“When preparing to travel, lay out all your clothes and all your money. Then take half the clothes and twice the money”.
The Epic Road Trip holds a special place in our collective psyche, combining the exploration of new places with a desire for the sights and sounds of bygone eras, and an eagerness to broaden our minds with expansive scenic vistas unfolding before our eyes.
There are many ways to embark upon such a journey of discovery, but traveling by Westfalia Camper is in our opinion the best mode of transport, with the great visibility offered by its sweeping windshield, excellent fuel economy, compact footprint in city or forest, and full-featured kitchenette and sleeping facilities.
When uninitiated road trippers ask why we don’t just fly someplace and rent a car, we smile at one another and recall all the desert sunrises, sweeping mountain views, seaside lunches while a passing rainstorm patters on the roof, campfires serenaded by coyotes, and countless other vivid immersive experiences we’ve enjoyed over the years while travelling in our Vanagon Westfalia.
But it can also be daunting, especially the first time.
So, here’s Part 1, a quick guide to planning your own van-camping road trip adventures!
Have a Rough Plan … But Keep It Loose
Unless you’re playing a game of “Spin the Bottle on the Road Atlas,” you probably already have some idea where you want to go, and how much time you have. Sketch that out in more detail by making a list of highlights you simply must see (natural wonders, museums, historical sites, etc.), and how much time to devote to each one.
Further refine your plan by adding any secondary places you’d like to visit, and how long to get there and back.
Then, be prepared to adapt as needed. You never know when an intriguing road sign or a chance encounter in a small-town diner will lead you on a detour to something amazing. So save a seat for serendipity.
Plan Your Route and Stops Before You Leave
Working from your rough plan above, mark out each location or site on a big map. You may prefer old-school paper maps, GoogleMaps custom routes, or specialized navigation apps. Either way, quickly plotting your trip’s highlights like this will help you connect the dots and plan the perfect driving route.
Everyone has a different tolerance or preference for how many miles or hours to spend on the road, so break your route into manageable driving days. For each intended nightly stop, keep a short list of suitable campgrounds or motels so that you don’t have to look for them in the dark when you arrive. In fact, I do this for each half-day, so that if we decide to push on for an extra few hours of driving or we find ourselves delayed for some reason, we have a couple of easy alternatives.
While we like to plan ahead as much as possible, we generally feel cramped by making reservations. Taking campsites or lodging as we discover it, or “freestyling,” allows us the ultimate in flexibility, and we can linger or jump ahead as we wish. Of course, this can be a tricky thing in popular places or during peak vacation season (a good reason to travel in the early spring or late autumn).
So freestyle wisely.
Have a Firm Budget … but Keep It Flexible
Like your destination and schedule, you likely have a good ballpark figure of how much money you’re prepared to spend on this trip. Confirm your numbers by adding up each day’s estimated costs for fuel, food, lodging or camping, and admission fees. Do these numbers jive with your budget, or will you need to make some adjustments?
As with most things in life, you should leave some room in your budget for unexpected expenses, and set aside a cash cushion in case things cost more than you estimated. As always, it’s especially smart now to have your credit card balances paid down so that you can use them for any large unforeseen trip costs.
At the same time, you should also look for ways to streamline your spending. This will help cover those sudden costs should they arise, or keep extra cash in your pocket if they don’t. Maybe you’ll decide to scrimp on one part of your spending in order to splurge on another: on a recent road trip to Nova Scotia, I boiled oodles of ramen noodles and dehydrated flavored rice along the way, then enjoyed lots of fresh Atlantic seafood once we arrived on the coast.
Make Sure Your Ride is Ready
Mechanical dependability is important whether your family vehicle is five years old or thirty-five. And it’s especially crucial when your ride is also your home.
