“Talk to a guy in a 27′ RV and he’ll say he’d have plenty of space if he just had another three feet. Talk to a guy in a 35′ RV and he says the same thing. Talk to a guy in a 40′ RV … ”
Ahwahnee, Samba Member
Traveling by Westfalia Camper is considered by many to be the perfect compromise between traditional car-and-tent camping and a large motor home. Though certainly offering less interior room and creature comforts than a larger RV, the Westy’s integrated kitchen and sleeping quarters require far less gear and hassle than when car-camping.
Of course, packing everything you think you’ll need for a week- or month-long road trip into a vehicle whose wheelbase is one inch shorter than that of a Mini Cooper can be a bit challenging.
Here are some suggestions learned from several years of Westfalia traveling experiences. Of course, travelers are as unique as the journeys themselves, so adapt these ideas to suit your own epic road trips.
Just the Basics
If the purpose of your trip is to ‘get away from it all,’ don’t try to bring it all with you. I mean, you’ve already got everything and the kitchen sink, so try to pack light. Most storage & packing problems can be prevented by simply leaving more stuff at home. If you define “camping” as an opportunity to experience the simple life, then setting up camp requires little more than popping the Westy top!
As an experienced kayak-camper and hiker, I’ve learned to trim my kit down to the minimum, which pays dividends in added space and easier organization. Try to minimize the amount of clothing you bring along by avoiding duplicates. Employ the old hikers’ principle of clothing ‘layering’: a light base layer for comfort and moisture management, followed by a warmer insulating layer to protect from cold, all covered by a shell layer to shield you from wind and rain when needed. By donning and doffing various articles of clothing as conditions change, you can make quick adjustments based on your activity level and changes in the weather, and remain comfortable throughout the day while keeping clutter to a minimum.
On our Westy trips, each person packs one or two medium-sized duffles or sports bags containing all our clothing, plus a small-to-medium pack for daytrips. Generally, soft bags and packs are more adaptable than rigid storage totes and bins, since they can grow and shrink as needed for their load. An empty sports bag can easily be crammed inside another bag, taking up almost no space, while a half-empty cargo bin is just as bulky and space-consuming as ever. Think duffle bags, not steamer trunks.
A Few Simple Packing Tips
- Avoid stuffing your glovebox with unnecessary clutter—crumbling breath mints, year-old fuel receipts, surplus packets of Horsey Sauce—and instead keep vehicle registration & insurance papers, headlamp, phone & charger, and today’s road map in there
- Use an exterior rug just outside the sliding door when in camp, to wipe feet off before entering, and sweep out the floors each day with a compact whisk broom
- Stow shoes and other dirty, wet gear on the passenger floor overnight to contain the mess, which is easily cleaned later by simply washing the removable floor mats
- Pack an empty trash bag inside each clothing duffle, to keep soiled clothes separate for laundering; this inner bag expands as your clean clothes diminish, taking up no additional space
- Keep your Vanagon’s center-of-gravity low for better stability in high winds and on rough roads; pack heavy items like emergency jack and other tools under the bench seat, not up in overhead cabinets. (Yes, people do this …)
- Stow coffee pots, plates, and other loose kitchenware in a plastic dishpan, then slide the entire thing into the forward kitchen cabinet like a drawer
- Avoid frying fatty or highly aromatic foods like bacon, burgers, fish, and garlic/onions inside the Westy, but do it outdoors, to avoid lingering odors and grease
- If you do use a Coleman or similar campstove and cookware, store it all in a plastic tote that deploys quickly in camp to free up interior space and to contain any mess. If using a fire grate or a flat grill, slip it into a heavy-duty plastic bag for the same reason.
- Keep the kitchen stove & sink and other cabinets wiped down and clean. Tidying after every meal avoids the need for an arduous annual scrub-fest
- Collect trash in a five-gallon plastic bucket with a swivel seat, like those used for hunting & fishing. Lined with a small trash bag, when not used as a seat it doubles as a step-stool for clambering into the upper bunk. Collect and remove trash and recycling at every opportunity, to avoid clutter and bad odors
“A place for everything …
… and everything in its place,” our grandmothers always told us, and there are few places where this is more true than a road-bound Westfalia Camper. Highway madness can be forestalled simply by being consistent about where everything is stored and stowed, and clutter minimized. Since the Westy is not only one’s vehicle but also one’s home, it is crucial that one keep one’s sh*t together …
We generally keep our Westy provisioned with certain semi-permanent camping gear—pots & pans, grill, tarp, spare parts, etc.—so when preparing for a trip, we need only stock the cupboards with groceries, chuck our few bags in, fill the water tank, and hit the highway. Learn more about a typical Westy-traveling routine here.
