From the moment I began seriously considering this whole Better World Tour idea I knew that there just wasn’t room enough inside my Saturn ION coupe. I also knew I didn’t really want to have to set up a tent every night.
The real solution seemed to be some kind of RV or motorhome. However, cost to purchase, fuel expenses, and not a chance of being able to easily wander in urban areas without undue hassle all contributed to ruling this out early on. When discussing a gypsy caravan with some friends a couple of years ago who had not long before finished traveling the country in a VW van they described my desired travel accommodations as a traveling condo. And they were about right.
So the question became then what vehicle would work, that cost next to nothing, and offered at least a hint convenience and amenity you might find in an RV?
There were are certain minimum needs that needed to be met in order for this whole plan to work. I needed a comfortable sleeping arrangement that didn’t require a lot of transformer action to use. A tent was out as a regular bedroom. Van conversions are as expensive (or more) than some smaller RV’s. I also require a shower. It doesn’t have to be fancy but I need to be able to wash up. Eating out all the time isn’t an option either. I love to cook and realistically couldn’t afford to eat at restaurants exclusively. And I need to be able to work. This was less of a concern because there are always free wifi hotspots and comfortable places to sit for a few hours at a time. Storage for personal items, food, and my bike were also vital.
A tear drop trailer would have been ideal. Again, absurdly cost prohibitive.
Attempting to use a service like CouchSurfing.org was a possibility but not realistically for freewheeling autonomous gypsy wandering.
I just kept thinking, well I have this car that was already less than perfect due to an accident the year before, and perhaps I could modify it somehow. But I just couldn’t imagine a way to make such a small space work.
Then I stumbled on the Swiss Room Box. A self contained RV camping setup in a transformable box like a swiss army knife containing all the essentials including running hot water, power, bed, etc…
The Swiss Room Box wouldn’t fit in my car but by implementing ideas from the tear drop trailer and the Swiss Room Box maybe there was a solution.
In theory, the caRV was born.
My first thought was to convert the inside of the Saturn into the sleeping quarters similar to the interior of a tear drop trailer. Remove the backseat, create a platform connecting to the now accessible and ample trunk area, and voila bed and storage all in one. This idea would prove sound.
However, the kitchen/bath and functional space at the rear of the tear drop trailer and would normally be inside of your vehicle with the Swiss Room Box would prove a trickier proposition. Having done rough pricing on trailers I ruled this idea out early on. Making a tear drop trailer would cost too much and take more time/skill/resources than I could reasonably muster. And event the cheapest travel/utility trailers were still overpriced for my needs, especially considering I would be building a small kitchen area inside.
Then I thought what about a box on a rack from a hitch on the back of my car? It seemed perfect. Less storage space than I would have preferred, but I could buy an affordable rack, install a hitch, and then just build a relatively simple box onto the rack to act like just the rear end of a tear drop trailer. My problem seemed to be solved.
First things first I started researching the core components of the caRV: instant water heater, water pump, water storage, power, cooking, etc… With a tentative plan for the internal workings I set out to design the actual caRV starting with the hitch box.
I made some sketches, but then realized I was going to need better plans and measurements than my crude sketches were going to offer, so I downloaded Google SketchUp, a basic 3d drawing tool and set to work.
It all seemed to easy. Using Google SketchUp was absurdly simple. While continuing to research the internal components I came up with this preliminary plan. I even found an existing model for my Saturn ION, well not exactly, it was for the sportier Red Line edition, but they were basically identical except for some styling changes.
Eventually I declared it good enough until I could get some of my finances in order. The plan was to install the hitch locally and have my friend Alan in San Francisco help me build the actual box utilizing the wood shop at the children’s theater he worked at.
I was elated. All of a sudden it looked like I had a working plan that could be accomplished with a reasonable budget in time for a big summer trip.
But one day I measured my car. It turns out the Red Line is a LOT different than my car. All the measurements are different. On top of everything the actual model seemed to be not exactly to scale. All of a sudden I had a hitch box that was wildly too big and would probably require it’s own lighting system to avoid hassles with the law.
Along the way I also began having concerns about weight. I saw hitch racks available with a 500lb capacity but most of them seemed to be more like 200lb. Though I had yet to do any serious weight calculations.
