We’re going back in time to share our 2017 car camping adventure through the Southwest! While our trip ended up being shorter than planned, we had some amazing adventures, including several new national parks and getting to be on one of our favorite TV shows! Thanks for reading along!
Building The Hitchenette and outfitting Franklin the Tahoe with a new camping rig took several weeks longer than planned. So instead of hitting the road shortly after New Year’s, it was January 19 before we had Franklin packed and pointed south.
No two people have ever felt so ready to hit the road!
Our trip south would be a slow one. We had plans to zig-zag our way down the East Coast, seeing friends and family along the way. (In fact, we didn’t realize it at the time, but it would be a full month before we even got to try out our new camping gear!)
Our first stop was New Jersey. What was planned as a quick weekend with friends turned into almost a two week stay. Our friends were renovating a condo they planned to turn into a rental property, and we were only too happy to lend a hand.
Next stop, northern Virginia, where we caught up with college friends in our old hometown of Leesburg, and enjoyed late night tacos and wine with more friends outside Washington, DC.
From there it was another quick drive to Jacksonville, North Carolina, where Ryan’s brother is stationed at Camp Lejeune. We had a great time checking out the Marine Corps Base, enjoying a few margaritas, and even getting in a not-too-chilly mid-January walk on the beach.
Our next stop was checking off a new national park (our first new park since the previous October!).
Congaree National Park is quiet in winter; we had the Boardwalk Loop Trail almost all to ourselves! The downside was that there were almost no critters to be seen, and we were too early to enjoy a ranger-guided canoe tour of the park. (That’s definitely going on the future to-do list!)
From Congaree we began slowly heading west, this time for more urban adventures. Our next stop was Charlotte, North Carolina for a wonderful night of food and drink with friends.
We had a truly amazing meal at Stoke (still one of our best meals of 2017), followed by rooftop drinks enjoying the Charlotte skyline at Fahrenheit.
We had one more stop to make before Louisiana … because clearly, Alpharetta, Georgia was a great place to cheer on the Patriots during Super Bowl LI!
Fortunately for us, the Patriots won — and we cheered quietly enough that none of the neighbors stopped by to tar-and-feather us.
After 2.5 weeks on the road (without a single night of camping yet!) we reached Louisiana, where we settled in to spend some time with Ryan’s family. We caught up with the grandparents and cousins … spent some time by the pool … and put in some quality work time before our anticipated upcoming Internet dry spells in Texas. We also had a chance to visit the national wildlife refuge outside New Orleans where Ryan’s great-uncle volunteers!
On Monday, February 20 we pointed Franklin due west. It had been a long slow journey south, and while we cherished the wonderful times we’d been able to spend with friends and family, we were truly itching for the simple life: camping, natural vistas, and the open road. Clearly, Texas was the place for us — and we were eager for our upcoming adventures of beach camping on the coast and an extended stay in our (tied-for-first) favorite national park — Big Bend!
New Mexico was pure magic, and we seriously talked about never leaving.
We were supposed to head from New Mexico into Colorado, but at that point (mid-April) the weather was still looking pretty questionable. (Even though we were already almost a month behind schedule.) We decided to cut west and visit Utah before heading up into the Rocky Mountains.
After a quick detour to the Grand Canyon, we headed to Utah and were immediately awed.
Looking back … Utah is where the plan started falling apart.
We crossed the Arizona-Utah border headed towards Zion National Park in the throes of a raging wind and snow storm that blew through quickly, leaving us hopeful that better weather lay ahead. And while we had many gorgeous sunny days, it was still cold — and the wind and snow quickly began to seriously cramp our car camping style. We had planned an ambitious three-week circuit through Utah’s five national parks, but the crowds at Zion and Arches — combined with National Park Week and Jeep Week in Moab — left us tired and burnt out.
By the time we drove into Colorado on April 15, we were seriously ready for a break. We booked a week at the most comfortable AirBnB ever, and proceeded to spend it catching up on work, doing some serious Netflix and chilling, and eating lots of food that was not McDonalds. It was glorious.
