May–June 2023

Traveling Light

These Minnesotans get style and sustainability points for customizing camping rigs with a small footprint.

Stephanie Pearson

Getting outside has always been an imperative for Minnesotans. Often that means classic pursuits that have remained the same for decades, like camping under the stars in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, gathering with the whole clan at a family cabin on Lake Pepin, or reeling in a monster walleye while ice fishing up north.

There are others, however, who have updated their outdoor lifestyle, elevating it to an art form by buying, building, or rehabbing a custom camping vehicle, all the better to pursue their every nomadic whim. Whether the goal is to be more efficient and sustainable, sleep closer to the stars, save money, relive a bygone era, or maximize comfort in a minimalist way, these five campers have created enviable mobile nests that they take everywhere.

In addition to providing a better night’s sleep, according to their owners, these creative rigs are oases of peace, warmth, and shelter even in our more-than-occasional ugly weather. They are also utilitarian base camps from which to explore Minnesota’s 12 million acres of public land, whether that means fishing for walleye from a lakeside campsite during the spring opener, mountain biking at Cuyuna in the summer, or hunting grouse near the Dakotas in the fall—or maybe even rolling out of the state altogether in search of outdoor adventure. 

Getaway Trailer
Camper: Brian Gardner
Vehicle: 2021 Teardrop Trailer

Two years ago, Brian Gardner spent three weeks sleeping in a tent while trekking the Superior Hiking Trail. His conclusion at the end of the journey was that, for a guy nearing 50, a tent “can get old.” A year later he and his wife, Shannon, bought a teardrop, the delightfully retro and aerodynamic trailer that looks a lot like its name. “It hit that target—providing a comfortable place to be,” says Gardner, a social studies and language teacher at St. Paul’s Harding High School. “But its size reinforces the idea that camping is about being outside.” 

Teardrop trailers were invented in the 1930s, but they took off after World War II. Many teardrops were constructed from surplus war materials, their wheels salvaged from Army jeeps and their aluminum exterior shells made from wings of warplanes.
Gardner’s teardrop is made of wood, with a steel shell on the top and bottom. Inside is an almost-queen-sized bed. The back hatch lifts open to a galley kitchen where Gardner keeps his two-burner Coleman stove in a camp kitchen box made by his father. A sleek, built-in solar panel on the roof powers lights and a fan. “Some teardrops have impressive features like built-in stoves, air conditioning, and heat,” says Gardner. “We wanted to keep ours simple, but it’s definitely a step up from a tent.” 

Gardner has a few favorite spots to camp around Minnesota, which he prefers to keep secret. But he also uses the teardrop in lieu of a hotel, parking it in friends’ driveways. This late June weekend, he’s in Duluth for a Huskies baseball game at Wade Stadium. Gardner would also like to explore the northwestern and southwestern corners of the state. “I do a lot of fishing in the spring and early summer,” he says. “Maybe I’ll take it down to Whitewater State Park. The trailer makes for an easy escape.”

Burly Minimalism
Camper: Kameran Hildreth
Vehicle: 2021 Jeep Gladiator 

Passing through Duluth in late March 2022, Kameran Hildreth has one mission on his five-day solo camping trip to Canada. “I want to go wherever the weather takes me,” Hildreth, of Brooklyn Park, explains on a bitter, wind-bitten afternoon along the shore of Lake Superior. “I want to drive through two feet of snow.”

If Hildreth gets stuck, which he occasionally tries to do on purpose, he has a backup plan. The mechanical engineer for BNSF Railway removed the front bumper of his Jeep and replaced it with a winch system, upgraded his tires to a new all-terrain, “severe snow”-rated set, and replaced his headlights with stronger LEDs. In the highly unusual circumstance Hildreth can’t unstick himself, he travels with a lithium-powered portable rechargeable power station he uses for extra heat. But Hildreth prefers to sleep outside, in a sleeping bag covered with a heated blanket and stuffed into a bivy sack that he unfurls on a custom deck covering his truck bed. Below deck is an inconspicuous series of pull-out drawers that hold meticulously curated necessities.

“If something can’t be used in more than one setting, I don’t like it,” says Hildreth, showing me an enormous hunting knife that he uses to chop wood, start fires, and cut his food.

In Minnesota, one of Hildreth’s favorite places to camp is Pine Island State Forest just south of International Falls and the Canadian border. “I’m comfortable with the isolation,” he says. “There’s more chaos in civilization than there is in the wild.”

