Camp Westfalia

Archive for Winter

Winter Van Camping

Tips and advice for staying warm while van-camping

Photo: highsierra, Samba member

Photo: highsierra, Samba member

Most camper vans are put away during the colder months. But we’ve found winter to be a great time for a weekend getaway, with none of the crowds, bugs, or excessive heat of summer.

Off-season camping means you usually have your choice of campsites, too. In fact, we often find ourselves the only residents of the campground!

And winter can be a spectacularly beautiful time to see the great outdoors in a whole new light.

Here are some tips and advice for staying toasty during your own winter van-camping ventures.

Prepare your Van


  • Before embarking on winter camping forays, make sure your Vanagon’s heating and ventilation system is in good working order. Check that the front and rear heater cores are flowing correctly, and are not plugged with mineral deposits, etc.. Ensure that the heater-control valves are functioning well, and the front forced-air flaps are sealing properly to prevent the entry of cold air.
  • Use a winter-grade motor oil as specified in your Owners Manual for the temperature range you plan to drive in: 10W-40 for -5 to 50F (-20 to 10C)
  • Make sure that your coolant mixture offers the correct freeze protection for ambient temperatures. Use a simple tester to ensure you have the correct blend of water and anti-freeze.
Photo: vanis13, Samba member

Photo: vanis13, Samba member

  • Check that your tires are in good condition, with adequate tread. For better traction in snow and ice, you can also deflate your tires to the lower end of your safe load range.
  • Use an antifreeze fuel additive suitable for your specific type of fuel (gasoline or diesel) to prevent fuel gelling or freezing.
  • A winter road kit can help get you out of a snowy jam: jumper cables, tire cables or chains, a small snow shovel, extra fuel, a blanket and additional winter clothing, etc..

While Driving

  • A set of cushy seat covers can help keep your bum warm on long cold drives.
  • Take occasional breaks to warm up; pause during fuel stops at convenience stores to warm up with a cuppa coffee or hot cocoa for the road.
  • When driving in especially cold weather, wear additional comfortable winter clothing if necessary: gloves, hats, heavier socks. These are easy to add or remove as needed.
  • Breakdowns are always an inconvenience, but can be especially dangerous in cold or snowy winter weather. Always keep good winter clothing close at hand, as well as some food, water, any crucial medications, etc..

While Camped

  • Photo: mpabegg, Samba Member

    Photo: mpabegg, Samba Member

    Choose a campsite that offers good protection from winter winds. Pine forests generally offer more wind protection than leafless deciduous trees.

  • A site with eastern exposure will allow the morning sun to help warm your van. If at all possible, avoid raising your Westfalia popup roof, to conserve heat, but if you must, orient the rear of your Vanagon into the prevailing wind to reduce your heat loss.
  • Perhaps the single best way to stay warm while camped is some sort of a space heater. Of course, there are several types available: electric (110-volt), small portable LP (liquid propane) heaters intended for camping, and permanently installed RV furnaces fueled by LP or diesel.
  • Be sure to utilize a small battery-operated household carbon-monoxide detector whenever using a fueled space heater, to prevent CO poisoning.
  • If 110-volt AC campsite shore power is available, an electric blanket can be a great way to stay toasty while sleeping or lounging in your camper.
  • If you have one installed, use an engine block heater to help with starting on especially cold mornings; be sure you carry an extension cord and choose a campsite with a power source.
  • As when driving, warm winter clothing can help take the chill off when camped. Common synthetic outdoors gear (pullovers, caps, gloves, socks, etc.) is all you’ll need.
  • Add a thermal-fleece liner to your three-season sleeping bag for additional winter warmth.


