One Woman and her Dog | Motorhomes
Updated: Aug 29, 2018
I have a feeling that reading this blog will require a drink of your choosing, and maybe a snack, for both you and the dog! It's a long one ...
Last year, I undertook the biggest adventure of my life. It might not seem much to some people, but for me, it was such a huge challenge. I’ve always travelled a lot on my own due to work, but those times have always meant conference dinners and all the awful social events a person must attend. What I’d never done before, is pack my bags for a month, hire a motorhome, map a dog-friendly route, and hit the road with my best friend on the front seat. I’d never set up Cockapoo walks all around the country and met with hundreds of strangers to chat about things other than the common threads of work.
I won’t bore you with the details, but I’d come to a crossroad in my life and like most people, kept dreaming of the open road, early mornings and late evenings on beaches, opening the van doors to mountains, seas and sunshine. So I did just that.
I hired a motorhome that later became known as Bertha the Beast. I packed up a month’s worth of my life in just a few laundry bags, and enough bandanas for Rea to have a clean one every day. The month became known as the “Beach & Bandana Tour” because that’s what we did every day – a new beach and a new bandana.
I had no idea what I was doing or how to drive Bertha. I drive a little Mini called Betty so you can imagine the difference. Bertha was 5.58 metres long: one of the shortest motorhomes I could find to hire. My Minis is 4.25. That doesn’t seem much of a difference, but when you add the height difference in of nearly 1.5 metres and the width difference of almost a metre, it feels massive! Actually, it is massive! I can’t play the size down … it IS important! I’m 5ft 2”, and Little Rea is about 14” so even getting into the cab of the Beast wasn’t easy!
Finding a dog-friendly one wasn’t difficult. Most places do what they call ‘roverhomes’, but they are quite often much larger, so I was lucky to find Bertha.
I hired through Land Cruise in Chichester – a small family firm but with a large fleet.
What was essential for me as a solo traveller, was the reliability of Bertha, it’s insurance and the breakdown cover. Every hire company has their own rules about insurance, so it is worth phoning around to get a good understanding as to whether you are being ripped off or not because don’t think you won’t have some minor scrapes along the way! If you have never driven anything more significant than your daily car, you are probably going to ding a mirror or two along the country lanes of Devon and Cornwall; they’re like the suicide lanes for motorhome mirrors, with brick walls and telegraph poles hidden behind pretty climbing ivy and budding pink roses. Don’t be fooled … danger lurks behind these disguises like wolves in sheep’s clothing.
With Land Cruise, I paid an extra £250 non-refundable waiver on top my refundable insurance deposit. This gave me the peace of mind that anything I damaged below the level of the cab’s roof was covered and I wouldn’t have to pay for it. This was a smart thing for me because within ten minutes of driving out of Chichester, I misgauged my distances and smashed the passenger mirror against a parked white van. The mirror survived, but there was a wonderfully impressive gouge – our first war wound. Two weeks in, and I was attacked by a sneaky Devon wall lurking behind the deceptive climbing ivy, and smashed the driver’s side mirror. Having managed two weeks accident-free, I was feeling a bit smug, so the powers-that-be sorted that arrogant emotion out!
Later on, after a gorgeous walk on an unexpected beach, I drove out of the car park and rammed the TV aerial from its roof fittings by driving under a tree that I assumed was much taller than us. There was nothing a short person with no ladder could do to save such a situation, and I drove all the way to Three Cliff’s Bay with the aerial hanging off and banging against the side of Bertha the Beast. The one good thing about being a solo female traveller though is that it’s okay to ask for help, and the very kind site-warden fixed it for me. My point here is that I nearly brought Bertha home in a Tesco shopping bag, so getting the extra waiver was the best thing I did on a practical level. It was also one of the very few things I did on a practical level because I really hadn’t thought through potential risks and fears. I didn’t want to because then I might not have had one of the best times of my life.
