I’ve written several times about my enthusiasm for the Apple Watch, but even eight years after getting my first one, I’m still discovering uses for it.
We’ve spent the last few nights in our campervan on a delightful small campsite in Devon.
There are loo and shower facilities in a nearby building but, unusually these days, you do need to insert a pound coin if you want to use the shower. It’s a fine shower, and I didn’t mind paying, but since the meter is outside in the corridor, you don’t get any warning before the water shuts off suddenly after six minutes, possibly leaving you rather soapy…
So even in this low-tech environment, where we treat an electricity supply as something of a luxury, there’s great benefit to be derived from a waterproof watch which can be instructed, with a couple of clicks or a spoken command, to warn you shortly before your shower is going to finish!
One of the great things about owning an EV — which, after seven years of electric driving, I tend to take for granted, until I get back in a dinosaur-fuelled vehicle — is the heating system.
Because it’s independent of the motor, you get heat more quickly as you drive off since you’re not waiting for big chunks of iron and radiators full of water to warm up in order to warm you.
More importantly, though, you can also run the heating (or cooling) without the rest of the car being switched on. Most EVs will allow you to turn it on remotely from an app, and if you do this five minutes before you want to set off, the car is always comfortable, and my old winter practice of pouring milk-bottles full of warm water over frozen windscreens before departure is becoming a distant memory!
In the Tesla, the climate control has various special ‘modes’.
The one we use all the time is “Dog Mode”, which keeps Tilly at a comfortable temperature whatever’s happening outside, disables the internal alarm sensors, and puts a picture of an animated dog up on the main display with a notice saying “My driver will be back soon! Don’t worry, I’m comfortable in here: the A/C’s on and it’s 20 degrees C.” This is to prevent people from breaking your windows to save the poor animal trapped inside on a hot day!
But recently I’ve been experimenting with another: “Camp Mode”. This is for people foolish enough to consider sleeping in their car, an activity made rather more pleasant by having your bedroom well-ventilated at exactly the temperature you want and without excessive condensation on the windows! But it’s still sleeping in the boot of your car. YouTube has no shortage of videos talking about how to do it and the expensive products you can buy to make it more comfortable.
So, for no better reason than that I have to try out all the functions on my gadgets, and it might prove more comfortable than my tent at this time of year, I’ve been giving it a go. More comfortable – yes. More spacious? Definitely not! (If you had a bigger and more expensive Tesla than mine, it would be a different experience.)
But, for your amusement, here’s my little camping video:
As the world moves rapidly in the direction of electric propulsion, there is one big challenge, irrelevant to the majority of car-buyers but a serious concern for a significant subset of us: what are these EVs like when used for towing?
This has been more in my mind recently as we have just purchased a small boat — more on that later, once we’ve finished sanding and varnishing! But when you add up the people who tow caravans, horses, motorbikes, classic cars, trailer-tents, ride-on lawn-mowers etc, there’s quite a population for whom this is a real issue.
I haven’t yet done much towing, but one of the key factors that made us choose the Tesla Model 3 at our last car-change was the fact that it could take both a roof-rack and a tow bar; something that, at the time, was really quite rare on EVs.
There are, of course, two key questions most people want to ask: how much can a given EV tow, and how far can it tow it?
EVs ought, in general, to have very good towing capacities because of their enormous torque, and the fact that they’re quite heavy. (Experts suggest that, in general, it’s best only to tow things up to 85% of the car’s weight, and the EV batteries give you a bit more leeway!) EVs also, of course, lack things like a clutch and gearbox, components which, in days gone by, tended to suffer a bit from towing.
But towing hasn’t, thus far, been a priority for most EV manufacturers, which means that these powerful, heavy cars are often not actually built with it in mind, and so are not rated to tow loads as substantial as one might expect. (There are also probably challenges in getting things like the regenerative braking right for both braked and unbraked trailers.) My Model 3, for example, weighs quite a bit more than a VW Golf and has infinitely more power, yet its rated towing capacity of 1000kg seems a bit weedy compared to the Golf’s 1500kg or so. The Model Y, just starting to make its way to these shores, has a more respectable 1600kg rating, and the Hyundai Ioniq 5, which has been getting a lot of positive reviews recently, has the same.
An enterprising campsite owner, Chris Scott, has put together a useful list showing the towing capacities of most current EVs. While none of those available at present in the UK will compete with a Land Rover, there are nonetheless quite a few to choose from if you want to tow most normal loads, and if you have the (rather significant) budget for a Tesla Model X, you can pull a similarly significant weight!
Yes, as always, this is the elephant in the trailer.
Here’s a quick rule of thumb when you hang something on your tow bar: take the real-world range of an EV, and halve it. That, of course, is a wild generalisation, but it’s often quoted, and tied in with my first experience towing a trailer on the Model 3.
