The Honda Element urban camping experience

In February, some friends of mine were in town visiting from San Diego while SparkleGirl3348 was out of town. I wanted to have a few too many beers and not worry about driving home that night, so I threw a sleeping bag in the car so I could spend the night in our new Honda Element. I found a great parking spot in downtown San Francisco just a few blocks from my friend’s pricey hotel room. Here is the spot I found on Google Maps:


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I put the passenger’s side front and back seats down, making an almost flat sleeping space. The back seat rises up a small amount, which worked great as a pillow. A privacy curtain would be nice to cut down on the street lights coming in the window, but on the other hand it could bring a cop knocking on the window in the middle of the night. I pulled a beanie hat over my eyes, which was an adequate substitute. I woke up in the morning with fogged windows; the next night I solved that problem by cracking a window. In summary, the Honda Element is perfect for urban camping, especially after a few beers.

We Bought our Honda Element!

This idea started around the last week of December, so after a month we put some money behind our big talking. We were planning on using the AAA car buying service to get a good deal and avoid the new car buying experience. When we went to the dealership to decide on the final color, we ended up getting the same price straight from the dealership. They threw in a 3 hours of haggling with us at no extra charge! We will be driving the car down to San Diego next month for the ECamper conversion.

The Ultimate Vehicle for Central and South American Travel?

At first, we thought that a VW camper van would be the way to travel to South America, after finding the VW Vagabonds site. That plan did not seem like a very good idea after finding out the prices! How does a hippy afford paying 20-30k for a 9 year old camper van? I started looking around for alternatives, and came across the Honda Element ECamper. This is what led us to looking at a Honda Element. SparkleGirl found that the ECamper guys were not the only ones that saw a correlation between the Honda Element and a VW Camper. Look what the Car Talk Gurus said about the Element:

…it reminds us a bit of a modern day VW Microbus. That, too, was cheap, funky, and very practical. But unlike the Microbus, the Element is safe, plenty powerful, heated and cooled inside, and it’ll start every day. -Click and Clack

We started thinking seriously about the Element, but before deciding on the ECamper, we went through the alternatives:

  1. Lay the seats down to sleep: You can lay all the seats down to an almost flat position, but then where would we put all of our stuff?
  2. Buy the Honda tailgate cabana: You can spend more on accessories for the Element than the price of the car. Works for small trips, but once again, do we move everything up to the front seats each night. Call me Mr. Safety Patrol, but I did not get a warm fuzzy feeling thinking about a small piece of fabric between myself and a Guatemalan jungle. Knifes and mosquitoes would not be deterred.
  3. Use a regular tent: Great in the outdoors, not so fun setting up camp every night for a year.

It was decided this weekend- we are going to put down the $500 deposit for the ECamper and travel in style. We can worry about who to get the car from later.

Deciding to Drive

There were a couple of important things to consider before we decided to purchase the car:
1) Would it be safe to drive in Mexico/Central/South America?
2) Can you actually drive a car all the way down to the tip?
3) Can we get car insurance?
4) If so, what kinds of documents etc would we need?

Question One: The answer to question one was found by reading info online and skimming through our ridiculous number of Lonely Planet Guides (I actually wonder if they offer a ‘global’ option where for a reduced price you could get coverage of the whole earth – it may be cheaper that way than filling up our bookshelves one guide at a time). It seems like in general, you avoid the areas where things are a little sketchy (which you would do as a backpacker regardless), and you don’t drive at night. Apparently drunk driving, random unofficial speed bumps, wandering donkeys, and driving without headlights at night are all somewhat common, so it’s best to just not be on the road at night.

Question Two: turns out there is a 45 mile gap in the road between Panama and Colombia, and even if you wanted to walk on foot, you really don’t want to through that area now as paramilitaries and drug runners apparently run the show in this area, but there are plenty of ways you can ship your car around this Darien Gap and hopefully it will turn up on the other side. They advise taking off any removable parts (windshield wipers, license plate etc) as these things tend to disappear during the shipping process. Who knew there was such a demand for windshield wipers?

Question Three: our lovely Geico insurance offers coverage for all of Central and South America, and Mexico you can do through AAA or on the border. It actually seemed reasonably priced, but you have to pay extra if you’re going to be putting the car on a boat.

And finally, Number Four: It’s a good idea to get an international drivers license, but it seemed like it wasn’t even totally necessary. You can also get this through AAA.

So, given all of this, we decided it was indeed possible and not ridiculously risky to bring a car with us on this trip. Sweet!