  • Put some hot water in an uninsulated camping water bottle and stow it at the bottom your sleeping bag, to keep your feet warm through the cold night.
  • The shorter daylight hours of winter mean more time spent lounging in your van, so bring plenty of games, books, and digital entertainment.
  • In the morning, bring your daytime clothing inside your sleeping bag with you to warm it up for several minutes, to avoid putting on icy clothes.
  • Add a set of thermal covers to your van’s windows to help retain heat. This series of infrared photos provides some valuable insights into areas of heat loss in a Vanagon Westfalia, and offers some tips on insulating your own camper.
  • If you ever need to remove your van’s interior panels or cabinets for other work, take the opportunity to add more insulation wherever you can.

Following these tips will keep Jack Frost from nipping at your nose while winter camping in your van, and help you enjoy a safe and unique camping experience.

Have any tips for your fellow winter van-campers? Leave a suggestion or question below, and use the social links to share with friends!

What’s Your Van Plan for This Year?

The New Year is a great time for a fresh start.

Never mind the resolutions to spend more time at the gym and less time watching cat videos (we both know that’s not gonna happen). The real question is, what are your plans to get your campervan in tip top shape, and enjoy some great traveling this year?

Most vans (and van owners) are inactive this time of year, so now’s your chance to set some goals, make some plans, and resolve to make this year even better than last.


Some aspects of traveling and camping in a decades-old camper van are necessarily mechanical, and require ongoing maintenance. Reliability is of the utmost importance, especially if you want to avoid breakdowns while far from home. Regardless whether you hire out your van’s mechanical work, or turn the wrenches yourself, here are some items to ensure are in top form.

Fuel Lines

The VW Bus and Vanagon Transporters certainly have their quirks, but the fuel system is perhaps the most potentially dangerous and deadly. Too many vans have been lost to fire due to neglected fuel systems. Old and brittle plastic connectors, rusty clamps, and rubber hoses deteriorated by modern ethanol-laced gasoline can all cause leaks. Gasoline injected into a hot engine compartment is a recipe for disaster for you and your family.

So, if you don’t know when these parts were last replaced, inspect and replace them before embarking on summer road trips. Use fuel line rated for use with ethanol fuels, and the correct pressure rating for your electronic fuel injection system, with quality fuel injection clamps. Here’s a good write-up >

The Big List

Most Vanagon owners keep a running to-do list of needed mechanical repairs, fixes, and other maintenance. These often get lost in the heady days of summer when the highway and the forest call, so start working on those procrastinated loose ends now when you have no impending trips.

If you have not been religious in your maintenance, or the van is new to you and of unknown provenance, a good place to start is the 15k, 30k, and 90k-mile maintenance items on the lists found in the back pages of the Bentley manual. Just start at the top and begin working your way down. You won’t get it all done in one day, of course, but in pretty short order you’ll be able to inspect, adjust, or replace everything needed to get your ride ready.

These will include the following, and a whole lot more:

  • Fluids: oil, coolant, brake and clutch, windshield washer
  • Filters: oil, fuel, air
  • Belts & hoses
  • Lights: all interior & exterior
  • Wires: battery, starter, alternator, grounds, etc.
  • Battery: clean, inspect, charge, and test
  • Tires: inspect for wear and cracks, rotate, treat with UV protectant
  • Jack: factory jack or aftermarket, plywood support plate for use on rough ground

Record everything you do in a simple logbook, with date, mileage, and any notes, so that you can look back later for reference. Once you’ve got caught up on all this delayed maintenance, it will be a simple matter to keep up on the recommended intervals.

Outfit for Travel

If you’ll be spending a lot of time driving and living in your campervan, you’ll want to make it as comfortable as possible for you and your companions. Organize the cab, kitchen, and other living areas so you’re always ready to roll!

