costs

Adding up all the costs – except the one huge outlay for the purchase of the van! – and dividing by the number of days gives a headline spend of £54.85 a day. Here’s how that breaks down:

As mentioned in other posts, we can’t treat everyday like a holiday. We try to spend at least a little cash in every town we stay, but we certainly don’t eat out everyday. For us, it’s part of the adventure – cooking in the van and entertaining ourselves, making it a home from home. That £21 a day on Shopping/Social covers, for 2 adults and 2 dogs: food, drink, boring shopping (scourers, loo roll, washing up liquid, dog poo bags), toiletries, new clothes and shoes when things wear out, dining out and socialising, art galleries, cinemas, attractions, etc.

Various Van Costs covers up-front, ad-hoc and regular costs like insurance, the GPS tracker subscription, MOT, servicing, repairs and purchases like chocks, winter tyres, snow chains. That covers about 18% of our total spend, which is probably more than we might have set aside for contingencies. Worth considering that if anyone is budgeting for a similar trip.

Fuel – about 15% of our daily spend – works out at about 18p a mile.

Our average spend per night on site fees is down to £6.20 – this is mainly due to us getting much more comfortable wild camping. Park4night has been invaluable, highly recommended. In December, we stayed just 9 nights on a site – so that’s over 70% wild or free camping.

Thinking ahead to winter camping in Austria, we invested in a fixed LPG tank. This has bumped our gas costs up for now, but every time we fill it costs just £10-12 instead of around £35 to swap a bottle. It will have paid for itself after another 10 refills. An 11kg bottle (which holds around 20 litres of gas) lasts 9 to 12 days at the moment, whereas in summer it lasted well over a month.

We avoid tolls mainly – in France, Spain and Italy, for example, you just don’t get to see the little towns and villages and while they might save time, they’re often longer journeys in terms of miles and diesel. This cost is mainly Eurotunnels, a few ferries and the bridges in Denmark.

Finally, I think we’ve been very well served by EE using our phones and mobile data abroad. 4G signal is usually available, with the exception of Germany where it was really patchy, which surprised us. Watch out in Andorra, which is not EU, so the free roaming did not apply – Flight mode on 🙂 Signs so far point towards us still being able to use UK allowances in Europe after Brexit – I really hope so. We’ve used a bit more data in winter, settling in on a night to watch a box set on Amazon or Now TV.

Miles, MPG and Diesel Costs

Average miles traveled per day: 45

I use an app called Simply Auto to track some of our expenses – diesel, lpg gas, camp site fees, MOT, repairs, etc. Plotting the mileage figures against the dates shows we’ve been quite consistently on the move around that 45 miles/day average:

Countries visited: 20

UK, France, Belgium, Luxembourg, Italy, Monaco, Switzerland, Slovenia, Croatia, Austria, Hungary, Slovakia, Czech Republic, Poland, Germany, Denmark, Sweden, Holland, Andorra, Spain

We’re on to our second ‘lap’ of Europe now, heading into Italy after Christmas and New Year along the Costa Brava and the south coast of France.

Average miles between fill-ups: 392

Average fuel efficiency overall is at 30.6 mpg, but it’s been noticeably worse over recent months. We were a bit heavier with extra guitars and have occasionally had to run the engine to top up the leisure batteries. In the UK, with shorter grey days, the solar charger couldn’t keep up with our demands. (Mainly me, working on the album on the laptop!)

Average price paid for a litre of diesel: £1.22

Here’s how different countries compared…

Average price paid over 33 fill-ups from April to December 2019.

Several times now, we’ve found it’s worth a small detour into Luxembourg to fill up. Lots of French, Belgians and Germans do the same – you can see them queuing at the first station over the border. Andorra – a tax haven – was full of French and Spanish shoppers buying duty free booze, fags and fuel. I’ve never seen so many petrol stations in such a small area! The Spanish price was surprising low – but again that was just over the border from France, luring folk in. 

At the other end of the scale, Sweden, Italy and the UK came in at or over the £1.30 mark.

Estimated Annual Costs

Our house is still rented out, so we’re aiming to stay in the van for a full year. Looks like we’re still on track for around £20,000 – probably just over now, with a few repairs and additional van costs like the winter tyres and snow chains.

Questions?

Happy to answer any questions anyone might have. If you’re planning a similar trip or there’s something I’ve not covered here, you can message via the facebook page, @howaskew on instagram or on twitter. Go on, ask me how many times I’ve had to empty the loo. (You can probably guess how many times Bev’s done it.)

What’s the plan?

