Our initial plan last summer was to visit Europe to see my aging parents. Tickets were booked with Air Canada and RENFE, my cousin in Valencia was looking forward to see us too, but then Covid hit. A campervan was not in the plans.
Everything was cancelled for us, and fortunately, we received our money back from Air Canada without even having to ask for it. RENFE, the Spanish train company, kept us informed and eventually refunded the money too.
Now what? Way back in the early 2000’s I won a travel voucher and we decided to splurge on a two week motor home holiday in Nevada, Arizona and Utah. We had ordered the smallest motorhome, but as it happened, we ended up with a 21 foot one, bigger than what we needed. You have probably seen them: those very boxy CruiseAmerica ones, with extra sleeping space above the cabin.
It was a really nice experience, but what put us off somewhat was the gas consumption: about 33 liters to cover 100 kilometers. We also found it had very little oomph uphill and it was somewhat hard to handle in tighter spots ( I do have a small truck driver’s license).
We loved having a kitchen, toilet, proper bed and a fridge on board, but the experience faded into the background as we mostly travel with public transport in Europe or travel with our own car.
Fast forward to 2020
Fast forward to the 2020 COVID year. We wanted to take a short holiday. We wanted to stay on our own and not staying in hotels or BnBs. I am not paranoid, but if we could maintain our distance we thought, we should be able to visit Quebec perhaps.
Better gas consumption for a campervan
Soooooo….we looked into RV-ing again. We found there is a much smaller type of vehicle available now, the campervan, which uses less gas, and is easier to handle. Make no mistake, even the campervan uses 14 – 15 liters average on 100 km, but that is twice as good as the 2002 motor home albeit still only half as good as our own car’s gas consumption.
Narrower than a motorhome
A campervan is narrower than a motorhome, which affects everything: smaller kitchen, smaller storage spaces, smaller washroom, but easier to maneuver and easier on gas. We thought we should give it a try.
One of the main considerations for a camper van was that we really wanted to be in nature. We discovered that many of the commercial camp sites in Quebec are basically pull thru parking lots for 5th wheels, Class A bus like vehicles and mega trailers, which works for many, but we were looking for smaller scale camping.
Quebec National Parks
We had no desire to stay overnight at a Walmart parking lot either, so we decided to stay in parks and at the odd commercial campground if there was no other choice. We booked for the first two weeks of September (cheaper), bought Quebec Park passes (valid for a year) and designed a bit of a route.
The Quebec National Parks are the way to go. Modest in their set up, between the trees and close to interesting landscapes, they provide a great camping experience.
After a lot of research we settled on a campervan from Canadream. Originally a Canadian company, it is now owned by the Australian Apollo Tourism & Leisure Group. Apollo purchases its fleet in North America from Winnebago, Forest River, Pleasure-way Industries and Northern Lite Campers.
Canadream has a number of rental locations, usually near large airports to cater to the international visitors. Ottawa doesn’t have a location, but Montreal (near Mirabel) has a pick up location. There is an independent place in Ottawa too, but the rental cost was about double compared to Canadream.
No campervan boondocking at Walmart
Booking your campsites in advance takes a bit of the freedom away, but what the heck, freedom is relative anyway: I’d rather know I have a place when we arrive at the end of the day. On our list were Parc National des Grands-Jardins, the Saguenay Fjord, Lac St. Jean and then we would take it from there.
During Labour Day weekend, it was hard to reserve a spot, but after Labour Day, everything is shoulder season and there is tons of space everywhere. It definitely gets cooler though, but that makes for good sleeping at night.
Luxury on 4 wheels in a campervan
The parks were a big success. It is nice to stay in the woods in relative comfort I must admit. Getting darker? Switch on the LED lights. Cool in the morning? Boiling the water for coffee on propane already created enough heat to make the entire camper van nice and cozy. Pee at night? Just go to the washroom on board. Lunch time? Pull over and prepare soup on the side of the road.
We were a bit unlucky in that the weather was colder than usual so we didn’t spend as many evenings outside as we had hoped for. Temperatures in the morning would drop down to 4 degrees some days and we had a lot of overcast weather.
We had booked a sea kayak afternoon on the Saguenay and we really had been looking forward to see the Saguenay from the water. Unfortunately the forecast called for strong winds and rain so it was cancelled. The next few days were fully booked already and there were no cancellations: they couldn’t give us another slot. The wind nor the rain ever came though: the water was calm as a mirror. It would have been perfect for beginners like us. Instead we did a lovely hike along a very mossy trail.
Lac St Jean
After the Saguenay we stopped at Lac St Jean for some cycling. The Lac St Jean area is at the north end of the Saguenay river and known for its cycling touring around the lake. You can read about our cycling experience here. On our way back we stopped for a day at le P’tit Train du Nord, north of Montreal, as we were so close to it anyway. It is nice to see the tourism developing along the trails.
