Updated: Jun 19, 2022
Breaking down in the middle of nowhere with no help for miles around can be a very scary situation, especially at this time of year when it's freezing cold and the nights are as long as they get. So in this blog post I am going to try and explain to you how to get you how to easily get around some of the most common problems by yourself.
As it says in the title it is a beginners guide so it will be old knowledge to a lot of you, but everybody has to start somewhere.
I am only going to go into stuff that you can do by yourself as I know a lot of van lifers are traveling solo and will likely be by yourselves. Some things can not be fixed at the side of the road by anybody including mechanics so in some situations you will need to call for a tow but to be fair then you have bigger problems to be worrying about.
So this is an annoying one when it happens and worst still its probably your fault. There might even be a helpful person with a car parked near by with emergency jump leads ready to give a helping hand but if your battery is very dead this will probably be no help at all. My 2.5L Maxus battery died and and 1.8L Astra van had no effect on it at all even after being connected to it for 20 mins!
What can you do?
If luck is with you and you are parked facing down a hill with a clear road a head of you and your battery has enough power to heat your glow plugs, then problem solved you can just bump start it. Even a slight hill will work if you have a long enough run. (manual gearboxes only)
Switch the ignition on and make sure the steering lock is off
Put the van in 2nd gear and leave your foot on the clutch
Take the hand break off and roll down the hill until your going about 5-10 mph
Then take your left foot off of the clutch and step on the accelerator with your right foot
The van should fire straight up and you will be on your way
PLEASE NOTE SOME VANS CAN'T BE BUMP STARTED SO GOOGLE YOUR MAKE AND MODEL TO CHECK FIRST
With bump starting you will have no power breaks or power steering until the van starts up so be very careful and make sure nothing will get in your way.
Leave your engine running for as long as possible as your battery will need to charge enough to start next time you try.
If you are not parked on a hill like most people and you are on your own then you only really have two other easy options, both require you to have thought ahead and to have purchased something in advance.
So if you are in a scary location, it's pitch black and you're all by yourself the chances are you're going to want to get back on the road as quickly as possible. For that you are going to need to get yourself a decent Jump starter.
Portable jump starters are awesome as they eliminate the need for another vehicle and all you need to do is hook it up to your battery, turn it on and then start your engine. They are really powerful and this model below will start any van with no problems at all.
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NOCO Boost HD GB70 2000 Amp 12-Volt UltraSafe Portable Lithium Jump Starter, Car Battery Booster Pack, And Jump Leads For Up To 8-Liter Gasoline And 6-Liter Diesel Engines
If you have a decent leisure battery set up in the back of your van you can also use them to jump start your van however it might drain them a fair bit if it takes a few tries to start it but if you are in a sticky situation it is possible. All you will need is a pair of jumper cables long enough to reach from your leisure battery to you starter battery. Remember you will need a decent leisure battery to be able to do this, old warn or cheap ones will most likely not be up to the job.
This set below are nice and thick and a very good quality, they are also 8 meters long so should be long enough for most van lifers and long cables are always best... You will know what I mean if you have ever had to jump start somebody parked in a car parking space surrounded by other cars.
KRIEGER Battery Jump Leads, 8 Meters, 50mm2, 800Amp Heavy Duty Booster Cables for Petrol and Diesel Car, SUV, Van, Truck - 8 Mts. Allows You to Jump Start Battery from Behind a Vehicle
There are also a few things you can do to pretty much eliminate any chance of your starter battery running low in the first place and as they say prevention is better than a cure.
The first thing you could do if you have a leisure battery set up, solar and an inverter is install a battery maintainer between your leisure set up and starter battery. This is very simple to do and as long as your starter battery is in a good condition is very effective.
Basically your solar charges your leisure battery and then your leisure battery uses a small amount of its power to keep your starter battery topped up to full all the time.
For this you will need.a battery maintainer and as mentioned above a decent leisure set up like the one below...
NOCO GENIUS2DUK, 2-Amp Direct-Mount Onboard Charger, 12V Battery Charging Units, Battery Maintainer, Trickle Charger And Battery Desulfator With Temperature Compensation
These are very easy to install, all you need to do is plug the three pin plug into a low powered inverter like the Bestek and hook it up to your starter battery and you are good to go.
