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Expert tips for exploring the UK by campervan this winter

Don’t save all the fun for summer: follow in the footsteps of savvy UK travellers and hit the road in a campervan this winter to embrace the elements, cosy up around the campfire and beat the crowds at some of the country’s most beautiful destinations.

Published 29 Jan 2022, 06:00 GMT, Updated 31 Jan 2022, 09:21 GMT
One of the obvious attractions of off-season camper exploration is that you can hit the tourist ...

One of the obvious attractions of off-season camper exploration is that you can hit the tourist hotspots, minus the hoards.

Photograph by Alamy

“There’s something very special about setting out from a warm van in the depths of winter to explore beautiful, empty places,” says Martin Dorey. “When I’m suited and booted and ready to face a bike ride through the forest or a walk along snowy ridges, I’m truly in love with winter camping.” Having written seven books on campervan travel, Martin has spent the past few years travelling the backroads of the UK and France in his camper for his Take The Slow Road series. “Knowing that my little cocoon on wheels will be waiting when I’m cold and wet, muddy or snow blind is the reassurance I need to set off,” he says. “It’s even better when I’m warm and dry again and the kettle is whistling.”

One of the obvious attractions of off-season camper exploration — besides the hygge-heavy comforts of cosying up in a well-heated van — is that you can hit the tourist hotspots, minus the hoards. Out-of-season destinations such as Cornwall, the Cotswolds and the Lake District are free from bumper-to-bumper traffic and campsites don’t need to be booked months in advance. And what’s more, all those postcard-perfect beaches, lakes and rolling hills are practically deserted.

“In winter, the Lake District is relatively quiet, and walkers have the hills to themselves,” says Martin. “There are great campsites at Coniston and in Keswick that are open all year. For evening entertainment, I recommend the climbing wall in Kendall.”

Meanwhile in Cornwall, the winter swells attract a few hardcore surfers but none of the crowds the county has seen in recent summers. “St Ives has a fantastic campsite — Ayr Holiday Park — that’s open all year and plays Pirate FM in its heated shower room,” says Martin. “You can check the waves at Porthmeor with nothing more than a peek out of the van window in the morning, too. Add to that good restaurants, art galleries and pubs and you could do a lot worse!”

Winter bookings are up

Travellers are getting wise to winter’s opportunities. With international travel remaining uncertain, hitting the open road without leaving the country is increasingly appealing, and the numbers speak for themselves. “Bookings for own-fleet rentals from the Edinburgh centre are up 570% for the period November to February this year compared to last,” says Francisco Pereira from Indie Campers. “London bookings are up 107%.

Read more: Ever thought about converting a van into a campervan? Here's how

“Winter is actually a great time to take a road trip across the UK and Europe; less crowded, it offers a chance to see nature at its finest, from the changing of leaves to the Northern Lights,” continues Francisco. “Even better, rental is often cheaper with greater availability, too.” Comparing the costs, seven nights’ van rental from Indie Campers’ Edinburgh centre in January starts at £416, while August is £1,078. 

Campsite booking outfit Pitchup has also seen a sharp uptick in winter bookings — 273% more spots were booked for 2021/22 than the same period in 2020/21; 41% more than 2019/20. Its most popular spot overall for campervan bookings in 2021 was Coalbeck Caravan Park in a secluded corner of Keswick with a neighbouring spa hotel (handy for a sauna and steam), and spectacular views of Cumbria’s lakes. Other top-booked winter spots include Worcestershire, Shrewsbury and West Cornwall.

Active pursuits rule

Walking, hiking, biking, wild swimming and skiing: active pursuits and campervan travel go hand in hand.

“I did my first snowboarding trip in the van in early 2019, moments before Europe went into meltdown. It’s a great way to hit the slopes without the massive expense,” says Martin Dorey. “Cairngorm Mountain Ski Area recently opened up to overnighting motorhomes, so you can be right there when the snow falls.

“Then there’s the 7Stanes: world-class mountain biking centres in the Scottish Borders. Some of them, like my favourite at Kirroughtree, allow overnight van stays after a hard day riding challenging trails. They have a cafe and showers, too – perfect to hose down and fuel up on calories.”

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Cool Camping, ever adept at spotting a trend, launched its campervan hire section in winter 2020, increasing its inventory in 2021 and 2022 to match rising demand. “People continue to look to the countryside for their holidays and make the most of the flexibility that travelling by campervan provides,” says James Warner Smith, editor of the imprint. “And a campervan supplies a dry base for your outdoor activities. It transports your kitchen to the base of a mountain, for example, so you can enjoy a bowl of soup straight after your hike, and it means you always have a change of clothes to hand whatever the weather throws at you.”

