Should We Buy a Retro Camper Van?

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(July 2019) I am obsessed with camper vans – retro in particular, though all vans are pretty cool – I follow Vanlife on Instagram and drool over all of them. I have fantasized about owning one for a long time and have spent HOURS and HOURS scouring the net looking for deals on VW Vans.

I figured if we are going to buy one, we needed to actually experience the retro van life first with a rental. So, Sean and I broke down and rented a 1984 Volkswagen Vanagon (Pinky) for a week over 4th of July. I’m not a hug fan of the company from whom we rented, so I’ll leave the name out of the post. ugh.

Photo: Meet Pinky 🙂

We loaded Her up with everything you could possibly want or need – our sweet pup Yogi, fishing poles, mountain bikes, speakers, paddle boards, puzzles, games, solar string lights, adult bevies – and food – lots of good food. I wanted this experience to feel like home on wheels, to see what it would be like to travel like this more frequently.

Photo: Poor Yogi was buried in the back!

We thought it was a great idea to have all of our future wants and needs at our finger tips, until we realized we could only drive 20 mph (literally) up the mountain passes on I-70 West outside of Denver, Colorado.

We were going so slow, people were passing us on the RIGHT side – the shoulder of the freeway. That part was not so much fun, I thought Sean was going to have a heart attack. One can only assume he was mad at me for putting him through this – but – as sweet as he is, he never said a word and went along with my adventure. (I forgot to mention, the van broke down right out of the parking lot when we were leaving the rental office AND there was no A/C. Yep, it was starting out to be a real dreamy experience. They replaced the battery and off we went not really knowing what was going to happen next.)

Photo: Sean remaining patient on our 6 HOUR drive to the Flat Tops – love this guy!

We FINALLY made it to the East Flat Tops Wilderness (EFW) – Southwest of Steamboat Springs. The whole ride took us nearly 6 hours – any other car would have taken a little north of 4. Not only was the van itself a little bit of a challenge, I had no idea where we were going to land – this part of CO was untouched, at least by me and I had no idea what to expect.

We found a great campground that didn’t take reservations – Bear Lake Campground – those always scare me a little, because you can’t tell if something is going to be open when you get there. Turns out, there aren’t many people who make their way to this part of Colorado. Probably because there is no connectivity what-so-ever and there are no stores around.

You have to know what you are doing to spend more than 2 days out there. Pinky fit right in. She was small enough to fit anywhere we took her, with little or no fuss, and nothing too unwieldy to maneuver. We hung our solar string lights on her every night so she could shine when the sun went down.

After a few nights in the campground and getting to know the van pretty well, we decided to try a different camping experience. We jumped on our bikes found the perfect dispersed camp spot over looking the valley with the winding Yampa river below. The views were outstanding, with the swirly orange/purple sunsets and star-filled skies at night.

No-one was next to us, so we could play music as loud as we wanted and could dance like crazy people!  We backed her up with her tail facing the valley so we could wake up every morning with the most beautiful views. We stayed in that spot for 4 days…it was magical.

The only thing un-magical about it were the dang mosquitos – good lord, there were seemingly millions of them. Luckily, I bought some citronella candles that managed to keep them at bay. Only regret is the natural insect repellent – what a bunch of junk – no less then 50 bites on each leg and arm. I say go for the deet – what harm could it be to use it just a few times a year??

Photos: Our beautiful campsite

Even though Pinky didn’t have AC, she stayed pretty cool all day long as we kept the tent flap up and open all the time – a nice breeze was always present. We would come back from the days’ activities and she was very comfortable and inviting.

The bed was easy to set up and pretty comfy – we brought some cozy blankets and sleeping bags with us, and our favorite pillows. We spent a TON of time inside – more than you would expect – playing games, reading, napping, eating, etc. and we loved every second of it.

Photo: Nap time!

We kept most of our food and bevies cold with the solar powered fridge inside the van – but we also had our Yeti cooler – that thing is amazing – kept everything fresh for at least 4 days. We met a really sweet gal who brought some ice back for us from Steamboat – she saved our bacon as the fridge in the van worked great – but wasn’t large enough to keep ALL of our stuff cold.

