See Europe! That was the first big item on our retirement list. And we knew just how we wanted to do it. We decided to forgo hotels and restaurants -- not really an option on our Social Security-check budgets -- and take our VW camper with us on a year-long odyssey along the back roads of Europe and in parts of Africa and Asia.

Even if money had been no problem, we would still have opted for the vagabond life. We wanted to sleep in our own bed (European hotel beds are about as predictable as amateur souffle's). We enjoy shopping in the local markets, and cooking outdoors. We love the beauty, stimulation and diversity of the campgrounds in mountains, at seashores, in fields, even in crowded cities. Above all, we love moving around freely.

And that is what we did. In the end, we spent 14 months and 27,000 miles poking about the continent, wherever fancy took us.

Our itinerary, only vaguely formed at the start, led us from Holland's Friesland dikes to a Berber hamlet in Morocco; from rose-perfumed campsites on Turkey's Turquoise Coast to windy John O'Groats, Scotland's northernmost mainland town. Our camper, a California Adventurewagen conversion with a raised fiberglass roof, is small, lively, agile and self-contained -- perfect for navigating Europe's narrow, twisty old towns and byways.

During our more than a year on the road, we were free as birds. Well, almost: We had self-imposed limits of time, taste and money. While we mostly ignored the vagaries of weather, a particularly nasty European winter sent us fleeing to Morocco. But wandering about this exotic land for two months turned out to be among the highlights of our travels.

We started off with several preconceived ideas about the trip. We wanted to travel on secondary and tertiary roads; to take in the big tourist attractions only during the off-seasons; to use public transportation in all big cities; to stay in campgrounds, using hotels only as a last resort; to "free-camp" where it appeared totally safe or we had no other choice; to sample the cuisine of all countries and regions, but to do most of our own cooking using native ingredients; and to prove we could make this trip on the meager budget of our Social Security retirement checks. On all counts we did what we set out to do.

The budget was a major factor. We simply could not afford to spend a year in Europe living in hotels and eating in restaurants. But we figured we could live well on $1,000 a month (exclusive of camper shipment, insurance and major car repairs), even with the steep price of European gasoline ($2 to $3 per gallon) and the falling value of the dollar, if we had our own "house" with us.

We decided to ship our camper over after rejecting the risky option of buying a used camper in England, as some fellow campers we later met had done with varying degrees of satisfaction and expense. The principal drawbacks involved the mechanical systems: our 110-volt electrical wiring vs. European 220-volt, and incompatible propane and water fittings. But the former proved to be no problem since we did not use electrical hookups, and the compatibility issue was solved to greater and lesser degrees of exasperation with a variety of adapters.

In all of this, we were helped by friendly people everywhere. They put us on the right road, pushed us when our motor gave out, gave us gifts, invited us into their homes and were eager to talk with us, often in sign language.

We were also aided by the fabulous network of campgrounds in Europe, where whole segments of the population seem to shift back and forth in tents, "caravans" (trailers), campers and small motor homes during the season. Unlike the United States, virtually all cities and even many of the smallest villages have municipal or commercial campgrounds. They vary in quality and facilities, and many that may be excellently maintained off-season can show the strain when bulging at the seams during the summer.

In addition, there are big, modern, recreational complexes (which we avoided). More to our taste were the "Aire Naturelle" camps of France, the "Certified Locations" of the British Caravan Club, the forestry camps of Turkey and their counterparts in other countries. Their facilities are primitive, sometimes only drinking water and toilet or a disposal point for your chemical toilet. But often the number of campers is severely limited -- only five camping units per Certified Location in England, for instance -- and they are usually located in beautiful countryside.

One that particularly delighted us was along the rail of an off-season race track in Warwick, England, where we used the jockeys' weighing room for our ablutions. Another, in Normandy, was in a vast field beside the sea, full of sand, sea grasses and sea birds. Owned by the Association Nautique de Bessin, it was a launch site for small sailboats, and we had as companions a group of young children learning the sailing arts.

Camping in Europe is very cheap. We averaged $3.87 a night for 398 camping days. The cheapest: 78 cents in Monte Gordo, Portugal, beside the sea near the Spanish border; the most expensive, $14 in Interlaken, Switzerland. (In fact, everything Swiss was so overpriced we took the fast lane out of the country after only one night.)