BESTEK 500W Car Vehicle Power Inverter DC 12V to AC 220V Converter Charger 2 USB
Another option is to install a B2B charger to your van, not only do these awesome things charge your leisure battery very efficiently as you drive if you choose the right one like the Renogy 50amp model with a built in solar MPPT controller you can charge your starter battery directly via your solar when your leisure battery is fully charged. For more info on this option please check out our TOP 5 B2B chargers blog post and the one we mentioned above is number one on the list...
FLAT TYRES AND PUNCTURES
Some van wheels can be stupidly heavy and very hard to change by yourself, not to mention all the effort it takes to jack the van up with the silly little jack supplied as standard. In some situations you have no choice but to change the wheel completely and I will give you some advice on the quickest easiest way to do so but wherever possible we want to avoid it at all costs. Nowadays some vehicles don't even come with a spare wheel because there are easier, quicker solutions and thats exactly what we are after. Again you are going to need to have thought about this in advance
This is a perfect solution to a simple puncture, it literally takes mins to fix your flat and it is so simple and easy to use it is pretty much impossible to get wrong. Basically It's a can full of air and foam, you attach it to the valve on your type and twist the red cap. Once you have done this you just stand back and wait as your tyre inflates with air and foam, the foam plugs your puncture for long enough for you to drive to a tyre repair shop no real effort needed. Once you have used this foam you will need to get your tyre replaced so DO NOT use for deflated non punctured tyres or it will be very expensive for you.
These are an actual life saver and for the price you can't go wrong.
Up to 16" wheels - https://amzn.to/3iAiYgp
17" wheels or above - https://amzn.to/3jvPteD
If you have a slow puncture you might want to look at it differently, the tyre might be new and still have lots of life in it and the puncture might be in a location where the tyre can be fixed instead of replaced. This will save you a lot of money if you go down this route, it can cost over £100 for a decent new tyre and it can cost as little as £10 (based on price near me in Leeds) to fix your already decent tyre. Some people do not like to repair tyre's and will only replace them and thats fine, if your are one of these people use the tyre weld as you would with any other puncture. If you are like me and prefer the cheaper option, as it is a slow puncture you only need to put air back into it and go straight to the tyre shop. With any luck the hole will be in the mendable zone and you will be quids in. If you look at your tyre and see a nail or screw in it DO NOT take this out as your tyre will go flat instantly.
To inflate your tyres on location all you need is a portable tyre compressor or a foot pump. Foot pumps can be hard work so why bother when you have twelve volts to do it for you. For big van tyres you will want something pretty heavy duty so we suggest something like this...
Ring RAC900 Heavy Duty Tyre Inflator, Air Compressor with 7m extendable airline, brass connector and storage bag
GASHED OR SLASHED TYRES
Unfortunately if you have a gash or a slash in the side of your tyre you're going to have to change the wheel. This can be very hard to do in some locations and situations but there are some ways to make it a lot quicker and easier for you.
The first thing that will make your life easier and save you a lot of time and energy is a decent quality bottle jack. Vans are heavy and hard to lift off of the ground with the jack supplied if you have a jack supplied at all so something hydraulic will make your life a lot easier.
This bottle jack is really good quality and a decent price too, it can handle up to 8 tonnes so vans are no problem for it.
Alca Germany 8 tonne Hydraulic Bottle Jack Lifting Stand Car/Van/Boat/Caravan
Another problem you might come across when trying to change your wheel is getting the wheel nuts undone, if they have not been removed for a while or if you are neither strong enough or heavy enough to get the bolts undone this can become irritating fast.
In this situation you're going to need nothing more than more leverage. For more leverage I suggest getting yourself an extra long breaker bar, it will make light work of any over tight wheel nut with hardly any pressure or strength needed.
MAXPOWER Breaker Bar 1/2-Inch with 24 Inch Extra Long Chrome Vanadium Steel Handle, 600mm 1/2"Sq Drive, Extra Heavy Duty
With the breaker bar you will also need the correct size socket to fit your wheel nut. You might already have one in your tool box but if not here is a link that covers all possible sizes.
These sockets will fit into even the smallest gap and have a plastic out sleeve so they don't damage your beautiful wheels...