The only challenge we had with food, was that we did not have a bear box outside the campsite, so we had to bring all of our dry food into the van at night. This is fine, but we kept losing stuff trying to keep everything organized – as stupid as that sounds – Pinky was just not that big to accommodate all of our stuff at all times!

Photo: Our ridiculous pile of stuff.

After 6 wonderful nights, we decided to head to Steamboat Springs, Colorado – about 1.5 hours from where we were in the EFW. We spent our drive time laughing about all of our favorite things that happened over the past week – our nighttime music and dancing, all of our gorgeous hikes, catching trout, playing games, paddle boarding around Bear Lake, mountain biking at night with our headlamps on with the star-filled sky… the list goes on and on….Once we were done with lunch, we jumped back into Pinky ready to head back down to the front range for one last night with her….then it happened…

She broke down AGAIN. Sean put the key in, nothing… Mechanics came to look at her…no luck bringing her back to life. It took us several hours to sort through all the madness and find a rental car and a tow-truck to take all of us back to Denver.

A few things about this – yes, it was stressful and pretty much ruined our last day with her, however, we didn’t lose her in the wilderness where we had no connectivity, we had a great day in Steamboat, and we didn’t have to drive 20 MPH uphill on I-70.

Photo: Goodbye sweet girl

In the end, I am glad we had the experience we had – it was FANTASTIC.  I learned a few things in the process – vans are a blast.  However, without knowing how to fix mechanical issues, etc., sadly, a retro van is probably not in my future – I’m glad my obsession with this idea is over!  

I am good with renting for a while – buying a van of any kind right now probably doesn’t make sense.  Retirement is on the horizon – maybe then… Until that point in time, we will think about Pinky frequently – maybe we will see her again :-).

I choose this ❤️

87 comments

  1. Good for you, giving it a go. Sometimes these things look and sound very romantic especially with all the gorgeous pics on Instagram but like a lot of things they’re aren’t all they’re cracked up to be. I must admit I love the thought of an old kombi and hit the road but probably not very practical either. I definitely don’t use anything with deet in it anymore though I’ve found some terrific natural repellent that actually works for me and I’m usually the one that gets eaten alive by anything that bites!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. We were utterly obsessed with vanlife too! We could talk for hours and openly fantasise about it in bright daylight. We would exchange inspiring travel routes, have discussions about the best make and model. But before we bought a campervan, we went to Portugal, rented one and spend 10 days traveling just to see what works for us and what doesn’t. We settled for the Volkswagen T4 and couldn’t be happier.

    But vanlife isn’t for everyone. Giving up the comfort of the house – think electricity, never-ending flow of the hot water, dishwasher, television and ability to roam around freely from room to room- just to spend weekends crammed into a tiny space can be challenging.

    Thanks for sharing, I am glad you followed your dream, rented a campervan and went out into the wilderness. Have a good day. Aiva

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for the thoughtful response! I think we could do it for a few months? We would like to try it someday (just not with a retro van) – the thought of having some sort of nature right out the back door is appealing. We really enjoyed the simplicity of the whole thing.

      When you settled for the T4 – what features were you all looking for?

      Liked by 1 person

      1. We basically wanted a fuel-efficient campervan capable of free-camping that comes with a big and comfy bed. We don’t bring much stuff with us so cupboard space wasn’t necessary! Are you still plan on buying one or the last trip put you off?

        Liked by 1 person

        1. We are still thinking about one, but later on down the road a bit. We’ll see what happens. I hear with the increase in vanlife, things have become a little more complicated – UGH. Not sure if you feel that too.. Have a wonderful week Aiva!

          Liked by 1 person

  3. Great account, and a wise move to try it out first. We went with a teardrop without trying it out first and in hindsight I can see the benefit of trying before you buy. We love the lifestyle but there are impracticalites.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Sounds like such an adventure and a really cool van. VW Campers are the go-to cool touring van for sure. Shame about the breakdowns but pleased that it didn’t ruin your trip. Brilliant photos.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Agreed on putting the dream to rest! Now we need to try one that actually allows us to travel the proper speed limit – haha. We were speeding downhill just so we could make it UP the next one. It was hilarious. Thanks for reading!! Hope you are staying warm!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I’m in SC at our beach house right now. WP won’t let me attach pictures, but I was walking through the local campground yesterday and they were having a VW camper van convention! I thought of Pinkie. Pics r over on my IG account.