A Bug Like No Other
Camper: Mavrik Joos
Vehicle: 2004 Volkswagen Beetle TDI

Mavrik Joos attributes his love of the outdoors to his grandfather, who would pull him out of school for a “sick day” and instead take him fishing. These days Joos lives in Duluth, where he produces his own YouTube channel (@mav) with 2.3 million followers. His favorite subjects: fishing, cooking, and upgrading four wildly diverse camping vehicles. 

Joos’ favorite is a grasshopper green 2004 VW Beetle TDI that he bought off Facebook Marketplace for $3,000. The previous owner had cut the trunk and back windows off the car and welded and caulked a pop-up camper shell in their place. Joos then upgraded the canvas siding and fortified the aluminum shell.

“The Bug may look like a small footprint,” he says, “but you get in that thing and it’s a full-on camper.”

When the camper is popped, Joos, who is almost six feet tall, can stand fully upright and sleep comfortably on its nearly queen-size bed. For cooking prep and cleanup there’s a small kitchen sink. On his first overnight foray to Lake Superior’s North Shore in the Bug, Joos was almost eaten alive by mosquitoes that flew in through the gaps between snaps on his new canvas cover. He has since remedied the issue, which makes this unusual rig ideal for overnights in North Shore state parks, where he may whip up homemade ramen for dinner.

“I get a kick out of seeing people’s reaction to the Bug,” says Joos. “It’s an attention getter. Making people smile is worth every dollar I put into it.”

Minibus to Freedom
Camper: Julia Schrenkler
Vehicle: 1989 Volkswagen Vanagon Westfalia Conversion

“When I see it, I just smile,” says Julia Schrenkler of her iconic Volkswagen camper van.  “It’s not just a vehicle; it’s a partner in the travels.” 

Since 2003 the Vanagon has taken Schrenkler, a senior digital producer for Minnesota Public Radio, and her wife, Cindy, to Florida, the West Coast, and Alaska. Today Schrenkler is staying closer to home, driving the camper to Wild River State Park for a romp with her dogs, Wren and Nixie, on a bright, clear fall day. Soon, Schrenkler will turn the Vanagon into a “hunting mobile” that she drives across the Midwest each autumn to hunt grouse.

“It’s comfortable for highway driving, it’s got enough clearance for logging roads, and I can take a break midday to change or make a meal,” she says, adding that there’s nothing better than a hot sloppy joe lunch on a cold grouse hunt.

More than 30 years old, the van is in shockingly mint condition. The vehicle is ready-made for camping but has upgrades including an outdoor awning, a new refrigerator, and an externally vented propane furnace. “We always joke that we like to drink cold beer with warm feet,” she says, laughing. 

A former tent camper, Schrenkler loves the ease of camping in the Vanagon. “Life is kind of hard, and it’s nice to have something that feels easy,” she says, still impressed by how readily they can make beds, cook dinner, start a campfire, and enjoy it with beverages in hand in a matter of minutes. “I spend my life chasing cheerful freedom.”

Trucktop Tenter
Camper: Joshua Klauck
Vehicle: 2017 Toyota Tacoma with GFC Rooftop Tent

One of the biggest reasons Joshua Klauck bought his rooftop tent is that it was made in Montana. “There’s not a lot of people building stuff like this from scratch domestically,” says Klauck, who owns Angry Catfish Bicycle and Northern Coffeeworks in Minneapolis. “To me, supporting an American-made product is a big deal.”

Beyond its “Made in the USA” label, the tent is much stronger and more functional than one pitched on the ground, with a welded-steel frame, full canvas walls, and a platform rated up to 600 pounds, which means Klauck can haul canoes on top of it when driving and still has an open truck bed below to store other necessities. Even with the extra hardware, the rig is still hardy enough that Klauck can drive through Montana, Idaho, and Colorado on “crazy roads that wouldn’t be passable with a trailer or any other kind of vehicle,” he says.

In addition to durability and functionality, the tent offers Klauck extra room—two can fit in the tent above, while one can sleep in the truck bed below—and efficiency. Klauck has made a few trips to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, where he popped the tent up in the dark near his entry point, then paddled into the wilds the next morning without the hassle of having to tear down camp first.

Perhaps the biggest draw for Klauck is the simplicity of being self-contained. “Heading out west I will take some crazy roads that wouldn’t be passable with a trailer or any other kind of vehicle,” Klauck says. “Staying minimalist is appealing. It’s all of the above, plus a work truck and a daily driver, all in one.”