  • Charging jacks & cords: USB, phone, cameras, etc.
  • Maps, gazetteers, guidebooks
  • Logbook to track fuel & oil usage
  • Beverage bottles & travel mugs
  • Kitchen kit: all pots & pans, plates, utensils, containers
  • Food staples: your favorite non- or semi-perishable pastas, rice, spices, canned goods. Store in hard plastic containers to prevent spoilage and pests.
  • Bedding: sleeping bags, blankets, pillows
  • Heaters (electric or LP), cooling fans
  • Emergency tools & parts, fire extinguisher
  • Vehicle Recovery & Extraction: folding shovel, 12-volt air compressor, traction boards or tire chains, recovery & tow straps

Check & Test all Camping Equipment:

Other Activities

Sometimes the campervan is the means to another end—biking, hiking, paddling, skiing, fishing, etc.. Make sure your other equipment is ready for the season:

  • Roof or trunk racks, cargo boxes
  • Trekking poles
  • Binoculars
  • Gear bags or boxes

Travel Plans

The entire purpose of all this preparation is going places! Now, in the doldrums of winter, is a great time to start thinking about sunnier days and destinations close and far. In fact, poring over maps and planning a getaway is often the only thing that gets me through a dreary winter.

You and your travel mates no doubt already have some destination ideas, what season to go, and what sights and other activities to take in. How long will it take you to get there and back? How long to stay in each place?

One you’ve discussed and have a rough idea, start collecting info to make your goal a reality:

  • Travel guide websites
  • Maps, gazetteers, guidebooks
  • Relevant apps for navigation, finding attractions and sites, camping, etc.

Shakedown Cruises

Once you’ve attended to most of the points above, start taking your campervan on short trips close to home, then progressively longer and longer trips. This will give you opportunities to inspect your work, and to ensure your van is up to all those big miles and long days you have planned.

Traveling and camping in a vintage campervan, whether close to home or far afield, should bring plenty of adventures. But not mechanical misadventures. Once you’re reasonably confident in the reliability and comfort of your ride, hit the road!

Product Review: Mr. Heater “Little Buddy” Propane Heater

A safe, portable propane camping heater for use in camper vans, RVs, and other small spaces


  • Indoor-safe portable propane heater for rooms up to 95 square feet
  • Continuous odor-free heat for up to 5-1/2 hours; 45-degree heating angle
  • Simple on/off buttons; uses 1-pound disposable propane cylinder (not included)
  • Low-oxygen sensor and accidental tip-over switch with auto shut-off for safety
  • Built-in piezo ignition

Assembled Dimensions, including propane cylinder: 18” H x 9” DIA (46cm H x 23cm DIA)
Weight, without propane cylinder: 5.85 lbs. (2.65 Kg)

The Mr. Heater “Little Buddy” is an easy, portable propane heater that works well in the small space of the Westfalia or other camper vans. Its safety shutoff features helps keep you and your family safe.

Depending on where you live and camp, it’s always just about this time of year that your camping season comes to a close. And if you’re like me, it’s always just a little bit too soon.

Maybe you enjoy the cooler weather of the shoulder seasons, with no stiflingly hot days, no bugs, and no crowds. Or perhaps you simply haven’t yet got the camping jones out of your system for the year …

In any case, even the most pleasantly cool days of autumn or early winter can come with cold nights. If your campsite has 120V AC shore power you can employ a small electric space heater to keep warm. If not, a small portable propane heater like the Mr. Heater “Little Buddy” can be just the ticket when Jack Frost nips at your nose.

Get the Mr. Heater “Little Buddy” Propane Heater here

NOTE: To meet varying regional safety regulations, Mr. Heater also offers a version of this heater suitable for Massachusetts & Canada.

First Impressions

little-buddy-heater-controlsThe “Little Buddy” is a relatively compact and portable heater fueled by common disposable 1-lb. liquid propane (LP) cylinders. It consists of the upper head unit, a propane cylinder (not included), and a base to stabilize the entire unit upright on the floor of your camper or RV.

The heater’s head unit includes an integrated carry handle plus two large control buttons: ON and OFF.

