A lot of people are buying campers to live in part of the year, full time, or have on hand in case they need to get out during an emergency. I know a few things about camper living because Matt and I lived in an 18 ft travel trailer for 18 months while getting the shell of our house built. It was tough because we did not have it set up in a way that would be acceptable to just about anyone. We were young, broke, and trying to make do with what we had so we could have a better life later on without a mortgage to worry about. Campers can definitely help you out when you need a place to live without spending a ton of money.
It is important to remember that if you take care of them or improve them, campers can maintain some value. It is possible to live in one for a period of time and then sell it later for most or more than you paid for it if you have improved it in anyway.
Today we are going to concentrate on what to consider when purchasing one and outfitting it for bug out purposes. Of course, that doesn’t mean you cannot use it to take a vacation or practice living off-grid for a little while.
There is a lot to consider when it comes to outfitting a camper for bugging out. This article attempts to cover a lot of ground but please feel free to add any other suggestions in the comments section at the end.
For some people, 18 feet may sound like a decent size. I don’t recommend that size for more than a single person or a couple if you are planning on living in it long term. It is pretty cramped. You are not going to have a lot of room for stuff. It is important to keep in mind that when a camper or travel trailer says it will sleep a specific amount of people that they are counting pull out beds and tables that can convert to beds. It all depends on the actual length, width, and how it is set up. Two campers may say they sleep 6 people but be very different in overall size.
Every vehicle that is capable of any towing at all has a towing rating. For example, our 4 cylinder Toyota Tacoma can pull 3500 lbs in total. That means our camper and everything in it, as well as our Tacoma’s roof racks and camper shell can only weigh that much.
It is also important to consider that even if you do not go beyond the towing limit, it may seem like you don’t have much power or speed when going up steep inclines. We pushed the limit when going to pick up our Kawasaki Mule. Being right at capacity with the trailer and the weight of the Mule, we were barely creeping up some of the mountains to get home.
This is not to say that you have to have a truck to tow a camper. There are some smaller campers that are very lightweight and that can be pulled by small SUVs or other vehicles.
There is also the option of getting an RV that is a vehicle too but they cost more money than a camper. Some of these are very large too . We have all seen the giant RVs that are as big as a tour bus.
I always recommend Airstream campers if you can find a used one or have the money to spend on a newer model. For starters even if they are used and look a little rough on the inside, they are made tough enough that you can gut them and remodel them and have a very nice camper or place to live while building a house.
The shell is made of aircraft grade metal and the slope design sheds water and snow well. The more flat roofed campers have a tendency to develop leaks over the years unless care is taken. That is why you see so many that have tarps on top of them. Some people do that even if there is no leak because it adds additional protection to keep leaks from starting in the first place.
Price and Age
The price of a camper can vary a lot and age is not always as much of a factor as you might expect. An older Airstream may cost you as much as a much newer camper of a different brand. I have noticed that there are not as many RVs under $5,000 as there used to be. The economy has led to many people snatching them up for temporary housing or for use as a cheap vacation solution.
In my area, RVs can rent for $700 per month and I am not talking about a newer model either. Be prepared to pay a bit for a camper that is actually worth having. If the price seems too good to be true then you should be suspicious. When looking at a used RV look for soft spots on the floor and obvious signs of water damage on the ceiling or floor. Appliances that don’t work are not necessarily a deal-breaker but that does need to be factored into the price you pay.
Does it have a title?
It can cause some trouble if you buy a camper and it doesn’t have a title. It is possible to apply for a lost title but it takes some time. Your title is proof of ownership. Usually this only happens if you are buying an older camper. If a newer camper is for sale and there is no title, that is pretty odd.
If you intend on taking the camper on the road and want a tag for it you are going to need a title one way or another.
Food and Food Storage
When Matt and I lived in our camper, a lot of the storage space was taken up with food. We tried to keep a good supply even then. We always had more than a month of food even at the very beginning of our time together. If you are bugging out then you need to have a lot of food with you. The most compact way to store food is dehydrated or freeze-dried. The most inexpensive foods are of course dried beans and rice.
If you intend on keeping your camper stocked all the time or forsee yourself living out in the woods for a bit of time you need to be very careful about how you store things. Moisture can be a big problem in campers. Rodent proof air tight containers are highly recommended. If you are using vacuum sealed foods or food in mylar bags then make sure it is in plastic buckets or totes to make sure that it doesn’t get contaminated by bugs or chewed into by rodents.
Pots, pans, plates, and cutlery
You are going to need to outfit your kitchen. Consider your eating and cooking habits and the types of food you have stocked your camper with.
Keeping food cold or cool is very challenging without electricity or with limited electricity.
There are small coolers that operate on 12V power but they are only capable of cooling so much. I think some will keep items 40F cooler than the air temperature. So this means that on an 80F day you could keep some foods at 40F. Here is a link to a cooler I found. There are many more out there in various sizes.
