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Tent Dwelling

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The combination of a tent and an economy car offers incredible freedom and mobility. For many it is well worth the loss of some comfort.

With the start of the third Rubber Tramp Rendezvous quickly approaching (January 8-22) I am getting quite a few letters from people who are just starting out vandwelling, and haven’t even bought their van yet. Often they ask me if it okay if they set up a tent at the RTR. I always answer that tents are welcome, but that the desert can be extremely windy in January with winds that can easily destroy cheap tents. Yesterday I got a letter exactly like that from Jason who is coming to the RTR in a minivan and wondering if a tent and minivan was a good combination for boondocking on public land. Here is my answer to him:
I think a tent and a minivan is a great choice! Having the tent to actually live in will be much more comfortable than living in the minivan (or even a full-size van) alone. Not only will you be much more comfortable, when you take trips into town or move between campsites the minivan can give you decent gas mileage. The mpg won’t be as good as a car, but the extra space of the minivan will also allow you to carry a lot more comforts than you could in a car.

This tent (a Eureka Copper Canyon) is owned by a good friend of mine. I have seen it withstand sustained 50 mph winds on several occasions. After a year of living in it, he bought a van and now only uses it occasionally.

The wind is not an issue in the National Forest where you will probably spend your summer, but in the desert it can be extremely violent and eventually will tear up most tents. Fortunately, in most of the desert the really bad winds aren’t a constant. Generally, they are limited to when a storm is blowing through. And even the storms are not a constant, they mainly occur at their worst in January and to a lesser degree in December and February. I have had a cheap Eureka tent set up here in Quartzsite through all of December and it is holding up just fine. But I know from experience that sometime in January windstorms will come and I will have to take it down.
Even if the tent could withstand the wind there is no way to be comfortable in a tent during a winter windstorm. Sleeping is almost impossible for two reasons: 1) Noise-the tent flapping and shaking is really unpleasant. I don’t know anyone who can sleep through it. 2) Cold-if the wind is blowing it is also cold (below freezing is not unusual) and that is a very bad combination to try to just hang out in. A good sleeping bag might keep you warm at night, but during the day your face, hands and feet are constantly cold.
So the key thing is to be able to have somewhere else to go during the few times when there is a windstorm. That way you can simply take the tent down during it. A minivan is perfect for that because if you get caught in a windstorm and take down the tent, you can still be warm and comfortable inside it for a few days or a week. When it is done you set the tent back up and move out of the van and into the tent. It’s inconvenient, but better than having to buy a new tent all the time or spend $1000 on a tent that will stand up to the wind.

A reader sent me this picture of his Kifaru Tipi. He hasn’t had it long enough to give a full review yet, but when he has I will post it here. This looks like the perfect tent to live in!!

Since you aren’t expecting the tent to withstand the worst winds, it doesn’t even have to be a great tent since it isn’t going to be up in the terrible winds. However, the better the tent, the less often you will have to take it down. The very best tent for wind is a 4 season mountaineering tent, the kind they take up McKinley and Everest. Those tents are designed not only stand up to huge winds, but also heavy snow piled on top. The manufacturers know that if the tent fails, the people inside it will probably die, so they are designed to NOT fail in any weather. They are very expensive and not very tall, but will laugh at a desert windstorm and taunt it saying “Is that all you’ve got!!” They are also reasonably small and light because they have to be backpacked up to 26,000 feet. That means they won’t take up so much room in the minivan.

While a mountaineering tent will stand up to the wind, I think your better choice is a high quality family tent that you plan to take down in the worst storms. The brand I would recommend to you is an REI (Recreational Equipment Incorporated) tent. Which model is up to you but if it were me I would buy their brand. The reason is simple, they have a 100% lifetime warranty and they truly stand behind it. If you have their tent for 10 years and it fails you can return it and they will give you a new one no questions asked. Their products are high quality and reasonably priced and there are REI stores throughout the country. If there isn’t one near you, you can order one over the internet.

This tent (a 4-man Eureka Copper Canyon) is owned by Mike here camping with me now. As you can see from this picture looking in through the door, it is a very comfortable, cozy home.

