European Motorhome Touring – Kit Review

motorhome parking L'hospitalet-pres-l'Andorre, France

motorhome parking L'hospitalet-pres-l'Andorre, FranceAdding it up, our 2001 Hymer B544 Fiat Ducato motorhome‘s been our home on wheels across 25(ish) European and North African countries for 18 months of all-season touring. This blog post aims to give an update on our experience of using this motorhome and the main items of additional equipment we installed.

We’ve only looked at the bigger stuff here, for a list of all the equipment we pack for touring, here’s our essential packing list. There’s also posts about general preparation we did while gearing up for a tour and sorting out van insurance.

The blog post waffles on a bit is a bit long, so this is a list of the items covered so you can just skim through to find what you’re interested in:

  1. The Motorhome Itself
  2. The GasIT Self-Refillable LPG System
  3. The 4G LTE Internet Antenna and MiFi
  4. The Chemical-Free Cassette Toilet SOG Unit
  5. The Solar Panel and Leisure Batteries
  6. The Michelin Agelis Camper Tyres

1: The Motorhome Itself

We are very happy with our Hymer B544 motorhome, the second one we’ve had. It took us into the Alps in winter, as far north as Nordkapp in the Norwegian Arctic in summer, and back south as far as the northern edge of the Sahara in Morocco. The weather’s ranged from -10ºC (with parts of the van caked in a thick layer of ice) to +36ºC in Andalusia in Spain. The van’s had torrential rain, snow, ice, hail, fog, wind, a golf ball and even a one-day dust storm thrown at it. The road surfaces have have ranged from brand new motorway (in Morocco, oddly) to dried up river bed (again in Morocco, not so oddly). All-in-all, the van’s done us proud. You can have a look around the van using the videos below.

Here are the main plus and minus points for this particular vehicle from our perspective:

The Good

  • General quality – despite getting a hammering from two people and a dog living inside for months on end, the van fittings coped very well with only a few minor breakages.
  • Only 6m long – fits in all dedicated motorhome parking spots and many non-motorhome spots with a bit of space behind, and is significantly cheaper on Norwegian ferries.
  • Internal layout – drop down double bed was comfortable for all but the hottest nights. Two sofas with a ‘swing out’ table and a rotating passenger seat gave the van a spacious feel for a relatively small motorhome.
  • Insulation – although we only spent a few days in ice and snow, the van’s double floor coupled with blown air heating easily kept us very warm.

The Bad

  • The low front – for some reason the van slopes downwards towards the front, and the bumper and engine guard are low enough to the ground to catch on levelling ramps and kerb stones, it also means we have to go onto chocks on a flat surface otherwise the bed slopes.
  • The soft suspension – probably associated with the point above, the van wallows around bends and the passenger side suspension strut would bottom out on poor quality roads when other motorhomes just floated over.
  • Weight issues – this 3.5 tonne-rated van has huge storage capacity. The double floor means no space being lost inside the living area to the fresh water tank, and it creates a load of locker storage under the van. All this is, of course, good stuff, but when we visited the weigh bridge we found we had little spare capacity on weight, despite having tons of storage left. I suspect we were over-weight at times when we stocked up on food to go to Norway and Morocco, but we had no issues on mountain ascents or descents.

The Ugly

  • The width – the van feels wide! On the narrow, winding and (in holiday season) busy E10 crossing the Lofotens in Norway I’d wince every time we passed another motorhome. How we didn’t whack wing mirrors is anyone’s guess.
  • My beer got warm – in higher temperatures the fridge struggled to stay cool, on either gas or hook-up. The freezer stayed frozen at the back, but anything near the door would part defrost. The poor thing was up against it as the air super-heated outside, and we’re thinking about installing a fan in the upper vent to help out.
  • The fact it’s not a Mercedes – endless ribbing from our mate Phil who believes Mercedes-based vehicles beat Fiats hands down. Despite us only having four wheels to Phil’s six, and having front wheel drive to his rear, both vehicles got us to the desert and back! I have no issue with Fiat – this is our second motorhome based on the Ducato and they’ve both worked well for us.

