We have a different take: If you're really fortunate, you could find yourself living in a van beside the water. That's what we've been happily doing for a couple weeks in our new-to-us Honda Element with its eCamper conversion. We drove the van down to Florida, where we've been staying in campsites, the best of which have featured front-row water views. Maybe not all "down by the river," but bayside living has its perks, as well.
Last year, we were looking for a replacement tent after deciding ours was a bit too snug. We sold our tent on Craigslist and scoured ads looking for larger tents. The tent we found wasn't much bigger than our old tent—but it did come with a car. We didn't know anything about pop-up camper conversions on Honda Elements, but the idea intrigued us. We drove to look at the van and ended up buying it on the spot. It was an impulse buy we don't regret.
We did a test-run camping in the van before taking off for Florida. We realized we didn't like stacking our duffels and equipment inside the van. Instead, we wanted to keep the back seats clear, as a sort of living room, since the front seats tip back completely to form a pair of loungers for us—a place to stay warm on chilly mornings and read books on rainy afternoons.
To clear out the back seats, we bought a small trailer (3.5'x5') that's light enough not to impact our mileage much. We bolted down a sheet of painted plywood to the bottom (something recommended online by other campers.) We bought a soft-sided waterproof car carrier that fits perfectly inside the trailer, so our backpacks, sleeping gear, camp stove, etc. stay dry and clean. In front of that, there's room for our cooler and a food box that we keep bungeed in place.
Living in a tiny house has been a great primer for van life. We've learned, in both spaces, that everything should have a designated space and everything should be put back in that space if you want to live a calm, peaceful existence. One bin holds everything for cooking—from our tiny-but-powerful Biolite CampStove to pots/pans, spatula, plates and flatware. One duffel holds pillows, another our sleeping bags, etc. We've also found in both spaces that less can be more. Things we're not using on a regular basis (extra pads, extra lanterns, etc) won't make the trip with us next time.
Now for the tent....
A California company, Ursa Minor, specializes in car-top, pop-up tent conversions–originally just for Elements but now also for Jeeps (since the Element was discontinued by Honda). It takes only a couple minutes to pop up the tent and a few minutes to collapse it back. The pop-up can be unzipped completely for open-air sleeping or unzipped to leave mesh screens in place. Access is through the Element's old skylight, which holds two removable panels which we slide out when getting in or out the tent and slide in place when sleeping there. Foam pads line the entire rooftop. At first I thought I was going to need an extra pad, but I've found I don't. I can attest that the tent stays warm on chilly nights just with a sleeping bag and trapped body heat. I can also attest that it stays dry in pouring rain and it lets in enough ventilation for hot nights.
Bill had knee-replacement surgery, so getting up and down from the tent is harder for him than me. He's found that a back seat in lounger-mode is comfortable for sleeping when he doesn't want to climb up and down through the hatch.
We're planning this trip as we go, which can mean scrambling to find a campsite during Florida's peak winter season. We've stayed at two state parks (Fort De Soto and Collier Seminole) and one county park (Turtle Beach) so far. At two of the parks, we had to change campsites partway through our stay. That's a cinch with the pop-up tent, but I wouldn't want to be doing that with our old ground tent.
We're flexible when it comes to where we stay—not every spot needs to be a campsite near a beach. Next up, we think we'll try a HipCamp site; we're looking at a farm (with goats and bunnies!) that offers camping sites. We also look at AirBnB for interesting places to stay, but we've found the listings there too pricey on this trip. (One tacked on a $250 cleaning fee to the already-high total!) Today, as I write this, we're actually in a hotel (a great deal from Priceline) while a series of thunderstorms passes through the area.
Then we'll be back to the van, because I miss it already. I like how cozy it is. I like how close to nature we are when we're backed up to water or a forest or a meadow. I like the campfires and the cooking. The cooler beside me filled with ice-cold beer and the beach in my backyard. Don't get me wrong; we love our little house on the mountain. But on this trip, we've seen new vistas. We've walked more (who can resist a shell-seeking beach wander?) and we've ridden our bikes a lot more.
So, here's to van life. Some people live out of their vans for years; we'll only be on the road for about a month. Where will we be tomorrow night? Time to figure that out.