Terraform Two, a 2010 Honda Element, was originally created as a stealth micro-camper to scout the USA with, looking for a new place to call home. After over 10,000 miles and 4 months, I found that I loved traveling and loved living out of the car. Throughout the summer, in addition to my own car, I was asked many times by fellow travelers to help them revamp their rides!
Over the 4 months on the road, Terraform Two was refined and remodeled multiple times. By the end of my Western US tour, it had been redesigned to comfortably sleep two people, to be completely off-grid, and camp anywhere. After returning from the trip, I began work on upgrading Terraform Two once again to address some of the discomforts from the first trip (mainly a lack of reliable electricity, warm shower, and large bed). Including a Goal Zero Yeti 400 Power pack and 100 watt flexible solar panel, and upgraded from the ALPS Mountaineering Comfort Series Air Pad 4" memory foam self inflating camping mat to a full sized Lucid 4" memory foam folding mattress.... and very importantly an upgraded solar shower which took the form of a $10 garden sprayer painted black.
In 4 months on the road, I paid $18 for lodging, thanks to the stealth design of the vehicle. Thanks to resources like FreeCampsites.net and CouchSurfers (among others) I was able to stay for free almost everywhere I went.
During my time on the road, I visited 11 national parks, 4 national monuments, 10 states, and traveled over 10,000 miles. The hardest part of the trip was coming back, because after only a few weeks what was my car started really feeling like home. I can’t wait to hit the road again soon in Terraform Two (V2.2).
Terraform Two features:
- Sleeping area for 2 Adults
- Under-Bed & Rooftop storage
- Bike rack
- Private solar shower
- DC Power pack
- 7 gallon water tank
- Luci solar light
- Locking storage box
- Pull out functional kitchen
- Bug screens for all the windows
- Stealth black-out blinds
- Yeti Cooler
When designing any car camper, a lot of research goes into finding the perfect "thing" to fit a specific (and ideally multiple) needs. Terraform Two was an easy build since most of the features and functions were purchased straight from Amazon. Just about any vehicle can be converted to a stealth camper, it's all about finding what works for you. Here's what I found worked well with my 2010 Honda Element build:
Sleeping Platform: This would have been the most complicated part of the build. Luckily I found a previous Honda Element owner who was selling exactly what I needed for $50! But even if I were to build it, the design is relatively simple. A piece of 3/4" plywood was traced and cut to fit the back of the Element, 7 Gas pipe floor flanges were screwed on around the perimeter and 7" pipe nipples were screwed onto those. At the front, the plywood was cut down the center and piano hinges were attached in a way that they could fold down when the seats moved forward. The whole thing was wrapped in speaker felt, and Viola! a platform was made. By getting taller or shorter pipe nipples, you can easily customize the height of the platform to fit your needs. A taller platform means more storage, while a shorter one means more headroom. I found the 7" pipes worked perfect for me because my four storage boxes just fit underneath.
Mattress: On the first four-month trip, I used the ALPS Mountaineering Comfort Series Air Pad 4" memory foam self inflating camping mat. Comfortable, durable, easy to clean, the camping mat served its purpose well for a solo traveler. The only downfall I found was that it made "sleepovers" very difficult and uncomfortable. As an over-optimistic hopeless romantic... I upgraded from the single person mattress to the double-sized Lucid 4" memory foam folding mattress. This I found fits perfectly in the back of a Honda Element once you take one section out, is water and stain resistant, and could comfortably fit a cute gypsy travel partner (now accepting applications).
Under Platform: When I started the trip, my car was FULL of plastic storage bins, 4 "under bed" style plastic boxes and two large bins beside the bed. As I traveled I learned more efficient ways to pack and got rid of everything I wasn't using (about 50% of the car), After freeing up most of the back platform, the car started feeling SO much bigger and a much more comfortable place to live. I now only have the 3 "under bed" boxes inside the car, one for food, one for cooking supplies, and one for camping gear. The rest of my travel supplies go into the life changing roof cargo box.
Thule Roof Cargo Box: It took me three months on the road before I broke down and spent the money on the cargo box... but from the moment I installed it I thought "Why didn't I do this from the start!". The cargo box was life changing. All of my "soft and bulky" stuff got removed from the car and thrown up on the roof. Clothes, blankets, my solar water heater, and so much more were out of sight and out of mind. This completely changed the way I car camped and made it possible for me to make room for a second traveler.
