Jay Nelson contracted the road-trip bug in the 1980s when his parents took him and his sisters on a romp across Europe in a VW Vanagon. Afterward they shipped the van back to California so they could keep rolling across the American West. “Those are some of my best childhood memories,” says Nelson.
He also inherited a building gene from his father, an engineer who left piles of timber lying around that Nelson used to construct skate ramps and treehouses. Nelson went on to study art in San Francisco, where he surfed whenever he wasn’t working.
Ten years ago, Nelson cobbled together his first mobile camper, a wooden snail shell that sat on the back of a Honda Civic and served as his home while he chased swells at Ocean Beach.
Living in a car got old after a few months, but campers became central to his art, and he began earning commissions to build them.
In 2015, he created the Golden Gate 2. It features a bed and storage cubbies, is powered by an electric motor and bicycle components, and has a top speed of 15 miles per hour. You drive it sitting cross-legged. “I designed it more as a living space than a car,” he says.
Currently, surfers for several brands are rolling around in some of Nelson’s more road-appropriate campers. “I built Patagonia the best one I ever made and just handed over the keys,” he says. “The guys were like, ‘Thanks, dude! Later!’”
The next one he’s crafting for himself. He has in mind a Toyota pickup with a flip-top camper for trips with his wife and their two-year-old daughter. It’ll have only a basic kitchen.
Says Nelson, “It’s pretty sweet to travel in a camper but go out and have a nice dinner.”