“What?!”, you say. “You’ve been trying to tell me that EVs are good when they can only do 300 miles compared to my car’s 400! And now you stick a poxy little trailer on the back and tell me it’ll only do 150?” This number doesn’t phase me; before the Tesla I was driving an EV which had a range of about 70 miles without a trailer, and we went all over the country in it. But yes, that’s right. You’ll probably have to stop every two or three hours. But you should really do this for safety whenever you’re driving, and just how big is your bladder anyway?
The thing is that EVs are often very dependent on their aerodynamics for their range, especially Teslas, which are normally exceedingly slippery. Spoil the airflow with a big roofbox or a chunky trailer and it will have a very significant impact.
But here’s the important thing: this is nothing to do with the power source. If you had the same car with the same aerodynamics but with a petrol engine, the drag would still change to the same degree and the effect on the range would be similarly drastic. You just don’t think about it as much with traditional cars: in EVs, it’s typically higher up in your consciousness. Few people really check the range of their petrol car when towing for several hours on the motorway.
Having said all of that, my experience in towing our little boat from her former home in Dorset to Cambridge, 165 miles away, was quite encouraging. First, it towed beautifully; the gear-less acceleration and single-pedal driving made for a very nice experience. And secondly, the loss of range, though significant, wasn’t as bad as I’d feared.
Tesla likes to use measure consumption in watt-hours per mile (analogous to the European litres-per-100km), so bigger numbers mean more energy used. By setting the cruise control to 60mph — the maximum towing speed in the UK — my average consumption was 400 Wh/mile, compared to my normal 285 Wh/mile or so — and, because it was fairly late at night, I was able to maintain that speed most of the way home. If I’d had to go slower, the consumption would have been lower.
Or, to use the miles-per-gallon analogy adopted by most other manufacturers, I went from about 3.5 miles/kWh to about 2.5 miles/kWh. A big difference, yes, but much better than half. That would give me a real range of around 180 miles. If I had started the three-and-a-half-hour journey with a full battery, I could have made it home without having to stop for a charge. And this was night-time in February, with the associated winter inefficiencies of lower battery temperatures, headlights, and needing to keep the driver cozy and warm while he listened to his audiobooks…
The real issue
For those of us who remember the pioneering early days of EVs — i.e. just a few years ago — today’s charging stations can be a source of wonder. If you manage to park a modern car with a nearly empty battery at a new super-rapid charger, then the rate at which you top up can be astonishing.
Once again, Tesla owners are a bit spoiled here: my old BMW would charge at a maximum rate of 50kW, rapidly dropping off as it filled up its little battery. That meant that the peak rate got you about 3 miles for every minute you spent charging, and you had plenty of time to take the dog for a stroll or even have a quick meal before driving for the next hour.
The newer Tesla superchargers can manage up to 250kW, if your battery is warm and empty, and because of the size of the battery and some clever management, can maintain a high rate of charge for much longer. Popping to the loo and then picking up a coffee or a quick snack is time enough to add vast amounts of charge before you set off again.
But, in either case, this does take longer than filling up with dinosaur juice, and the result is that most charging stations, at least in the UK, are designed more like a car-park than like a ‘drive-thru’. There are some notable exceptions, like the Electric Forecourt at Braintree, which I visited when it first opened a little over a year ago. If you haven’t seen it, here’s a section from my video at the time:
At most charging stations, though, you’re expected to sit there for a while, so you pull into a parking space. And, in the case of Teslas, the charging sockets are all at the back, so you’re expected to reverse into that parking space in order to connect the very short, very high-power cable.
This is clearly not ideal if you’re towing. For a light trailer like my boat, it’s the work of a moment to unhitch it and put it in a nearby parking space, but it would be more challenging with a bigger load.
So can I make two appeals?
The first is to the installers of charging stations — you lovely people — to consider including one or two stations suitable for people with caravans attached? And to put a sign asking those who don’t need them to make use of the other ones first?
And the second is to the creators of charging-point maps, to include data about whether a charging station is trailer-friendly, and to allow searching on that basis. It would be fabulous to be able to plot your course across the country, stopping to charge only at places where you didn’t need to unhitch.
In the meantime, occasionally you can find charming and quiet charging points, like this one near Winchester, where there’s plenty of space for eccentric parking arrangements!
Just before Christmas, Tilly (my spaniel) and I went to the Dordogne and back in our campervan. I made a video about it, which, while it may be of interest only to travel vlog and ‘van life’ enthusiasts, does have a bit of novelty value, because I filmed it on a spherical (360-degree) camera.
This means that after you’ve watched it, you can go back and watch it again from a completely different angle and see what was happening behind you!
