What is the best vehicle for a Dad and his young daughter to take on driving adventures?
April 26, 2011 9:07 PM   Subscribe

What is the best cheap(ish) camper/rv/vehicle appropriate for a Dad and his young daughter to take on driving adventures?

Dad, primary caretaker of a 1 year old daughter. My work schedule is pretty light in the summer, and I'd really like to start taking my daughter on short road trips (2-4 days) out of the city to see some nature: beaches, forests, mountains, the oceans on the East Coast of the US. The idea of trying to get her to sleep in a tent seems a little tough, uncomfortable and inconvenient for both of us. Frequent hotel stays would be expensive, and also kind of miss the point of being out of the city. Ideally, a painless way for us to have some Daddy/Daughter getaway time out of the urban landscape over the next few years until she's old enough to think I'm not cool anymore.

I'd like to hear your personal experiences with any vehicles that exist that meet the following criteria:

Under $5,000 USD
Comfortably sleep 1-2 adults, and 1 child in a portable crib/pack and play.
Safe and can handle a car seat. (on the roads and camped out)
Some type of rudimentary cooking facilities.
Doesn't require crazy maintenance (I've looked at VW busses and they seem like a maintenance nightmare).
Would be serviceable for the next 5 years or so.
Water tank a huge plus for cleaning a kid who has been playing in the muck.
Basic bathroom facilities would be a bonus, but not necessary.
Doesn't require a CDL.

Thanks in advance Metafilter.
posted by EvilPRGuy to Travel & Transportation (12 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
My family had a VW Vanagon, which we drove cross-country several times. As far as I can recall, it had no particular mechanical issues. We had it for at least seven years.

No bathroom facilities, I think it had a sink but I don't know for sure. Definitely had a fridge. The poptop part comfortably slept two adults, and the rear seats folded back into the trunk and slept a bunch of kids.

I have great memories of the Vanagon, and I think it would suit your needs well.
posted by charmcityblues at 9:16 PM on April 26, 2011 [1 favorite]

Look at 1991-1995 Dodge Caravans/Plymouth Voyagers/Chrysler Town & Countries (all the same vehicle). Most of them are worn out and unreliable and $800, but a few of them will have low miles and decent mechanical boasts and will cost $1,500 or $2,000 (you might want to seek out and buy the most expensive one). These are the VW Buses of 2011: cheap, durable, parts everywhere, and easy to adapt to any use. I have a put a combined 75,000 miles of fun wandering over a lot of North America on two of these over the last five years. They're cheap, swell, comfortable live-in cars.
posted by FLAG (BASTARD WATER.) (Acorus Adulterinus.) at 10:04 PM on April 26, 2011 [1 favorite]

We have a Vanagon (which is probably equivalent to what you're calling a VW bus) and it does need regular maintenance. Ours is a 1981 air-cooled model; 1985 and later have a water-cooled engine which is said to be better.

Ours has been to burning man a couple of times, and various other longish trips through the west, so it's not specially unreliable; the two real breakdowns we've had have been due to faulty usage and faulty mechanics, not intrinsic Vanagon faults. It has fridge, gas cooker, and sink with faucet, but no toilet. It's a great vehicle, pleasant to travel in and lots of fun, though the gas mileage is poor (12-15 mpg) and it's underpowered for hills and freeways. One big advantage it has is that it's the same size as a regular car so you don't need special parking places. I love to be able to stop and make a cup of tea anywhere.

Unfortunately, I think you'd have difficulty finding a decent Vanagon for $5,000; their prices have gone up astonishingly the last couple of years.

We also had a Dodge Caravan, and FLAG is almost right - they are the VW bus replacement, though not a Vanagon replacement because they don't have the kitchen. Its seats turned into a comfortable bed, but there's no second bed as there is with the VW. I wish we still had ours, but an oak fell on it. It took us on wonderful road trips, though we slept in tents or motels more than in the van.
posted by anadem at 10:14 PM on April 26, 2011

Backcountry user for 40 years now, summer and winter. I've done it every possible way. Volkswagen campers are money pits, and incredibly underpowered. I refuse to travel in them in the mountains around here. Every single person I've known who bought one (dozens) was constantly fixing it. Avoid.

They don't fit the child seat criteria either. Nor do camper vans, as they typically only have two seats. I know I've seen a few over the years with 4 "captain's chairs" which would work, but these are extremely rare. So, barring getting luckuy and finding one of those, you're stuck with a passenger van, plus conversion, as suggested above; or an extended cab pickup, with a camper in the back. I see that you are in Brooklyn, and just did a CL search, and couldn't find a single one though, probably due to the parking costs. You can't swing a cat around these parts without hitting one of these things.

