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Full-Time Road Warriors on Surviving Life On the Go

Living in a van isn’t always a picture-perfect Instagram post. Here’s what to do when things go wrong

Vintage Volkswagen Westfalia parked on the side of the road along the coast with a couple sitting by it

As someone who travels full-time in a vintage Volkswagen Westfalia camper van, a notoriously high-maintenance vehicle, a breakdown is always in the back of my mind. When we first purchased our rig, folks warned that it would only be a matter of time before we were stranded on the side of the road. Our travel philosophy quickly changed from “if we break down” to “when we break down.”

And break down we did.

Here are four important lessons we’ve learned from surviving life on the go, whether that means full-time van life meandering across North America with a cat, an extended RV adventure south of the border to escape winter or a long-weekend road trip to your neighbouring province.

Vintage Volkswagen Westfalia camper van picked up on the back of a transport truck 

Roadside assistance service is invaluable

After signing on for ownership of our Westfalia, the first purchase for our new adventure-mobile was a Premium CAA Membership. Rather than risk a breakdown in the middle of nowhere and a big bill for the tow back to civilization, we splurged on a Premier package—that includes a 320 km tow—for peace of mind. It was worth every penny.

A CAA Membership is still active in the U.S.

Six months after moving out of our downtown Toronto condo and into the van, we met our first flatbed on a sunny, 30-degree afternoon in Scottsdale, Ariz.

The radio was on and the warm, dry Arizona breeze was blowing through the windows when the dash started to smoke. My partner cut the engine and flipped on the hazards as I reached for the fire extinguisher stashed behind the driver’s seat. Luckily, the smoke subsided, and I didn’t have to coat the interior with white foam. Unfortunately, the van wouldn’t turn back on.

Vintage Volkswagen Westfalia camper van being picked up by AAA with woman watching 

From the middle of the right lane of a two-lane road in downtown Scottsdale, we made our first call to AAA, the American partner to CAA.

Research a specialty mechanic in the area you’re travelling

If you have a rare or vintage vehicle, or even an RV, finding someone to work on it can be a test in patience. Knowing where to take it in case of emergency can help prevent further headache in an already stressful situation.

It was just 45 minutes later when tow truck driver Don safely strapped our rolling home onto the flatbed. We provided him with the address of a VW specialist of our choice on the other side of the Phoenix Valley—and Don got us there. Had we not done the homework, our rig could have ended up somewhere in a garage that hadn’t seen a Westfalia in years.

The right mindset will make even the most unfortunate situations easier

Whether you’ve just locked your keys safely inside the vehicle (been there) or your engine simply decides to stop running (also been there), anger and frustration can easily set in. No one plans for travel hiccups, but they happen. So take a deep breath, find something to keep you—and your passengers—occupied (a library of e-books, Netflix downloads, podcasts or your favourite tunes will be invaluable) until help arrives. Remember: these little mishaps will turn into great stories to share later.

Woman reads a book next to her Volkswagen camp van 

Our first breakdown in Scottsdale is proving to be a good tale to tell. And our second mechanical hiccup in Northern Ontario—when we were bailed out by CAA again from the side of the Trans-Canada Highway—is, too. Hopefully it’s a few months before we need to be winched back up onto a tow truck, but when we do, we know help is just a phone call away.

Planning your own Canadian road trip?

Find out what the best cars for insurance rates are here. For those open to discovering the vibrant folk art scene on the East Coast, we’ve mapped out some spots to visit.

Learn more about CAA Memberships here.

Image credit: lietco.com