2: The GasIT Self-Refillable LPG System

When we got the van we swapped out the Calor bottles for a self-refillable LPG bottle system from GasIT. We did the work for this ourselves, and the result’s worked out well. We have two GasIT bottles installed, one 11Kg and one 6Kg, and an external refill point so no need to open the locker at garages. The bottles have an auto-switchover valve which avoids the need to manually switch bottles when the main one is empty.

Here are our thoughts on the GasIT system:

The Good

  • Avoids Country-Specific Bottles – there are no international standards in gas bottles across Europe and North Africa. A bottle bought in the UK can’t easily be filled or swapped in France, and one from France can’t be filled or swapped in Spain. By having a self-refillable system like GasIT, Gaslow or Alugas you can use the LPG/GPL/Autogas refill stations available in most countries, and avoid having to keep swapping bottles.
  • It worked – plain and simple, the system worked as it was supposed to (on the whole!). We had no issues filling (once I’d worked out how the Spanish LPG gun works), and the system powered all of our gas appliances nicely.
  • No quality issues – we filled up across Europe and had no issues with dirty gas.
  • Only one refusal – in umpteen fill-ups, only one garage assistant allowed us to refill the bottles, possibly because he had already shut up his booth to go for his lunch…

The Bad

  • The gauges aren’t great – they (by design) don’t start to register a fall in gas level until the bottles are half empty, and sit at empty for a few days before the gas would actually run out. They also sometimes stick on empty even when the bottle is full. As we had two bottles, we could see on the switch-over valve when one had run out, so we could easily work around this.
  • We could have installed two 11Kg bottles – if we’d moved the regulator (which our mate Phil did, but it never occurred to me) then it was (probably) possible to get two 11Kg bottles into the locker. Being close to the weight limit though, saving 5Kg on gas is perhaps no bad thing.
  • We couldn’t easily use local bottles – so in countries with no LPG refill points (Finland and Morocco), we had to stretch out the gas we had. Some countries have only a limited number of refill locations too (Norway), so we had to plan our gas use to ensure we could fill up.

The Ugly

  • Blowing on ice at 3am – the auto switch-over valve doesn’t seem to work in sub-zero temperatures. On two occasions the gas in the van went off despite at least one bottle being full, and the outlet valves on both bottles being open. This meant a bit of fun in the Alps, blowing on ice-encrusted locker hinges to try and get the door open to manually switch bottles. Our guess is the butane component in the LPG, which stays liquid below freezing, confused the valve into thinking there was still available gas in the main bottle?

3: The 4G LTE Internet Antenna and MiFi

While we’re not exactly children of the Internet Generation (only one of the company’s computers was connected to the Internet in my first office job, in a locked room), we can’t do without our t’Interweb fix these days. Roaming about in a van there are only really three options for staying connected – using WiFi, the cellular (3G/4G) networks or satellite Internet. The latter’s FAR too expensive for us, and WiFi can’t always be found, so we rely on cellular networks most of the time. Adam and Sophie, who run motorhomewifi.com, supplied us with a roof-mounted 3G/4G antenna and a Huawei E5577 MiFi-type device which turns the cellular internet into a personal WiFi hotspot in the van.

This is what we thought of the kit:

The Good

  • Signal everywhere (almost) – the roof-mounted antenna meant we had a signal everywhere we went (I wrote almost, but I can’t recall where we didn’t get a network, but I am pretty sure it happened once).
  • A designed solution – the antenna is designed to fit motorhome roofs, and has proven watertight, secure and unobtrusive. There’s no faffing about with it on a pole or sticking it to windows, it’s always there, connected to the MiFi all the time, which is itself connected to the van’s 12V system, so we have Internet all the time for up to ten devices, even while driving.
  • Relatively low cost – we used a combination of local SIMs (in Morocco, Finland, Croatia and the Baltic States) and Three Feel at Home SIMs. These gave us roughly 6GB of Internet per month for roughly £10 to £15 a month.

