Make our broke road trip awesome!
October 15, 2012 2:51 PM   Subscribe

How to make the cheapest road trip fun and comfy? Sleeping in the car snowflakes inside!

The Lady and I want to go on a weekend road trip, but our bank account is no longer close to triple digets. We're cheap and fun and easy to please but running into a couple roadblocks.
We're planning on packing the back of my Ford Explorer with all of our pillows and blankets and ground cloths to make a bed area and covering the windows with black poster board and night. We're figuring we can park the car in Walmart parking lots or on a quiet side street overnight.
We're probably just going to drive down to rural north Carolina and maybe down to Savannah or Cherokee. Walk around, take some pictures, see cool things. Suggestions welcome!
We're leaving from eastern Virginia over a weekend sometime in the next couple of months.
Is there anything we're missing? Are we going to get hassled or attacked for sleeping in the car? Is it feasible to just sleep in the back of an SUV for a few nights? Is there anything we can do to make it more fun and comfortable on a budget? Have you experience in car camping?
posted by shesaysgo to Grab Bag (12 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
My inlaws have tested this in a minivan while outlet shopping. They dragged a mattress off a bed (queen I think) and it filled the whole back. One issue I remember was ventaliation. They wanted to crack a window or two, otherwise the glass fogs up and it gets really sticky but with the window open it let in bugs so not ideal. Also doing a middle of the night bathroom run was not great in a parking lot. Privacy was also an issue but you seem to have that covered.

Good luck! Have fun.
posted by saradarlin at 3:05 PM on October 15, 2012

It's completely doable -- my mom used to camp like this quite a bit. I would do it sooner rather than later so you're not sleeping out in the cold. But if you have enough blankets, you'll be fine through the middle of November, I'd say.

I would recommend researching actual campgrounds, though, in the areas you're interested in. I know money is a concern, but depending on where, you'd be looking at $15-30 a night (or thereabouts) and may be able to have access to water/hot showers and even electricity. Some campgrounds (including ones attached to parks) can be pretty close into stuff you want to see. (Some do close for the fall/winter, though, so keep that in mind.)

Not all campgrounds are going to be super-safe, but you'd be less likely to be questioned or hassled than if you were on a residential street or a Walmart parking lot.
posted by darksong at 3:07 PM on October 15, 2012

This might be of interest: Free Sleeping blog

If you want to actually sleep, try to go unnoticed. Park after dark some place sorta secluded. Plan to get up around daylight or not too long after. Try to not draw attention to yourself.

You can get a shower for around $5 at some truck stops. It is way cheaper than a hotel.

Best of luck.
posted by Michele in California at 3:07 PM on October 15, 2012 [1 favorite]

My sweetie and I have done considerable car camping in the back of my Subaru Outback. It does take a few minutes to reconfigure the rig for sleeping at night, and again to stow everything in the morning, but it's totally doable.

We bring one of those 10x10 popup canopies and set it up over the hatchback, which creates a dry area where you can set up a couple chairs in case it's rainy.

Bring a plastic tub with a camp stove and a very basic kitchen so you can make one-pot dinners, or at least coffee and instant oatmeal before you set off for the day.

Try state/county parks -- they cost around $15/night, but you get bathrooms, showers, and a much nicer ambiance than a Walmart parking lot.
posted by ottereroticist at 3:14 PM on October 15, 2012 [4 favorites]

This might not be super-important if you're only going for a weekend, but since they can be useful in everyday life think about getting a power adaptor for your cigarette lighter. Then you can charge your electronics eg, cell phones, ipods, etc. They're pretty cheap, I think I paid 30 or 40$ for mine a few years ago from the local electronics shop, so probably even cheaper somewhere like Walmart.
posted by mannequito at 3:39 PM on October 15, 2012

You can camp in your car in some, but not all, state parks. Check out Hunting Island, gorgeous place. Tent camping in Charleston, where they don't let you camp in your car, but I did, ha. I just said I had a tent. The tent camping area had a big parking lot and I just stayed there.
posted by mareli at 4:26 PM on October 15, 2012

In my car-sleeping experience, in cold conditions the car can conduct heat off your body with surprising efficiency. Any part of the body that's close to the outer shell can get very cold, very fast, and tight conditions can make it difficult to stay clear of the walls. Even with a big dog providing lots of extra BTUs, I've woken with numb toes after allowing my feet to come in contact with the inside of the back gate. I suggest overestimating the quantity of blankets/sleeping bags you bring if you travel in the winter.

Better yet, I'd suggest cheap campgrounds.
posted by itstheclamsname at 5:28 PM on October 15, 2012 [1 favorite]

State parks are nice, but if you really need to go cheap, I've slept in my car in a few a big truck-stop lots. I felt safest near the trucks. Besides being free, you have access to showers and a truck-stop breakfast, which are the 2 best elements in a great start to the day.

I haven't done this in a while, and it might be harder now. But your question sure gets my wanderlust up.
posted by LonnieK at 5:32 PM on October 15, 2012 [1 favorite]

Most truck seats are actually pretty comfy when you kick 'em back. I've also spent at least three weeks (total) kicked back in my Del Sol driver seat, and before that, a month or two in a CRX. Sleeping in the back of an SUV sounds positively luxurious. That said, here's some advice.

