#vanlife, aka “Rubber Tramping”


My family traveled all over Montana when the kids were still young enough to survive without a Wi-Fi connection, and we always car camped. For this middle-age dad, the activity is in keeping with my personal credo of life, liberty and the pursuit of a comfortable chair.

The car camping I’m talking about here, though, is called rubber tramping, a hobo idiom that means traveling by car or truck and sleeping in your vehicle. After a summer spent crisscrossing the state researching a book project, I learned several valuable lessons about rubber tramping — many the hard way — and I’d like to share my acquired wisdom of this intriguing, potentially delightful camping alternative.

Here’s a little background: I decided to give rubber tramping a try after a few nights of “regular camping,” arriving at some far- flung campground after dark and trying to set up my tent by light of headlamp. I’d emerge in the morning to find several neighbors gathered around my tent, gawking at what they thought must be a hang glider crash. After a couple of these episodes, the idea of pulling into a spot, setting the emergency brake and going right to sleep sounded pretty attractive. Of course, there’s a bit more to it than that.

First, you have to be self-contained. Some things, like food and drink, are obvious. I keep a small cooler stocked with lunchmeat and cheese (and a few adult beverages) in case I get off the road too late to sample the local fare. A box of tightly sealed canned meals and dry goods like bread and crackers are a must, but make sure the lids seal tightly; field mice will breach your vehicle through an opening as small as a dime and you can kiss your Annie’s Cheddar Squares goodbye.

The beauty of being self-contained is that you can sleep anywhere you can park your rig, within reason. It can be tricky finding a hassle-proof spot in a town, though, and it’s crucial that you think it through — what will the scene be tomorrow morning? You don’t want to wake up in the middle of a bustling farmers market, for instance. Church parking lots are usually a safe bet, but in an unfamiliar area I stick to campgrounds.

Illustration by Kelsey Dzintars

“I’d emerge in the morning to find several neighbors gathered around my tent, gawking at what they thought must be a hang glider crash.”

Whether you find a Forest Service site or a glitzy KOA, it’s important to get an overview before you set that parking brake. Take the time to drive slowly through the entire campground and note the various inhabitants. You’ll see the newbies, typically young couples or loud families who failed to bring essentials like insect repellant, matches or food. Then there are the homesteaders, who tend to push boundaries of the 14-day limit. Their RVs sport large awnings festooned with Christmas lights, shading the propane grill and patio furniture that’s arranged on an indoor-outdoor carpet. They’ve installed a horseshoe pit. A mailbox post is pounded into the dirt out front.

Once you’ve gotten the lay of the land, it’s time to choose your home for the night. In my experience, the closer you can get to the bathroom, the better. I had this in mind last summer when I camped at a place disturbingly named Deadman’s Basin Reservoir in central Montana. Navigating my little RAV4 along the muddy campground road, I chose a low spot among the trees right near the shore. On a nearby hill I spotted a stone outhouse, occasionally silhouetted by lightning like an old mansion in a horror movie.

As a downpour drummed on the Toyota’s roof, I flattened the back seats and managed to stack all my gear on one side, creating just enough room for myself along the floor. I’d brought a new single size air mattress, but soon discovered that meant single bed, not single human body. I scrambled around like a chimp in a space capsule, knocking over stacks of gear, trying to make room for the mattress as it expanded. Once it was inflated, I crawled into my sleeping bag and stretched out on the mattress, which immediately bent into a U-shape and folded up around me. I slept fitfully, dreaming I was a chalupa.

Before my next excursion, I swapped the RAV4 for a Honda Element, which looks like a Soviet-era ice cream truck and was initially marketed to 20-somethings who go boogie boarding and mountain biking and say things like, “What’s a phone booth?”

Surprisingly, this strange-looking vehicle was instead embraced by baby boomers who go antiquing and do plein air painting and say things like, “Honey, did you iron my good jeans for the Eagles concert?” It’s also perfect for rubber tramping. The back seats can be removed, opening up a cavernous space with a floor as flat as a pool table. Although the Element has all-wheel drive, with roughly the same ground clearance as a vacuum cleaner it isn’t considered an off-road vehicle.

At the James Kipp Recreation Area campground on the Missouri River, I found a spot among the fifth-wheel campers, bus-sized RVs and herds of ATVs. I’d never seen so much camouflage in my life. I don’t know what all those people were up to, but they sure didn’t want anyone seeing them do it. There was a water pump near the outhouse (in retrospect, a big red flag), so I decided to fill my water jug. What came out of the spout looked like that fluid that squirts out of a brown mustard bottle before the brown mustard comes out. The campground host wandered by and saw my look of horror. “It’s drinkable,” he said. “It’s been tested.”

Oh, it’s been tested, I thought.

Later that night I woke up in the pitch-black confines of the Element, and grabbed an empty jug rather than digging for my shoes to exit the car. In the morning, things became complicated…

Here’s one last priceless piece of advice for rubber tramping: make sure your water bottle and your pee bottle are two completely different sizes and shapes. Let’s just leave it at that, shall we?

Ednor Therriault is a writer and musician from Missoula, Montana, and frequently travels the state to report on the weird and curious.