Summer is just around the corner which means one thing… CAMPING SEASON!!! If you are anything like us, you are counting the seconds until May long weekend where it is finally acceptable to start camping. Just kidding, we are camping in April in the middle of a snowstorm.
Even if you don’t have an 80’s van like us there are many things to think about when summarizing your rig. This is especially important if you are starting your camper for the first time after a long winter. It’s much easier to do repairs in your driveway than stranded in a campground.
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For those with a camper rather than a trailer, paying attention to the engine is important. Checking that everything is in order before firing her up will save you money and a headache later. Nobody wants a bigger auto repair bill just because they were too eager to get on the road.
The first thing you should do is check your vehicle’s oil level. When you take out the oil dipstick check the colour of the oil. Even though we changed our girls oil before we sat her, we found her oil looked really dark again so we had to change it again when summarizing. We recommend not changing it in the winter when she’s going to sit and instead give her fresh oil once the weather warms.
How Often To Change Oil? Around 3000-5500 kms – depending on your vehicle and oil type. If you use synthetic oil you’ll be on the higher end of this spectrum.
We all know that low oil can cause havoc, but a high level of oil can do the same. It can put added pressure on the gaskets which can cause them to stretch and even blow out. Our old van has a system that burns off excess oil. This is great, but can be scary. We filled our oil too full and were alerted to this by a huge trail of white smoke coming out of our tailpipe. Luckily, my mechanic diagnosed this without charging me anything.
Oh how many horror stories we’ve heard about owners of old campers not checking coolant levels properly and facing a blown gasket because of it. Do yourself (and your wallet) a favor and check your antifreeze levels!! Not just the overflow tank but also the main reservoir. Yes, some cars have two tanks!
What is coolant for?
It essentially allows your car to run hot without it overheating. Coolant fluid has a higher boiling point than water which allows your vehicle to stay cool even when idling in stop and go traffic..
If your van blows some smoke when you first fire her up don’t worry this is normal. Water can accumulate in the tailpipe which will show as white smoke.
Is antifreeze the same as coolant?
Essentially yes. This liquid essentially changes the boiling and freezing point of your engine so you can drive in hot and cold temperatures without ruining your engine.
There are two main types of coolant: concentrate and premixed. The concentrate type requires you to add water when you add it to your car. Most people will just add tap water, but this can add minerals or deposits to your cooling system. It may seem over the top but we have used distilled water instead of tap water. The premixed solution is great if you are on the road and need a top up.
How to check coolant level?
Simply find the right tank in your engine bay and see if the liquid level is in the proper range. This will be indicated on the outside of the tank.
If our van ever starts acting up the first words out of Samara’s mouth are “time to change the spark plugs”.
While it may not be the actual cure all that she thinks, more times than I would like to admit I humor her and change them and she is right – the van fires up perfectly. Even before the spark plug wrench is out of my hands she’s in the drivers seat ready to fire up old Gurt.
It may be because we drive so much, or maybe these old vans just go through spark plugs faster than other vehicles. But it seems that changing spark plugs on our van really is a cure all.
How much are spark plugs?
If your rig is idling rough try changing them. It should cost less than $20 and can do a lot for your van. Spark plugs for our van (a 1984 Volkswagen Vanagon)
How to replace spark plugs?
Changing them is easy and only requires a ratchet. All you need to do is unscrew them from their socket. The head of the plugs should be relatively clean without any debris. If you find them to be dirty or black it is time to change them.
When replacing them make sure you don’t tighten them too much as they can break off into the head of the engine. We tighten them by hand and only use the ratchet to snug them up.
When to change spark plugs?
We find we get between 3,000 and 5,000 km out of our spark plugs which is MUCH less than most vehicles on the road. We justify this because she is both old and we ask A LOT from her. Gurt burns a little rich so she uses up spark plugs rather quickly but this is to be expected on a van that’s pushing 35 years.
What do spark plugs do?
Spark plugs are what ensure your cars engine runs smoothly. They create sparks which ignite the gasoline to move the pistons in your engine. When they get dirty they don’t fire properly which can cause your engine to misfire or run poorly. This can significantly reduce your gas mileage and cause issues if left for long term.
Check out how to change your Volkswagen Vanagon’s starter!
