VW T5 Campervan and Sea Kayaking & Cycling Pt1

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This seems to be a very popular story but there is an important Part 2.

What's more, in Sept 2012 I updated it with long-term observations. 

It looks like the perfect sea kayaker’s vehicle. 

A great base for several days away from home, with no B&Bs to pay and the freedom to come and go as you please.  The reality is slightly different.

It’s almost a year since we bought our VW T5 Campervan, so now is a good time to think through some of the good and bad points of using it for sea kayaking.  [edit - she now has a name, "Nelly".]
Firstly, the conversion. We looked at several models but settled on one by Jerba Campervans, who’re based just outside Edinburgh in North Berwick. 

Family owned, Simon Poole has been superb to deal with, and deal with him we have had to do. 

Because as this tale (especially the next episode) will reveal, we have had more than our share of problems. Poor Simon, he now dreads opening e-mails from me.

I'll start by explaining what we bought and why.

It’s a Cromarty conversion, based on a long wheelbase VW Transporter T5. Customers first specify the van model they want, and Jerba go and buy it. If you decide you want air conditioning (we didn’t - mistake) [edit - not necessarily.  Two trips to France and Italy and we haven't missed the air con]  or rear parking sensors (we did - great idea) then this is the stage to do it.  

[edit - by 2011 our parking sensors failed. My local garage tells me water frequently gets into the sensor and causes a short circuit. They start working again once they've dried out after several weeks somewhere hot].

Some VW side windows leak. It’s a known fault, and ours was no different. But who should fix it under warranty?  

In theory, it should be able to be fixed by any VW Van Specialist under warranty. But Howco in Inverness simply did not want to know. 

So I had to drive it to Edinburgh Van Centre, the company which supplied the van to Jerba and between whom there is a long standing relationship. Simple enough, but that’s a six hour return trip.

This should be the first point of concern for anyone having a conversion. Does the conversion alter anything in the VW Warranty? And if it does, who’ll fix it should anything go wrong? Its seems obvious now, but it never crossed my mind at the start.

After reading this, Simon Poole subsequently wrote the following and asked me to add it:

"Our conversion doesn't affect the VW warranty and in fact in the last few weeks we have been approved by VW as one of their official suppliers of their T5 Motorhome based vehicle (only 5 other UK converters have this - Bilbo's, Autosleeper, Reimo, Murvi and Torbay. All based down south). It's been a long road to gain this, but it now means that we are recognised as a leading converter and have started appearing in the motorhome press!"

"The Motorhome spec vehicle is basically a T5 with quite a few bells and whistles - colour coded bumpers and mirrors, upgraded radio, cab comfort items including carpets, extra vents, storage pockets etc etc. It's not a base spec that suits everyone as many folk are happy without colour coding and carpets!"

Make no mistake, the Jerba conversion is superb. 

Spanish Pyrenees
It makes fantastic use of space, with lots of well placed cupboards, room under the triple rear seat for storage, and an easily converted, large rear bed.

We nearly bought the short wheelbase, but we’re relieved we didn’t. That extra 40cm in front of the rear wheel arch adds very useful space, and means one person can do things in the van while the other is in bed.

It adds to the price, but does not make it any more difficult to drive. Except when parking in supermarkets, but then with kayaks on the roof, you have to take care there anyway. It also adds nothing to the fuel consumption figures, officially at least.

Ah yes, fuel consumption. Under 30 mpg is normal. We bought the 2.5L engine, on the advice of a builder friend who advised the 190 lacked pull.  I’m not sure it was a wise move, but anyway, the fuel figures are officially similar.

[edit - longer term the fuel consumption hovers around 32mpg - slightly more on long runs - but we rarely drive Nelly over 60mph]

Naively we wondered whether this might be the only vehicle we’d need. 

But living in the Scottish Highlands, where a trip to the nearest supermarket is 50+ miles, we quickly realised this was not an economic option.

It tends to sit around over winter, and that feels like a waste of tax and insurance, but it’s too expensive to use as a run-around. We haven't really come to terms with this yet.  

[edit: we didn't use Nelly at all one very a cold winter and the battery went flat. There is a battery health indicator console, so it's worth monitoring this and occasionally taking the van for a spin]

However, the van comes into its own on 'sporting' occasions; when we’re heading out kayaking or road biking and need a base to work from.

It’s fantastic when we want an early start on the day. 

We can head out the previous evening to launch site and go from there. 

[Edit: when taking part in triathlons or cycling Sportives, Nelly has been a superb companion]

It has quickly become our holiday home - on wheels. It doesn’t feel at all like camping, except when we have to go to the toilet. 

[edit - A wide mouthed plastic tub and a roll of biodegradable bin bags are our alternatives, plus some hand sanitiser. It's not elegant but in extremis, it works]

While filming the DVDs, Sea Kayak with Gordon Brown, it was our mobile production base. 

Immediately we finished filming that, we were off to the Western Isles for three weeks kayaking and filming Patrick & Mick's attempt to kayak to the Faroes.  

Once again, it was a superb base. I thought we’d eat out, but we ended up eating in the van almost every night. [edit - amazingly this also happened when in France and Italy.  Eating in the van is so convenient].  

Sometimes we stayed in campsites, other times we camped wild. It was summer, so the wet kit easily dried outside before we went to bed.

With the awning up, we had far more space than we needed. 

As far as I can see, for two people the main advantage of the awning is that it reserves your spot on a campsite. 

If you've paid for a couple of nights, but head off kayaking during the day, it's not great to discover someone has nipped into 'your' spot while you were away. 

