Well, the Mister and I own an ’87 VW Vanagon Westfalia camper. The thing is basically a 1.5 ton, 90 Hp, 16 mpg Porsche brick in which you can live. We named it Sputnik. After a trip to Burning Man and about a year of flailing, we have worked out most of the big bugs associated with the crankiness that is a VW Vanagon.
Teddy Roosevelt National Park
If you own one of these monsters and you fix all the big broken crap so the van won’t break down at every turn, then the real fun may begin. You can actually drive it around and CAMP in it relatively comfortably. What a concept! Our first Burning Man in the Van experience wasn’t typical of most trips to some extent because we didn’t have totally useful gear, camping on the Playa is like camping on the motherfucking moon (and is worth its own blog post), and we most certainly did NOT have Van-Fu. What I’m talking about here instead is this: driving somewhere, setting up camp, and sleeping in the van, then getting up and moving on. Preferably, somewhere that does not suck.
Enter the Epic Road Trip 2011. This trip involved 2.5 weeks of epic journeying through multiple state and national parks, lovely towns, and a few sordid, nasty places that might better serve as nuclear weapons test grounds. This is the trip where we “got it”. We figured out how to comfortably live in a tiny camper van. We found our Van-Fu. While I could write about the awesomeness that is Yellowstone, the Black Hills, Theodore Roosevelt National Park, Wisconsiny bits, and other delights, I think the most useful thing I can do is to discuss what it means to have Van-Fu, and then provide some tips so you can Fu yourself (snicker).
Chequamegon National Forest morning with Buddy teh teeny tiny doggins.
Please note: this blog entry is written from the perspective of a camper van noob. Those of you who’ve camped in these things or in non-camper vans for years probably have all your shit together. But we’re still pretty nooby, and I thought this might be useful information for someone who’s just getting started in their adventures or who still hasn’t developed their Van-Fu skills. Most of the concepts below will still apply to a non-pop-top van, but your decision-making process about where to sleep is easier.
Van-Fu is a word we came up with on the trip (kudos to anyone else who might have come up with it first, but Google would not reveal who that could be). Van-Fu is basically the art of putting all your shit in the van in such a manner that it can be located and accessed when needed, be easily moved, and be moved only minimally. While this sounds like maybe not such a big deal, living in a discombobulated van with a second person and a dog can make one… cranky at best. Or homicidal, worst case.
Mild squalor due to clothes line induces temporary insanity
Besides having a fairly detailed travel plan, the most important thing we figured out is that having the right gear in the right place at the right time is one of the best things you can do to mitigate distress. Also, having things relatively easy to access for maintenance and cleaning is critical (for the same reason). Even more excellent, we made it back with the interior of the van in great condition, and unpacking was not a horrible chore. So, unless you’re one of those logistical geniuses, the above concepts require a little practice if you’ve not done this kind of thing well before.
I’d like to note that there are a million ways to get your Van-Fu on, and the stuff below is what worked for us. It will vary depending on your van configuration, the gear you have, and what your personal needs are. If you’re still interested, then read on!
The Right Gear
This is a tough one. The “right gear” includes: good containers for storing stuff; packing the right stuff; and making use of what you have (even if it’s not ideal). Below are some of the more important elements of what worked for us.
- Find a good one that has thick walls and is a decent size. Ours takes about one small bag of ice per day in the heat and can hang on for 2 or 3 days if it’s cold out.
- Leave some water in it, as this helps keep food temperatures lower.
- We strap ours behind the front passenger seat by hooking a bungee cord around the cooler and attaching the cord to aftermarket eye bolts we installed in place of the seat belt bolts. Failure to tie the cooler down ensures that it will slide around during moments of crazy driving which means it could damage itself, you, or your dog. The bungee is also useful for holding up drink bottles near the passenger seat and for hanging up small items to dry. Be prepared to yank the cooler out of the way in order to get to the fire extinguisher if something goes haywire.
- The cooler also makes a useful seat or work surface when camping–more so than the front seats do (even if they’re turned around). Just chuck a pillow on top or make a permanent seat pad for the thing (extra insulation is good anyway).
Sittin' on da cooler, drinkin' mah coffee in Chequamegon National Forest
Cold Food Storage Tricks
- We used a steel mixing bowl that hung from the top lips of the cooler interior under the lid to hold things that need to be cool but shouldn’t sit in ice all day. A jar of jelly, bag of carrots, brussels sprouts, opened yogurt containers, and opened bags of guacamole fit nicely in there and stay dry and cold.
- Little, waterproof clip-top boxes worked great for eggs, butter, cream cheese, and other stuff that needed cold storage in the ice, but shouldn’t get wet. Some of these store well in a nested manner once they’re not needed.
- Vacuum-sealed bags of stuff and cheese stix can go right in the ice water, but make sure the seals on those items are good or else EEEEW(!) will ensue in the cooler. If things escape, the whole cooler should be emptied, drained, and sanitized.
