Yay! Ok, here we go. I actually went on this trip about 3 weeks ago, but I'm only now getting around to writing this. Little thing called moving happened.
If you're on Instagram and have a well-developed sense of wanderlust, you've likely run across hundreds of images of adventurous nomads in their tricked out vans, SUVs, or even buses facing scenic vistas with twinkly lights strung up overhead. Commonly referred to as #vanlife, I was captured hook, line, and sinker by these idyllic photos of camping. No tent, no campground, just you, your vehicle, and the great outdoors.
My first foray into recreating this scene was not too bad, I must say. I think the photo above captures our experience pretty well. Other than the near-freezing temperatures that descended upon us that night, it was a perfect trip. Hiking, an empty campground, lake life, and a healthy dose of coziness. All that was missing was a campfire.
We nabbed a perfect campsite at Maplewood State Park up in Pelican Rapids, MN. It was a weekday in April, so that wasn't difficult to manage. We essentially had the park to ourselves and romped, swam, and hiked all day long. I was really excited to try camping in my car that night, though. Proof of concept!
I have a Toyota Matrix hatchback, and I had actually "camped" in it one other time while near Glacier National Park. Long story short, I ended up wedging my full-sized air mattress inside around 11pm. It barely fit, and really ended up being almost a burrito, but we stayed warm and toasty in there that night. This would be different. Less amateur hour and more premeditated.
I brought my camp pad, sleeping bag, pillow, dog sleeping bag, clothes, and a sense of adventure (of course). What I failed to bring were WARM pants and an extra blanket. It was COLD that night, but other than that and one more detail I'll mention in a minute, it wasn't a bad experience. I slept horribly, but that was completely attributed to cold and not comfort.
The other piece of proof of concept that failed was the length of my hatchback's cargo area. About 6 - 8 inches too short to provide a platform for sleeping. Now, I could lay completely stretched out just fine, but the issue happened to be the gap between the front seat and the folded down back seats. To simplify, there was a hole. My sleeping pad was not rigid, and so my feet fell down into the hole.
I would have preferred having my head near the front seats and my feet at the hatch, but I had to lay the other way or else my entire head and torso would have fallen into the hole. Because of this, I also slept colder because there was less insulation at the back of the cargo area.
Now that I've experimented and found moderate success with this, I'm hooked. I love tent camping, don't get me wrong. I tend to get closer to glamping by bringing an air mattress and getting cozy. But this is different. It's romantic and unique. And certainly far less setup and breakdown time. There are a couple of things I have planned for my second expedition that should make the experience better all around.
Number one is definitely looking up plans (hello Pinterest) and making my own platform for the cargo area of my hatchback. I don't want a permanent fixture, though, but rather what I have in mind is an interlocking system of three panels. They would fit together and make a "surfboard" of sorts on which to lay my camp pad. It would provide more stability, and I'd be able to reorient myself with my feet at the hatch.
Second is to bring my underarmor and warm layers for sleeping. That, or get a better rated sleeping bag. Mine was rated for 40 degrees, which is horrible. The cheap answer is to wear warmer clothes. Of course, I'd love a better sleeping bag instead! Thankfully I had a bed warmer for this trip ;-)
Third was my purchase (finally!) of a backpacking stove. I got an MSR PocketRocket and can now cook meals and eat warm food when camping. I stink when it comes to cooking over an open flame, plus I also stink at making a campfire in the first place, so this is an easy win for me. No more granola bars for dinner!
I'll keep you appraised of my adventures and improvements in car camping. Very excited to get back on the road and find some great campsites!