The Bad

  • It wasn’t completely hands-off – with this kind of set up, travelling across multiple countries, we didn’t find it to be completely automated as we crossed borders. By this I mean we had to use our experience of buying and topping up SIMs, switching between networks on the MiFi and checking data use on the MiFi.

The Ugly

  • Three’s Feel at Home SIMs in Spain – for whatever reason we struggled with using Feel at Home in Spain. The networks were sometimes painfully slow, although we found switching between networks helped with this. We weren’t without Internet there, but if we were only going to Spain we’d most likely just get a local SIM.
  • The system wouldn’t work in Morocco – again for reasons unknown, our Maroc Telecom SIMs wouldn’t work in our MiFi. We got their technicians to have a look while we were in Marrakech but without success. The SIMs worked fine in other types of MiFi, and would work OK in a USB dongle or smart phone, but not in our particular MiFi, which meant we couldn’t use the antenna in Morocco and, we believe, had slower connections as a result.

4: The Chemical-Free Cassette Toilet SOG Unit

We fitted this when we knew we were heading for Scandinavia. Up there in the wilds there are loads of options for free camping, and many of them had long-drop toilets which can’t cope with the chemicals used a cassette loo. The SOG unit avoids the need for chemicals, so we installed it allow us to use these fantastic locations without worry we were harming the decomposition process in the loos.

This is how we found the system:

The Good

  • It works – despite the range of temperatures we encountered, the system did at least as good a job as chemicals at keeping the inside of the van whiff-free. I had no more issues with ‘solids’ when emptying than I did when using chemicals.
  • It was easy to use – you just use the loo as you normally would do (with the loo blade open as you use it), and when it needed emptying an air pipe had to be pulled off the cassette, a small plastic cap fitted, and the process reversed at the end. The process was simple, and the connection between the air pipe and the cassette has stayed tight.
  • We could empty the loo more often – when we used chemicals we didn’t want to empty the loo until it was fairly full, to avoid wasting the chemicals. With no chemicals going into the cassette we could empty it much more often, which meant we could more easily and spontaneously stay at locations without facilities.

The Bad

  • The micro-switch is a bit testy – the air fan for the system is turned on by a small micro-switch which is itself switched on and off by the loo blade opening and closing. Ours is a tiny bit testy – so the blade has to be fully closed or it keeps the fan running. We also got the switch wet once, which meant the fan ran constantly. We disconnected the power to it and reconnected it once the switch was dry and voila, it all worked fine again.
  • All sit down – after extensive testing we discovered that it helps if everyone sits down while using the loo. With the blade open and no bottom on the seat some smell does venture into the bathroom.

The Ugly

  • The external whiff! OK, this is all our fault, not the SOG unit’s fault! The system works by drawing air through the cassette and blowing it outside, through an activated charcoal filter in the door to reduce the smell. The filter worked well for a year, then started letting more and more smell out. The manufacturer suggests changing the filter every 12 months, which we ignored to our peril! We tried using some cooker hood charcoal filter matting which was useless, so we need to buy a new filter for about £12.

5: The Solar Panel and Leisure Batteries

We opted to replace the leisure batteries with the same ones already fitted

We use a range of places to stay: aires/stellplatz/sostas, campsites, free camps, car parks, France Passion style locations, pub car parks, beaches, whatever is appropriate to the country and location we’re in. This means we’re often off-grid, and rely on our leisure batteries and solar panel to keep us powered up. The van came with a 100W (we think) solar panel mounted flat (with an air gap) on the roof, and two 86Ah leisure batteries. Eight months ago we swapped the leisure batteries, like for like for 86Ah Numax XV24MFs at £75 each. This is how we’ve found the system:

The Good

  • Tons of power – we’ve had no issues with having enough 12V power. The roof panel’s worked, as has the charge controller, the battery voltage/current meter and the batteries. Of course, whether such a system will deliver the power you need depends on how sunny it is, how low the sun is in the sky, how cold it is (if you’re running the heater fan all day and night, it’ll draw a fair few amp-hours), whether you use a 2kW inverter to cook your tea on a hotplate and so on. But for us and our needs, we had plenty of capacity.