On The Road or In Camp

To assemble the Mr. Heater “Little Buddy” simply thread a propane cylinder into the bottom of the head unit and set the whole thing firmly into the base. NOTE: Some brands of propane cylinders have a thin plastic ‘foot’ glued to the bottom of the tank; you may need to remove this in order to fit the tank into the heater’s base.

little-buddy-heater-burnerOnce assembled, the “Little Buddy” is easily lit be simply pressing and holding the red ON button to light the pilot flame and then the main burner. The honeycomb burner matrix soon turns orange as it heats up, and the heater can then be set somewhere safe on the floor.

The “Little Buddy” soon heats up the Westfalia interior comfortably, even on very chilly nights. For especially cold or windy conditions, keep the Westfalia popup roof down to prevent heat loss. The Little Buddy has no temperature control, so is either On or Off.

If you need more heat, Mr. Heater also offers the “Buddy”, a larger 4,000-9,000-BTU portable heater.

little-buddy-heater-frontThe “Little Buddy” includes a built-in tipover shutoff device, which kills the fuel supply in case the heater is knocked over, as well as an oxygen-depletion sensor which shuts the unit off in a low-oxygen situation. We’ve found the tipover device to be quite sensitive, sometimes shutting the heater off even when only moving the unit, and we still use a common household carbon monoxide detector whenever operating the heater in the van, if only as a backup alert.

The heater requires a bit of fresh air (the manual specifies 4 square inches), so be sure to crack a window a couple of inches. The rim and wire guard of the burner assembly gets quite hot during operation, so always be mindful of it, and teach kids and pets to avoid getting too close to it. Allow the heater to cool down after use before touching or storing.

Like all propane heaters without external venting, the “Little Buddy” produces water vapor during operation; burning an entire 1-lb. propane fuel cylinder will produce about 26 ounces of water. Though invisible and harmless, this vapor will condense on cold interior surfaces such as walls and windows, so just be prepared to towel off your windows before driving in the morning.

In The Long Run

We’ve been using the Mr. Heater “Little Buddy” model in our Westfalia for a few years now, mostly to take the edge off those chilly temps before bedtime or when arising in the morning. I can even turn the heater on from the comfort of my sleeping bag.

little-buddy-heater-34-viewIt’s a safe, easy, and economical heater that doesn’t require us to find a campsite with shore power. After use, the “Little Buddy” easily disassembles for storage, and quickly stows beneath the Vanagon bench seat. The heater does not include a carry bag, but I added a simple stuff sack to keep the parts clean and together.

A 1-lb. propane tank lasts 4 or 5.5 hours in the “Little Buddy”; about a week’s worth of 30-minute daily warmups, or about 70 cents per hour of operation. Extra cylinders are cheap, compact, and easily purchased at sporting goods or hardware stores while travelling.

Hits: high heat output, quiet, large control buttons easily used even with gloves
Misses: no temperature adjustment, 5.5-hour max time, produces condensation

The Mr. Heater “Little Buddy” has proven to be a great way to extend our camping season on both ends of the summer, letting us get out to the woods both earlier and later in the season!

Get the Mr. Heater “Little Buddy” Propane Heater here

NOTE: To meet varying regional safety regulations, Mr. Heater also offers a version of this heater suitable for Massachusetts & Canada.

What do you think? Leave a question or comment below, and use the social links to share with friends!

Winterize Your Westfalia for Storage

How to put your Vanagon Westfalia Camper Van to bed for the winter or off-season

You’ve hopefully just completed a long happy summer of road tripping in your camper van, with all the memories and Facebook moments that come with it.

But if your van resides in the cold northern tier of snow, ice, or perpetually rainy days, and especially if it lives in one of the Rust Belt states which use copious quantities of vehicle-eating road salt, you’ll want to tuck your van safely away until next Spring.

Keep it Clean

Now is a great time to give your Westfalia a good cleaning, though some owners prefer to do it first thing in the Spring (see “Preparing Your Vanagon Westfalia for Summer”).

