A few years ago we spent a dark and—literally—stormy night driving around looking for a cheap motel. We had neglected to remember that in certain parts of the southeast the changing leaves constitutes a tourism boom and subsequent spike in hotel prices. In other words, we wouldn’t find a vacancy that night that didn’t require a heated debate over whether or not to hand over entirely too much money for a roof over our head and a supposedly clean bed to sleep in. It was on this night that we reached a watershed moment in our journey as intrepid adventurers: my 2003 Ford Taurus just wasn’t cutting it any longer. We needed a vehicle that could take us where we wanted to go and discreetly convert into a mobile motel when necessary.
In full disclosure, I likely spend way too much time scrolling through perfectly curated social media channels of impeccably converted Sprinters and utility vans. But I run a business that necessitates a vehicle that’s, well, just a vehicle. So when shopping for the perfect blend of function and potential, we had to keep in mind that as much as we might like to envision ourselves scrambling eggs with the sliding door wide open overlooking a postcard vista, the inside fully kitted for a life on the road, we had to plan for a multi-purpose ride that was easy to adjust and transform to our needs. We needed a rig that could tote half a dozen folks around for a shuttle, haul enough gear for multi-day trips with room for two sleeping adults, and still fit in our driveway from five-to-nine Monday through Friday. The answer: a 2001 Chevy Suburban.
The art of the temporary adventure vehicle boils down to the simple truth that most of us are only charging hard on the weekends, and we need it to return to the basic functionality of normal transportation the rest of the time. A permanent vehicle conversion just isn’t in the cards (or budget) just yet, but that doesn’t mean that you can’t weekend out of your adventure mobile and still be back to face your inbox on Monday morning…even if your gear never makes it off the roof and back into the garage before that weekly staff meeting.
Traveling out of your vehicle might mean sleeping inside it or organizing it in a way that allows you to store your seasonal gear to be ready at a moment’s notice so that you’re less worried about whether or not the right gear made it into the rig and more focused on the day’s adventure. Either way, the more efficient you get at making the most out of your weekend warrior-mobile, the more time you get to spend soaking up your playgrounds.
Get a good sleeping pad. A good—nay, great—sleeping pad is the end all, be all, to sleeping and traveling out of your car. The lumpy irregularities of seatbelts, headrests, and hinges all but disappear with a good sleeping pad, and can turn a sedan with the seats down into a luxurious night’s sleep. Do not economize. I repeat: the cheap, styrofoam sleeping pad you grab from Wal-Mart in your pre-trip haste is NOT adequate.
Somewhere along the line, people started making self-inflating sleeping pads from raft materials for the same reason it does well on the river: it’s durable, waterproof, and able to deflate into a reasonable size. There’s a few different manufacturers out there, but I recommend the PVC coated, reinforced cornered, no less than 2” thick Cadillac of all sleeping pads, the NRS River Pad.
No, you’re not going backpacking in the high country with this behemoth on the weekends, but you are going to sleep like a baby anywhere you well please, even if indoor conditions (read: your folded down seats or buddy’s floor) aren’t ideal. The ruggedness of these pads mean you can throw it on the ground on those clear nights and not have a care in the world if it gets wet or muddy. Or strap it to the roof of your rig when the inside real estate gets tight.
Separate wet and dry. The golden rule of a sustainable river habit on the road is to keep wet and dry separate. The goal is to keep wet gear out of your vehicle altogether but we know that’s not always possible.
We all have that friend we’re less than thrilled to ride shuttle with because their car smells like an old neoprene bootie. It’s possible the smell comes from actual booties left in some forgotten corner of their car. But it’s more likely that wet gear got stashed and slow roasted in the late afternoon sun, steaming the less desirable smells of the river to your car’s upholstery.
If you’ve got roof storage, throw your wet stuff in your boat, rocket box, or gear bag, and tie it to the roof. If it’s already wet, it doesn’t matter if it stays wet, and if your gear bag is breathable, a clear day’s drive may reward you with dry gear courtesy of the open road after all. If you can’t store on the roof, at least invest in a plastic bin (with a lid) to serve as a catch-all for your funky gear and excess moisture. This box can easily get stashed next to or on top of your car while you’re sleeping off the day’s adventure.