Proper ongoing maintenance should help avoid most problems, but use the months and weeks leading up to your trip to attend to any other larger mechanical work. Inspect all the major vehicle systems, especially safety parts like brakes, tires, engine and drivetrain, cooling system, etc.. But avoid the common mistake of performing major repairs immediately before leaving on your trip; instead, make these repairs far enough in advance to allow a couple weeks of ‘shakedown’ driving around town to work out any bugs.
Whether you typically take your van to a trusted mechanic or do all repairs yourself, the more you know about your vehicle the more independent you can be if problems arise on the road far from home. Learn as much as you can about your van, carry a couple of good workshop manuals, and an assortment of tools and hard-to-find parts for emergencies.
Join a Roadside Assistance Program
Even with the best of preventative maintenance and MacGyver-like repair skills, sometimes you just need a gallon of fuel. Or a jump start. Or a constant-velocity drive axle …
American Auto Association (AAA), Canadian Automobile Association (CAA), or other roadside assistance benefits typically include coverage for lost keys, emergency travel and medical assistance, towing up to 200 miles, and more. Plans are usually very affordable and can really save your vacation in case of mechanical troubles while traveling.
Whether you realize it or not, simply traveling by VW van also makes you a member of a large and supportive ‘family’ of other enthusiasts who understand the joys and challenges of this unique mode of transport. Many of these devotees can be found on the new VanAlert roadside assistance directory. Based on your location, the app provides the contact info of the nearest VW repair shop or owner-volunteers, who may be able to fix your sticky air flow meter, bring you a spare electronic control unit, or otherwise help put you back on the road.
Keep Your Documents Handy
When something does happen—a speeding ticket, a breakdown, or worse—you’ll probably be a little rattled. Like I was last fall when a ten-pound turkey suddenly flew up and shattered our Vanagon’s new windshield and showered me with tiny glass shards at highway speed.
In such situations, it’s good to have all your important papers (or in my case, two rolls of duct tape) in one easy-to-find place:
- Photocopies of your Driver’s Licenses
- Vehicle Registration
- Insurance cards from your agent
- AAA or CAA membership cards
- Any special medical notes, etc.
NOTE: Car thieves have been known to obtain your home address from these papers and use the information to ransack your house while you’re away, so hide them well. We keep ours in a bright orange envelope hidden away someplace easy to retrieve.
Load Your Phone with Navigation and Entertainment Apps
I love a good road atlas, gazetteer, or foldout map, but increasingly we rely on modern travel aids.
Navigation and travel apps help you find destinations and the routes to get there, or even make reservations while you’re still en route. Fuel-finder apps point to the nearest or cheapest fuel stations, and apps like Kampnik help you choose recommended campgrounds.
Music from your personal collections or from mobile streaming services like Sirius, Spotify or Pandora, or games and other entertainment apps all help pass the time.
And don’t forget the above mentioned VanAlert app, which in addition to volunteer roadside assistance also offers member-recommended camping spots, repair shops, and more.
Pack Your Van Like a Road Warrior
Living in a confined space like a VW van for any period of time can be maddening without some organization and self discipline.
As a simple rule, pack lean and mean, set aside a place for everything and keep everything in its place. This prevents feelings of disorganization and chaos, and helps you quickly find what you’re looking for when you need it.
Everyone has their own style, but you’ll find that the longer you’re on the road and the more you use your van, the stronger your routine becomes.
Clean Your Van Before and During Your Trip
Hopefully, you cleaned your van well after your last trip, but perhaps it has gotten a bit untidy since then, so start this trip fresh. Beginning with a clean van will inspire your fellow travelers to help keep it clean and organized.
It’s a good idea to periodically reorganize and clean the interior while traveling, too. A small whisk broom is usually enough to clean out the usual campground pine needles or beach sand. For really big messes or for extended trips, find a local coin-op vacuum at a gas station or self-service car wash.
A tidy home on wheels can inspire freshness while on a long, hot trip. A dirty van is a sad van.
Following these few simple principles of planning will prepare you and your van for a great road trip.
In Part 2 we’ll explore some ways to manage your trip once you hit the open road for your own Westfalia adventures!