Newly invigorated to hit the road (after plenty of soul-searching on whether or not to keep going), we left Cedaredge bound for Rocky Mountain National Park … only to hit another snow storm on the way.
And while RMNP had us seriously charmed … boy, was it cold.
We headed south, fell in love with Great Sand Dunes and Mesa Verde National Parks …
… but somewhere along the way, we decided to cut our trip short.
Let me tell you — that was a seriously hard decision.
Ahead of us was the promise of sunnier weather in California, and checking Alaska off our bucket list.
But when we sat down and honestly discussed it … we just weren’t having fun anymore. We were tired. We were burnt out. We were frustrated with trying to work on the road, and being stuck in the car during bad weather. We just needed a break from the road.
We made a quick detour to Arizona to see friends and family (and had our decision to turn around reinforced by the 100+ degree weather we encountered there) … then pointed Franklin north.
We made several great stops along the way — including the unexpectedly lovely Cuyahoga Valley National Park, and celebrating our anniversary in Chicago — and arrived back in New Hampshire on June 8. Since then we’ve been spending a glorious, sunny New England summer back in the camper parked at Rebecca’s parents.
So … what does it all mean for Our Streamlined Life? Right now, it’s a little early to tell. Ryan just started a new job he’s very excited about; we’re planning some international travel (Morocco! Thailand!); and we’re starting to talk about putting down long-term roots in New England. On the blog we’ll be reverse-time-traveling to catch up on our adventures over the spring, sharing the tips and tricks we learned on this trip, and chatting about minimalism and living that travel life. (We even have a giveaway coming up soon. Hint: We still love these guys.)
So with the new camping platform put together, and all our updated storage worked out to keep us organized as we go full-time in the truck this year, we were eager to hit the road. But despite all the improvements, we weren’t quite done. One of the reasons we were so eager to build a new platform and get more organized was that we got tired of constantly moving our cooler and bins of food gear in and out of the truck — then stashing it in the front seat every night to keep it away from animals. Laziness is the mother of invention!
Having spent almost six months mulling it over and scouring endless vanlife and truck camping Instagram, Facebook, and Pinterest accounts, I had an idea that was almost original. I decided to take a trailer hitch storage rack and build and mount a small kitchen/storage box to it. Basically, a giant chuck box that we could plug right in to the back of the truck.
I drew up my plans, designing the interior around the dimensions of the Aquatainer and new RTIC 45 cooler I had ordered. I found a well-reviewed 500-lb capacity hitch rack over at NorthernTool.com for a great price, and ordered that as my base.
My cooler came in right behind it, and I quickly got a feeling for just how tight the space in this new build would be.
As I designed the build, Rebecca and I developed a list of must-haves to be incorporated:
It needed drawers to replace the food storage drawer we’d lost when we switched to the new camping platform.
It needed room to store our overly large but oh-so-comfortable camp chairs that we love.
It needed to store my ax, hatchet, and saw in a place that was easy to get to.
It needed room to store the odds and ends of camping and cooking gear in a way that was easily accessible.
It needed to be weather resistant.
It needed to lock for security.
After a few drafts and some tweaking, we were ready to get building! The camper was parked at my in-laws over the holidays as we were working on this, and my father-in-law was gracious enough to let me use his basement workshop and all his tools — it was realllllly cold out, and being able to work inside was a huge godsend. I also couldn’t have done it without the help of my awesome brother-in-law Jay, who dedicated countless hours to helping me design and assemble this monster. Thanks Jay!
With our designs finished, we were ready to get to work! We went with 3/4 inch ply, cutting carefully and pre-drilling every screw hole, along with using wood glue to keep it all snug.
I found some 100-lb capacity ball bearing drawer slides from Home Depot, and was able to mount my new cooler snugly up under the counter top.
After that, we moved on to the drawer and Aquatainer storage area. Due to the size of the camp chairs I mentioned previously, we weren’t able to make the drawers as deep as I’d hoped — we simply couldn’t have gotten the chairs out from underneath the cooler if the drawers were full depth. However, we were still able to get 12 inches of depth, which has worked out to be plenty.
