A lot of people have been questioning our decision to move into a new van after living in our 1978 VW Westfalia Transporter, Magnolia, for a year. While we were making this (difficult) decision, we came up with a list of the pros and cons of living in a bus full-time:
When you think of a free spirit leaving the clutches of a drab life, usually the image of a VW bus pops up. They are iconic and bring a smile to anyone as you drive down the road. We had so many complete strangers approach us at trailheads and parking lots, completely lit up as they shared their own experiences with a VW bus or admired our Magnolia.
2- Style Points
Going along with that image of freedom comes the classic beauty of the bay window body itself– every quarky detail adds to the asthetics of these amazing vehicles. Magnolia sure was a looker!
3- Time slows down
You can’t drive as fast, and as a result you end up taking back roads. Instead of rushing down the freeway to get to your destination, you get to soak in the little moments as they slowly pass you by.
The Westfalia kit in the old VW’s was well desingned for adventure. Cute little cubbards, fold out beds, and a simple kitchen set up make for a convenitantly accessable living space. We had a pop-top roof in our Magnolia, and with it raised, Matt at 6’7” could stand up and move around comfortably. We could easily sleep four people between the downstairs bed and the upstairs loft, and if it was just the two of us traveling, we used the top bunk for storage.
5- Easy to repair
Despite the frequency of maitenance, these beauties have simple engines and are relatively easy to work on. With regular maintenance (oil changes and tune-ups), our little bus never had a problem starting.
6- Off Road Warrior
With high clearance and low gears, these babies can handle some off-road badassery. We lost a muffler once, but for the most part our Magnolia could handle any dirt road challenge we threw at her.
If you own a VW bus, then you already know this, but any old volkswagon with a bit of character will need constant TLC. Bottom line, they will break down, and if you aren’t somewhat mechanically inclined, they probably aren’t a good option for you– especially in far out places where a mechanic’s shop isn’t readily availible. Luckily Matt was pretty engine savvy, and when we needed additional help, someone was around to lend a hand. Our Magnolia spent a fair amount of days in the shop getting repairs.
2- Impossible to heat
This probably isn’t an issue for the vast majority of bus owners, but as full-time van dwellers living in Utah, we barely survived last winter. We love to ski and ice climb more than any other outdoor activities, so heading south to avoid the cold wasn’t an option. It’s one thing to take a few minute drive in a cold bus (usually so frosted on the inside that it required constant scraping of the front windshield.) It’s anonther story to wake up in the freezing cold to get ready to ski, play outside in the freezing cold all day, to then return home to a freezing cold bus. The heater in our machine barely worked when she was first built (the engine is in the back so by the time any heat made its way to the front…) and hasn’t been worth fixing up. We managed last winter by installing a woodburning stove, but it could only be lit when we were hunkered down for the night as we had to attache a 10 foot extended chimney. Just imagine trying to heat a room made of glass and metal when its below freezing outside– it was pretty much impossible to stay ahead of the cold that seeped in throught the window panes and cracks in the floor.
3- Storage for two (big) people
Matt is big, and I’m no shrimp myself, so even just figuring out how to move around each other in a small space had it’s challenges. Now add the gear for the two of us, for all the outdoor activities we enjoy– skiing, ice climbing, rock climbing (traditional, aid, sport, and bouldering are all types of climbing that require different types of gear,) highlining, trail running, yoga, and backpacking. We tried to accomadate the extra storage needed by adding a giant roof box to the top of the bus, but this made the top unstable, reduced our gas milage significantly, and made the popping the top difficult and limiting.
4- Driving at high speed or up steep canyon roads:
Our magnolia could make it up any hill she came to, but often times that required reducing her speed to well below the limit. This wasn’t usually a problem, especially when there was a passing lane, but going up certain canyons to ski, it actually became a hazard. Also, she was a bit of a sail in high winds (especially with our giant roof box.) A saying that Matt liked using is, “Driving the bus in high winds should be the new Olympic envent.” It is a physically and mentally taxing challenge.
We have loved living in our bus– it has been an amazing learning experience, but as the seasons are starting to change back to winter, the thought of surving another cold season living in an unreliable ice-box is daunting. Although there are so many great things about VW buses, we decided to buy a new van to eliminate most, if not all, of the problems that we ran into last year. Our goal is to have more opportunities and motivation to be outside doing what we love with a little more comfort and ease.
Bottom line: If we only used our little bus for a weekend getaway, we wouldn’t chose anything else, but as full-time van dwellers we needed a change.