Space Pod Car Camping

Living small on the road.

In 2015 and 2016 I set out from Denver on several long road trips in the American West. I wanted to get away from the city, to go places I’d never gone before, to travel without a destination. I set out to discover how to live very small while exploring a lot of ground and operating on a limited budget.

My travels ended up covering more than 4000 miles.

Searching for remote places off the grid, I tried to get as far from human settlements as possible. Places where I could park free or for a few dollars a night. Sometimes no water and no cell service, just a vault toilet and a fire pit and maybe a park table.

Mostly I landed at campgrounds and dispersed camping areas under the management of the U.S. Forestry Service and the Bureau of Land Management. Those agencies oversee some amazing property and I was eager to see as much as I could.

Coming from the city, it was like taking a space ship to another world.

Take everything you need.
Pack it in, pack it out.
Leave no trace.
2015: first morning on the road in Wyoming.

Tiny House Car

I traveled in a Honda Element outfitted to provide facilities for life on the road. The choice of the Element was no accident. Most everyone who saw it said, “I bet you could sleep in that thing.” It has generous cargo space with a lot of room to spread out. Maybe not the most elegant of vehicles, but superbly functional.

I drove the car for years without actually attempting to sleep in it, but I always wanted to try. Can you sleep in that thing? Now I can say for sure: absolutely.

Honda Element interior dimensions.

Starting Out

My goal was to be able to drive until I found someplace to park, open up the doors, and have an instant dwelling. The entire passenger side of the car transformed into a kitchen: pantry, food prep workspace, sink and faucet. Inside I had thick foam pads big enough to sleep on. I wanted to be able to create from the road so I was glad to have extra room left over for art supplies and photo equipment.

2016: staying out of the rain, cooking a one-pot lunch in Washington.

On all my trips I brought a tent but only used it making camp with other people. The car had plenty of room for me to sleep comfortably while traveling solo. With some reshuffling of luggage and equipment, the car could transform from a normal vehicle on the road into a house in just a few minutes. In the rain it kept me dry, in the heat it kept me cool. As long as I parked on a level surface, it was a very cozy space to hang out in. And if it got cramped inside, the wilderness was usually just outside the doors.

2015: bike acted as a divider between sleeping area and cargo. 2016: wire shelf secured cargo but significantly decreased sleeping area size. 2017: unpacked for the winter.

Living Space Adjustments

In 2015 I brought a bike along to ride wherever I ended up, but ultimately it spent more time separating the sleeping space from the cargo space than being used to ride around. The bike left enough room for a relatively generous 30 inch sleeping pad.

For 2016 I left the bike behind and installed a wire shelf custom made to fit in the car. At The Container Store I picked out premade shelf components and they cut the poles down to size for free. It became a useful piece of furniture and a solid base for cargo transport, but forced me to drop down to a 24 inch sleeping pad. To compensate for the loss of space, I upgraded to an extra large sleeping bag with plenty of wiggle room.

2016: view from inside the living space in the afternoon in Oregon, with the foam mattress folded up into a lounge cushion and sleeping bag rolled like a puffy cushion.

Kitchen Evolution

The 2015 “pantry” was just grocery bags in a precarious stack of provisions on top of toolboxes. Water stayed in a reservoir supported on a storage crate, nearly floating inside the cabin on straps to absorb shocks from driving and keep the water out of harm’s way. The bike’s handlebars made a nice towel rack though.

In 2016 the pantry became a stack of plastic storage bins that fit perfectly inside the bottom of the wire shelf. Ingredients, tools, supplies, stove, and fuel were all securely stored and easy to access. Water moved into a jerry can behind the passenger seat so there was no more worry of water spillage inside the cabin.

2015: a very wobbly pantry without any workspace and difficult access. 2016: upgraded storage with more workspace and much easier access.

One thing I gave up right away was refrigeration, because it requires constant electricity. Ice melts quickly. So no cold beer, no ice cream, no meats; only farm eggs that can be stored at room temperature and durable vegetables like peppers and onions. I kept fruits and delicate perishables in a cooler and ate them while they were still good, but staying in stock meant stopping at markets along the way. In farm country the options were plentiful, in the hinterlands I switched to prepackaged one-pot meals like rice and beans. In 2016 I started dehydrating food: making jerky, snacks, up to entire precooked meals. For the future I plan to do some pickling and find other ways to preserve food without refrigeration.

2015: edge of the wilderness in Oregon.

Roadside Revisions

Driving up steep mountain roads, navigating tight corners at gas stations, on wide country highway turns… cargo shifting happened a lot. By the end of every trip the whole storage rig failed at least once, usually tipping over. More than once I had to park for a while and get everything sorted out before continuing on.

2015: the bike allowed for wide open views in the back. 2016: while easy to access, the toolbox constantly obstructed views. Something to fix in the 2017 version.

