Have Car, Will Travel

by Anne Clay Cernyar


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On the Road Again

It was 2 a.m. on a foggy midsummer's night. My husband and I were somewhere in Nova Scotia, thousands of miles from home, and the campground was closed. With little hope of finding open lodging, we stared wearily at the endless strip of pavement racing ahead of the vehicle. We had to stop - but where?

Spotting an isolated baseball field, we turned into the rutted drive without hesitation. Hopping out into the chilly night, we hastily made up our cozy bed in the back of our RV…er, Toyota Corolla.

With speed made possible by weeks of practice, we emptied the vehicle. Piling luggage on the trunk and ground, we pulled the front seats forward and rolled out our camping mats in the back. Minutes later, we snuggled cozily into our home on the road, and happily reflected on the events of the past few months.

Less than a year into our marriage, my husband concluded that his penny-pinching ways had earned us enough spare cash to take a trip across the continent - if we went by car. Crazy? Maybe. The adventure of our lives? No doubt about it.

So we did it. We converted our four-door, '84 Corolla into an RV for two, packed our gear, and set out to explore the world. Although we planned to camp mostly with our tent, we soon discovered that sleeping in the car had benefits we hadn't considered - it conserved our body heat on freezing nights, protected us from rain and mosquitoes, kept our blankets free of dew and spiders, and even seemed safer (in some locations) than pitching a soft-sided tent. We ended up using the car on about 90 percent of our nights on the road.

You may not be planning to conquer the continent next summer; perhaps you'll just take a long weekend to explore the state. But the lessons we learned by car-camping across the U.S. and Canada can help any intrepid traveler.

Lesson One:
Make Sure Your Car Will Really Work as an RV

If you're lucky, your back seats will already fold down, leaving you a nice space for sleeping mats. A pickup bed with a camper shell would be awesome. An SUV? Out of this world. Pack up sleeping bags and inflatable mats, and you're on your way.

We didn't possess any such vehicles. Our "RV" required removing the back seat from the car and building a wooden shelf in its place. During the day, the shelf held our accumulation of luggage, souvenirs, and tools. At night, it became a bunk.

Sleep in it for a practice night before leaving home. Can you really survive being that close to your partner? Do you need better mattresses? Special shelves or bags for storing glasses, flashlight, etc. at night? Will the St. Bernard really sleep comfortably on the driver's seat? It is better to experiment before hitting the road.

Lesson 2:
Plan Your Packing

Unless you have a great cartop carrier, you will need to unload much of your gear before you can sleep in your car. Travel light!

Plan where you'll put everything, and what you need for overnight storage containers. After weeks of practice, we could unpack our car and make our beds in the dark - a process honed to an intense twelve minutes. We learned what to store outside and inside. We carried many items in waterproof containers (heavy plastic tubs) and roped them to prevent theft. More valuable items were stowed inside the car.

When you re-pack, remember where things are! We habitually tucked our shoes under the car at night. A great idea - except for the morning we drove off without them.

Lesson 3:
Buy Towing Insurance

Be prepared with tools for changing a tire, etc. on the road. Have enough money for emergencies. Towing insurance (available through a travel club or auto policy) came in handy three times when our old "RV" decided she had traveled enough. Twice, the mechanics got her back on the road. The third time - well, I won't go into that.

Lesson 4:
Check Out Camping Spots

Regardless of how secure and private your car seems, there are places you shouldn't camp. These are usually self-evident - for example, rest stops with signs proclaiming "No sleeping in cars," private driveways, and the like.

Campgrounds are great, although they usually cost money. An advantage to car-camping is that you can go in colder weather when some places are no longer charging peak season rates. Some are even free!

Lots of potential (and free) camping spots are just waiting for discovery. Watch for heavily used truck stops with semis full of sleeping drivers, or pull-outs where big RVs park, or empty backroads in national forests.

Use common sense. Lock your car doors. Have an escape plan in case someone tries to break in and you need to leave without climbing out of the vehicle.

Arrive at your site before dark. That rarely happened with us, and we woke up in some surprising places. I'll never forget the night we parked beside the road near a lake, and woke up in the morning to discover that we actually were parked on a narrow peninsula in the middle of the lake.

Coming next month: "Spaghetti or Escargot? Food for the Road"


Anne Clay Cernyar writes from Alabama, where she and her husband Jeff are enthusiastically saving money for future adventures. Send questions or comments to Anne at UpWrite@juno.com.

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