        Liked by 2 people

      1. Laura is a very entertaining writer and she has a ton more followers than 27. You’re right though, that # you see is WP.com only. She’s self-hosted. Even my number is skewed somewhat. Glad I could introduce her to my readers. Thanks for stopping by!

        Liked by 2 people

    1. I LOVED your van post – I laughed the whole way through it. We will rent a more modern version to compare the experience. The driving 20 mph up the mountain passes was really scary. I kept thinking an 18 wheeler was going to rear-end us. ugh.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. I read the title and was like ‘OMG, Yes! Do it! But I can completely understand why after the experience you have no intention to pursue the Vanlife full-time at the current moment.

    I love that you took a trial run through this dream in a van called Pinky even if the owners were d-heads (we had a similar bad experience in a camper van in Africa. Great trip but shite company).

    And what is not to love about Yogi?!?!? That face!!!

    Seeing that you could only drive 20 mph in the mountains, perhaps you’d reconsider and buy a sailboat. You’ll go even slower (even when the winds are howling and the currents are ripping) but somehow, on the sea, speed matters less.

    Although you were blessed with such remote beauty, I was gutted to see Pinky bite the dust in the end. Thank goodness it happened on the road and not in the wilderness.

    Sean is a very good sport 😉

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Ha! Yes, they were d-heads. Really just young kids not understanding customer service.

      A sailboat would be lovely – though we aren’t sailors. You’d have to show us the ropes! Do you ever get seasickness? If so, what do you do??

      Yogi is a LOVE – we wish he could go everywhere with us.

      The breakdown was the icing on the cake! Though it ranks high on our list of favorite trips. We had to laugh at the image of her being hauled off. Thank GOD it didn’t break down in the wilderness – we got lucky. And Sean is a dream come true 😉

      Have a great day Lisa!!

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  6. My husband’s parents take all their trips in a retro van and they absolutely love it. It has inspired us to maybe get one someday! Although I’m sorry to hear of all the mechanical troubles, and the mosquito troubles! I haven’t had much luck with the natural stuff either when it comes to repellent.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Man you’re a “happy camper”. I hate to admit that I had to laugh reading through some of this. The very first thing I pictured in my mind after reading the title was… that last photo! But pretty much everything else in this had me sold (except the mosquitoes). BTW — I’ve switched to using picaridin. Seems to work as well as DEET, but it won’t dissolve the GoreTex lining off the inside of your wind-shell.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. haha! We still look at these vans longingly, then remember the 2 breakdowns. It was still one of our favorite trips! Yeah, the mosquitos were crazy – I have never experienced them this bad in my nearly 20 years of living in Colorado. I’ll check out the picaridin – thanks for the tip.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. A great experiment, Pam. I like how you gave it a trial run and learned the ins and outs of a camper. We came to the same conclusion. We don’t have enough mechanical “know-how” to be good at it! Your experience really sounds memorable and idyllic, though, despite the negatives.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks Patti! Definitely! It was a great adventure even with the breakdowns and skeeters. Next time, I’d like to try something a little more modern – perhaps a van that can weather the mountain passes at a minimum!

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  9. I loved reading about your adventure. It’s funny – people are REALLY into their camper vans. My colleague across the hall had to sell her camper van – it just had too many things wrong with it. I swear it was like there was a death in her family. She still talks about it, all these months later. Also, she said there are lots of people out there for whom fixing up old camper vans is an obsession. By the way, she bought a pop up camper as a replacement and basically hates it.

    We have a 12′ pull-behind travel trailer named Bobbie. (The family-owned and operated manufacturer near Toronto names them after his children. Speaking of which, did you name it Pinky or did it come that way? Was it named after Pinky Tuscadero from Happy Days?) We love our little Bobbie but hope in retirement we can move up to a 16 or 17 footer. (Same manufacturer – Taylor Coach… they’re wonderful.) When we first got it we pulled it with my Forester. That didn’t work so well up the mountains outside Jackson, WY. I thought we were going to start sliding backward down the mountain. Now we have a Tacoma. Much better.

