Our original set up
Spring 2019 – A change of direction
1995 Defender 110 Station Wagon
Our original set up
After completing nearly 6000 miles since its pre-departure service, bringing the total mileage on our Defender’s engine to over 250,000, we thought it was time to give the Land Rover an oil and filter change. We knew there was a specialist 4×4 garage in a small town in the Ardeche in France, so decided to include a visit in our itinerary.
Every time you enter a garage with a Defender you hear things you don’t want to hear. “Your out-riggers are gone”, “the chassis isn’t too bad but you need a new bulkhead”, “that noise sounds like the offside rear half shaft to me”, “looks like your main ring is leaking”. However, as an owner of one of these classic vehicles, you quickly learn that your Defender will never be perfect; there will always be something to do.
When I first met Steve, he had an 88” 1962 Series IIa parked behind his house, complete with seized engine – grass, moss and weeds happily making it their home. It presented a sorry sight and we talked about the possibility of restoring it together. We soon abandoned this plan realising that we had neither time nor available space for this kind of project. But the idea of owning a Land Rover had taken hold.
We decided that the vehicle that suited us best was a Defender 110 station wagon with a 300TDi engine. There is no such things as a perfect vehicle. There are as many opinions about Land Rovers as there are people who own them. We recognise that many people wouldn’t make the same decisions as us, but that is what makes every Land Rover unique and keeps Land Rover owners endlessly talking about them! We chose the 110 300Tdi because it gave us the amount of space we wanted, with an engine free of electronics – meaning that you can go to almost any garage, anywhere in the world, and they will be able to fix your engine, assuming you can’t fix it yourself.
When we acquired our Defender in 2013 we didn’t know the role it would play in changing our lives; our focus at the time was bringing it up to the standard of reliability we wanted. Our early decisions were made piecemeal, without the bigger picture in mind – at that time we didn’t have a bigger picture. We removed the rear bench seats to give more load space; replaced the worn and grubby interior carpet with rubber matting; swapped the front middle seat for a cubby box with integral cup-holders. All good solid decisions (particularly installing cup-holders!) but not made with an end goal in mind.
With the purchase of our roof tent from money gifted to us when we married, our minds turned towards travelling. A few short trips to Scotland with our camping equipment stored in Really Useful Boxes got us thinking about modifications that would make long camping trips possible and comfortable.
We started by improving the storage area in the back. We fitted interior security grills on the windows and rear door, and installed a dog guard and high-level load shelf. Then with the help of my brother and his circular saw, we made a drawer to go between the rear wheel arches.
These few small changes made a big difference. The drawer contained our food and cooking items and we used wolf boxes to store clothes, tools and everything else we needed for short (two week) camping trips.
In everything we’ve done to the Land Rover our aim has been to improve reliability and to keep the vehicle as original as possible. We have only used original Land Rover parts wherever possible, having found that the far cheaper after-market parts are hugely unreliable and fit the old maxim – buy cheap, buy twice. The only structural changes we’ve made have been installing a water tank and additional fuel tank and fitting an internal roll cage between the ‘B’ pillars.
Other than that, everything we use is carried in or on the vehicle and can be removed. We have a gas bottle mounted on the rear of the car that we refill with LPG from local fuel stations. This has turned out to be one of the best things we’ve done. We can quickly attach and detach the pigtail from the regulator via a quick release clip and filling the bottle costs between two and three Euros a time – a fraction of the cost of using CampingGaz bottles.
Another thing that works really well is the jerry can we bought to carry additional water. Although we have a tank fitted on the vehicle, we were concerned about how safe the water in the tank would be for drinking. A lot of people rely on buying bottled water when they travel but we were loath to do this because of the consumption of plastic involved. Our jerry can has an integral filter, which removes 99.9% of everything that can do you harm. The cans were developed for use in disaster relief areas and, as we wanted to go to places where the quality of water couldn’t be relied on, we thought this would be the most reliable way to ensure a supply of clean water.
