Stories of Family Adventure via VW Westfalia

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!  

Oct 2014, Biking the creepy Abandoned PA Turnpike in Breezewood,PA. 10 miles of road closed to vehicles in the 1920's is now a bike trail and includes 2 tunnels!
Oct 2014, Biking the creepy Abandoned PA Turnpike in Breezewood,PA. 10 miles of road closed to vehicles in the 1920’s is now a bike trail and includes 2 tunnels!

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. 

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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.

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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! 

2009, Tohickon Valley Park  camping during a whitewater release.  We hiked to the class III river and watched the boating action.  Let kids be kids!!!!  This shot shows what a 5 and 4 year old looks like having fun!  Bling, dirt and sass!
2009, Tohickon Valley Park  camping during a whitewater release.  We hiked to the class III river and watched the boating action.  Let kids be kids!!!!  This shot shows what a 5 and 4 year old looks like having fun!  Bling, dirt and sass!

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!

2010 Lake Nockamixon kayaking day. The van is a great hauler for kayaks and sports gear! Water sports is a favorite for us and you can change right in your van! Don't forget your water blaster, so your friends can all get soaked with scummy lake water by your kids!
2010 Lake Nockamixon kayaking day. The van is a great hauler for kayaks and sports gear! Water sports is a favorite for us and you can change right in your van! Don’t forget your water blaster, so your friends can all get soaked with scummy lake water by your kids!

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! 

How a VW Westfalia obsession became my family’s best adventure

THE VOLKSWAGEN WESTFALIA camper van has been a symbol for the freedom of the open road and exploration since it was first introduced in the 60’s when the split window microbus had a pop-top installed in the middle of the van.

This simple modification was undoubtedly added so hippies following The Dead could easily stand up to change back into their dirty bajas after a quick skinny dip and a doobie in a roadside spring.

These vans have been through a slow but predictable evolution since those early days, but there has always been a nod to the generation of hippies that made them the icons that they are. Like those that drove them back in those days, the buses were unreliable and quirky, but they were also simple and charming .

There’s something about these vans that makes you think you could actually shrug off your responsibilities and live on the road.  This feeling has been the main draw for me.  I have owned three “Westys” and this is my love story.

When I was growing up, there was a guy down the street from me that owned a baby diarrhea brown 1980 Westy.  While cruising around on my Mongoose, I would often confess to the other neighborhood kids about how much I loved this guy’s van.  They used to laugh and say things like “No thanks, I’ll take a Countach or a 911.”

Just like them, I had supercar posters on my wall. But I was constantly curious about the life that this 40 something bachelor had built around his van.  I jealously watched from a few doors down every summer Friday as he loaded it up with expensive outdoor gear and a hot yoga instructor way before yoga was cool. I convinced myself that someday I would be just like this guy.

Fast forward to when I was 16. I approached my idol to see if he’d be willing to sell his weekend machine (which had developed some significant rust by this time).

He said yes, but for $5000. $5000 seemed like a TON of money for a van that was made during the Carter administration.  I had $2000 saved up from my paper route and summer job, so my dream would have to wait. (Probably a good thing –a 16yr old boy with a van with a built in futon would probably also quickly have a pregnant girlfriend.)

After buying a 1993 Eurovan with a tin top and a manual transmission as a consolation, I finally bought my first Westfalia for $3500. It was a rusty 1986 model with mismatched tires and brown velour interior. It was amazing, and I got to work right away making it my own.

inside-busIt became a bit of an obsession. I wanted to take what was already an incredible vehicle and make it even better. I spent an entire summer honing my new love of carpentry and completely customized the van’s interior.

My best friend, my brother, and I took the bus we affectionately named “The Turd” on a football pilgrimage hitting up games at two of the country’s hallowed stadiums, Notre Dame and Lambeau Field. We made it halfway across the country and back always wondering when it would break down.

It finally did break down while going through a toll booth during rush hour in Chicago.  We had to push it to the side of the road while enraged working stiffs on their way to boring status meetings honked and jeered. Luckily, the battery cable had just popped off so we were on the road in no time.

After learning that stopping to pee all the time was a real problem, I installed a urinal. This led to unwanted window washings for unsuspecting tailgaters, but was a godsend on cold nights when sleeping in the van.

So many awesome memories with my group of friends revolved around that bus. To this day, whenever we get together the times we shared together on the road in the bus always come up as the fondest of memories.

After many more camping and road trip adventures, I sold the bus to its next faithful steward for $8500.  Not a bad profit for a 20 year old bus with an unknown amount of miles.

What once was the perfect road trip vehicle for my buddies and I has become the best family vehicle of all time.