The Bad

  • Killing laptop batteries – not an issue with the solar or batteries but with the cheap modified sine 300W inverter we use. It seems to kill laptop batteries after a year or so and we really need to get our fingers out and buy a descent pure sine inverter.

The Ugly

  • Losing all 12V power at night. For reasons which remain shrouded in mystery, our entire 12V system conked out twice overnight while we were in Morocco. It **seemed** to start working again when I pushed some connections back together above the Elektroblock, and has stayed working fine for months since. Weird. Had us pondering how on Earth to get the electric step back in though!

6: The Michelin Agelis Camper Tyres

Knowing we’d be travelling in winter, we wanted tyres with a M+S sidewall marking to keep us legal in places like Italy. We know this marking (which stands for Mud and Snow) doesn’t mean the tyres perform any better than summer tyres, but as we’d be still on the road in the summer we didn’t want to fit full winter tyres, although we did buy snow chains (which we only used once). After some long pondering we opted for Michelin Agelis Camper Tyres, and this is how we found them:

The Good

  • They’re grippy. But for the odd bit of spin on packed snow in the Alps or patches of gravel-strewn road, we had no issues with grip. That includes a few cold, 2nd gear ascents up hairpins, but generally didn’t include getting off mud or deep sand, as we’ve learned not to park on them.
  • No punctures or blowouts – despite plenty of opportunity to go pop, we’ve had no issues with punctures and the tyres kept to the correct pressure for months on end.

The Bad

  • Wear rate – after 18 months and 28,358 kilometres the front tyres are down to the wear bars and need replacement. The rear tyres are maybe 50% worn, at a guess.

The Ugly

  • The cost – including fitting the tyres were £125 each. Not cheap.
  • Availability – our local tyre fitters would start huffing and puffing when we asked about getting specialist camper tyres. After I made a complete mess of ordering the tyres from the Internet (I changed my mind after ordering them and the Internet vendor were very bad at taking them back – all my fault), we got a recommendation for a fitter in Essex who did a fast job for us on the way to the ferry.

And finally a few quick thoughts on more minor items:

If you’ve any questions on the systems above which you think us kit novices might be able to answer, please feel free to ask in the comments section below and we’ll do our best to answer.

Thanks, Jason and Julie

19 Comments

  1. Hi , Just reading about your low front end . I think you probably need some new coil springs , especially if you are bottoming out on them . It could be worth having a mechanic take a look .

  2. Gas bottles? Milk comes in bottles!
    Happily reading you blog and telling th OH what we need😀
    Hopefully starting our tour next year,
    Keep posting love it sx

  3. Hi, About the antenna: we have a huawei mifi and also an iBoost signal booster. This enhances signals when we are on sites with wifi as well as boosting the cellular network signal. We have once used it where the payment for wifi was for one device only. It has performed very well. My question is – does the antenna boost the signal or just pick it up better due to being on the roof? Or is that a meaningless distinction? And, just for information, we stayed at one campsite in Greece which explicitly banned boosters, and other similar devices on pain of being thrown off their internet. Not sure how they would know but I expect there are cunning ways!
    best,
    Robina

    • As I understand it Robina, the roof antenna is much larger than the antenna in a phone or MiFi, so can receive/broadcast a stronger signal. It being on the roof also means it’s outside the shielding effect of the van’s metal shell, so again can perform better. Adam at motorhomewifi.com is the man to ask though, he’s an expert.

      Yep, we saw a campsite in Spain which banned boosters too. Seems odd to me, as everyone will then be fighting for spaces near the access point, usually reception, weird.

      Cheers, Jay

  4. Hi Guys

    Can’t believe it. Been following your blog for a couple of years and just set sail for a test month in France. Kinda hoped to have cross paths. On the Chunnel while reading your latest blog….,, You came back yesterday. Bummer.

