El Codo's Tips for "Luxing Up" a Camping Van or Crappy Hotel Room

editor’s note: These are not paid product endorsements, but rather el Codo’s rigorously tested honest (and typically detailed) recommendations, born from trial-and-error and many uncomfortable nights and agonizing battles with sub par equipment. Know that if el Codo (aka “the cheakpskate”) says something is “worth the money,” it’s worth the freaking money.

Exploring Mexico is no less fun today than it was almost fifty years ago, but somehow my income has not kept pace with inflation. Squeezing all the miles I can out of a gallon of gasoline, overnighting at 24 hour gasolineras (Pemex stations) and pulling over for the night where I deem it to be safe (usually on a dirt track to some rancho where I have gotten permission to park) are not fueled by romantic notions of “roughing it.” The cost of travel has increased and saving money whenever I can is a must. But then, on the other hand, gasolineras have decent baños now, and many have dollar-fifty shower facilities. I remind myself that today’s actual free camping is not a nickel’s more expensive than it was in the sixties. It’s trying to improve on comfort that can take a chunk out of the budget!

Wherever I overnight I do not want to be uncomfortable. Finding a truly inexpensive hotel room (for me, around $12.50 US) isn’t as easy as it used to be and I think it’s sort of nuts to spend six dollars in gasoline (less than 2 gallons these days) searching only to save a few dollars on a room. Any way I add it up, seven nights at $12.50 comes to $87.50. Add that to the cost of fuel and time lost and four hundred dollars-plus ($4,800 pesos) vanishes in a month. My trips usually last the length of the car permit and saving on the cost of hotels can buy a rebuilt motor for the car or four news tires, plus keep my piggy bank full for next year’s sojourn.

I have stumbled across some noteworthy accessories that make life a lot more comfortable when car camping or staying in the most basic hotel room. But I am such a miser (and have a pittance of a pension to prove it), whatever I buy cannot be an extravagance. Indeed accessories will be pressed to do triple duty whether it’s van camping, overnighting in dingy hotel rooms, or doing duty at home. None of the “enhanced comfort” items goes into the attic upon my return home or stays in the van when I’m renting a room.

Here’s how it goes…I’m tooling along a libre as the sun starts to go down. I find a side road and bounce down the narrow track for a mile. Up pops a little ranchito and I pull over. Dogs bark. Children peek out from behind tattered curtains. The presence of a woman and children reassure me that the little rancho isn’t a hideout. I keep up a rhythmic “Buenas tardes” as I approach the front door. A guy in a tee shirt opens the door and his expression reveals his surprise. I ask him if it’s OK for me to camp for the night. (If I did not speak Spanish I would pantomime sleeping: Palms together, held tilted against palms and eyes closed. Then point to the car or van parked a respectable distance away. ) I have yet to be turned away. The next question is ¿Es Seguro? The man replies with a convincing ¡Si! I will be as snug as a bug. (I’ll pass along a tip, of course.)

I have found a parking spot. What now? It’s getting dimmer and I need light. This is where money spent in the states starts to come into play. I’ll grab sections of pre-cut cheesecloth and bargain-priced disc magnets and roll down the driver’s and passenger’s windows and slam the doors on the cheesecloth and use magnets to make a bug proof vent out of each rolled down window. The larger sections of cheesecloth enclose the opened rear doors of the van, and the side door. Those ring magnets are worth their weight in gold. Drape the cheesecloth all the way over the edges of the open rear doors and down to the ground to make an insect proof cooking and eating area. Another swatch of cloth is used to block off insect access from under the rig.

Having become bug-resistant, I’ll flip the switch on the new LED (light emitting diode) interior light. I used AMAZING GOOP to glue one of those magnets to the back of the light, and the tiny power cord runs under the seats to the cigarette lighter socket. Really clever people install one of those inline rocker switches they use for table lamps, so the lamp can be switched on and off when laying in bed. Does your van or car have a cloth headliner? No magnets? Use AMAZING GOOP® and glue a postage stamp size patch of Velcro® to the headliner and a like-size mating patch of the other (hook or loop) Velcro® to the back of the lamp. If there’s a will there’s a way. One of my magnets has a swatch of Velcro® glued to it, so it can be used just about anywhere.

