If you’ve ever owned a vehicle, you know what a headache repairs and maintenance can be. Now think about what it would be like if that vehicle was also your home. Your food, your clothes, your bed – everything you need to survive is conveniently rolled into a compact 19 x 5 foot camper van… Except, it’s not so convenient when your bedroom/kitchen/living room is in the shop. It’s now crucial to your daily life that your van starts, runs, and stops when you need it to, and it’s even more of a hassle when you have to get it maintenanced.
We are Janine and David (and our pup Luna!) of @_onthehorizon, and we’ve been traveling since November 2017 in our self-renovated ‘88 Chevy Horizon van. We love our life on the road! We love getting to explore all the beautiful nooks and crannies on this incredible earth, and we love our van for being our home away from home and for allowing us this experience. But, even though The Horizon is home to us, she’s still a vehicle and vehicles are unpredictable. We’ve had our fair share of breakdowns on this journey, but thankfully David has been working in automotive for years and maintains a careful eye on our ol’ girl to keep her in good running condition. This is something we’ve realized that not many other travelers and vanlifers pay attention to, so we wanted to share some basic tips for giving your travel vehicle the love it needs and to hopefully avoid (or at the very least, be prepared for) any unwanted breakdowns.
Before the Trip Checklist
This is very important: Make sure the van is ready BEFORE hitting the road. Trust us, we live a lot by the theme of “we’ll figure it out” but when it comes to the mechanical integrity of your van, it’s really better to be prepared beforehand. A major breakdown can mean having to end your trip before you’re ready.
Things we recommend checking/replacing:
- Spark plugs
- Air filter
- Transmission fluid
- Motor oil
It should go without saying that the more you replace or repair, the better off you’ll be. However, when money is a factor, there are certain things you can get away with letting go and certain things you can’t.
These are things you should NEVER ignore:
- Leaking fluids under the vehicle
- A strange noise – don’t ignore it. It won’t go away, no matter how high you turn up the volume.
- Bare tires
- Check engine light – yeah sometimes it’s nothing, but it can also be an indicator of something serious. You’ll kick yourself later if you break down because of it.
Basic Camper Van Upkeep
There are a few things you can and should do on a weekly basis to know what kind of shape you’re in. Lots of breakdowns happen unexpectedly, but if you’re regularly monitoring your home on wheels, you’ll see signs well before the situation becomes dire.
If you haven’t yet purchased your home on wheels, this is even more important. You don’t want to have to end your trip before it even really begins just because you didn’t take the time to make sure it was in good enough shape for a road trip.
Things to look for:
- Coolant levels
- Oil levels
- Tire wear
- Listen to your vehicle – you may not know what you’re hearing but you know enough about the sound of your own engine to tell when something’s off.
- Lights – not the end of the world, but you’ll avoid a ticket if you stay on top of this.
When we were in Texas, David checked our fluids as usual and discovered that our coolant was empty. We bought some bottles and regularly filled and checked it until we could get to a shop and have it fixed. If we hadn’t been on top of the situation we could’ve easily blown our motor before even realizing anything was wrong.
Tools to Bring
When we were packing up for the road, I was frustrated that David insisted on bringing a number of tools. At the time I argued with him, not wanting to sacrifice precious storage space, but now I’m glad he wouldn’t budge. They’ve come in handy more than once, and not just for engine things. I never really considered “household” projects like loose cabinets or leaky plumbing, but thankfully David did.
Tools we carry:
- 300 piece ratchet set
- Torque wrench and jack (for changing tires)
- Screw gun and bits
- Various wrenches
- Pex plumbing tools
- Jumper Cables
- Roadside breakdown kit
- Extra Fluids – Coolant, Power steering fluid, and a quart of oil do not take up much space
- Tow strap
- Extra gas can
We all know how costly on the road repairs can be. Knowing what’s most likely to break on your vehicle is KEY!
It’s pretty easy: do some savvy googling with your specific make and model to find out the most common troubleshoots. For instance, our sun visors are known to break and the door latches stick. Not too serious! But finding out your van is known to blow its engine around 100k miles would be a game changer.
When in Doubt, Call AAA
AAA RV insurance is the cheapest, easiest thing you can do in protecting yourself against an unexpected breakdown. Yes, it helps when you accidentally lock yourself out (guilty), but it’s a literal life saver when you’re going to be without a vehicle/home for a few days. It certainly saved us when we were leaking coolant!!
When we finally got to a repair center we found that we needed to order some parts and were looking at hours of labor. It would mean days in the shop. We stayed in a hotel for 3 nights, which was over our budget, especially after paying the dog fees. Luckily we had our AAA Trip Interruption coverage as part of the Full-Timers package. We sent all the receipts from the hotel and got reimbursed. The package covers things like food, hotel, and a rental car while your rig gets fixed. Its cheap and a necessity. BUY IT.
It’s more than Transportation, it’s your Home
You might think most of this is over the top, but the fact is that this is your home now and breakdowns are going to be even more of an inconvenience. What it comes down to is simple: know your vehicle. It might seem daunting, but it’ll save your skin to learn just these few simple things. You don’t have to be an expert mechanic, just monitor the basics so that you know when something’s off. You’ll be better prepared if you catch something early and you might even save some money too.
No one likes to think about the possibility of a breakdown, but the reality is they happen. The better prepared you are, the easier it’ll be and the quicker you can get back adventuring.