I’ll put the link here, rather than embedding it, because this is something you want to watch on the YouTube site. Or, better still, in the YouTube app on your tablet, or phone, or VR headset…
A few months ago, we made our biggest and most expensive purchase ever (excluding houses, that is). And yet, it is almost a house, sort of, in a small way…
We bought a campervan. Or, to be more precise, we bought a three-year-old Bilbo’s Nexa, based on a long wheelbase VW T5 Transporter.
This is something we’d considered for some time. We had borrowed a friend’s (rather larger) van for a few long weekends, and we had also rented a smaller one for four nights in the spring. On each occasion, we joked about the luxury Bed & Breakfast establishments we were driving past in order to go and stay in a field! On the other hand, we came back from each one having had an enjoyable adventure, and having seen the world from slightly different angles than we would otherwise have done.
Another reason for initial hesitation, of course, is that these things are terrifyingly expensive, especially if you get one that’s even vaguely new. The small vans based on the VW Transporters command a particular premium, partly because it’s such a good base vehicle, partly because the builders have to work harder to pack everything inside, and partly because it can also double-up as your everyday vehicle if you need it to. (At just under 2 metres tall, for example, these can be driven into almost any car park, including multi-storey ones.) The only thing that allowed us to consider such an extravagant purchase is the fact that they depreciate more slowly than almost any other vehicle you can buy. After a few years you can sell one for almost as much as you paid for it, especially if it’s from a respected company, and, in the UK, Bilbo’s have been doing these van conversions successfully for more than four decades.
I suspect that half our friends think we’re mad and the other half are envious. But if this isn’t a mode of transport you’ve tried or even considered, I should explain that there are almost as many different ways of approaching campervanning as there are people doing it.
For some, it’s a way of entertaining the kids by getting them out of a crowded city suburb, so they head for the big campsites where it’s easy to park large vans near to tumble dryers, playgrounds, and sometimes even swimming pools.
In our case, we usually want the opposite: a key thing we’re looking for is peace and quiet. This means that we tend to aim for smaller sites, typically with fewer than 10 pitches; a few of them are even adult-only.
The trade-off is that these tend to have fewer facilities; some are little more than a field with a tap and some electric hook-up points. We do have a portable loo in the van, with a fine loo tent we can pitch when needed, and it turns out that these have been refined over the years to be really quite civilised; it hasn’t been an issue for us at all. But a good shower is definitely nice to have, and vans the size of ours don’t come equipped with such things. So we tend to make sure, when on the road, that we stay somewhere with showers at least every other night!
In the UK, these small sites are known as Certificated Sites (or Certificated Locations), if they’re inspected periodically by one of the two big clubs, but there are many independent ones too, and there are thousands to choose from, so finding one you like is not too hard. We’ve passed through some that were fine as a one night stop but that we wouldn’t particularly choose to revisit, and others where we’ve had a delightful time, and have already returned to more than once, even in the limited time we’ve been doing this.
The big sites can also be fine – a favourite of ours is the Camping Club one at Sandringham – but we’ve only stayed there out of season and out of school holidays, when there are large areas of empty space (and often clusters of trees) between you and the next occupant, and yet just a short grassy stroll to plentiful showers and dishwashing facilities.
For those who say that it’s not real camping, I would agree, but I also enjoy the fact that we can pitch up, pull fresh milk from our fridge and be enjoying a cup of tea while we they’re still unpacking their tent-poles. For those who wonder why we don’t get a bigger and more comfortable van (which we could easily do for the same price), I would point out that our aim at present is exploration more than relaxation: we want to get to our location and be able to drive around the local sites without worrying about parking spaces, height barriers, low tree branches etc.
We’ve just come back from a wonderful two-week trip which took us up the west coast of England and Scotland to spend a few nights staying with friends near Arisaig, and then back down the east coast visiting places like Lindisfarne (Holy Island). Here we are on the causeway out to the island, on one of the two damp days we had on the whole trip:
(This road is underwater at high tide, so you need to time your visits carefully.)
In general, though, I expect most of our trips will be of shorter duration. For me, part of the fun is just having a vehicle with a fridge, table and gas hob in it, so that you can have lunch almost anywhere you find a good view.
This is a small car park on the shores of Lake Windermere – we had just come back from a swim: it’s a changing-room too!
I’ve no idea whether this will be a lifelong obsession, or just something we enjoy for a couple of years before going back to luxury B&Bs 🙂 But it’s fun at the moment!
Update after a few months: I’ve also now made a list of some of the accessories we’ve found to work particularly well for us; you can find it here.
I’m in a lovely but slightly moist campsite in Norfolk. The climatic conditions are, I must admit, mitigated for us by the simply splendid heating system built into the campervan we’ve rented for a few days. We’re not really ‘roughing it’!
Anyway, inside the facilities block, where I’ve just been doing the washing up, there’s a large motto printed on the wall.
Life isn’t about waiting for the storm to pass.
It’s about learning to dance in the rain.
Yes. Amen to that!
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