Carrying the awning take up a lot of luggage space, but it is useful in that regard.  It also serves as an 'air-lock' for midges! Keep a coil burning in here and they won't get near the van.

[edit - we found we had too much space and used the awning less and less because it took up too much room in the van. So we sold it on e-bay and made our own removable 'porch' and midge-proof coverings for windows.]

What made this such a comfortable base, even in hot weather, is the pop-up roof. 

Hinged at the rear, the raised roof has a window in the front and midge netting on the sides. With the roof down, we’ve a snug space. 

With the roof up, two people can easily stand and move around, and with the netting uncovered, a cooling breeze can blow through the van.

We developed a 'system' involving plastic stacking crates. we kept our clothes in these, and our kayaking kit in tough, waterproof garden crates. The lids could be fastened onto these, and we stored them outside the van wherever we stopped.

One problem. Our roof collapsed!  The story of that epic, and how Simon at Jerba sorted our problem without us having to do a thing, is in Part 2, with a long term review from Sept 2012 here.

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Solent Sea kayak said...

Still dream of a camper. VW is out of our price range at present however there is a Mazda Bongo specialist in Southampton and I've seen some very tidy 'grey imports' with nice conversions at a sensible price. Might be a good starting point with a view to moving up to a VW in a few years time.

Still very envious of my parents 'H' reg high top VW. Dad's done extensive alterations and it runs superbly now with all the right racks, j bars and other extras to load up with bikes, sea kayaks, mountaineering kit. A real mobile adventure centre for them :-)

Unknown said...

Absolutely stunning! Love all the photos ... thanks for sharing your trip with us.

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Anonymous said...


An interesting read and unexpected to hear you are a friend of Mick B. I have known him since his slalom days!

A quick question about the roo rack; how does it fit on the pop-up roof. Hope to go to the Masters Games in Turin next year.....in the process of buying a VW, but still need a slalom kayak!

Kind regards,

Mike R

Simon Willis said...

Hi Mike

There's more about the roof and rack in the second part of the tale, and I've been promising to write an update.


The roof is now a specially strengthened one from Reimo (as you'll read in part 2). It's designed to take two metal strips (VW own) into which a roof rack can be slotted.

These were attached by Jerba - I'm sure Simon Poole would tell you exactly what fittings are needed. Actually Geoff at Karitek would know as he designed his rack to slot into them.

The Karitek came with a bracket which slides down this metal strip to a suitable point, then clamps tight with two bolts.

We've had a couple of minor issues (to be expected) with the rack, but otherwise it is going strong.

I've only spoken to Mick on the phone recently - before last year's Shetland attempt - so we're not bosom buddies, but we get on right enough.

Hope that's helpful. E-mail me if you want more (photos?). I'm simonDOTwillisATmeDOTcom

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the details Simon. We hope to collect our VW next weekend. Looking forward to lots of adventures.

Following the comments above. A friend has a Bongo and is very happy with it. There a couple of downsides; they are a little thirsty and mostly automatic. That said, the cash you save not buying a VW funds the extra fuel.

Have fun,


Anonymous said...


The VW has arrived and so far so good. Managed to fit a tow-bar, next mission is the roof-rack. I have been in touch with Kari-Tek and it looks like that is the way to go.

Hope the kayaking is going well.

Thanks agina for your tip.


Simon Willis said...

Hi Mike

I'm rather envious of your shiny, new VW!

Geoff at KariTek will sort you out and the after-sales is excellent.

Best wishes

Anonymous said...

Driving with the T5 is excellent, but for non-sun&fun, specially windy camping the T5 leaves an impression of "female friendly", but nevertheless insufficient toy: no muscles needed anymore to open the roof, everything's nicely 'interior designed' to please the wives - but the rain drops are squeezing in after half an hour, the roof can't be closed when the wind gets in (windows must be left opened during closing), my kids ruined the cupboard doors after only one day - nothing of that had happened with the T4 that I used before.
You might happily slumber in the T5 down in southern France during summer time under the stars of a warm and dry night sky. But beware of sudden summer tempests or windy atlantic or Scandinavian coasts: the T5 is definitively not up to it. Bet a fortune your wife will then demand to be brought to the nearest hotel - not the reason you bought that expensive car!
A.K., Switzerland (camper since 40 years, with two superb T2, one "heavy duty" T4 and now a T5 as a nice toy to show off on motorways...)

Simon Willis said...

I'm sorry A.K. Switzerland but I couldn't disagree more.

Did you see where we live and where we use it?

Scotland's north west coast. Many of the photos are from the Outer Hebs. We've just come back from Orkney.

The T5 has been fantastic throughout and completely weatherproof.

Sounds like you've had a bad experience but you can't generalise from that. Ours has been entirely positive.

Oh - and I met my wife while on a 3wk exped in Alaska tackling unclimbed peaks where we all camped on a glacier. She hates posh hotels.


Simon Willis said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

How did you make the midge netting, in particular securing it to your window frames, tried Velcro but it's start started peeling

Simon Willis said...

Hi -

take a look at the comments in the subsequent post here:

Liz sewed flexible magnetic strips into the netting - there are some links there to the magnetic strips we used - and these go outside the van. The only work on three sides (glass is the fourth) but seem to work fine.

The fixings for door netting are not very impressive! We just have some bulldog-type clips which hold it in place at the top, then the sheer quantity of it fills out the sides - it's not pulled tight. That said, we've rarely used (never in Scotland) this because we get enough air flow through from the pop-up roof.

Hope that's useful.


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