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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.

Are you heading overseas this summer? Be sure to check out how to make the most of your next vacation.

camper, campsite, camping, westfalia, vw, nature, landscape

Engine Work

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.

Oil

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.

camper, dogs, pets, van, camping, vw, westfalia, vanagon, roadtrip road trip

Coolant

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.

Spark Plugs

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.

camper, van, campsite, camping, hammock, river, road trip, roadtrip

Check out how to change your Volkswagen Vanagon’s starter!

Timing Belt

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

Moisture

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.

summer, camper, volkswagen, westfalia

Leaks

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.

Tire Pressure

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.

camper, fire, camp, camp site, campsite, camping

Brakes

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.

Final Thoughts

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!

Disclosure: This post contains affiliate links which means we may get a commission if you make a purchase. Our opinions are our own and we only share what we believe you’ll find helpful. We also use all the products that we have links to. You can even see them in the photos we post.

With a year and a half on the road, we were left with quite a few crazy stories. One even involved a tornado. This is that story..

Gurt had sat in an auto wrecking/repair shop for 8 years before we found and saved her. In this time, she withered awaytornado, gurt, westfalia, volkswagen, auto wrecker quite a bit. Accumulating some rust, a smashed back window, a lot of mold and a watered down gas tank (which caused the tank to rust).

We got her for a steal of a deal, mainly because she had sat taking up space in this wreckers yard. That low $1,500 price tag doesn’t mean that she was cheap. Any westfalia owner knows how much these little vans end up costing. In total $5,000 was spent getting her engine rebuilt and fuel pipes replaced before we hit the road.

Oh, how the spending didn’t stop there.

About a month and a half into our van-living we started to notice that the gas tank wasn’t working. We thought it may have been the crappy gas we were buying in America so we started fueling with premium (an expensive and virtually useless tornado, gurt, westfalia, volkswagen, vanagon, vanlife switch). We would hit the gas pedal and hardly move. I’m not talking our usual 60 km/hr, I am talking we literally didn’t move.

Ok, so we have a car that we KNOW something is wrong, and we are typing our little fingers away so that we can take what we know is going to be an expensive hit at a repair shop. Stuck in middle of nowhere Ohio we decided to head into a bigger city where we can find a mechanic for cheaper. All we needed was a full tank of gas….

After fueling up and hitting the road we noticed the sky start to get angry. Moody weather is my favourite weather – bring on

tornado, barn, ohio, farm, vanlife, roadtrip
The day started like this…

the thunder and lightning. A couple seconds further of driving and we find ourselves in a cold downpour. As our van has minimal heat we got incredibly cold quickly. So, we decided to stop in at a rest stop for some coffee.

The rest stop was so crowded it was hard to find a parking spot, our first warning (that we completely ignored). I jump out of the van with the dogs for some amazing photos of the lightning not even phased by the downpour of rain (our second warning).

I’m from Vancouver, what’s a bit of rain?

In a matter of seconds Myles is RUNNING back outside (with no coffee in hand) screaming for me to get the dogs in the car. He doesn’t love wet dogs dancing in the rain as much as me for some reason.

tornado, sky, angry clouds, ohio, roadtrip, vanlife
… and turned into this!

I follow him into the incredibly cramped rest stop where I find tons of people gathered around TVs. Apparently we had unknowingly drove right in the middle of a tornado. No not one tornado but three.

It is worth noting that our little van doesn’t have radio so we travel basically everywhere completely blind – something we typically love.

People were huddled in blankets with their dogs everywhere. The coffee lineups were out of this world (of course this is what we were worried about).

Not wanting to stay inside helpless, we realized we had all of our gear in our van, literally everything that mattered most to us, hell it was our home. The mobility the van offered to us was our favorite thing about this lifestyle. We weren’t going to give that up for a simple tornado, or three…

tornado, rest stop, alert, vanlife, ohio, roadtrip

Still not fully convinced of the severity we thought “naw we got this, its a bit of rain.” Oh, how young and stupid we were.

