Tuesday, 31 May 2016

The Vango Air Hub: a weekend on a cliff top


We’re off to Spain in a few weeks’ time. It’ll be the first time we’ve headed to Europe since our big 10 week tour of France and Spain in 2012. Our kids are that bit older and will be up for as much fun as they can get their hands on, while Jo and I are that bit older and wiser, but still want to have as much fun as possible. We’ve also got some new kit on board – and that includes our new VW T5 California beach and our Slidepod. So it’s all change with the Dorey camping machine.

We’ve also got a new Vango awning, an Air Hub, on loan for the trip, which we hope will complete our new set up.

The trouble with awnings


We’ve had awnings before, so we’re quite used to the way they work – or don’t. While they can add an extra room to your van they can also make it feel a little enclosed at times. When you attach the awning to the sliding door of the van it cuts off that lovely outside-in view that you get from the slider. In a hot location it feels counter-productive.
Awnings, we know, can also be bulky, heavy and a right royal pain in the behind. On our big adventure in 2012 we actually abandoned ours at a friend's house because we were camping wild some of the time and it spent more time under the van than attached to it. We also stayed in some places for just a night or two, making it impractical to put up and peg out an awning every other day. In the end, a lot of the time we used a pop-up pup tent to stash stuff we didn’t need.

The vango Air Hub

The Slidepod kitchen (as you may well know) is a removable rear kitchen that pulls out from beneath the California’s multi board back parcel shelf. So you cook under the tailgate. It can also be removed, making it possible to set up a camp kitchen in an awning. There are a few freestanding tailgate awnings on the market and they come in at anywhere between £280 and £340. There are also a number of non-freestanding tailgate awnings – including those from VW and Just Kampers  – that hang off the tailgate, but for what we need it defeats the object. We need an awning for extra space when the van is in use. 
So we looked at getting an event shelter… it seemed like a good compromise as it would provide a closable room that we could back the van up to and cook out of. We could even take the Slidepod out and turn the awning into a kitchen… so saving space in the van.
And, waddayaknow, I got approached by Vango a little while ago to see if I wanted to try out some of their new range of Airbeam awnings. I explained about our Slidepod and said that I’d seen the Hogan Hub at a show and considered it to be a good option. A few days later a Vango Air Hub arrived for us to try out with the van.

How easy is it to put up an Airbeam tent?


I’m a luddite by choice at times so I was keen to see how airbeam technology might compare to the traditional poles of a standard awning. Is it easier to put up? Is it robust enough to last a summer with the Doreys? Is it lightweight enough? Does it pack away easily? Will it work for what we want it to do? Can it cope with high winds?
Firstly, the Air Hub uses air to hold itself up. That’s right. Actual air. Okay, so I’m late to the airbeam party but it was a novelty to me to be able to pump up an awning. In fact, to show just how easy (or difficult) the Air Hub is to put up I set Charlie to work on the pump. We pegged the awning out, connected the pump to the single valve (it only has one) and then I left her to it. I can safely say that it took about a minute for her to pump up the Hub to a shape that roughly resembled a tent shape, with me adding the final few puffs to bring it up to pressure when she got 'tired' (bored). Handily for us the pump has a gauge to see the pressure and avoid over inflation. We then guyed it out, finished pegging the bottom and hey presto! One rigid hub that was up in about one tenth the time it would have taken me to put up our old awning. And with none of the ‘that goes there, that there, this pole goes here and that one there, then you hold it’ that it came with. You just peg and pump.

I have to say I was impressed. And it's got an RRP of just £260 so it's cheaper than most awnings.

Air versus poles?

I have to say I was a bit non-plussed by the Airbeam. I wanted to be anti airbean because it's sort of new and I know where I am with a pole. But I could immediately get why people love them so much. However I do worry about punctures and explosions  and going down in the night (well, you have to ask, don’t you?). But, much to my relief, the Air Hub stayed put for 24 hours, didn’t disappear off like a deflated balloon in the wind and didn’t puncture… so far so good.

Living with the hub

It was a natural thing for the action to focus on the Hub for our daytime activities. It provided shelter from wind and sun on a glorious weekend and then safe haven for boards and gadgets overnight. I chopped and cooked in it and it was great – just like an awning should be. So it did what we asked of it.

Letting the side down?

What about when it came to going home? How would that fare? The truth is that I wasn’t quite so keen on the way the airbeam dropped. It was easy enough, but not quite as easy as putting it up. The process was straight forward enough – you reverse the pump so it sucks and then pump away until the beams are empty. Then you wrap and roll as normal. Of course, as with all awnings we couldn’t get it to fold up smaller that it was when it arrived and this was partly because we couldn’t get all of the air out of the beams. A bit like deflating an airbed and not quite being able to squeeze out the last puffs. But at least it did go back in the bag. And that’s a start.

