NEW VW T5 Campervan for Sea Kayaking & Cycling - Long Term

The day I collected Nelly in Nov 2008
We bought our T5 Campervan in 2008 from Jerba Campervans, a family company based in North Berwick.  Because she's big and grey, not unlike an elephant, we christened her "Nelly".

My first story on her use as a sea kayaking vehicle has been among the most popular on my blog.

Last month I updated the original entry with some long-term thoughts, but this is more comprehensive, including tips and tricks we've learnt in the last few years.  It also takes in cycling as well as paddling.

Just as with backpacking, choosing a campervan involves a trade off between comfort during the day and comfort during the night.

Day time living
A lightly packed rucksack which is easy to carry is equivalent to a small van that's easy to drive.

A heavy rucksack, like a big campervan, may be cumbersome during the day but it can carry far more creature comforts to give you a cozy time once you reach camp.

We are definitely on the lightweight side of this equation.

We don't want a satellite TV, a shower or even a toilet.  (Since you ask, a wide mouth tub and a roll of biodegradable bin bags plus hand sanitiser - not elegant but effective).

We manage just fine with our T5, although we are pleased we bought the long wheelbase.

Night time - a  BIG comfy bed
It costs more on the CalMac ferries, but that extra 40cm makes a huge difference when you're on a French campsite, or even Scottish sea shore, for a few days.

Our sea kayaks are carried on a KariTek rack.

Although we've had a couple of problems, one of which necessitated a trip to their Ayreshire base to fix, we've been happy with the way it has worked and with the service from Geoff and Anne.

The roof bars stay on Nelly for most of the year and I remove the 'cradle' that slides along them when we're not paddling.  On longer journeys without kayaks the roof bars come off too.  It's all very simple to do.

By contrast, once the Fiamma Carry Bike  carrier was fitted, it stays fitted!  Having read that it was a devil to fit, I bought it from Jerba who agreed to fit it for no extra cost.

It's the two-bike version (expandable to 4) and carries its load well above the rear lights.

I prefer the Fiamma rack because it has two legs that sit above the rear bumper and take some of the weight, whereas VWs own rack puts all the weight on the top and sides of the rear door.

The rack makes the door heavier and, in cold low-pressure weather, the gas struts don't have enough strength to hold the rear door up and open.

With the bikes fitted, you can still open the rear door (to turn on the gas for example) but it's much heavier.  (A different Simon has provided a solution with this - see the comments below).  Also the bikes collide with any kayaks on the roof.

On longer journeys we carry our expensive Specialized carbon frame road bikes inside the van.  Partly that's for security, but mainly it's to improve fuel consumption.

When on the rear carrier, some of the bike is exposed to the air flow, creating drag.  It's probably not great for the bikes either.

The extra straps aren't on in this shot
With this in mind, and to keep them clean, we always cover them with a Fiamma Bike Cover  and add a big red-and-white Plastic Signal Board, a legal requirement in many countries.

The cover has two long bungee cords running through the hem, and while it's slightly tricky to fit, it can be done by one person.

It flaps around so much in the wind, our first version ripped itself apart, the bungees pulling out from the hem into which they were sewn.

The (free) replacement I reinforced with tape at stress points and when I cover the bikes I add additional straps to cinch it all down tight (not in the photo).  I also lock the bikes to the carrier.

To the casual observer, or opportunist thief, we look like any other campervan carrying a couple of bikes on which we can potter around the nearest town.

Initially we bought a free-standing awning (as you can read in Pt1). It's takes up a lot of space, but it's essential if more than two people intend to camp.  It's also useful for reserving your place on campsites without clearly defined pitches when you drive somewhere for the day.  We discovered we didn't use the awning so we sold it on eBay.

Extra guys divert rain during rain storms
After two trips to France and Italy, we learnt it's essential to be able to create shade outside the van.

We looked at roll-out awnings, but these all seemed rather flimsy and might have interfered with our pop-up roof.  

So Liz made our own awning with some heavy-duty waterproof fabric from Pennine Outdoor, and I bought some telescopic poles and guy lines.  

Our 'porch' fixes to the roof using the channel that was fitted to attach the old awning.

Not only does this provide shade when we're trying to escape from the sun, it also provides shelter when the heavens open.  It's very useful to be able to leave the side door open and not have the rain come bouncing in.

A table, large and high enough to eat from, and two chairs are also very useful for extended trips to warm places. 

We were in the French Pyrenees for roughly five weeks in 2012, using Nelly as a base from which to cycle some of the Classic Cols of the Tour de France.  

