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May 27, 2013 7:23 PM   Subscribe

Pro's and Con's of getting a Vanagon (or similar vehicle) for camping?

We very much like car camping. We have been thinking about getting a Vanagon type vehicle so that we have a bit more comfort and a bit more freedom to get up and go. (we currently have a Honda Accord that we have to pack to the gills with tent, cooler, sleeping bags, etc). We would like to do longer road trips with out having to set up and take down every day or every few days. We think we would be more likely to go on last minute weekend getaways in a Vanagon.

We of course have a few questions. First, the vehicle itself. We have heard that Vanagon's can be unreliable, that they are under powered, noisy and very expensive to keep in good repair. Is this true?

Also, if we did this we would have to get rid of the Honda and use the Vanagon as our regular vehicle. We live in downtown Vancouver (BC) and only have one parking spot. However, we also hardly use our car. (we fill the tank every 6 weeks or so.) How expensive is it to use a camper van as a regular vehicle.

Is this a reasonable vehicle for a "work camping" situation. So could Mr. Sadtomato use his laptop (pay for an LTE connection) and work from our van for a month? Have you done this? What was great about it? What sucked?

What other similar vehicles should we be looking at?

What are some good resources for researching vans, costs, reviews and so on?

What are the core features? Are there features that are worth paying a little bit more for?

Other possibly important information: We have no children, it would just be for two of us. We would mostly use it for travel over spring break and summer (I'm a teacher, so teacher vacation times.) We are definitely not interested in an RV.
posted by sadtomato to Travel & Transportation (18 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
Minivan. Take out the back benches, build up storage under a plywood bed.

More to the point, VW makes some great cars...when they're running.
posted by notsnot at 7:49 PM on May 27, 2013 [2 favorites]

We had a Eurovan camper for a decade - more recent model than the Vanagon. Ours was a lemon with many many problems and it was clear from everything we read that the issues were with our particular vehicle not the model. We also camped for years with BIL and SIL who did have a Vanagon. Both we and they did this when our kids were little. It would be a very comfortable way to camp for 2 people - for the 5 of us it was distinctly cramped. It's been 8 years since we got rid of ours but we loved it and have talked about getting a similar vehicle when we retire for longer trips. I drove my in-laws Vanagon some and yes it was definitely underpowered. The Eurovans were less so - we had a 5 cylinder one and the year after they switched to a 6 - poorer mileage but better pick-up. The Vanagon was noisy, Eurovan less so.

We liked being able to take the back benches out to haul stuff - big paintings (I'm an artist), lumber, 4 x 8 sheets of plywood - very handy. It was our full time day to day vehicle. It was also 18" longer than a regular Eurovan so parking took more space. We added shelves to hanging closet since we had more clothing we wanted to fold than to hang. Having a fridge that ran off marine battery as well as gas was handy but ours tended to go out in high winds - definitely look for reviews on that feature. We liked being able to just set up camp easily in lousy weather and the simplicity of it if one got in late - no setting up a tent in the dark. It's a pretty good compromise between tenting and an RV. My husband's parents had a series of Airstreams so have experienced that sort of camping as well and would never choose to do so - cumbersome, a major production to make/break camp and expensive to run.

Other core features - captain's chairs turned around to face table for eating. Marine vinyl floor in main cabin was easy to clean. I would add screens for tailgate for much cooler sleeping in hot weather. The upper berth was lovely in terms of ventilation but didn't have very high clearance - felt cramped to me and I'm 5'1".
posted by leslies at 7:51 PM on May 27, 2013

We have a 1981 Vanagon, and love it. But it's thirty plus years old so comparisons with recent cars leave it looking quite primitive. Vanagons are a bit noisy but fairly reliable, provided you care for them. Ours gets regular basic maintenance and hasn't ever let us down. It isn't a car you can ignore completely without it punishing you eventually.

The big question is how much do you want to spend? You can pick up an old, crappy vanagon for a few thousand, or pay around thirty thousand for one that's been totally renovated and made spiffy.

I think the Vanagon is ideal for exploring country roads, stopping to make yourself a nice cup of tea wherever you fancy, with a cozy bed for when you're tired. I haven't ever had difficulty with overnight parking - unless there are more than two people it's easy to sleep with the poptop closed, so it doesn't draw attention.

Freeways are not the Vanagon's ideal habitat. The original VW engine is about two liters, and is underpowered for dragging all the weight of the poptop, stove, refrigerator and furnishings; uphill is not much fun, though on the flat it will cruise happily at 60. I don't like to take it over 70 mph because that feels too stressful for the motor. One day I'd like to transplant a more powerful motor.

The bodywork is very solidly made, so it feels very robust and a bit heavy. Most people seem to get about 18 mpg (US) though ours needs a tune up so it's getting less than that at present.