- We stored an opened carton of soy milk upright in the ice inside two, gallon-sized ziplock bags to keep the carton dry and functional. Smoosh the carton up against the side of the cooler with some of the other contents to keep it from flopping over. There are probably some better tricks for this out there.
Dry Food Storage
- We like those 5 gallon, rectangular, flip-top bins from Costco. They stack, they fit under the bench seat when it’s made into a bed, and they fit side-by-side in quite a few van spaces almost like they were made just for the van. The down side is having to get to the top of the bin so you can flip it open to extract your food. The bins also make good temporary tables between camp chairs (just don’t leave your food outside or critters might get into it).
- We kept some of our dry food in a flip-top bin on top of the water pantry. The bin was held in place by a bungee that could be quickly disengaged to provide quick access to the bin.
- We inserted the rear table over the top of the bin, and crammed pillows between the table and the top of the bin to keep things in place. This allowed us to: 1) get to pillows quickly for sleepy time; 2) yank out the pillows and pull out the bin so we could easily access food; or 3) easily slide out the bin to get into the built-in lift-top cabinets with a minimum of effort.
- A hanging fruit basket is a really nice way to keep mooshy items in good condition. We generally strap ours to the back of the driver’s seat after the seat is properly adjusted.
- Mesh vegetable tubes–like the kind of weird plastic mesh that comes on brussels sprouts. Great for onions, garlic, etc. Hang them from hooks on the pop-top rail or the edge of the rail behind the driver’s seat.
- Note that tomatoes can be stored for a long-ass time in a paper bag.
- In addition, many fruit respond well to being stored in white, plastic grocery bags. While not glamorous, plastic grocery bags can be hung from the pop top bar or shelf rail to prevent the crushing of contents.
- S-shaped pot hooks–great for hanging lots of stuff from the shelf rail or the pop top bar.
- Bag clips and ziplock bags are a must.
- Holy crap, how do you pack for pretty much any weather for a 2.5 week trip and not take too much stuff? Layers. That’s how.
- Pack clothing that’s comfortable to sit in for a long period of time. I’m particularly sensitive to bra straps, things that lump up between me and the seat (e.g., decorative coat straps, buttons and pleats), and clothing that doesn’t allow me to put my arms in front of me comfortably. Just a thought–you might test some of these items in advance.
- If you have the option, pack some clothing that can be hand washed and will dry well. Light cotton shirts and pants work well, and are awesome in hot weather. Smartwool Socks are fantastic, and don’t develop the kind of funk most socks can get. Lightweight silk or microfiber under-layers also tend to dry quickly.
- Me and the Mister packed our stuff in separate containers. I had a big, rolling suitcase. He had a huge bike messenger bag. In an ideal world, the trip would be short enough to pack all of our stuff together into one bag. What with possible weather conditions and the length of the trip this wasn’t much of an option.
- Use mesh laundry bags to separate socks, knickers, shirts, etc. into separate containers so that you don’t go crazy trying to find the clothing you need when you haven’t had enough coffee yet. Color coding the bags might be a useful improvement. As a minimum, use a permanent marker to label the outside of the bag with contents.
- Be sure to bring a mesh or other bag for dirty laundry. Plan on doing laundry once per week unless you plan to wash by hand along the way.
- Pack a length of clothesline and some clothespins for drying towels and hand-washed items.
- DON’T forget to pack an assortment of washcloths, body towels, and dish towels. Include some for the dog in case it rains.
- Shoes are a pain in the ass to stash pretty much anywhere without tripping over them. Pack only what you need.
- Coats got folded and stuffed near the dry food bin for rapid access. Temperature swings on this trip over multiple mountain ranges were amazingly rapid.
- Necessary items: I have a valise from the 50s that has a little sliding compartment and holds a ton of stuff. It works great as a grab-and-go item when heading off to take a shower. It’s kind of like a portable medicine cabinet. Consistent latching of the closures will keep you from dumping your shit out all over the van or ground.
- Flash lights: Have at least three of them. Keep one at the bedside, one by the engine compartment, and one in the glove box. I think you can figure out why this makes sense.
- Baby wipes: We went through about 1 Kirkland/Costco package of these per week. They’re great for hand cleaning, preliminary dish wiping (to remove bulk residues), cleaning up small messes, and quick baths.
- Accessory battery–if you don’t have one, get one. We started with a car battery, but it wouldn’t charge properly. The GoWesty kit never worked right either, so we got a higher amp relay/solenoid. We ended up with a deep-cycle wheelchair battery, and it has served us well for interior lights, charging phones, and charging computers especially once we fixed a loose wiring issue.