We only felt settled on a campsite once the awning was up and the table and chairs were out.

For Scottish use, Liz bought some midge netting (smaller weave than mosquito netting) and sewed some flexible magnetic strips into the hem.  

These allow us to have both side windows open and remain midge-proof.  

A large midge-proof curtain can be clipped to the side door so we can keep this open too in very hot weather.

The pop-up roof is absolutely essential when using the van for any longer than a couple of days.  Not only do you have the space to move around, you can configure the side and front panels to get air-flow through the van.  Jerba automatically replace the mosquito netting in the side panels with midge netting.

Nelly getting 4 new tyres
Initially we had serious problems carrying sea kayaks on this pop-up roof (it collapsed!) but Simon Poole at Jerba did a superb job of liaising with Remo, securing us a brand new reinforced roof.  

In all honesty, I would not buy a pop-up roof to carry sea kayaks without speaking first to Simon because, perhaps inadvertently, he has made himself the UK expert on this!

A full set of Michelin tyres lasted 24,000 miles which I thought was very good.  Their replacements cost £502 +VAT, which is not so good.

I could have bought cheaper, but there have been many times on wet mountain roads I gave thanks for buying good tyres.

So, a few final quick tips...

* A short, elastic clothes line, stretched between two points inside the front of the van, is great for drying clothes overnight when there's a risk of dew outside.

* A cigarette lighter-style power point fitted near the rear of the vehicle allows you to charge your phone overnight and still keep it close enough to use as an alarm clock.

* For single overnights, carry the right amount of water in a plastic container, not the van's belly tank because you'll probably fill it with more than you need, carrying extra weight and cutting your fuel consumption.


* The rear parking sensors failed after a year or so, and my local garage tells me this happens when water gets in.  When they dry out in the summer heat, they start working again.

* The drain point for the water tank sticks down under the van and I snapped it off driving on a rough farm track - Simon sent me a replacement.  

* Otherwise there have been very, very few long term issues.

Nelly is definitely part of our family.


Stewart G. said...

Very enjoyable post! We rented a 2010 Camper in Southern France last summer for a three week jaunt through Cinque Terre and Provence. Indeed an awning would have been nice! And yes, until the table and chairs are set up the evening hasn't begun. The van is great squeezing into the last campsite when you arrive late, but all the 1,9m parking lots on the coast made parking. Real drag! I guess once you know the drill you plan accordingly. The VW Campervans aren't sold in Canada but overall loved the T5. Cheers! @stewthebassman

Simon Willis said...

Hi Stewart

Thanks for the comment. Yes, parking can be tricky!


Apollo Camper said...

Nelly looks fantastic! Your camping adventures are truly memorable despite the major issues you have with that campervan. Thanks for sharing.

Simon Willis said...

Thanks Apollo Camper - once the roof was sorted out we've had some great times.

As I write we've been living in her for a week while we're shooting a new sea kayak DVD on the Isle of Skye. So nice to have your own bed each evening.


Shane said...

Hi Simon,

thanks for an excellent blog. Very helpful, as we are going to visit Simon with the idea of purchasing a Sanna. One question: we live in the south. Is it sensible buying from a converter quite so far away?

If you have any further suggestions, could you please add them soon, as they will all count toward what we end up with!

All the best, Shane

Simon Willis said...

Hi Shane

Thanks for the kind comments. I've discussed your question with Liz and here's our considered reply.

If it hadn't been for the roof problem - probably a one-off specific to carrying our sea kayaks - then we'd (probably) have had no need to go back to Jerba.

When we have been back for other (minor) reasons we've incorporated the trip with a visit south so it hasn't been out of our way. If you occasionally plan to visit Scotland, and you really should ;-), then there's no problem at all.

However, any new vehicle can have minor problems - effectively automotive 'snagging'. Simon at Jerba insists all VW garages should honour the warranty and not quibble. I'd want to make absolutely sure for myself that the garage won't turn to you and say, "that's not a VW warranty issue, that's a Jerba warranty issue".

So I'd take Jerba's a brochure, or printed internet pages, into whichever local garage you would use for servicing and warranty work. They should help because they'll want your servicing business. Confirm in advance that they will honour all aspects of the Jerba and VW warranty without quibbling.

As you can tell from the blog we really love Nelly. I used her alone last weekend for a cycling event and she's the best base camp I could have. Earlier this year we were away for seven weeks in Italy and France, and felt so much more free than in a big white box.

