The Ultimate #VanLife Preparation, Repair, and Maintenance Guide

If you’re exploring the country in your classic VW Bus, Camper, or Vanagon - and living the #VanLife, if you're into that 'hashtag' thing - all we can say is awesome. Life is an adventure, and fortune favors the bold.

Van ilfe Photo credit: Sven Storbeck

Of course, if you're living the #VanLife, you're probably aware that there are some "hidden" expenses involved with these older VW vehicles. In this post, our goal is to help classic VW Bus/Camper/Vanagon owners:

  1. Understand what can go wrong and what to watch out for
  2. Minimize ownership costs
  3. Find parts online as needed

Please note: Our company does not sell parts for classic VW vehicles. However, we've got a lot of expertise when it comes to classic Volkswagens, and we're happy to share what we know.

What Could Possibly Go Wrong With an Older VW Bus, Camper, or Vanagon?

As reliable as classic VW vehicles are (and they are very reliable, compared to their contemporaries), the list of things that can go wrong on a VW Bus, Camper, or Vanagon is pretty long. Some of the most common problems:

  • Excessive rust, which can be difficult or expensive to repair (and which isn't always easy to find)
  • Oil leaks that often require an engine rebuild
  • Gearbox problems (whine, sloppy engagement, popping out of gear)
  • Wiring issues (to be fair, these are common to almost all older vehicles)
  • Neglected maintenance that leads to cylinder head damage, brake system damage, etc.

While each generation of Bus/Camper/Vanagon has it's own specific issues, the common theme across all of these vehicles is a propensity for rust. Therefore, before buying or making a significant repair investment in an older Bus, you've got to make sure you know the level of corrosion on your vehicle.

Van gens

NOTE: For a list of common Bus problems by generation (as well as fixes) check out the technical archives on TheSamba.com.

#VanLife Maintenance and Repair Tips

Aside from knowing about your vehicle's common problems, preventative maintenance is key. In addition to oil changes and tire rotations, you have to continually check for leaks or failing parts. Each generation of Bus has its own recommended maintenance procedures, so you should buy and study a repair manual specific to your vehicle.

However, if you have an air-cooled Bus or Camper, you might invest in the book How to Keep Your Volkswagen Alive: A Manual of Step-by-Step Procedures for the Complete Idiot by John Muir. It's a great place to start, and as you can tell by the title, the author has a sense of humor.

VW alive Image via Amazon.com

Air cooled VW owners might also check out this online maintenance guide.

Additionally:

1. Stock your bus with tools so you're ready for problems as you travel. Benjamin Franklin once said, "By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail." Here's a good checklist of tools to keep on hand:

  • Basic set of auto repair tools
  • Manuals (owner's and service repair)
  • Jack and jack stand
  • Tire iron
  • Jumper cables
  • Multimeter
  • Diagnostic code reader (for newer model vans or buses only)

2. Keep basic maintenance parts on hand at all times. One of the easiest ways to turn a minor maintenance issue into a major mechanical problem is to ignore the maintenance. If you're out trekking and your Bus needs a new set of brake shoes, it's smart to replace them right away.

Here's a list of parts you might consider keeping on hand:

  • A spare tire (goes without saying though, right?)
  • Spare belts (serpentine, alternator/generator, and fan, depending on generation)
  • Brake shoes/pads
  • Replacement fluids (transmission, windshield washer, oil, power steering, antifreeze, and brake)
  • Replacement accelerator and clutch cables
  • Spare bulbs for all lights are a good idea too (only these are pretty easy to find at a local parts store)
  • A spare set of spark plugs (and a gap tool, if required)
  • Filters (air, fluid, and transmission if applicable)

While our company does not sell some replacement parts for older VW buses, we know a couple of great sites that do. GoWesty.com sells VW van parts and Bustoration.com sells VW bus parts.

Vanlife 2

Handy Resources to Save on Your Phone

No one thinks clearly in a stressful situation. That's why it's a good idea to load your phone with helpful information and resources you can access with one tap. We compiled a list for you to start with:

  • AAA Mobile App: We suggest getting an AAA membership so you'll always have someone to contact when you need roadside assistance. You'll save money in the long run, too!
  • CheapRVLiving.com | Mechanical Issues: You can browse this forum or even post in it to see if you can get any good advice on repairing your issue.
  • LoveMyBus.com | Repair Questions: Here's another great forum with advice on mechanical issues in VW buses.
  • The Samba Forums - We mentioned their technical section earlier, but this is a good place to ask questions (be sure to search before you ask)
  • The VW Bus thread on Reddit - Not only are there more links to bus resources here, but there are also daily posts that will inspire, and of course you can get help here too in a pinch

Good luck on your journey. We want to hear all about it on Facebook! Bonus points if you have pictures.