By Gregory Kempers
Whether you’re a seasonal worker like me and want some solo hiking time on the shoulder season or are on an epic road trip, you’ll run into similar issues and situations when first figuring out how to be an efficient bum. I currently work as a sled dog guide in Alaska or Colorado, depending on the time of year, so my line of work requires a tremendous amount of driving and camping. Since I can’t afford 4 weeks of hotels a year, my answer to this was to throw a bed in my car and call it a day.
Dial in your setup
Before you go out on your adventure, you need to make sure everything works. Nothing ruins the fun of camping more than getting to your spot and realizing your setup isn’t working the way it should. Give it a dry run! Spend a night in your driveway. Figure out where you want all your food stored so it’s out of the way or where you can put your laptop for a good post-hike The Office marathon.
Here’s an example of a un-dialed setup on my first shoulder season. I had a thick REI inflatable mattress laid directly on my folded down seats leading into the trunk space, but what I didn’t realize is that those seats didn’t fold down flush, they were just slightly higher than the floor of the trunk. So when I rolled into my first night of camping and laid down for bed, I realized my torso was a good few inches above my feet, causing me to slide down in my sleep. I remedied this by always parking on a slight incline to even everything out a bit.
Finding good spots
Nothing beats a free campsite. I recently got done bumming around central Colorado for two weeks and paid nothing for parking or accommodation. While most other states don’t have the absurdly abundant opportunities that Colorado has, most state’s national forests and BLM land allow free camping in a spot for up to two weeks, at which point you need to go find a different spot. Whether you’re spending your time camping in the forest or are sticking closer to cities, freecampsites.net is a great resource and has user-submitted information on all different types of overnight parking spots.
If you’re like me and spend most of your free time hiking and exploring, this will become a major concern on your first trip. Everyone seems to love those solar showers in the vanlife community, but did you know you can make your own for the same price as a gallon of milk? Take a plastic gallon jug, fill it with water, and leave it on top of your car in the summer sun while you’re out exploring all day. You come ‘home’ and have bath-temperature water! At this point, it’s just a matter of finding a private spot to wash up.
Make cooking as easy as possible
One thing I started to resent while living out of my car was cooking. When I have an actual kitchen at my disposal, I can happily spend all day there. But when you have to deal with wind and rain, it’s more of a chore. I’d usually just drive from the trailhead to the grocery store and come out with way too many hot pizzas and chicken wings. Not sustainable for your wallet or belt when you do this all of the time.
What definitely helped me was getting an actual stove. For a while I’d been using my backpacking alcohol stove, which is really only good for boiling water. Then I found this old butane single burner my parents had laying around and it makes life out of a car a breeze. They’re only around $20, fuel refills are only $3 at most places that sell camping equipment and it fits perfectly under the driver’s seat. This bumped up my cooking from ramen every night to actual foods like stir-fry and omelettes in the morning.
Leave the windows open
This might seem weird to do if it’s cold outside, but the moisture released from you breathing condenses inside a sealed car. This can lead to you waking up with a damp sleeping bag and water dripping off of the windows. Leaving a window open just a crack lets that moisture escape, leaving you toasty and dry.