Of course there are many other high quality tents besides REI. I am an especially big fan of Eureka tents. I own an inexpensive 4 man Eureka tent now. I have a friend who lived in the desert in a $400 Eureka family tent (the Copper Canyon) and I personally saw it withstand many huge desert windstorms with winds I know were well over 50 mph. It’s a very good tent!! But there is no doubt in my mind that eventually it would have been destroyed by the wind, and my friend told me he was truly miserable the whole time he was stuck in it during the storms. Because he drove a small car he couldn’t sleep in it. He still has the tent but has since moved into a van which he likes much better. This is the tent he owns:

If you are willing to take it down during even mild windstorms, a cheap family tent like a Coleman can serve you well and won’t cost much. They are surprisingly good quality compared to their low price. Just don’t think they can take much wind because they can’t. What about canvas tents? I’ve spent some time in canvas tents and I know they are used by lots of outfitters and businesses. They should hold up extremely well and last a long time. I have no knowledge of how they do in winds. But they are very expensive and I think they pack down to be very big and heavy. If it were me I wouldn’t even consider it. I would just go with one of today’s high-tech tents by REI or Eureka. But that isn’t based on anything but my personal prejudices, so keep that in mind. Maybe one would be perfect for you. Bob

Jason wrote me back and made a convincing argument for canvas tents:
I have a couple concerns with the Nylon/polyester tents that you recommended. These tents have a very light material which I would think would be prone to tearing. I also wouldn’t think these tents would be very good in cold weather when a person would need a heater to stay warm.
I’m not sure how familiar you are with the Springbar and Kodiak tents I mentioned. These are 4 season tents and they are canvas. The Kodiak is about 75 lbs, but it packs down to about the size of a large sleeping bag. These tents are also known for being easy to set up, even a small woman can put them up in about 10 minutes or so.

My biggest concerns are wind and staying warm. I’m not opposed to spending $600 on a tent that is very well built. I figure spending $600 on a good tent that will be my home is really pretty cheap in the long run.

This is the insides of a readers Kifaru Tipi. Note the wood-stove and firewood. I think that would dramatically improve a tent or vandwellers life! Notice also he has enough room to use it as a garage for his motorcycle. It is very appealing!

I have to admit he is pretty convincing. I know for certain that the lifetime of a quality canvas tent is measured in the decades and not just in years. I once stayed at a remote bed and breakfast in Alaska and they used all canvas tents. It was warm and comfortable and the owner said they never wore out. They can be incredibly durable and reliable. On the other hand, Jason is right, living every day in any nylon tent will wear it out pretty quickly. If the canvas tents stand up to the wind, they might be perfect. They also have one more advantage: it is safe and easy to set-up a woodstove in a canvas wall tent. After reading all the reviews on for the Kodiak tent, I am a believer. They are probably perfect for boondockers if you can afford one. Another product I recently became aware of (if you can afford them) is tents and tipis by Kifaru. The Sawtooth is especially appealing to car dwellers:


  1. CAE

    I like to back pack and the equipment now available is amazingly strong and light. Because of this, used stuff is a good way to go. Try Craigslist for used camping gear. The gear is usually in very good shape and you pay far less than new prices and no sales tax. win-win-win.

    • Bob

      CAE, very good suggestion, wish I had thought of it!

  2. Calvin R

    I like the tent/minivan idea, and I have used it in camping/travel. I have a preference for keeping the bed in the minivan and using the tent as living room and storage.

    • Bob

      Calvin, I agree, I think that is what I would do as well. But to be fair I have always lived in high-top vehicles and if I was in a low-top I might prefer the bed in the tent. For me standing up is mandatory and not optional. But I know many people don’t care, a low-top is fine.

  3. shelly

    Seems like two things are important in a tent that one will be spending lots of time in. Materials and shape. Backpacking tents are light out of necessity and while ripstop nylon (and other similar materials) are relatively sturdy in and of themselves, the sun will deteriorate the material sooner, as compared to other materials such as a polyester canvas of a heavy denier or a vinyl material. Square shaped tent structures are the worst at shedding wind while conical or round shapes are much better. Round shapes such as yurts, and conical shapes such as teepees etc are best for shedding wind. Of the two, round shapes give the most floor and head space. A modified yurt would be relatively easy to put up and take down and give the best service. One example could be this company but there are many others. These kinds of solutions are more expensive initially but one wouldn’t have to continue to replace them. Though I agree, REI does have a great return policy.

