Saturday, September 17, 2016

How to Convert Your Wagon into a Camper

My attempt at embracing this new thing called Wagonlife.

So there's this cool new craze in the outdoor rec. world called 'Vanlife'. Scan any social media platforms and you'll be thrilled, inspired and seeking out anyway to relate to it. Well, I don't have a van so I'm embracing the Vanlife through my good old, station wagon- a 2005 Saab 9-2x.

Trying to explain to someone the excitement that is living out of your car on an epic road trip adventure is often difficult. You're sleeping in the back of your car? Are you not going to shower? What about all your stuff? All aforementioned questions are routine, followed by responses either praising your efforts or flat-out laughs followed by remarks like "You're crazy." Well call me crazy but I was so stoked to do this with my wagon during an upcoming trip I had planned out west.

After screenshoting #VanLife Instagram picture after Instagram picture from accounts (click the links!) like Vanlifediaries, freshoffthegrid, forrestmankins who outfitted an old GMC Suburban, vanlifers, vanalog, thebuslife (see a common theme?), saving pins on Pinterest and chatting with close friends who have also successfully tried out the vanlife; I had plans in place to transform the back of my Saabaru station wagon into a home on wheels. Last-minute persuasion came from re-watching an episode of Top Gear where Richard Hammond transformed the back of his Subaru Impreza station wagon (same car as my own) into the 'Future of Exploring'. Watch a clip here. The three goals of the project were that it had to be unique, bare-bones cheap and portable enough for me to lug up and down the stairs at my apartment when not in use. Once completed, the space with all seats folded down will be divided up into two halves, a cooking/gear hutch on one side and a sleeping/lounge area behind the shotgun seat.

Project camper wagon is go!

Here's the run-down and how to do it, but first...

Four tips I'd suggest:
  • Find free wood. Recycle and reuse. All the wood was all free and came from dusty corners in my parent's house and my new neighbors who had just finished a basement remodeling. The main backboard is actually a leaf from a once-owned table. Other unwanted scrap lumber came from the shop at the state park I work at. Screws and bolts were found in old toolboxes and from left-over projects.
  • Measure, measure, measure. It's like what the teach you in shop class, if you took that in middle school. Measure twice, cut once. When you think you have some rough idea of what you want the inside of your wagon to be like, draft up a mock set-up, put in the back hatch area and actually lie down inside it. Do you have enough room to sleep sideways? Can you comfortably sit up?  Where will you enter and exit the back half of the car? Will the rear hatch close without being blocked? That last consideration proved an important catch, leading to a bit of angle-cutting to save my Saab's rear window.
  • Make it your own. While yes, absolutely soak-up good ideas seen from others that have triumphed the aforementioned vanlife, but add your own flair and make your set-up, yours. Add a few photos, make a tiny bookshelf for your guides, find cool lights and hang them up, slap stickers onto the back of the set-up's wall so passerby cars gawk in jealousy. Remember this is  your camper wagon- make it unique. Make it something to be proud of. Utilize your good craft work skills.
  • Be adaptable. You'll finish your set-up, put it in your wagon and think it's the best thing ever made by man. Your testosterone will flourish as you lift the hatch and tell onlookers how you built it from scratch. But it won't be perfect. The first night I slept in the back of my Saab wagon, at a rest stop somewhere in Minnesota, I realized two things immediately: I desperately needed a more reliable solution for curtains to block out the blinding street lights above and that my folding prep area shelf needed a better support leg that wouldn't protrude into my inflatable sleeping pad. I jotted these two complaints down in my journal and made easy fixes as soon as I got home.
The Build (which can be applied to pretty much any station wagon):
  1. Fold down all seats, remove the headrests and get a clear measurement of your wagon's dimensions. My 2005 Saab 9-2x had about 4ft 2in, back to front of space to use by about 3 ft wide from window to window. I divided that up, allowing for one side of the back (behind the passenger seat) to be the sleeping area and the opposite side (behind the driver's seat) to be the main gear area where I'd be building the hutch. Final measurements came down to making a removable, wooden hutch with folding shelf that measured 1ft 5in wide by 2ft tall and 3ft 9in long.
  2. The main baseboard would serve as the baseboard stood 2ft tall. The hatch of my wagon would not shut without cutting the upper left corner down. So I made a 45-degree cut that stretched 11in back towards the front of the car. Sand it down and you've got a smooth edge that sits almost flush with the rear hatch once it's closed. No-one wants a smashed window, right?
  3. Next, I found a piece of wood 3ft wide by 1ft 16in long, to install as the folding shelf/prep area. Make sure this piece of wood is sturdy enough that when you put weight on it, it won't buckle or crack. Four, 4in door hinges (with six or eight screws in each side) were drilled onto the back baseboard, and mounted up to the folding shelf. I wanted a clean, wood-on-wood fold when the shelf was down, not only for stability but also for a cleaner look. The outer hinges were spaced about 1ft from either end of the folding shelf, with the two remaining hinges in the middle. I made sure the shelf was installed about- 9in, up from the floor of the car, so I'd have plenty of space, underneath the shelf to keep my food, cooking supplies and camera gear. I found a left-over piece of tile at the thrift shop to attach to the folding shelf for putting my camp stove and hot plates on. Smart, right? Gotta have a touch of class.
  4. Now that you've got a folding shelf, you need to build supports to hold up that shelf once it's down and legs for the back baseboard too. Start with two, 14in long by 6in tall strong legs and mount them to the far, lower ends of the back baseboard. Use two, 3.5-in deck screws for each leg and get the legs as tight as they can to the back baseboard. This will help stabilize your hutch set-up when you drive.
  5. You'll now need some kind of additional support for the heavy, fold-down shelf/prep area. I grabbed two pieces of scrap wood, about 10in long by 2.5-3in tall to screw into the top of the above mentioned support legs. The folding shelf should be touching or very close to touching these supports when down. Yes, you're not sitting on this ledge but a little extra trusty support when cooking or working away on your laptop is helpful.
  6. A travel hutch isn't complete without a few more shelves. Resorting to my pile of remaining scrap wood, I made a 31in long shelf that sits 7in above the folding prep area shelf, extends 7in out from the back baseboard. I supported it with three L corner braces i picked up from my local hardware store. To add a bit of 'home' to the hutch, I also found a cheap, small shelf that you'd attach to the wall of your apartment. That also got installed above the bigger shelf. More storage, eh?
  7. The last, very last step in this installation was to attach some hook to the outer side of your base backboard. This is crucial for that last layer of support so that if you make some crazy turn or embark out on some bumpy two-track, your hutch setup won't fall over. I found a basic cabinet handle, drilled it onto the exterior side of the hutch's base backboard, and attached it with a locking climbing carabiner to the car's rear metal seat bracket (which is exposed when you fold the seats down). 
 Your set-up is finished! This build, the entire thing, cost me probably no more than $25.

