Tapping into Northwest’s Westfalia camping cult


Renting a Westy

At least two Seattle-based businesses rent Westfalia vans:

—Peace Vans: $1,290 for 6-night minimum rental in peak season (May-September). $215 per additional night, plus 9.6?percent sales tax and 7.7 percent Seattle rental-car tax. Insurance is 10 percent additional charge. Rental includes 125 miles per day. 206-467-7368 or www.peacevansrentals.com

—Black Forest Westfalias: $1,155 ($165/day) for seven-day minimum rental in peak season (May-October). Rental includes 150 miles per day. 206-718-0347 or www.blackforestwestfalias.com

Trailers, too

Woodinville-based Homegrown Trailers rents what it calls "sustainable, handcrafted" 18-foot travel trailers. Solar-powered and made from renewable materials, they even have composting toilets. Sleeps four. Rentals start at $199 per night for 3-night minimum. www.homegrowntrailers.com

More-traditional RV rentals

—Cruise America offers rentals nationwide: www.cruiseamerica.com

—Rent from private owners through the Airbnb of RVs: rvshare.com

—Or try a family-owned, Everett-based RV rental agency, NW Adventure Rentals: www.nwadventurerentals.com

I never thought I would camp, any more than Harley Sitner ever thought he would own an auto shop.

For years, Sitner’s own Westfalia Vanagon had taken him to a Seattle mechanic. But the business was about to close, and Sitner, a former Microsoftie and entrepreneur who logged years in the tech trenches in Bay Area and Seattle startups, saw an opportunity.

“They were literally closing their doors,” Sitner said. “I was like, ‘No, there’s a real business here.’ ”

Three years and thousands of repaired and refurbished vans later, his business, called Peace Vans, has become such a successful operation — he has up to 100 vans on the Sodo-district lot at any given time — that he’s decided to pursue a rental business. He joins another local company, Black Forest Westfalias, in renting out the popular vans to customers for camping vacations.

As the weather turns from rainy to sunny in the Pacific Northwest, the lure of the open road beckons, and the Westfalias are a good solution to bringing the comforts of home to the great outdoors. Increasingly, we want those comforts. We want hot food, a soft bed and a fully stocked refrigerator.

And by we, I mean, me.

I do not camp. I don’t even glamp. I spent eight years in New York and four in Los Angeles. When I want to convene with nature, I rent a cabin on the water and take a stroll outside and once it gets the tiniest bit uncomfortable, I go where it is safe. Inside, where there is electricity and warm food and heat and no bugs.

But what if I could have some of the comforts of home — a fridge, a stove, a bed with a mattress and the ability to flee under duress to a city if I became overwhelmed by the idea of camping? Maybe then I could be convinced.

A Westfalia could be the answer. There was only one way to find out: a trip to Camano Island in a Peace Van.


I met with Sitner, 47, the first sunny spring weekend in April. We went through the hour-long checkout where he showed me the ins-and-outs of the van.

It was clear that Sitner had a deep, abiding love of the vehicles. He thrilled at every little nook and cranny (and there were many nooks and crannies), and delighted in showing off the hidden compartments and clever details — like the metal countertop that folds down over the burners to create a cutting board, or how the removable tabletops could slide perfectly into a tiny sliver on the side next to the window.

“They are evocative of a road trip, which in general is a wonderful thing. There’s the sense of exploration and discovery,” Sitner said. “The van has everything you need; it’s a self-contained little adventure-mobile. It has a small footprint — it’s not a big, monstrous RV.”


I hopped into “the Pilchuck,” a 1991 Volkswagen Vanagon Westfalia with a burgundy exterior and pale-gray interior. Sitner sat next to me as we drove around the block a couple of times. At first it was awkward to be so tall and close to the front. (The engine is in the back). The positioning of the wheel at a flatter angle reminded me of driving a very small version of a school bus.

I bid farewell to Sitner and picked up my friend Chelsea (her husband, Dave, would meet us later). Our destination was Camano Island State Park. Sixty-seven miles from Seattle, it was close enough for a quick jaunt but remote enough to feel like a getaway. We’d arranged a sample rental for two nights. Peace Vans usually requires a week-long minimum rental during summer months, offering rentals for as few as four nights during the offseason.


We arrived at the campground and set up “camp,” pulling out firewood and taking out the things we’d need for cooking. Though the van came with a fully loaded fridge and inside stove, we opted to use the portable stove and enjoy the weather.

Peace Vans come stocked with everything you could think of. Wine opener? Check. Plates, cups, pots, pans? Check. Salt and pepper? Check. Lanterns, dishwashing soap, something to sit on, a small table, fresh grounds from local company Conduit Coffee and a French press for the morning? All of the above. They even come with tents if you’re weird like that and want to sleep outside.

After an afternoon of Frisbee, we cooked burritos and roasted marshmallows. Afterward, we made our beds; the couple took the pop-up top and I slept “downstairs.” The vans are well-suited for a couple and a kid or two; four adults would make it a tight squeeze. It was better than sleeping on hard ground, but it was still chilly at night. The camper van couldn’t fix that; you only get heat if you run the engine.

We spent the next morning cooking breakfast — this time inside the van as the weather wasn’t so dreamy — and playing cards. It was so cozy it was tempting to stay inside all day, but Chelsea rallied us up and out into the world, where the sun had slowly started to peek through cloud cover.

We hiked a three-mile trail in the 173-acre beach park and enjoyed classic Pacific Northwest views — a collection of bleached drift logs and breathtaking scenery of Saratoga Passage.


My friends headed home and I stayed another night. Yes, that’s right, I successfully camped by myself and did not burn anything down. I cooked dinner and read by the campfire, and sipped some of the 2bar bourbon, a locally made spirit, provided upon request to customers by Peace Vans.

Weeks after my trip, I found myself feeling wistful whenever I saw the vans on the road, already nostalgic. I could agree with Sitner’s sentiments. “They are just joy machines, really,” he said. “Everyone who drives them smiles.