Embracing electric vanlife: 5 challenges to consider
Travel writer Sara bought a Fiat E-Ducato to convert to a fully electric campervan together with her partner Jurrien. When their electric campervan adventure and van build is complete, they’re planning to set out on an epic road trip across Europe. In this guest blog, she shares the road to their electric van and 5 vanlife challenges unique to electric campervans.
“I wake up as the soft light of the rising sun streams through the windows of our rented Camptoo campervan. The only sound I hear comes from the breaking of waves on the abandoned beach a stone’s throw away from the van. The few other campervans that spent the night in the dunes along the northernmost beach of Denmark have left at the break of dawn. We’re alone. I pull open the sliding door and step onto the cool sand with bare feet. Above me, a cerulean sky expands. I take a deep breath and as I taste the salt in the air, I feel truly calm for the first time since the start of the pandemic. And I realize: this is what I want my life to be.
Before the coronavirus brought travel to a grinding halt, together with my partner and photographer Jurrien, I hopped across the globe to create travel features for publications such as Lonely Planet magazine. We could be in London one week and on a flight to Patagonia the next. It was an exhilarating, fast-paced life, but our privilege and the contraposition of writing about fragile ecosystems while regularly going on trips with a massive carbon footprint wasn’t lost to us.
I believed, and still do, that — to quote Lonely Planet — ‘Travel, when practiced responsibly, can be a force for good.’ Travel broadens horizons, combats xenophobia and can contribute to the income of local communities and nature conservation. But travel can also be damaging, most apparent in places where over tourism is rampant and in the high carbon emissions of cruise ships and flights.
In the long days working from home in the Netherlands during the pandemic, Jurrien and I had more time than ever to reflect on our lives. It felt like we’d been part of the rat race for so long now. Rushing to go to school, get a diploma, find a job, work hard, so we’d finally be able to retire, and then: that’d be it. A lifetime of rushing, without taking the time to catch our breath. We decided that when it would be possible to travel again, we wanted to do it differently: take a break and try slow travel, with less of an impact on the environment.
We found Camptoo to try #vanlife
We’re both very fond of road trips and we felt that there were so many places we hadn’t yet seen in Europe — our backyard. We rented a campervan with Camptoo to find out if we could see ourselves living in a van fulltime, and we were quickly taken with the complete freedom the campervan offered. So we decided on vanlife. The plan was to continue doing what we loved: writing about and photographing the wonderful places we’d see, but this time with more focus, slowing down and seeking out sustainable stories along the way. When we were discussing the many green initiatives being taken to combat climate change in Europe, we realized we wanted to walk the talk and see whether it would be possible to do the road trip in an electric campervan.
We got very lucky, as it turned out that Fiat was just about to launch their first fully electric Fiat Ducato model. The gas-powered Ducato is the most popular van for a camper conversion in Europe and the electric E-Ducato promised a range of up to 230 miles (370km) on one charge. We were sold. It was still an incredibly scary decision: spending all our savings on a brand-new electric van — that we hadn’t even got to test-drive — in the middle of a pandemic, while planning to do the van build ourselves with no prior experience. But we knew that wanted to take a leap. We gave up our apartment and in January 2022, we’ll set out on our travels with no end-date in sight.
If you’d like to follow along with our van build and electric vanlife adventures, check out greentraveljournal.com.
5 challenges unique to electric vanlife
When making our plans, we realized quickly that an electric van build and planning an e-road trip through Europe means having to deal with several unique challenges. We’ve outlined the top 5 to consider if you’re interested in trying out electric vanlife yourself.
Keeping tabs on your weight
Whether you’re looking to buy a campervan, are thinking about doing a van build or just want to rent one, the weight of your vehicle of choice is always important to consider. Vans of different weight classes have a limited maximum load capacity and heavier vehicles can also require an additional category (C) on your driver’s license. Because electric vans have heavy battery packs, they tend to weigh more than their gas or diesel counterparts. Our Fiat E-Ducato weighs 2.735 metric tonnes and since we chose the model we could drive with our normal driver’s licenses (category B), it’s capped at a maximum authorized mass of 3.5 tonnes. This meant that we had to prepare for a lightweight van build — something that’s good to be aware of early on. In addition, the less weight you carry also means the more range you’ll get.
Charging the leisure battery
In most diesel- and gas-powered campervans, you’ll find a leisure or house battery that’s hooked up to the alternator in the van, which also charges the vehicle’s starting battery. An electric van has its own high-voltage batteries to power the vehicle, which are absolutely not to be messed with. Our Fiat E-Ducato does have a separate starting battery, but because the electric engine is so different compared to an internal combustion engine, we’re unsure if we could even use a relay to hook up our leisure battery to the van. Instead, we chose to go with a big house battery pack hooked up to a roof full of solar panels to supply the campervan with enough power to run our fridge, the lights, device chargers and such. We’ll also be able to charge our leisure batteries using an AC hook-up on campgrounds (shore power), but we’re hoping not to have to use this too often, preferring to hook up our Fiat E-Ducato’s home charging cable and charge the van’s batteries instead.
Heating and cooking
In campervans with a diesel engine, a diesel heater is one of the most popular ways of heating the van. It uses the engine’s diesel supply as fuel, making it very easy to refill. An electric campervan obviously doesn’t have a diesel supply, so the alternatives are gas and electricity. There are different types of gas used for heaters, of which some can also be used for cooking on a stove. All of them need to be properly installed in an air-tight holding container with an exhaust vent, which doesn’t make this the easiest option. To us, having a fully electric campervan sounded more appealing, but to be able to power an electric heater and an induction stove, the leisure battery has to be much, much bigger than the ones you’d normally find in a campervan. We went with a massive 900Ah battery.
Dealing with a limited range
While the range of smaller electric vehicles is getting closer to matching that of diesel- and gas-powered cars every day (the newest Tesla model has a range of over 400 miles, or 645km!), larger electric vehicles aren’t quite there yet. In fact, as of late 2021, the Fiat E-Ducato is the only large delivery van with a range upwards of 100 miles. Development of electric vans is picking up, and there’s even a completely electric RV in the works, but for now, picking a large electric campervan means adapting to a limited range. We plan to factor it into our travels by never aiming to drive more than 60 miles (100km) a day.
Choosing your destination
On a European road trip with a campervan, running out of gas isn’t normally something you have to worry about. With an electric campervan however, you’ll have to plan your route and destinations more carefully. If you want to cover lots of miles in a day, picking countries that have a solid fast-charging network will make your road trip a lot easier (note: your vehicle does have to support DC fast-charging, like our E-Ducato does). You pay a little more but should be able to get up to 80% battery capacity in under an hour, making it possible to cover big distances in one day. AC charging stations are the next best option and there are more of these to be found throughout Europe than fast-chargers, but charging does take longer and you often need a dedicated charging card to be able to use the stations. Norway, the Netherlands and the UK are three countries in Europe that have top-of-the-line charging grids.
Your vanlife carbon footprint
Read the Camptoo blog on the carbon impact of taking the NC500 Scottish Roadtrip versus air travel.