My epic #VanLife fail — and the things I picked up on my unplanned digital detox

One sneaky Tweet (okay, two) in a petrol station loo and my bid for Insta-stardom was over

Naughty nun: there are two more on the other side…snogging (photo: Harriot Lane Fox)

I don’t do yoga. But our converted transit van was graffitied with nuns with guns (tick) and we found a campsite right on the ‘ocean’ (tick). It might not be #VanLife and downward dogs at dawn. But I should be able to rev up my Instagram page with our #VanWeekend — I thought…


The story began, innocently, driving home from surfing in Pembrokeshire.

“Wouldn’t it be lovely to have a campervan…”

Grown-ups say the daftest things in the afterglow of a great holiday. And we’d forgotten about the bat-eared child in the back seat. For 200 miles she window-shopped, reading out the names of the motorhomes wallowing along in the slow lane. Majestic, Bolero, Stardream, Sundance, Claudia. To her they sounded so romantic; to us a tiddly-tad ridiculous.

In the end we had to explain. Yes it would be lovely. But we didn’t have the cash. And even if we did, who’d willingly park a Claudia outside their house in South London? It’d kill what little street cred we had.

Ours was a fantasy camper.

Until it wasn’t…

Funky hire company Wicked Campers was having an end-of-season sale. It was November. I didn’t stop to think what that meant (cue John Travolta: “I’ve got chills, they’re multiplying”).

The van had a pop-up tent on the roof, a kitchen in the boot and a diner-cum-bedroom-cum-luggage store inside. This was a slashie on wheels.

It was also still an authentic #IRL family adventure. Until I came across a new web tool which values Instagram posts: effectively, inkifi tells you your price as an influencer. I tried it and mine was 55p. OUCH!

Not just pretty pics…

A recent Instagram rich list boggled my brain. Apparently, biggest fish in this gorgeous sea is Selena Gomez at $550,000 ($418,000) a post. Like her, most influencers are young and gorgeous. But there are old and gorgeous ones too.

Helen van Winkle — @baddiewinkle to her 3.2m Insta-friends — is 89 and ‘lends’ her Deep-southern, psychedelic-granny glow to Smirnoff vodka, Urban Decay cosmetics and Hotels.com, as well as Missguided.

So what could a social media manager and journalist like me — not very photogenic plankton — realistically aspire to?

Tribe, the influencer marketplace, publishes a rate card. Brands pay £50 to £100 for someone with 3000 to 10,000 followers, and at least £350 for those with more than 100,000

Makes sense. People trust influencers more than brands. It’s like your BFF telling you about their new favourite thing.

That’s when I decided to sell my family…

Our trip was my chance to shine. #VanLife is MEGA. I shared a post about clever folding luggage, just to test-drive the hashtag on Twitter, and it went potty. Meanwhile, there are two million #VanLife posts on Instagram. Foster Huntington, who invented it, has just published another book of gorgeous pictures, called Van Life (though he’s put down roots and is living in a tree house now).

I pictured ‘easy like Sunday morning’ scenes. We’d breakfast at the van’s folding table, with steaming mugs of freshly brewed coffee. (Not sure which brand I’d like to work with — walking before running, and all that.)

Luckily my husband is photogenic and contractually obliged to be an extra; my daughter, grumpy if papped, will happily cartwheel in front of landmarks. There’d be lots of those. We were catching the last weekend of the Folkestone Triennial, which turns the town into an outdoor art expo. We were all set.

And then…DISASTER!!!!

A disaster so big for a wannabe Insta influencer — even a nano one — it deserves shouty capital letters and a forest of exclamation marks.

I left my mobile at the petrol station.

That was that. The laptop was at home. RVs plug themselves in to the electricity at campsites but our van was low-fi: candles, bike lights (we’re not campers), bed at 9pm. Forget digital nomad. It was digital detox instead. All because of a sneaky Tweet in the ladies loo. Don’t laugh; that’s what mums do.


I shouldn’t say this but it was bliss. Once I’d breathed into a brown paper bag, for quite a while. And got over the bonus disaster that my camera had LIED about how much battery life it had and conked out as I was about to take The Most Beautiful Photograph Ever of an Anthony Gormley figure. What could I do but suck it up — and enjoy myself?

The campsite was at the end of a twisty lane down to the beach. It was a magical spot. The vans all faced the English Channel, ours the only naughty nun in a double row of lumpy vestal virgins.

The retired couple next door (in a Claudia would you believe it!) said cheerily: “We thought it must be punks, or hippies. Then you got out.”

First night in the nun-mobile (photo: Harriot Lane Fox)

Like the quietest suburb, nothing stirred between six o’clock at night and nine the next morning. ‘Motorhome’ is a perfect description. These are life support pods with all mod cons. In the evening, telly screens flickered through chinks in the black-out blinds. In the morning, our neighbours walked the wheelie tanks from their chemical loos off to empty them.

Our #VanLife was a bit different…

For a start we lived mostly outside. Breakfast in PJs, writing my old-fashioned travel journal (in loco posting on social media), playing cards — everything happened at the little picnic table. Luckily, it was more like June than November.

Apart from a passing train so quiet it could’ve been a ghost, and the birdsong (a treat for moggie-ridden Londoners), we provided the campsite’s sound effects. The gravel crunch as we walked back and forth to the galley kitchen in the boot. Noisy games of tag during curfew.

Finding enough horizontal space to fit two tall grown-ups was tricky. My husband and daughter slept ‘upstairs’ in the tent. I took the van. It was like being below decks in a storm. Every time they rolled over, my ‘bed’ pitched and yawed so badly I felt seasick. The slightest movement amplified upwards too. They had nightmares about earthquakes.

Next stop the camper van shop?

The weekend did convert us, to renting again. But #VanLife is for hobbits. We’re too tall for it ever to be truly, madly, deeply our thing.

Digital detoxing on the other hand is my new — occasional — favourite thing. Hashtagging your life can be very selfish when you’re the only one in your family on social media.

Beautiful bonding moment…and some really disgusting footwear (photo: Harriot Lane Fox)

My daughter was delighted I wasn’t glued to my phone. And all three of us had the same adventure, together, at the time — our entire focus on the same things: from the sneaky peek around the National Coastwatch lookout in an old pillbox on the cliffs; to playing art installation bingo following a paper map (yes, really!); to giggling at other art tourists Insta-snapping their lunch at the table next door to ours.

So what if I lost followers by being off-grid. They’ll come back — won’t they? — when I post this old-fashioned story of our adventures.

Fingers crossed!

7 survival tips from a failed #DigitalNomad

1. Stock up on spare batteries for any electronic device you’re taking and charge them the night before.

2. Squeeze a few more shots out of a dying battery — camera or phone — by warming it up in your pocket.

So retro: ultimate digital detox survival tool (photo: Harriot Lane Fox)

3. As ultimate back-up, take a small waterproof notebook. Rite in the Rain is the armed forces’ favourite brand, from AnyWeatherPaper.

4. Think like a scrapbooker — collect anything you can photograph when you get home (Emily Quinton of Makelight has a YouTube tutorial on flat lays).

5. Search the free picture sites (Pixabay, Unsplash, Pexels and Flickr particularly) for shots to replace the ones you would have taken.

6. Jot down any social media handles you see — on menus and festival maps, at museums, in shops, on the dashboard of your rented camper van. Do the same for brands you use. You’ll always get mileage out of @mentioning them.

7. Instagram has just changed the rules so you can now post stuff over 24-hours old on Stories (much less hassle than the old workarounds). So hashtag your trip when you get home.

Thank you for reading this blog, which you can also find at HonestMum’s #brillblogposts.

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