With the slides and drawers assembled, it was time for a dry fit, to see how everything was going to fit before we glued it all together. It all worked great, so we loosened it all up, glued it to death, and cinched it all down tight!
Once we got the lid built and mounted, it was obviously time for a progress photo to send around.
As we were getting close to painting, and had gotten a few days of warmer weather, we moved our workstation upstairs to the garage. Once we were up there, I also built an overlapping lip system to help both hold everything closed and solid, and also to help keep water out.
It sure looked nice in the sunshine!
We started applying layers of polyurethane to the interior, and while those were drying, I went ahead and build actual drawers, and lined them with some drawer liner Rebecca had left over in the camper from our camper reno.
Then it was time to get outside and paint! We decided to go with multiple coats of a matte black Rustoleum paint, and got a locking hasp to match.
On the inside, I installed the drawers, and started mounting some organizational items: rubber-coated eye hooks to mount pots and pans and a small dustpan, Rebecca’s spice rack, and our camping first aid kit. I also installed some small bracing pieces on the left side of the counter top keep the stove and propane canisters from sliding around.
After a few coats of poly over top of the paint to seal it, we dropped the whole thing into the hitch rack, bolted it down tight, and were ready to plug it into the hitch! Around this time, I decided to call my monstrosity The Hitchen — hitch kitchen, get it? However, my brother-in-law scoffed and quickly corrected me. “It’s too small to be a Hitchen,” he said — “It’s a Hitchenette!” And since he was so obviously correct, I can now proudly present to you: The Hitchenette.
(Full disclosure: My after pictures were taken in Louisiana after I got a car wash, because everything was IMMEDIATELY covered in salt and snow when we were in New Hampshire, and I wanted better looking after pictures.)
On the right side, you can see the handles we installed, along with my Sam Adams bottle opener — gotta keep that handy!
We put some adhesive-backed reflectors around the frame for visibility. So far, no one’s hit us, so so far so good! And now for the opened up and loaded up view…
We love it! Everything is easy to get to, it takes seconds to open everything up and break everything down, we can get to the cooler without a problem, and it stays locked and secure when we’re not using it.
Rebecca did a fantastic job packing the drawers, and they hold a tremendous amount of food and supplies. We keep them from sliding with short bungee cords attached to a few eye hooks.
We locked the cooler down tight to the shelf with some 2-inch velcro straps I found at Home Depot, attached to some simple drawer pulls mounted to the top of the drawer.
And there you have it: The Hitchenette in all it’s newly-built glory! We’ve loved having it — it keeps our sleeping area free of food and camping supplies, it gives Rebecca a clean and organized place to do her food prep and cooking, and just generally saves us from endlessly loading and reloading the truck. Between the camping platform, the car top carrier, and the Hitchenette, we feel like we have everything we need to be successful full-timers this year. We’ll see how it goes — stay tuned, and let us know what you think in the comments!
In my last post, I showed you guys the new camping/storage platform that I build for our travels this year. As we were driving around last year, we realized we still had a lot of loose items rolling around that drove us nuts, and a lot of unnecessary clutter we didn’t want to spend another year dealing with. So today, I’m going to show you a few of the things I built, bought, or was given (thanks, Moms!) that we are using to stay neat, orderly, functional, and organized. Hopefully, you’ll find a few things you like that will work for you as well!
For both of our previous 6-week road trips in the Tahoe, we both kept saying, “Man, I wish we had some small shelves back here!” We had books, Kindles, pens, glasses cases, chapstick, and other stuff that we wanted near us at night … but had nowhere to put. So item numero uno on the organization list was to figure out a way to mount some shelves in the rear of the truck.
The design I came up with was pretty straightforward, and I was able to reuse some of the wood from my previous camping platform that we pulled apart for the new one. I used some cardboard, scissors, a ruler, and a sharpie to make some mockups for each side — obviously the windows couldn’t be the same size. I decided to keep the cup holders accessible, and went from there. After a few dry fits, I was ready to cut out the real thing!