The proof of the pudding is in the long-term testing

So this was a fine weekend in May. “So what?”, you may ask, it’s hardly testing times. And you’d be right. Things can be very different under the sometimes trying conditions of a Euro camping adventure. And we shall soon find out when we hit the road in July. But until then, let’s give it some marks….

Puttie up-iness: 10/10
Puttie down-iness 8/10
Cookingin-iness: 10/10
Storingsurfboard-iness: 10/10





Thursday, 12 May 2016

BIG QUESTIONS: How can you be a camping eco hero?


It isn't easy being green.

But, as campers, campervanners, motorhomers and lovers of the great outdoors, it is our duty to take care of that which gives us so much pleasure. So, I'd like to propose (again) for 2016, the mantra for all camping trips. This is simple. It's also easy. And it's a recurring theme for me.

LEAVE IT NICER.

What I mean by this is that we should leave anywhere we stay – a camp site, wild spot, wherever, nicer than it was when we arrived. This can work on many levels but on a basic one it means making sure your spot is immaculate when you depart. How can you do this?


PICK UP LITTER


I don’t really care if it isn’t your litter, just pick it up. It really won’t kill you and you’ll feel great for doing your bit. If it’s on your patch you should pick it up and dispose of it properly, irrespective of the source. Anyone who sees you camping and then sees litter will put two and two together and make a number that marks you as the culprit.
If you leave somewhere and there is a mess (even if it isn’t yours) we will all get the blame for it. And the consequences of that are that there will be fewer and fewer places where we are welcome. Height barriers will go up, rocks will appear on laybys and the dreaded ‘No Camping or Overnight Parking’ signs will breed. The active way of reversing this trend and making local councils wake up to us as a feasible 'market' (and therefore make it easier for us to overnight) is to be a shining example of green practice.


FORGET SINGLE USE PLASTICS


Everything comes in plastic these days. Salad, bananas, cucumbers, water, hummus, potato salad. It’s, frankly, ridiculous the amount of packaging that our supermarkets and food stores force on us. Even when we don’t need it. It’s almost as if bananas, cucumbers and apples didn’t have a protective outer casing on them anyway. Plastics don’t biodegrade and will eventually end up in rivers, watercourse, storm drains and sewers where they will enter the sea, become toxic and kill. There is no nice way of putting it.

So if you can, please forget the single use plastics. The problem with them is that they don’t biodegrade, turn toxic in water and break down into microplastics that will, in time, hurt us all. So, take your tin mug into Costa, refill a water bottle instead of buying bottled (Europe’s tap water is the best in the world), refuse plastic forks and knives and only take on plastics that can be recycled (if at all). Do this and you’ll be doing the shopping equivalent of leaving it better because you’ll create less waste and less demand for plastics. If we all did it things would change.


BUY LOCAL


Buying local makes so much sense. Why? Because you are putting your money directly into the local economy instead of into a supermarket that cares for nothing but profit. If you give you money to local shops you generally get local produce that hasn’t been half way around the world (and therefore has fewer food miles) and have a chance to enrich the entire local economy. You might also meet some nice people too. People are nice, in general, and it’s great to meet them. You might also discover something unusual or very special; when you buy local. And it’s a darn sight better than a soulless supermarket experience.


EAT WITH THE HARVEST


There is a green leafy cabbage-like plant called ‘hunger gap’. It’s a really tasty green and I love eating it when it’s in season, which is during the ‘hunger gap’ between winter greens and spring vegetables. It’s a wonderfully evocative and quite humbling vegetable simply because it has a job to do and it does it well. It’s available when nothing else is. You can buy it locally when it’s just been picked so it’ll be as good as any green. It’s the same throughout the year with other foods. If you can eat with the seasons then you’ll save lots of carbon (the old footprint issue) and will eat food that is local, fresh and about as good as it gets.


HOW TO BE AN AMATEUR ECO HERO IN TEN EASY STEPS:


You might think you can’t make a difference but you can. Voting with your feet, inspiring others and rolling up your sleeves is the most effective way of making change – for the better - happen. And if you just don’t care, well, whatevs.

Anyone who camps cannot fail to be an environmentalist too, by default. Why destroy the thing which you camp to enjoy? It doesn’t make sense.