-Make sure your head is not lower than your feet. It's grossly disorienting. Head up a little ain't bad. Side to side slope blows.
-Even if you sleep in your clothes, take everything out of your pockets and take your belt off.
-If it's cold, wear a hat. A watch cap can be unfolded to cover your eyes.
-A camo boonie hat (bucket hat) goes a loooong way (esp if you get a haircut before you go) toward the law not giving you a lot of trouble. Especially if you "nossir" and "yessir".
-Take your goddamn socks off. It'll smell for a few minutes, but you'll thank me. Otherwise, even if it's cold, at some point in the night your feet will sweat and your socks will be terrible in the morning.
-Pull in after dark, amscray for sunrise. Set your phone alarm for 45 minutes before sunrise. And don't forget to turn the ringer on.
-Leave one inch of window down for each person in the car. Cracking two windows gets a crossdraft, which will stave off indoor fog.
-Piss before you park.
-If you sleep in the car seats, fold a towel over three times and put it under your lower back.
-An old blanket folded up to make an extra-firm pillow is better than the pillows from home.
-If you forget to piss before you park, or if you have a squirrel bladder, make sure there's a flashlight or headlamp you can find in the dark. Hang it from the hanger hook, or in a door pocket. The headlamps that have a "red" setting are pretty awesome for not completely WAKING THE FUCK UP when you just want to pee and go back to bed.
-Figure out how to turn the dome light on, and how to turn it back to "on when doors are open" before you bed down.
-A mummy bag, worn backwards and left unzipped, covers your face from light and is warmer than a blanket.

Food ideas:
-Oatmeal. Most gas stations won't mind if you take a little of the hot water from the coffee tap and put it into a go cup.
-nutrition bars. Twice a year, for a week at a time, I live on Zone, Clif, and Builder bars, and beer.
-Propel and Crystal Lite packets. Mix two in a one-quart nalgene and fill with water from the gallon jugs you brought along.
-Gorp. Make your own. Not just for hiking.

Other road-trip/camping advice:
-Wool socks.
-Take an extra day or two of any medicine you may take, and make sure there's some at home where someone can find it and overnight it to you, just in case.
-Medicated foot powder is also great for preventing crotch-rot.
-Don't forget duck and electrical tape. I've held lenses, shoes, and watches together for weeks.
-Parachute cord is godlike.
-Wool socks.
-Don't forget your sunglasses. Or your clothes, so when the pants you're wearing get a rip right through your skivvies, you have to borrow your friend's oversized pants and wear nothing but surfer pants and a pair of Tevas for a week. Ask me how I know.
-Put a spare key on a piece of rope around your neck. Do not take it off except to use it.
-Wool socks.

(just for credibility's sake, I've probably spent four months of my life sleeping in cars.)
posted by notsnot at 5:49 PM on October 15, 2012 [15 favorites]

I would suggest a test run first -- somewhere close by, just for the night. Figure out how long it takes to set up camp and get comfortable, and how long it takes you to get ready in the morning. This way you'll know how much driving and touring you are capable of each day without getting grumpy.

I've never done the stealth thing, but it sounds stressful. Anyway, you've got some nice parks down there like Assateaque!

If you're getting up at sunrise and have a nice secluded space in a park you might not need privacy curtains -- but if you do, consider Velcro and Reflectix, especially if you're going to be camping for multiple nights.

A big sleeping bag is comfy, and it helps to separate your sleeping space from the dirt and mess of the outside world.

The two of you should also discuss your urine and fecal elimination expectations before going ANYWHERE.
posted by RobotVoodooPower at 6:39 PM on October 15, 2012

One more thing: blacking out your windows is overkill. I understand you may want to get cuddly; that's what queen-sized blankets are for. But blacking out the windows is going to attract a lot more attention - is it a portable meth lab? What's going on in there? If a cop sees obvious blankets - put the plaid or the old Navajo style one on top - and he's not looking to start shit, you're in the clear. If you're light-sensitive, use your hat or cover your face with your blanket or sleeping bag.
Ok, another thing: I said the thing about the socks. If it's below 40 and you're not a polar bear, put an extra blanket so half of it is *below* your calves (on the "ground") and half is covering your feet. Sort of a lower-leg taco. Still allows air movement, but affords extra insulation.
posted by notsnot at 6:42 PM on October 15, 2012

We've stayed in plenty of Walmart parking lots camped out with the big RV's in our van. Never any problems. I suggest testing out your bed in the back in your driveway for one night, just so you know how comfortable you'll be. Even if it's not great, you're only talking a weekend and a little discomfort makes for more adventure, right? If you stay at the 24 hour stores, you'll have restrooms available all night long.
Agree with keeping at least a couple of windows cracked for ventilation. I made shades for our windows out of mylar bubble insulation and they work well. Just cut them a little oversized and they stay in place pretty well. Scope out a nice park close by for making breakfast PB and banana on good bread is a tasty filling one that requires no cooking, if you like bananas like my son and husband. If you think they are of the devil as do I, PB on good bread is good enough. A hot beverage from a convenience store goes with it well.
posted by jvilter at 10:07 PM on October 15, 2012

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