‘We felt like Thelma and Louise’: Inside the liberating world of female campervan travel.
Sophie Roberts has never been afraid of branching out on her own.
Back in 2012, she was living in London, pursuing a high-flying career at a tech start-up. She was successful, but restless.
By December, she’d handed in her notice, ready to chase her dream of becoming an adventure athlete. Within 18 months, Sophie was breaking records.
She became the first and only person to have climbed the highest mountains in the eight Alpine countries – Austria, France, Germany, Italy, Liechtenstein, Monaco, Slovenia and Switzerland – cycling between each one.
“Deciding to forge a new trail where there is no set path was one of the toughest decisions of my life,” says Sophie, “But it’s led me to where I am today.”
Since then, the 37-year-old Brit has completed a number of physically demanding challenges – from racing her bike coast-to-coast across the USA to completing 100 km ultramarathons.
Today, she spends her time travelling solo around the UK and Europe in her custom-converted VW Crafter van, working as a full-time adventure athlete, blogger and mindset coach.
What’s the appeal of travelling by campervan?
Sophie isn’t the only woman who has taken to life on the road. Increasingly, more women are choosing to travel alone in vans.
Facebook communities, like Solo Women Campers Meetups and Women with Campervans are growing, with thousands of members joining each year.
“I always wanted a van since I was a child,” explains Sophie. “I never went camping with my parents when I was younger, but I remember driving around seeing campervans and thinking, that’s such a cool way to live.”
As Sophie’s adventurous lifestyle has developed – from climbing Mont Blanc to cycling from London to Paris nearly 10 times – buying a van seemed increasingly appealing.
How did she create her ideal campervan?
In August 2019, Sophie bought a medium wheelbase VW Crafter and commissioned the team at Van Life Builds to convert the plain white van into her dream home-on-wheels.
“I did a lot of research. I wanted to be able to stand up inside, have a bed that’s always up, plus fit my bike in the back.”
By January 2020, Sophie’s van was ready for the road, complete with a kitchen, heated outdoor shower, roof terrace and a huge skylight over the double bed.
“I’ll often lie in bed and just look at the stars. I can also climb through onto the terrace with my tea in the morning and watch the sunrise.”
Sophie decided to spend the summer travelling around Europe in her van, but fate had other plans. Six weeks later, the UK went into its first COVID lockdown and Sophie was forced to return from France and suspend her travel plans.
A year later, once the world had begun to reopen, she moved into her van full-time and began travelling across the UK, while working remotely. Since then, Sophie’s van – which she’s nicknamed OLLI after her motto ‘One Life, Live It’ – has taken her from northern Scotland to France and the Austrian Alps.
“I wanted to do a lot more purposeful, slow travel,” she explains. “We all know we should slow down and take time to be more present. When you’re living in a van, it forces you to do that; you don’t want to rush onto the next place. You can just let the day unfold and live closer to nature.”
What are the challenges of living in a van?
There’s a certain vulnerability about being a solo female traveller in a van, explains Sophie. “I don’t really like being alone in the dark. I find it scary if I’m parked in a remote place where there’s no phone reception. So I tend to park in places where there are people around.”
On top of this, Sophie feels that many aspiring van-lifers underestimate the amount of work that goes into simple day-to-day tasks.
“Living in a small space means that everything needs to be put away. I don’t have a toilet in my van, so I always have to take that into consideration. I constantly need to think about refilling water, food and fuel – the stuff that when you live in a house, you just take for granted.”
But the benefits certainly outweigh the challenges – especially when she’s able to travel in convoy with friends.
One of Sophie’s most memorable trips was to Scotland’s Outer Hebrides islands with a friend who bought a van in lockdown.
“We felt like Thelma and Louise, just two wild women swimming in rivers, climbing mountains at sunrise, making fires. Every night, we’d eat dinner outside, drink wine and spot shooting stars. It’s such an incredible way to travel.”
What tips would she give to other women interested in solo van life?
“Before you buy your own van, rent one and test it out,” says Sophie. “It’s a great way to work out what you’d like your dream van to be.”
Indie Campers, Roadsurfer and Goboony are among the most popular campervan rental websites in Europe, with bases in France, Spain, Portugal and Italy.
She also recommends starting a trip slowly. “For the first few nights, I’ll book myself into a campsite. Even if you already have a shower and access to water, it’s nice to ease yourself in and know you’re safe.”
Home comforts are important too. “Just because you’re camping in your van doesn’t mean you can’t make it amazing. I prefer my van-bed to my bed at home; it’s so comfy.”
When it comes to finding somewhere to park up, Sophie always chooses places with mobile phone reception, in case of an emergency. She often uses Park For The Night, a community-led app which lists campervan-friendly parking spaces across Europe.
Living in a van helps you ‘find out who you are’
This summer, she plans to either journey to the Lofoten Islands in Norway’s Arctic Circle or the warmer climes of France and Italy.
However, she points out that living in a van is more than just travelling to new places. “As a woman, it’s an amazing way to express yourself and find out who you are.”
While on the road, she’ll continue to work on TrailBlazers, a youth empowerment programme to help build confidence in teenage girls through adventure and active challenges. Living in a van is just one way Sophie continues to practise what she preaches.
“I wanted to be someone who was confident and brave in life. I started challenging myself to find the answers to those things,” Sophie says.
“Building this internal sense of self-reliance helped me see that I could achieve so much more than I thought. No one can ever take that away from you.
“To go and live your life, and be free to explore the world is quite an amazing thing.”
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