Having experienced the life for a month in early spring, I decided I wanted to do it again and hired Bertie the Brave for September – appropriately named as we were heading to Scotland and a month on its coastal roads, including the NC500.
Bertie was a completely different animal to Bertha. He was thinner, sleeker, a bit more luxurious, and more importantly, more powerful! He was like Rea: quiet, stealth-like, and with a quick response time. Bertha, however, was like me: short, plump, and made a lot of racket when trying to get up the hills. We loved Bertie, and if we had the money, Bertie would live as part of our family – on the drive.
Needless to say, Bertie was more expensive. I hired him from Amber Motorhomes but sadly he is no longer in their fleet, and they have moved over to the more traditional looking vans like Bertha. Having a month’s experience in Bertha, Bertie arrived back home safely and didn’t need any plasters!
After my first encounters on the road, I did take out an extra damage waiver through a private company, for £150. This again, made me feel more comfortable in our adventures because Bertie would have cost a lot of money to fix if I had damaged him.
I’ve only hired two vans, but each experience was very different. One of the things I have learnt is to ask what the hidden extras are, like bedding, picnic tables and chairs, gas bottles or tanks, insurance waivers, deposits, and generators.
I hired a generator when booking Bertha but to be honest, it was a total waste of money unless you are in the middle of nowhere and nobody can hear it. They make such a racket and disturb other people’s peace. They also run out of petrol really quickly and stink out the entire van. Added to that, they are heavy and take up much needed and crucial room!
Ask about mileage and whether it is unlimited: this is important because you will drive far more many miles than you anticipate.
Make sure you have breakdown cover included, and a good company will include Caravan Club discounts.
Also, make sure you can park your car in a safe place when picking up the van, at no extra cost. There really are some dodgy companies out there.
How to choose the right van
Bertha the Beast had much more room for us to move around each other, but it rattled all the time and going over bumps really did disturb Rea a lot of the time. We had to make the bed up every night, which for a short period didn’t matter much, but for a month, it got a bit tiresome. Rea learnt the routine quickly and would jump back-and-forth over the sponges as I laid the bedding down. On this note, I discovered from having a caravan that using a second duvet to sleep on rather than a fitted sheet, made life much more comfortable. There’s nothing more frustrating than trying to fit a sheet over the sponges when you are tired, and the dog thinks it’s playtime.
Bertie the Brave was longer but thinner. This meant that we had a permanent bed to just collapse in at the end of the day, and I loved having it; I could easily dump things on it when I needed too. But, being thinner, Rea and I had to learn to move around each other, so she wasn’t under my feet when I was cooking, or trying to get dressed. We didn’t always get it right and sometimes I could be heard using certain expletives, especially after stubbing a few toes! Cooking was also more difficult in Bertie as there was just no space. He came with a table which could have been used, but I took that down as it opened up an area that was much more useful for storing bottled water, coats, and boots.
When I first hired, I thought a shower and loo were an essential part of my experience, but more often than not, I used onsite facilities for keeping up with being socially acceptable. Some were awful: like old corrugated shacks with lukewarm water, and others were luxurious, with underfloor heating and hairdryers. The one thing I realised though, was that I will always need a loo! Driving for hours on your own with a little dog means it is sometimes hard to stop and use facilities so having a loo gave me the freedom to drive anywhere and to be prepared for long walks after the long drives. A much smaller motorhome or campervan might not provide these facilities, but there is always a camping loo if size and budget are considerations.
If I had to choose for a third trip, it would definitely be a Bertie. I loved the permanent bed, the slimmer body, the power he had getting around Bealach na Bà (Applecross) and that he didn’t overly rattle. As someone who is used to a Mini, Bertie was beautiful to handle, and I was reversing up single-tracks with huge confidence within a few days.
Packing Tips for Humans
I still haven't learnt to pack light! Even Little Rea hasn’t mastered this skill yet either.