Our most essential piece of equipment so far, however, has been our diesel heater. We had it installed in the driver‘s seat box, with the outlet venting into the middle row. We can attach a flexible hose to the outlet and feed it up through the middle row window and in to the roof tent. We made a waterproof sleeve to cover the open middle row window, and have insulation on the part of the hose that is outside the vehicle. This works really well and we find that if we set the heater at about 14⁰C it keeps the tent sufficiently heated for us to be comfortable through the night.
We have watched a lot of videos of different on and off-road set ups and since leaving the UK we have seen a lot of campers, of all shapes and sizes. We’ve drawn two conclusions from what we have seen. Everything is a compromise and you never have as much space as you want. We met a Belgian in Southern Spain who had a huge motorhome – the size of a small coach. He told us that his first camper was a converted Dodge ambulance with a three speed V8 diesel engine. He traded it in for something bigger and had been going bigger ever since. His current vehicle dwarfed our Land Rover, but he said it still wasn’t big enough. It seems that however much space you have, you always want more.
We shared a campsite with a family from Holland, who had converted a Mercedes fire engine into a home on wheels. The result weighed in at 12 tons and required a HGV licence to drive, but provided a really comfortable sustainable and self-sufficient living space for four people. Parked next to us, their truck dwarfed our Defender. We spent two very enjoyable, and comfortable, evenings with them in their vehicle, discovering how easy it was to insulate yourself from the outside world when the door was closed.
There are things we love about our set up and things that are challenging. Our time in Scandinavia was cut short because our set up doesn’t protect us from bad weather. This is the main challenge of a camping style like ours, based on living outside the vehicle. Although we have an annex to the roof tent, which gives additional space under canvas, it is just as susceptible to strong wind as the roof tent and it is very difficult to heat.
We have tried to address this problem by carrying a small frontier stove, thinking this may give us the warmth we wanted, either inside the annex or outside. However, it has turned out to be impractical for short overnight camps and it doesn’t provide much warmth in the open air unless you are practically sitting on top of it. So arriving at a camp at 6pm, in the cold and wet, when we ask ourselves “shall we light the stove?” the answer is invariably “no” and we jump back inside the car and turn the heater on. We love the frontier stove, but so far we have only used it once and we are struggling to justify the space it takes up in the car. When space is so limited, you have to ask yourself whether loving something so large and bulky is enough. I already have something large and bulky that I love and which gives me warmth – and his name is Steve. Maybe the frontier stove will have to go!
Sometimes I look with envy at people with nice warm, comfortable motorhomes or camping trucks to sit, cook and eat in when it’s pouring with rain and blowing a gale outside. But my envy quickly evaporates in the morning, when the sun is shining and the wind has dropped. Their vehicles are not Land Rovers and can’t do what a Defender can do, or go where a Defender can go.
The more time we spend looking at other people’s camping set up, the more we like ours. We love the simplicity of our camp. We love the roof tent (as long as it isn’t windy – have I mentioned that?); it has space, it’s comfortable, it dries quickly, it is made of such heavy-duty canvas that it is dark inside even during the day. The annex that attaches to it is fantastic – it takes longer to set up and pack away, so we don’t use it on short overnight stops, but it transforms the space and feel of the roof tent. It gives us the advantage of being able to undress and dress standing up and in privacy and of having an indoor space to sit and cook in when the weather is very wet or cold.
As I think I’ve mentioned before once or twice, the huge disadvantage of the roof tent is using it in the wind. We anticipated this problem, however, deciding the solution was to carry a ground tent with us. And if the weather was too bad for a ground tent, we could just sleep in the car – which was one of our reasons for keeping the middle row seats. So far we haven’t used the ground tent, and we have slept inside the car only once. When the weather has been really bad, we’ve taken refuge in hotels – and once in a little eco hut on a campsite. This isn’t good for our budget but travel is supposed to offer some pleasures, isn’t it?
