Camper Vans: a Blessing or a Curse?

Over New Year I went to Siurana in northern Spain. It wasn’t the best trip. Just before flying out Stu caught flu, and I got it soon after. The first few days of the holiday were spent holed up in our room in the refugio. What made it worse was that the heating was broken so we had to lie fully clothed in bed sharing one sleeping bag between us.

Hanging out in our flu pit trying to get well.

Things improved after a few days and we made it out climbing, but neither of us felt our best. We had to pick crags with short walk-ins, and only managed easy routes most of the time. Not quite what all the training had been for!

Despite the grimness, it was great to be back in Catalunya. I do love it there. The people, the language, the climbing and the sunshine make it a really special place.

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This is how I had imagined the holiday. Magic Festival, 7c, Margalef (taken a few years ago).

I have been to Siurana a lot over the years as I used to live in Barcelona. One thing that really struck me this visit was how many vans there were. There were literally hundreds. As a van owner myself, it got me thinking about our responsibilities and how we should behave.

All too often, it seems that finding a convenient van spot takes priority over preserving the natural environment. In Saint Leger last autumn I was quite shocked by just how much waste matter and toilet paper there was littering the ground near the preferred van spot when there was a perfectly good public toilet just a few minutes up the road.

This new year there were huge numbers of people van camping right next to Siurana village and in the central car park in Cornudella de Montsant. It certainly gave the area a much more run-down feel, and I worry about what this is like for the people living there. Do they mind the hordes of climbers cooking in the street and sleeping on their doorsteps? I honestly don’t know the answer to this. It is undoubtedly true that climbers help boost the local economy by buying food and coffee from the local establishments. But is this enough to make their presence something that is appreciated?

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Vans parked up at Siurana village 

On my last trip to Chulilla I was amazed at the number of climbers in the area. The village was teeming with people in down jackets carrying rucksacks. Local refugio owner Pedro Pons told me, however, that the villagers welcomed the climbers and were very happy to have their business. This was something I was pleased to hear.

In Margalef things are not quite so harmonious. The situation reached crisis point a few years ago, and, as a result, designated van camping spots were developed with basic facilities. Now you must pay a small fee to stay there, and if you camp anywhere else in the area you may be slapped with a hefty fine.

The situation is clearly not popular with many and I believe this explains the large number of people staying in the Siurana area where there is still no charge to park up. However, I think it is a very sensible approach for areas with a high numbers of van campers. It strikes a balance between the desires of van owners and the needs of the local area and people, and it solves the important issue of toilets which should surely be of primary concern to all.

Van life is an incredible thing. It gives you the freedom to go wherever you like, whenever you like, and to camp in some of the most beautiful places on earth. I strongly feel, however, that we should not take this privilege for granted. We should minimize our impact by using public facilities wherever possible, taking all litter (including toilet paper) home with us and by being respectful to the local people by not parking up in areas where there is a chance that our presence may not be welcome.

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One of my favourite van spots near Orpierre, France.