Wheels: Let's go camping

By Eric Meltzer

The long winter's cabin fever is finally subsiding with the arrival of warm weather and time outdoors. True, black flies and mosquitoes will challenge the tranquillity, but in the surrounding ecosystem of nature, all creatures great and small must coexist. We're fortunate to live in a place where so many travel to spend time, while others long to visit places of differing beauty.

To a car guy, the best way to see what's over the next peak or over the horizon is on wheels. Actually, on wings is another spectacular way to explore, but we'll discuss that in another column.

At the top of the spectrum is an RV (or recreational vehicle), which was also known in my younger years as a motor home.

They have come a long way from the gas-hungry and boxy Winnebagos of my youth, mounted on a truck chassis with a Dodge, GM or Ford V8 engine. These open-road behemoths are almost exclusively native to North America, where highways are long and plentiful, and facilities have been created to cater to these homes-away-from-home.

Many of the higher-end models are fully self-contained and resplendent, with ample comforts like onboard generators, redundant climate control, satellite video entertainment and storage for powersport toys. The cost to acquire, fuel and maintain not to mention park one of these can be as large as the diesel-pusher engine that powers them, but for those who want a true land yacht experience, these rigs are the pinnacle.

Another obvious route to adventure — pun intended — and my personal choice is one of the camper van. There are many makes and models to choose from, and just as many budget choices. Some are fully equipped and self-contained, while others offer little more than a bed and comfortable seats.

Some have raised roofs for added headroom and extra sleeping capacity as well as kitchen facilities and bathrooms.

My taste runs toward the smaller and more unusual, so it's no surprise that a Volkswagen Vanagon has been our family hauler since our kids were young and the Vanagon was just a weird used van and not the icon of free-spirited living that it has become.

The fact that a 30-year old Westfalia — named for the region in Germany where they were built — pop-top has become more valuable than most new cars says something for their utility, and add the all-wheel-drive Synchro option, and the venerable "Westy" Vanagon becomes the ultimate back-country explorer.

After selling — then buying back — our Vanagon "tin top" with Weekender package, we've been preparing it for some new adventures.

This multi-purpose van, in my opinion, is the ideal combination of daily use and weekend recreation with a fold down rear bed, a pop-up table and full curtains. Later versions of VW's Eurovan never gained the same popularity here, due to their cost and complicated engineering. Volkswagen has been teasing us with concept vehicles that bring the vibe of the old Bus back like they did with the Beetle, but to date, there are no plans to manufacture or reintroduce a similar vehicle to the U.S. market.

According to sources at VW, while the smaller camper van — or caravan, as campers are referred to in Europe — are necessary to navigate the narrow and winding ancient roads in some cities, here in the U.S., the market doesn't exist for the small number that VW projects it would sell. We are a nation of big SUVs and big RVs, which is too bad for those of us who relish diversity.

Venturing beyond the confines of home doesn't have to involve self-propulsion. Hitching a camper or travel trailer to your vehicle is another way to go.

There are as many different sizes, shapes and weights available in travel trailers as there are in tow vehicles. You can find everything from tent trailers that require some assembly on site to fully self-contained units with slide-out sides. A bit of additional driving skill comes in handy when maneuvering or backing a trailer, but it's nothing that can't be overcome with some practice. The downside is, for safety reasons, you can't ride in the camper while it's being towed, and you can't access a tent trailer while it's folded for transport.

For those with a taste for the wilderness, roof-top units are also gaining popularity. These smaller sleeping quarters are designed to mount onto the roof of a vehicle — often a capable off-road truck, Jeep or SUV, and once the ideal camping spot has been discovered, they unfold, providing a solid platform safely above the ground.

Of course laying out a tent or simply sleeping under the stars are options for those who prefer to travel light.

And for those whose idea of roughing it involves checking in with room service, the open road can be traversed in anything from modern to vintage conveyances.

The choice of road-going accommodations are as varied as your taste and budget. Feed your wanderlust, whether your destination is the next campsite or the next coast.

Eric and Michelle Meltzer own and operate Fryeburg Motors, a licensed, full-service automotive sales and service facility at 299 Main St. in Fryeburg, Maine. More than a business, cars are a passion, and they appreciate anything that drives, rides, floats or flies.