After that, it was simply a matter of figuring out how to cut out the supports so they matched the curves of the plastic paneling under the window. Again, a few cardboard mockups made life easy.
After that was the fun part — making a front panel that was both attractive and strong enough to take some abuse, and then drilling out individual holders for stuff that likes to roll. On my side, I was even able to velcro mount the battery box/on and 0ff switch to our awesome LED lights that we put in the back of the truck! I attached the whole shelf to the truck by using adhesive-backed velcro along the bottom of the curved supports.
So far, they’ve worked awesome! They’re fantastic to have, and we use them constantly.
2) Under-platform storage
After the shelves, the thing we wanted the most on our previous road trips was additional easily-accessible storage space — especially for clothes and shoes. I’d created two hinged access panels into the storage area under the platform, but we wanted to further protect and organize our clothes. We went to Walmart, and found this underbed shoe organizer that worked PERFECTLY. It fit into the storage area like a glove, leaves room for the couch back supports, and keeps our clothes clean, covered, and organized.
In the front, we keep most of our shoes, along with extra toiletries and the like. We were able to use a bunch of basic shoe boxes Rebecca already had — Sterilite 12-quart storage bins. They nestle right into that 5.5” of storage, and keep everything handy and organized!
3) Clothes hooks
Another constant need we found ourselves running into was for more hanging space. We had raincoats, jackets, hats, and towels, and almost no place to let them dry, or keep them handy. I created a $5 solution using leftover wood and stain, inexpensive rubber-coated hooks, a clothes hanger, and some Gorilla Super Glue. I pre-drilled the top of the wood, put the glue in, inserted the sections of wire, then bent them down behind the wood so they can hang on the plastic trim. After that, I just pre-drilled the holes for the hooks, and then inserted them.
It’s really awesome to have a handy but out-of-the-way space to keep our jackets in case we run into rain or cool weather, and it’s always nice to have a hat nearby when camping.
They don’t get in the way of the platform at all, so we don’t bump into them when sleeping. And for a $5 solution, they don’t look half bad!
4) Cockpit upgrades and organization
Probably my biggest running complaint with our previous road trips was how cluttered and unusable the dashboard/console area was. We had phones, iPads, maps, books, water bottles, coffee cups, knives, keys, and a million other things jammed into a very small and badly laid out area, and I was determined to fix that.
The first thing I wanted to do was get the phones off of the console, and organize the charging cords for our devices. For this, we turned to the Energy Pal Smartphone holder and charging station. They’re very affordable on Amazon, and since we each have a cigarette lighter on our side of the console, they are the perfect solution to get our phones off of the console and where we could charge and use them easily. They rotate in just about every direction, and adjust to fit different sized phones. We love them! And they each have an extra USB port, so you can charge 2 devices at a time with them, which is super handy for our hotspot, Kindles, and other devices.
Another incredibly useful tool in our attempt to organize is the Grid-It organizer. I found this when poking around online for good storage solutions, and I absolutely love this thing. It’s basically just interwoven grippy elastic straps mounted to a backboard, but it helps me organize a lot of the loose gear that was rattling around in the console, and makes things much easier to find. The entire console is now cleaner and more organized, and because of that, much more useful. I simply screwed mine directly into the hinged top of the console, and it’s been fantastic — I highly recommend them, and they come in a ton of different sizes!
5) Flashlight mount
My flashlight is the redheaded stepchild of our camping rig. It didn’t fit in my door storage pocket, it kept rolling out from under my seat, and just generally had no where to live. Finally, I found these Maglite mounting clips on Amazon, and now, my flashlight has a home. I used heavy duty 3M tape on the back of the clips, mounted the screws directly to the paneling, and it’s been hanging on just fine! I put it next to the drivers seat, so I can reach it easily from both the front and back of the truck.
