From Tent Camping to Vanlife /// Mexico & Guatemala Travel

For many years, Marc and I were avid tent campers. We camped throughout the US, Eastern Canada and even along Australia’s southeast coast with our little 3-person tent and whatever car we had at the time. We were very proud tent campers and didn’t envy RVers one bit. We loved cooking and eating outside and could never really understand why so many RVers would cook and eat in their rigs, watch TV and spend most of their time inside – especially at night. I equated “camping” and “RVing” as completely different activities.

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Classic tent camping in the Oak Creek Canyon, Arizona, US

US & MEXICO 2016 – TENT CAMPERS

In 2016, we decided that we wanted to travel south and importantly, that we wanted to bring our dog (it was George at the time) along on our trip. We decided that the best mode of transportation would be our old Toyota Matrix hatchback. We planned a trip through mainland Canada, US and Mexico, across to the Baja Peninsula and then northeast back home.

This brings us to adventuremobile #1: Neo v.1.1. (Get it… Neo the Matrix?). Anyway, for our big trip, we made a few key modifications to Neo. We removed the backseat and replaced it with a piece of plywood to give us the option of sleeping in the car in the case of bad/cold weather. That said, the plan was to sleep in our little 3-person tent most of the time. We also created more storage space by adding a custom hitch box on the back of the car (which doubled as a kitchen table) and a ski rack on the top. We spent 2.5 months travelling and tent-camping through 3 countries and loved every minute of it.

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Neo v.1.1’s hatchback sleeping platform
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Our awesome camp kitchen and huge dining room table, Tequila, MX
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Tent camping can get you to some beautiful places, Baja Sur, MX

BUT, as we travelled, we learned some stuff. We discovered the weaknesses in our own adventuremobile and visited many other cool RVs and campervans, which filled our heads with new ideas. We also began to appreciate vanlife and the travel opportunities that could be unlocked by camping in an RV or campervan. After a handful of nights spent sleeping in Neo v.1.1 and almost dying of claustrophobia, we realized that sleeping in Neo was not practical without some major modifications.

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So… the sleeping platform was a liiiiittle tight… George!
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Attempts at urban camping required rearranging the entire contents of the car, Texas, US
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My “office” for doing contract work left something to be desired, Baja Sur, MX

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When the weather got really bad – we needed to escape to an AirBnB, Pennsylvania, US

US, MEXICO, GUATEMALA & BELIZE 2017 – CAR CAMPERS

We loved our 2016 trip so much that for 2017, we decided to spend 4.5 months driving through the US, Mexico, Guatemala and Belize. Learning from our previous trip, we decided to create Neo v.1.2 – a new and improved car camper!

The most important upgrade to Neo v.1.2 was better sleeping platform in the car. Marc came up with an elaborate frame system, built out of ABS pipes, that connected to the roof rack and the hitch box. With our storage containers stacked on the hitch box and a tarp wrapped around the frame, we had a 7’ long foam mattress area which made for a super comfortable sleeping arrangement. Unfortunately, George had died during the summer so there was no need to make space for a dog. A few other improvements included curtains that actually worked (the 2016 curtain model was a fail) and a sturdier little tarp awning.

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Neo v.1.2’s ABS pipe frame… check out the length of that bed!
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Car camper fully set up… stealthy, eh?

People who saw us assembling or disassembling our camper car either thought we were geniuses or bogans. The people who thought we were geniuses actually took pictures as they wanted to try the design for themselves.

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Neo v.1.2 in all his glory on laundry day, Hidalgo, MX
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Neo v.1.2 brought us to some beautiful beach camping spots, Tulum, MX

The new and improved Neo allowed us to camp just about anywhere – including urban camping (because we could sleep in the car), opening up so many possibilities. Neo v.1.2 was much more waterproof than a tent so we were comfortable in rainy conditions and the curtains worked well, providing lots of privacy at night.

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Neo v.1.2’s awning wasn’t pretty… but it worked, Lake Atitlan, Guate
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Urban camping with Neo v.1.2 was doable but not very stealthy, Campeche, MX

US, MEXICO & GUATEMALA 2018/2019 – VANLIFERS

Although Neo v.1.2 was a huge improvement over the original Neo, we had seen enough Class B RVs and campervans in action (in real life and on YouTube) to decide that for our 2018 trip, it was time for a serious upgrade!  By this time, we were spending almost half of the year travelling and “roughing” it just wasn’t always practical.  Based on our needs and on all of the rigs we had toured, we developed an elaborate wish list for our future van. Our van would need to have:

  • An indoor stove so that we could cook in all weather conditions and all camping spots;
  • A comfortable bed that would allow us to sleep inside with all doors locked;
  • A fridge so that the never ending quest for cooler ice would finally end;
  • Enough floor to ceiling height inside so that we could stand up;
  • Space for a dog bed (by this time we had adopted Walter the Adventure Mutt);
  • A toilet or porta-potti so that we would have a bathroom option in campsites without toilets;
  • A sitting area where we could eat, work and relax;
  • Lots of storage space;
  • Lots of doors and windows for views and access to the outside; and
  • Sufficient clearance so that we would not scrape along the large topes (speed bumps) in Mexico and Guatemala.