The top off-season spots

While Scotland’s N500 may have been this summer’s go-to route, Francisco from Indie Campers says the country has broad scope for campervan travel. “This itinerary taking in Edinburgh, The Trossachs national park, Fort William, Inverness and the Cairngorms, for example, is a fantastic winter trip — including options to take to the piste in the Cairngorms and join in with Edinburgh’s New Year Hogmanay celebrations.” 

For something wild but rewarding, Cool Camping recommends crossing Snowdonia, starting in the pretty walled north coast town of Conwy (make sure to visit the castle), perhaps taking in Llandudno and the Great Orme, before following the rough route of the A470 to Dolgellau and across to Barmouth on the west coast. “Detour via the A4086 to take in views of Snowdon and visit the pretty town of Beddgelert (and its campsite, which is open all year round),” says James. “Or stay on the main route to see the gorge of Ffos Anoddun in full winter flow and tour the former slate mines around Blaenau Ffestiniog.”

Read more: Experts share their top tips for exploring the UK by campervan in summer

Over in the UK’s most easterly point, the North Norfolk Coast is made for winter wandering. “It’s arguably at its best at this time of year, with ribbons of migrating geese and an abundance of salt marsh wildlife,” says James. He recommends taking sheltered walks along coastal paths around Holkham Bay woods and Holme-next-the-Sea and, if you time it right, you’ll be on hand for the festive events held at the region’s numerous country estates. And the best stretch of coast road? “The Norfolk Coast AONB between Hunstanton and Mundesley (the A149). Must-stop campsites here in winter include Deepdale Backpackers and Norfolk Brickyard.”

As in summer, coastal locations remain popular. “Beach car parks are empty, and you can get a surfside premium view and enjoy the drama of a stormy sea,” says Daniel Start who founded Wild Things Publishing back in 2011, producing guidebooks “to get people outdoors, having amazing adventures”. Author of various books on wild swimming, walking and back country exploration across the UK and France, Daniel notes the southwest as a perennial winter favourite with campers. “But upland areas such as the Brecon Beacons are also popular for overnights, with easy access from the M4 and some great high-level parking areas with autumn woodlands and icy waterfalls to visit.”

Yescapa, a peer-to-peer motorhome and campervan hire company suggests hitting the Yorkshire Coast for wonderful wildlife and dark skies. “Stretching over 90 miles from Staithes in the north to Spurn Point in the south, Yorkshire’s Coast is ideal for off-season campervan travel,” Joseph Thomson, Yescapa’s UK Country Manager. “The North York Moors National Park (NYMNP) was awarded International Dark Skies Reserve Status in 2020, and in its darkest areas you can spy up to 2,000 stars at a time. And the new coastal road trip route , ‘Route YC’, has six adventure-filled routes focused on suggestions for hiking, biking, sailing and more, with towns and beaches to stop off in.

Yescapa rents six-berth John's Coachbuilt motorhome (Pro) from Sheffield: £1,237 for seven days including breakdown cover, two insured drivers and mileage (62 miles per day).

What to rent and what to buy

Unsurprisingly, compact, modern campervans are the best bid for winter travels. These types of vehicles are Cool Camping’s most popular hire vehicle in winter. “There’s an increased interest in our more modern campervans and motorhomes at this time of year, as people spend more time inside their vehicles and focus on reliable heating and mod cons over the style of a classic 1960s VW,” says James. “They provide warmth and comfort while also being suited to first-time campervan drivers on the UK’s narrow roads.”

But renting, it seems for many, doesn’t go far enough; the trend for campervan conversion knows no bounds. “We know of many readers who have acquired campervans in the past 18 months, and many are planning to use them over winter,” says Wild Things’ Daniel Start. “They can be cold, but all the more excuse to stay in bed, and they’re very cosy when it’s dark outside. Several friends have invested in heaters.”

And you don’t have to be an owner to pimp your ride. Campfire Magazine recommends carrying a couple of small AquaQuest tents in the van, noting that they take up little room in the van and allow options to set up for the night away from fixed campsites.” Wild camping, largely easy in Scotland is less accessible elsewhere in the UK, so check local rules and regs. Campfire Magazine recommends using apps such as Park4thenight to find good spots.

And don’t skimp on the perennial British camping kit: a good woolly hat, warm woollen socks, insulated slippers and hot water bottles (Campfire recommends vintage stone varieties if you want to avoid plastic). And consider insulated blankets or sleeping bags that zip open — easy to wraparound yourself for that dash outside to see shooting stars in a light pollution-free sky, or that crystalline winter sunrise.

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