    Seriously though, loved reading about your adventures and enjoyed being inspired. Hope your landing back in normality, works ok.

    Look forward to your next adventure…USA/? AUS? We wait with baited breath.

  5. Here’s a summary of my favourite improvements (Most based on your previous reviews)

    1 – Gas-It system. It’s a close run thing with the Solar panel but the Gas conversion is the best thing we added. It will genuinely pay for itself in a couple of years but that’s not why we bought it. We went for 2x 11kg bottles and we haven’t come close to running out yet. I’ve spent decades swapping Calor bottles and Campingaz bottles. It’s a hassle and it’s expensive.

    2 – Solar Panel. We have 2 Gel leisure batteries and, before the Solar panel, any journey was preceded by me hooking-up the 240V on the driveway, to make sure we had full batteries. Unless it was a short weekend away we needed a 240V hookup, to power the heating fans (the biggest drain on the 12V). That’s totally changed now. The batteries are always at 100% and, apart from a December weekend, under trees, the Solar panel more than makes up for any battery usage during the day/night. Ours is a 150W panel.

    The combination of Gas-it and Solar panel make us totally self-sufficient. If we’re careful with the water (the only limiting factor) then I reckon we could go most of the week, totally off-grid. In fact I just don’t bother with 240V any more, unless it’s included for free on site. Even then I sometimes don’t bother.

    Our fridge struggled in France this summer. We have a big fridge and separate freezer in a “Tech Tower”. The bottom of the Freezer is metal and is responsible for conducting cold air into the fridge below. The freezer had no problems on 240V but Gas does a much better job so I switched over. That was only when the temperature was in the mid 30s though. LPG is so cheap that it’s hardly an issue.

    3 – Charging devices. We have loads of devices. Phones, Tablets, Laptop, cameras.etc that all need charging. As standard Humberto had zero USB ports. We used the 12V “Cigar lighter” adapters but it wasn’t ideal. I found some 12V USB sockets on a Marine “Chandlery” website and had those fitted under our cupboards. Now we have 6 USB ports, accessible from every seat in the Motorhome.
    I bought a 300W Sine wave Inverter for my Laptop charger. I assume it’s not wrecking the battery.
    The USB ports everywhere are a real boon. Highly recommended.

    4) External gas port for the BBQ. We use a Weber BBQ (Just the best BBQs in the World). Since we didn’t want to carry a loose gas bottle it made sense to have a gas port fitted. I use (contrary to some advice I have read) 4m of gas hose. That means I can put the BBQ anywhere around the Motorhome and avoid trip hazards.

    5) Boxes from Homebase. I found some big plastic boxes, with lids, that juuuussstt fit perfectly into our rear, under-floor, locker. They were just meant to be. Makes it easy to store and retrieve stuff like boots, water hose, tools..etc.

    6) Connectivity to the Internet. We also met the Motorhome WiFi folks at a show. I bought the Huwawei SIM router and stick-on 4G antenna. It gets a signal when my phone can’t get anything.
    We have the directional WiFi booster (with the stick on “GoPro” mount). It works but we haven’t really stress-tested it yet.
    What I would say is that the user interface is VERY techie. I work in telecoms so I understand -Db levels but it’s far from intuitive.
    Someone really needs to give it a friendly new user interface. It just needs +ve signal strength graphs and fewer techie screens with “Do not modify” warnings on them.

    Basically a big thanks to Jay and Jules for road-testing (literally) most of the stuff above. They’ve saved us time and effort, trials and errors, finding solutions for our big adventure ahead.

    My Motorhoming friend just fitted Air-assist suspension units at the rear. He reckons it helps stability overtaking and cornering.

    Long-term I think I will fit these and also beefier springs up front. Remember we’re basically driving maxed-out pick-up trucks all day. Very unforgiving on suspension.

