Live Out of Your Car on a Budget
Some #vanlife upgrades are worth the money. Others are not.
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In 2017, I spent five months in New Zealand living out of a beat-up, bald-tired 2005 Wingroad named Liam Nissan. I was on a bare-bones budget, and it showed: my roof racks were two-by-fours tied down with paracord, my tent was a $20 heap of nylon from the Warehouse (a Kiwi analog of Walmart), and my cooler only held ice for about three hours before turning everything into sodden, lukewarm mush. Since then I’ve logged thousands of miles by plane and car and have tested all kinds travel and camping gear, from bougie high-end luxuries to budget hacks, to determine what is and isn’t worth the extra cash.
Now, after not setting foot outside New Mexico for more than a year, I’m satiating my travel itch by planning a post-vaccination, monthslong road trip to Alaska to see the fat bears. And this time around, I’ve decided to lower the misery quota by investing in a few select gear upgrades that will make the journey more enjoyable and hopefully keep me from wasting money on things like rotten food, emergency motel rooms, and car repairs. Here are a few items I suggest you invest in, and others to leave behind, so you can do the same.
Take: A Capable Vehicle
Leave: A $20,000+ Sprinter Van Build-Out
Despite what Instagram tells you, #vanlife doesn’t actually need to involve a van. While a luxe Sprinter build-out is the trendiest way to travel, a van might not be worth the up-front investment and extra gas money—especially if you’re planning to stay on the road for just weeks or months rather than indefinitely.
To cut down on costs, I’ll be doing a budget DIY build of my 2008 Subaru Forester, Goose. (Named not for the Top Gun character but for its horrendous paint job, which resembles goose poop.) Goose ticks all the important boxes—AWD/4WD capability, decent clearance, enough space to sleep in the back—and serves as a very functional car for my everyday, non-nomadic life.
There is one big investment you can make to render any vehicle significantly more off-road worthy: new tires. While I nearly choked on the $800 price tag of my Yokohama Geolandar A/T-S set, I handed over my credit card. The memory of the $1,000 towing bill after skidding off a remote gravel road in New Zealand made it easier. (Our resident car expert, Wes Siler, now recommends the Falken A/T Trail tires instead—they are lighter, less expensive, and purpose-built for crossovers like the Forester.)
Look for all-terrain, all-weather tires that sport deep horizontal grooves to prevent hydroplaning, sharp tread edges for improved traction in snow and mud, and sipes—extra grooves cut into the tread—that adjust as the tires wear to maintain their grip. A varying tread-block size will help keep them quiet on the highway (important when you’re pulling long distances) without sacrificing off-road performance. I’ve since confidently navigated Goose through conditions and terrain I never risked with Liam: heavy snow, thick ice, mud, and mini sinkholes.
Take: Tent or Rain Shelter
Leave: Rooftop Tent
I realize I just suggested that you get a car with ample space to sleep in the back, and it’s great not to worry about staking out a tent in the rain after a long day on the road. But spend a few days hunkered down in bad weather and you’ll realize it’s even better to have some livable space to actually move around in. You don’t need an inflatable nylon McMansion, but I can recommend something large enough to allow for meal prep (but not cooking—open flames and nylon don’t mix!) and screened in to protect you from bugs. Look for a two- or three-person shelter with steep architecture for extra headspace and at least 25 to 30 square feet of floor space.
A good old-fashioned tarp and a couple of poles are a decent (and cheap) option for basic shade and rain protection. But my favorite pick is the Exped Outer Space III ($479). Unlike rooftop tents that start at more than twice that price, lack livable space, and eat up gas mileage, the Outer Space III quickly converts from a three-person tent with an attached living room to an open-air or fully enclosed shelter for up to six people. It stands out over other similar tents for its versatility and massive vestibule—I like that I can have my sleeping area set up and still have enough space to cut vegetables or play cards. At about five pounds, the smaller, two-person Outer Space II ($429) is a bit heavy for backpacking but can be used for that purpose in a pinch.
While the Outer Space is great, and while there are plenty of other large standing-room tents on the market for one or two people, you should definitely consider budget options that will get the job done. Kelty’s Tall Boy 4 ($150) has 70 inches of headspace and enough room for a few people to have a dance party. It also holds up reasonably well in blustery winds despite its lofty profile. Coleman’s Instant Cabin ($145) is a classic, and with its single-wall structure, it can be pitched in about a minute without the inside of the tent getting wet in the rain.
Take: Roadside Repair Kit
Leave: AAA Membership
Don’t get me wrong: having some sort of roadside-assistance membership is essential. But there are other—and often cheaper—choices than AAA, and it’s wise to invest in some tools to get yourself unstuck, too. My car insurance (and most others) offers the same service as AAA for a fraction of the cost—$25 a year versus AAA’s $89. Also consider that roadside assistance can’t save you if you’re out of cell-phone range. I learned this the hard way when Liam skidded off a remote road and into a ditch and I had to hitchhike with a funeral procession, a ride that took several hours, before I could even call for help.
Instead of relying entirely on a company for rescue, I suggest building a kit with a few key items. These include a portable jump starter, a tire-repair kit, a tire gauge (to check pressure and to lower it on rough roads), a portable air compressor (to refill punctured or deflated tires), and a set of basic traction boards (to free your tires from mud or snow). Together these items will run you a little more than a year’s AAA membership but will pay for themselves over their lifetime and vastly expand the range of conditions your vehicle can navigate.
Take: Foam Sleeping Pad
Leave: Inflatable Mattress
Between physical-therapy bills and expensive cream for the dark circles under my eyes, I’m pretty sure I’m still paying for the many rough nights I spent sleeping atop blow-up mattress on the road. I’ve never met an inflatable pad that doesn’t quit holding air after a few months of continuous use or in cold weather.
I now refuse to sleep on anything but a Paco Pad ($215) when car camping. This waterproof, virtually indestructible foam mattress has long been a staple of the paddling community, and you can add air to it or not—either way it’s still comfy. The pad’s relative bulkiness is compensated by its hardiness: I can strap it to my roof or throw bins on top of it in my car without worrying about damage. It can even double as a float on a river or as an insulator for your cooler.
I’m a Paco Pad fangirl, but you can make your own version (albeit less durable and not waterproof) for less than half the price with some by-the-yard foam, upholstery fabric, and a sewing machine.
Leave: Solar Shower
I’ve employed the pits and bits baby-wipe “shower” as much as the next dirtbag, but this method will never get you fully clean, and you can only go so long stewing in your own filth before paying some hygienic (and social) consequences. In New Zealand, I ended up forking over cash for nights in hotel rooms or bougie campgrounds every couple weeks for this basic luxury.
While solar showers are a common solution for extended camping trips, versions with adequate pressure can be pricey. I now find myself turning to a method I learned during a year in Indonesia: the bucket shower. Fill a large bucket or basin up with water, then use a cup to pour the water over your head once or twice to get wet and soap up, and another scoop or two to rinse off. This is still the most consistent and water-conserving method I’ve found for road bathing. If you fill half the bucket with boiled water from your camp stove, you’re practically at the Marriott.
I’d also argue that a bucket is one of the most versatile items you can bring camping. It can serve as an eco-friendly dishwasher that lets you strain out and dispose of food bits, a laundry machine, and a campfire douser, among other things.