I Went Camping in the Trunk of a $145,000 Tesla
As the sun set beyond the long-needle pines and emerald waters of Lake Tahoe, I looked across the campfire and laughed out loud. I was about to go “camping” in the back of a $145,000 electric car because, well, it's become a thing.
Tesla “Camper Mode,” as it’s often called, may not be sanctioned by the company, but a community of drivers is devoted to the practice. There are forums and YouTube videos that praise the virtues of Tesla camping and explore the hacks you’ll need to make it work. There’s even a third-party Tesla car app, with a “Camp Mode” function that will optimize the car’s systems for a good night’s sleep. This is a quirky, little Tesla subculture, and of course I had to try it myself.
I know what you’re thinking (because it was my first thought, too): Why would someone who can afford a Tesla need to bed down inside one? The last time I slept in a car was on a college road trip from Iowa to Florida, and it was a night of eternal torment, with cramped seats, suffocating heat, and mosquitoes that swarmed when we cracked the windows. Who would choose that again?
But Tesla camping promised something different. The sapphire blue Model S I was driving for the week has a 90 kilowatt hour battery—the largest you can find in a car on the road today. In theory, it should be able to handle a night of climate control and HEPA-level air filtration without much limiting of the vehicle’s range. Also, electric cars are virtually silent and release no tailpipe emissions (they don’t have tailpipes) so they won’t suffocate the camper or disturb the local fauna. As for the Model S’s panoramic glass roof, well, no tent can compete with that.
There’s also something romantic about the idea that you slide into a car to enjoy the solitary pleasures of life on the road—and you need to stop only when you, or the car, need to recharge. And Camper Mode could be a real draw for Tesla’s next car, the more affordable Model 3, which is headed for production in 2017. According to a person familiar with the final design, which hasn’t been made public, Camper Mode will indeed be possible. (More specifics below.) Tesla is hoping to make at least 500,000 Model 3s a year, beginning in 2018. In doing so, it may open up a whole new approach to road tripping for 21st century Jack Kerouacs.
Step one: Park it
One beauty of the Model S for camping is that the back seats fold flat, creating an impressive expanse that can accommodate someone more than six feet tall, or even two people side-by-side, as Norwegian Tesla enthusiast Bjørn Nyland shows in this video from April 2015. But what I didn’t realize is that the 2016 Next Generation rear seats don’t fold completely flat. In fact, they leave a hump of several inches that could be a real pain in the backside.
My solution: I stopped by a sporting goods store and picked up a few leftover cardboard boxes. It took only a minute to even out the hump, but it’s an annoying extra step that somehow feels like cheating. Cardboard in place, I unrolled a self-inflating sleeping pad and made up my bed with a sheet, pillow, and light blanket. The parking spot at my Lake Tahoe campsite was slightly inclined, so I backed the car in to level it out, accounting for my cardboard job. There. Now it was time for a campfire.
Why they call it “Camper Mode”
Driving a Model S takes some getting used to. There’s little difference between having the car “on” or “off.” When you approach it with the key fob in your pocket, it unlocks itself and the climate control engages, ready to drive. When you leave the car, everything shuts down and locks up automatically. You can even use the official Tesla phone app to pre-heat or pre-cool the car from a distance. There’s no key or ignition button.
Unfortunately for campers, when the driver’s seat sits empty for more than half an hour, the car wants to turn itself off. Here are the steps to “trick” the car and get it ready for camping:
1. Put the car in neutral and manually engage the parking brake on the touchscreen. This will prevent the car’s systems from turning themselves off. (Don’t worry: You can’t accidentally disengage the parking brake without having your foot on the brake pedal.)
2. Turn off the headlights, though the daytime running lamps (a thin outline of LEDs) will remain on when the car is in neutral. For stealth mode, I cut out squares of cheap backing for blackout curtains and hung them like sunglasses from the car’s front hood.
3. Set the temperature, fan, and air filtration to your preferred levels for sleeping.
4. Manually lock the car via the touchscreen.
5. Change the screen to the nighttime setting and dim it to the lowest setting. If that’s still too much light, you can also set the screen to “cleaning mode,” which blacks it out, though I preferred to maintain instant access to the controls. I threw a towel over it.
6. Do yourself a favor and pick up a portable electric espresso maker or kettle. They plug right in to the car, so in the morning you can recharge before hitting the road again.
The “Camp Mode” option on the unauthorized iPhone Tesla app works differently. Instead of shifting to neutral, the app checks in with the car every 30 minutes to re-engage the climate control when it would otherwise turn itself off while parked. This has the added advantage of allowing you to charge the car while you camp and to turn off the headlights completely, but it disengages if you ever use your phone. I wasn’t able to test it because there’s no Android version of the app yet.
Coming Soon to the Model 3?
Short of a literal camper, the Model S may be the only car in the world ready for full “Camper Mode.” Other electric cars—the Nissan Leaf or BMW i3, for instance—don’t yet have the battery range to drive to a remote destination, park, leave the car’s HVAC system running overnight, and return home. After driving the car from Reno, Nev. to the south shore of Lake Tahoe (mostly on Autopilot), the car’s navigation system told me I had enough power left to make it to the next Supercharger station on my route with 40 percent of my 270-mile range to spare. A night of camping ultimately sapped that range by about 7 percentage points.
Surprisingly, the Model S’s bigger brother, the Model X SUV, makes an unsuitable camper because the unique monopost second-row seats don’t fold down. The Model S’s little brother, the Model 3, will be camp-ready, if a bit cramped.
The Model 3 seats will fold flat, and the storage well at the bottom of the trunk will have a leveling cover, similar to the setup on the Model S, according to the person familiar with the final design. However, the flat bed on the compact Model 3 is long enough to accommodate only someone who is about 5 1/2 feet long, stretched out. Anyone much taller than that would need to bend their knees or sleep at an angle.
The Model 3 ‘Bed’—5½ Feet Long
Better for side sleepers
After a meal of brats and beans, roasted marshmallows, and a few nips of bourbon before bed, it was time for me to put camping mode to the real test. The campground was still noisy with late arrivers and late-night revelers, but when I closed the doors, all was silenced. I stretched out on my Tesla bed and realized for the first time that I was in a room of windows, with a panoramic view of the mountains and trees and the stars beyond.
It took a century of human technology to create this fully connected pod of an electric camper. Tesla’s Autopilot removes the physical stresses of long-haul driving, and the large-screen maps and integrated Supercharger navigation leave the traveler to think about the bigger picture. The great American road tripper, Jack Kerouac, drove a 1949 Hudson Commodore made by a scrappy U.S. car company and priced a step above the average car at the time. If he were alive today, he’d probably be checking out a Model 3.
Sometime after midnight, I awoke in a climate-controlled sleep bubble beneath a view of the Milky Way. New to electric driving, I had a bit of range anxiety and checked the battery gauge. The car was barely sipping juice, confirming what a Tesla salesperson once told me when I asked how long the car could keep me comfortable in gridlock. His response, which I now believe: “Days.”
Tesla camping is still an imperfect experience, but it doesn’t need to be. The company clearly didn’t design the Model S with the camper in mind, given the hump, the cardboard boxes, the auto shut-off, the daytime running lights, and the inability to turn off the dash. It wouldn’t take much for Tesla to code a sweet official version of “Camper Mode” and to ensure a big enough flat bed in the Model 3. I hope it does, because I could get used to this.