Some of the most amazing camp spots are far from any major road, and as such, pose a challenge getting to. Our VW Buses, with their rear-engine, rear wheel drive and excellent ground clearance perform well off-road. With proper setup, the right gear, and just a little common sense, you can go camping in a beautiful place, far away from the chaos of campground neighbors. Hopefully you’ll find this list helpful and inspiring to get out there and explore.
10. Paper maps.
In this age of GPS and Google maps, it seems like a lost art, the ability to navigate using maps. I personally like to scout my trips in advance using a combination of the gazetteer for your particular state and the region-specific maps.
Most National Forests, Bureau of land management, and state lands offer recreational dry “Dispersed” camping. It’s usually free, but check with your local administrative office for rules and regulations. Most outdoor recreation stores carry the applicable maps to your region. For a good primer on how to read a topographical map, click here.
Most stock-height buses can handle almost any forest-road and high-clearance road. When the road says “jeep road” or “4WD Only” it’s usually because of obstacles and they usually aren’t kidding. There are a lot of fire-roads, logging trails and forest-service roads that are completely bus-capable.
9.Communicate your plans
Be sure to tell someone of your destination, your route and your intended return date. This goes for any foray into the wilderness, and is basic back-country survival. If you get lost, break down, injured or otherwise stranded, it’s important to have someone who knows where to begin looking. It’s also helpful to leave notes in your bus if you go on a hike, just in case you don’t return and people have to come looking for you.
8. Prep your Bus.
It’s important that your VW is running properly before you venture out into the wilderness. If anything is not quite right, Murphy’s law dictates it will break miles away from help. Take care of any issues you know about before you leave. Throttle pedal sticking? Exhaust leaking? Shifter sloppy? Make your bus happy and it will reward you with many miles of reliable motoring.
Because you’re on your own, spare parts are a good idea. I tend to keep a spare throttle cable, clutch cable, fan belt, fuel pump, ignition coil, ignition distributor, wheel cylinders, brake hose, wheel bearings, and bailing wire. I also have a box of random VW hardware and it’s come in handy many times.
Also, now’s a good time to talk about tires. Some people believe you need knobby off-road tires to go off-roading – not true! It’s important you have the correct “load-rated” tires and they are inflated properly, but I have seen a bus with smooth street tires go almost anywhere my bus with knobby BFG all-terrains will. The all-terrains give you an advantage in mud and sand, but most of the roads we’re going down are semi-maintained forest-roads and logging trails. Air down for sand, mud and snow, air up for rocks! (see note about on-board air-compressor below)
7. Camping Gear.
There are just certain things I don’t go camping without, regardless of where we go. I have an affinity for vintage Coleman camping gear, so it’s always with me. Other things I don’t leave home without are (in no particular order) Dutch oven & charcoal, Axe, Firewood, Coffee (Pot & Press), Cast-iron frying pan, tin foil, tongs, camp chairs, flashlights and beer. Be sure to bring bedding and pillows too!
6. Weather conditions
Nothing can ruin a weekend like crappy weather. It’s even more important to look at weather if you’re venturing off the pavement. Just a little bit of rain can turn the dirt road you took into a muddy, impassable mess. Personally, I like to camp in the rain, but you have to be hyper-vigilant about picking your campsite. Don’t camp next to a river or in a flood plain if rain is expected. Conversely, if you’re the highest point on the hill, you increase your chances of being struck by lighting. It’s helpful to have more than one road you can take to get you back to civilization. Study the maps and have a backup plan.
There are some great weather apps for your iPhone or Android. Also http://www.weather.gov has long-range satellite tracking I use to look at trending patterns in the region.
I also carry an emergency radio that has a weather-band. It’s solar, battery and crank-powered and it can keep you informed when your cellphone dies or is out-of-service.
5. Recovery gear
If you go off-roading in your VW bus frequently, chances are you’ll get stuck once in a while. In the picture below, The right rear tire is dug-in and the left front is off the ground.
In this case, we were able to back the bus up, fill in the washed-out gulley with rocks and continue on our way, but sometimes it’s not that easy.
In addition to my standard tool-box, I carry and have used all the following at some point or another: Floor jack, Bottle jack, 2000lb come-along, a tow-rope, two 5000lb shackles, a snatch-block and a tree-saver strap. All of the above supplies except for the floor jack live in an 81mm ammo-can.
I also have a shovel and an onboard air-compressor, and a full 5 gallon fuel “jerry can” that has saved my ass more than once.
Duh, You’re going to need to eat. You’ve already planned on the meals you want to make, right? Well, what happens if you get stuck and have to wait for the road to dry or for help to come along? Maybe you’re really enjoying the wilderness and want to stay for an extra day or two. Whatever the reason, it’s always a good idea to have extra food on board.
I like carrying extra canned goods such as beans and chili for their high protien to weight ratio. Just make sure to bring a can-opener. I also take a fishing pole anytime we’re near water, but that’s not exactly a reliable method of feeding yourself.
If you’re going to use the extra food, you’re for sure going to need extra water. I live in the desert, and the rule of thumb is a gallon of water per person, per day. I like to double the amount of water I think I’m going to need, and I usually end up using most of it. I carry a 5 gallon plastic tank of water for a typical weekend, and I freeze water in 1L juice bottles to keep my coolers cold. They double as cold drinking water once they melt. We also carry two 2 gallon jugs of water for coffee and drinking water.
I also have a life-straw and iodine tablets if we get really desperate.
Worst-case scenario, your bus is stuck and you have to hike out, you are going to want shoes up to the job. I have a good-quality pair of boots that stay in the bus pretty much all the time, just in case. They get used when on hikes, but they don’t ever come back in the house. You’re also going to want to take your aforementioned maps, food and water with you. I would suggest getting a backpack with a “camelback” water-bladder to carry all your stuff and make your hike to civilization a little more bearable.
This can make or break your camping adventure, so pick wisely. Having another vehicle with you is always an advantage when off-roading, assuming that vehicle is in good-running order. It has the added bonus of being able to team up with meals, parts, tools, and recovery gear. It’s good to be able to communicate on the fly, and I like CB radios, but walkie-talkies work decently.
Good friends can make the camping experience complete. A cold brew and some stories around the campfire make lasting memories. I feel fortunate to have shared many camping trips with great friends, good food, and amazing scenery.
Whoever you pick, just make sure they’re up for the adventure!
3 thoughts on “10 Off-road VW bus Camping tips.”
Good words! Thanks Mike!!!
And after Moab, I picked up a few Gazetteers. They kick some map butt!