A regular insulated cooler buried in the ground and covered can help keep some items colder. If you bug out near a river or spring you can take advantage of the cold water and keep some foods chilled. Of course, the problem with that is bears and other varmints finding your food.
Dealing with moisture
Living in a camper made us realize just how much of a problem moisture could be. We bought a small dehumidifer that helped out some but we definitely had to take the step of flipping our mattress up every day or we would have water pool up. Adding vents, slats, or holes under a mattress helps but it alone is not enough if you are living in a camper. Before we got the dehumidfier, in the winter months we noticed condensation building up on the roof. This is not healthy or good. We took action fast but if you are fixing a camper up to bugout in you need to think about how to deal with moisture right now. It is not as big of a problem during the hot months when you can keep windows open. Damp Rid is another product that helped us out. You can get packs that hang up or get tubs of it.
Get A tarp that is large enough to go over the roof of your camper.
Big tarps that are built to last are not cheap but if you are bugging out in a camper and don’t know how long you are going to have to live in it, I advise purchasing one. Remember that it needs to be large enough to go over the sides a bit so that water runs off the roof well.
Roof tar and a caulking gun is another thing to consider for your camper tool kit for the long term. Leaks are one of the things they are most prone to so you need to think ahead on how to deal with them.
Lighting and Power
You are going to want some electricity and some lights. Campers have 12V systems but if you are not anywhere that has hookups, that is not going to do you a lot of good. Solar panels and power centers can make up for this. Some people mount solar panels on the roof of their RVs whereas others just sit out panels when they get to a destination.
I like the Jackery Power Centers. They are portable and easy to use and you can keep them charged off the 12V system in your car or truck while going down the road. They offer a lot of different outlets so you can use a variety of appliances and devices. Let’s face it, a lot of things are charged off of USB so you really don’t need a ton of power generation to take care of that. With Jackery you can also use any solar panel brand to charge the power center up. There are small flexible panels available from many dealers that you can buy and store in a small space in an RV and set out. You really don’t need that large of a set up to meet basic needs and it is easy to add to your system as you can afford it. For example, you can buy a power center and add solar panels later.
You will want some lights that run on either AA batteries or that can be charged via USB. There are a ton of options out there.
Water and water filters
Several types of water filter may be desirable. I prefer water filters that are gravity fed. A bag style filter like the Hydro Blue is nice to have because you can just fill the bag and hang it on the outside of your camper or on a tree and get filtered water on demand. Some people prefer the countertop metal water filters like a Berkey or Alexapure. I find those styles to be too slow for my needs. One reason for this is that I have just used this style with a single filter when you can fit 4 and thus increase how fast the water filters.
I would advise having some water storage containers as well. You want the ability to have some water stored in case you have to park somewhere briefly where water is further away than you would like or just so that you have some water on hand ahead of time until you find a place with a good water source where you can settle down for awhile. Some jerry cans are helpful as well as an Igloo container that has a spicket for easy access.
A bug out camper should have an excellent medical kit that is well organized. Consider what you need if you cannot get professional medical attention. A lot of things we run to the doctor for can be handled at home but it is convenient to have a medical pro to take care of it for us and gives a sense of safety. I recommend getting a good base kit and adding supplies to it. For example I have never seen a medical kit that provides Benedryl for allergies or packets of blood stop unless you spend a lot of money on a very high level kit. It is usually much more affordable to get a decent basic kit and build up your own higher level kit that is customized for the size of your family.
Remember to keep an extra supply of any prescriptions that are needed if at all possible. I realize that some medications can only be filled every 30 days or similar but a lot can be purchased in increments of 90 days so you can keep a little extra.
Bugging out may seem like an adventure at first and it is very likely going to cause some level of stress but at some point you are going to need something to take your mind off of things. We all need time to do things that are enjoyable. If you are bugging out with kids you definitely need to take some extra time to plan out entertainment. While the great outdoors can provide a lot of fund activities, there will be rainy days or days when people just need some down time. Consider what you like to do and the ages and abilities of those in your family. Here are some things to consider throwing together in totes or Zip locs for entertainment. Some of these rely on having at least a little electricity or charging capability. Remember that small devices don’t take much.
- E-reader loaded with a lot of books. This is a lot more space efficient than paper books as much as I prefer paper over electronic books.
- Tablet with books and games loaded on it
- mP3 player and portable speaker. A tablet that takes SD cards can also be used. An SD card can hold a lot of music or books.
- Radio with the ability to accept SD cards. The Kaito radios are great. Here are a few links to my reviews so you can see what I mean. A little wallet of SD cards can hold so much great stuff and you can organize by musical genera or by book subject. Audio books and old radio shows can be downloaded and make great entertainment when bugging out.
- Notebooks, pens, and paper. You can get a lot of spiral notebooks and pens for not much money.