Ceiling Net: Another essential (and cheap) storage component of the Element was the Truck bed storage net. While this doesn't hold a lot of things, it does wonders to keep things organized. Believe it or not... even living in 32 sq ft, I lose my keys, phone, wallet, mind.... about every day. With the cargo net I was able to clip all the small daily use items (Swiss army utensil set, keys, Luci light, mesh toiletry bags, and more) up and out of the way to keep them from getting lost in the nooks and crannies of the car. The net also worked as great storage for my window shades, and to keep a pair of clothes handy just in case someone were to knock on the window in the middle of the night.
Center console: This may or may not be necessary with every vehicle, but with my Element, I felt the center console was very poorly designed. So I ripped it out and built a custom box in its place. It's nothing fancy, just some leftover 3/4 plywood, a hinge, lock, some foam and fabric, but it provides much needed locking storage for my valuables. Moral of the story, don't be afraid to start ripping things out of your car if they don't work for you.
Bike Rack: Another great purchase was my Thule bike rack. I began with a cheap $40 rack, but after a few thousand miles of bumpy roads, it completely fell apart on me. Having a bike in addition to your car is a great extension when traveling. Often when visiting a city, I would park on the outskirts in a neighborhood where I could find free parking for the day, then bike into town for events or just to explore. Biking lets you see a new city in more detail and makes it easy to just lock up and go into that cool little coffee shop or art gallery that you otherwise would have missed.
Stealth was one of THE MOST important aspects of my Honda Element camper design. Unless you plan on paying for campsites and hotels your whole trip, there will be times where you will have to pull off into a neighborhood and sleep. The more stealthy you can be — the better you'll sleep. Trust me.
A few tips on converting an existing vehicle or things to consider when buying a new one:
Blend in: Keep neutral colors and lose the polarizing bumperstickers. "420 friendly" may be something you're proud of but your collection of bumperstickers or flame decals are going to make you stick out in an upper-class neighborhood. The less interesting you look, the better. This applies to your clothing and mannerisms while traveling as well, but that's an article for another time. For more on blending I recommend the Grey Man Principles of Survival article. In short, it's the nail that sticks out that gets hit.
Go Dark: The less it looks like you're living in you're car the better. By the end of my trip, I had my entire back empty except for my sleeping mattress, pillows, and cooler. All of my bedding was BLACK by design so I could just throw my blanket over everything and to anyone looking into my windows, it just looked like an empty car. I didn't have to worry about someone seeing my laptop bag, expensive cooler, or anything else that someone may find it worth it to break into my car for. Black bedding also makes you invisible at night when you're sleeping. The biggest thing that'll give you away when your sleeping in your car is someone seeing a body part. If you're wrapped in black sheets and blankets, you just blend in to the night.
Another big part of stealth is making sure people can't see into your car in the first place. If you feel so inclined to spend the money, tint your windows as dark as legally allowed. But even without tinted windows, it's very easy and inexpensive to make blackout curtains for your vehicle. My Element has seven windows, three on each side and one rear. The rear windows and back hatch windows do not open. For those I got Reflectex, Black thrift store fabric (I used $0.25 XXXL T-shirts), safety pins, and black duct tape. Cut the Reflectex to fit your window. Cut your fabric and wrap around the Reflectex. Safety pin (make sure they are on the inside of the car), and then use black duct tape to secure them in place and fill any gaps. The black fabric makes the windows just look dark tinted rather than aluminum foil and the Reflectex actually helps to insulate and keep your car more comfortable in addition to blocking peering eyes.
For the front windows I used cheap bungee cords attached to the sun visors and passenger grip handles as a curtain rod, then simply safety pinned black thrift store fabric around the bungee for a cheap DIY curtain. With a window shade for the windshield, this makes the car 100% black from almost any angle at night for just a couple bucks. The car is easy to set up in 2-3 minutes without ever having to get out of the car and gives a lot of peace of mind when sleeping in front of a stranger's house.
For more information about stealth camping and living for free on the road, Schedule a consultation!
Being able to cook on the road is another critical aspect of living cheap and staying healthy while traveling. While my kitchen is compact, it's powerful and I frequently cooked for fellow rest-stop visitors, couch surfing hosts, and campsite neighbors. Being able to give someone a good meal who may have been in less than ideal living quarters for weeks or months is a great way to make friends and give back.