    • Bob

      Shelly, I agree totally. First that shape is critical in the life and usefulness of the tent. It’s hard to argue with the Plains Indians who lived in Tipis. The plains have extremely cold and windy winters and Tipis work! That’s why I was so impressed with the Kifaru Tipis. They look perfect but are very expensive. But I think you are right, if the tent is going to be your home then spending some money up-front might be a very good decision. I am a big believer in the old saying of when you buy a quality product at a high price you only cry once, but low quality at low price you cry often. I spent $1000 for a Honda generator instead of $400 for a cheap one and have never for a moment regretted it! I tried that link but they appear to be down right now. A Yurt does sound perfect!
      The problem is that when you are just starting out, you aren’t sure you are going to keep living in a tent so spending a lot of money before you are sure may not be wise. So it may be best to start with a cheaper tent and then once you know you love it, then spend the big bucks on a great tent.
      Thanks for your thoughts, they are very helpful!

  4. Sue

    I want to come to the RTR !!! Not ready yet. But , in the process. Hope to come next winter. Your little group looks like a lot of fun !!!

    • Bob

      Sue, I sure wish you could make it! Keep plugging away at it and we will see you next year!

  5. Guy

    Another good brand of canvas tent is OzTent:
    A friend of mine has one of their tents and it’s a high quality product. Very quick put up time too. They have many accessories that make them perfect for using with a vehicle too.

    • Bob

      Thanks for the recommendation Guy. Know soeone uses it and likes it is very helpful. Those look like great tents. Bob

  6. gretchenrose

    Thanks for your timely blog, hadn’t decided whether to bring my tent along in my Road Trek, now thinking it’s a good idea – that is if I can find a place to stash it:)
    Almost ready to leave!!!

    • Bob

      Gretchenrose I think you will be glad you did! See you soon! Bob

  7. David Thoreau

    Hey Bob,
    Thanks for another great blog post. As always, it was filled with practical information backed by personal experience. Keep up the good work.
    PS The comments have been great, too.

    • Bob

      Thanks David! Having great readers makes the comments easy!

  8. Ann

    Hello All!
    I considering to live in a tent, and need oe to get a lot more info what is involve in life this way
    , especially the price of living – like land rent, ets

    • Bob

      Hi Ann, I know several people who live in tents and it is doable. What most people do is live on public land so it is free. It is called dispersed camping and you can do it on most BLM desert land or National Forest land. The limitation is that usually you have to move every 14 days, but that isn’t a problem, you just move a little ways to a new spot. I’ve been doing it for 5 years and it work extremely well for me.
      Here is the one problem with living in a tent: the wind blows really hard in the desert in December through February making living in a tent very uncomfortable. The other months of the year tent living works great! Ideally you will be in a van so when the weather is bad you can move into the van, and when it is nice you will live in the tent.
      Feel free to ask any questions you may have!

  9. Christy

    I’m not sure the place you are getting your info, but good topic. I must spend a while learning much more or working out more. Thanks for fantastic info I was searching for this information for my mission.

  10. Bob

    Simpsons…. I know this is going to sound stupid, but i don’t know how! James set up most of the blog and I don’t know how he did it. I assume it as a WordPress plug-in or widget. That’s how nearly everything works. This may be it (remember, Google is your friend!)

  11. Calvin R

    I have come back to this posting, and I missed a few things. I have used specifically Cabela’s Deluxe Truck Tent, which doesn’t seem to be available any more. That’s a shame; it connected to the minivan very neatly. There may be others similar, but I don’t know yet. We have also had a Copper Canyon, but it’s too heavy for me to carry around even every couple of weeks (the most common time limit). If I can get something like the Truck Tent (not the ones that fit over a truck bed), I would then check prevailing winds and set up the van to partially block the wind, at least during stormy times. Also, other than the RTR I might go somewhere less stormy, such as Tucson. Come to think of it, on a not-working basis I could use the truck-bed tents long enough to get started.
    The canvas tents probably would outlast anything, but they’re seriously pricey and might be impossible for me to acquire. Also, I would need to check the weights. Anything over about 50 pounds is flatly out for me.

    • Bob

      Calvin, I had a friend who lived in pahrump, Nevada which has the worst winds of nearly anywhere I have been. He bought a $45 tent from Walmart and the wind would destroy it in about 3 months. But he figured that was only $15 a month so he just bought a new one every 3 months. We have had no wind this season so any tent could easily make it through the winter. If you set it up in the shade so the sun wouldn’t destroy it it would last for many years with no wind.
      Tuscon is one of the colder places in the Arizona desert because it is fairly high elevation.

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