An Inside Look at European Motorhome Culture
From the moment we drove away from the shipping docks in Zeebrugge, Belgium, where we picked up our Winnebago Revel for a six-month European tour, we noticed that the RV scene across the pond is way different than what we are used to seeing in the USA.
Biggest Differences in RVing in Europe (aka Caravanning)
The RV industry here is BOOMING (as we saw more evidence of while attending the Caravan Salon in Germany), and the roads are loaded with all sorts of vehicles designed to get people out of the city and into the natural world.
Driving an RV in Europe
We quickly noticed how different the driving conditions are as well. Aside from the occasional unintelligible road sign, or the lack of a yellow center line delineating opposing traffic directions, the most remarkable difference is the width of the secondary roads. They are EXTREMELY NARROW, and by narrow, I mean typically a single lane in width for two-way traffic. It is truly a miracle that we have greased our way through thousands of kilometers of meandering mountain roads without a serious altercation with either an oncoming vehicle or a plunge into the abyss that is practically mandatory along the narrowest stretches of road.
Seriously, how can this be wide enough for two-way traffic!?! We are often white-knuckled while driving through the narrow roads in the Alps ... especially when you encounter an oncoming bus!
The roads are narrow and meandering, but oh so fun to explore!
And then there are the tunnels, some of which exceed 20 km (12.4 miles) in length, and are truly an engineering marvel to behold. The standard height of tunnels on major roadways is 3.5 meters (11.5 ft), and with kayaks on our roof, we measure in about two inches shy of that standard. It's a bit nerve-racking with such a small margin for error, but so far, we have managed to make it through without scalping the boats from our roof. And while it has taken a while to adjust to the differences in conditions, we have finally adapted and were comfortable enough to shake things up yet again and head to the United Kingdom and try it all on the wrong, I mean left, side of the road.
This is Laerdal Tunnel in Norway that measures in at 15 miles in length. We are pulled off in an alcove marking the halfway point. They designed the lighting in the pullout to resemble the horizon at sunrise. This is actually a safety measure to give drivers a break from the monotony of the tunnel that can be both mesmerizing and agitating after several miles.
RV Camping in Europe
In keeping with our Famagogo tradition of boondocking, we have only stayed in three campgrounds in the entire three months that we have been here - and have found some noticeable differences in camping etiquette both in and out of the campgrounds.
For starters, the campgrounds are laid out on open grassy "pitches," essentially a giant field, and people pull in and set up with no apparent rhyme or reason. The idea of a personal site or even personal space simply doesn't exist as far as we can tell. And since there are no sites, there are no personal hook-ups either, rather a central water spigot or an electrical post with cords spreading out in every direction to the maze of vehicles surrounding it. Many of the campgrounds provide free laundry facilities on site, which makes the cost of staying in a campground a wash when you compare it to spending the morning in a laundromat. Other than those two factors, everything else is relatively familiar.
A typical campground along the Durance River in France.
And while the lack of personal space may seem unpleasant, if truth be told, it is not nearly as bad as it sounds. While everyone is packed much closer together than we are accustomed to, it has led to us getting to know some incredibly kind and wonderful people.
A free city campground with pay-by-the-hour electrical hookups.
Boondocking in Europe
When it comes to dry camping, or boondocking, this is where we are completely in our element in the USA, and was one of the greatest unknowns as we set out on this adventure. We knew we didn't have the budget to spend every night in a campground, but didn't really have a pulse on the boondocking scene in Europe. And what a scene it has turned out to be!
Dry camping in the Alps - OH...SO...GOOD!!!
Many of the countries that we have visited have something called a right to camp ethic or in some cases law. The gist is that it is acceptable to camp practically anywhere as long as you are at least 200 meters (656.2 ft) away from any structure and as long as you are completely self-contained (meaning that you have a toilet onboard). And many of the village centers and churches allow overnight parking in an effort to welcome tourists and make it easy for them to eat and shop.
Norway is one of the countries with a right to camp law and is full of dreamy boondocking spots.
As we forged further north to the northernmost point of Europe, the scenery just kept getting better and better.
Over the past three months, we have parked in forested pullouts, river access points, at ferry terminals, churches, sheep pastures, rest areas, town center parking lots, scenic overlooks, trailheads, shopping centers, seashores, picnic areas, and the list goes on and on. In short, unless we need a shower, WiFi or laundry facilities, there really isn't any need for a formal campground over here.
We use an app called park4night that has guided us to some remarkable out-of-the-way boondocking sites from the south of Spain and all the way to the northern-most point of Norway. One important note is that just like in European campgrounds, personal space is different here, and while parked in what we considered a single-vehicle spot, have found ourselves with one or two very cozy neighbors mere inches from our open windows, which again we used as an opportunity to get to know some really great folks.
Sometimes we lucked out and had an incredible boondocking spot like this all to ourselves.
Parked for the night in Rotterdam awaiting the ferry the next morning across the English Channel.
The countryside is littered with picnic areas like this that often fill with RVs in the evening.
European RV Culture
And that leads me to my favorite difference in RV culture of Europe: it is a very social experience. From our perspective, camping in the USA is more of an individual or family experience, where people retreat to find solitude in the wilderness. And while people may exchange pleasantries with their neighbors, they rarely spend time getting to know them.