The onboard water tank should of course be emptied, rinsed, and well drained after each camping outing. But it’s also wise to give it an annual cleaning before or after off-season storage:

  1. Add 1/4 cup of household bleach to one gallon of water, and pour this mixture into the water tank, either through the exterior filler port or through the large cap on the top of the tank.
  2. Continue filling the tank with fresh water, then run the sink faucet until you can smell bleach-water at the faucet to indicate that the entire supply line is primed.
  3. Let it sit for at least 12 hours to fully sanitize the system, then drain the tank and re-fill with fresh water.
  4. Run the faucet again until bleach can no longer be smelled, then drain the tank.

Don’t Freeze Up

If you live in a region which experiences freezing temperatures, water left in your Westfalia’s supply line and sink drain trap can freeze and expand, damaging or cracking these components. To prevent this, use a commercially available Marine & RV Water System Antifreeze
(NOTE: This special RV Antifreeze is a non-toxic, food-grade formula and can safely be used in drinking water systems. Do NOT use standard automotive engine coolant antifreeze, which is poisonous.)

  1. Pour a half-gallon or so of the RV Antifreeze into the supply tank and run the faucet pump until you see the pink Antifreeze running down the drain.
  2. Drain the remaining Antifreeze from the tank (you can catch and save it back into the jug using a funnel).
  3. Leave the Antifreeze in the system all winter to protect your supply line and drain, then rinse thoroughly with fresh water in the Spring before using.

If you didn’t do so after your last camping trip, be sure to close the main shutoff valve on your LP tank.

If parking your camper van for several weeks during the winter, it’s a good idea to prevent fuel problems with a quality fuel stabilizer for your specific type of fuel: gasoline/petrol, or diesel. These additives will prevent corrosion from moisture and the build up of varnish. Diesel additives also help prevent bacteria, fungus and algae. If the formula you choose does not include a component to prevent fuel gelling or freezing, you can also include a fuel-line antifreeze for your specific type of fuel.

After pouring the additive(s) into your fuel tank, start and run the engine for a few minutes to ensure that it’s circulated throughout the fuel tank, lines, filters, and pump, then turn the engine off.

If you haven’t done so recently as part of your regular maintenance schedule, change your Vanagon’s motor oil and filter, to prevent accumulated moisture and acids from harming your engine internals.

Remove any supplies which are perishable or which can be damaged by freezing: canned goods or other food, etc..

Out, Mouse!

Remove anything from your camper van that may attract mice. For whatever reason, Vanagons are notoriously easily infiltrated by these vexing vermin, and you don’t want to invite them. Food, candy, snacks, even paper tissues, napkins, and other tempting nesting materials should be taken out of your Westfalia for the off season. You may even want to deploy mouse traps, or use cotton balls doused with peppermint oil throughout your van to repel them.

Get Charged Up

Seasonal Vanagon Westfalia MaintenanceIf your van will not be driven for more than 2-3 weeks, a trickle or maintenance charger should be used to keep the battery(s) near full charge state while parked, either in the van or indoors. A lead-acid automotive battery will generally discharge about one percent per day, even if not used. Add to this any parasitic battery drain from stereos, clocks, or other devices, and you can quickly ruin even a new battery.

If parking your Vanagon for a couple of months during the winter it’s a good idea to remove the starting (and optional auxiliary) battery from the van each fall and bring them indoors. Use a quality automated maintenance charger to keep them topped up throughout the winter months.

Safety First

Check that your fire extinguisher’s pressure gauge is in the green, and turn it upside-down to give it a few hearty shakes to loosen any compacted agent powder.

Go Undercover

Park your Vanagon in a garage or beneath a carport during the off season, if possible. If not, there are still some things you can do to protect your van.

vanagon-wheel-coversMany Vanagons are used only seasonally or for special trips, so their tires can age/degrade long before they are worn. Protect your Vanagon tires from the UV rays of the sun during the winter and between camping trips with easy-on, easy-off RV wheel covers. You’ll want covers which fit tires from 24-26.5” in overall diameter.

