Being stuck inside during COVID has made me even more obsessed with the idea of being on the road, in the mountains, wherever and just… staying out there. Buying a van is a massive step that I plan to take at some point down the road, but it’s one I’m not ready for at the moment because it’s expensive! Driven into a stir-crazed frenzy a few weeks ago I hatched a little plan I like to call Vanlife Mini, but really it’s probably more like Vanlife Micro or even Vanlife Nano.

My goal: Extending my time spent outside/on the road/in the backcountry while a) not spending a fortune (yet?) b) making use of what I have and c) reducing the stress of planning those trips by being able to sleep in more places. I have a job that requires me to be online and generally available most days, but it’s one I can do from anywhere, especially if I work efficiently in short bursts.

I’ve done something a few times I like to affectionately call “campworking” which in the past has consisted of me car camping during the week, working at my campsite until my laptop died and then making a panicked rush to a local coffee shop and trying to be chill about desperately clamoring for the nearest outlet. It kinda works for a few days but it’s stressful! But the good feeling, of being outdoors and feeling like a whole-ass human person — even while doing my Extremely Online job — is still there.

Van surrounded by trees
Not even close to being my van.

For some reason I’d never really sat down to think about how I could extend that experience and smooth it out.

The big problem: power! And man, just looking into it a little, this technology has come a long way in a short time. I shopped around, mostly sizing up mobile power stations from Anker and Jackery, before landing on the Jackery Explorer 300 Portable Power Station ($270). Now, $270 feels like a lot of a lot of money for a whim but damn, those Instagram shiny vanlife people spend $70,000+ on those big honking sprinter vans with their bespoke cabinetry and ventilation systems and all of that. So, the way I look at it I’m saving $69,730. Wow! Incredible value.

The Jackery 300 has a little sibling that I almost opted for, the Jackery Explorer 160, which could be a good option if you need less capacity. I mostly wanted a reliable power station that could charge my 12″ Macbook plenty of times over while keeping my phone alive to use as a mobile hotspot. I’d estimate that this thing can charge my laptop 5-6 times… and that feels very good! It also has USB-C, which is how the 12″ Macbook charges, and the station itself can quick charge to full in 2.5 hours, somehow.

Sleepin’ in

The other big obstacle to a slightly less obstructed sometimes life on the road? A faster/more self-contained sleeping setup. Don’t get me wrong, I actually love tent camping and feel happiest in my little tent, but pitching it and striking camp is tedious if you’d like to move sites more easily or if you wind up camped somewhere that isn’t a proper campsite.

Me, as a van.

My long long term solution to this is: buy a sweet van! (Unless I get rich quick, that’s probably gonna be something a lot more modest than a tricked out $70k Sprinter.) The medium term solution I’m leaning toward is a rooftop tent that pops up quickly and can store bedding. My short term solution? Making the back of my car cozy and sleepable.

But there’s a catch. I hate sleeping in cars. I’ve slept outside hundreds of nights at this point probably and I only slept in my car exactly one of those nights, during a huge downpour when I didn’t get my tent up in time. It was in my 2010 Kia Soul, bless her heart, and the back of that thing had plenty of room but it just… creeped me out. Granted I didn’t black out my windows or anything, so I just had this eerie sense that anyone could watch me sleeping, alone, and were they to do so they’d absolutely be inspired to murder me.

But! With a proper setup, I think I can make the back-of-my-car thing work. Or at least I’m committed to trying it before I graduate to Phase II, a rooftop tent. I’d also really like to try out some rooftop tents first, since that’s still around $2,000, which is a lot of money. (Or incredible savings of $68,000, depending on how you look at it!)

Subaru Crosstrek parked in front of Mt. Hood
Phase I: Cozify my beautiful beast

The plan: I have a 2019 Subaru Crosstrek and mostly go solo on my adventures. I’m going to try to build a sleeping area behind the passenger seat, so my stuff can be stored in the other half of the car. In my mind this will totally work and be enough space that I might even be able to leave the sleeping nest set up most of the time.

The Crosstrek poses at least one unique problem for this kind of setup: It has a weird hump where the back seats fold down and doesn’t create a level sleeping surface. Subaru why???

A lot of people make this work in their Crosstreks by building an entire sleeping platform out of plywood or whatever and then using storage space under it. For me that’s probably overkill and I’d really like to avoid sleeping any closer to the ceiling since I’m more of a wide open spaces person and less a confined-in-my-car-feeling-great-about-it person.

Just a rectangle with dreams for now

I also looked into this inflatable custom air mattress a company called Luno makes. I’d still love to try it out because it’s a clever solution that extends the space for your head by filling the zone behind the front seats with an air mattress cube, making it level with the surface of the back seats when they’re layed down. Downsides are: It’s $$$ for something I might not like and the air mattresses aren’t insulated, which can make a giant difference for keeping your body nice and toasty.

I’m going to split the difference (it’s not really splitting the difference) by building a small table-like platform that fits behind the passenger seat and can be laid on its side and stored when not in use. My plan is to maybe level out the backseat using foam puzzle pieces that people use as a workout surface (got the idea from this great post on the blog Wandering Always).

Why work out when you can go to sleep in your car. I’ll toss my most luxurious sleeping mat on top of that (a wide, insulated Exped that’s going on 11 years old) with my Enlightened Equipment down quilt/sleeping bag and… maybe that will work. Is it fancy? Yes, thank you for asking. Is it gonna work? Maybe! Stay tuned!!

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