The 2015 configuration failed while turning onto a freeway onramp. The water reservoir fell on top of the bike, the bike flopped over, provisions went all over the floor. Fortunately the bike was undamaged, the water never spilled, and the next exit on the freeway was just a couple miles away. Still it kept happening until I found the right configuration of webbing securing both the bike and the water.

In 2016 all the tools moved off the floor into a tarp-covered crate in the back, tightly secured to the top shelf. The tarp kept everything contained and allowed for easy access, but that weight was up high. The bungee securing the shelf to the car failed, and the whole rig went over in a solid heap. Nothing broke or fell off. After a pit stop for a new bungee, the shelf remained sturdy for the rest of the trip.

After several impromptu roadside tweaks, the solar panels securely float between the roof racks.

Solar Powered

Electricity was available from the car in the form of a 12 volt plug, but that required burning gasoline to charge the car’s battery. Gas becomes a rare and expensive commodity far from civilization, so that power was available only as a last resort. Whenever possible I used solar. In a day of sunny travel, I could charge all of my devices.

2015: working on battery power at night, getting photos off the camera and charging devices during the day.

My solar kit, purchased before the 2015 trip, uses GoalZero Nomad 13 Solar Panels hooked up to their Sherpa 50 Power Pack with a 50Wh 5,200mAH capacity plus inverter. Laptop use needed to be kept to a minimum, but charging cameras and other smaller devices was easy. In 2016 the battery in the Sherpa failed and I had to get a warranty replacement. The new Sherpa 50’s performance hasn’t been tested on the road yet in 2017.

The solar power kit was a big purchase so I doubt I’ll upgrade any time soon, but I wish I had gotten a 100 or 150Wh power pack instead of the 50. I plan on buying more rechargeable batteries for later trips, and utilizing a USB hub with a voltage meter to monitor usage and charge more devices at once.

For internet access I bought a wi-fi hotspot with 4G mobile access and 5gb of data per month. It’s low power with good connectivity in most places I traveled.

Kit unpacked after 2015 and 2016 trips.

Missing Pieces

There’s some practical things I learned.

  • Using a cold vault toilet at 5am is no fun.
  • Bathing using water becomes a precious exaltation after a few days. Wet prepackaged towels or washcloth baths are a bare necessity without showers.
  • Water goes fast with two people.
  • Practice bear-safe food storage in the woods, always!
  • Keep your music in a format you can listen to offline.
  • Two sinks are better than one. Separate your gray water by use: bathroom and kitchen.

There’s some things I’m still learning about.

  • Adults produce about 0.8–1.5 litres of urine per day. If all you have is a one gallon jug, In 2–4 days, you’re going to need a reliable way to dispose of it.
  • I hear if you dry out poop instead of mixing it with urine and water, it doesn’t stink and reduces the amount of hazardous bacteria.
  • Where do you go when you get sick and need to throw up?
  • What are other sanitary, reliable, and portable ways to store and manage other human waste?

If I keep traveling this way I’ll continue revising my gear and system for using the Element as a mobile habitat, and hopefully keep learning new tricks. This year I’m thinking more about architecture; ways to create more shelter and privacy around the car. Ways to more comfortably house two or more.

End of the Road

So I went.

At first I stayed attached to the world. I used my mobile internet, I charged my laptop. I wrote emails by a lake and dialed in to conference calls from the woods. I wrote status updates. Later I stopped caring about the connected world and went back to analog materials. Pen and paper. I drew in notebooks and television became a rare treat. I read a book, and got sad when the book was over. I woke up before the dawn and watched the sun traverse the sky. I listened to the changes of the sounds in the forest. I walked in the forest and looked at plants. I made photos of everything. I stayed up late to watch the stars.

I learned that there’s nowhere in America you can go to escape evidence of human works. There is no complete wilderness. Even if you hike deep into the place marked “wilderness” on the map, starting from even the most remote trailhead, you might still get great cell service. You’ll find a rundown old mining building or something from earlier days. In the stillness of a snowy spring morning in the off-season when the nearest person is five miles away, there’ll still be a stump and some trash in the fire pit.

As a result of these trips, I have become keenly aware of the resources that I use on a daily basis; the space and weight that these resources take up. Life has dimensions. Carrying almost everything I needed gave me a better idea of the minimum requirements for a human habitat. In a nomadic style and using only space inside the car, I could only live off-grid for four or five days at a time. After that I could only survive, not thrive. Long-term sustainable habitation requires more than can fit in the car. The space pod alone isn’t enough to begin on a new world.

There’s at least one trip planned for summer 2017, and I’m already using knowledge I gained from my travels to help design new long-term habitats at the Mountain Home sanctuary.

Maybe I’ll see you out there.

2015: catching a sliver of sunset just before heading into the hills on a rainy night in California.