This didn’t include any cool toys or mounts, but you can see below how I organize my door storage– a knife, some snacks (love those blueberry Clif bars!) and my Gerber multitool. It’s not in there in the picture, but I also keep a Maglite mini on the left so it’s nice and handy — I don’t need the million-megawatt flashlight for every little thing.
Other than that, the only other thing I did was secure my Stanley FatMax car jumper and compressor to the front of the sleeping platform with a short bungee and some eye hooks. I had been planning on storing it in the Hitchenette (stay tuned to see that later this week!), but ended up running out of space. But it stays just fine, and is both out of the way and easily accessible.
And that’s how we stay organized on the road! We hope you find it helpful, and maybe a little bit inspirational! Now it’s your turn to tell us — how do you stay organized on the road? Please let us know in the comments!
During our time in New Hampshire over Christmas, Rebecca and I went back and forth quite a few times about how we wanted to travel this year. We had originally been planning on taking the camper, but during our Appalachian Adventure we discovered that regular camper towing was just not always super fun, and decided to give extended #vanlife a shot.
I began researching a number of different vehicles, everything from Chevy Astros (gotta love that AWD!) to 12 and 15 passenger vans (after truck camping, they seemed so spacious!). We even looked at some really cool little Toyota RVs that were only about 20 feet long. However, everything in each category was either A) too expensive, B) rusted out (thanks, New England winters!), or C) more of a project than we were looking to take on.
So eventually, we decided to use our trusty Tahoe for 2017 — and I decided to reconfigure our entire camping system. In January ’16, I had built our first camping platform in the back of the truck, and it worked GREAT. We camped all over Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and Oklahoma, and then used it over the summer in Virginia and West Virginia.
It was great — it let us use our rears seats when we needed, it stored a ton of our camping gear, had special areas for our camp chairs and food, and it even boasted a slide-out table! We loved it and used it to death.
However, as we traveled, we realized that as organized as we felt, there were still a number of things that we still didn’t have a dedicated place for — things that were constantly rolling around on the floor and being generally annoying. So when we decided to go for a full 9-10 months camping in the truck in 2017, I realized we’d really want some increased functionality and storage. My motto on this new build quickly became “a place for everything, and everything in its place.”
To accomplish that, I needed to free up every inch of available space. So after I finished giving Franklin the Tahoe his well-deserved makeover of cleaning, repairs, and improvements, I pulled out the middle seats. Already there was a ton more space!
I was trying to be as resourceful and thrifty as possible, so my brother-in-law Jay (who helped me every step of the way as we got the truck ready for 2017) and I pulled apart the first build, and were able to reuse almost all of both the lumber and the hardware.
Just like last year, I drew up pretty extensive plans, and we started to rebuild based on them. Since I didn’t have the living space of a van, I decided to try to make the interior of the truck as multi-functional as possible this time around. For this build, that meant designing a modular couch/bed platform with storage underneath the entire thing. I had grand visions of us parked out in the desert, platform in couch mode, working away on our computers in home-like comfort, sipping lemonade and occasionally looking deep into each other’s eyes with that peaceful, we’ve-finally-arrived way that Hollywood keeps promising me if I follow my heart and just believe ;-D
The platform actually came together pretty quickly, and my experience building the first version really helped as I hinged and mounted and supported and braced everything together.
And pretty soon we were ready for a dry-fit! I basically designed it to be 78 inches long (a 6 inch increase over the last build), divided into 3 26-inch panels. The front one would be removable to make legroom when in couch mode, and the back two I hinged to access the storage beneath them.
I took the indoor/outdoor carpet we’d removed from the top of the previous build, and put it underneath the new build to protect the floor underneath. It also seemed to be an easier way to clean–I can pull out the carpet and shake it out whenever I need to, no vacuum necessary!
The front part of the front panel sits on top of two supports behind the front seats, and the rear of the panel sits on on the front of the platform, held in place by several dowels that it nestles down onto.
When it’s all laid out, it’s very spacious!
I gave it the weight test, and was very happy with the results.