The Kitchen Build: My kitchen has changed more than anything else in the Element. It started with a large table between the two doors, but that proved to be too much of a hassle to set up and tear down just to make a cup of coffee. The current version which served me for most of the trip is nothing more than a left over piece of 3/4 plywood and drawer hardware attached to the bottom of the sleeping platform. It pulls out, I can stick my stove and cutting board on it, then hides away and takes up zero space in the car. A hook and plastic grocery bag works as a great trashcan, and a camping shower bag thrown on the roof provides running water.
Stove: For my stove I opted for the two burner camping stove. Since I like to cook for people, I wanted something a little bigger with two burners (I cook eggs and boil water for coffee just about every morning). You could do a backpacking stove if you wanted to save a little space. The 1lb propane tanks are readily available at most Wal-Marts and I also purchased a cheap 15lb to 1lb fill adapter so I can save $3-$5 per bottle and refill my spent tanks off those RV'ers large tanks (who I just cooked dinner for).
Pots/Pans/Utensils: I cook a lot, but run a minimalist kitchen. I use one 12" cast iron skillet for 90% of my cooking. I carry one small sauce pan to boil water, beans, etc., One decent sized cutting board and most importantly a HIGH QUALITY chefs knife! Keep one plate, bowl, Swiss army utensil set, pour over coffee maker, can opener, one coffee cup, one water bottle, and one hydroflask growler. Most of the time I eat out of the pot I cook in to cut down on dishes, so one set of everything can usually suffice for two people, and most campers have their own stuff. For more information about minimalist cooking I recommend The minimalist kitchen article.
Cooler: I traveled for four months using my Yeti 45 Cooler. For the most part, it worked great... It would keep bagged ice frozen for 3-4 days and block ice frozen for nearly a week. The one downside I found to using an ice cooler is... you have to keep getting ice every few days. For Terraform 2.2 I am researching a DC 12v cooler. Thus far though, I haven't found a cooler in my price point that seems worth getting, so for now the Yeti will have to do.
Battery Bank: In my last trip my main source of power was a 5-in-1 Portable Power Pack with Jump Start. For what it was, this bank served me well for the trip. It was cheap, but it provided enough battery to charge my phone, laptop, and hot spot when I needed it. But, it would only run my o2 Fan for about four hours during the night, which was less than ideal. The bank charged off the 12v outlet in the car, which was nice when I was driving consistently, but on days I was parked, it wouldn't get any charge. Because of this, I upgraded to the Goal Zero Yeti 400 Power pack. The Yeti will run my same fan for 20 hours on a full charge, has built in inverters for USB and 110v, is more compact, and best of all... after some creative wiring, it pairs with a 100 watt flexible solar panel mounted to the roof of the car. This way, while I'm driving the Yeti is charging off the car alternator, when I'm stopped it's charging off the sun.
Since my phone keeps me alive while I'm traveling. I also use a solar battery pack (the one I got turned out to be junk, but I do recommend having one) to help top off and for lighting, I use the 2.0 Outdoor Luci Light solar LED light.
The gear here has served me well for over 10,000 miles and four months of travel. New road trips are planned and I am super excited to get out on the road again.
Full disclosure, many of the links in this article are Amazon affiliate links, meaning a small percentage of the purchase price comes back to me. Any of the purchases I've made that I do not feel are up to my standards were not included. Also, what works for me may not work for you and while I've tried to include the "best for your money" items, Amazon is always changing. What I've listed in these links may not be the best or cheapest at the moment. I encourage you to shop around and do your research, but if you do choose to purchase anything you've found in this article, I would appreciate if you do it through the links provided (it doesn't cost you a penny more but it helps me continue to write and give advice).
If there's anything else I can do to help you with your car camper or travels, feel free to reach out to me at Richard@TerraformTH.com.
The Road Trip
Whether you’re looking to travel cheaply, renovate your existing vehicle or want to become a digital nomad, talking with someone who's done it can often be the first step to a new life. My decision to live out of my car and travel into the unknown was much like yours – scared, uncertain, and thinking I was crazy – but I’m here to let you know you CAN do it, it is such a rewarding lifestyle, and I’m here to pass on my knowledge.
Common Car/Van life topics include:
- How to retrofit your current vehicle
- Stealth camping and how to never pay for lodging
- Building amenities into your car (power, shower, kitchen, etc.)
- The wonders of the CouchSurfing community
- Making money while traveling