I purchased a 1990 Vanagon Westfalia Multivan (one of the rarest configurations) in great condition for what some would think was a crazy amount of money right after my son was born. It had been way too long since I had owned a bus and as a new father, I was overcome by the desire to get out there and explore New England with my family.

When the summer weather looks nice, we load up the van with all the things you need to bring a little one on the road and head out. Sure, the Westy is an awesome road trip vehicle, but it’s also amazing for just doing things around town. The thing is HUGE! You could easily fit an entire neighborhood’s weekend costco run into it.

full-vw-bus-pop-top

You don’t have to be going on a camping trip to take full advantage of the Westy. Nothing beats the Westy for day trips.  It has a fold down table so when your kid’s head starts spinning like the girl in the exorcist for lack of food, you can pull over, pop the table, open up the fridge and enjoy a comfortable lunch instead of having an apple sauce pack smashed into your car seat. The floor itself is gigantic and flat, so changing a diaper is incredibly easy and you can do it in complete peace.

It’s also amazing for events where there will be multiple families around. Every year, we go to the balloon festival in Stowe. Our bus ends up being home base for a bunch of families who want to go to the festival, but are dreading chasing their kids around in a crowd.  We park in a field, bring our own food and drinks and the balloons fly right over us.  We even have a chemical toilet in the van so the ladies can use it in privacy.

As before, I’ve been a little obsessed with modifying the van by making improvements that make it even better than it was when it was made 25 years ago.  We’ve added a deep cycle marine battery system so we can have power when we need it without draining the battery that starts the van.  We’ve also added USB ports throughout the van for charging devices, a 12volt fridge/freezer so we always have fresh food on hand, and dimmable LED lighting throughout the cabin so we have just the right amount of light when we need it.

This bus is so much more than a means of transportation.  It creates smiles wherever it goes.  I do almost all of the work on it myself and I’ve learned so much by keeping it going.

I think it’s going to serve me well as a way to teach my son about basic auto maintenance and the value of getting your hands dirty and learning how things work.

vw-bus-winner

The bus is 25 years old, so it’s not as reliable as it could be, although it has yet to leave us really stranded.  The bus is extremely underpowered by modern standards.  How does 90 horsepower in a 5000lb vehicle sound?  That was 90 horsepower when it was new, I can only imagine we’re working with about a whopping 75 now.

This lack of propulsion means that in many cases you’re almost forced to take the secondary roads if you want to actually keep up with traffic. What some would find annoying has turned out to be one of the best things about the van.  The license plate even says SLOLANE.

Beautiful VW Westy

When you’re in the bus, you’re not getting anywhere in a hurry, so your state of mind changes.  It’s refreshing to take your time and appreciate the journey as you cruise through all the little New England towns that were passed by when they built the interstate.

If you want to experience what it’s like to own a Volkswagen Westfalia, there are a few outfits that rent these wonderful vehicles.  California Campers, Dragonfly Vans, Wicked Westys, & VWsurfari all rent vans.  Some of these providers will rent for a little as one day.

However, I would highly suggest trying a van out for at least a long weekend if you’re really interested in a Westfalia. Driving one around with the family is a really smart move to consider before dropping some serious coin on a van in great condition.

One advantage to owning a van with a “cult” following is that there are no shortage of other Volkswagen fanatics out there who are more than happy to help out.  The online community scene for classic Busses, Vanagons and Eurovans (the Vanagon’s younger front-engine sibling) is huge.

Websites like The Samba have made owning an old vehicle like the Vanagon alot easier. The Vanagon & Eurovan community on The Samba has helped me keep my van running more than a few times.

The people involved in the community are plentiful and super helpful.  You can get advice on anything from how to find the right van for you to how to do a complete engine conversion.  There are also a ton of really great ideas and how-to tips for how to accessorize your van for your specific needs. I turn to The Samba every time I head out the garage to tinker with my van.

When you’re in need of parts, there are some really great, knowledgeable suppliers who are more than willing to help out. The top ones that come to mind are GoWesty and BusDepot.

I’m looking forward to years and years of adventures with my family in our bus.  Every time we use it, even if it’s just for a trip to the grocery store, it gets us thinking about where we should go next.

My wife and I find ourselves researching cool spots where we could take a day trip or break away for a weekend.  For me, this is bus is so much better than a Lamborghini.  Anyone with enough money can buy a fancy car, but because this bus is something I can enjoy with my whole family, it’s more than transportation.

It inspires us to do more things, go more places, and take our time while we do it.

