Advice & Tips
Buying a Vanagon: Part II
In Part One we briefly covered some basics you should know before getting into the Vanagon game. In part two we want to discuss our experiences with both the high-top and the pop-top.
FALKOR THE HIGH TOP CAMPER
Falkor, our 2wd Vanagon, started out as a seven-passenger, non-camper, tin-top model that we purchased for $5k. After a few months living in the van as a tin-top we decided to put a high-top on him and it changed the game forever. Our advice to anyone looking to live in a Vanagon is to buy the cheapest, non-rusty tin-top model they can find and add a high top. While the Vanagon Westfalia camper model is by far the most popular configuration for the camper style Vanagons, it isn’t as spacious as a high-top making storage space limited. In addition, if you plan to stealth camp a lot, then having a high-top makes this more comfortable and stealthy. Lastly, converting to a Westy top is nearly twice as much money as the high-top conversion.
One of the main reasons we recommend the high top is that there is always standing room. In a Westy or tin-top, unless you’re five feet tall (Jessica is), you won’t be able to stand up straight (if the top is down on the Westy). Ever. Sorry. This can be annoying as it makes an already cramped space feel even smaller. In the high-top, we can both stand up and even walk around without issue. This makes a huge difference in quality of life. Living in a van may be simpler, but it doesn’t have to be annoying. So do yourself a favor and buy a cheap tin-top and put a high-top on it. The cost to install a high-top is around $5k, and a cheap tin-top 2wd van is around $3k-$7k.
In the high-top, we can both stand up and even walk around without issue.
Let’s talk storage. Prior to having the high-top, we’d transfer all of our storage items in the back of the van to the front right before we’d get in bed; then in the morning, we move it all back and then repeat this process again and again, night after night. In a high-top, your storage area is for storage. Whether in the front bulkhead, back upper storage or both, the bottom area is always your bed or vice versa. Bedtime is as simple as lying down and passing out. Done. This may all sound a bit dramatic, but with the two of us, two dogs, camera gear and backpacks, moving things back and forth in a small van is less than ideal.
One drawback of the high-top is that if you plan on traveling overseas and shipping your van, the cost of shipping in a container will be higher due to the added height of your rig. In our new rig, we have opted for a Vanagon Westfalia top for this very reason.
As far as interior configurations go, if you plan on full timing, having a full cabinet system is a big plus. However, finding these parts is not easy, especially if you’re looking for the grey trim Westy cabinets. The Samba has listings for not only parts but full cabinet sets often enough that you should be able to find at least a brown trim set. Or find yourself an old rusted out Westy van on Craigslist that someone is parting out and get your cabinetry from that. That’s how we found a full grey Westy interior for our Syncro.
Falkor started out as a 7 passenger and we installed a brown Westy cabinet interior with a bed/seat (aka: Z-Bed), sink and stove that we sourced from a burned up van in San Antonio. The Vanagon Westfalia interior comes with a set of cabinets, a fridge (which you should trash immediately or sell on the Samba), a sink, stove and water tank. In our initial set up, we didn’t use the sink, stove, fridge, or water tank because they were beyond repair. Instead, we used a camp stove for cooking, and washed our dishes, hands and brushed our teeth with our Road Shower. This isn’t a terrible way to go but if you have a Westy interior, fix the components in the van that are for cooking and cleaning to make your life a little simpler. Keep in mind, to get the stove to work, you need a fuel source. We’ve had good luck using a hose that plumbs from the stove to a 1lb propane bottle. In addition, you’ll need to plan how to drain water from your sink as well as figure out how out will fill your water tank. After a year of using the Westy cabinet system, we had a custom interior built by Rhino Design Studio that had a functioning stove and sink.
As for refrigeration, we started with a Yeti cooler, but this was not an optimal solution. We had to pack it with ice nearly every day, which made staying in the wild for extended periods of time quite difficult since our ice melted so quickly. Since then, we’ve eliminated the Yeti in favor of a TF49 Truck Fridge. Best upgrade. PERIOD. The TF49 runs off our auxiliary batteries or shore power whenever we are plugged in. It holds way more than the Yeti and it’s always cold. Win, win and win. So if you’re full timing, cabinets and a TF49 fridge (or a fridge of some sort) are essential.
The point of all this is to say, if you want to live in a van, make it feel like home.
RIPLEY THE WESTY SYNCRO CAMPER
In late 2015, we bought a Syncro. The previous owner had converted it from a 7 passenger tin-top to a 7 passenger Westy top. It was a huge change in storage space going from the high-top to a Westy top, but after three years of living on the road, we’ve managed to cut down what we carry that we don’t even need any storage pods on the roof anymore. If you see photos of our Syncro with storage cases on the roof just know that those are gone as of the beginning of 2017.
If you can manage to reduce what you carry, having a Westy top is pretty nice. We like how our van is pretty much a Transformer. Van by day, hotel by night. Stealth camping is a little less convenient and easy to pull off but it isn’t vastly more difficult. We don’t pop the top when stealth camping and we have yet to be harassed when doing it. Not being able to stand up unless the top is up does suck for me but Jessica is short enough that it’s not an issue for her at all. Interestingly, she is the one who is lobbying that we put a high-top on the van. I’m willing to do it but only if it’s a specific type of high-top. I find the high-top Falkor had to be aesthetically wanting. I’ll leave it at that.
We removed the seats in the Syncro and installed a full Vanagon Westfalia interior setup. We managed to find a grey Westy interior in Pennsylvania that had a functioning stove and sink. We a little modification we refurbished those components and upgraded the faucet. We also cleaned out the stock water tank and now have the 14 gallon tank as an indoor source of fresh water. The Westy interior is extremely well thought out. With a few upgrades like making a spice rack and sliding rear doors in the rear wardrobe (both were done by Rhino Design Studio), we’ve managed to make the space even more functional and we are quite pleased with how well it works for us.
One tip we’ve discovered is that you can use the rear of the upstairs bed as storage for sleeping bags and other items that squish down. We are mostly done with making additions to this interior though we are considering removing the formica, drilling 1” diameter holes in the wood and then recovering the cabinets with similarly colored formica. The reason for this is to cut weight from the cabinets.
In part three of this series we will share with you additional upgrades and mods you can make to your Vanagon that will enhance it’s capabilities, make it more reliable, and modernize some of its systems.
Read Part Three or Head back to Part One