Sunset in the Coconino National Forest, looking northeast toward Sedona, AZ, 4/17/15

Friday, December 5, 2014

Preparing to Snowbird

About 9 months ago I decided that I would try being a snowbird next winter. And now, it's almost time to fly south.  In the process of preparing, I've found that I need to change some of what I bring and how I pack.

When it comes to traveling, I've thought of my Prius like a backpack. I figured if thru-hikers can go long distances, for months at a time with only what's on their back, I certainly can live out of my Prius long term.  Over the past 5 years of travel, my Prius has performed admirably as both my backpack and hard-sided tent.

My Prius in the desert SW last winter, in travel mode.
Photo taken by Bob Wells, January 2014 Rubber Tramp Rendezvous

But, being a snowbird is different. I'll be staying in the same locale for months at a time; only going into town every 10 days for supplies, laundry and to dump garbage. Being a snowbird is more analogous to staying in a campground than being a thru-hiker. So, I began to re-think my preparations for this coming snowbird season.

Some options I considered includes using our 20' Class C, getting a used van, or buying a solar panel system with house batteries. As a snowbird camper, I will live without hook ups (water, electricity, sewer). I want to do that as simply, frugally and comfortably as possible.

I decided against the Class C for being too big, consuming too much gas, and having too many large items that I don't use (frig/freezer, microwave, tanks, oven, forced-air heater, etc.). I also decided against buying a van until I know if being a snowbird is a good fit for me, as well as for when I can save enough for something very reliable. Similarly, for the same reasons, I will wait to purchase a full-blown solar panel/battery system. But, until then, I will to try a combination of other methods to both conserve and supply my electrical needs.

My computing needs are my greatest draw on electricity. Since my laptop was ready to be replaced, I chose to get a tablet with a keyboard* to conserve energy. My other electronics include a smart phone* and data hotspot*. For lighting I use (mostly) rechargeable batteries. My methods for both cooking and keeping produce cool do not use electricity

So, with my minimal needs for electricity, I'm taking a multi-faceted approach. First, I got a small 7w solar panel*. I'm hoping it will keep my smart phone, hot spot and some AA batteries charged. Second, I purchased a battery jump starter* with a 12v port for recharging my electronics. Not only can this item provide a jump start, but also has other built in functions – inverter for 120v, LED worklight, and an air compressor – all of which I've no plans to use, but nice to have just in case. My third power source is my trusty Prius. When recharging my electronics in the past, my Prius' engine runs for about 5 minutes every half hour to maintain it's own battery. To save gas this winter, I'll keep the Prius off for as long as possible while recharging electronics. I'll monitor the Prius' accessory battery with a low-voltage alarm and start the car to recharge when it gets low.

I've always said that I live out of my Prius, not in it. While being a snowbird, that will be more true than ever. The desert back country will be my front yard, back yard and home for four months. So, I wanted my snowbird camp to have a few more niceties than when I'm traveling like a thru-hiker. I'm bringing a 4x6' mat*, an umbrella* for shade, and a collapsible camp kitchen* table. Finally, I've added a small pop up tent* for bathroom and storage. A big factor for all these homey extras is that they can be put away fast and easy when the desert winds blow. After adding a camp chair I'll be ready to kick back and enjoy!

In this photo I'm using the camp kitchen and umbrella that I'll be bringing
to snowbird.  Camping with family, using our old teardrop trailer in 2009. 

In the desert, water is a big deal. I need at least one gallon per day. If I only go into town every 10 days, then that's 10 gallons to have on hand. But, I've only carried a maximum of four gallons in the past. And, with all of the additional stuff I'm bringing to set up camp, I certainly did not have any additional room for six more jugs. For this challenge, I turned again to a backpacking solution. I got four 10-liter bladders* that lay flat when empty. Problem solved.

I'm also changing where I pack supplies and gear in my car. In the past I've camped in bear country. So, I've kept anything that smells (food, water, toiletries) in my front passenger seat to easily transfer into a bear box. But, bears don't live in the desert SW; so, instead I focused on function and moved my food under the hatch with my cooking gear. Also, I'm not storing kitchen and food items in duffle bags, as usual; instead I put them in a couple of plastic storage boxes* that will also serve as work surfaces when moved outside. The new large items (umbrella, table, jump starter) will travel in the front passenger seat area.

Other needs, like cooking, bathroom, sleeping, and safety will be solved the same way as when I'm traveling.

Bed setup in the Prius.  In preparation for my first test
trip in October 2009.  Bed setup remains the same.

The Prius may not be the best vehicle for boondocking long term, but I trust that it will continue to serve me well during this winter's snowbird test.

* Links provided to items similar to what I will be using.  Not to be considered an endorsement.


  1. I'm so excited for you! Can't wait to hear how snow birding in the Prius works out!

  2. Good luck Suanne! Will see you soon.
    Nelda and Jerry

    1. Thanks guys. I'm looking forward to it!

  3. Hopefully I'll be down in the Q area this winter and our paths will cross :) I am still deciding and working on the downsizing into a small truck rather than the box truck.

    1. I hope to see you again Steve. A small truck to a box truck will be a big difference. I'll look forward to hearing how you did that, and how you like it in comparison. Travel well.

  4. Hi, Suanne,

    I've been following your blog for a couple of years and I love reading about your adventures. I have to say you are an inspiration!

    I'd love to "talk" to you off the site. Would you mind contacting me at roads, please?


    1. Roads Traveled, The email address you provided does not work for me. I've added a "Contact Suanne" section in the right column. I'll get your email if you fill out that form.

  5. Hi Suanne,

    I've been reading through your blog for a while now and would like to thank you for your inspiring words. I'm hoping to start full-timing in January 2015 (in an old Jeep Cherokee) and I've found your blog and posts on the RV forum to be very helpful! Thanks again & safe travels!

    Cherokee (on the forum) :)

    1. Thank you for your kind words. I hope to meet up with you on the road one day.

  6. Hi Suanne,

    I have read about your Prius conversion with great interest and have gotten some good ideas from your various info pages. Thank you so much for putting the work into sharing the knowledge. I will be VERY interested in seeing how your new setup works for you for snowbirding, something I hope to be doing in the next couple of years. I walked past a Prius the other day and was so impressed with what you have managed to shoehorn into it, it's not that big!

    I have thought of doing the same you did with my Honda Fit, but I rarely travel alone, so I put a tent on the roof for a place to sleep. We do miss having an indoor space for bad weather and have managed so far with tents and tarps, but I'm still researching portable structures that will stand up to desert winds.

    Perhaps we'll meet one day, out in the desert.


    1. Thank you for following my blog Ming. I'll be sure to do a blog post to review how snowbirding worked out for me in my Prius. The best to you.

  7. Wow, totally inspiring! You make living OUT of a car look so inticing! Your blog has given me more to think about, concerning the size vehicle i decide to eventually live out of here in Gran Canaria. Thankyou so much for sharing :)

  8. Xeph, I had to look up the location of Gran Canaria. Isn't it cool that we can inspire each other from so many miles away. The best to you as you find the best vehicle for your life.

  9. Are you still using your hot spot for your internet needs. How is it working out.
    Thanks for posting all the beautiful pic's, those are some great camping sites.

    1. Yes, I'm still using my Verizon JetPack as my hot spot for my Internet needs. It's working great. Thanks for checking out my blog. Happy Camping!


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