After a spell in the UK – band gigs in September, a trip to Scotland, recording the new album, catching up with our Newcastle friends and seeing our families for early Christmas celebrations – we set off early December, more or less back to our “the plan is, there is no plan” approach, practicing the art of bimbling…

  • seeing some sights and enjoying our freedom to travel around Europe (while it lasts)
  • living more simply and more healthily, being outdoors, eating well
  • spending more time together, and seeing friends and family
  • playing more music, writing new songs
  • heading towards Austria to test our winterised van and do some cross country skiing 

That should take us up till mid March. I’ve started keeping an eye open for stats and data science project work, but until then we’ll just keep rolling, looking for gigs along the way.

Icons made by Smashicon, Those Icons and OCHA from www.flaticon.com

Charts made in RStudio, using dplyr, ggplot2, countrycode, ggflag, maps, mapdata

Happy New Year! Here’s to 2020…

Happy New Year from me and Bev to our friends and family all over the world! And a huge thank you to everyone that has supported us on our travels and supported me and the band over the last year.

We started the new year in Girona, in Spain – listening to parakeets in the trees above the van – after a great NYE celebration in front of the cathedral in the old town. Typically English, we were very punctual – we went out about 10.30 and the town was eerily quiet. But by about 11.30, revellers started pouring in, with hats, wigs and streamers, champagne flutes – and grapes! The ritual is to eat a grape with each of the midnight chimes to ensure good luck for the coming year. There were thousands of people and a very friendly family atmosphere. There was such a noise from the crowd we missed the first few chimes and had to scoff them quick sharp. After the chimes, we followed the crowd to another square and finished our fizz, dancing for an hour of more while the band ‘La Tropical’ did their thing. A fantastic experience. Here’s to more of those moments!

What’s next?

The plan is to move on to Figueres today, then into France, through Italy, up to Austria for a week cross country skiing, then heading back to the UK around March time. I better get some gigs booked in along the way!

Again, thanks to everyone that has listened, liked, shared and bought my new album Brass Neck! Keep up the good work 🙂 It’s been a long time coming – 17 years! – and a painful process at times so I’m really pleased it’s now out there.

Wishing good health and happiness to you all…

Denmark

After our moonlit flit from the wild west of Sweden to Denmark, we had a lazy day wandering forest trails and eating Bev’s van-baked blueberry pie. Then, with a few days to fill before my next gig in Odense, we had time to explore some of the sights of northern Denmark…

  • Strandby Church – a really striking modern design
  • The so-called sunken church – only the tower remains, as the rest was demolished after being repeatedly buried under drifting sands
  • Grenen Beach – at the convergence of two seas. We joined thousands of Danes and tourists to wander to the end of the spit of sand and ‘stand with one foot in the Skagerrak and the other foot in the Kattegat’
  • Råbjerg Mile – the largest migrating sand dune in Northern Europe. A bizarre and eerie sight, some distance from the coast
  • Aarhus – with a fantastic botanical garden and distinctive art museum
  • Middlefart – we stayed by a marina by the Lillebælt bridge and caught a glimpse of harbour porpoises at play

Live ‘On the Roof’, Odense

The last gig of our summer tour was at a cool bar in Odense – PåTaget – which is literally ‘on the roof’ of a multi-story building and car park right in the middle of the city. There was a fantastic jazz, blues and folk festival on – with the likes of Larkin Poe and Jamie Cullum and UK bluesman Lawrence Jones playing. One of the Jam Days festival acts, a Faroe Islander with the awesome stage name ‘Johan Solo’ hosts a regular jam night at PåTaget and I was booked to play an acoustic set before the jam. It went well, great bar, fun bar staff, friendly crowd. Johan jammed with me at the end of my set, adding a cool electric guitar solo to my song ‘Cold Wind’.

Here’s Johan in action…

Sweden – who knew?!

Guided by our amazing friends in Sweden, we discovered so many wonderful and strange things during our 4 week exploration of the south of this fantastic country – a real highlight of our tour so far.

Swedish hospitality

First at Västervik and then in Vimmerby, we were welcomed, entertained and generally spoilt rotten – by 4 generations of the Ask family and Tony and so many other lovely people! We’ve been immersed in Swedish culture, traditions and family histories and shared in the current excitement around Andy and Ucci’s new house and Robin’s plans to build an off-grid summerhouse in Durjsala.

I mentioned the breakfasts last time. Other culinary delights include Ostkake (cheesecake), korv (hot dog style sausages), raggmonk (potato pancakes, served with bacon and lingonberry jam) and last but not least – kebab meat pizza with chips (served on the pizza) and ‘pizza salad’ (a pickled cabbagey thing). And of course we had Swedish meatballs!

