The Truth About Adventure Van Ownership

For these four committed van lifers, there’s a whole lot more to it than Instagram pics.


There’s something romantic about the van life aesthetic, the ability to pick up and go, the Kerouacian journey of self discovery propelled by four tires, a tank of gas, and a firm grip on the wheel. It’s the allure of a never-ending road trip in something cooler than a Paco Pad and a sleeping bag laid out in the back of a Subi. But there are unappealing aspects of van ownership, too. Breakdowns, constant repairs, anxiety-provoked night sweats…vans are completely impractical. Aren’t they? Well, maybe not or maybe…that’s part of it.

For Colorado native Luke “Spoagz” Brown, van ownership is equal parts nostalgia and simplicity…as in the poetic simplicity a van represents. There is nothing simple about owning a 30-plus-year-old Volkswagen.

Make/Model: faded gold 1985 Volkswagen Westfalia Vanagon
Nickname: Winston
Years Owned: 3, but there is a proud lineage of VW van ownership for three generations of Browns.

“Some of my fondest childhood memories involve our family’s VW vans and that’s the main reason I still drive them today. I loved getting scooped up by my father on early mornings, wrapped in a sleeping bag, and placed in the back of an idling van. VW engines are located in the back, so you lay upon the gentle muffled vibrations, which lull you in and out of sleep. Hours later, my sisters and I would emerge from an engine-rumbling dream state to find we were worlds away from home with an open road and unknown destinations ahead.

“Owning a van as an adult is about nostalgia mostly but I also like the uncomplicatedness that my van embodies. Winston allows me to boil life down to the simple elements and bring them along for the ride, which I’ll need while the van is being towed to the nearest town for repairs. Many a VW owner will call it quits after the first few breakdowns. We committed and nostalgically swooned suckers will power through and begin the second phase of the VW story, the YouTube phase, formerly known as the Public Library Manual phase. Oh, the countless hours of watching videos of fellow fanatics diagnosing their not-so-trusty steeds and crawling in-under-over the van in an attempt to get back to enjoying life at 55 mph. This can be maddening and humbling. But it’s pretty damn great when you get it running again and ready for adventures. A van is a gift that, when working, keeps on giving”

Nate and Ashley Smith’s van is an essential part of their weekend adventures and an easyish way to escape the hordes of tourists in the tiny Colorado mountain town they call home.

Make/Model: 1995 Ford E-250 Econoline Coachman Conversion
Nickname: Uncle Rico
Years Owned: 3, first van

“We bought Uncle Rico sight unseen and we have no regrets,” Nate says. “Ashley and I both work 9 to 5 jobs and were looking for a way to enhance our weekend warrior status. Now, the van is incorporated into our 5 to 9 work schedule. Sometimes, we use Rico as our rolling office. I can represent my clients in between surf sessions and Ashley can check in on her staff while sipping her morning coffee.”

“We only have two days to disconnect from our work lives,” Ashley describes. “Before Uncle Rico, we were spending half the time packing the gear, loading the gear, getting to the location, unpacking the gear, setting up the gear, breaking down the gear, re-loading the gear, driving back home, and then unpacking the gear. Ya get it? I do that at work and, quite frankly, I got tired of doing it in my free time.”

“We wanted to make our adventures a little more turnkey,” Nate adds. “The mileage is low and the van generally runs great, but we’ve spent a lot of time troubleshooting and stressing about issues, and paying mechanics to do the same. We’ve replaced the tires, ball joints, fuel pump, and entire ignition system, as well as repaired/replaced several water line leaks, and the furnace circuit board, and the ventilation fan. Repairs are fun…in small doses. Since I am an office jockey, I’ve used the van as a way to become more mechanically inclined. It’s not always easy but the van reminds us why we moved to the mountains. There is so much open country to explore out west and the van helps us get to those places”

“And it’s 100-percent luxury dirtbaggery,” Ashley explains. “It’s glamping with a fresh scent of B.O., moldy old carpet, and dog slobber all packed together. When we roll into our campsite super late on a Friday and just have to pull out the bed, I really feel like letting out a quiet ‘yessssss.’ I feel like I’ve won. No pulling out all the gear and setting everything up. It’s all right there. Before going to sleep, Nate and I review our adventure plan for the next two days over a beer or cocktail with some Ryan Adams in the background. It’s quiet and it feels like home.”

Adventure van ownership is a family tradition for Chris Dixon. His long line of vans has cemented Dixon’s place as leader of the pack in the Rad Dad club.

Make/Model: 2003 Eurovan Winnebago
Nickname: Greta Van Lefturn
Years Owned: 1 (for this one), but Dixon buys vans like other people buy milk.

“I bought my first Westy in ’97. It sunk in early just how really cool they are. In my early 20s, I pulled into work one day and a colleague was sitting with his legs hanging out the door of his van, eating oatmeal in the sun. I was hooked. They represent the ability to live and work anywhere. And I’m not a millennial. I’m 50. But I want to live and work virtually any- and everywhere. I’m still wrapping my head around the “why” of van ownership, what it all means. I think #VanLifers will want to eventually establish roots and the fad will fade. The Eurovan is the happy medium.