- Will you be acquiring strange stuff along the way? If so, consider your additional storage locations. Roof-top storage bins need to be waterproof. They’ll likely lower your mpg, but they’re worth it because you gain sanity points for not having to trip over and move stuff that you don’t need for your daily process. Don’t forget about the roof-top well for packing other random stuff.
- Bring a gas can. There are places out there where gasoline stations are few and far between. If you don’t pack one, be prepared to gas up on a regular basis. We chose to do so when the tank got down to about 1/2 empty and never had an issue.
- Drinkable water. No-brainer there.
- Trash can or bags. Fer realz. We have a little fabric one that velcros to the back of the passenger seat.
- Assortment of basic tools and electrical repair items–seriously, you drive a VW, be prepared to fix stuff on the fly.
- Extra parts (we carry light bulbs, fan belts, and a water pump).
- Oil and radiator fluid and useful funnel-type items.
- Assortment of ratchet straps and bungee cords.
Big Horn Mountains
Where to Sleep?
So, you have a bunch of awesome gear and you are packing the van to leave. Unfortunately, camper noobs may not be thinking about the following points yet, and you’re just randomly jamming things into the van so you can get rolling.You’re probably running late, and that means you’ll probably arrive late to your destination. If you’re like us, random van packing will surely bite you in the ass when you get there all tired and cranky.
This brings us to one of the biggest decision points you’ll have to make while you’re on the road:
- Will you sleep in the upper or lower bunk?
- How comfortable do you want to get at this stop?
Why do these questions matter? Because whether you’ll be sleeping in the bottom or top bunk, you will will have to have a plan for how you’re going to do it. Not surprising, there are pros and cons to each sleeping location.
Whichever you choose, my biggest recommendation is this: BE CONSISTENT ABOUT WHERE YOU PUT EVERYTHING. You will save yourself a ton of time and stress if you just know where your things are. If you’re short-term camping (crashing) versus getting a little comfortable (maybe cooking, hanging out), then you will likely want to minimize your setup actions. I’ll elaborate on that after laying out some options.
If you sleep in the top bunk, by default, you have to pop the top. Pros include:
- You only need to have access to your sleeping stuff, which maybe can be packed on top of other gear for ease of access.
- If it fits, you can store the foam sleeping pad and maybe some blankets and pillows in the space behind the top bunk at the back of the pop top.
- Upper bunk camping is a great option for people who like it up there and like a quick way to stop and sleep.
- You probably won’t have to move a lot of stuff to get to your bunk (except for the strange shuffle it takes to shift things up to the top through a narrow opening).
- Ventilation can be pretty sweet up there if it’s hot out.
- Someone can hang out and read or sleep below, if they don’t mind the low ceiling.
- You must get pretty much everything done in the bottom of the van before you open up the bunk (or else risk insanity).
- This might not be a good place to sleep in bear country or where security is an issue.
- Climbing into and out of the top bunk is not the easiest thing in the world, though this depends on your coordination.
- Tall people may find it claustrophobic or too short.
- Your dog may find it stressful.
- It’s colder than the arctic up there if it’s cold out.
- Because you’re maybe storing your foam pad up there, you loose some storage space for other random items behind the top bunk at the back of the pop top.
- Getting up in the middle of the night is a little terrifying, and it won’t happen quickly.
If you sleep in the bottom bunk, a prime consideration is whether you’re just stopping and sleeping long enough to not kill yourself on the road, or whether you’ll be getting a little comfortable and maybe cooking a meal or two. We prefer the leisurely approach of arriving, making dinner, sleeping, and making breakfast and doing dishes. Expect your mornings to take a few hours if this is your thing.
Dinner in progress
There were a few nights where we were in pretty miserable places and had no intention of lingering. In one case, it was raining like mad. No way were we popping the top. In the other case, we were camping behind a skanky cafe in a creepy location, felt insecure, and wanted to bail immediately after waking up. Also not conducive to a top-popping setup.
I should note: not popping the top prior to lower bunk sleeping makes for cramped, cranky van occupants, so be warned. This is the because you have to put everything you’re usually storing behind the bench seat up front or on the floor. You can’t get into cabinets well. You also pretty much can’t stand up when this is happening. It’s not fun. The good news is, sometimes you find really cool things when you leave early:
Red Light Garage in Wallace, ID. Wallace is a beacon of excellence in a sea of sad towns (especially compared to MT), and this restaurant was a hoot.
As you might guess, popping the top is much more comfortable. For one, ventilation options improve. You can also stand up. You can throw bulky items up on top of the upper bunk plank and access them with ease. You might feel the urge to scream subsiding.
Regardless of which way you’re about to sleep on the lower bunk, here are the pros and cons.
- It is probably more comfortable for tall people. Tall people can hang their feet off the front edge of the seat, which is more comfortable than dangling their head off the end of the bed (which tends to happen in the upper bunk).
- Getting up in the middle of the night is easier.
- You can lean against the rear door and chill out in bed with a book or a laptop.
