Over the past decade, I've hiked three long-distance hiking trails, spent more than a year's worth of nights in a sleeping bag, and walked enough miles to stretch a quarter of the way around the globe. I wouldn't consider myself an expert backpacker, but I'm certainly on that track. Ask again in a couple decades.
By contrast, I suck at car camping.
I have friends who are excellent car campers. One friend brings the kitchen sink - the 80 liter cooler, the giant airbed, the even larger tent to contain said airbed - you know, the works. Sure, the stuff for a 2-day weekend fills the entirety of his full-sized pickup, but when I go car camping with him, we live large. Another friend goes a lot more basic, but has a vast assortment of different tents and stoves and puffy jackets and knives - always armed with the perfect piece of equipment that befits the desired camping-to-adventure-ratio.
In their own ways, both are skilled car campers - certainly better than me. But I'd like to think that, over the last few months of living an itinerant lifestyle, I've found a camping mojo that works for me.
Ultralight Car Camping
Take my sleeping nest as an example. Sleeping in the back of my car has always been pretty uncomfortable (the seats didn't lay all the way flat) and the thought of getting terrible sleep every night for several months was pretty unappealing. So I designed a little platform to sleep on. My initial designs were quite intricate. Plans included some integrated shelving, piano hinges, peg-fit removable components, the works. The more I thought about all the features I wanted, the more complicated the project became.
Then it came to me - this trend of increasing features and creature comforts (along with their associated cost and complexity) was completely antithetical to lightweight, minimalist ethic that I had espoused for years in the context of backpacking. Maybe that same philosophy could work for my car camping.
So I started over. I scrapped the complicated plans and kept things basic, even austere. My nest was built with half a sheet of plywood, a pair of 2x2s, a RidgeRest sleeping pad, and some cushy foam rescued from my parents' church. My outdoor gear fits into a standard-sized tote, my cooking stuff fits into a smaller tote, I've got my cooler, a thrift-store camp chair, my laptop bag, and that's it. It's nothing complicated or fancy. I'm maybe not quite as comfortable as I could be with a more complex setup. But this setup is elegant in its simplicity, and without a ton of stuff, it's easy to keep organized. After all, the emphasis isn't on the tool itself, but what the tool allows me to do - to access adventure.
It's not as fancy as many of my friends' setups. It's certainly a far cry from the picture-perfect Instagram #vanlife folks with their solar showers and battery banks and propane heaters. But it works for me. Low cost, low complication. My kind of style.
The Best Job Ever
When you have four inches of foam underneath you, a sleeping bag rated to -20, and an honest-to-goodness pillow, it's easy to get pretty comfortable. And I do love those lazy times - fold out the camp chair, prop my feet up on the cooler and read a good book (recent subjects have included Belgian abuses in the colonial Congo, the American Civil War, an Arizona hiking guide, and a truly terrible thriller novel that pulled a fast one on me and turned into a sappy romance novel by the end). But I'm very aware that my road trip won't last forever. Next year at this point, I'll probably long wistfully for the days when I could hike every day. So I need to keep getting out and getting after it, even when I really want to just relax for a while. In a sense, it's a job - the best job ever, but a job.
Getting the Info
It's nearly impossible to plan a multi-month road trip in exhaustive detail - and even if it were possible, the schedule would only last a day or two before falling apart completely. The vast majority of the planning for this trip has happened when I'm on the road (er, safely parked - don't text and drive, kids!). Obviously a smartphone is invaluable for getting the scoop on pretty much everything, but I'd like to highlight a few specific resources that I use:
- Backcountry Navigator Pro (app): Allows me to download topos of an area, add GPX tracks, and the whole nine yards. I don't have access to a printer on the road, so the ability to download electronic maps for the places I'm going is critical
- Caltopo (app): Caltopo is similar to Backcountry Navigator Pro. It's still in its beta phase, and it's not nearly as powerful BCN is - yet. But it has one crucial feature which I love: Land Management maps. With Caltopo, I can see who owns any given parcel of land, which makes finding legal campsites much, much easier. And as Caltopo matures, it will probably supplant BCN as my mapping application of choice. The desktop/web-based version of Caltopo is already the gold standard in backcountry trip planning.
- Bivy (app): This app makes it easy to find quick and easy dayhikes - and if you're into it, mountain bike trails, technical climbs, anything. Whenever I need to stretch my legs, I open up Bivy and find something to do.
- Benchmark Atlases (print): Yep, I carry and love my old-school print overview maps. Each state is roughly $20 on the Ama-zone. In addition to having accurate coverages of roads (everything from Interstates to Forest Service two-tracks), it shows state parks, Wildlife Management Areas, trailheads, and all sorts of useful information. Useful not only when out of cell range, but also shows the "big picture" far better than a 3x5 smartphone screen can.
- Freecampsites.net (website): Exactly what it sounds like. Crowdsources free and legal places to spend the night. While you can legally camp nearly anywhere in many states in the Intermountain West, things get a lot more tricky once you get east of the Rockies or west of the Sierra - and this site comes in very handy! Perhaps I'll write an abstruse post about public lands, the BLM, and the history of land conflict in the Mexican cession... but probably not. But if that's the sort of thing that interests you, let me know and maybe I'll cobble something together!
Embracing the Unexpected
Notwithstanding the above advice about preparation, part of the fun - perhaps the defining feature of the classic American road trip - is being able to stop and explore things that catch one's eye. Whether it's rolling into a diner in a small town, pointing at a peak and wondering if I can climb that, or making friends along the way, part of the fun is the spontaneity. One of the coolest things I found on this trip was a roadside warm springs in the middle of the Mojave desert, near Lake Mead. In a harsh environment, lush palm trees had sprung up around the little oasis. I didn't take a dip, as signs warned of brain-eating amoebas (seriously!), but it was beautiful and green, almost tropical. And then I did a little hike up a trail that I found behind the springs.
In addition to the big-picture stuff, just a few helpful tips if you're planning your own #crappybeatupsubarulife adventures:
- McDonalds has the best free Wifi alround. Reasonably fast and it works 90% of the time, every time. Make sure to buy something, of course - even if it's just a drink.
- Truck stop showers! Private, hot, and sometimes even clean! But you should probably wear a pair of a flip flops, just to be safe.
- Texas has scads of random roadside picnic areas - at least one every 30-40 miles. These are clutch, as you can legally sleep there, as long as you don't set up a tent or stay for more than 24 hours. Most have trash cans, little picnic pavilions, and barbecue grills. Given the dearth of other public lands in the state, picnic areas are a dirtbagger's best friend
- In many parts of the West, two-lane roads are nearly as fast as freeways, often more scenic, and always more conducive to stopping and seeing things. In every way except for gas prices, two lane is the way to go.
- America the Beautiful passes. Get one. A flat $80 fee covers admission to pretty much any federal recreational facility. If you only visit two or three parks, you'll probably still save money. And you don't need to feel guilty about sneaking in when the entrance station isn't staffed because you've got a pass.
- A first aid kit for your poor car. Tire chains, extra coolant, and a shovel, for starters. I had to dig one someone who slid off the road in Sequoia National Park.