Jerba's conversion design is excellent and has been further improved since we bought ours (I know because friends recently bought one). Just check where you'd go and what you'd do if you have problems with van bits, conversion bits, and the bits which overlap the two.

Come back to me if you think I might be of any further help.

All the best

Unknown said...

Hi Simon we have a camper van with a reimo roof and were just wondering if you could kindly put us in touch with someone from Reimo who could confirm the max weight their standard elevating roof can hold?

Simon Willis said...

Tina-we didn't 't deal with Reimo. Simon at Jerba did it all for us - good guy


Anonymous said...

Simon, what method do you use to fill your water tanks up with? Clean drinking hose plus attachemnts or something else?

Simon Willis said...

Water filling - now there's a topic!

I suspect Jerba have changed the fittings since ours because frankly it isn't great. There's only a hosepipe attachment at the rear. So we have three techniques:

1. At home we fill with a garden hose directly from the tap. We don't do this very often because we don't like driving around with a great weight of water - it seems to be a waste of fuel. We do it mainly when we're flushing the tank with milton to sterilise it each spring.

2. We carry a short (2m) length of hose pipe and various adapters so when we reach a campsite we can usually find a way of backing up to their tap and connecting it to our van.

3. On short trips we increasingly use a big plastic jerry can which we keep behind the driver seat. It has a tap so we can pour directly from this. However, we can also fill the main tank from this (so we know exactly how much we're filling (the measuring gauge has broken on the van)

We balance the jerry can on the bike rack, connect our 2m hose and it soon empties into the van itself. Finally, this is a back-up when wild camping and the only place to draw water is somewhere to which we cannot connect a hose.

Hope that's useful!


Anonymous said...

Yes, thank you, picking up a new camper next April for touring around the west coast, I'm near to Inverness. A lot to think about but roll on the days & nights on the west chilling out and doing a wee bit of fishing from the rocks

Sue Corr said...

Hi Simon
|Can you tell me where you bought the flexible magnetic tape from...I can only seem to find self adhesive..brilliant idea by the way thank you

Simon Willis said...

HI Sue

I've checked with Liz and we can't remember where we got them from - it would have been online but despite searching our emails I can't find a record.

This stuff comes in self-adhesive and plain so I think it would do the trick.

There's also this

If I suddenly remember I'll post a follow-up, but I hope that helps for now.


Unknown said...


I too have a T5 camper and enjoy many adventures in it. I found your article useful and took a few ideas away so thought I would help you out with a little tip of my own.

You mention the fact that the gas struts do not cope well with the bike rack weight so your tailgate use is limited as a result. I have replaced mine with the higher load rated California gas struts at a cost of about £80 and this gets round the problem. As you may know, the California is designed with a folding table and chairs stored within the rear tailgate adding lots of weight. The California gas struts are uprated to handle this extra weight which allows them to cope admirably with a bike rack; our tailgate stays up even with bikes loaded onto the rack.

Hope this helps, thanks for the tips in your article.

Cheers Simon

Simon Willis said...

Thank you Simon!

Currently I use wooden stick to keep the tailgate up in winter - your solution is far better!


Unknown said...

Hi Simon,
Thanks for the interesting blog, some time ago now. But still useful for those of us now getting a campervan conversation. We are also getting a Karitek roof rack for 2 kayaks.I was just wondering if you had any issues with the front pop-uo, in that I would image there will be a lot of windage on them and will tend to pull the roof up, I would have thought? Did you tie down the bows to the front bumper? Did you find a max speed limit that was safe?

Thanks for your thoughts.
Best wishes

Simon Willis said...

Hi Mike

Glad you find it helpful.

Surprisingly, the wind gets under the pop up roof less when the kayaks are on. I've noticed on a windy day, side wind particularly, the front of the roof lifts slightly, although the internal straps hold it down.

I think the weight of the kayaks helps keep it down.

Geoff Turner of KariTek is a great believer in not having the front of the kayaks tied down. His concern is that if a cord comes loose it can wrap around a wheel and pull everything off. Fair point.

However, I do tied down the fronts on any journey where I'm going to go over 50mph. So popping down to Loch Sunart - no. Anything else, yes.

I screw in the VW tow hitch thingie, use a climbing sling to raise the attachment point off the bumper, and then hold everything together with three screw gate carabiners and a length of climbing line.

It all seems pretty secure but I don't drive Nellie fast, even without the kayaks. We keep her to 50-60mph, only going 70mph if we're in a rush.

Hope that helps and feel free to ask anything else.