Think temporary. Conversions are great, but at some point, you’re trading transport capacity for livable space, so think about your modifications on a temporary scale. In our Suburban, it’s ideal for us to pull our third-row bench out of the truck entirely for more comfortable sleeping, but we can actually leave it in and fold it up at night (or even store it outside the truck if we know we’re in for a dry night) if we know we have a need for seat space during the day. Try not to compromise the function of your vehicle for the form of your sleeping space.
I’ve seen folding or collapsible benches that serve as bed platforms at night but can scoot to one side or fold up entirely during the day for more storage or seat room. Similarly, these platforms are usually elevated so that if they are more permanent than temporary, storage space has not been compromised to the same degree, allowing for bins, paddles, or even bikes to get stashed under the bed as opposed to taking up more valuable floor or seat space. Even simpler: cutting sheets of plywood to cover up awkward gaps in the floor.
If you keep your setup simple ie: a bedroll, sleeping bag, and some plastic bins, you can pretty quickly move from bed space to seat space within a few minutes in the morning. Think in rotations: during the day, bins and sleeping setup is stashed to make room for passengers, and at night, storage bags and other gear stay cozy in the driver and passenger seats while you count sheep in the back of your vehicle.
On the other hand, a great temporary fix for gear storage is investing in a roof box. You can’t go wrong with Yakima or Thule. Yes, they’re a major investment up front, but think about how much room you can save without actually sacrificing stuff.
Keep your camp kit simple. Quality over quantity. You’re on the road, and your focus is play, not luxury, but you still need to take care of yourself. Your essentials should include some basic organization of food and snacks in a dry box, a single burner stove, one pot with a lid, a french press (or whatever kind of camp coffee maker you prefer) and a really good cooler (like the aforementioned sleeping pad, don’t skimp on the cooler purchase either).
On ultra light excursions, my dry food and camp essentials (simple utensils and bowls) live in the same box, and unless you’re getting into some more remote paddling excursions, you’ll probably be pretty close to anything you might need during the trip, so avoid the overpacking trap. I’ve scrambled eggs and toasted bread in a snowy parking lot of a large box store before with nothing but a single burner stove and a spoon. It was easy, delicious, and got me on the road to the river quick and cheap, which was my ultimate goal.
Plan ahead. Whether you’re sleeping in your car or going the traditional tent-camping route, have a plan and keep some backup options in mind. The intrepid weekenders may opt for free overnight parking in rest areas or commerce parking lots, but there’s ample free or very affordable camping around the country if you know where to look. Check out State and National Forest campgrounds as well as the Bureau of Land Management (BLM land) if you’re out west, but know what amenities you need and what to expect when you get there.
Embrace the trial and error. Don’t marry an idea just because it was featured in the latest article tagged #vanlife. What works for that famous climber you follow might not work for you as a paddler. Learning to weekend adventure out of our suburban has been a lesson in trial and error. And after a few restless nights and wet mornings we came up with a few extra hacks to make life easier:
Sun shades. Lights glaring through your car windows aren’t going to make for a restful night’s sleep, and that can happen anywhere from your favorite campground to your friend’s driveway. We’ve stocked up on some reflective sun shades to keep unwanted light out while also creating a bit of privacy so that we’re not advertising our sleeping situation if we don’t want to.
Window screens & magnets. Right after we got Hotel Suburban, we slept in it for the first time at a pull off near the Ocoee River. It was summer, so we rolled the windows down to try and let some air in while we slept. This ultimately let in what seemed to be the entire North American population of mosquitoes and made for an extremely miserable night of sleep. The next day, we went to a hardware store and bought a roll of window screen material and some strong magnets. We cut the material to be slightly larger than our windows and fastened it to the door before we went to bed… absolutely perfect. This works great in warm weather but is obviously problematic when it rains, which is where the rainfly comes in.
Rain fly. If you’re actually sleeping in your car and not just traveling out of it, getting in and out in the rain can be one of the more onerous parts of overlanding. I found a forgotten hammock rain fly in our gear store last summer and it has made a world of difference on rainy trips where we’re sleeping in our truck. We can now roll a window down despite the weather and have a little bit of sheltered outdoor space at least to stand up and zip on a rain shell before heading into the weather. Tethered to a roof rack or stacked kayaks and staked into the ground, this is my new favorite car-camping hack.
Simple pleasures. Like a battery powered fan (for those unbearably hot, dead-air nights staking out the Columbus, Georgia wave) and low-key portable lights (I like the solar powered Lucie lights that don’t draw too much attention to the inside of my vehicle).