Car Camping – Lessons Learned On the Road

I’m compiling some of the lessons and interesting tidbits I’ve learned with the hopes of passing along useful information to fellow wanderers. Especially families of travelers similar to ours.

Living out of your vehicle
Eating from the best seat in the house

Living out of ‘Hoe-Nu, our 2004 Chevy Tahoe wasn’t really part of the original plan, though we did take the idea into account. In the original scheme, we saw ourselves towing a vintage trailer. Though we also toyed with the idea of a cargo van, neither of those plans came to fruition. We hoped for the best and planned for the worst, which is exactly what we got. ‘Hoe-Nu rocks though and we’re rather happy at how things turned out. I’ll explain some of the Pros and Cons a little later.

The English language contains many words that fit our situation but are not exactly accurate. Words like: vagrant, wander, meander, and ramble have a negative connotation and do not attest to our purpose nor do they reflect the design of our lifestyle choice.

If we fell on hard times and were forced to seek refuge in our Tahoe, we would be destitute (lacking basic necessities), living as best we could with little or no resources. But the fact is that we chose to remove ourselves from the rat race and have become transient (lasting for only a short time, impermanent), moving from place to place and working when necessary. Our mobile lifestyle affords us the ability to visit family and places that interest us, staying as long as we like with without having to schedule around a busy conventional life.

The Pros

Taking an SUV and turning it into your home or living out of it can be awesome. We have enjoyed sheltering and traveling in ‘Hoe-Nu and here are some of the reasons why I would suggest a Tahoe or something similar as the main component of your car camping rig.

  1. Built for travel. There is no denying the comfort and space available in a large SUV like our ‘Hoe-Nu. Because she is purpose built, we enjoy all the comforts of a roomy passenger vehicle with the added space for our belongings. Heated seats, decent stereo system, second and third-row vents for heat and a/c… pretty much anything you’d want to keep you comfy on a long drive.
  2. Off-road capabilities. We lucked out and got a Tahoe with the Z71 package that includes stuff like four-wheel-drive, tow package, skid plates, and upgraded suspension. So we can approach difficult road conditions – or the lack of roads – with a little bit of confidence.
  3. Extended cargo options. We have the option to pull a trailer or attach contraptions to increase our cargo capacity. We currently have a cargo basket installed that gives us a little extra carry room on the back.
  4. Maneuverability. We’ve definitely been on some roads what would have been challenging to negotiate if we were much longer in the wheelbase. Places like Big Sur (CA), Gila National Forest (NM), and parts of Coconino National Forest (AZ) would not have been accessible for us in an RV or pulling a trailer of any length.
  5. Fewer constraints on gear. I credit this idea to the Nutnfancy Project on youtube. Check out his videos about van life. I believe he tells it like it is and has some great advice, insights, and rules, one of which is about size and weight constraints. Basically, if the item is too big or heavy, you’ll never bring it or use it. Because ‘Hoe-Nu carries everything, we can choose to bring items that might be too cumbersome for individuals to pack into their bags.

The Cons

I love ‘Hoe-Nu to pieces but there are quite a few drawbacks to living out of an SUV as opposed to a cargo van, RV or trailer.

  1. The sleeping arrangements are not great. When we have to, we sleep in the car. We’ve made some modifications to give us privacy and insulation from the winter weather but at the end of the day – literally – we end up sleeping in our seats. In order for some of us to lay flat, we have to move everything from the back of the Tahoe into one if the tents we bring with us. It takes some getting used to but it isn’t too bad.
  2. Keeping things organized can be frustrating. The fewer people you have with you the more room you’ll have and the easier it will be to stay organized. We have a small amount of room so bags and cratefuls of items get stacked and moved around, making it difficult to keep track of things. There are five of us utilizing the space that would be great for one and just enough for two.
  3. Decreased range. We average about 350 miles per tank (freeway) in a 13-year-old SUV which isn’t too shabby but we used to do better. Add the combined weight of two adults, three children (and all their earthly possessions), 18 gallons of water and 22 gallons of gas… we haven’t had much trouble except for smelling our breaks on downgrades. I try to keep the RPMs under 2k so I don’t over-work the engine but that much weight in any conventional vehicle isn’t going to be great – something to keep in mind. (See size and weight constraints)
  4. Smells! I’m not even kidding about this. The mingled smells of five people and all their stuff can be nasty. We try to keep as clean as possible but sometimes… In such a small space, if the windows can’t be kept open, there could be some casualties.
  5. Space. We have room to travel and transport our gear but once we get to where we’re going, we have to unpack and set up camp. If we were in a cargo van, RV or trailer, we could set everything up and just secure it before we roll out but in the ‘Hoe-Nu, we have to break camp and repack before we can leave. Not very nice when the weather turns ugly.