- Drawing paper and colored pencils or crayons
- Coloring books
- Toys for kids. You will need to limit this based on the space you have in your camper but toys can be a big help
- Plant and animal guides for nature walks and foraging
A good saw and hatchet are recommended because they will make getting firewood a lot easier. If you have a decent 12V power set up and some storage you may be able to use some electric or battery powered tools.
Firestarter, Matches, and Lighters
If you are bugging out in a camper then you are most likely going to be building some fires. A few packs of BIC lighter can go a long way.
Tire Patch Kit
Punctures can happen and during a bug-out situation, calling AAA or somewhere else for help is not going to be an option. Check out my article “DIY Tire Fix Kit For SHTF” for some suggestions on what to have on hand. A tire patch kit doesn’t take up a lot of space and it can get you out of some bad situations.
The propane tanks on a camper sit on the outside so they don’t take up a lot of extra space. While you can only store and haul so much there is no reason to not keep them full and ready to go. A few full tanks will go a long way. If you have a little extra room in your vehicle then you may want an extra tank as well.
Make sure to have some seam seal tape as well to make sure that regulators and connections are not leaking. Some may want to keep an extra regulator on hand as well.
Remember that if you have a camper that you are pulling you will have some space to store items in there.
You can fit quite a bit in a vehicle. Of course, this depends on the size of the vehicle and how many people are bugging out with you. You do need to consider how much weight your actual vehicle can handle too. You may be surprised by what the weight rating is on some cars.
Most preppers are going to want something for defense if they are hitting the road to bug out. This is a very personal choice. Of course, firearms are the first thing that comes to mind but the truth is that having multiple items for defense is best. Here are a few options to consider.
Organizing your bug out camper needs to be done in a manner that doesn’t raise suspicion.
You want to outfit your bug out camper well but remember to not make it look too weird or suspicious. You want it to look common on the outside. Anything that draws attention is bad. No bumper stickers even if they say something cute or really generic.
Now is not the time to decorate in a Mad Max fashion. Consider what your camper looks like on the inside too. What if you get pulled over by law enforcement? Does the inside look a little too crazy? Even if you have nothing to really hide, drawing suspicion could lead to delays that you cannot afford.
Try to stick to laws regarding how to transport firearms as much as possible. Usually if a gun is stashed in a camper and legal to have, you won’t have a problem.
Consider additional seating and outdoor furniture if you have some space.
When Matt and I lived in a camper we were glad to have some chairs to sit in outside. The camp chairs that fold up and have a drink holder are inexpensive and can be stashed in a variety of spaces. An Eazy Up canopy can provide additional covered space when you get to your location. Of course, a few tarps could come in handy too because if you have those and some rope or paracord you can create a covered space if desired. Tarps are just handy in general. Here is a link to an article I wrote on the many uses of tarps.
Heating your camper and staying warm in the winter might be very challenging.
One thing I remember about living in a camper was how cold it could be during the winter months. Some winters the outside temperatures dipped down to -5F. We struggled to keep the inside temperature 55F and that was with some electricity. We were running a single electric heater and even running our propane cooking stove which was not really the safest thing to do.
If you live in a milder climate then it may not be so bad but in a lot of places, you are going to struggle to stay warm in the winter. While it is probably possible to put a wood stove in a camper, I don’t think it is safe to do that. Campers are very flammable and not made for wood heat. There are also air quality issues to consider.
Matt and I just wore a lot of clothing when inside and slept under a lot of blankets. If you are planning on bugging out in a camper for an extended period of time, I highly recommend packing a lot of warm clothing and a lot of blankets. A good quality sleeping bag for each person is a good start. Mummy style bags help retain heat better in severe cold.
Remember that when it is colder your body burns more calories trying to stay warm. If your inside temperature is still fairly cold, you are going to want to eat more. This is important to consider when calculating how much food you need to make it for a given amount of time.
Bottom Line: I do not recommend campers for cold climate living. I live in North Carolina and it was very challenging to stay warm during the winter. For a long term bug-out you cannot store enough propane for reliable heat either.
Bathroom Needs and Waste
Campers sometimes have waste tanks so you can use the bathroom but they have to be maintained and pumped out occasionally. If you are bugging out long term then you are probably going to be using the bathroom outside a lot. You may even want to set up a latrine or outhouse area if you are staying in one place for very long.
I don’t recommend using the tank if you are not sure when you can get it pumped out. It can get really smelly fast and make it hard to stay in your camper.
My article “Dealing With the S In SHTF” discusses some options.
A camp shower is nice to have. For short term bug outs you can even get a portable shower and hot water heater that runs on propane. Besides that you may just want a gravity fed bag style camp shower or even a small 2 gallon sprayer like people use for gardening.
Check out my article “Overall Hygiene For Extended Emergencies” for more details on other things you will need to stay clean and healthy.
So what about tiny houses on wheels?
Most tiny houses on wheels are very overpriced and often poorly constructed. I would never recommend buying one that was just thrown to together by someone. These glorified campers are often built by people with little to no building experience. They are also not made to handle being on the highway as well as an RV or camper.