- The dog is pretty damned happy down there in the cuddle pile and doesn’t have to worry about getting up for a drink in the morning.
Pure dog joy in the cuddle-pile
- You have to move a bunch of stuff to get the bed set up.
- You might bang your head on the upper cabinets when you sit up or get in bed.
- You need to move stuff again if you want to make the bed back into a bench seat.
- The tail end of the van tilts downhill slightly if your suspension isn’t level, which means you’ll maybe want to bolster yourself slightly if you sleep with your head toward the rear of the van.
Based on the Mister’s height, the presence of the dog, cold temperatures, and our displeasure with climbing up and down from the upper bench, we picked sleeping on the lower bench as the easiest, most comfortable option. This was decided after our first night in Yellowstone after freezing to death all bunched up with the dog in the top bunk. Extracting your frozen ass from a pile of bed while navigating a tiny gap is miserable if you have to pee and you need more sleep. After we determined the bottom bunk was better for us, we embarked on a big batch of Van-Fu to make that decision as painless as possible to deal with.
We found that the most critical items to have access to at the end of a long day of driving were the following:
- The foam sleeping pad (did I mention that the beds are extra-extra firm? They are. Ouch.);
- Flashlights; and
- The valise.
Everything else, if well contained, could be shifted as needed. We packed the critical items in consistent locations. The blanket tended to end up on top of stored goods behind the back bench to conceal our other contents for security. Pillows lived on top of the dry food container under the rear table. Bolster pillows lived on the bench seat. We stuffed jammies into a fabric bag and tucked them in under the blanket for rapid access. Earplugs ended up in the rail above the cooking area. The flashlight was always tucked by the wardrobe where we could find it. The valise was kept handy on the floor or some other handy surface.
Clear floor areas, open bench seating. Note the food bin on the water cabinet (this was before we figured out the trick of putting the pillows under the table above the bin).
Things that had to get moved around were determined by whether we were just crashing or whether we were getting a little comfortable. If you’re going to crash, leave stuff on the floor in front of cabinets or on top of cabinets or tuck them under the bench seat once you fold it down. If you’re going to cook and want to relax a little, then you will want to keep the central floor and cabinets clear. We didn’t use the front seats for seating while camped, so we used them for storage. We kept the bench seat free instead, and used the cooler as an extra seat.
After about a week of practice, our Van-Fu process for comfort camping went something like this:
- Arrive on site and get level.
- Find the rain fly if it might rain.
- Partially lift the top and attach the fly, if needed.
- Clear hanging items from the push up bar and pop the top.
- Turn the front seats so that they face each other or whatever worked best.
- Open the rear door and get out the front curtain, power cord, skylight curtain, rear screen, and any other little things that might be needed in other parts of the van. We store these items in the little upper, rear tray where the air conditioner used to be.
- Close the curtains on the rear door.
- Hand luggage and other items to person in front of van and chuck them up on top of the folded upper bunk or on the front seat.
- Leave the foam pad, blanket, and jammies behind the bench seat until they’re needed.
- Close the rear door.
- Hang the front curtain.
- Move the rear table to the front table slot so that the table is parallel with the stove cabinet, extends over the driver’s seat, and leans on the steering wheel.
- Move your potable water up to the folded upper bunk platform if the container doesn’t leak. It’s a handy location for later when you’re cooking.
- Move other things around as needed to access kitchen and other cabinets.
- Bust out the marshmallows, cooking sticks, and firewood.
- Party on.
We found that we could do the Fu in about 10 minutes without the rain fly, and about 15 with the rain fly. We’d leave the bench seat as a seat until we were ready to sleep. For sleep, we’d fold out the seat, unfold the sleeping pad, and blanket, toss the pillows in back and snooze away. We also have an attachable awning, but never used it due to our temporary camping locations. This was all undone in pretty much the reverse order to Un-Fu the van and get back on the road.
Probably the only other thing I can can add is that it is really important to keep on top of interior maintenance and cleaning:
- Remove trash and recycling at the earliest opportunity
- Don’t let the glovebox fill up with unnecessary items (it’s much better used for phone chargers, wallets, phones, and music devices).
- Do your dishes before you roll, or at least wipe them down with baby wipes to get the big stuff off. This makes doing dishes easier when you have time.
- Put your dishes and food back the same way every time so you don’t have to reinvent the wheel every time you cook.
- Brush out the floors every day to remove soils.
- Keep the kitchen and cabinets wiped down and clean.
Those clear counter tops make good emergency work surfaces
If you can keep things neat and clean, you’ll enjoy your trip better. When you get home, you’ll have one less major project to take care of. Also, if you happen to get pulled over by the cops, you are more likely to impress them if you can find your paperwork and your van doesn’t smell and look like a garbage dump.
Happy trails and rainbows to you!
Blasting through storm fronts in Montana