We decided to free ourselves from the fear of not making enough money to cover our mountain of bills, to live a life beyond our expenses. It wasn’t easy nor did we make the decision lightly. When we made the announcement to put our conventional life on hold, the general consensus was supportive but not always positive. Breaking away from the familiar isn’t for everyone but we aren’t running from the world, just trying to hold on to who we are and face it on our own terms. Yes, we are homeless and there is no legal difference between our family and a family living on the streets except for our choices and intent. We still have expenses but they are significantly less than they were in November 2017 and we keep finding ways to make do with less. We stand somewhere between surviving and thriving, a place we find much better than drowning in expenses and expectations.

Fleshing out this choice is not easy and is definitely not for everyone but it is easier than you might think. All you need is a capable vehicle, the keys to the aforementioned vehicle, money for gas and the resolve to go. There are a lot of important things you’ll need to bring with you like ID and maybe your phone but everything else depends on what you plan to do on your adventure. You can bring an instrument to make a little cash or jam with musicians on your travels. Bring camping gear if you’re headed off the grid. Camera equipment, surfboards, roller-skates, diving apparatus, hot-air balloons, skis, nothing… What’s important is not how you go but that you go!

There are basically two ways to do this: 1. have enough money to cover the entire trip or, 2. have enough money to begin your journey and figure it out as you move forward. You don’t need to have all the details down but it doesn’t hurt to have the major stops and decisions mapped out.

Will you be sleeping in your car, staying at hotels, camping or a mixture of those? Will it be better to buy food along the way or do you bring and prepare your own? Each of us has to decide for ourselves how we’ll live, subject to change as we grow or opportunities arise.

Some people have the resources and the desire to do it in a glamorous fashion while others want to live as close to the Earth as possible. Do you want to be a tourist, witnessing the beauty of the land around you and enjoying what different locales have to offer? What about living in the deep woods, practicing bush-craft and co-existing with the flora and fauna? Perhaps you have a mind to enjoy nature somewhere in between, keeping your impact on the land at a manageable level but still getting on well, thriving even?

Living out of your vehicle for a short time or the foreseeable future isn’t much harder to do than resolve to step out of your door one day and let the road sweep you off your feet (Tolkien – paraphrased). It can, is and has been done by many people in many situations, from many walks of life. If you have the luxury to choose your vehicle, then do so wisely. If you must take what you already have, make it count. Make your plans but don’t over-think them, stay fluid and roll with the punches. When you’re ready, gather up your keys and your resolve and get some miles behind you.

Go live your adventure!

2 thoughts on “Car Camping – Lessons Learned On the Road

  1. It seems like a rooftop tent might offer you the ideal upgrade to a more comfortable life in the SUV. I only seek to make my minivan a better road trip vehicle, not to live in it, but it:
    –doesn’t change your road clearance (except a few inches more height),
    –decreases set up time for at least a couple of beds (type & size determine specifics; I’d get the straight sided type where sleeping bags can be left in place in the closed up unit), and
    –gives you at least a pair of FLAT beds with some breathing room and privacy.

    That’s how I’ve thought it through anyway.

    My summer travels with my 2 kids are usually just the three if us. After driving all day, setting up camp might be too much effort. Sleeping in the van would require offloading all that cargo, like you describe. With two sleeping up top, the rear hatch could stay set up as kitchen, just taking out stove or kettle to use somewhere safe.

    Negatives of roof top tents are:
    –price (they’re usually four figures new, though some rare made in USA/China instead of Europe now, lowering cost), and
    –you’ll lose about 10-15% in fuel efficiency due to increased drag.

    Rooftop tent can also be moved onto a mini camping utility trailer later on, if you ever decide you’re willing to take on the trouble of towing. Search for “adventure trailers” to see what I mean. The best ones seem to be Australian!

    You’re taking good care of your family. That’s what matters here, though your choices are unusual.

    Maybe “pioneers” is your best description? You are aiming for something instead of somewhere, but you set out on purpose to get there! 🙂


    1. hudsonhyatt

      Rooftop tents! I love them but we wouldn’t be able to use our roof rack the way we currently do. What I think I’d like to do is pull a small utility type trailer (more cargo carrier than adventure-caddy) and have a rooftop tent on ‘Hoe-Nu and the trailer. The trailer would make the Tahoe more comfortable to travel in and give us another “room”. We wouldn’t really have to worry about where we set up camp and we would be able to sleep off the ground. I wonder how they stand up to very windy conditions, though. When we were in Carlsbad, NM and Joshua Tree, CA the wind nearly folded our tents in half! I’m surprised they are still intact after all that abuse. I need to read and watch some reviews but if they could only be less expensive, I would love to give them a try.


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