Our experience in Europe has been such that when people arrive for the night, they set up a table and chairs and then come and say hello, invite us over for a drink, or dinner, or to visit them at their home. It could be that our Winnebago Revel is so out of character with the RVs over here, or that it is rare to see Americans RVing around Europe. But I suspect that sharing a glass of wine or a meal accompanied by a wonderfully deep conversation about life, politics or adventure with a stranger is just a normal part of the European camping experience.
This is a typical boondocking site. The local culture dictates "the more, the merrier!"
An Inside Look at the European RV Marketplace at the Caravan Salon in Germany -the Largest RV Show in the World
All of these factors coupled with the availability of different base vehicles to build on, have driven the evolution of the European RV marketplace to be quite different from what we are familiar with in the states. We recently attended the Caravan Salon in Dusseldorf, Germany, the largest RV show in the world, and experienced first-hand what the European RV industry is all about.
Walking into the show the most obvious difference is the distinct void of USA-sized class A RVs. We did eventually find a handful tucked away in a back corner, but bus-sized RVs in Europe are incredibly rare, and I suspect that the size of the roads and tunnels plays a large factor in this phenomenon.
While the American-sized class A coaches were scarce, we did spot a few, all of which contained an "onboard garage" for an additional vehicle. One was even specifically designed and branded for a Porsche.
What we did see were vans, vans, and more vans. It seems that the van is the platform of choice to build a vast majority of the RVs here in Europe, including the typical European Class A that measures in at under 9' in height and 30' in length. The van-based building platforms include familiar brands like Mercedes Sprinter, Ford Transit, Dodge Promaster, and Volkswagen. But there were some unfamiliar brands as well such as Iveco, Mann, Fiat, Citroen and several others, that provide a more basic platform (standard transmission, small engine and very few bells and whistles) that allow RV manufacturers to build an RV with an entry-level price point below $50,000, making it easier for young families to venture into the RV marketplace without breaking the bank.
These lower-end models are small, efficient in the use of space, and provide the basics like sleeping and seating for four, a small stove and fridge, a cassette toilet, shower, and removable water tanks that can be refilled at any spigot. As we marveled at the lower price point, we started noticing what was lacking in a majority of the units on display: televisions and other electronics! The units were simple and geared toward time spent outside rather than inside. Rooftop AC units are uncommon as well, and are replaced with skylights and fans. However, storage seems to be a priority, with almost every model boasting voluminous and easy to access compartments.
The minivan campers were so intriguing. It was extraordinary how efficiently they used such a small space. This particular model had the kitchen/toilet in the back, and a fold-out bed and pop-top to comfortably seat and sleep FOUR!
Westfalia introduced a new line of Mercedes Sprinter-based RVs. We loved this model with the rear slide and pop-top design to maximize space and comfortably sleep four.
Europe has many, many vehicles that are unavailable in the states including this Mercedes pickup truck.
Bunkbeds were a hot commodity in many of the RVs at the show from van-based models all the way up through the bigger designs.
This has to be the smallest class C ever made built on a sedan chassis. It's a car camper!
There was a good bit of buzz at the Hymer booth when they unveiled a brand-new concept vehicle. This 4x4 Sprinter-based model slept four and was Instagram/Pinterest ready. They collected a lot of attendee feedback and we look forward to seeing if and when they bring this baby to market.
There was also a small overland vehicle presence at the show. This vehicle had just returned from an expedition across Russia.
We wandered through halls that showcased travel trailers, 4x4 vehicles, class Cs and vans galore, but almost a fourth of the floor space was dedicated to the many suppliers who provide RV accessories like appliances, inverters, stoves, sinks, cabinetry, countertops, furniture, cabinet fixtures, awnings, mattresses and more. We wandered through a multitude of booths with all the components that make up an RV, and with each passing display, our minds moved into hyper-drive as we dreamed up all kinds of modifications that we could make to personalize our Winnebago Revel.
We camped on-site at the event and were quite cozy with our neighbors, who turned out to be two lovely couples from Great Britain. Note the scale of our van compared to the neighboring Class C vehicles. We feel like GIANTS over here!!
Fortunately, we weren't the only ones attending the show looking for inspiration and ideas. Both the Winnebago design and executive teams were there, looking at new designs and features, talking with suppliers and other manufacturers about current and anticipated trends in the industry, and I know their imaginations were sparked as well. It is so comforting to know that the Winnebago crew is out there, taking it all in so that Winnebago maintains its position at the leading edge of the American RV marketplace. Their commitment to serving the needs of our community with innovative and quality products are what has kept us safe and comfortable throughout our 5+ years of full-time RV living, and made us loyal and happy members of the Winnebago community. We can't wait to see what brilliant new ideas come to life in the 2020 product line up!
You can follow our adventures across Europe on Instagram @PeterHolcombe or @Adventurous.Miss or on Facebook @Peter.Holcombe or @AdventurousMissAbby. We will also be sharing more of our European Overland Adventures here on GoLife over the months to come.
What do you want to know about RVing across Europe?
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