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NYC is one of the very best places to bring a kid

My family just returned from an impromptu trip to New York City. (Impromptu as in we were going stir crazy here in Vermont and needed a reprieve.) NYC is one of the very best places to bring a kid. There are a million things to see, try, taste, and do. And just being in New York is an experience, especially for people who didn’t grow up there.

New York is remarkably family friendly. (And is becoming more so – Manhattan recently experienced a baby boom). That said, one of the great things about an NYC adventure is that it rarely needs to be dumbed down into a kiddie trip.

On our recent 72-hour visit to New York with our six-year-old, we spent many hours in MOMA (free on Fridays), the Metropolitan Museum, and at the Hayden Planetarium. We ate incredible food (with a mandatory best pizza quest), walked across the Brooklyn Bridge (an awesome experience for any curious kid) , viewed skyscrapers, looked up our genealogy in the New York Public Library, browsed the Strand Book Store and Forbidden Planet comics, and visited the Lego store at Rockefeller Center.

It’s never been easier to visit and explore NYC with your kids. There are hundreds of guidebooks, websites and apps dedicated to exploring the city. I especially recommend the RedRover app.

Red Rover is a powerful tool for easily finding kid-friendly activities and events happening around you. It works as promised, has a great design, and it’s easy to use. Essential for any trip to New York with a kid. Learn more.

Regarding books, The Little Bookroom Guide to New York City with Children is great for grownups. Not For Parents New York City: Everything You Ever Wanted to Know is great for younger kids.

Other thoughts:

I recommend buying your kid their own map to the city. Show them where you’re staying and some of the site you’re seeing. It’s theirs to keep. If they want to write on it, let them.

Our family discussed what we wanted to see and do in the city. A side benefit of this was that it helped our kid understand that she’d be doing a lot of walking.

Avoid your kids pleading for expensive, cheezy souvenirs and toys by  setting allowance and spending expectations before the trip. Here are tips for managing allowance might come in handy.

NYC Travel Journal
Our kid had fun keeping an NYC travel journal.

Big Ups: It’s always somebody’s turn to be the bigger person

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It’s always somebody’s turn to be the bigger person

On our way home from a spectacularly great weekend, one without the kids that included a three-hour couples spa treatment, my husband and I got into a really stupid fight at the airport. As it was happening, I knew it was unnecessary and immature and getting more blown out of proportion by the minute. I also felt powerless to stop it – and there’s where I was wrong.

The truth is that I was being stubborn. We both were. I could have – if I’d taken three deep breaths – thought of at least four ways to change the conversation, to defuse the situation, but in that moment, I didn’t feel like being the bigger person.

Things did not improve hours later when I decided to revisit the conversation. I offered a half-hearted apology and got even more upset when I did not receive the same. Things escalated once again and I admitted defeat. “I don’t think we’re capable of having this conversation,” I said.

Cut to: our therapist’s office, two days later.

“One of you has to climb up on the ladder and look down at the situation,” she told us.

Get tall. Get big. And look down from a place of non-judgement where everyone is safe.

Had I done this at the outset of our stupid fight, I would have seen that when I aggressively sniped at Ryan with, “I don’t understand how you can spend this much time staring at your phone. Honestly, it’s alarming,” what I meant was, “Hey. I’m bored. Can you put your phone down and talk to me?”

And when Ryan answered with, “why are you trying to pick a fight? Our flight is delayed, and I’m just sitting here. I didn’t do anything wrong,” he could have said, “I’m sorry. I guess I didn’t realize I’ve been staring at my phone this whole time. What’s up?”

It sounds so simple in hindsight – so possible. But the clarity and maturity necessary in the moment can feel unattainable.

“Sometimes you have to look around ‘the thing’ to talk about what’s actually bothering you,” said our therapist. “Otherwise ‘the thing’ becomes everything.”

In this case, the false thing was Ryan’s screen usage. That isn’t what I actually wanted to talk about in the airport that night. I really just wanted his attention. But since I focused on him and his phone – a much more volatile topic – that is exactly what we ended up fighting about. Had I just asked for the attention I wanted in a direct statement, I likely would have gotten it.

Our therapist reminds us that humor and levity go a long way in these cases. She suggested simply tugging on his shirt and playfully whining, “heeeeyyyy… hellloooo,” as a way to snap him out of his black box.

But I was so annoyed!

Too bad. It’s still my responsibility to climb that ladder and look down on the girl who’s about to attack out of hurt feelings and remind her that she won’t get what she wants by setting her husband on the defensive. It has never worked. It never will.

Climb up. Be big. Even if you think you do it more often than your partner. And if you’re the one on the receiving end of a childish barb, take a breath before reacting. Try to get above the situation to see what’s really going on, and respond from there.