Inspired by our illustrated VW Van contest, we're profiling some of the adventurous families that explore the world via VW van. In this post, Malissa shares her family's experiences, along with thoughts on owning a now-vintage VW.
Where have you traveled in your van?
We camp with other VW nuts at organized family campouts all over the Northeast. There are VW camping clubs all over the country. Find an event you want to attend, show up, and be prepared to meet some awesome folks. Enjoy the fire, and usually there's one or more pot luck meals. These are attended by families, singles, couples and all ages. Of course, be prepared to talk VW!
We've travelled to Watkins Glen, NY; Natural Bridge, VA; Delaware Water Gap area of NJ, Pocono Mountains in PA, PA Grand Canyon, Jim Thorpe, PA, Assateague, MD and many other interesting places to attend events. Depending on the event, there are organized activities for kids and/or adults and lots of outdoor fun.
Most of us who travel by VW bus also enjoy the outdoors so you will find folks to hike, bike, kayak, geocache with and more. It's a great time and we have met some of our closest friends at these very events.
Besides the organized fun, we have taken our kids on vacations, including the Adirondack Mountains in NY, Cape May, NJ and various music festivals.
By the way, VW Van is by far the BEST way to go to a music fest! You have to spring for RV parking, but there is nothing cooler than pulling in with a bus when everyone else is lugging their camping gear in wagons across the grounds!
How have your overland travels changed since you had kids?
Thanks to all of our van traveling, our kids do awesome on long trips. We always try to enjoy the ride….whether stopping to shop, eat at an interesting local haunt or just plain picnic at a scenic overlook along the way. We will pack our bikes sometimes if we know we can stop and have an adventure on the way.
Last year, on a trip to Pittsburgh for a family visit, we took the van, bypassed the turnpike and had a blast see our whole state. On the way home, we stopped at 10 miles of abandoned PA turnpike that is now a bike trail, put our helmets and headlamps on and biked through 2 spooky tunnels. We've also used our van to sleep in while visiting friends.
What do you love about traveling this way?
People wave and flash peace signs at you! Everyone smiles at you! It's so cool to get looks. Strangers come up and want to see your van. You hear many stories of how people had one or knew someone who had one.
What do you think your kids have gained from these experiences?
Because the crowds we meet camping vary so much in demographics, my kids have learned to behave in a group, make friends quickly, survive in a pack of kids and learn the good and bad about nature.
We've camped in all weather, dealt with soaked gear, cold nights, etc. We're fully self sufficient when we are in our van. They're comfortable there. Whether alone or in a group, we take time to enjoy the outdoors in all we do. It's a fabulous way to grow up. I'm proud to teach them to respect the environment and all it gives us.
What memory do you think your kids will tell their kids about?
They love sleeping up top in the van. To this day, they brag about their pop up top to their friends. I'm not sure they will remember the hundreds of glow sticks we gave them, but they will certainly remember the fun times we had with our friends around the campfire, roasting marshmallows and hot dogs, group hiking and just enjoying our gang. They love the friends they have made and will make in the future.
Where do you want to travel that you haven’t traveled yet?
Someday we'd like to travel on a grand cross country expedition, which will be a challenge on it's own! Getting the van there and back, taking a month off of work to do it and accommodating the 4 of us (who will soon be closer to adulthood!). In the meantime, we enjoy exploring our state and the surrounding states. There is so much to see in our beautiful country!
Did you travel this way before kids?
Our first van was a very cheap learning experience and it had some engine issues we were unaware of. We had it about a year and never camped in it. The van we have now was purchased by my uncle, who used it as a daily driver. My youngest has about 2 months old and our daughter was 19 months old. I do not think they know life without our van!
We bought our van as a hard top 1989 Carat model. (Chrysler was NOT the first car company to introduce the rear facing seats and flip up table! Don't let them fool you!) It has reverse facing removable jump seats that fit right behind the driver and passenger seats. We find them impractical for camping, but will put them in to haul people off season. We do use the seat belt to strap our chemical toilet in!