It is worth checking the integrity of your timing belt (sometimes called a serpentine belt). After prolonged sitting they may start to deteriorate, something that is relatively easy to fix if you catch it.
Trust us, the worst feeling is having a belt that breaks when you’re miles away from the nearest town, let alone an auto parts store. We now always travel with a spare timing belt after this happened to us.
One of the biggest timing belt symptoms can include timing belt noise. If your camper is making a high pitched squealing noise when it first starts it may be time to check your timing belt health.
A broken belt can also cause more damage than you can imagine. I’ve read horror stories of people’s belts breaking and snapping spark plugs or even fuel lines. Luckily when ours broke we were quick to pull over and shut the engine off.
What is a timing belt?
A timing belt is a band that controls a specific area of your car. On our van it’s job is to keep the alternator running properly. When our belt broke our car battery stopped charging. If we continued to drive like this our battery would have died as it wasn’t charging.
How much does a timing belt cost?
These don’t cost much at all. In total ours costed less than $20. Ever since ours broke we make sure we have an extra one on hand so we can replace it before it gets too worn.
Timing belt replacement
Replacing your timing belt can be as easy as loosening a bolt and moving a wheel. Our van was incredibly easy to replace once we figured out the configuration. It will have to wind around some pulleys in a specific pattern – it’s worth googling if your belt broke.
You may need a timing belt tensioner when you’re replacing yours. This tool essentially helps you loop the engine belt around the pulley and to tighten it when you’re finishing the job.
Going Through Your Campers Interior
If you have an older camper like us, you may have some moisture trapped inside. This can be seen in condensation on inside of windows. You can air it out by opening the doors and windows – and popping your top (if you have one).
How to stop condensation on windows?
The first thing you’ll want to do is seal up the leaks you have. There are also moisture bags you can get that will absorb moisture out the air. This will get rid of moisture before it turns into mold and mildew. Throwing a couple of these in your camper when winterizing it is ideal. You can also use an RV dehumidifier which essentially cleans the air inside your camper.
If you seem to have more moisture that normal you may have a leak. It’s very common for older trailers and campers to have cracks in their roof that let water in. Windows are also a huge weak point. When we first got our van it has a cracked skylight lens cap (among many other rough spots) which was letting water pool and drip onto our carpet. These can be a simple fix if you catch it soon enough.
Since leaks usually happen on the roof you can simply run a bead of outside silicone on the issue. The best part is you don’t have to be too neat or tidy since nobody will likely see it.
If you can’t find any leaks on your roof but still think that is an issue check your window and door seals. This is another common place where water can enter. Older vehicles have old seals that can dry out and crack which can let water in.
First Start of The Season
The first time you fire your vehicle up let her warm up before you rev the engine. The more time that has passed since you started it the longer you should wait. Oil will settle and if you rev her before the oil has a chance to circulate you can cause damage to your pistons.
Ideally, it is best to lift your van up so that it is not sitting on it’s tires throughout the whole winter. We know, more than likely this wasn’t done but keep in mind how harsh prolonged sitting is on your tires.
This can affect not only how your camper drives but also things like fuel economy. It can be common to have to inflate your tires air pressure after it’s been sitting a while. Tires that don’t have enough air in them can wear the tire tread quickly and cause your gas to empty faster than normal.
The brakes on your car is one of the most common auto repair people make. There are many components of your braking system including: calipers, brake drums, disc brakes, brake pads and brake rotors.
You may find your brakes make weird noises when you drive your camper for the first day. This is very common and will likely go away but it is wise to give them a once over (even just a visual inspection). Most brake shops will give your car a free brake inspection.
Make sure you don’t have any rocks or debris between your pads and rotors. If you have the tools you may want to take a tire off to check how much of your pads are left. It’s really not that difficult and can save you from having to pay a shop to do it. Brake pad change cost can be steep if you go to brake service shops around you.
With summer fast approaching (well, not fast enough) we recommend getting a jump on camping season by getting your rig ready. This will save you a lot of time and money down the road and can leave you and your family having a summer you will never forget. If you haven’t already, check out our our post on how to find the best free campsites. We have traveled full time for almost 2 years and have only paid for about 5 nights!
Are you getting your camper ready for its first trip of the year? Let us know your yearly routine in the comment section below!
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