Minutes later we hit the road again ready to speed past this tornado and get to a safe zone. Yes, we thought we could outrun this tornado. About 15 minutes down the road the weather started to get really bad. This is when we started to actually feel nervous, so I got out of my chair to get our portable radio hoping I could tune it to some weather reports. As I get to the backseat Myles pushes the gas and it stops working.

After a couple seconds of pure panic and only a couple choice words I jump out of the now stopped car to see if I can see anything (luckily no tornado in sight). It’s not some light rain at this point, it’s like standing under a waterfall.

So there we are on the side of a busy highway with only a small shoulder in the worst conditions in terms of visibility in a WHITE van. I open the door and our panicked dogs follow me out. I truthfully don’t think I have ever screamed so shrilley for them to get back in the car in my life. Luckily they all listened and hopped back in. They are so comfortable in the van and were completely oblivious to our circumstances.

tornado, rain, roadtrip, weather, vanlife, lightning

It took me about 5 seconds to realize the problem. The DOOMING problem….

When we had filled gas up this morning, we must have forgotten to replace the gas cap. Water had been filling in our gas tank this whole time. Lost somewhere on the highway I had to think fast as it was filling more with every second. In the pouring rain I shout for Myles to pass me a ShamWow, yes, the absorbent towel you’ve all seen on the terrible infomercials. I stuff it into the tank to hopefully plug the whole and I climb back in. Problem solved, right?

Myles turns the car on and pushes the gas. With some stroke of luck we are able to get her going.

Every couple seconds the gas stops working and we have to pump it a few times in order to get going again. Moving at probably close to 30 km/hr we were out running a tornado (barely). I honestly think it was dumb luck, but we’ll call it outrunning…

About an hour down the road we pull into a Starbucks to steal their WiFi. Oh yes, it is definitely worth mentioning that at this point we didn’t have an American cell phone plan. Not the best scenario when facing a tornado.

Literally zero ways of contacting anyone.

A quick google search and we found the closest mechanic. Unfortunately for us they weren’t open. So we logically decided to sleep in his parking lot over night so we could see him first thing in the morning.

The next morning we woke up to some guy knocking on our window. We watched as he laughed at our ramblings of all that happened the day before.

A couple hours and many hundreds of dollars later, we drove away with a new gas tank, a new fuel pump and filter and a serious need for a nap. After all the stress we had just experienced we looked up to realize it was a beautifully sunny day. So we got our dogs in the van and did what we do best, headed to the beach.

Have you ever been caught in a bad weather situation? Let us know in the comments below.

tornado, beach, campsite, vanlife, van life

Tools Needed:

Difficulty – 1.5/5

Time Needed – 2-4 Hours

When we bought our Westfalia she was definitely showing her years, especially on her pop top ceiling. We discovered that it was a common problem among all these aging vehicles. Nearly everyone we’ve seen has a mould-covered canvas and ceiling. If you are going to spend any amount of time in your van you are going to want to remedy this issue. Mould can have serious negative effects on your health.Cleaner

First, we covered the entire floor and kitchen area with a tarp (or painter’s sheet) to ensure nothing dripped onto our carpets.

The ceiling will have a natural “fuzzy” feel to it. Volkswagen added flocking on to help insulate the bus – you’re going to want to try to preserve this!

We started scrubbing with just vinegar water but with little results. When this didn’t work we then turned to a more heavy-duty cleaner. We found a new to Canada product called Organic C-D at a 2:1 ratio (two parts organic CD to one part water). This is an environmentally friendly product that utilizes bacteria to fight dirt and, in our case, mould.

This worked to get most of the black mould off our roof but missed a few areas. The mixture we found worked the best was a combination of bleach and water. We heavily diluted the solution and only used it for areas that our second mixture couldn’t handle.

Don’t forget to check out how we find the best FREE campsites!