For all the same reasons and more, a quality full-vehicle cover for your Vanagon is important if stored outdoors. A good cover will protect your van’s paint, rubber window seals and plastic trim pieces, and even the interior upholstery from the sun’s harmful UV.

A good cover will help keep rain, snow, and airborne crud off your van while parked, but you should look for a cover made of a breathable fabric, so that moisture is not trapped beneath the cover where it can damage the paintwork.

Van covers range in price and in material, with more expensive covers generally being more durable and breathable, and sometimes including additional features like door access zippers. With or without a cover, you should periodically open your Vanagon’s windows or doors on clear dry days to allow any accumulated humidity or moisture to vent, to prevent mold and mildew.

A special precaution is called for in the northern tier: keeping your van’s roof generally free of snow. It’s not easy to collect enough snow up there to damage the Vanagon or Westfalia roof structure, but accumulated snow and ice can create a cold thermal mass which will cause humidity inside the van to condense on the underside of the roof, just like a cold beer from the fridge. This moisture can lead to the growth of unhealthy and unsightly black mold or mildew inside your van roof, and even deteriorate the Westfalia canvas. So keep the snow off, and occasionally air it out.

Follow these tips to keep your Vanagon in tip-top shape during the off season, and it will be ready for another summer of adventures!

What do you think? How do you winterize your camper van? Leave a question or comment below, and use the social buttons to share with your friends!

Preparing Your Vanagon Westfalia for Summer

How to get your Vanagon Westfalia Camper Van ready for summer road-tripping and camping

“Spring has sprung. The grass is riz. I wonder where dem campers is?”
Paraphrased from Frederic Ogden Nash

If your camper van is anything like mine it probably spends its winters tucked safely away in a big red barn, or maybe in a garage or under a protective cover, or perhaps in the great outdoors (see “Winterize Your Westfalia for Storage”).

But now spring is in the air: the bees are buzzing, the meadowlarks are … larking, and campers are eager to begin a new season of outdoor living. Ironically, storage can be hard on things made to move; batteries can run down, fluids leak, and joints and mechanisms stiffen.

And that’s just the driver!

So before we hit the road, let’s get our Vanagons ready for another summer of safe, comfortable, enjoyable journeys.

A Springtime Checklist

Get Some Fresh Air
Start by opening all the doors or windows, and popping the Westfalia top, to vent the stale months-old air and to allow any humidity or moisture to dissipate. Inspect the underside of the fiberglass popup roof and the canvas for signs of mildew or rot.

Take a Good Look
Visually inspect the van inside and out, looking for evidence of rain leaks and fluid leaks: coolant, motor oil, transaxle oil, brake fluid, etc.. Check the reservoir levels of all these same fluids, and top them up if needed. If you use protective tire covers remove them now; check the tires for proper inflation and inspect them for weather checking, including the spare tire.

Battery-DocGet Charged Up
If your Vanagon was not used much during the winter, you probably brought your batteries indoors in the fall and used a quality automated maintenance charger to keep them topped up throughout the winter months. Reinstall now in the spring.

Shakedown Cruise
Once everything checks out and you’ve installed the batteries, go ahead and fire it up. Watch for any smoke or fluid leaks, and listen for unusual sounds. While warming up, have a partner help you check all the exterior lights (headlights, turn signals, brakes, etc.). Take the van out for a spin and a road test, checking that the steering, brakes, and shifting work properly.

Meguiars Marine_RV Fiberglass Restoration SystemWash, Wax, and Wacuum
On your way home, stop at a self-service car wash offering a high-pressure underbody flush to wash any lingering dirt or road salt. Once home, give your van a thorough hand washing top to bottom with a quality car-wash soap, followed by a hand waxing. This gives you an opportunity to inspect the body and paintwork, and protects your finish from harmful summer UV rays. Use a quality RV or marine polish and wax on your fiberglass Westfalia roof.