“For me, as a dad and a husband, it’s a practical urban escape vehicle. It’s the modern version of the Griswald family cruiser. When you have a family you need a reliable vehicle. Breaking down with a wife and kids is not really an option. The Eurovan is the best for family road trips, roomie, dependable, and has no problem going 80mph uphill.

“I’ve owned six Vanagons. Aesthetically, Winnebago is not as cool, true. But Greta is a lot safer and much more reliable. It has an external cold water shower, and gets way better mileage than the Vanagon. It was just time to own a vehicle that I didn’t have to constantly fret over breaking down but could still camp with, do dad runs, and work out of, and that would tow our boat…which is what I work on/stress over instead of the Vanagon. Right now, I’m sitting in it at our local mountain bike trail, using my phone as a hotspot, the furnace running, and a cup of coffee steaming, working on a book. It’s pretty damn nice.”

Kristin Carpenter-Ogden’s heart has four wheels and a VW logo on it.

Make/Model: 1990 Volkswagen Syncro Westfalia
Nickname: The Land Shark
Years Owned: One-bajillion in heart years

“That van is tied in with our heart and soul as a family. We love it. There are so many wonderful memories and anecdotes from all of our adventures. My husband likes to roost the van on high-mountain passes of the San Juans. We’ll camp at the base and then drive around off road for days in that thing. Years ago, Jared, my husband, would let my kid Tobin and I out with our dog to walk the pass, and he would roost it with our baby in the van. We have driven the Land Shark all over the place and it’s been amazing for us, migrating from young married couple to raising kids, and still wanting to get out and get after it. It’s part of our family culture.

“The aesthetic and cool factor far outweigh the breakdowns and repair costs. We have had a lot of these vans. This is Jared’s third van, and my second, our second as a family. I’ll tell you what, when Jared showed up to take me climbing on our first date in his Westy, it was part of what made me fall in love with him. And I am not kidding.”

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Showing 6 comments
  • JJ
    Reply

    IMHO, the “truth about van ownership” is that a 4X4 pickup with a pop-up truck camper is whole lot more practical for an all-season adventure rig.

    Vans are the emotional choice.

  • Chris Dixon
    Reply

    JJ, you’ve obviously never had to change out of a wetsuit on a 30 degree day with 25 knot offshore winds. Kind of nice to be able to be out of that. Not too easy to brew a cuppa java in a Tacoma either.

    • JJ
      Reply

      A pop-up truck camper* is perfect for that situation Chris. And they come with a heater already installed (at least the three I’ve owned did), not to mention a propane stove to brew that cuppa Java, and a fridge to keep your humis cold. One of the campers I owned was even self contained, with a toilet, water heater and shower to wash that salt water off after your surf outing. I’ve paid anywhere from $1000 to $3000 for mine used, with only a loss of about 1-2mpg vs. an empty pick-up. They also have blanket kits for winter-time to insulate the canvas walls. Set it up in under five minutes, or you don’t even have to pop-the-top if you’re not going to sleep in the overhead. You can eat, change clothes & nap on the dinette bed with no set-up time. Best of all, with a 4×4 pickup you take one anywhere the truck would normally go, unlike a 2wd van. The only downside is that removing it/installing it on the truck can be a PITA. I got it down to about 45 minutes.

      *see http://www.fourwh.com for a picture of what I’m talking about

      • AC
        Reply

        What the 4×4 and poptop camper won’t do though, is fit in some garages, or allow bikes to be kept safely inside. Otherwise I agree with your points, having owned an A frame pop up trailer and now building out a poptop ford van.

        Every solution has a compromise somewhere.

        • Steve Casimiro
          Reply

          compromise: +1

  • Kris Whitehead
    Reply

    I have a lot of fond memories of Joanie, our 1986 Vanagon Adventurewagen. She was a beautiful and rare find, and really, really expensive. Though paid for outright and with only 60,000 miles on the stock motor, repairs and maintenance ran about $200 a month. And there was the time I had her towed 23 miles down a dirt road and a hundred miles to Yakima, WA, where I then had to leave her for two weeks. The VW dealership then incorrectly installed a new alternator that died two weeks after returning home while my wife was driving through an intersection in downtown Seattle with our 6 and 9 year old kids in the back. All told that was about $2000 in unexpected expense and worry.

    The truth about van life is that it’s an extension of real life. It has its ups and downs. It’s good moments are great, and the memories of those great moments tend to overwrite the not-so-great ones.

    When the kids finally outgrew the upper bunk, we sold Joanie sight unseen to a young family from Boise. Our entire family cried, literally cried, as she drove away, the tearful kids wailing “how could you” and the adults thinking “I don’t know.”

    Joanie could never be replaced, and we bought a killer tent and then remodeled our kitchen with the cash from the sale. The kitchen is more practical, and I dare say we’ve created as many good memories in it as we did in the van.

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