We do not have the kitchen and cabinets in our model which is bad for storage, but good for sleeping. Our bed is probably the equivalent as a full size bed. We could easily sleep with a kid and when they were small, it was viable. The baby slept in his bouncer chair for the first season or so. The first modification we did was to install a 'kids cot' over the front seats.
The old 70's buses had brackets up there and a canvas cot for holding the wee ones. My husband engineered some steel tube to fit the front and we bought some brackets and voila! Now we can fit a kid across the front seats. The next modification we made to accommodate kids was to install a pop top roof. Yes, this was a big job.
After it was done, both kids started sleeping up top. We have also found that the old metal bed sides you put on your kids bed so they don't fall out at night fit across the top perfect. We still use it to keep kids and stuff from falling out at night because it does and they will. Some people we camp with sleep with a kid, one parent up top and one parent down below, but since we did our own pop top conversion, we don't really want adult weight up there. Fights break out, but we can always make one sleep on the cot if need be. (For now!)
How old were / are your children while on these adventures?
Trent, the baby was probably 8 months old at our first official VW campout. I do believe we went on a family only trial run at a local campground a bit before…to make sure our gear was sufficient and babies did well.
It was a cold first campout and we bought our propane heater on that trip. (Always use ventilation if using a fuel burning heater in the van.) Pack buntings and blankets and everything you can think of. As the kids are getting older, we need less stuff! Yeah!
Even the travel entertainment has changed. We used to pack the DVD player for on the road movies and night time (bed time movies). Now (at ages 9 and 10) are packing books, video games and computers. We try to keep the major screen stuff to travel and bedtime only. There are so many kids to play with when we are at events, there is not much time for that anyway!
Thoughts on owning a vintage VW?
Do your research! These vans are not cheap to own and maintain. Before buying, learn as much as you can. Aircooled (early 80's and back) have different issues than water-cooled (which is what our van is). Be comfortable getting dirty and you will find yourself buying a Haynes Manual (if you know what that is you are off to a great start) and learning more than you ever wanted to know about cars and how they work. I can't tell you how many times we had to pull over and my husband was on his back in the dirt fixing a popped coolant hose or trying to trouble shoot an issue. AAA plus is also a great investment! We got the package with the 100 miles of towing, because when we break down, it's coming home, not to a garage.
My husband does the majority of work on our van. Parts and accessories are not cheap, but paying labor to have someone else do all the fixing is insane. If you have the budget for that, go for it. If not, you will need to learn to be your own mechanic. They are relatively easy to work on (so says my husband, who is self taught).
Some places to start hanging: gowesty.com (If you want to buy a fully restored van at a very large price, this is where to go. They also sell fabulous accessories and parts.) Also visit thesamba.com (boards with all things vw including postings for car shows, campouts and events. You will find people selling, looking to buy and general info from sometimes over the top snobs but generally well meaning enthusiasts looking to help a fellow VW fanatic), Local and regional clubs: there are many around the country. In the northeast, we are in limbobus.org (Late Model Bus Owners International) and fullmoonbusclub.com. Jump in and find out what groups are active in your area and go from there. Hitting some car shows will help you see different styles of vans too. Just know that sometimes the car show crowd and the camping crowd aren't always the same. The show folks don't always camp their weekends away and the campers (like us) would never dream of entering a car show with our modified, kid infested van! ;)
Another tip….chemical toilets are a great addition to a comfy weekend of van camping. Wives love them and they come in great for roadside emergency stops with kids. Pack fun games and things to do. We love hula hoops, glow sticks and a deck of cards!
SAFETY!!!!! Important! All of these vehicles are OUTDATED! You will need to invest in updated accessories to protect your kids! All models of Vanagons and Buses have only lap belts in the rear (unless you are lucky to find one that has already been retrofitted with shoulder belts). You will need to purchase (at $100 a pop) shoulder seat belts once your kids are out of five point harness car seats.
They will need to be installed to keep your kids safe. Another important safety issue: ALWAYS HAVE A FIRE EXTINGUISHER READY! Seriously, engine fires do happen. These vans go up QUICK. Protect your family. Maintenance is extremely important. You'll need to make sure the fuel lines have been replaced and a lot of folks choose to do it regardless when acquiring a new to them van. These are the biggest issues I can think of…but research as much as you can!