I had finally burnt myself out working freelance gigs and odd jobs. I was sitting in my hometown of Findlay, Ohio, a small town in the Northwestern part of the state. Summer was in full swing and it was becoming oppressive with the humidity and high temps. I was stuck, bored, uninspired and desperately needing a change.
I had read an article a few months earlier on National Geographic called “How to: Turn Your Car Into a Camper.” It really struck a chord with me because it was about a couple who had turned their Honda CR-V into a camper complete with a platform bed, storage and other living necessities in order to drive cross country and live on the road. I myself had a Honda CR-V and in that moment, it really seemed like a sign. I decided then to take a leap of faith and give living a life less ordinary a try. It was time to gear up and get ready for my unconventional journey traveling around the country, writing and photographing along the way.
My first steps were to convert my car into a living space where I could stow important things like camera equipment, food, water, clothing, a surfboard and electronics. I did some reading on how to convert my CR-V into a camper and adapted my plan to be simpler and with less construction. To begin the transformation, I took out the back seats of the car and made some small wooden chests that would fill in the foot gap behind the passenger and driver seat. Then, I fused together two old sleeping cots along with a self-inflating mattress for my sleep setup. Thing were looking good.
Next thing I did was go to Wal-Mart (which will become very important to you while traveling) and purchase two sets of plastic drawers for my clothing and to hold toiletries, survival gear like first-aid kits and the miscellaneous overflow of things you probably won’t end up needing too much on the road. To keep myself fed, I bought a Coleman Camp Bistro 1-Burner Butane Camp stove with some extra butane canisters and packed up a skillet for eggs and meat and a pot to heat up canned goods.
One important thing to know if you’re camping on BLM land (meaning, Bureau of Land Management federal land, which is free to camp on) is that there’s no running water. So, my next necessary purchase was a five-gallon water container with a spigot for washing my dishes, having drinking water and the much maligned sponge bath when a shower is unavailable.
I was on the road for two months and covered roughly 8,000 miles driving across the contiguous U.S. I started in Ohio and drove through upstate New York to Maine, down through New York City to the coasts of New Jersey, Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina, Florida and all the way down to Key West. Things were going great until my air conditioning crapped out when my compressor died. I couldn’t afford the $1,300 fix, so I braved through the southwestern states in paralyzing heat. However, I got to see the beautiful southwest along some old stretches of Route 66, but when I hit Tucson, it was 120-degrees Fahrenheit and I had to stop because I was passing out from the heat.
A few hotels with AC later, I went up the coast of California to Seattle, through the Palouse in Eastern Washington through Big Sky Country in Montana spending a night under the stars that made me feel like I was floating in outer space. I passed through Native American Reservations and met a chief while pumping gas in South Dakota, and found a free campsite at Mount Rushmore next to a nice French couple touring the country.
It was not the destination that made my trip; it was the things that happened in between on my journey that made it all worthwhile. Some people may not find this to be their cup of tea, but for others, you will find a great community of campers that are artists, writers, photographers, surf bums and people down on their luck. I never felt unsafe on the road and was really never bothered. It was truly one of the greatest experiences of my life.
The Perks and Quirks of Living in Your Car
Why did I decide to car dwell? It was a little bit about romanticizing life on the road, but mostly it was the low cost and the freedom. One day you could wake up overlooking the ocean and the next day it could be the desert. Imagine yourself in a free campsite just outside of the Grand Canyon waking up and driving right to the edge as the sun rises and colors the great expanse, or finding yourself in New Orleans surrounded by the sounds of people celebrating and partying while you sit down for a delicious southern style meal at a no-name greasy spoon. It’s a lifestyle where you’re living on no one else’s time but your own.
The idea to live in my car came to me from the previously mentioned NatGeo article as well as from joining the Vandwelling community on Reddit. It’s a community where members chat about how they live in their vehicles and how to stealth camp or boondock in cities. “Boondocking” basically means parking your vehicle stealthily to sleep in your car without anyone knowing it, especially in cities.
Knowing how to camp secretly is important in the vandwelling community because it is illegal to sleep in your car in most cities around the country due to local laws set up to prevent what they see as homelessness, vagrancy and undesirable people loitering around. My biggest reason for stealth camping was because it meant being able to stay on the road for a longer amount of time without having to pay for hotel rooms. Outside of lodging, I also saved money by cooking my own food, and generally found it much better to be mobile at any given moment. Stealth camping also allowed me to be closer to my photo destinations. There’s really nothing quite like waking up and catching the sunrise as it bathes the tree tops and mountain ridges of the national parks in golden light.
The first night sleeping in your car can be a scary experience – it’s foreign and you don’t know exactly what to expect. My own first night was spent in a Wal-Mart parking lot in Ithaca, New York. The vandwelling community clued me in to Wal-Marts being a great place to camp overnight because the founder of Wal-Mart, Sam Walton, was a camper himself and used to welcome overnight parkers. It’s best to call ahead or go in to speak to the manager to get permission to stay overnight because if you don’t, you could get a knock on your car from the police or security guard asking you to leave.
If you want to rely on technology, freecampsites.net is a great place to find free places to camp overnight. For me, the most quintessential tool I purchased was Allstays.com’s Camp & RV – Tent Camping to RV Parks app. It provided me with maps of areas all over the U.S. and you can find Wal-Mart spots, free campsites and other places to crash on the road. I paid $10 for it, and I definitely got my money’s worth and then some.
To live on the road is to immerse yourself in a life without hiding behind the veil of “I’ll do it later in life” or “I wish I could do that.” Instead, it’s a place to examine life and truly feel free. Freedom is knowing that you don’t have a plan, and you don’t have a destination. It’s a beautiful state of mind to wander that puts you, the photographer, in the driver’s seat. You can go and experience the American landscape like so many have before you, and the best part is, you get to capture it all through your camera lens.