When we came across the vintage Roadtrek 190 Popular and Versatile models, we were immediately sold. Although not perfect, these models suited our needs so well and any snobbishness I had towards RVs and vans disappeared immediately. I embraced vanlife on the spot!

Campervans and Class B RV’s are super popular at the moment (thanks to the #vanlife movement) so finding one in good conditions was not easy. We visited a couple of really decrepit vans in Ottawa and Montreal, Canada, before finally finding Slow Sally in southern Ontario – a 7-hour drive away. Sally was almost perfect and it was love at first sight. The ‘Popular’ model would have been better because it includes a bigger bed, which would best suit us because we’re both tall. But the ‘Popular’ model is… well… popular and seemed impossible to find. Sally is a 1994 Roadtrek 190 Versatile and we love her.

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Sally sparkling and new (to us)
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Slow Sally pre-customization

Sally has been a total game changer in terms of the way we travel. We can park and camp just about anywhere from wilderness campgrounds to city streets. We never need to take a break from camping due to climate or being cramped. As proof, in 2018, we slept in Sally for 4.5 months straight in temps as high as 30 degrees and as low as -12 degrees Celsius. There’s also plenty of room for all three of us and our stuff – even several large bags of dog food for Walter.

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With warm sleeping bags and a propane heater, winter camping is easy, South Carolina, US
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Urban camping is stealthy-ish – gone are the days of cooking off the hitch box, Guanajuato, MX
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Sally is just as good in wild camping areas, El Chico, MX
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My office in Sally is a HUGE improvement over Neo’s hatchback office, Lake Atitlan, Guate

Although Sally was pretty awesome in her “stock” condition, we had lots of ideas for improvements and over the last 1.5 years, we’ve really made her our own. We’ve:

  • Built permanent shelves in the closet;
  • Replaced the RV toilet with a composting toilet;
  • Replaced the microwave with a storage shelf;
  • Added a solar panel, battery monitor and inverter;
  • Removed the 4th seat to create a raised dog bed with storage underneath;
  • Added storage by placing an ottoman between the 2 front seats;
  • Replaced the old curtains with new ones made of funky Mayan fabrics;
  • Removed the weird carpet from the front of the fridge;
  • Added a WiFi repeater; and
  • Repaired the closet doors which used to spontaneously swing open on rough roads (i.e. most of Mexico and Guatemala).
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New curtains… so much funkier than the old 90s floral print
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So many improvements including new rug, dog bed and no more carpet on the fridge
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The solar panel has been one of the best additions, North Carolina, US

SO DO WE MISS TENT CAMPING

I still like the idea of tent camping for a weekend get-away or for backcountry camping. But for the type of camping and travelling that we’re doing at the moment, I definitely think that van camping is the way to go and I don’t often look back.

There are only a few things that I miss from our days in Neo and the tent. Neo got great gas mileage and I miss him every time we go to the pump. That being said, we do save money in other ways by travelling in a van so I think it more or less washes out. The thing I miss most about Neo is being forced outside. Camping in Neo meant being outside all day every day and going to bed and waking up with the sun. Sally offers a lot of convenience with lights, indoor cooking, a table, etc. but that also means that it’s sometimes tempting to spend more time inside the van. I miss the days of feeling completely dirty and windblown from spending the entire day outside and do my best to NOT be one of those RVers who spends more time inside than out. That being said, I don’t miss trying to do contract work in Neo’s hatchback or attempting to keep the Coleman stove lit in windy, wet conditions!

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One of many beautiful outdoor cooking moments with Neo, near Flores, Guate

So what’s next for Sally? MANY more adventures for sure. And perhaps new vinyl flooring in the back to replace the now ugly (and very worn) blue carpet that serves no other purpose than to collect Walter hair and crumbs from our meals.  But travelling is an evolution and maybe one day, we’ll trade Sally in for something different (or newer… or faster…) that’s better suited to a future trip.  But for the next few years, I can’t imagine wanting to travel in anything but Sally.


6 thoughts on “From Tent Camping to Vanlife /// Mexico & Guatemala Travel

    1. We got caught in a cold snap in Pennsylvania and camped in a Walmart at -12. We have pretty heavy duty down sleeping bags and those made a big difference! We also ran the propane heater a couple of times during the night so that our canned food wouldn’t freeze! It was surprisingly more comfortable than you’d think! And yes, we’re still pretty proud of what we were able to accomplish with Neo the car camper 😉

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  1. what a great recounting of your “journey within your journey”. I love the idea of being able to get into places that are only an option for campers. it’s clear that you love the life you are living and the journey you are on. thanks for sharing ..happy trails.

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    1. Hi Sandra, great to hear from you! Yes, we are really liking this lifestyle and often enjoy roughing it… at least a bit :). Although as I write this we’re visiting a friend at her beautiful place in Antigua… definitely not roughing it at the moment!

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  2. The nomad lifestyle seems to suit you all and it’s nice to see you have made changes to keep you more comfortable. I love “traveling” via your blog. I see a published book or magazine lifestyle article in your future. (Or maybe that’s already happened?) Stay safe! Xo

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    1. Yes, we really enjoy being nomadic- for part of the year at least. No publications yet but I do think it would be fun to try and write a magazine article… that would be a challenge! Xo

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