Home is Where You Park It:
I bought a set of LED Christmas lights that run off AA batteries and strung it up throughout the roof of the car. They're the very best, cause not only do they light-up the car on a pitch-black night, but they give the back of your station wagon that extra ounce of 'homey' feel. You'll also gain quite a few compliments. During my travels, I put a few books, topo maps, a box of tea and a few of my favorite cooking spices on the upper shelf. My sleeping area consisted of a foam pad, followed by an inflatable sleeping pad, blankets and a sleeping bag to top it off. It was superbly comfortable, even being 6'2, I had plenty of room.  If desired You can go ahead and cut out a screen (from an old window or door) and tape it to surround your open sunroof at night for ventilation.

Home is where you park it. Sure, rental cars can be convenient if you're in a hurry. But they're God-awful expensive at times and being late past the designated return time can rack up foolish fees. Having your own set of wheels, your car, as you travel and explore the world is the best. You know your car, how it handles, how far you can go with it and how to live with it. Sure, someday I dream to own a classic VW bus or old cargo van I can spruce up into a full-blown vanlife rolling trophy, but a station wagon is a smart, incredible alternative. I can get 30mpg traveling highway to highway from national park to national park, across deserts, windy grasslands and snowy mountain passes. I can haul all of my gear with me and crawl in back to sleep at the end of a long day. It's all-wheel-drive and reliable drivetrain means I'll have more time to focus on what hiking trail I want to hit up next rather than is my car going to break down at 175,000 miles.

I love the Saaabaru. It's the perfect adventure mobile. Any Subaru station wagon (station wagon alone) is. Dirtbagging it in a station wagon across the country is the best way to travel. Once the sun goes down, I'll find a truck stop, rest area, free federal land (BLM and National Forest land rules out west) or dark corner in a hotel parking lot to crash underneath the covers and wake up a few hours later to hit the road again. I can turn on the Christmas lights and blog, read a few pages in Backpacker magazine or journal. Once the sun rises, I'll open the hatch, crawl out and stretch. I'll cook up breakfast out the back hatch, lighting my travel stove as it sits on the kitchen hutch's prep area shelf. A cool glass of orange juice or hot cup of green tea to accompany. After days of hiking, backpacking, climbing, skiing whatever have you, I can sit on top of the roof of my car and watch the sunset.

At the end of an epic trip, I'll buy a couple bumper stickers from the places I've been and slap it on the base backboard. That's my mobile scrapbook I can look at and smile, reminiscing over great memories and adventure. Last month, I put almost 4,000 miles on my car in 7 days, traveling around the Badlands and Black Hills area of Wyoming, South Dakota and North Dakota. Five national parks properties! I saw and met so many other people my age that had done the exact same thing with their ride I had done with my Saab. It was awesome and inspiring to see this trend live in-action.

This is only just the start of something great. Stay tuned as I continue on with this project.


Questions on the build or need help? Shoot me a message or leave a comment. Enjoy these pics from the road.