1.      Leave it nicer. Clean up when you arrive and before you leave.
2.      Take your own bag shopping.
3.      Don’t damage the environment in which you camp.
4.      If you need a coffee, take your tin mug with you to get one. Refuse single use coffee cups.
5.      Eat locally as much as possible.
6.      Eat seasonally as much as possible.
7.      Recycle EVERYTHING. If it can’t be recycled, refuse it.
8.      Reuse water bottles or packaging if you can.
9.      Buy staples in bulk to save packaging and decant as you need it.
10.    Buy once, buy well. Well made kit will last more than 5 minutes and won't need replacing. Man made fabrics don't biodegrade so once they have gone to landfill they will persist. Take a look at ventile cotton...

Thanks for listening.

The Camper Van Bible is out on June 2nd.

Monday, 9 May 2016

BIG QUESTIONS: if you had all day, what would you cook at camp?



This is  a recipe from my new book, The Camper Van Bible. While the book isn't exclusively about food it does contain a section about food. The section lists some of my favourite and go to recipes. There are some classics in there as well as a few new bits and pieces and even some thoughts on smoking oysters... wooo!

But, given the big question of what I would cook if I had all day to cook at camp, it'd be this, without a doubt. It's one for those days when all you want to do is chug a few beers and cook over an open fire. It's perfect for a Roadii fire grill or a Kotlich and is flipping delicious.

It’s easy to prep but does take some cooking time. It’ll all be well worth the effort though, once your guests tuck in. The rich flavours will remind you of Thai and Asian dishes. Serve with sticky Thai rice for an extra authentic touch.

If you can’t light a fire, then you can always cook this over a very low heat, just make sure you have enough gas.

SLOW COOKED SHIN OF BEEF WITH CORIANDER & STAR ANISE

For 4
4 beef shin joints
An inch of fresh root ginger, chopped
1 large onion chopped
2 fresh red chillies, chopped
2 large cloves of garlic, chopped
A large bunch of coriander
1 tbsp soy sauce
1 tbsp mirin
600 mls (about a pint) beef stock
2 whole star anise
Vegetable oil
A few baby carrots (or carrot batons) and mange tout

Heat the Dutch oven over the fire until water sizzles in it. Then add a few drizzles of vegetable oil and seal the beef shin pieces. Remove and put aside. Then remove the oven from the heat a little (raise it up on its tripod) and add the onion, garlic, chilli and ginger. Allow it to soften for a couple of minutes before adding the star anise, stock, soy sauce, mirin and the chopped coriander. Bring to a simmer and then add the beef, making sure it is covered with the stock. Simmer for 2 hours. About five or six minutes before serving check for seasoning then add the carrots, then the mange tout about three minutes later.

Serve to delighted and - by now flipping ravenous - guests.

Thursday, 5 May 2016

BIG QUESTIONS: what's that under your arse? FOAM!


What is that under your arse? It's foam, of course. But it is the right type of foam? And did you ever imagine there could be a right and a wrong type of foam? Well, there is. I will go into the whole shebang in quite a bit more detail (but not too much detail, honestly) in my new book, The Camper Van Bible, so this is just a taster of the delights to come...

Let's begin with the day you decide to get some more foam for the cushions in your van. It's easy, right? You buy some foam, have it cut to size, sew some new covers and Bob is your uncle...wrong! 

Firstly, you need to think about what your cushions are to be used for predominantly. Are they to be used as seating or are they to be used as bedding? This is relevant as some foam is better suited to sleeping than sitting, while other foam is better for sitting...

Foam comes in grades with a load of numbers like 3 INCH V 38 / 200 or 4 INCH R 40 / 180.

What these mean to you and how they will affect your comfort depends on how far you read on and whether or not you have glazed over yet. But stick with it... it gets better...

Foam is graded by FOAM TYPE, DENSITY, HARDNESS and VOLUME. In the first set of numbers above it is graded thus:

VOLUME (3 INCH), FOAM TYPE (R), DENSITY (38), HARDNESS (200)

FOAM TYPE is the basic name for any particular type of foam. It is the bit that comes after INCH in the ratings above. The grades are:

V is for foam that is ‘heavy domestic and contract quality’. A quality foam that is best suited for sitting and seat cushions and will last well. Generally 30% cheaper than REFLEX and better suited to sitting than sleeping.

R is for Reflex, a brand name. This is a very high quality latex foam that will retain its properties over time. The best quality for sleeping.

Other grades of foam are:

CMHR is for ‘Combustion Modified High Resilience Foam’ that includes a lot of melamine for flame retardancy. It can tend to powder over time and can retain moisture so not recommended for camper vans.

RECON is reconditioned foam. It is made up from all the off cuts. It is generally poor wearing, very heavy and not much use to anyone, although it is cheap. Avoid.

Still with us? Okay, moving on.