Confident that it fit, we pulled it out, sanded it, and got to painting. I had spent a ton of time applying multiple coats of stain and poly to the first build, but this time, it was 15 degrees out, and I was cold and impatient. So instead of all that loving care, the Mach II got 2 coats of Rustoleum spray paint. It looks just fine, and matches the interior of the truck nearly perfectly.
Couch mode activated!
Another change we had decided to make after using the first build was that we wanted to upgrade from backpacking air mattresses (though we love our Thermarests!) to a sturdy foam mattress. We had been fine during 4-6 week trips with the air mattresses, but since we are going to be travelling consistently over such a long period of time, we wanted to be as comfortable as possible. The foam we’d gotten for the couch in our camper has been very comfortable and worn very well, so we went back to The Foam Factory and got a queen-size cut of 4-inch thick foam.
I measured it all out (protip: it is NOT perfectly square when it arrives), and cut it down to size using an electric bread knife. If you ever do this, make sure you get one as well — I’d tried previously with both a razor blade and a circular saw, and those were both utter hack jobs. This time, however, it came out rather nicely.
We really wanted the truck to be adventurous looking, and bright and vibrant, and we spent a lot of time both in Joann Fabrics and Hobby Lobby trying to find the perfect fabric for our cushions. Finally we found a crazy, loud, Aztec-style fabric that we both loved, and Rebecca put her secret seamstress skills to work upholstering our new bed cushions!
The other thing we wanted to do differently this time was to cut more Reflectix for the front windshield and front side windows. On the last few trips, we’d hung curtains right behind the front seats, and while we still have that option, we wanted to have easier access to the front seat at night, and also for the whole space to feel roomier. By getting rid of the curtains, and covering the window, it feels significantly more open when we’re inside at night.
We also wanted the Reflectix to look a little nicer from the inside — if you woke up in the night in the truck and turned on a flashlight, the inside lit up like noonday. So, we bought some inexpensive felt, and I used a heavy duty 3M adhesive spray to attach the felt to the Reflectix. So far, it’s held great, and the inside of the truck is much darker and cozier when we set up at night!
Finally, with all those projects done (and a few more I’ll be writing about soon), we were able to assemble everything! And let me tell you — we LOVE the final product.
As you can see, our cushions came out great, and are super fun to look at! They also happen to be a perfect mixture of firm and comfortable, so we’re very happy with them. I’ll show the shelves more in detail soon, but for now, I’ll just tell you that we really needed a space for our books, glasses, and other nighttime loose items, and these have been the perfect solution.
We also have the option to switch to couch mode! The rear panel swivels up, the supports pop into place, and we have a very comfortable place to read, work, eat, or even watch a movie! We’re excited to discover all the different ways we use our couch this year all over North America.
When the platform is in couch mode, there is a tremendous amount of legroom, adding to the comfort level. I’m 6 foot, and when I’m sitting on the couch, I can’t even touch the front seats with my feet. To protect the floorspace there, I covered the carpet with two trimmable cargo floor mats from Walmart. They make cleaning that floor area super easy — you can sweep it or wipe it with paper towels, no vacuum needed!
And obviously, this platform was created for storage — and there’s a ton of it. When the platform is in bed mode, the entire floor area underneath the front panel is wide open for storage: lately, that’s where we’ve been keeping our duffel bags and extra shoes so they’re nice and handy as we jump from house to house, visiting our way south.
The back two platform panels are hinged, and open to display a tremendous amount of storage space under them.
In the very back, the couch back supports also serve to keep the panel from falling on you when you’re digging out fresh pants! 😀
Below, you can get a better view of how I bolted the couch supports in place, ready to swivel up and brace the couch back when needed. There’s also another hinge at the bottom right of the picture that shows where that part of the 2×6 frame can be swung in toward the middle of the truck to allow access to the jack panel. As we found out in Big Bend last year, that jack can come in handy!
All in all, we are very, very happy with how the new platform came together, and very excited to use it this year as we explore the western US all the way up to Alaska! We love our adventure rig — here’s to getting another 100K miles out of Franklin the Tahoe, and sleeping comfortably the whole way!