Review: 1988 Volkswagen Vanagon Westfalia Camper

Pros

  • Beautiful vintage style gives children a memorable trip
  • Compact design makes for easy parking and campsite selection
  • Integrated appliances and furniture offers easy cooking in all weather
  • Pop-top with extra bed easily fits a family of four for sleeping

Cons

  • Under-powered engine increases driving time substantially
  • Limited space makes transitions from camp to driving laborious
  • Lots of little things can break along the way, demanding repair time even on short trips

Bottom line

Perfect for a one-time rental to give children the classic VW experience, but doubtful we’ll repeat it or buy one (especially since we don’t have mechanical skills!).

Review

My parents owned a VW Camper and for years my wife and I dreamed of buying one and road tripping around the country with our family. Our impression was that the VW Campervans would offer a more efficient way to travel, since we wouldn’t have to spend every day setting up and taking down camp.

We planned a five-day trip and set our sights on driving from Boulder, Colorado, down towards Southwest Colorado to take our children to the epic Mesa Verde, hitting some hot springs along the way. We learned a lot about these beautiful vintage vehicles and while we were grateful that we took the trip we both arrived home exhausted and swearing never to repeat it again!

The 1988 Volkswagen Vanagon Westfalia Camper T25 may have been a race car compared to earlier models, but it’s hard to fully grasp how under-powered it is until you get it on the road. Around town it’s novel, but heading up mountain passes in Colorado we were often pushing to get to 35 MPH. The result is that we spent way more time in the van than we had anticipated. This is magnified with all the extra stops that road tripping with children, at least ours, seems to require. After two days of driving and starting our campfires in the dark we decided to have a layover day. This changed our itinerary making our dreams of getting to Mesa Verde just that.

The thing we loved most about the Westy was it’s compact design that allowed us to fit into standard parking spaces and campsites. This was also its greatest downfall. In order to convert the van from driving-mode to camp-mode or in reverse required moving our stuff. With two car seats and a back loaded with clothes, pillows, sleeping bags, and food, the effort was enormous. It felt like a real-life game of Tetris, trying to find a new spot for each item. In order to make the beds, it took moving and packing all our stuff into the front seats area. After a couple of days, we found the fastest way to do this was to put a tarp on the ground and take everything out of the van and place it on the tarp and then repack things in their new position. This turned out to be an hour or more in the morning and in the evening, even on the layover days.

The last thing that took us by surprise was the number of things that stopped working along the way. The refrigerator didn’t stop entirely, but took so long to get cold that we abandoned it entirely in fear of our food going bad. The speedometer was fickle and we ended up needing to use an app on our iPhones. The fuse for the cigarette lighter blew, which we were using to power our iPhones that became mandatory when the speedometer stopped working.

The results of traveling in the Westy wreaked havoc on our plans and took way more work than we imagined. That being said, the children absolutely loved the trip – they fought to earn rights for driving it on back roads and sleeping on the upper bed; they were so eager to be inside that we had to kick them out at times to enjoy the forests we camped in; they cherished eating at the rotating breakfast table and loved roughhousing in the pile of blankets and bags. It’s definitely worth the hardship on the parents to give children the experience!

If we ever road trip in a campervan again, we’ll look closely at renting a Eurovan Full Camper instead of a Westfalia. Eurovans are newer and have more power, better working appliances, and a better interior layout. Most importantly, we would reduce our planned mileage per day (maybe to around just 100 miles) and try to bring way less stuff – if you packed like you would for backpacking it would a lot easier to convert from driving-mode to camp-mode. Also, Eurovans have better heating systems and would be my go-to choice for taking one out in the winter.

Two things that made a good trip better

Two things we brought that could have been easily overlooked but made a huge difference was a car seat cargo bin for the children’s things and a tarp shelter. The seat organizer (we have the inexpensive and deep Dino Travel Pal Car Storage – $10.88), gave our children access to their road trip travel packs. Usually when we drive places we can help them navigate their activities because one of us can reach into the backseat but with the VW campers the backseats are too far back to be able to provide that support. The tarp shelter (we have the 12’ versatile and lightweight Kelty Noah’s Tarp Shelter – $69.95) saved us on a couple of occasions when it was raining at camp and we would have otherwise been more inclined to stay inside of the van.

If you’re in Colorado and looking to rent, the folks at Rocky Mountain Campervans are terrific. The vans are loaded up with pretty much everything you need (kitchen stuff, bedding, random pieces of important equipment you don’t realize you need) and when we had issues come up on the road they were always available to help, even on the weekends. They have a good-sized fleet of Westy’s or Eurovans to choose from and are located in Denver, Colorado.

I do still dream of owning a Westy. I think it would need a new engine and with time I think we could optimize the stuff within the vehicle for more efficiency on our trip. How do other folks make sure their VW campervan road trips are a success?

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