The price of a night's camping is naturally higher near the major cities and tourist attractions, but the price does not necessarily reflect the quality of the facilities. Good facilities include hot showers, clothes washers and dryers, an adequate onsite store, elbow room, attractive layouts and cleanliness. We were grateful for these amenities when they happened to coincide with our itinerary, but we did not seek them out.

Sometimes there would be no choice. Munich's Thalkirchen, where we were packed in like sardines for five days in July, is a case in point. The only other campground was out of walking distance to public transportation into the city.

"Free-camping" in out-of-the-way spots or even in city streets calls either for a great deal of caution or a firm belief in kismet. We really preferred the security of the campgrounds, but sometimes we would stumble onto a place too beautiful and serene to leave. Such was the case on the beach about 12 miles north of Agadir, Morocco, where we free-camped for three weeks in January along with three other camping rigs. The scenery and weather were heavenly, the bird watching and hiking in the nearby hills fantastic. The local fishermen pulled our evening meals from the sea in front of our eyes and brought us wonderful, nutty, flat rounds of freshly baked dark bread every day. But after three weeks the police swept all free-campers (and there were a lot of them closer to Agadir) off the beaches in anticipation of a tour through the area by the king.

This kind of camping requires some precautions. Anything left outside at night tends to disappear, so our nightly buttoning-up included chaining our table, chairs and other paraphernalia to the camper with a padlock.

We had another wonderful free-camping experience in Greece. In the high mountains near the Albanian border, we found a small park beside a veritable river of crystal-clear water gushing from a mountain cavern. A truck driver assured us it was safe to stay. A few fishermen worked the stream; the local people stopped by for picnic lunches and to fill their water jugs. We tarried there under huge, old trees for several days.

Then there is the free-camping of necessity, when night is pending and there are no campgrounds around. We spent one night in a motel parking lot in Sassari, Sardinia, where we were victims of a one-day gasoline station strike and an almost empty tank. Another time, we lined up with other campers in front of the police station in Goulimine, Morocco, a desert outpost where the local camel market is a tourist attraction. We spent another night camped on the docks at Ramsgate, England, where the ferry from Dunkerque deposited us at 2 in the morning.

We also free-camped in municipal campgrounds that had closed for the season but did not ban the use of their sites. At Chatillon-sur-Seine, north of Dijon, we spent four glorious days exploring the town and countryside with nary a fee collector in sight and with only one other camper (housing a French family of three) as our neighbor. Down the hill a bit was the municipality's heated indoor swimming pool and recreational complex, which, for a small charge, we could use along with its hot showers and toilets.

Grocery shopping in Europe is a great adventure. At Le Havre, France, where we shipped our camper from the States, we were shocked on visiting our first supermarket -- an Auchan Hypermarche' with 62 checkout counters! We discovered that mammoth, state-of-the-art supermarkets are not uncommon in western Europe. But don't expect more than one or two per city. For the most part, small markets, specialty shops and municipal markets, stocked according to the season, are the norm.

In countries such as Yugoslavia, Turkey and Morocco -- or any small town in poorer areas -- you take what you can get. If you think you can't get along without something, it's best to stock up in advance.

Peanut butter was one of our "necessities." We ran out in the Ouarzazate in the pre-Saharan hinterlands of Morocco and were rescued by an unlikely source -- an encampment of Outreach Christian missionaries, young people with kids who had cases of Dutch peanut butter with them.

We cooked a wide variety of nourishing meals, often trying to duplicate the native dishes we had sampled in restaurants -- the tajines of Morocco, stuffed vine leaves of Greece, the koftes of Turkey. We did most of our cooking outdoors on portable burners, using the camper's two-burner stove as an auxiliary source, mainly because we didn't like steaming, greasing and smelling up the inside of our living room on a daily basis. Mark devised a 6-by-8 foot sliding door; outfitted with a folding table and chairs, this served as our main cooking area. The canopy created a wonderful refuge from the rain, of which there was lots and lots, especially in the fall.

If rain depresses you, forget about camping in Europe. With the right attitude, though, you can learn to enjoy it. Put on your rain gear, carry your umbrella and run around the cities. Enjoy the museums; take in the night life. Or dip into the big reservoir of books you brought from home and stay snug and relaxed in your home on wheels.