If you have a suitable tow vehicle, you might want to split the difference and look at tent-trailers as a compromise. Still need to deal with the parking though.
posted by PareidoliaticBoy at 10:31 PM on April 26, 2011

Getting any kind of reliable vehicle that will be good for 5 years for $5,000 is pretty tough. But you might look for small pickup trucks, like a 2000-2004 Chevy S10 Extended or Crew Cab, which you could then equip with a Sportz truck tent or similar. A truck tent avoids a lot of the muck and rigging issues of normal ground tents, and with an air mattress or two, can provide comfortable, warm accommodations for a couple of adults and toddler, in 3 seasons.

A Coleman stove, a cooler and a grub box gives you serviceable kitchen capabilities. At your budget, you're better off pulling into a KOA or state campground for showers, bathroom and washing facilities, than trying to carry/rig anything more than a 5 gallon water can.
posted by paulsc at 4:00 AM on April 27, 2011

When we had a Grand Voyager that we special-ordered, new, with the back seats that fold down into a bed, we made a child's bed that fit across the front seats, basically a board with a leg to support it. The crib mattress fit it nicely. We also made a netting screen to cover the back hatch opening when the liftgate was open, so we could get air at night without mosquitoes; we used self-adhesive velcro in the car, and sew-on velcro on the netting, to attach it. Both of these were inspired by my family's 1968 Volkswagen camper.

Unfortunately that car had serious reliability problems. The brakes failed on numerous vacations. It's a major bummer when your car breaks down 250 miles from home and 250 miles from your destination. On one occasion, we had to rent an expensive SUV and then come back for the minivan the following week. Now we have a Toyota minivan that's far, far more reliable, but the seats don't fold down to make a bed, so we have to remove the middle seats altogether to sleep on the floor. The kids are more than big enough for tents now anyway, though.

Before we had the Grand Voyager, we all three shared a tent, with the baby in a couple of layers of polyester fleece sleepers plus a sleeping bag I made from polyester fleece. We did not sleep well. He was never the kind of baby who is easy to share a bed with. Too much moving around and kicking me in the head.
posted by Ery at 6:16 AM on April 27, 2011

Maybe instead of a minivan, consider a wagon like the Toyota Matrix, Pontiac Vibe, or Subaru Outback, where the seats fold flat. You didn't ask, but I'm thinking good gas mileage is a consideration too. Either tow a small trailer for gear, or put it on the roof rack. Get the grub box like paulsc mentioned and maybe a water can that you can raise up with some kind of shower attachment -- I think it's called a camp shower. And do the mosquito netting for the sunroof and windows like Ery suggests.
posted by indigo4963 at 6:49 AM on April 27, 2011

A roof top tent is convient and much more comfortable than a regular ground tent, but costlier. It might make the difference if you generally dislike living in tents. We've camped with a two-year-old and five-year-old three weeks running in one. It's not an RV, but you won't get much of an RV on your budget, I think.

It fits on top of most any vehicle. There are two basic types; fold-out and clamshell. I'd recommend a clamshell type, both for ease of setup and resistance to rain and wind. We have a Maggiolina Adventurer (available here in the US) which we love dearly.

There are a lot of ways to solve the cleaning and bathroom issues. A portable camp shower with a simple enclosure can be packed away easily. A PortaPotty or similar does not take up a lot of space either. Water tanks to fit in footwells and other nooks and crannies exist for most popular vehicles. Or you can get something like this and secure it somewhere.
posted by Harald74 at 6:51 AM on April 27, 2011

For fun and within that budget, these teardrop rvs might be something to consider. They vary quite a bit in cost and amenities, but you could tow it with your current vehicle to keep your kid in a safe space and still have a regular bed to sleep in.

I want one...
posted by BlooPen at 7:12 AM on April 27, 2011 [2 favorites]

$5000 isn't enough to purchase a reliable vehicle. If you already have a truck, SUV or van, a small used travel trailer is definitely the way to go, provided you have a mechanic look at it before you buy. If you have a mid-sized or larger car or crossover, a used pop-up trailer is what you need.

If you have neither, you'll want to save up at least another 5-10k for a low-mileage or thoroughly restored camper van - and I mean a converted Dodge, Ford or Chevy van, not a VW camper unless your hobby is restoring old VWs and not actually camping.

Another option is to pack a cabin tent into your car - you can get cots, camp tables and chairs, propane stove and lanterns, and a port-a-potty w/ "outhouse tent" for a lot cheaper than any of the RV options. Even hatchbacks can tow small cargo trailers full of camping stuff.
posted by Slap*Happy at 9:28 AM on April 27, 2011

Consider a Truck Bunk. A truck with a six foot bed, a cap, and $25 worth of lumber and you have an portable, off-road, discrete camp. I have camped undetected in Wal-Mart, grocery store, rest areas, motel parking lots. Also, on the beach, down by the river, mountain top—wherever the truck goes, there's camp.
posted by I'm Doing the Dishes at 11:00 AM on April 27, 2011

Response by poster: Thanks so much everyone. These are great answers, and you've given me a lot of paths to explore here. Definitely solved for me. Three cheers for the Hive Mind!
posted by EvilPRGuy at 11:27 AM on April 27, 2011

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