I spent nine years of my life living on the road in a 33 foot Winnebago with my family. We traveled the length and breadth of this country, mostly on state highways and country roads. We stopped in small towns and state park campgrounds, and spent not a few nights in some Wal-Mart parking lot somewhere.
Five of us lived in that motorhome, putting to shame what the tiny house community is doing. If you figure it out by square footage, we had 48 square feet per person. That camper was our home, vehicle, school for our children and office for my work. Somehow, we made it work and built a very close-knit family along the way.
But that wasn't my first experience with a camper. When I was a kid, my parents bought a 14 foot chassis mounted camper. That was back in the days when slide-in campers were the norm and hardly anyone had heard of a motorhome, although they existed. Airstream trailers were the considered the luxury campers of the day. We'd literally have people coming over to look at our camper, when we pulled into campgrounds, simply because it was so big.
So I guess you can say that I have a broad and varied experience with traveling and living in a camper. Which is why I'm writing this article. I've seen a number of pictures of heavy-duty campers that seem to have been developed just for preppers, and I've been thinking about them for a while. I want to explore with you, the idea of bugging out in a camper or using one as your survival retreat.
Let's Define "Camper"
When we use the word camper, we're actually talking about a whole realm of different recreational vehicles. But all have one thing in common; they're intended to be totally self-sufficient living spaces, for people to use either on vacation, or in the case of some people, as a permanent abode.
There are a fair number of retired couples who live in campers year-round, traveling around the country, living a few months here and a few months there. Most of them have a specific circuit they take, visiting the same places over and over again. In addition, there are performers with circuses and carnivals who know no other home than their recreational vehicle. Even a few sales types, who spend their time going from trade show to trade show live in campers.
At the top of the heap, we find customized buses and semi-trailers. These can run upwards of a million dollars, and are basically only used by people in showbiz, politics or wealthy families who want to take it all with them when they're "roughing it" camping. But those aren't what this article is about.
We're going to limit ourselves to campers that are affordable. That means anything from a slip-in camper that goes in the back of a pickup truck, to any of the various types of trailers that are out there, including fifth-wheel trailers and of course, motorhomes, like the one that my family lived in. While there are a lot of these which aren't designed for full-time living, any of the better campers will work. Specifically, larger travel trailers, fifth-wheel trailers and most motorhomes all work well for full-time living.
Part of this is because of the retired people who make up the vast majority of the full-time RV community. The Winnebago that I owned really wasn't designed for full-time use, but later models were. As the use of motorhomes and campers changed, the manufacturers made their products meet the needs of the market. So, most of the ones built today are much better than the 1984 Winnebago that we called home.
Here's the General Idea
One important strategy for dealing with a crisis or disaster is to bug out and get away from home. While you can literally but out to anywhere you feel appropriate, most of us think of bugging out as going to the mountains or the woods somewhere. The idea is that if things are bad enough that you need to bug out, then it's best to get away from people all together.
Granted, there are situations which warrant a bug out, which don't require isolating yourself from other people. Hurricane Katrina was such a situation. But when most preppers think of bugging out, that's not what they're thinking of; they're thinking of a TEOTWAWKI situation.
If you're going to bug out to a remote location somewhere, you would want somewhere to go to; the proverbial cabin in the woods. But few of us can afford that. The problem isn't so much the cabin itself, as many people have succeeded in building cabins from scavenged scrap or other cheap materials. You could even build a cabin from logs felled on site, just as the pioneers did, in many parts of the country. But the real problem is the cost of the land. Few of us can afford to buy the kind of land needed to establish a real survival retreat.
That's not to say that such land doesn't exist. The government owns millions of acres of such land, holding it in public trust. In a true TEOTWAWKI situation, that land would be available for public use, without much worry about the National Parks Service or the Bureau of Land Management coming along to kick you off. But then, you'd have to wait until then to build your cabin.
That's where the camper comes in. If you owned a camper, you could take it to such a location, using it as your cabin. Not only would it be comfortable, but it's fully equipped as a self-contained living environment. Other than supplies, you would theoretically have everything you'd need.
The only problem is getting that camper from your home, to your selected bug out location. Most campers aren't made for driving across country; they require roads. Some, like the motorhome I had, require wide roads, especially for turning. While I could drive it across a smooth field or lawn, that's about as rough a terrain as it could handle. It really wasn't built for use in rugged terrain.
However, I have to say that in using a camper as a bug out vehicle, you don't necessarily have to go cross-country. A lot depends on how you plan your bug out, and even more depends on the timing of your bug out. If you beat the crowds and don't get trapped on the highway, as it turns magically into a huge parking lot, then you should be able to drive all the way.
But that requires leaving early, so that you can beat the rush.
Pros and Cons of Campers as Bug Out Vehicles
Having lived in a camper for so many years, I can tell you that they are rather comfortable places to live, albeit a bit tight compared to a home. That's especially true for the higher quality ones. Manufacturers of the cheaper ones cut corners wherever they can, which means lower quality upholstery fabric, thinner foam in the cushions and many other things. Essentially, these differences are the same kinds of differences you'd find in a cheap home, compared to a more expensive one.