Most rain is benign, but we ran into some that was downright unhealthy. We drove into Turkey from Greece on the day Chernobyl blew up. We spent a couple of days in Istanbul, then headed west and south down the coast. When we stopped for a few nights at a small camp on the shore of the Dardanelles, the wind suddenly shifted and blew cold from the north; there was a torrential downpour. That night on our shortwave radio, BBC told us about Chernobyl. It was not until much later that we learned the wind had brought the radioactive cloud over the Black Sea area, directly to the north of our campground.

International tensions also gave us pause. In April of last year, we stood on the dock at Glythion on the tip of the Greek Peloponnesus, wanting to take a ferry to Crete. But prudence won. The week before, a bomb had exploded aboard a TWA jet; the smoking plane had come into Athens airport almost directly over our heads in the campground near Glyfada. Now the Mediterranean was bristling with American warships. By the time we got to Olympia, our country had bombed Libya. Back in Athens among our American friends, you could cut the paranoia with a knife. Our van attracted stares; the big, oval, black-and-white USA sticker on the back began to feel like a bull's-eye for lunatic-fringe target practice.

We removed the sticker and never replaced it. No one remarked on its absence, but we felt ashamed and diminished by this amputation of our identity.

In spite of these incidents, we enjoyed our trip, and we'll be back, as soon as we've browsed about a bit more on our own continent. In the meantime, we will never forget the chaffinch that perched on the rim of our pot of spaghetti sauce in the magnificent camp at Glencoe, in the heathered Scottish highlands; or the dazzling white hillsides of petrified water, dripping stalactites and glistening mineral basins of Pamukkale, Turkey; or the great earth-red bison and deer painted by prehistoric man on the roof of the caves of Altamira in northern Spain; or the flock of four dozen curly-horned goats filling a mountain road in Corsica, attended only by an anxious dog who directed his charges to the left so we could pass.

Retirement may have limited our income, but with our camper, it has expanded our horizons and given us immense wealth, in the form of these unforgettable memories.

Maggie Walker is a free-lance writer.

PLANNING YOUR TRIP: Membership in the American Automobile Association is well worth the cost. The maps, guides and other services are useful before you leave, and once you're overseas, AAA has reciprocal agreements with auto clubs in many countries. Your membership card entitles you to road service and towing as well as maps and other courtesies.

Our American Express card also proved invaluable. With it we could cash a personal check for up to $1,000 every three weeks and take a combination of local currency and traveler's checks. American Express operates a free (to members) mail drop with offices in major cities worldwide. This is much more reliable than poste restante (general delivery).

The two-volume "Camper's Northern Europe" and "Camper's Southern Europe" by Dennis and Tina Jaffe are good general how-to books. For more specific information, write to the consulates and tourist bureaus of the countries you visit for maps and brochures (allow plenty of time). Some are very good, others useless, so it's also a good idea to invest in some good maps and guidebooks before you leave the U.S.

For guidebooks, we settled on the Harvard Student Agencies Inc. series of "Let's Go" budget guides. They are full of economical, off-the-beaten-track suggestions and are not loaded with long lists of hotels and restaurants, useless to campers.

Pocket-size Berlitz phrase books are also helpful.

At the national borders and in most cities and many towns, we found tourist bureau offices that provided local maps and information about services and attractions. LOCATING CAMPGROUNDS: Tourist bureaus of many countries provide free lists of campgrounds, as do some provinces and localities. These were often useful, but we largely depended on two books -- "AA Camping and Caravaning in Europe," which can be purchased in the States, and "Europa Camping and Caravaning," which can be found in bookstores in large European cities. The British Caravan Club's Sites Directory and Handbook is indispensable in the U.K. With these three we had listings of several thousand campgrounds. DOCUMENTS: In addition to your passports, other important documents are your vehicle certificate of title, registration, insurance policies and "Green Card" (required wherever you'll go), your driver's license and an International Driver's Permit, available through auto clubs. An International Camping Carnet will bring discounts at many campgrounds and is required at some sites. We got our carnet from AAA. They can be renewed (or a new one issued) at auto clubs everywhere in Europe.

All these, in addition to the contents of your wallet (credit cards, club cards, etc.), should be photocopied and the copies concealed some place other than with the originals. In case of loss these can prove invaluable, as we found out when we lost some of our papers in a break-in in Madrid.