The lamp I selected burns one fourth the battery power of a couple of normal dim yellow interior light bulbs. Four hours of use adds up to less battery drain than a single hour’s use of the sadly dim original interior light. Really clever campers move the light around, one place for cooking, another for general lighting and a third for use as a reading light. I’m so cheap I even use my LED fixture as a trouble light under the hood. You guessed it—there is a swatch of Velcro glued to the underside of the hood. Forget hotel room lights for reading. They don’t exist. Toss the light, cord, and plug-in power brick into your overnight bag before heading into the hotel room.

Amazon.com WidgetsNow comes the bed. Not a regular bed, or even a bulky regular foam mattress. A thin memory foam mattress. Three inches thick. A memory foam mattress topper is maybe, what, two-hundred times as comfortable as a regular Mexican bed mattress? One of those mattress protector sheets is a great idea as well. I bought a king-size mattress and sliced it down the middle. Enough foam for two regular size Mexican beds. Piled one atop another, the comfort is sinful. This is yet another thing you can use at home and take with you. Now how clever is that? Slap the two mating halves together and the mattress is king size once again. Memory foam can be cut just like regular foam and if you need to custom cut a king-size foam topper, keep the cutouts and use them for pillow bolsters. I use mine during the day to cushion my side against the door when driving. Nothing goes to waste. The cutouts also make for super van seat lumbar support.

While traveling, I cover my topper with a sheet of plywood. That way I can pack stuff on top of it without worrying about dirt and scuffs. When you get to the beach, find rocks, cut already downed coconut palm stumps (level them out by digging deeper) and slip the plywood atop your makeshift table legs. A four by eight sheet of plywood makes a hell of a big thirty-two square feet table and it’ll slip right in a domestic full size van floor like a glove. Get to a campsite and you can yank out enough of the end of the plywood to make a great dining table. Slide it back in when you’re done.

COLD! To heck with sleeping bags. If I wanted to re-incarnate as a locust maybe I’d consider a bag. But no! I want leg freedom! And warmth! There is only one blanket that can do that. A thinsulate® king-size blanket. Down, you say? Premium northern goose down? Ni modo amigo! Too bulky, too heavy, and not warm enough! Thinsulate® is amazing stuff, half the thickness, featherweight, and twice as warm as the thickest, most expensive down comforter. WAIT! Let me explain! I foresee your complaint! When you get to hot country, you use the thinsulate® blanket to wrap your ice-chests in. Ever see a FOURTEEN DAY ice chest? You first stick the ice chest in a big garbage bag to protect the blanket. Then use the mattress protector to protect the outside of the blanket after it’s wrapped around and around the ice chest. There is a method to the madness of having chosen king-size. Meanwhile back inside the van or in a hotel room, the huge coverage of a king size thinsulate blanket allows you or your partner to wrap up as tight as need be. Including ears and nose. I’ve spent unheated nights in Creel, Chihuahua elevation 7,000 feet in the winter as warm as I would have been on a beach near Acapulco. How cold? The glass of water on the night stand froze to an inch thickness!

The flip-side of the thermal coin is uncomfortably warm sleeping conditions. I cannot count the number of breathless nights I have spent in a van, or car, or hotel room, panting, laying atop sheets, wishing that I had instead elected to go visit penguins. Some hotels have fans, but vehicles do not. Traditional fans are hungry beasts and will flatten a car battery in just a few hours. To add insult to injury traditional fans roar like a helicopter and really don’t push a lot of air despite their their annoying audio braggadocio and drunken sailor energy consumption.

The solution is a special 12-volt fan developed for recreational vehicles by a company called FanTasic Fan® Their portable (box fan) model is named Endless Breeze® and it comes with cord and cigarette lighter plug. The fan has three speeds. The TWO AMPS draw on setting # 2 is low enough to run this fan for a solid eight hours and not appreciably discharge the van’s battery. Hell, you can run this fan for twelve hours on #2 setting and not drain a good battery too far down. The fan is box-shape, fourteen inches square by two inches deep. Set in the rear doorway of a van it will provide plenty of air to cool a pair of sleeping travelers. Not to worry about this fan’s universal appeal! 120 volt household plug-in converters that make 12 volt power for car accessories flood the market. This means the fan can be plugged into household power in a hotel room or back home after the trip. See the image showing what a typical AC power to cigarette lighter socket power brick looks like. I bought mine at a garage sale for a dollar. Auto Parts stores in the U.S.A. and Wal-Mart sells 12-volt power bricks.

