Being a Dirtbag, to me, means optimizing my life to allow for maximum off-time, adventures and travel. It involves trying to save my money by not spending on things I don’t need, keeping as small a footprint as I can and investing only in things that serve the purpose of my wanderlust.
When I left for a 10-month sabbatical, in 2013, I knew I would live out of a vehicle most of my time, and figured I needed some sort of van to accommodate my running gear, my clothing and the stuff I needed to live on the road. I sold my car and bought the now-famous El Capitan, a 1998 GMC Safari I converted myself into a house on wheels.
I didn’t have much money at the time and the van was an incredible deal at 1200$. I fixed the body and had a mechanic friend go around all that I needed for safe travels, and ended up having an amazing time traveling upwards of 30,000 miles over Canada, the United States and Mexico.
But when I came back to Montreal, city life quickly hit me. The Safari is a big, long vehicle that isn’t easy to drive around and park. While maintenance is fairly cheap, it doesn’t have good gas mileage and guzzles terribly when driving stop-and-go. With several little quirks to fix up, I decided it was time for the old El Capitan to find new adventures on the open highway and ended up selling it to a really cool dude.
For a 9-to-5, working man, undercover dirtbag like me, a vehicle must have many contradicting uses. It needs to be driveable in busy urban traffic, decent on gas mileage, low-maintenance and reliable, just like any other regular city car. But on the weekends, it needs to turn into an adventure machine capable of carrying me and my gear over highways and sometimes rougher terrain, and then double as a camper to sleep in.
Turns out there exists such a flexible, versatile vehicle out there, and it’s been adopted by many traveling dirtbags for its ingenuity and its reliability; the Honda Element might look like a toaster at first glance, but when you’re done going over its capabilities, there’s a good chance you’ll be head over heels in love with that awesome little truck.
First of all, it was designed with dirtbags in mind. Honda consulted with surfers and adventure sports enthusiasts to create the Element, and followed their lead. As a result, the “E”, as owners like to call it, presents some pretty interesting basic features :
- A 4-cylinder engine that is very frugal on gas for a vehicle that size (about 22-25 MPG)
- It trades the traditional carpeting for rubberized flooring, making it insanely easy to maintain and clean
- The back seats can be folded, flipped up or removed in a matter of seconds, leaving a huge open space in the back
- “Suicide doors” that open like barn doors, without the usual middle pillar
- A hatch and tailgate at the back to completely open the rear cargo space
- Storage space everywhere; on the dashboard, inside the doors, on the back of the seats, etc.
- Solid brackets for attaching all sorts of straps and benders, including a kit to tie down a bicycle
Furthermore, the AWD, more equipped versions add some pretty cool dirtbag-friendly features :
- Decent off-road capabilities with adaptive 4×4 transmission
- A “moon roof” over the back seats
- A “table kit” that transforms your spare tire lid into a camping table
- A “cabana” that adds a tent to your open tailgate
Elements were made between 2003 and 2011, and were quite popular vehicles, so they’re not hard to find on the used market and there are still a decent number of them with very low mileage. Up here in Quebec, an E in good shape with 110-115,000 miles will cost you around $5,500 or $6,500 and will last you for another 200,000 miles with very little maintenance if you treat it right.
Dirtbags will want to go for the AWD versions with the back moon roof, because it makes camping an awesome experience. With a bed laid in the back, you can go to sleep looking at the stars above and you also benefit from seriously improved ventilation when it’s hot.
The hooks and grab handles make it easy to hang stuff such as curtain poles and cargo nets, which means you probably won’t have to drill and glue and screw your stuff on the interior panels, thus eliminating a major pain in the ass. The recessed windows are easy to cover with cut-to-size sunshades or even cardboard if you want to do it on the ultra-cheap.
I haven’t really begun to seriously modify Dust-E for serious road trips yet, but I can already spend weekends on the road with the back seats flipped up and a memory-foam mattress in the back plus a couple bins full of gear. Things will only get better as the transformation happens.
In the next post of the series, we will go over a list of ways to improve a Honda Element for dirtbag lifestyle and look at some conversion options for you to choose from. You will soon realize this little vehicle has a lot to offer and not much to envy from bigger vans and rigs that can’t hold a candle to its utility as an urban vehicle.
I hope you like the adventure 🙂