The SURV (Sports Utility Recreational Vehicle)

Let’s not buy an RV

How great would it be to have a Mercedes Sprinter van? A beautiful one is listed on RV Trader for $134,500. During our working years we could use it for up to 3 weeks a year and store it the other 49 weeks. If we instead took that money and invested it for 30 years at 7% compounded return we would have $1,023,848.30. And that does not include maintenance, licensing, insurance, and … sales tax. Well I guess if one wanted to work an extra couple of years that would be fine… But we’re pretty focused on getting FI.

What about a camper for the truck?

Once we moved to Eastern Washington I thought about some boondock camping in Idaho and Montana. Having tent camped in grizzly country and heard sniffing outside the tent I don’t plan to be tent camping again in bear country. I initially looked at a Four Wheel Camper for our Toyota Tacoma, but those can run past $15,000 new. I saw a used one that fits my truck for $7,500 on Craigslist. Still every time we want to go camping I will have to remove the bed insert and rack. I’ll have to load the camper and when we are on the road we will probably get less than 18 mpg highway. I’ll also have to store the camper when it’s not in use. Finally in Washington State I have to license a slide-in camper. Maybe if I get into some long trips I will go that route in the future.

What if we use what’s in the driveway?

Do you own a SUV that is insured and gets decent mileage? Could it be fitted to allow comfortable camping? Let’s set some goals:

  • Should be very comfortable to sleep in
  • Minimum upfront cost, less than $250.00
  • Should have hard shell for camping in bear country
  • Good gas mileage to allow for long trips with minimal cost
  • The vehicle should already be in the driveway

We own a 2004 Mazda Tribute. It’s the sister car to the Ford Escape of which there are many on the road. One of the nice things is the rear seat bottoms come out very easily and the rear seat backs fold down. Within 5 minutes there is a flat bed behind the two front seats. Will it fit me, I’m 6’1”? I take the tape measure and go out to the Tribute. It turns out that when the front seats are moved all the way forward and angled forward there is enough room. I look on the web and find examples of people who have modified their cars, even Priuses for sleeping in. I measure the rear compartment and decide that a Full size 6” thick memory foam mattress will work once it is trimmed to fit the rear compartment.

Sports utility recreational vehicle
Plastic boxes fit behind the front seats once they are slid all the way forward. They support the mattress and store camping gear
Outfitting the SURV
mattress for sports utility rcreational vehicle
foam mattress trimmed to fit wheel wells and center console. (Upside down)

I purchased a Full size Signature Sleep Memoir 6″ Memory Foam Mattress from Walmart. It was $160.62 shipped in 2015 and when it arrives I remove the outside cover and trim it using a kitchen knife. I take my time. Out in the Tribute I mark it and then cut. After an hour or so it fit perfectly around the rear wheel wells. I cut a small section out for the console and once it is cut to fit, the mattress cover is put back on.

Next I need a way to cover the windows. I don’t want people walking up and looking in while we are sleeping. The windows are all less than 20” x 30” so I buy Elmer’s Foam Board Multi-Pack, Black, 20×30 Inch, Pack of 10 from amazon (I pay $42.88 shipped). I cut pieces of cardboard to fit the Tribute windows. Once I get them right I the trace them onto the black foam boards and cut them. They then pop into the Tribute windows.

Foam boards for Sports Utility Recreational Vehicle window
Black foam boards ‘pop’ into the windows
sports utility recreational vehicle
Rear window

One reason I chose this over curtains is this maximizes room. No lost space to hanging curtains. For the front window I use a Jumbo X-Shade Jumbo Sun Shade for Car windshield 59 x 31.5 Inches $14.97. For the rear window I just use a small sheet hung up. I use two plastic containers we already have to fill the space in front of the rear seats to support the mattress. They fit perfectly. Estimated costs for containers: $20.00. Total cost for the SURV: $238.47

Sports Utility Recreational Vehicle with foamy mattress
Ready for a snooze
How comfy is the SURV?

Well DW says it’s just as comfortable as our bed. The 6” memory foam is incredible. When we sleep we roll down the two side windows and the black board rests on a light we hang from handles in the cabin. It takes 10 minutes to carry the foam sleeper out to the car and put on bed sheets. Our camping gear fits in the two plastic boxes we use to support the mattress and we use two coleman camp chairs. Our cooler sits in the passenger seat while we sleep.

Essential camping gear, two folding chairs, a folding table. The plastic box holds our cooking gear

When we drive we remove the two plastic boxes and just place them on top of the mattress. The front seats then go back and the mattress just bends down behind the seats. We get the same mileage we always do, about 23 mpg highway. Is it a Sprinter Van or Four Wheel Camper? Nope, but it’s just fine for rustic camping.

The SURV in action

It’s really worth thinking outside the box. With a little effort we made our current SUV into a SURV. Have a Subaru, Highlander or Explorer? Maybe you can do the same. Our first trip was a loop through Idaho and we had a blast. If you have done similar and have tips please comment.

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