All-Purpose Cooking/Eating/Screen/Shower/Toilet Tent
Why even van campers and overlanders need to carry a tent.
One of the GREAT advantages of #overlanding and #vanlife is that you can drive past crowded RV campgrounds to remote and quiet locations. Not pulling a trailer makes negotiating rough roads and congested areas MUCH easier. Plus, some of the best sights, small campgrounds, and popular destinations are OFF-LIMITS to larger vehicles and trailers. These include many parking areas in popular parks and even roads through the mountains - like the very narrow Going to the Sun Road in Glacier National Park.
Another huge advantage of vehicles with rooftop tents and van camping is that you can use the smaller and less expensive "tent" campsites at most campgrounds. Since you are self-contained, all you need is a place to park the vehicle. These tent sites are usually half the cost of larger RV sites with water and electricity and TV hookups.
We have camped in "tent" sites in national forest campgrounds, state parks, county campgrounds and private campgrounds. These tent sites are sometimes the narrow margins of larger campgrounds that can't accommodate trailers and RV's. We have NEVER been refused a tent campsite because we didn't pitch a tent. Obviously, even people who camp in tents need a place to park their vehicle. We just happen to sleep in our vehicle (#vanlife) or on top of our vehicle (#RTT.)
But there are a few good reasons to pack a tent even if you are van camping or overlanding in your 4x4. First, eventually you may run into an over-zealous public employee who insists that you have a tent to qualify for the less-expensive campsites. So far we haven't had to face this issue, but it would be sad to get to a campground just before dark and be faced with this problem.
A better reason to carry a tent is to reserve your multi-day campsite if you drive away to go into town or explore the surrounding area. When #boondocking (outside of a designated campground) possession of your camping spot is 100% based on occupancy. Some of the best national forest campgrounds are remote and unmanned by any officials. These campgrounds use a self-registration method that is largely based on the honor system. Even with a registration stub on the post, you could return after a day of exploring to find someone set-up in YOUR campsite. (The honor system isn't universally recognized - especially if your "empty" campsite is the last one available...) It's obvious that you are coming back if you leave a tent erected at your campsite.
Finally, a tent provides you with additional outdoor living space. Most vans - especially minivans - lack the space for cooking, showering, and a toilet. The same applies to 4x4 overlanding with a rooftop tent. Most established campground provide a picnic table and at least have pit toilets. If you are staying in the same campsite for more than 24-hours, it's a luxury to be able to cook and relax in the shade of a tent without being pestered by insects.
On the other hand, most state parks and private campgrounds have more facilities, including flush toilets, showers, and laundries. If you are putting on lots of miles, you might not want to take the time to set-up and take-down a tent each night - even in a minimalist van camper or 4x4 rig. In fact, we made the 10,000-mile trip to Alaska and back in the GoneCamper minivan WITHOUT including a tent in our gear.
A tent is most important if you are "dry" camping - that is, camping beyond outhouses and other amenities. When you are dry camping, you are solely responsible for all of your necessities as well as any creature comforts you require. While there is nothing wrong with "roughing it" for a night or two, you don't earn extra points for being miserable. So if we are going to be setting up a base camp for more than one night we erect our tent. It only takes five minutes.
Our tent serves several purposes:
1. It blocks the sun and wind for cooking and eating. The tent provides a cooler place out of the sun and a warmer spot out of the wind - plus there is less dirt blowing on our food.
2. The tent provides an enclosure for our portable toilet. In the deep woods we forgo a toilet shelter, but if there is anyone within a mile radius we prefer some privacy.
3. The tent provides an enclosure for our portable shower. Like the toilet, four walls of fabric make an acceptable screen even if we are in close proximity to other campers.
Many campers use pop-up shower/toilet tents AND a second screen tent or awning enclosure. We get along just fine with ONE tent that serves as the multi-tasking, all-purpose cooking/screen tent/dining tent/shower and toilet shelter. JUST NOT ALL AT THE SAME TIME! The tent is an Eureka Copper Canyon 4-person, measuring 8-foot by 8-foot.
Unlike flimsy pop-up shower tents, this tent has a STRONG exterior steel frame. The photos don't show the top fly because it wasn't necessary in dry Arizona - unless really cold or windy. Unlike pop-up shelters, this tent is light weight and folds into a small carrying bag. You don't have to buy the shelter sides and screens separately - there are huge, screened windows on each side.
This tent is large enough for a folding table, 2 folding camp chairs, and our cooking gear.
Many #boondockers simply carry a five-gallon bucket for a toilet. We also used the "Luggable Loo" for many years. We have now "graduated" to a composting toilet. (This is a topic for another article). In either case, we add a large cupful of sawdust mixed with kitty litter after each use. There is NO odor. Every few days the double-bagged waste is disposed of cleanly in any dumpster - with much less mess than a disposable diaper.
When it's time for showers, we pull out the table and chairs. For washing we use a bucket of warm water and a 2-gallon sprayer for rinsing.
Here is a key feature: The tent floor has been cut out of the tent for showering, leaving a one-foot apron around the edges. Then we place a blue plastic tarp - also cut to size - over the floor flaps. We also carry a small rubber door mat to stand on. After showering, we open the windows to let the ground dry.
You need to grasp the concept that all of these varied uses are staggered throughout the day! We are boondock camping, after all - not vacationing in a 4-bedroom Airbnb or "camping" in a million-dollar RV. We can separate our necessary functions.
You can spend over $200 for a decent screen tent/shelter. But these shelters are very heavy, bulky and notoriously flimsy. Broken cheap shelter tents are some of the most common garbage left behind by slob campers in the free-camping areas of BLM land. You can also spend as much as $200 for a sturdy shower/toilet shelter. The spring-frame pop-up shelters are lousy in the wind, and cramped inside. Some campers have both tents, but EACH will take up more space than this folded tent - which costs around $250 from Amazon.
We enjoy the space, comfort and privacy afforded by the simple addition of our multi-purpose tent. We might go on several trips without using it, but it's always packed. It is not the latest trendy "instant" tent - but it costs less than half as much, weighs half as much and takes up less than one-fourth as much space!
If you are a #boondocker, I think you will find that a simple multi-purpose tent can add real comfort to your camping experience. Comment below with your ideas.