FOAM DENSITY is the weight of the foam in KILOGRAMMES PER CUBIC METRE. In the foam ratings it comes after the TYPE of foam. The higher the number the higher the density.  A high density foam will last longer and be of better quality. Expect to see Density of around 38 – 40 for a decent foam. This is the part of the rating that comes after the R or V. 

HARDNESS is measured in NEWTONS. It’s all about the science here so I shall skip that and say that the hardness is all about the comfort. Typical foams for campers come in at any where between 135-200 Newtons, depending on the comfort required, with the lower number being less firm than higher numbers.

VOLUME is basically the thickness of the foam, with increased volume offering you more support. 

However, after a certain point volume is pointless, as a dense foam can have the same support at 3 inches thick as at 4 inches thick, depending on how you use it.

THE RULE FOR CHOOSING FOAM:

If you are sitting more than sleeping, use a high density V grade foam. If it’s less firm, go for extra thickness. V40 / 200 at 3 inches is a good bet for camper van cushions.

If you are sleeping more than sitting, use a thicker, but less firm REFLEX foam. Try something like a R38 / 150 at 5 inches for a cosy night.

Too much detail? Until the time comes to look for a mattress, maybe.

The Camper Van Bible goes on sale on June 2nd, with signed copies available from martindorey.com

Tuesday, 3 May 2016

BIG QUESTIONS: is a camper van better than a tent?

The simple answer, if you must know, is yes. Every time. I have camped all my life and have seen it all, from high winds and baking heat to torrential downpours and snowy deposits. It's why I choose camper van over tent almost every time. Unless of course I am visiting Lundy island or somewhere equally inaccessible by road....

Anyway, in my new book, The Camper Van Bible, I set out my stall very clearly with the following:

"My personal love of campers comes down to portability, which might seem odd in the face of the fact that a tent is the ultimate pop up home. But bear with me. The fact remains that a camper van is a home that can be driven. That means you don’t always have to make major alterations to move it.
If you’ve got it right then you should be able to drive your camper away from your camping spot without having to do too much. Yes, so you might have to de-pop a pop top roof, pull the bed down and pack away a few clothes, but at least you don’t have to dismantle it entirely to make a swift getaway."
  • Campervans are better than tents because they offer a level of protection a tent never could. They don’t blow down in the night. They don’t flap and flail and keep you awake. Rarely will you wake to the sound of ripping nylon or humming guy ropes – the sounds that disaster is close at hand.
  • Campervans are better than tents because you can drive them. So, when the weather gets really bad, there is a threat of a flood or snow, wind and rain you can always drive out of there. 
  • Camper vans are better than tents because a few inches of flood water won’t bother you in the least. In a tent it spells disaster.
  • Camper vans are better than tens because they don’t leak if you touch the sides or allow the fly sheet to touch the inner part of the tent. Some do leak, yes, but not necessarily as part of their makeup. A well made camper is a waterproof camper.
  • Camper vans are better than tents because you don’t sleep on the ground. You are on wheels above it. That means you won’t get that creeping chill in the small of your back that you get when you sleep on the ground, even with a half decent insulated mattress.
  • Camper vans are better than tents because you can have them ready to go at a moment’s notice. Sleeping bags, spare toothbrush, pots and pans and a few clothes – they can all be stored neatly in a camper ready for the off.
  • Camper vans are better than tents because they do not have to be dried out after you use them (unless it’s really bad). They also don’t have to be stuffed back into a bag that never fits at the end of a trip.
  • Camper vans are better than tents because they have their own power source for running electrical items, radios and fridges. They can also be plugged in to mains electrics easily for charging mobiles, running DVD players etc. 
  • Camper vans are better than tents because the perfect camper has everything you need, right there, where you need it.
  • Camper vans are better than tents because you can still get a good night’s sleep, even if you have to park on a slope. With clever use of a couple of levelling chocks you can sleep on the level. Who ever heard of a self levelling tent?
  • Camper vans are better than tents because, if absolutely necessary, you can sleep in a camper almost anywhere. Try pitching a tent outside the Dog and Duck and see what happens.
  • Campervans are better than tents because creepy crawlies find it hard to find their way in to a camper, unless they are of the flying variety.
  • Campervans are better than tents because you can lock them from the inside, so keeping you safe from the threat of bears, lions, snakes, mad axe men and evil doggers.
I rest my case your honour.

The Camper Van Bible goes on sale on June 2nd, with signed copies available from martindorey.com

Making dreams come true: another slow road adventure.

When did you last make time to dawdle? Can you remember what it was like to do nothing more than meander, pootle or bumble along? A...