That is not to say that living on the road is easy by any means. Like with a lot of things in life, there are downsides to living in your car. First off, you are subjecting yourself to different weather extremes constantly, especially in the summer. Keeping cool or warm is your biggest obstacle on the road. From shivering nights during the fall in the Grand Canyon to baking in your car in New Orleans in July, you need to be able to deal with uncomfortable situations. Another downside is the lack of comfort you’d find in a hotel or crashing at a buddy’s house. Your used water becomes what is referred to as “gray water,” which means it is unclean waste water from your daily uses and you’re responsible for dumping it in designated areas at camping spots and RV sites. You have no shower, no air conditioning or heating at night, you’re always looking for a place to park, and sometimes you can get hassled by security guards and the police. You need to really stop and consider if this is a lifestyle you could handle before you jump into it.
Staying Healthy and in Shape
While traveling, you can fall into the fast food trap quickly, especially because these restaurants are so unavoidable and easily accessible for travelers. I frequented Starbucks and McDonald’s for their free Wi-Fi so I could upload my images and articles to my blog, buying something simple like coffee or a dollar menu item to be able to get access. I was a victim of the fast food trap at first and ate it for almost all three meals of my day. It’s a choice I don’t recommend, especially if you like to stay fit and aren’t into having a beer gut from hell.
On the road, it’s important to get enough exercise and the right amount of protein and nutrients to have a healthy, balanced diet. Dry foods like trail mix are a great source of protein. You can always find organic foods across the country, and most grocery store chains today have some great healthy organic options. For snacks, granola, Cliff Bars are high in protein and will keep you feeling strong and alert. Buying fresh fruit is easy as well since you don’t have to refrigerate things like apples and bananas. If you have a cooler, you can throw in some eggs and vegetables to make a quick scramble in the morning, which soon became my staple breakfast after escaping the fast food abyss. In total, I lost around 30 pounds while on the road.
For exercise, I hiked as many trails as I could. I’m also an avid surfer and was able to surf up and down both the east and west coasts. But one of the main ways I stayed fit was going to Planet Fitness. I bought a Planet Fitness membership for a $20 passport that gives you access to all of their gyms in the country. Not only can you work out there, but they have showers which are essential in on-the-road hygiene. Planet Fitness doesn’t have a great presence in the west, especially in California, but 24 Hour Fitness is more readily available if you plan on staying on that coast for a while.
A photo trip is something every photographer should experience at least once in their lifetime. You might be someone who doesn’t want to live in your car and there are always hotel rooms, but if you want to do it the rugged way like me, here’s the photo equipment I brought along with me that I would suggest to others as well.
Personally, I’m a Fuji shooter and I only brought a single camera with some essential photo accessories. Probably the most important piece of equipment besides my camera and lenses was a sturdy tripod for longer exposures. The Sachtler 0750 FSB-8T is great because it’s lightweight and has 360 pan range with locking system that can fully support a big DSLR and my small mirrorless camera.
For low-light work and stopped down shooting, I used Fujifilm RR-90 Remote Release so that there was no camera shake to ruin my focus or exposure. As most gear is not made to brave the elements, I had an Op/Tech Rain Sleeve which is cheap and great for rain protection and from blowing sand while shooting in a desert setting. This sleeve became particularly important when I was shooting Watkins Glen State Park because of the waterfalls threatening to soak my camera, and for places like White Sands in New Mexico where I encountered a lightning and sand storm.
Having a camera bag that is lightweight and great for holding your equipment and tripod is paramount. My camera bag of choice is the Lowepro Flipside 400 AW Backpack, which has room for two DSLRs and a tripod holder that secures a tripod or monopod. It’s lightweight, protective and a great fit when you’re climbing a steep hill. Another solid option is the Peak Design Everyday Messenger Bag.
I prefer shooting with a mirrorless camera because it takes up little space in my car and is lightweight. The XE-2 has a nice APS-C sized sensor that works incredibly well at high ISOs for low light situations and renders colors extremely well; while the X-T10 has blazingly fast auto focus, and the X-Pro2 offers a light and durable mirrorless option. To get the most of your camera on the road, I recommend essentials I mentioned above. My personal technique for shooting is scouting a location by hiking and finding a vantage point I like, setting up and composing my frame before capture. I, like many photographers, wait for the decisive moment, which is to say I wait for the perfect fraction of a second to trip my shutter. A good photographer waits and is always patient.
For example, I set up my tripod and shutter release in White Sands National Monument sitting on a sand dune with a great vista. I sat there for about 15 minutes until a lightning and sandstorm suddenly started. I waited for the right moment and was able to capture an ominous sky, a beautiful landscape and sand swirling in the foreground. If you’re a landscape photographer, using an ND Grad Filter helps because it aides in exposing your photographs, giving you a much more natural, balanced shot.
One final bit of advice: I only shoot RAW because I like having a digital negative that gives me as much data as possible, which is much better than a compressed JPEG. Editing in RAW is also much more forgiving when your exposure is a little off. The more image data you have, the better you can control highlights, mid tones and colors while being able to change white balance and most variables. It may take up a huge amount of hard drive space, but trust me, there’s nothing better to work with than a RAW file. If you’re worried about space, you can save your images to an external hard drive and upload them to a cloud storage service.
Just Get On The Road
It takes a little planning to get on the road, but hopefully with my first hand advice you will avoid some of my pitfalls. There is going to be good and bad times that are unavoidable, but making this kind of trip will without a doubt be unforgettable.
I am still trekking on the road, and on my blog you can read more about my travels and see the images I’ve captured on the road thus far. Get out there and go on an adventure!