Be careful when using bleach. We strongly recommend waiting for a clear sunny day so you can open all of your windows, doors and hatch. The fumes can quickly build up, especially if you are doing this with your canvas still attached. It is not good to breathe these vapours and can harm your lungs. If you have construction masks you may want to use them.Scrub Brush

We had two spray bottles to test which concentrate worked better but quickly found that combining the two worked best.

Next, thoroughly soaked the roof in a spray of the Organic C-D mixture and bleach when needed.

The bleach will make your eyes sting a bit. Stick with it the results are amazing! After spraying both on we used our scrubbing brush (and some newfound muscles) to scrub the pop-top. Be careful not to use a too intense scrubbing brush that will chip away your flocking.

Be sure to avoid spraying your canvas with bleach – the stains on it would be awful! We found it best to break into sections then spray, scrub and then take a wet cloth to wipe away as much as you can. The corners are difficult – try using a toothbrush to get into them so you can be sure to kill all of the mould.

Please whatever you do, don’t just paint the ceiling white – This may sound like common sense but you wouldn’t believe how many Westys we have found that instead of cleaning their pop-top they simply spray painted their interior ceiling. This is horrible because it will just flake off which will still be toxic to you, not to mention it looks ugly.

Once you are finished, be sure to leave your windows open for at least a day to let it all ventilate so you aren’t left with a bleach sent!

Pro tip: if you’re changing out your canvas as well it will be MUCH easier to remove your old canvas and then clean the pop top. But make sure you clean it before installing the new one. This is a messy job and you don’t want to get your new canvas dirty or covered in bleach.

Let us know if you have any other tips or tricks to get this job done in the comments or if you have any photos, we love seeing them!

Happy cleaning 🙂

When we found Gurt she was a wee bit eager to start. We found her with a dead battery, so we replaced it. But as soon as we connected the battery, much to our surprise, she would start to turn over without the keys even close to the ignition. When we would put the keys in the ignition, turn it to the “on” position and give her some gas she would turn on. We found her after not being on the road for 8 years, so her even turning over was a good sign for us.

After seeking help on forums, calls to automotive repair shops we decided to start by change the starter. This is not the hardest job, but there are a few tricks that will definitely slow you down if you know them.

Tools Needed:

Difficulty – 3.5/5

Time Needed – 1.25 Hours

Click here to find out how to change your Vanagon’s Fuel Pump

image You’re going to want to start by looking over the starter. We did this by jacking up our rig. We backed it up to a high point with the engine bay overhanging. With our van jacked up we crawled under. Looking at the bottom of the engine by the transmission you will see the starter. It’s a little hard to access, but it looks like the picture below. There will be a bolt on the bottom of the starter, and a 16 mm wrench will be needed to unscrew it. It will be a small one, about an inch long.

Next, you’re going to want to look at the top of the starter from the back of the van through the hatch. You will just be able to see it – this is the bolt that you’re going to need the 8 mm Allen wrench to unscrew. We did this with me under the van and Samara laying in the van with the Z-seat folded down. I guided her to the bolt with my hand.

This is when you’re first analysis is going to come in handy. If it looks like your starter is from the factory you’re going to need some WD40. This bolt is long – around 6-8 inches long. And the part that we didn’t know is that there is a nut on the end of it. We spent an embarrassingly long time spinning the Allen key not knowing why it wasn’t loosening. Another thing to keep in mind is that there are spaces where the transmission joins the engine. I found it hard to keep my hand on the nut when taking it off and replacing it, making extra sure that it didn’t fall into the crevasses. Also, you’re going to want to be careful not to snap this bolt. Ours was very rusty in the middle and took a little finessing to break free.

