October 20, 2015

The No-Bullshit, $50 Camper Conversion

Another DBR Series – Dirtbag Mobile Article

I keep reading articles (click-bait?) all over the Internet on “How to turn your vehicle into the ultimate camping machine”, only to end up being told I need a $1,500 solar inverter, a $20,000 trailer, a $1,500 roof rack - cargo box combo and a $300 espresso hand-pump. Seriously?!

This is bullshit.

You can turn almost any vehicle into a DirtbagMobile for almost no money. All you need is a flat surface, a sleeping pad and a sleeping bag, really. But if you do have a couple dollars to spend, you can increase your comfort and your experience significantly, and turn your DirtbagMobile into an almost-permanent home-on-wheels. Here’s what you need:

A good platform
Whether your vehicle already offers a 6-foot+ flat surface or not, what you really want is a slightly-elevated platform to put your mattress on. Why? Because you’ll have storage space underneath that’s out of the way for moving around. Figure out the shape your platform needs to be (most vehicles don’t have a flat space, so you’ll need to build your platform to custom-fit the floor. Invest the time to do this right, you’ll thank me for it), then find some containers (milk crates, plastic bins, whatever) that fit the space and build your platform supports so you can slide out those containers when you need them. Boom! You just doubled your available space!

A jet stove

All those fold-out, double-burner piezoelectric rigs are awesome, but they are usually pretty pricey and bulky. A simple, $20 jet stove will work just fine for all your cooking needs, from your morning coffee to your elaborate Mexican late-night chili :) Bonus! The jet stove gas cans are smaller, lighter and usually last longer than your typical Coleman green propane canisters. Extra bonus! A jet stove set on medium burn will warm up your entire vehicle on a chilly morning in only a couple of minutes.

LED lighting + Charging power
You don’t need an inverter or a solar rig to enjoy Dirtbag camping. All you need, really, is light and some charging power for your small electronics. Your first need will be met by getting any $5 multi-LED “puck” light and velcroing it to your car’s ceiling. These lights require almost no power to run and will last several weeks (if not months) on a single battery pack. Your electronics can be charged when the engine is running (say, like when driving in-between camping spots) by using a simple cigarette-lighter USB power outlet ($5), or you can get fancy and buy yourself a spiffy solar-powered charger for about $75-100.



20$ should buy you a cheap windshield sunshade and enough fabric to cut out to your windows’ shape and make curtains. You can use Velcro or suction cups to hold everything in place. The thicker and snugger the fabric, the stealthier you can be while camping where you shouldn’t :)

Fancy coffee
The Italians knew long before any of us that great coffee is a critical part of every adventure. So to the great benefit of the whole of humanity, they invented the Bialetti espresso maker, which requires nothing but any source of heat to work. Since this immensely clever system uses the pressure built from the heat to push the steamed water through the coffee grinds, there are no pumps, mechanical parts or anything fancy that can break. Oh! And did I mention the machine costs about $20?

Cold stuff
First of all, learn to be a real Dirtbag and drink room-temperature beer ;) OK, OK, some of you drink milk or carry food items that need to stay cold, fair enough. Unless you are going out in the bush for weeks on end without any contact with civilization (in which case you will need that fancy electric rig and a multi-hundred-dollar mini-fridge) you’ll do just fine with any respectable cooler and a bunch of ice, or a couple frozen water bottles. Bonus! Beer cans set in water will always be several degrees cooler than the ambient air. Extra bonus! Creeks and rivers are excellent natural fridges if you have some sort of net and a tether.

Seat organizers + storage
You’re not crafty enough to build custom-fit storage for your vehicle? You can get seat organizers with multiple pockets and even fold-out shelves for about $15 a piece. You just hang them on the back of your front seats and add significant space to pack extra thingies like lighters, cutlery, dishes, a cantine or trail gear. Bonus! Use cargo nets to create storage space under the ceiling, using the grab rails as hookups. Extra bonus! Go around all the storage space your vehicle already has (door pockets, glove compartment, cup holders, console, visors, etc.) and use it to fit a lot of your small items and ensure they are always in reach, and where they should be.

Final shopping list

Assuming you’re starting from absolute scratch:

  • Wood and hardware for your platform: Free – up to $100
  • Jet stove: $20
  • LED Lighting + Power: $5 – up to $100
  • Privacy: $20
  • Fancy coffee: $20
  • Cold stuff: Free – up to $50
  • Storage: Free – up to $50

Total – On the cheap : $65
Total – Get fancy! : $350 - $500

So even if you had nothing to start with, with a little creativity you can build your own DirtbagMobile for about $50 if you use this shortlist, and enjoy several years of adventure before needing to upgrade your gear, if ever. So now, there is really nothing holding you back from going out on an adventure in your spiffy camping machine and enjoy the Dirtbag lifestyle!

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