As for the middle row seats, we have found that despite our best intentions, the middle row has become a bit of a dumping ground. We use it to store our clothes (in two waterproof tote bags), our coats, pillows, maps and the bread and fruit we buy each day. It’s not ideal and we have wondered whether it makes sense to remove the seats altogether. We are still working on our ideas for this.
We know that our set up is not perfect – and just as we find other people’s decisions about modifications strange, we are sure that people will find some of ours equally strange. For the moment, it is working well enough – with only minor irritations – and it is great in good weather. We seem to go round in circles discussing different ideas and after concluding that the cost outweighs the benefit arrive back where we started – with what we have now.
Spring 2019 – A change of direction
After six months travelling, our thoughts about our set up began to change. We found the challenge of bad weather increasingly difficult as winter progressed. Although sheltering from a real winter in Morocco, we still had to cope with the sudden fall in temperature that came with nightfall, which usually drove us into the heated tent as soon as it was dark. The mornings were cold enough to keep us inside until the sun was well risen. In Morocco it is dark by 7pm in winter, so we found we were spending as much as 13 or 14 hours in the roof tent.
Our time in Morocco brought us into contact with lots of overland travellers and lots of overland travel vehicles. One of the most significant of these encounters for us, was meeting Robert from Germany, who was also travelling in a Defender. Robert had converted his Defender to a camper by installing a pop-up roof and building a seat and cupboards inside. Much like us, his trip to Morocco was part of a test run to see how everything worked. We were really impressed with the job he’d done and with the ease of his pop-up roof, which he could open and close in seconds.
We also met a German couple, Tanja and Ben, travelling with their dog, Jago, in a four-wheel drive VW T3, the interior of which they had also built themselves. They had downsized from a Unimog and told us they were much happier in their VW. We spent a number of evenings talking to them, and other people about travel experiences and discussing set ups that work and things that don’t work. Inevitably, everyone had different ideas about what was best. But the more we talked to people and shared our experiences, the more we started to think we needed to make some changes.
We enjoy harsh environments. We love the cold and we love mountains. We loved the Arctic and very much wanted to go back there. We wanted to go to Canada. We had a set up that was perfect for Africa and for settled sunny weather, but challenging in the cold and impossible in stormy conditions. We could travel to the places we wanted to, but with our set up we would either resort to spending money on hotel rooms, or have a pretty miserable time. While not looking for luxury, we felt that we wanted to be comfortable enough to enjoy travelling in the environments we love. We were tempted by Robert’s pop-up roof but felt the cost was prohibitive. Tanja and Ben had met a young couple in Spain, who were travelling in a Defender and had converted the inside without a pop-up roof. They showed us a couple of pictures of this converted Defender, which we thought looked really interesting. As we were on our way back to Spain, Tanja and Ben gave us the couple’s phone number on the off-chance that we might cross paths.
On returning to Spain we spent two very pleasant days camped by the sea with Leon & Ellen – the young couple Tanja and Ben had told us about. Like us, they had a 300 TDi, which Leon had converted inside. Leon had built cupboards throughout the back of the car that formed a flat sleeping platform. At the back, part of the platform folded away to make a seat over the right hand wheel arch and over the left hand wheel arch was a taller, sloped cupboard with a bamboo work surface and inset sink. The design was similar to Robert’s, but without the pop-up roof, which allowed Robert to build a full height ‘kitchen’ cupboard on the left. But even without the lifting roof, there was enough space and headroom inside for Leon and Ellen to sit and sleep comfortably.
The whole interior was made from varnished birch plywood, and looked and felt almost boat-like. Leon said that he was inspired by videos on YouTube by The Sunnyside. We watched those videos as well, which showed a lot of details about construction. We loved the design and thought that a conversion along similar lines would work really well for us, particularly in conjunction with the roof tent, which we could still use when the weather permitted. And so we made a decision; to take a break from our travels and convert the inside of our Defender.