All in all we looked back on a great vacay. It is not a cheap vacation, but all things considered it is not crazily expensive either. Here is an overview of the cost.
How much does campervan rental cost?
All prices in Canadian dollars
|Rent 12 nights||2250 (tax, insurance and 1700 km included)|
|Gas at CAD 1 /liter||230|
|Second driver $5/night||60|
|1 Park pass (other one was free because of COVID)||80|
|Camp sites 12 nights x 45 (approx)||540|
|Extra km (41 cents/km)||–|
That comes to about C$ 3000 for 12 nights or about 125 pp per night. We used 230 liters of gas for 1569 km. I didn’t include food, visits to museums etc as those are personal and higly variable expenses. With the surge in demand for RVs and trailers, I expect it will be a bit more expensive in 2021. Even Airstream can’t keep up with demand.
Usually they charge you a daily fee for the campervan; there are optional extras, from a bike rack to cutlery to bed linnens to a coffee maker and a toaster. There are usually 100 km/day included; if you think you need more, you can buy packages of 500 km extra for about $350. Do a bit of math and don’t forget that besides driving the route, there is a bit of back and forth driving, grocery shopping, driving to another place when you have a day of rain.
We decided to rent in Montreal and brought our own duvet (highly recommended), cutlery, pots and pans etc. Bike rental is quite expensive and had we been able to bring our bikes with us in our own car to the pickup place in Mirabel, we would have rented the bike rack. It is worth it I think as bike rental is quite expensive and not always easy to find. In Lac St Jean the bike rental place was already closed for the season and we had to beg for two bikes for a day.
Canadream is constantly offering ‘discounts’, a bit of a marketing ploy really. Usually it is 5-10% off, or two kilometer packages for the price of one, free rental coffeemaker or toaster. Pick the discount that applies most to you (I would suggest the km packages). If you are a CAA member, you receive another 5% off. We had an early booking discount and a pay upfront discount. Total discounts were over 400 dollars.
How does power work in a campervan?
The campervan has 12V from battery power and 110V from a hookup. You really only need the 110V for the microwave. The fridge and the stove top work on propane. The solar panel on the roof helps generate electricity too.
Off the grid with a campervan?
The van has on board tanks for fresh water, gray water (shower and sink) and black water (toilet). We found you need to empty the grey and blackwater tanks every three days. If you shower on board, perhaps every 1-2 days. All campsites have either central points to fill and/or dump or local points at each single site. You pay extra for hook ups on your site.
Initially we had no idea about our usage, but we quickly found out that we can easily live three days without any hookups (which saves money on the camp site pricing). You could go to a dumping station and to a fresh water station at a central point and not needing hookups at all.
We didn’t use the TV and didn’t bring laptops, only tablets for some local research, bookings and for our e-books. What a wonderful thing that you can stop at some local tourist office with internet and download a book from the Ottawa Public library in seconds. Remember, National Parks don’t always (rarely?) have internet and that is probably a good thing.
Little moving space in a campervan
As the weather was a bit on the cool side, we spent more time in the campervan in the evenings than we had expected. It made us realise that when the bed is out, there is really only 12 ft2 to move around, mostly in front of the kitchen block. If one cooks, the other one better stays out of the way. It felt a bit cramped at times, but really, other than a few hours in the evening, you don’t spend much time moving around inside a campervan.
The driver and passenger seat swivel, but it is not ideal. If you travel with four (only two can sleep in the van), it might be useful, but we never bothered: it was a bit of a hassle to swivel them and you sit somewhat in the dark part of the van. The LED lights have different colour settings, which is really nice. We didn’t use the shower in the van, it is just too tight. I could not realistically use it. But it is nice as a back up.
There is very little storage space for stuff in a campervan. You won’t be able to store empty suitcases or bags anywhere (important if you come from overseas), but usually Canadream allows you to leave your suitcases at their premises while you are gone. So travel light.
I was a bit surprised with some shortcuts in the production of the vehicle. Some rattling, some cheap parts and a very poorly fitting lit on the dumping station hose compartment. Remember those vans are around CAD 150,000. That cheapness put me off somewhat. I read a several websites on RVs and it really doesn’t make you want to own an RV ever. Man, the trouble some people have to go through…
Renting however, gives you access to the latest models. One last tip: do a thourough inspection before you drive away. When we were on the road for half an hour we noticed a bit of damage in the glass of the front window. Not our fault, and fortunately they believed us, else we would have been on the hook for a considerable amount. So hot down every dent, every stripe of paint.
Would we do it again?
Perhaps once in a while. It is a fun way to travel. No need to sit on your knees in the mud trying to get the camping gas stove going. On the other hand, we found we also sat inside more than we should have (the cold weather and COVID was partly to blame).
You can read more about our trip in Quebec here: Cycling at Lac St Jean
(Note: we were not paid for this blog nor did we receive any incentives)