If you didn’t vacuum and clean your Vanagon’s interior before parking it for the winter, do it now. Use a carpet deodorizer and a heavy-duty fabric refresher to eliminate odors. Vacuum the upholstery, followed by any other detailing inside and out. Polish and protect the dashboard and other vinyl areas with wipe-on or spray products designed for these surfaces.

Remove any mouse deterrents or traps from the van.

Safety First
Replace the batteries in your smoke- and carbon-monoxide detectors. Check that your fire extinguisher’s pressure gauge is in the green, and turn it upside-down to give it a few hearty shakes to loosen any compacted agent powder.

Everything AND the Kitchen Sink
If your van is a full Westfalia model, test all the camper appliances. Half-fill the onboard water tank and test the kitchen sink faucet. If you used RV Antifreeze in your water-supply system to prevent freeze damage, rinse and flush it out now.

Be sure to open the main valve on the LP tank, then light both burners on the stove to prime the supply lines. The Westfalia refrigerator generally is easier to ignite on LP if it has first been pre-chilled on 120-volt AC house current several hours or overnight. Follow the starting procedure in the owner’s manual to ignite the fridge.

Mr-Heater-Little-BuddyIf you use electric or LP space heaters for camping during the Winter or the shoulder seasons of early Spring and late Fall, test them now to ensure they’ll work when you need them.

Let’s Go!
Restock the van with any camping equipment, automotive supplies & tools, or other provisions you removed in the fall. Once you have your Vanagon recommissioned for duty, all you need is a tank of fuel, a cold six-pack, and an adventurous attitude.

See you on the highway!

What do you think? Leave a question or comment below, and use the social buttons to share with your friends!

Using a Vanagon Engine Heater

WestySnowHere in the Great White North, we know a thing or two about operating cars in cold weather.

In fact, my Wisconsin hometown (just one or two tankfuls from Canada) suffers January average temperatures several degrees colder than that of Hannover, Germany, birthplace of our beloved VW Vanagons.

As a child, riding in a car with air conditioning was a novelty for me, but every kid recognized the black electrical plug of an engine block heater dangling from the front grill of most cars around here.

An engine heater is an electrical accessory installed in an engine, with a heating element intended to pre-heat the engine before starting in very cold weather.

All engines have difficulty starting when very cold, as lubricating oils are thick and viscous, and tolerances between parts are tight. Cold starts are hard on engines, causing extra wear on poorly lubricated parts and stressing seals and gaskets.

Diesel engines in particular, with their much higher compression ratios, can be notoriously difficult or impossible to start in cold temperatures, and can suffer significant internal wear and damage. Diesel trucks and other equipment working on the Trans-Alaska Pipeline of the far north are often left to run 24/7 in the winter months, rather than risk the difficulty and damage that can result from re-starting in extremely cold conditions.

Additionally, besides easier starting and greater longevity, pre-heating an engine means you’ll have heated cabin air much sooner; nice on a cold winter’s morn. So, all engines can benefit from any means to pre-heat them before starting in very cold weather.

There are four primary types of engine heaters that run on standard 120-volt AC power, and contain a 250-600-watt heating element. Some are better suited for your Vanagon engine than others:

Block Heaters

Block heater installed in VW diesel engine

Block heater installed in VW diesel engine

These typically install directly into a port in the engine block itself, usually replacing a core plug (sometimes erroneously called a freeze plug, or frost plug). Core openings are left in the engine block during the sand-casting manufacturing process, usually opening to the internal water jackets; plugs are installed at the factory. Such a plug can be removed from the block and replaced with a heating-element block heater (see instructions below), to pre-heat the coolant for a few hours prior to cold-weather starts.
VW inline-four engines, including the diesels, work best with such block heaters.

Get it here!