We did so many fantastic things but highlights would have to include:

  • Chilling/ messing about on ‘the rock’, swimming, paddleboarding, playing guitar and banjo with beers at sunset and so on.
  • Watching the Queen/Freddie Mercury movie, “Bohemian Rhapsody”, at the film festival in an outdoor cinema in the ruins at Slottsholmen.
  • The Stadsvandring – an evening stroll around Vimmerby with actors in period dress telling stories, often based on real people and events in local history. It was all in Swedish but we really enjoyed it!
  • Seeing the Elk. We would have loved to see them in the wild (but not at night on the road!) but this was the next best thing. Huge beasts, very soft mouths – ‘like a peach’ says Tony. Bev was the only one in our party to go for a kiss…

I only hope we can repay such wonderful hospitality someday!

Name Days

One of the traditions in Sweden is to celebrate ‘name days’ and there were two while we there with our friends – Margareta on 20th July as it’s one of Ucci’s many middle names; and Christina on 24th July, which we celebrated with Chrisa and Mickaela (it’s her middle name) with a big family breakfast and cake…

I felt a bit sorry for young Winston, because as it’s not a traditional Swedish name, he doesn’t have a name day!

Buying booze in Sweden

Systembolaget is the government-owned chain of off-licences in Sweden. Since 1955, this is the only place (apart from bars, restaurants and night-clubs) where you can buy strong alcoholic beverages. The one we went to was nice – plenty of range and reasonably priced (compared to bars). Felt a bit like a duty free shop in an airport. Apparently, the staff are usually quite knowledgeable and you can order anything in if its not in stock. 

Turns out they have names for the different categories of öl (ale), based on the strength:

  • Lättöl 0.0% – 2.25% – Light
  • Lätt Folköl 2.8% – introduced more recently to align with EU
  • Folköl 2.9% – 3.5% – ‘the people’s beer’
  • Mellanöl 3.6% – 4.5% – in-between beer
  • Starköl 4.6% and above – Strong beer

You can buy cans of beer in the supermarkets, but only up to 3.5%.These are 3.5% versions of beers we normally see at 5.0% here in the UK, so were heartily dismissed as ‘piss ale’ by some of our party.

And one more thing on beer – each can has a deposit or ‘pant’ of 1 Krona which is an incentive to drive positive recycling behaviour. You feed the empties into a machine in the supermarket and it gives you a receipt for money off inside. We saw the same in Denmark and Germany.

Fika

This is the habit of regular breaks for coffee, chat and little cakes or nibbles. Someone pops by – fika time! Job done – time for a fika! We got into it. Lots of cinnamon whirls, little biscuits, etc. One of our faves was an orange and coconut biscuit/flarn – which was so good Bev asked Ucci’s dad for the recipe.

Loppis

You see this on handwritten signs everywhere – it means ‘flea’ and points towards a flea market. Some are temporary car boot style, some more established. Some have fika! I half wanted to visit one – I’m on the lookout for some specific bits and bobs for a secret musical project – but had to remind myself that we don’t have room in the van for any ‘tat’. 

Raggere

This is the word for the Swedish craze for all things American and vintage – Cadillacs and Oldsmobiles, 1950s music and dress, and so on. Some estimates say there are now more restored vintage classic cars in Sweden than in the USA. One day we passed car after car after car – heading to a massive meet-up at Falköping . Our last night in Sweden was a Wild West spectacular at a bison farm – we thought we might see a few there and weren’t disappointed. Chevrolets, Dodges and this immaculate Oldsmobile…

Allemansrätt

In Sweden, this is an ancient law that provides the legal right of access to private, uncultivated land. You can:

  • Wander freely in forest and fields.
  • Pick berries, mushrooms, and wild flowers if they are not endangered.
  • Camp one night, without permission of the landowners, if it is not too close to a populated area.
  • Bathe, row, sail, paddle and drive motor boats on lakes, rivers and archipelagos.
  • Make fires (proceeding with extreme caution).

But you must not:

  • Damage growing trees or bushes.
  • Walk over fields in crop or through newly planted forest areas.
  • Take bird’s eggs or bird’s nests.
  • Leave garbage (paper, plastic, glass, etc…) in countryside.

This is amazing for wild campers! We found that nature reserve car parks were an ideal place to spend the nights – most of them had:

  • a toilet, often a compost toilet but most were really nice!
  • picnic tables
  • a fire pit
  • waste bins
  • spectacular views, walks or paddleboarding

Bev got into exercising her Allemansrätt, picking bilberries/blueberries for some amazing pies…

As a result of staying at friend’s houses and free nights at nature reserves, our camping costs for Sweden were far lower than we expected and we loved it so much, we stayed a whole month.