Since a camper is designed to be self-sufficient, at least to a point, it naturally fits in to the idea of becoming a survival retreat. It already has a water tank, two waste water tanks, a propane tank, appliances and a generator. While these would need to be expanded upon for long-term survival, they provide a good starting point.
But there is one major, important difference between an inexpensive camper and the more expensive ones. That is in the strength of the structure. The average camper isn't built for rough terrain, so the lack of quality in the cheaper campers' structures can become a big deal, especially if your bug out plan requires driving off-road a lot. Of course, the campers made to be bug out vehicles don't have this problem.
So you need to consider the terrain that you are going to be dealing with, before making any decision on a camper. I can tell you from my own experience that my Winnebago had a number of structural problems, only some of which I was able to repair myself. But remember, that was an older camper too.
The other big drawback with using a camper as a bug out vehicle is that it's much easier to get stuck in traffic with a camper, than it is in a four-wheel-drive pickup truck. You can forget about quick acceleration, high speeds, or rapid turns, the things you might normally do with a vehicle to avoid attackers. If you are actually attacked, you'd be better off stopping and fighting it out, than trying to make a run for it.
Again, the secret is to leave early and get to your survival retreat area quickly. But what if you can't? In that case, you'd be better off sheltering in place, until after the first wave of people leave town. Then, once there's been enough time for the roads to clear, you'll be able to leave.
Selecting a Camper
Like many other things in the world of prepping, selecting a camper to use as a bug out vehicle is a highly personalized decision. So, I'm not going to tell you what you should pick, but rather, try to guide you through the process.
The first thing you need to do is determine what you need. More than anything, that means determining how large a camper you need. You've got to have enough bed space for everyone in the family and that's very dependent on the size of the camper. At the same time, you have to realize that you're planning on living in the camper, so the larger it is, the more room your family will have.
In addition to size, you need to determine whether you're going to use a trailer, fifth-wheel or motorhome. I'd recommend against a motorhome, unless you are going to use it fairly regularly for other things as well. Leaving an engine sitting for long periods of time, without running it, causes the seals to dry up. Then, when you do need to use it, the engine will be leaking oil.
But a trailer or fifth-wheel require having a vehicle to pull them. So, you would need either a pickup truck or large SUV to go with them. Although large cars can tow a trailer, most passenger cars today aren't designed for towing, so that's not a good option.
With your basic specifications in mind, you need to decide what you can afford to pay. Campers can be very expensive. But you can buy older ones rather reasonably. If I was shopping today, I'd look for an older unit and plan on having to do some repairs. There's no way the repairs are going to cost me as much as what a new unit would.
Now that you have your basic specifications and budget, start looking around. Take some time to look at various models that have what you need, even if they are outside your price range. That will give you a good idea of what's available on the market, as well as what's included in the various sizes and prices.
One of the most important things you want to look at is the quality of the construction. Older campers weren't really designed for full-time use, so they might not have as solid a structure as the newer ones do. But those newer ones are designed with full-time use in mind, so they are generally built better.
The other big thing you want to look at is storage space. No matter what, your camper won't have enough storage space. I'll talk about what you can do about that in a minute; but you'll want to start with as much storage space as possible. We ended up towing a small cargo trailer behind our motorhome, simply because we needed more storage than what the motorhome provided.
Turning a Camper into a Bug-Out Vehicle
Any camper you buy can be improved upon. When we got ours, I went through it with a fine-tooth comb, looking for places to add additional storage. While the designers of these vehicles are pretty good at utilizing space, there is always a little that goes unused. I took each of those areas and added in more storage, even if it was nothing more than a six inch wide bookshelf. I also converted the twin beds in the back bedroom into a singe queen-sized bed for my wife and I; with storage underneath, of course.
I also removed the swivel base off of chairs, mounting them on cabinets that I built, hung a clothes rod in the bedroom to increase our closet space and even made specialty racks to store specific items in out of the way places. I used every inch of space I could find.
While six inches of bookshelf space may not seem like much, several such spaces add up, giving you more usable storage than you would otherwise have. You really have to think in terms of efficiency, if you want to make your camper a usable survival retreat.
Another great way to gain space is to add storage pods on the roof. These are commercially available in a variety of sizes. Most roofs will support them just fine, but you want to avoid storing heavy items in them. Rather, store the lighter items on the roof, freeing up space for heavier items inside.
Keep in mind that under-chassis storage compartments and hanging cabinets all have weight ratings on them. You don't want to exceed those weight ratings, as doing so could cause damage. The last thing you need is a compartment breaking open when you go over a bump as you're trying to bug out or an overhead cabinet tearing off the wall and hitting someone in the head.
Ultimately, you'll need more space for your survival supplies than what the camper can give you. We solved that problem in our motorhome, by using a cargo trailer. If I were to buy a trailer and set it up for bugging out (something I'm thinking of doing), then I would be sure to have a pickup truck with a shell or cargo cover, so that I had that space available for carrying supplies.