I always take my own bedding, whether it comes free with the van or not. This is because it is going to get dirty, despite the number of blankets thrown on it. Motorhoming is always going to include mud and rain, whatever the season. As I travelled for a month, I took extra sheets too. There are campsites with laundry facilities so one set can be washed and dried while the other is being used. If I were going for more than a week, I’d still take the extra set. Rea sleeps on the bed with me, so it is always full of sand, or chews, or something unsavoury.
There are also three other things I have learnt, no matter where we go, or how luxurious the accommodation is, they never get it right, and that’s one sharp knife, one decent sized chopping board, and one decent tin opener. These three things are always in my travel kit.
I also take a battery-operated radio, a torch, citronella joss-sticks, and Smidge spray.
I learnt from our Scottish trip that I needed two pairs of waterproof boots and two waterproof coats. Always think, one off, one on. I live by that rule now when we go away for more than a few days – although this summer has proven to be something quite different!
Packing Tips for Dogs
Packing for Rea is far more difficult than packing for me because I worry more about her than I do myself. That means she has to have everything she might just need!
Rea has her own travel bag, and it remains packed, always. In it, she has:
• Tic remover
• Collapsable food bowls
• Two harnesses
• Two leads
• Ear cleaner
• Eye cleaner
• Small scissors
• Paw balm
• Matt spray
• Two balls
• Poo bags
• Water bottle
• First aid kit
• Ground stake
• Mummy clip
• Cool mat
I also pack Tupperware pots and food bags so I can take her food out with us when we are walking for the day. Rea eats late, so I have to do this even when we are at home.
There is always extra food for Rea too, but this isn't too much of a problem because any PAH will let you take your dog inside, which means I don't worry about running out so much.
And lastly, Rea always wears her holiday ID tag, which says that she is on holiday from London, along with my mobile and Louise's mobile, because if I don't have a signal, Louise will, as my ICE (In Case of Emergency).
Being a solo traveller, I should really consider this more than I do, but it's because I don’t think about it that I don’t really worry too much when we are in a field in the middle of nowhere, on our own. I know I can’t rely on Rea to protect me … she’s a belly-rub kind of girl. I think I spent a month in Scotland never knowing whether I had locked us in at nighttime or not ... because I had forgotten to ask how to do it when I picked the van up!
I’ve never felt scared about travelling, but it is important to have a backup plan. I did this by letting one person know my exact route, and I checked in with her every day. My very close friend, Louise, who has Rea’s sister, knew all the campsites I was staying at, their contact details, and even when I had planned trips to pick up shopping. She knew my travelling times and had it all in her iPhone calendar. Louise was my wing-woman, and when I did get in trouble with the lock that kept falling out of the van door, it was Louise who sorted it out for me and had a new one posted within 24 hours. If you are going to travel solo, pick a wing-person who you can access during any hours of the day.
Overall, I chose campsites where I knew other people would be, and I often asked for pitches near the facilities – people are always passing by.
Shopping when Solo
This initially seemed impossible to me, but then I discovered the Tesco Click & Collect service. I spent ages mapping out where I would be and then finding the local Tesco that provided this service. I was never going to leave Rea in the van on her own for longer than a morning shower, so I timed my routes to pick up our food on the way to the next stop. This was a brilliant discovery, suggested to me by someone in the COCUK on Facebook. I also used petrol stations for the basics and local shops that let me bring Rea in.
Embrace the Solo
Women are often warned against travelling alone, but I found it to be one of the most freeing and confidence-building experiences I have ever had. I appreciate there are lots of things that can go wrong which is why it is good to have someone like Louise who is your wing-woman. I also felt much happier knowing that my route was planned, and each campsite I stayed at was aware of me being on my own. Now I have much more confidence, I probably wouldn’t need this security again, although running to the loo in the dark, if you don’t have one in the van or tent, is something to consider.
I knew I was having a massive adventure, so I tried to embrace all of it, even the constant rain in Scotland for several days, and the sense of being quite lonely when there was not even enough signal for a radio station. Getting used to the complete silence sometimes was often difficult.
