What do you do when you want the freedom to camp whenever you want, but also desire more security than a tent can provide? For middle-school math teacher Emily Hart, the solution was simple: camp in your car. A little over a year ago, Hart had her 2011 Nissan Rogue converted into a camper SUV, complete with a platform that doubles as a bed and storage space, fairy lights, sun shades, and curtains.
She’s on a mission to see all 59 U.S. National Parks and, as of Sept. 1, has already checked 41 of them off her list.
Outdoorsy chatted with this resourceful adventurer on how to find the best places to sleep in your car, what little-known facts would surprise you, and what advice she would give to aspiring car travelers.
Tell us how you got started sleeping in your car?
“I live in Colorado, so I’m really close to a lot of places. I was already doing a lot of road trips, [but] I didn’t really feel comfortable camping on my own. I mean, I do sometimes, but I wanted something a little bit more secure …. And obviously, I’ve watched all the vanlife kind of thing, but I didn’t have [a van], so I thought, ‘I have an SUV. I could just sleep in it as it is, but I could also make it a little bit more comfortable.’”
“So, I looked on Pinterest and saw this was something that other people did. They just had platforms in their car for that sort of thing.”
Fortunately for Hart, her brother-in-law owns a construction company and builds out vans on the side.
“I talked to him about it and he was like, ‘I’ll do this for you. It’ll be really easy.’ So I went home to Illinois and he just built it in a couple days. And then I went on a long road trip, and it’s really cozy and the perfect thing. It feels very secure.”
What are your favorite features of the conversion?
“There’s a plywood platform, and then it has storage underneath and then a drawer on the back, so I can fold out the drawer and then it comes apart into two pieces because my spare tire is underneath. So it’s pretty easy to disassemble and assemble if you need to. It’s really only two pieces that are hinged together. And then I have the mattress topper—a couple of those on it—and it’s pretty comfortable.”
Did you do all the decoration yourself?
“My mom helped me. We put up the little fairy lights, and we have curtains, and I have sunshades for privacy that we just cut to fit each one of the windows. And then they just velcro up on the side, and setting it up takes, like, 5 minutes. It’s so easy.”
Do you live out of your car full time?
“No. Just in the summer, mostly, because I’m a teacher so I have all of that time. So I spend several weeks at a time just traveling around, and then during the year—well during the week anyways—I’m in Colorado.”
Tell us about your day job.
“I’m a middle school math teacher, so I teach 6th, 7th, and 8th grade math outside of Denver.”
You’re also a painter, correct?
“I just kind of started doing it a few years ago. I just wanted to try it. I’d always drawn and then started painting and [now] do commissions here and there. I try to do it when I travel, but it’s oil [painting], so it’s kind of hard in the car.”
“Since I travel alone, it’s a good thing to do—so you feel like you’re kind of occupied. If I’m somewhere by myself, I can just be drawing or painting.”
As a solo traveler, how has your travel style changed now that you sleep in the car?
“It’s less planned. It’s just easier. I don’t have to wait. I think that’s probably why I’m alone most of the time. I think there are people who would probably like to go on trips with me, but they need so much advance notice and want to do different things than I do, whereas I just kind of have an idea of where I want to go and a timeframe and can just do that.”
“It’s easier to [travel] when you’re by yourself, and you don’t have to worry about someone else’s idea of what they want the trip to be. And also, there’s not really room for another person in here.”
Any tips for finding good spots to camp in your car?
“In the beginning, just research the different forest service or BLM lands and what the different rules are for that area … there are definitely a lot of places you can just go.”
“Sometimes, if I’m going somewhere that I know will be really crowded, like when I was in Tahoe, I made advance [online] reservations at a campsite because those places can get so crowded everywhere, and you don’t really want to get to a position where you don’t know where to go and you’ve never been there before.”
What has been one challenging aspect of camping in your car?
“It was just the fear of the unknown, definitely at the beginning, but now that I’ve done it so much, it feels better.”
What has been one of your most encouraging moments?
“Through Instagram, I get a lot of really nice messages from other women who want to do things on their own or go camping or go on road trips, and they say they wanted to do it, but they didn’t know that other people were—that it was possible. And then they see that I’m doing this.”
What do you say to those women?
“The barrier to entry is not as high as you might think. You can just go to a campground in a national park with a ton of people around for one night and see how it feels. You don’t have to go on a long backpacking trip. You don’t have to do all these more extreme things.”
“And then, as you start doing that, you understand that you can, and then you will go to more remote places, or maybe not—whatever feels comfortable. But I think too many times people are like, ‘Oh, I really want to hike the Pacific Crest Trail, but I’ve never done anything alone before.’ And it’s like, well, that’s a great big goal, but start just by doing one thing and realize that you can, and build up to the bigger thing.”
You’re pretty open about your car life on Instagram. What’s one thing people don’t know about you?
“I really love quiet moments and reading books. I started hiking and traveling more as a way to find quiet reading spaces than to have big, adrenaline-filled adventures.”
Rapid Fire Q&A With Emily Hart
What’s the best park for sleeping in your car with a view?
“The Grand Tetons in Wyoming.”
Coffee or tea?
“Coffee! I get more into tea in the winter, but coffee will always be my go to.”
Cats or dogs?
“I have two cats! They’re easier to take care of, and you can’t take dogs to most national parks.”
Beach or mountains?
“So hard! Ideally both. But mountains, of course.”
Backpack or rolling suitcase?
Favorite road trip snacks?
“Fruit, chocolate, French bread, and Clif bars”
Go-to song when you hit the road?
“I have different music that reminds me of different places. I always listen to alt-J when I’m in New Mexico and Amanda Palmer when I’m in Wyoming. No real rhyme or reason, but it’s nice to have the other layer of connection and memory of a place.”
If you had a plane ticket to anywhere, where would you go?
“American Samoa! I hear it’s the hardest national park to get to.”
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