Once both bolts are taken off, the starter should pull out. Make sure that you don’t bend it as it’s taken out, which is easier said than done with the long bolt in your way. Also, be careful of the wiring. On the right side (looking from the bottom facing the rear) there are going to be two wires attached to the prongs on the starter. These are for the starter ignition. It is worth noting that our Westfalia is an automatic (the wiring could be different for a manual). Take note of the placement of the wiring. They should go back on the same way they came off.image

Replacing The Starter

Once the starter is out it is literally the reverse of how it came out. I found that balancing the new starter on my chest as I plugged the wires in worked well. You’re also going to want to put the long bolt in before you hoist it into place. Now you are ready to put the starter back in. Just like taking it out, put it in straight and flush it up. I found it easiest to hold the starter with my right hand as my hand tightened the small screw at the bottom with my left hand. Then I put the long bolt in and put the washer on and tightened the nut at the back, again being careful not to drop the nut into the transmission.

Now you are ready to try to crank over the engine! Good luck and let us know how this went for you.

After living a life on the road for around 3 years, we now consider ourselves experts in finding the best free campground. If you add the fact that we have only paid for about 4 nights of accommodation – boondocking is our specialty. There are many aspects you should factor into your decision about where you should spend your time in the woods.

Whether you are looking for a new unplugged experience, or just want to find some of the most secluded campgrounds, going off the beaten path works wonders for your mental health. Since we travel with dogs we prefer public sites rather than private ones where we don’t have to keep them leashed all the time. We have been asked so many times how we find the sites we stay at so we thought we’d let you all in on all of our secrets.

This is for weekend warriors and Vanlifers alike. No matter where in North America you are these tips will help you find the best campground near you. Some places are going to be easier to camp in than others. Depending on where you are going, there are certain things you should know.

Not in North America? Check with local bylaws for rules on camping. When we were road tripping through Scotland they have a freedom to roam act that allows you to camp on any public land.

Free Sites

There are tons of land that you can camp on for FREE in North America. If you are in Canada most “Crown land” is free to camp on as well as any forest service roads. For example, 94% of land in British Columbia is considered Crown Land. This means the government owns the land. The USA has a similar thing called BLM land. This is land that isn’t owned by a single person. It is owned by the government, considered public land, and is free to use.

Not all maps will show you where this is or how to get to it, but trust us it is some of the best land to camp on. Some of this land is simply that, bare land that you can set up a tent or park your van on. The cool thing about this land is that you will find campgrounds that have everything provincial, or state, parks have. This can include picnic tables, fire pits and even outhouses. Don’t expect electricity or running water though.

* A few things to consider:

  • Do your research to see if there are any fire restrictions in your area. If there are you can be fined for starting a fire. It is your responsibility to find this out. This is especially true in Canada where there are fire restrictions every single summer in most places.

  • For both Canada and the USA, there is usually a stay limit, typically around 14-21 days. This, at least in our experience, isn’t strongly enforced but rather a way to keep it fair for all campers to get an opportunity to experience the site.
  • There are no garbage services at these sites. It is your responsibility to pack out what you pack in. Keep in mind that someone has been at your site before you. If they left the site a mess you’d be upset, so treat your space with respect. One thing that is great to leave behind is the extra firewood you didn’t use. This is always a welcomed surprise for the next camper or RV.
  • Rangers and police do not usually patrol these areas. This doesn’t mean that they are dangerous, it just means you have to be courteous to your neighbours. For example, don’t party until 2 am right beside a family with young children.
You may also like: Why You Need To Care About Sustainable Travel

Recreation Sites (Canada)

Recreation Sites and Trails are a halfway point between completely free off-grid sites and Provincial/State Parks. They usually come with a small fee per night – usually in the $15 – $20 range. Rules are usually more relaxed at these recreation sites but also have fewer amenities than at Provincial Campsites.
Their website is a great resource to find areas that have a lot of campsites. These are nearly all first come first served so we recommend finding areas that have a few Recreation Sites close by – there’s nothing worse than having packed and drove to the site only to find out that it’s full.
When you click on a site that you’re interested in you’ll see all of the important information. Some postings have more information than others, including photos. The cool thing about this is that the driving directions sometimes include information about the vehicle you need to access the site (ie. 2 wheel drive vs 4×4 and if a motorhome or trailer can access).