Travelling in a self-contained vehicle, or “vanlife” as it is better known on social media, existed long before Covid-19, but when the pandemic hit, van living took on a life of its own. The hashtag #vanlife now has over 9.8 million tags on Instagram, and van sales have been at an all-time high.
Rising rental costs and exorbitant real estate prices coupled by a post-pandemic desire to seek a simpler, freer life away from cities has propelled van sales to skyrocket, leaving camper van conversion companies seeing their largest financial gains in years.
Equipped with the latest technologies and designed in ways that rival even the most beautifully decorated homes, you can now expect to pay upwards of $80,000 for a custom Ford Transit, Ram ProMaster or Mercedes-Benz Sprinter.
But before you forgo your dreams of owning the perfect boho van, remember that you might already have the ideal micro-camper sitting in your driveway, waiting for its next big adventure.
I should know. When the pandemic uprooted my life, I turned a little yellow hatchback Suzuki Aerio into a micro-camper and set off on the road for a 16,000-kilometre journey through three seasons in Canada. About 11,000 kilometres of that journey was spent through British Columbia and the Yukon in the summer months, while the final 5,500 kilometres were spent in late winter and early spring through Northern Ontario, the Prairies and the Rocky Mountains.
During this time, I learned some valuable lessons on how to set up your car to be the best adventuremobile. If you find yourself dreaming of vanlife, here are my tried-and-true tips to help you create your ultimate micro-camper this summer.
Invest in a comfortable mattress
If there is one item you should splurge on, make it a mattress! For the first 11,000 kilometres of my journey, I slept on an old yoga mat on top of the folded down seats: not ideal. Eventually, I caved and invested in a four-inch-thick memory foam mattress, which I cut down to size to fit snugly in the back—it was a complete game-changer, and my back has thanked me ever since.
Don’t forget your windows
Cars don’t allow for much air flow at night unless you keep the windows down. With Canada’s wilderness being synonymous with mosquitoes, this can spell disaster without bug screens.
Adding a bug screen to your car camping inventory means you can keep your windows cracked all night without worrying about the hundreds of mosquitoes desperately trying to make their way in. Moreover, if you find yourself sleeping in busier areas such as parking lots, rest stops or well-known campgrounds, black-out shades will give you the added privacy of a van. Both options are easy DIY’s, costing only a few dollars in materials to make.
Think creatively about storage
When it comes to storage, it is hard to rival that of a van, but with a little creativity you would be surprised how much you can actually fit in a car. A cargo net hung above your sleeping area can act as a closet for rolled up pants and sweaters, the space under your front seats is perfect for dirty hiking boots and extra safety gear, and the space around your spare tire can easily be filled with items you do not need to access on a regular basis. Heck, I even created a beer locker out of mine! If you find yourself still needing more space, consider adding a hard top storage box to serve as an “attic” for bigger items (mine contained an inflatable paddleboard), and a bike rack if you want to bring your bike along.
Extend your living space outside
Unlike a van where you can simply close the door when it gets cold or rainy, you are going to have to contend with cooking in all weather conditions, and that means having a comfortable outdoor setup. Appropriate clothing for the weather conditions is a must, and a packable camp chair and side table also helps to create a comfortable outdoor cooking space. For those colder mornings when the temperature dipped well below zero, I regularly threw on a pair of snow pants to stay toasty warm while brewing my morning coffee. I also hacked an awning system using a tarp and my hiking poles to keep me dry in the rain and out of the sun on those hot summer days.
Dispose of waste properly
The best part about vanlife is the ability to discover and sleep in incredibly beautiful, remote wild places on public land. Being able to do this is a privilege, not a right, so it is important to always follow Leave No Trace principles, including your bathroom breaks. Bring yourself a “packing out kit.” If you pack it in, pack it out, and when it comes to going to the bathroom, pick a spot more than 200 steps away from trails and water sources, dig a hole at least six inches deep and bag out any sanitary products (including baby wipes). Cars also don’t carry grey water tanks like vans, so when disposing of dishwater, use biodegradable soap and do not dump in or around stagnant water sources.
Practice maintenance and repair before you leave
Like any vehicle, you should anticipate maintenance or minor repairs while on the road—yes, including the possibility of changing a blown-out tire in the middle of a logging road hours from the nearest cell service. Familiarize yourself with common scenarios including low tire pressure, engine or brake pad overheating, low engine oil, dead car battery or flat tires. Plan a practice run prior to your departure and make sure you have the essentials, including a spare tire and tools, battery cables, a well-stocked first aid kit, engine oil and windshield wiper fluid, a small jerry can for gas and a tire pressure monitor.
Now that you have an idea of the basics, get out there and start crafting your own ultimate micro-camper adventure this summer!
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