Inline Coolant Heaters

Inline hose coolant heater

Inline hose coolant heater

The waterboxer engines most commonly found in Vanagons lack core plugs, so require a heater which can be installed in a coolant hose. Essentially, a short section of coolant hose is removed and the heater installed in its place. Ideally, the heater is located low to facilitate upward convection of heated coolant, while cold coolant flows downward to be heated.

Get it here!

dipstick-heaterThese temporarily replace the engine oil dipstick with a long heating element to pre-heat the oil where it rests in the pan. They are, of course, removed before starting the vehicle. I have no experience with this type, and have heard reports of early failures.

Other Options

Lacking such heaters, an engine can also be pre-heated by placing a halogen work light beneath the oil pan or engine block for a few hours before starting, or even a high-wattage incandescent lamp. In a pinch, a campstove or a can of Sterno fuel can be carefully burned beneath an engine to warm it. These methods will be helped by tucking a blanket over the engine to retain any heat while warming.

Installation of a Block Heater

For the diesel engine used in some VW Vanagons, or if another inline gasoline engine (Jetta, etc.) has been installed, the best choice is a core-plug block heater. For the most uniform heating, the heater should be installed in the center core opening. This job is perhaps best done in conjunction with a bi-annual coolant change, since it requires draining and replacement of the coolant.

  1. Start by disconnecting a lower coolant line to drain the cooling system.
  2. remove freeze plug

  3. Clean the area around the core plugs, located on the side of the engine block, just below the exhaust manifold. Use a hammer and a narrow chisel or an old screwdriver (not a good one, for heaven’s sake) to punch a slot into one of the core plugs, then pry the plug out of the block.
  4. Alternatively, I’ve seen the core plugs removed from other makes of engines by simply using a hammer and a blunt drift. As shown in this video, a hearty whack is applied to the outer edge of the plug to pivot it within the opening, then the plug is grasped with a large pliers and pulled out. Be careful to avoid knocking the plug clear into the water jacket. On my 1Y (and probably the AAZ) 1.9-liter VW diesels, there is a small internal lip running across the back of the core openings, located at the bottom of the opening, perhaps to prevent exactly this problem. So, be sure to knock the TOP of the plug in order to pivot it, should you attempt this method. Once the plug is removed from the block, clean the edges of the opening.
  5. insert-engine block heater

  6. Remove the power supply cord from the heating element and apply a bit of silicone grease to the O-ring seal. Fit the heating element into the opening, ensuring that the bottom ‘loop’ of the copper element is oriented downward, toward the bottom of the engine block. Begin tightening the center screw in the element to expand the wings on the internal “butterfly” retainer, occasionally wiggling the entire element to ensure that it’s properly seated in the opening. Continue tightening until snug, but avoid overtightening or stripping the screw.
  7. install engine block heater

  8. Connect the power supply cord to the heating element and carefully route the cord along the vehicle chassis or engine-carrier bars to a spot convenient for connecting an external extension cord to the plug end. One handy spot is just inside the rear license-plate access door. Securely fasten the supply cord along its length with cable ties, being careful not to allow the cord to entangle on any moving engine or suspension components.
  9. Reconnect the coolant hoses and refill and bleed the cooling system as usual. Look for coolant leaks around the newly-installed block heater.

NOTE: the wise Westy traveler will carry a spare block heater or spare standard core (freeze) plug on the road, in case of the urgent need to replace a lost or leaking block heater.

Using a Block Heater

Depending on the condition of your engine, and its cold-starting abilities, you may want to use a block heater before starting at any temperatures below freezing. It can take 3-4 hours to thoroughly pre-heat a 300-400-lb cast iron engine block in cold weather, so I suggest you connect the heater to a breaker-protected power supply through a programmable timer, capable of handling the 250-600-watt draw. In this way, the heater will start pre-heating your engine a few hours in advance, and will be ready when you are.

What do you think? Leave a question or comment below, and use the social links to share with friends!