Is this a reasonable vehicle for a "work camping" situation. So could Mr. Sadtomato use his laptop (pay for an LTE connection) and work from our van for a month? Have you done this? What was great about it? What sucked?

I've worked in ours and the handy table made it easy, but I only did it for an occasional day. Extended work would be possible, but you'd want to vary it with sitting in coffee shops now and again I guess.

Memail me if you have specific questions on Vanagons after everyone here has had their say.
posted by anadem at 8:06 PM on May 27, 2013

Friends of ours had Vanagons which they took camping to the west coast of Vancouver Island (French Beach, China Beach), and they also drove a Vanagon from Hamburg to Iran.

The one thing they did with the van they shipped from Victoria to Germany was swap out the automatic transmission for a standard transmission (my friend, who is a genius, did it himself), because the damn thing just would not go up hills (there are many between Sooke and Port Renfrew).
posted by KokuRyu at 8:20 PM on May 27, 2013

Hello, 100k miles here with an '82 diesel Westy. If you know how to work on cars, ok. If you don't; plan on about $2k a year for your mechanic.

Otherwise, being able to put yourself into the middle of a Bob Ross picture and still have a pair of full size beds, a sink, an AC/DC/propane fridge, and a two burner propane stove available is pretty spiffy. The reasonably high ground clearance allows them to really get to some places far from teh usual path.

Nice to be able to fit 4"x6"x12' beams inside for working on the house when the weekend is over; and they have a near a one ton load capacity. They were originally trucks for small towns; and just aren't meant for distant drives, especially with the current 75mph speed limits. and are good sources of proper tech info.
posted by buzzman at 8:38 PM on May 27, 2013

I see many more Vanagons at home (Bay Area) than where I grew up (East Coast), but they are not especially reliable older cars. The coolest (my opinion) take on the Westfalia concept was a conversion kit for the Honda Element. You should be able to obtain an Element fairly cheap and have a FAR better vehicle on almost every front: reliability, cost to maintain, freeway compatibility, etc. I will totally admit I love the Vanagons though, they definitely have a cachet / following as well.
posted by tremspeed at 8:40 PM on May 27, 2013

Had a Eurovan - electronics were unreliable and spare parts cost a fortune. Sold it and bought an older Toyota Tacoma and put a Four Wheel camper on it. When I don't plan to use it I can take it off and I have a pickup truck. When I do use it I can go just about anywhere and I have way more trust in the vehicle.

It's a little difference experience - in a Westy you can stop and clamber in the back and eat something or whatever and it's a pretty seamless experience. With a truck camper you have to stop, get out, climb in the back, and pop it up to do just about anything. It's more like you have two modes.
posted by drwelby at 9:05 PM on May 27, 2013 [1 favorite]

YOu should also look into Class b motorhomes, which are usually converted full size vans, like roadtrek. New ones are pretty pricey but used ones are available. You can also get something like an expedition vehicle.

What I would do is get a 4wd pickup and an enclosed trailer converted for camping (that I mostly did myself) and outfitted just how I wanted, but with only one parking space that might not work for you, although a lot of self storage yards will let you park a trailer their pretty cheap. The chief reason I like this idea is that you maintain a great vehicle to run around in, go exploring and use as a daily driver and you get at least as comfortable living space as a vanagon. A 10' enclosed trailer isn't that heavy and I can put in basic camping gear and a platform bed pretty cheap and keep it lightweight. You can also put bikes/motorcycle(s) in the bed of the pickup or whatever else you might want to carry.

If that just isn't going to work for you, I would get a regular minivan and build a sleeping space in that and get a good quality canvas tent for the kitchen and such, using regular camping gear.
posted by bartonlong at 9:08 PM on May 27, 2013 [1 favorite]

oh, and most of those links are for really high end places, there are much cheaper, more practical types out there, those are just what I remembered quickly.
posted by bartonlong at 9:18 PM on May 27, 2013 [1 favorite]

One option if you're looking to increase reliability and power is transplanting a Subaru engine into the Vanagon. It's a pretty popular conversion. I have no personal experience with this option (although I do have a Vanagon, and yes it's underpowered). Here's the site of one outfit that specializes in this conversion; there are others.
posted by bricoleur at 9:30 PM on May 27, 2013

We have heard that Vanagon's can be unreliable, that they are under powered, noisy and very expensive to keep in good repair. Is this true?

Oh, hells yes. Unless you're a mechanic with professional experience with VeeDubs, stay the hell away.

What other similar vehicles should we be looking at?

Toyota Class C Motorhome from the early '90s with low miles. A new Toyota or Nissan compact 4-door pickup with a restored and updated travel trailer or new pickup-bed camper. A late 2000's Kia Sportage or Hyundai Santa Fe with a 6 cyl and a well maintained second-hand pop-up trailer.
posted by Slap*Happy at 9:31 PM on May 27, 2013

It's actually quite popular to convert vans in Europe to the "Westphalia" or "Vanagon" styles seen over here. With Ford introducing their "European" vans in the US and Merc still pushing the Sprinter, you should be able to find a shop willing to do conversions relatively easily.