While the camper will have a water tank, as well as wastewater tanks, they won't be enough for your needs. Those are only intended to provide a couple of days worth of water and sewage storage, not enough for months. You'll need more capacity.
However, there really isn't unused space which can be readily converted to additional water storage capacity. So, what you'll need to do is plan on water replenishment. That either means rainwater capture or collecting groundwater at your bug out location. Of course, a lot will depend on what's available at your destination.
It's difficult to use the roof of the camper itself for rainwater capture, simply because it is flat. The only way you could use it is to put gutters all the way around, or park your camper on a slope, causing the water to run to one end. But that's not a good idea, because the refrigerator won't work properly unless the camper is sitting level.
However, most campers come equipped with an awning, which is ideal for rainwater capture. If you open the awning unevenly, so that one corner is low, you don't even need gutters. All you need is a barrel to catch the water running off your awning. That can then be pumped into your tanks or used directly out of the barrel.
In either case, whether you're using rainwater capture or groundwater for your needs, you'll need to make sure that you have enough water purification capacity to make that water safe to drink. That may not mean purifying all the water you harvest. You could just purify that which you'll use for drinking and cooking.
Don't forget that your grey water is useful. I would recommend replumbing your system so that the toilet uses grey water, rather than the fresh water out of your main tank. I'd also plan on using grey water for other needs, such as additional washing and watering a garden.
The waste water problem can easily be solved by putting in a simple septic system, once you get to your survival retreat. Burying a plastic drum in the ground, with a pipe leading off to a leach field will provide a workable septic system, allowing you to dump the tanks in your camper.
Campers use propane for cooking, heat and refrigeration. This means that you'll go through a fair amount of propane. But unfortunately your propane capacity is limited, and you won't be able to assume that propane will be available wherever you go.
The only real solution is to take spare tanks along with you. While you will still be limited in how long your propane will last, it will last longer. Once it's out, you'll either have to find a source for propane, or do without. So be sure to have a hose for filling your tanks as well. That way, if you find a 500 gallon propane tanks sitting on someone's property, you can help yourself.
If you run totally out of propane, you won't have any heat either. That's a problem in many parts of the country, and to be honest it's one of the harder problems to solve in a camper. The only real solution I know of is a wood-burning stove; not one of the new ones, but an old cast-iron one. You can still find these in a number of places, usually being sold as antiques or novelties.
I had a friend who built his own camper, installing one such wood-burning stove in it. I'll have to say that his camper was much warmer than mine was, even though mine had propane heat and better insulation. The only trick is finding a place where you can put the stove, where people won't get burned by it. If you have a camper with a slide out, that's actually easy, as you have enough floor space to put it in the most efficient spot... right in the middle.
A number of things in the camper will run off of electricity, which will either come from batteries, a generator or an electrical connection intended to be used in a campground. Some things will run off of 12 volts DC, while others will use 120 volts AC. Regardless, none of those electrical sources will be sufficient for your long-term needs.
While the generator could provide you with enough power to meet your needs, that would require a lot of gas. I had a 6.5kw generator in my motorhome, which burned roughly a gallon of gas per hour. While it provided enough electricity to run both air conditioners and the refrigerator, it was expensive to run. In a bug out situation, the gas used by the generator could be enough to keep you from arriving at your destination.
Were I to do it again, I'd cover every square inch of the roof that I could with solar panels. While that would be a major investment, it would also give me a renewable source of electricity. But even then, it may not give you all the power you need.
Another option is to build a wind turbine that can be brought with you and set up once you arrive at your survival retreat. If the blades are taken off a wind turbine, it will pack in a small space. Then, once you arrive, all you have to do is mount the blades, attach the turbine to a mast and erect the mast. If you have the brackets for the mast already installed on the camper, erecting it will be easy.
I actually built a wind turbine out of a fan intended for ventilation. For this, I used a round, high velocity fan. I had to change the motor to a 12 volt one and change the mounting, but it worked. That is, it worked well enough to recharge my batteries as I was driving down the road, which was useful. But I don't really want to be in 45 mph winds in a camper, so that's all it was good for.
Regardless of what you do for electrical power, you're probably not going to be able to generate enough to use everything in the camper. Air conditioners and refrigerators use a lot of electric power. I'd recommend saving that power for the fridge and lights, getting by without the air conditioners. It will be hot, but we are talking survival here.
If you can park the camper in the shade, it won't get anywhere near as hot inside. In one place, where we had ours parked for several months, I fabricated a tent to go over the roof, using PVC pipe for the structure. This shade kept the inside of the motorhome about 10 degrees cooler.
It would be a good idea to keep your bug out camper stocked with supplies at all times. That way, when it's time to bug out, you won't have to waste time loading. All you would need to do is load up the family and take off.Granted, there would be last-minute things to load, such as loading up the back of the pickup truck with supplies. But the more you have pre-loaded, the faster and easier it would be. For those things that would have to be loaded, create checklists, one for each member of the family to use. That way, nothing of importance will be left behind.