    Your adventure sounds wonderful, except the break-downs. Good grief.

    I’ve been to CO so many times but only to Steamboat once (age 15) for skiing with my family. I gotta get back there in summer.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Ha! I can see how it was hard for her! It came named that way. You may not be able to see in the pics but there is a pink flamingo on the side of the van. 😂. If you come back to CO, you must go to the flattops wilderness. The hiking and camping is spectacular! Yeah, I’d have to buy a new car to pull anything. How often do you use yours? I actually didn’t mind a pop up we rented a while back.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Completely forgot to reply to this – so sorry! It’s definitely not a question of “if” we come back to CO, but “when” we come back. It’s my home away from home. I even wrote a post that was an ode to our beloved little Leadville. As for the camper, we aren’t really weekend camper type people. We tend to take it out to CO or other western states or on big road trips (again, out west).

        Liked by 1 person

  10. Oh my, I believe in the van life sooooo much! 😉
    Loooove your pictures and descriptions; that part of Colorado seems impossibly magical and oh so inviting!
    Looks like you had quite a wonderful adventure and I would have thought you’d have ended up actually buying a van right afterwards, in spite of Pinky breaking down a few times.

    Oh well.. next time, right?!?
    Happy trails!
    xoxoxo
    Jul’

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I can soooo see you doing this Jul’!! It’s definitely up your alley with your zero waste lifestyle. We had a great time – definitely at the top of the heap for adventure. I think I might have been a little more excited to take the plunge until she broke down again at the end. Then, all I could think of was spending time in the repair shop a little more than I would like! Yes, this part of Colorado is gorgeous – you would love it for sure. have a great week!!

      Liked by 1 person

  11. There are pluses and minuses to everything in life – we love that an RV would take us to places without motels. But were I to buy a “retro.” I would find a place such as the one in Missoula, Montana [sorry, I cannot remember the name} that completely rebuilds them, so that only the shell is retro and everything else is modern – and works. Wishing you good luck however you choose to travel. Ray and Alie [aka, RALIE]

    Liked by 1 person

  12. Love your experience with the camper! Thanks for sharing with us. What’s a camping holiday without a few mishaps and breakdowns. 🤣 I love camping life. We took Olive the beetle round France with a bell tent. It was amazing and for an old girl she didn’t break down once. I choose camping life too. 💛☀️

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you!! I agree – some of the best trips have the most mishaps – I don’t always laugh in the moment but later on I do. lol Thanks for reading. Somehow your post went to spam so sorry for the late reply. Cheers to camping life 🙂

      Like

  13. So much fun to read and what an adventure! No regrets.
    I think that photo of your husband Sean with his hand on his mouth was really him trying to hold in the screams!! Ha ha , he sounds like a saint and better yet, a patient fellow adventurer!

    Loved this!

    Susan Grace

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks Susan Grace!! No regrets – too much fun to regret!! It is hilarious right? I was trying not to laugh because I KNEW how much anxiety was swirling around in his head. He’s my favorite partner in crime ;-). Thanks for readin!

      Liked by 1 person

  14. Good on you for giving it a go. What an absolute hoot of an adventure you had. We’ve had a van for years and our latest one is only four months old (strangely enough the air con is broken too) but she’s a lot more roomy than Pinky. We love our camping adventures. Nothing beats those night skies but yeah, it’s good to know mechanics and my hub is no stranger there! Love all your pics. 😊

    Liked by 1 person

  15. What a terrible way to end what otherwise sounded like a beautiful trip. I admit that this is a scenario that I wouldn’t have handled well. While there are many things retro/vintage that appeals to me, vehicles would not be one of them. I understand the gas input part of them and that’s about it.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I was mad for a while, then just had to laugh about it. I did get a little angry when the owner wanted us to drive back with the tow truck driver. I just didn’t want to add additional time to our commute home! He almost didn’t pay for our rental car. Stinker.

      Like

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