No visas were required anywhere we went. However, a week after we left France, a visa requirement was instituted in response to terrorist attacks. These can be obtained at any French consulate abroad, but it's better to check with the consulate before leaving the U.S. MEDICAL CONCERNS: Take a first-aid kit as well as a medical kit. Include the same items you'd find in your medicine cabinet at home: Many of these things are difficult or impossible to find in some countries. It's also a good idea to take a spare pair of glasses and, if you have a condition requiring regular medications, enough prescription drugs to last the duration of your trip. These may be unavailable, be sold under different names or be issued in quite different strengths than those on your prescription.

We found No. 15 sunscreen unavailable anywhere we went outside the U.S. If you need it, take it along.

If you need medical attention abroad, the nearest U.S. consulate is your best bet for information. There you can find the whereabouts of good health-care facilities and the names of English-speaking doctors and specialists. VEHICLE SHIPPING: We shipped our camper to Le Havre from Baltimore via Atlantic Container Lines. Its agent (Motorships Inc., Box 9025, Dundalk Marine Terminal, Baltimore, Md. 21222) made the arrangements; we paid just under $1,000. The return from Emden, Germany, to Wilmington, Del., cost only $500. If we were to do it again, we would contact Encore Cargo Services Inc., Box 27120, Baltimore, Md. 21230, the U.S. agent for the German shipping company that brought our camper home.

ESSENTIALS: In addition to the usual equipment of a camping van (a good bed, cooking facilities, refrigeration and water supply), there are some things needed for a trip abroad that wouldn't be needed here: A small folding table for outside cooking and eating, as well as folding chairs (European campgrounds don't provide picnic tables or fireplaces). Camping Gaz International butane cylinders, for outside cooking. The cylinders are available everywhere and are universally used in Europe; don't take your Coleman stove. A portable toilet. This is not just a convenience; in many places it is a necessity. The chemicals for it are generally available in Europe. A water purification system. Our camper was outfitted with one, and we always had our own potable water supply. Without one, you'll either spend a lot on bottled water, or take your chances with dubious water in some areas -- although most water is fine. A tool kit for small repairs to auto and camper. A transformer to adapt the camper's wiring to European 220-volt supply (although electricity is not always available). A set of adapters for plugging into the varying receptacle outlets found in different countries.

A dash-mounted compass. We found ours very useful. In the city it kept us from driving miles in the wrong direction trying to find our way through or out of town. In the desert, where we crossed a 25-mile stretch with no road, only diverse tracks through the sand, it kept us from getting lost and guided us to our destination.

In the not-quite-essential-but-nice-to-have-alongcategory, we also recommend taking a hot-water bottle; a lot of good paperback books (when you swap books in camps, you'll usually trade down and end up with a lot of British mysteries and endless spy thrillers, so it's best to start out with some of high quality); and tights or long underwear.

Don't take a lot of clothes. Figure out what you'll need, then cut that in half, and you'll still have too much. You won't carry a lot of dirty clothes around with you because you'll wash things as you go along. It's the only practical way, since laundromats are few and far between. THE CATALYTIC CONVERTER: There's only one country in Europe -- Germany -- where you can buy unleaded gas. So, if your car uses unleaded, you'll have to get rid of the converter. You'll need a permit from the EPA, and to get one you must show your shipping papers to prove you're really sending the car out of the country. Then you have to find a mechanic who'll accept the EPA permit and remove the converter. It may not be easy, but persevere! When you bring the car back into the United States, you'll have to replace the converter. That's easier.

Of course, it's possible to burn leaded gas in your car, if you can get it in through the small opening in your gas tank's filling spout. But then you'll ruin a $500 catalytic converter and have to get a new one to pass emissions tests. WHAT IT COSTS: The expense will depend on each traveler's tastes and resources. We set ourselves a budget of $1,000 a month, exclusive of shipping our camper overseas, insuring it and paying for major breakdowns. We were on the road for 424 days, 398 of which were spent camping out. (The rest were spent with friends or in hotels while our car was being repaired.)

Our total expenditure for 424 days was $12,818, for a monthly average of $907. The largest single item was gasoline ($2,507), followed by groceries ($2,437). Campground fees cost $1,542, ferries $865 and airline fares $1,104.

Eating out, about once a week on average, came to a total of $944. The rest were miscellaneous expenditures for museum fees, tours, medicine, snacks, etc.