CASOMAN 1/2- Inch Drive Wheel Socket Set, 1/2" Thin Wall Alloy Wheel sockets, Deep Socket Set, Plastic Sleeve Lug Nut, 4 Pieces Set, 6 Point,Metric, 17mm,19mm,21mm,22mm
Once you have got your wheel nuts loose then the breaker bar becomes more hindrance than helpful as it will keep hitting the floor before you reach a full turn of the nut. This will take you ages to remove each wheel nut. Once they are loose it is so much quicker to use one of these
With any luck you should have got one with your van or have one tucked away somewhere already. if not they are cheap to buy and can be found on Amazon.
Amtech J0400 4 Way Wheel Wrench
These will help you reduce the time it takes to change your wheel by about another 5 mins. You just push the correct end over your wheel nuts hold to opposite end loosely in one hand and spin anti-clockwise as fast as you can with the other hand. Remember these only work well once the nuts are loose, they will spin straight out.
All these things together will make it so much quicker and easier to change a wheel in an emergency.
HOW TO CHANGE A WHEEL
Make sure you are on even ground
Put your van in park and in gear
Loosen your wheel nuts
Jack your car up (high enough to get a fully inflated wheel back on but not too high)
Remove wheel nuts and wheel
Put your new wheel in place
Insert the wheel nuts and loosely tighten your wheel nuts
Lower the jack and van
Tighten wheel nuts as hard as you can get them without the breaker bar or body weight
And that's it, easy!
GETTING STUCK IN MUD, SAND OR SNOW
Another annoying situation that is easily avoided but so often isn't is getting stuck somewhere off of the beaten track. The kind of places that most people wouldn't dream of taking their cars but as we are living the van life and need awesome pics for our social media we risk it anyway. Unfortunately these are also the kinds of places that most break down services won't come to rescue you as it's not a road. The last thing you want is to be stuck on a remote beach somewhere as the tides coming in with nobody on their way to rescue your van from it's soon to be watery grave. So what can you do?
The first thing you should try is letting some air out of your tyres on the two wheels that are spinning, the flatter your tyres are the less they will spin and the more traction you will gain. Don't go too low as there is such thing as too much traction! Hopefully if you have not already been spinning on the same spot for ages digging deeper and deeper you should just drive straight forward. If you have dug yourself into a hole already then you might need to use a shovel to dig yourself a less steep ramp in front of the effected tyres before trying.
These little shovels are really cheap to buy and fold up nice and small for emergencies
XINCHENYU Military Folding Shovel [76 cm Length] with MOLLE Pouch - Tactical Multitool Shovel Kit for Camping, Hiking, Backpacking, Fishing, Trench Entrenching Tool etc
If you are stuck in snow this might be all you need to get yourself out. The mixture of deflated tyres and shovel should get you out of any situation. It might also be a good idea to carry something on you in your van like cat litter or grit for traction if you are struggling with ice.
If you are stuck on sand or mud and deflating your tyres or digging are not working fast enough or well enough for you then you need to lay something down in front of your tyres for added traction.
This can be anything that you can see like rocks and sticks. You need to place as many as possible for as far as possible. If you have enough material down once the wheels of the van grip them it should drive you out of your rut. The problem with this is you need lots of stones and sticks just to travel a short distance.
If you like to be prepared and think about things before they happen like me then you might be interested in some of these...
Rhino 4x4 Escape Recovery Track Ladder 10t Off Roading Traction Grip Winter Boards Sand/Mud/Snow x2 (Black)
Don't forget once you get back to solid ground you're going to need to inflate your tyres back to their recommended PSI
Update if you are stuck and have a couple of good pieces of wood and some rope or strong material of some kind you could try this amazing solution
↑ You should check out this guys videos, loads of solutions to everyday problems ↑
So that's about it for PART 1 of How to never call a breakdown service - A beginners guide
Watch out for PART 2 coming soon
In PART 2 we will cover
Running out of fuel
Changing your starter battery
Getting locked out of your van
If you would like to check out my Van life roadside emergency checklist for my full list of roadside emergency equipment suggestions please follow this link
Ok so thats about it from me for now, I hope you all enjoyed it and found it useful
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