Cheap Hotel Room Edition: The memory foam topper will change the most punishing “Ah jeez I can lay here and count every damned spring” hotel mattress into something that could vie with those five hundred dollar a night luxury palace hotel beds. The desk clerk may give you a funny look as you haul the mattress topper through the hotel lobby, but this effort isn’t for his benefit (this is where slicing the mattress in two pays dividends). Use the customarily crude hotel blankets as a mattress topper. The thinsulate blanket will turn a wintertime meat-locker-climate hotel room into paradise. If you take along that plug-in brick electrical converter (that is also used for the FanTastic Fan) and LED light into the room, there’s your bright reading light with handy switch. Cheap hotels usually meticulously locate ceiling fans to blow air onto the floor nowhere near your bed. The bent blade that goes “whoop-whoop” doesn’t help, either.

NERD NOTE: Arriving at an overnight spot I can start the fan, flip on the LED light, and read for a few hours. I can safely leave the fan cool for many hours and not have a worry in the world about flattening a fully-charged battery that is in reasonably good condition. The secret to keeping the battery charged are those full days of driving to recharge the battery. The van battery will enjoy a full recharge. Four hours of driving is enough to replenish the battery but I wouldn’t make a habit out of using light and fan very long if I didn’t spend six hours on the road in between times.

NERD 101: The lamp and fan is going to be awfully tempting to use too often once you get to the beach. If you don’t drive enough to recharge the battery and use them too often, you’re going to need a jump start, so think about bringing a good set of jumper cables, and remember no regular battery likes to be drained flat too many times. Night time at the beach should mean trade-wind breezes and flickering driftwood campfires, not baseball stadium lighting and windmill air. But used sparingly, an hour per night, to read it by itself will take more than a month to deplete it.

If you want to use cigarette lighter plugs on both the LED light and the FanTastic Fan, buy a 2 two 1 or even 3 to 1 cigarette lighter socket adapter at any US auto parts store. Plugs and sockets are not commonly found in México.

SECOND NERD NOTE: Newer van engine rooms are crammed so tight that it would be tough to find enough room to jam a pair of huaraches in there, never mind a bigger battery. Some older vans however have a lot of unused space on the battery tray to fit a larger battery. Wal-Mart sells a deep cycle battery that is sized 13” in length. It is referred to as a “GROUP 29” battery. This battery is impressive. Lots of capacity and “uso rudo (heavy duty)” construction that allows positively flagrant use of fan and lights at night.

Newer vans with glove-fit batteries can be fitted with a new type of battery called AGM (for example the SEARS DIEHARD PLATINUM®) which will run performance and durability circles around a regular battery but the purchase price is not cheap. I keep weighing the cost of this stuff against money that flat-out disappears renting hotel rooms and it seems to help ease the pain. By the way, the new AGM (absorbed glass mat) batteries are the first batteries to come along that laugh at Mexico’s rough roads and high heat. They are totally sealed so an AGM type battery can be used inside the passenger area without danger of lead-laden fumes. They can be treated much more rudely electrical-wise than a standard battery and not fail. I wish they were cheaper.


About Kelly Nowicki

4 Responses to “El Codo's Tips for "Luxing Up" a Camping Van or Crappy Hotel Room”

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  1. churpa says:

    Ditto on the memory foam. I’m now miserable without it…

  2. churpa says:

    Another favorite accessory for both van camping and hotel rooms: blinders to block out the light from streetlamps, all night discos, etc.

    • -el codo- says:

      Remember those old movies where the starlette was shown awakening with a really plush looking set of blinders covering her eyes? Disco? Noise cancelling? Hijole, a person would need noise earmuffs the size of a Steinway Grand Piano! When I park at a gasolinera, I make sure the windows are not pointing at where I think the sun is going to rise. The upwind side of the station is best to avoid fumes.

      Durn sure know that burrowing into a memory foam strip and covering with a Thinsulate blanket makes it hard as hell to rise and shine in the Bajio in winter time. Rise and shiver is more like it.

      • -el codo- says:

        I remember Gilberto giving me my moniker many years ago….

        “Mantener las monedas tan apretado que tira un pedo al azteca”