Anyone with a love of the great outdoors will attest to harbouring one travel dream above many—to wake up in their own recreational vehicle, toss a brick of noodles into the boiling water, smell the coffee all over the kitchenette, and set up a lawn chair to catch the sea lapping at the shore, ravishing a view no one ever told them about. Vanlife, as the hashtag goes, has its rewards.
In India, caravan travel has been practised only sparsely, owing to inconsistent road conditions, licensing problems and the absence of trailer parks or campsites dedicated to campervans. Caravanning, for the most part, has existed in the popular imagination as eccentric travellers overlanding in old RVs or trailers hitched to the back of a 4X4.
As the search for alternative ways of travel intensified in the wake of the pandemic, state tourism departments all over the country unfurled a slew of caravan tourism drives and circuits, partnering with rented motorhome companies. But these routes have so far remained limited, both in terms of places covered and experience.
The allure of taking a road trip in a recreation vehicle outfitted with one’s preferred conveniences has perhaps never been greater, but the ancillaries on the identified circuits, continue to fall short. However, with a road network spanning five-million kilometres, spectacular vistas strewn across its landmass, and a great diversity of landscape, India promises trails for all kinds of adventure-seekers. We reached out to camping aficionados, travel, entrepreneurs, tour operators and avid road trippers in our search for the coolest circuits in the country you can cover in your camper vehicle:
When: November, after the post-monsoon humidity has diffused
This route stretches along the western coast, where you are likely to have heartwarming encounters with locals and avoid crowded beaches. Do spend a night in Palghar—which actually deserves a weekend—enjoying Malvani cuisine at its humble eateries, walking along the coconut- and casuarina-lined shore, and maybe even making a jog for its forts. The Gujarat leg of the drive passes the engaging cities of Vadodara, Rajkot and Jamnagar—which, buzzing with museums and redolent with Gujarati flavours, demand exploration. However, if you want to head for Kutch instead, break the journey up at Rajkot, camp overnight at Bhuj. Spend the rest of the day exploring its handicrafts and heritage buildings before resuming the drive towards Kutch. Stargazing in the salts of Kutch is quite unparalleled; the whole point of taking your campervan there is to feel the breeze without the constraints of a campsite. Furthermore, Gujarat offers really affordable licensing in comparison to other states.
Inputs by Prateek Athalye, The Vacay Vans
When: October to February; monsoons are also amenable
Caravan travel is all about flexibility and unpredictability, and this straightforward-seeming circuit will take you through three states and a Union Territory in four days—or more, depending on the time you spend at each of your stops. With the Yamuna Expressway, make light work of Agra, and stay a night in Dholpur, which has the Van Vihar Sanctuary, and a few historical landmarks. Not your cup of tea? Motor further on into Madhya Pradesh, driving through Gwalior, and making an overnight stop at Orchha, which you can explore the day after (on a bicycle is a great way to do it, so don’t have any second thoughts about tossing those bikes in the boot). The drive from Orchha to Pachmarhi is a long one, and one can break it up at Chanderi, which is famous for its sarees (campsites also available on this stretch). After Sagar, the drive gets serener as one approaches the hilly cantonment town.
Inputs by Jigyasu Joshi, co-founder, Carvaa Travels
Campervan or not—this illustrious stretch of India’s west coast would easily make it into most road trip lists. Who would say no to Kapu lighthouse and the pristine beaches of Tagore and Maravanthe? However, it’s also one of the best circuits to realise the biggest advantage of van life: being able to make an overnight stop without worrying about finding or having pre-booked good accommodation. There are several versions of this route, including the shorter Karwar-Udupi strip that maps the Karnataka coast, but you just might want to drive further to Gokarna, and then end on a high note in Goa. When in Canara, give the kitchenette regular breaks to get out and feast on the region’s well-regarded coastal fare (think Kundapura Chicken, eclectic picks from Mangalorean cuisine, and Udupi’s renowned temple fare).
Inputs by Shikhar Chadha, The Tarzan Way
When: Monsoons are ideal; September to January is also a good period
This exciting road trip along the eastern corridor of Rajasthan takes caravanners around some of the most stimulating sights and spots in the state. The trail starts from the well-planned state capital to the rocky outcrops of rural Pali, where leopards and humans have lived in harmony for the past 150 years. The lush environs of southern Rajasthan follow in the form of Mount Abu and Udaipur. The trail curves upwards, as you enter the Chambal-fed Hadoti region; Bundi will charm you, so factor in spending at least two days here. On the final lap, you make your way to Alwar via Sawai Madhopur. This is a great trail for travellers from other cities close to Jaipur, too.