After stretching my Saturn ION model to basically match my actual car dimensions, I proceeded to tinker more to try and figure out how to maximize space while not breaking any laws or creating a wildly dangerous situation by blocking my taillights. The solution above seemed reasonable. It cut down on a bit of weight while providing a clear view of the tail lights.
After further consideration I decided that the odd shape of 1.1 didn’t provide enough of an advantage while creating an assortment of disadvantages (less space and potential added complexity to building a secure lid system). I resumed design of a complete hitch box kitchen/bath/power/water concept with a more thought out lid design.
I was quite proud of the concept. A little bit aerodynamic and looked entirely doable. The only part I wasn’t sure of was how to skin the lid as I wasn’t sure if you could bend even a thin wood that much.
But everything was accounted for. Propane, camp stove, counter top work surface, 10-14 gallon water storage, instant water heater (would raise and lower on a track to use and still allow the lid to close), and a modicum of storage for pots, utensils and misc. The only thing not accounted for was a deep cycle battery setup.
But then I finally did some weight calculations. I was wildly over. Just the propane tank, water jugs, and other contents went right over the 200lb mark. I hadn’t actually done any research on the limit of the car itself or the hitches that could be installed on it as to what their weight limit was. I had only considered the rack. It turns out the Saturn has a 100-200lb tongue weight limit depending on the hitch you choose.
When I guesstimated the weight of the rack and box without contents they also exceeded 200lbs. My hitch rack box idea seemed to be a wash with the whole design with contents potentially reaching 500lbs.
Undeterred from my obsessive desire to pull this off the game was on to reduce the size of the hitch box and the amount and type of building materials needed to do it. I researched different woods, metals, plastics, and fiberglass. In the end it seemed possible even within my desired budget.
I kept removing, reducing, and shuffling the design.
It kept getting a little less utile and less attractive with every modification.
Having reduced all it seemed I could I made virtual cuts of wood to minimize costs and attempt to get a fairly precise idea of the final weight.
In the end, no matter what I did it was too heavy. I tried smaller propane and water tanks. I tried using thinner wood and combinations of metal and plastic. Fiberglass with inner forms was going to be way to heavy (but would have looked hell of cool probably).
It seemed hopeless. I could get it right around 200lbs but for the cost and utility of those designs it just didn’t seem worth it. My fantasy of a caRV utilizing my existing Saturn ION wasn’t going to happen.
From hitch box back to a trailer
Cost was one of my primary initial concerns in using a trailer for the caRV. But on more consideration I realized that my travel plans were not just about camping in remote locations. I needed to be able to maneuver and possibly camp in the caRV in a residential neighborhood. Besides being illegally in nearly every community in the United States, having a weirdo sleeping in his car in a residential community can freak people out. While I was endeavoring to create a wandering gypsy lifestyle I didn’t need to advertise the hippier aspects of my intentions just by driving into a town. I had no intention of hiding what I was doing, but I thought maintaining a look of mainstream acceptability couldn’t hurt. Towing around a big old camper trailer around kind of implies instantly that you are living/staying in it in foreign neighborhoods.
But the as the hitch box plan was falling apart it looked like a trailer was going to be the only option. I just needed a tiny trailer to accomplish my goal. But the smallest common trailer size seems to be in the 6×8 foot range and they start new around $1500. That was more than I wished to spend on the entire “hitch box” portion of the caRV. Not to mention that once you are getting a trailer that big I might as well start considering building my own camper trailer.
Prefabbed travel utility trailers of the size I wanted somehow cost more than buying a basic 6×8 trailer.
I did find a couple of really crappy smaller utility trailers that might have worked but price versus who spectacularly crappy they seemed to be just wasn’t working out.
After hundreds of searches and brainstorming I was basically ready to give up the entire caRV concept as it had been conceived over the previous month. Then one day, perhaps out of boredom, perhaps because of OCD, I searched one more time and I found this trailer.
A reasonable 40″ x 50″ it seemed perfect. A $500 price tag was still more than I would have liked but was doable without hindering other parts of the project or cutting into my travel budget. Unlike the other trailers of similar size it looked like a real trailer capable of handling a real load and being built off of easily.
At the time of this writing the caRV is still under development and the interior of the trailer has yet to be built-out. But preliminary traveling with the trailer has proved as a simple storage space to doable. I somehow have lost a lot of pictures showing the building of the trailer itself. But there are lot’s of pictures of the Saturn and trailer being modified and being used as the caRV.
I hope to see on the road.