    Lee at http://www.gohumberto.com

  6. Jason, what method of currency exchange do you use, Caxton, Halifax clarity ??? Also do you tend to pay with credit card where you can or with cash?
    Thanks
    Richard

    • Probably Dave. He had better ground clearance, was less easy to scratch down the sides and because he was older we were less worried about damaging him. Don’t get me wrong, we love Zagan but Dave was just more robust.

  7. Hi, Thanks for always being a wealth of information but sometimes it’s too much for my one brain cell to take in. Coupla questions if I may.
    Firstly with the change in using a mobile phone abroad. Did this affect the way that you use your wi-fi connection ? Presumably you didn’t have to swap/change sims on your journey home.
    Secondly on the cash/card subject. I notice that you use Caxton and as you are away for such long periods it’s probably the best way for you. But do you (or anyone who visits your site) know if it is possible to get cash at a French Supermarket checkout counter with a credit card whilst paying for a shop ? If so is there a fee ?
    Dunno why I haven’t thought of that before or why I didn’t try myself last year. Must be an age, falling apart thing !
    Merci in advance.
    GlorYa x
    NB I’ve used a Santander Zero credit card for years which is no fee and gives excellent exchange rates on purchases abroad.

    • Hi GlorYa

      The changes to the data roaming didn’t affect us at all. We carried on using our 3 pre-paid 12gb sim. I have no idea if their maximum two month use abroad rule still applies as we were home less than two months after the changes kicked in. If we were to go out again tomorrow, we’d still take several of those pre-paid cards to keep us going.
      As for getting cash out using a credit card at the supermarket, I honestly have no idea. The only time we take out cash on our Halifax credit card is in an emergency, or if we are in a country that isn’t one of the currencies on our Caxton card. As most credit cards will charge interest on cash withdrawals, even if they don’t charge a fee.
      Hopefully someone reading this may be able to answer about the supermarket part as I thought you could only get cashback with a debit card in the UK, so figured it would be the same abroad.
      Let us know how you get on.
      Cheers Julie x

      • Hi Julie, Thx for the reply. Apologies but I was in a very lazy Sunday morning mode. Cos you guys are our MH Gurus we fall into the same trap as others and on occasion expect you to know the answers to everything ! (Next week it’s the meaning of life).
        I got confused with using either a debit card or a credit card. There is an interest charge on credit card cash withdrawals so that route’s gone. No charge for purchases using Santander Zero which I’ve always used abroad for petrol and the occasional candlelit kebab. At the moment I’m looking at Caxton, attracted by the fact that it presently has a cashback offer for new customers.
        As far as the data roaming changes are concerned it looks as if it stays the same for those that travel long term. Tho you should get away with a month or two on whatever sim you use in the UK.
        Best
        GlorYa x

    • I am pretty sure you cannot get cashback at least in French supermarkets, using a credit card. But here’s a suggestion which could work – get yourselves a French bank account! It is not necessary to be resident in France and you will get a debit card which can be used freely in all euro area countries without restriction for cash withdrawals or purchases. Not viable if you are just making a couple of short visits each year but for extensive travelling you have euros on tap anytime and can “charge up” the account with transfer from UK bank using a service such as Transferwise with exchange rate much better than regular bank transfer. Credit Agricole, Caen,Normandy have a specific English language service Britline, fully internet based (in French, but easy to figure out if you are not a speaker) and support line staffed by Brits – highly recommend!

  8. I don’t know what type of laptop you use but the dell I use provide a 12v cigarette plug in charger. The unit is very small and very efficient. We don’t have any mains appliances in our van and rely purely on the 12v, solar and regular hook up re-charges.

  9. Hi just thought I would chuck in my two penny worth. Martin Lewis moneyexpert.com has a good section on cost effective cards when travelling. I have this year just started using a CREATION credit mastercard. Great bank exchange rate and no transaction fees for either cash or purchases. I have found that it is the fees that really mount up. Only drawback is 12.9% interest from the point of use. You can however manage your account online and pay off as soon as it is listed on your transactions which is what I do.

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