We were lucky that we had a friend in France with a workshop and tools who agreed to help us. Steve also had family in France with whom we could stay and so we headed for Angers, in the Loire Valley. Our first job was to strip out almost everything we had previously installed. Hardest to say goodbye to was the drawer I had built with my brother, that had served us so well on our trip so far. On taking it out, however, we discovered that because of our leaking back windows, the drawer base was in poor condition and the rails were quite heavily rusted in places. Looking at the bare interior of the car and realising how much work we had to do was daunting and more than once we wondered if we were biting off more than we could chew. But we tackled each job in turn and dealt with each problem as it arose, and slowly things began to take shape.
As part of the project we decided to re-wire our electrical systems. We weren’t happy with a lot of the work that had been done for us previously and we wanted to have access to more power and more constant solar charge, to ensure that we could support the heater and electrical installations if we were camping in cold weather with little sun for more than one night. We invested in a 115 watt solar panel, two 80 Amp/hour AGM batteries and a CTEK 20A off-grid charging system.
We replaced our leaking back windows with ‘gull-wing’ style windows from Front Runner, which have not only stopped the leaks, but opened up the space inside the back. They have given a real ‘inside-out’ feel to the car and transformed the interior, keeping it cool and accessible.
We were under some time pressure in France, as our friends could only accommodate us for a couple of weeks, so we worked long hours to get as much done as we could. We soon had the framework for the cupboards in place and things were really starting to take shape. It was March, and there were times when it was freezing cold and wet, making work difficult and yet it was extremely satisfying to be working in this way, making progress and seeing our new vision come to life.
As you can imagine, it wasn’t all plain sailing. There were setbacks along the way. We had problems fitting the batteries where we wanted them to go, so had to re-think our cupboard design, we made mistakes with our ordering and had to return things and wait for new deliveries, some pieces of wood were so tricky it took two or three attempts to get a piece to fit. The Land Rover resisted our efforts to use spirit levels and set squares, as nothing in the car was square to begin with! And then there were the days we lost to illness and bad weather.
As Easter approached, it was time to move on. The cupboards were all built but not all installed and the electrical work was not finished. We still had to varnish all the wood and make the seat cushions for the back. And we had to renew the under seal to protect the chassis, which had been stripped clean by the Saharan sand.
Our German friends, Constantin & Josi, invited us to spend Easter with their family near Mannheim and from there to stay with them in Bavaria, where we could finish all the work left to do. So we packed all our belongings as best we could into the unfinished car, and drove the 10 hour journey to Eisenberg Pfalz, near Mannheim. Worked stopped over the Easter weekend and we enjoyed a wonderful, relaxing time with our German hosts. We went on Easter Egg hunts with the children, rode through woodland on electric trikes, cooked whole trout on the barbeque in the garden in beautiful weather and ate a lot of chocolate!
In Bavaria work progressed at a slower pace, as we took some time out to spend with Josi, Constantin and the children. Although our first week there was warm and sunny, the snow returned in early May and made work challenging. When weather permitted, we were back to work and after nearly a month in Germany, we had finally finished and were packed and ready to be on the road again.
It’s been a month since we left Bavaria and we love our new set up. Of course, it isn’t perfect; nothing is. But it gives us the comfort and flexibility we were looking for. We have slept warm and comfortable in snow in Austria, in a rainy church car park in the centre of Florence, been protected from wind in the mountains above Lake Garda and accommodated visiting family in Croatia in what can now be the ‘guest room’.
We are very grateful to Therese, Serge & Beatrice for their hospitality while we were in France, and to Serge for the use of his workshop. Also to Andreas & Doris for such a lovely Easter and especially to Josi & Constantin for sharing their home (and address!) with us for all their help, food and a very enjoyable stay in Bavaria. We are also grateful to Robert, Tanya & Ben for their help and advice, and to Leon for inspiration, lots of really useful photos and for patiently answering my endless questions.
The Sunnyside – https://www.thesunnyside.de/
Tanja & Ben – https://tour-de-world.com/
Leon & Ellen – https://off-the-beaten-track.jimdofree.com
Robert – https://vdue.jimdo.com