That being said, you shouldn't do it.

You'll be much happier and have less headaches with a modern SUV. I've done this in CR-Vs and known people to do it in Tahoes. My feeling is that you could get a used SUV for about the same price as a Vanagon, and have it be a LOT more reliable (and have an easier time finding parts).
posted by NYC-BB at 10:55 PM on May 27, 2013

I own and love a "Vanagon" (or T3 since I'm in Europe...) but I wouldn't consider it reliable any more. Even a late-model T4 (or "Eurovan" for you guys) is getting a bit long in the tooth now.

If you can swing the money, Sportsmobile builds camper vans in the spirit of Westfalia, but on domestic and current import platforms. Their 4x4 offerings are really nice, and well considered.

The Expedition Portal Forum, especially the 4WD camper vans sub-forum is a useful place to browse.
posted by Harald74 at 12:04 AM on May 28, 2013

we would have to get rid of the Honda and use the Vanagon as our regular vehicle

It's not a good idea to have a vehicle that needs lots of maintenance as your only vehicle. Some maintenance tasks shouldn't be put off, or there will be some sort of small repair that needs to be done, and you KNOW that driving it will put undue wear on the engine or whatever until it's fixed... but you just need to run this one little errand, and it should be fine... oops.
posted by yohko at 1:23 AM on May 28, 2013

My long range plan is to buy a pop-up camper. My parents towed one around with a 4 cylinder Ford Tempo and a 4-cylinder Mustang. I wouldn't recommend that though. The 6-cylinder Accord seems to have a 1500 lb tow capacity with the tow package add-on, which is probably a class one hitch, transmission cooler, and maybe beefier brakes. Not sure if that is enough for a small pop-up or not, but it might be worth looking into.
posted by COD at 5:38 AM on May 28, 2013

Forget about the stupid unreliable vw. Get a used Honda Odyssey or a Toyota Sienna and, like notsnot said above, get rid of the rear seats, build a low platform in the back that gives room for storage under a bed and hit the road. If you want more details about how to build such a platform I'll be glad to help.
posted by mareli at 5:43 AM on May 28, 2013 [2 favorites]

I completely agree with notsnot and marell.
posted by humboldt32 at 9:06 AM on May 28, 2013

Speaking as an '85 Westy owner who's taken weeks long trips across the country with few mechanical problems, the Vanagon is a fantastic camping vehicle, especially for two people.

Underpowered? Absolutely, but you get used to going slow up hills and part of the allure of sitting over the wheels while you drive is taking in the scenery and living life at a more relaxed pace.

Unreliable & expensive? Vanagons are 25+/- year old vehicles and at that point the reliability of any car or truck depends on the attention to maintenance and service. A well-sorted Vanagon can be reliable and, if you or Mr sadtomato are good with tools, not unreasonably expensive for a European car to maintain. My point of reference is that I think my mom's 2001 BMW is expensive to maintain and I can't do much of the work on her car. There are parts suppliers like GoWesty, Van Cafe and Bus Depot that cater to the VW crowd and sites like the RoadHaus can point towards experienced mechanics.

There's also a strong VW community that one joins when you get one of these vans. There's the Vanagon Rescue Squad to help when you're broke down. The Samba for online technical support, discussion, and classifieds (the AskMe of VW's), and, in your neck of the woods, the Wet Westies camping group.

A good choice for your only car? A Westy can certainly do a lot that other cars can't, but you need to consider do you really want to haul around a stove, fridge, cabinets and a tank of water for every trip you make across town? My other car is a '99 Miata, which about the polar opposite of a Vanagon, but it works great for commuting to work each day. The Miata's master cyllinder for the clutch is my most recent auto-stranding, further indicating that any car can leave you high and dry.

Can you work from the van? Yep, internet is easily accomplished with something like LTE as you've noted. Whatever you choose, you'll want to make sure you've got the power supply figured out. Whether it's a second battery with a solar panel or a small generator, I've found that's an important aspect to make all the gadgets go.

Key features? Depends a lot on how you plan to camp. If you like to be away from civilization at dispersed campsites, then you'll need to focus on being more self sufficient, handling waste, bathing, storing foods, maintaining power, etc. These are less of an issue if you're staying at established campgrounds or regularly breaking camp and going through small towns to re-supply. When we've done the big travels, a hotel room or friends house at least once a week keeps you feeling civilized.

Other vehicles? As others have noted, Sportsmobiles, converted Sprinters, the Honda Element, or other van/mini-van conversions are possible alternatives. Since you're in Canada, you might have other van conversion options from Nissan, Mitsubishi, or others that aren't readily available in the US.

Good luck with whatever you may choose!
posted by pappy at 10:33 AM on May 28, 2013 [1 favorite]

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