By embracing the adventures, I found myself drinking pink fizz with strangers on the beach while watching sunsets, and swimming with a young and vibrant group of stags and hens on a pre-wedding weekend, in one of the coldest seas I have ever screamed about in shivering hysteria. I spent an evening having home-cooked supper with a couple and their two Poos who I will never meet again, and climbed the Fingal Cave steps with Rea to the sound of a Mexican Wave from fellow climbers because Little Rea followed direction so wonderfully. I had photos taken of us by strangers, and drank coffee with the locals. These are things I never thought someone like me could ever do. Outside of my profession, I have never been overly sociable, and always the loner, but travelling solo freed me more than I knew I needed.
Because I was challenging myself, I arranged Cockapoo walks through the COCUK group, and met over a hundred like-minded dog-lovers, and all their gorgeous bundles of fluff. Because of this, I have made friends from all around the UK and keep in touch with so many.
Other useful tips…
Meet up with friends, be they old ones or ones you have made through Facebook groups. This makes for a lovely break to the solitude and brings a different kind of fun to the adventure. Rea and I had some of our best experiences when we met up with other Cockapoo owners. We shared wet weather, soggy picnics, desolate beaches and most of all, laughter together.
Ignore Satnav – Every so often, I completely ignored what Satnav was telling me and went off-route just to explore. I was rarely disappointed and found things that I hadn’t researched.
Take lots of selfies – This is hard for me as I hate having my photograph taken, and much prefer to take pictures of Rea, but I knew I needed to be in a few of them because I wanted to have the memories with my little girl. On hindsight, I didn’t take enough and am going to change that for the next time we road-trip again. If you can't take selfies for some reason, ask someone to take a photo for you.
Be brave - It's not always easy to feel brave when you are on your own, but you will tackle things that once achieved, will make you feel like you have made the best out of your day. One thing a very good friend said to me, whom I actually met on the first Cockapoo walk of our first ever road trip, was "will you regret it if you don't?" Thank you, Pete, for saying that to me because I now live by it when I travel! Thanks to his words, we climbed coastal paths that nearly killed me (due to Rea and her incessant pulling), jumped on and off boats both in calm and rocky seas, and best of all, did the infamous Applecross Peninsular.
Ask - you are a solo traveller wanting to take on the adventure because you want to experience life. Sometimes that isn't easy when you have a little dog, and we were often refused entry into certain places, but we always asked, rather than assuming we couldn't go in somewhere. Barbour refused us in Dornoch until I told them they were about to lose a £200 sale (I needed a second waterproof – lesson learnt). Some shops that looked like they would never allow dogs in were actually the most friendly. Boat trips were the same. I never assumed I could take Rea on quite a few of them, but we never had a refusal.
Live in the moment - my biggest tip. Sometimes, I was so busy making sure Rea was safe, she had all her food and water, I had my camera, we had her sun-tent, we were heading in the right direction when walking, and I was clothed for every season to appear in under one hour (especially in Scotland). It would have been so easy to forget one of my main reasons for hitting the road, and that was to live in the moment for a change and to feel free. I can't say I mastered the skill, but I tried damn hard (having Rea helped). Take in the scenery, stop the driving, sit and have a picnic, watch the dog, listen to the waves, get out of the van at nighttime and take the wine with you!
Blog - even if it's only you reading it! I was blessed because I set up a road trip page which my wonderful friends joined and I could share my daily blogs with them. It made me feel safe, and like I was sharing each moment with a group of ladies that enjoyed all the same things as me.
Whatever you do, or however you do it, remember the reasons why when things get a little tough because they will, but all of it ... everything you see, do, and experience, will be the greatest reward you could ask for, while sharing it with the best friend you will ever know.
Writing this just makes me want to do it all again! Roll on summer 2019! Meanwhile, we have a treehouse in Norfolk, and a boating holiday on the Broads to tackle as "One Woman and her Dog."