September 18, 2015

DBR Series - Dirtbag Mobile : Dirtbaggify!

Dirtbagging in an upstate NY forest
In a previous article in this series, I explained how the Honda Element makes for one of the best Dirtbag vehicles with its versatility, fuel economy and urban-friendly compact size. Today, we will look at a number of fairly easy modifications and add-ons you can do to an Element to turn it into a pretty awesome little camping machine :)

If you're going to spend significant time in your "E", you're going to want to optimize the available space. For a couple hundred dollars (price ranges include getting used parts off of Craigslist), you can add the following accessories, which will yield sizeable benefits :

A roof rack ($150-$300)

The roof of your "E" comes equipped with 4 built-in slots to bolt a roof rack. Whether you get a genuine Honda brand or a thrid-party such as Thule, you will need the Element-specific towers to connect the rack to your roof. Mounting is very easy.

A rooftop container ($50-$200)
You have options here. If you're looking to save some money, opt for a rooftop cargo basket, which bolts on your rack. Remember to try and get one that has a wind deflector, not so much for fuel economy but for wind noise reduction. If you still have a couple bucks, you can buy a cargo bag to put your gear into and protect it from the... elements? If you have more money, get a rooftop box. Best brands include Thule, Sportrack and Rhyno. They are waterproof, lockable and very easy to work with.

Hitch receiver with
cargo basket attached
A hitch receiver ($100-$200)
Probably the best way to add functionality to your "E", a hitch receiver will allow you to tow a trailer or small camper, but also to attach various accessories to it to create more carrying capacity. Such accessories include a cargo carrier and a bike rack. A little advice : get a 2-inch if possible, it's sturdier. Also, if you live up north, have your receiver (and the rest of your truck, while you're at it) rustproofed. It's a clever investment!

Air deflectors ($150 for a full kit)
Deflectors will help in many ways. The hood part will help rocks and debris fly up and avoid your windshield, as well as prevent paint chipping that leads to rust. Front window deflectors will allow you to crack the windows open even when driving in the rain. Back window deflectors will allow you to pop them open for the night, creating a nice cool breeze when combined with your moonroof. Another tip : Make sure the back window kit is deep enough to allow your windows to pop-out; some cheap versions have an issue with this.)

An LED interior light kit ($20)
Camping out in the "E" means moving around the vehicle, and possibly wanting to use some of the dome lights. However, the regular bulbs can drain the battery and kill it if you're not careful. LED lights consume almost no power and are much brighter than the original bulbs. At about $20 for a kit on eBay, it's a no-brainer!

A windshield sun shade ($2-$10)
Offers privacy and keeps the interior cooler when the early morning sun beats down on your sleepy head! While you're at it, get a second one and cut it to fit your hatch window. I find that the best ones have suction cups to keep them in place. Tip : Flip down your sun visors to hold the windshield sun shade in place.

A solar charger ($50-$200)
These little things are useful! Just let it sit in daylight (it even works through your windshield) for some hours and get some free energy from the sun to power up your electronics. The best models include a USB charging port that you can use while the engine is on for a faster recharge.

A USB-powered fan ($10)
You can find those in dollar stores or in hardware shops. Used in combination with a solar charger, these little fans can provide a much-welcome breeze for those hot evenings when cracking windows open won't be enough to cool you down. They draw very little power, so they will go on for hours on a single charge.

Why is there no mention of the Element tent?
Glad you asked. I purchased one myself, for a sizeable amount of cash (I got it for a good price and still paid $175 - New ones could be as steep as $300) and used it a couple times, only to realize that they are poorly designed. When used in the rain, the water will drip from your roof into the hatch channel and tailgate, accumulating in the bottom part of the tent... creating a nice little lake :( The fabric isn't very good either; if beaten upon by heavy rain, it will "sweat" and make everything wet inside your "E". Finally, the back "window" is a terrible design, as the protective curtain rolls down from the inside instead of the outside, offering very little protection against rain and even wind. Unless you want to use it as a beach shade, it's not worth your money.

This list could go on and on, but I think the items mentioned above are the best accessories you can get for your money, and for your comfort on the road. Feel free to add your own favorites in the comments section!

Next up, how to turn your "E" into a surprisingly comfortable micro-camper :)

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