In general, we try to travel with our luggage in the rearmost portion of the van behind the bench seat when underway. Nearly all our bags easily fit back here without obscuring the view out the rear window. Later, in camp, when deploying the bed for night, we transfer our bags to the vacant front seats to free space in the bed for sleeping. If the upper bunk is also vacant, gear can be stowed atop the folded upper mattress beneath the popup roof.
Under Front Seats Depending on whether your Vanagon is gasoline- or diesel-powered, and whether or not you have an auxiliary battery installed, there may be a small storage space beneath one of the front seats, accessed by lifting the carpet immediately behind the seats. This is a good place to store fragile electrical automotive parts & tools, and seldom-used automotive fluids: fuel-injector cleaner, WD-40, 100% anti-freeze, etc.
Bench Seat Store heavy vehicle and camping supplies here: RV leveling blocks, tools, large mechanical parts, tow strap, hand winch, folding army shovel, hatchet, saw, heater, grill, etc.
Under Lower Bunk Overhang The space beneath the overhanging mattress when the lower bunk is deployed is a convenient place for medium duffels or packs, flashlight for midnight restroom visits, etc.
Overhead Cabinet Curtains, first-aid kit, towels
Front Kitchen Cabinet Pots & pans, silverware, utensils, dishpan, cutting board, etc.. A tea kettle wrapped in a dishtowel fits nicely inside the sink
Rear Kitchen Cabinet Packaged & canned groceries
Over-Kitchen Cornice Running the length of the kitchen above the windows, this narrow trough is a good place for small, frequently-used items: butane lighters & matches, flashlights, pens
Clothes Closet Blankets & sleeping bags, pillows, large coats, hiking boots. There’s even a small hanger rod here for those fancy campers who prefer to turn out in formal attire when on safari.
Rear Closet Small mechanical parts, often-used automotive fluids like motor oil & fuel additives, repair manuals & other books, jumper cables, etc.
Rear Overhead Cabinet Insect screen for rear hatch opening, miscellaneous small camping items: rope, flashlight, etc.
Rooftop Luggage Rack Screen tent, folding camp chairs, hiking sticks, volleyball net, rain tarp, yard sale treasures. Use a large duffle bag and bungee net to hold cargo securely.
“Clean As You Go”
Another bit of folksy wisdom from Granny, it’s smart to take a moment a few times each day to attend to housekeeping and cleaning. The patience of even the best of traveling companions can be tested the third time they trip over your sneakers.
The superb versatility of the Westy lends itself well to various ‘modes’ of operation: Driving, Cooking, Lounging, Sleeping, etc.. When ending one mode and starting another, say between a late dinner and bedtime, take a moment to tidy all the associated disorder and stow the clutter of mealtime, and produce the kit and kaboodle for sleeping.
Such diligent domestic science will keep things organized and ship-shape as you travel, and may help prevent a Mutiny on the Westy.
Are We There Yet?
If your little crew exceeds two, or includes children or other wild beasts, well … conditions aboard your Westfalia Camper can soon grow desperate, with all the forlorn hope, delirious ranting, and brutal savagery of the final days of the Donner Party.
Simple courtesy, good behavior, and clear rules of personal space will help adults, children, and pets enjoy their travels more, not to mention those around them.
Kids should be allowed and assigned personal luggage, being made responsible for their own daily packing and comfort. But kids also require far less stuff than we—and certainly they—realize. Try to limit the clutter of childhood to a few well-chosen favorites: Frisbees for beach or campsite play, video games or books for rainy days, etc..
Kids (and some grownups I know) appreciate short-term goals and reminders of upcoming rewards. Tell a bored six-year-old in the back seat that you’re all driving halfway across the continent for half a month, and she’ll likely collapse in a seething heap of wailing desperation. But tell her that she’s halfway to the campground where there’ll be woods and a beach, and she just might cling to life long enough to see the lake. One day at a time, kids.
Even better, involve children in choosing the trip’s daily destinations and activities. Whether age eight or eighty, we’re all better able to endure boredom and discomfort if we feel we have a hand in matters, rather than blaming our hardships on our incompetent captains.
Kids can also participate in all the fun and work of a great trip by helping with small tasks and chores: collecting firewood & water, loading & unloading the Westy, prepping food, taking the dog for a walk.
In fact, many of these same rules will help keep pets happier, too: personal space, less clutter, favorite toys and activities. And both kids and dogs will appreciate frequent stops for extra-vehicular activities: hikes, chasing balls, sniffing trees, and running their fool heads off.
Having been washed-out and blown-out of many a pup tent—once while motorcycle camping in gale-force winds on the shore of Lake Superior—I really value the snug, dry warmth of the Westy, the convenience of her full kitchenette, and the elegant ease of setting-up and breaking camp.
Following these few simple principles of packing—minimalism, organization, routine, cleanliness—you’ll soon be ready to hit the open road for your own Westfalia adventures!