Scandinavia in a Campervan
What's it like to travel Scandinavia in a campervan? Max and Ana spent 14 months on the road, but eight of them were spent in Scandinavia. They fell in love with Finland, Norway and Sweden and their landscapes. Here's their story and their favorite places to see in these intriguing countries.
How did you find your van? Can you describe your interior setup?
We found our van on leboncoin, a community website for buying and selling items, similar to Craigslist in the states. We searched thoroughly for two months before we found what we were looking for. We ended up buying a 2006 Ford Transit van that was built out by a small company. Despite it being a small on the inside, we have everything we need (e.g. shower, stove, refrigerator and bed). The best part of the van is that we can live in it, which gives us so much freedom.
However, two disadvantages of our van are its size and age. The Ford Transit is a small van. Inside, it’s still a small space, and in bad weather conditions, we feel really squeezed in. Our van is old and requires maintenance often, which can be expensive when you have a particular budget. However, it was a great purchase despite its inconveniences. We met several travelers on the road and all of them told us our van was special because of its great features.
What led you to hit the road? Which one of you had the idea?
The idea to leave everything for a life on the road filled with adventures came from a two-week stay in Sweden for the holidays back in August 2014. When we returned to France, it was a difficult adjustment. The trip questioned our professional and personal choices, as well as, our priorities. After we graduated, we quickly found jobs. We lived in a nice apartment in the South of France—a life most people would dream about. But we were in search of real change. Forget the beautiful couch, big TV, cozy bed and big bathroom. We wanted to leave our comfortable world behind to discover another. We wanted to explore Europe in a van.
From the beginning, we knew that vanlife wasn’t going to be easy—leaving a nice apartment for a built-out van. And knowing it was going to be a 14-month journey, we knew the adventure was most likely going to be crazy. Our new, simpler life without unnecessary things might change us completely. But we wanted to wake up spiritually. So in June 2015, we left our apartment and our jobs to buy "Van Drogo,” our van’s nickname.
Which countries have you visited?
We traveled to Spain, Portugal, Italy, Slovenia, Hungary, Poland, Slovakia, Germany, Sweden, Finland and Norway. It may not seem like much for a 14-month road trip, but our idea of a road trip is to take our time visiting one country at a time. We like being immersed in a country with its culture and landscape, and that requires time. Some countries are much more adaptable and comfortable for people living vanlife. In Portugal, Sweden, Finland and Norway, you can find free water in most gas stations and open wilderness camping locations. We never paid for camping in those four countries, except when we had to wash our clothes. We learned near the end of our trip to use river water to wash our clothes by hand.
But not all countries are as easy for a life on the road. We had trouble finding wild camping spots in Italy. Vanlife is not always convenient in cities and near tourist attractions. We like escaping those areas. We tried to choose places with wild lands and where we could find camping spots easily. Because of this, exploring Europe in our van was a good compromise. In Europe, almost everything is accessible by car, and you don’t have to drive for days at a time. There is a diversity of landscape and culture. We could drive from the polar cold of Norwegian forest to the intense heat of Andalusia within one week. To drive in Europe is a real pleasure.
What’s it like to travel across Scandinavia in a van?
Our most memorable experience was being in Scandinavia. Out of the 14 months we spent on the road, we spent eight in Scandinavia. We began by traveling through Sweden, Finland and Norway. The most beautiful thing about those countries is their unlimited landscapes. Those big, open spaces make it easy for vanlife. Scandinavians like campervans. We didn’t have any issues finding places to camp for the night. Everything was setup for campers (e.g. free water and places to empty our tanks). Sometimes, we were able to use free electricity.
Europe has immense forests, thousands of lakes, magnificent fjords and islands almost everywhere. Nature is wonderful. There were always small pieces of forest, banks or even beaches waiting for us. We rarely slept in a campsite. We found campsites a bit expensive, and because we were following a strict budget, we avoided them. Life can be expensive over there, but we managed to find ways around it. We fished for our food and bought local products.
How did you manage to live on a tiny budget?
We had a budget of €30 a day and often this extended for two days at a time. It was a very tight budget. In the beginning, we went over our budget all the time. But when we were driving on the road day after day, we began to become more rigorous. In the Eastern countries—like Poland, Slovakia, or even in Portugal—a small budget can be manageable. But it was harder in Scandinavia, and especially in Norway. By fishing and eating local, we were able to save money. Nonetheless, our budget was a constraint. Every time we did something extra, such as visiting a museum, we went over our budget. But when you explore countries with greater access to outdoor spaces, there is less of a temptation to spend money. We walked often and chose outdoor activities. It was our daily happiness. We wanted to get lost in luxurious landscapes. At night, we didn’t pay for campsites. We wanted to be in amazing and wild places every day.
One of our favorite memories was getting lost in a big forest more than of 50 km away from any villages or cities. It was a peaceful retreat. A wooden road sign said "KampNatur," and nearby was a small wooden shelter with a barbecue cooking setup prepared with logs. There was also a dry toilet available. This camping area was less than 10 meters from a huge lake without any buildings nearby. We have several stories similar to this one from our travels.
Which country did you enjoy the most?
Norway by far! It is considered one of the most beautiful countries in the world, and now we understand why. We stayed for three and a half months, driving more than 7,000 km between the north and south. Its landscapes are unique. In the middle of summer, we could go hiking, fishing or running under a beautiful sun at 4 o’clock in the morning! We could even surf in certain areas. Imagine surfing above the arctic on June 15 at midnight when the sun is still shining. It’s a dream! For some, it might appear to be heaven for vanlife.
What surprised you the most about this trip?
Our goal was not to meet closed-minded people or discover cities. We wanted to get lost in the middle of nowhere—an experience we had never done before. The shock was overwhelming, but it was also amazing. Quickly, we were captured by the wildlife. We could not be anywhere but in nature; it was like a drug! Every time we approached a city, our anxiety took over. So, for this reason, we stayed in Northern Norwegian for longer than we would have anticipated.
What are the must-see places in Scandinavia?
We liked everything in Norway, Sweden and Finland, but if we have to give you our top, must-see places, it would be the ones below.
The North Cape: “Eldorado” for van travelers. Expect lunar landscapes and reindeer everywhere. It’s disorienting, but so amazing at the same time!
Lofoten, Vesteralen and Senja Islands. These three islands characterize the Norwegian landscapes, and it’s one of the most beautiful landscapes we have ever seen. Fjords, turquoise water, paradise beaches, swells to surf, fisherman villages and steep hiking trails. There are so many things to see there. Be on the Utakleiv Beach or visit the villages in Hamnøy or Nusfjord villages or hike in the Reinbriggen. Let’s start up the engine and go!
Road 17 from Lofoten islands up to the centre of Norway. This road will lead you to North Cape, and it was impressive part of our vanlife adventure. On this road, you will find spots to sleep everywhere. It’s classified as a national tourist road, which means you should add it to your next road trip.
See the lakes over there. Our favorites were Lake Pielinen and Lake Inarjarvi.
Visit the Swedish Lapland, the northernmost spot in Sweden. While you’re there, check out Moddus National Park and Sarek National Park.