When: October to February
A riveting drive covering the coast up till Alappuzha and the Western Ghats on the way back, this route takes you through a variety of landscapes and sights. As you set off from Wayanad, leaving behind the densely forested Nilgiri Hills, as you drive down to the coast, to the lively Kozhikode, where you can take a brief break to explore its beaches. Kochi, four-and-a-half hours away, is where you can spend the night and take the following day to check the city out. Alternately, Alapphuzha is a great last coastal break before you make an eastward move towards Munnar. On the second leg of the trip back to Wayanad, cross Pollachi and halt at Palakkad. While you’re here, also check out the picturesque Kava–Anakkal Road, which is very close to the Malampuzha Dam that offers great views of the Western Ghats. Another scenic hideaway on the route back to Wayanad, is Malappuram.
Inputs by Rohith Subramanian
When: May to September
This might be one of the more popular road trip circuits in India, but it is every bit worth the hype. And since a campervan affords more amenities and comfort on the road (vis-à-vis a car or a motorcycle), the otherwise tricky route opens up to more family trips. Earlier, travellers would drive/ride from Manali to Srinagar via Leh, but this itinerary offers a more stable altitude progression. The night halts for this trip can be taken at Keylong/Jispa (first day) and Tso Kar (second day), which is just over an hour away from Tanglang La. And one point that can’t be stressed enough: carry adequate layers and medication for everyone travelling.
Inputs by Shikhar Chadha, The Tarzan Way
When: October to February
Campervanning in India’s rainiest state, you will fall asleep to night showers battering the roof of your caravan, and wake up to pleasant morning drizzles signalling time for masala chai. The drive from Guwahati is a three-hour stretch (100km) that travellers adore. It is best to leave early to avoid congestion in the first 20 kilometers or so. There are quite a lot of sharp bends, so go slow and take in the scenery. You can choose between taking a halt at Umiam Lake, or go on for another 20 kilometres and take a couple of days to explore Shillong. Mawlyngbna, a serene hamlet hidden away in the East Khasi Hills, has a forest setting, and is two-and-a-half-hour drive away. To get to Nongriat, get back on Lawbah Road, and then turn right onto NH 208. Alternately, one could drive to Nongriat first and then Mawlyngbna.
When: May to September
Driving to Sikkim and around the state isn’t the most straightforward—permits are needed if you are driving from outside the state, and a lot of the driving is essentially off-roading. With that out of the way, the state offers some of the most rewarding travel experiences in the country, both in terms of adventure and natural scenery. Driving from Gangtok to Lachen takes roughly five hours (it’s a bumpy ride, but nothing that a smashing playlist can’t take care of), so hit the bed early after supper. Take the next day to explore the village, and use your time wisely because the drive for Lake Gurudongmar begins no later than 4 a.m. After a rendezvous with the stunning glacial lake, depart for Lachung, the other of North Sikkim’s Lepcha villages. Spend a day here and then start for Yumthang.
When: September to March
Another stimulating campervan route from Mumbai, this trail covers the Konkan coast, the coffee plantations of Coorg and Chikmagalur, and the Western Ghats in Maharashtra. Drive from Mumbai to Devbag via Alibaug, Harihareshwar and Tarkarli (all of them are great for night halts), and then enter South Goa (Palolem). Campsites are available all along
this stretch, but it’s best to ask locals for a scenic spot where you can park for the night. Once you’re in Karwar, rest before you explore the spot because the drive to Sakleshpur is a long one (399km). Coorg is two-and-a-half hours away—halt and spend a couple of days in the hilly hamlet (tip: try staying at a homestay one night). For the return journey, head for Chikmagalur, another coffee hub nestled in the Malnad region (Halebidu, which is home to the stunning Hoysala temples, is 45 minutes away). Once you cross Hubli, the Maharashtra leg of the drive back to Mumbai begins. This scenic stretch is about 570km, so night halts can be made in Kolhapur, Mahabaleshwar and Lonavala.
Inputs by Prateek Athalye
This feature appeared in the print edition of National Geographic Traveller India September-October 2021.
Prannay Pathak dreams about living out of a suitcase and retiring to the island of Hamneskär to watch films in solitary confinement. He is Assistant Editor (Digital) at National Geographic Traveller India.
Muskaan Gupta travels with a camera that doesn't fret to capture touristy pictures and believes visiting local markets is the best way to unearth a city's gems and jewels. She is Junior Writer (Native Content) at National Geographic Traveller India.