Update: April 2, 2020—I started my nomadic, subielife journey before the current pandemic ensued, but with the state of the world, my journey is now on hold. On the bright side, I finally got the time to stay put to do some writing and finish this post. I hope you find the info in this post useful or at least entertaining to read while sheltering at home. Stay safe everyone! --Tony
What is subielife?
Have you ever wanted to take off with just a backpack and live anywhere in the world? I did, but the thought of living with just a single backpack still scares me (for now...).
So instead, I looked for other ways of being able to take off anytime and live anywhere, but with the comforts of a permanent home. That’s how I stumbled upon the #vanlife community. Vanlife seemed nearly perfect to me, but something was still a little off. Despite allowing for freedom of location, vanlife still involved owning and bringing around too much stuff. In addition, overseas travel can be limited.
That’s when it hit me—why not just downsize vanlife into something even smaller?
Subielife is pretty much vanlife in—you guessed it—a Subaru! The difference lies in the sacrifice of some living conveniences (such as space) for better mobility and less stuff to carry around. Additionally, since a Subaru is really just a car and not a fully decked out van build, I feel better about renting housing when I stay anywhere long-term and would like more space. I can even leave my subie behind for short periods to travel overseas, just like with backpacking.
In this post, I’ll go over how I have set up “Panda,” my Subaru Outback, for subielife. With this setup, I have successfully traveled across the US and back and stayed location independent even after my road trip. At the very moment of writing this post, I’m staying put due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but I expect to return to a nomadic subielife once things revert to normal.
Below is my setup as well as some resources if you’re interested in creating something similar for your own subielife adventures in the future.
- Dual Battery
- Cargo Box
- Water Tank
- Other Miscellaneous Items
Step one of subielife? Get a subie…duh! Panda is a base model 2020 Subaru Outback. Similar setups can be done for Outbacks of other years, other Subaru vehicles (i.e. the Crosstrek, Forester, or Ascent), or even non-Subaru vehicles (such as the Toyota 4Runner, but I guess it wouldn’t be subielife anymore then, would it?).
2. Dual Battery
When on the road or far away from civilization, it’s nice to have a way to power items such as cellphones, fans, lights, and even a small fridge. To have this convenience, I’ve installed a dual battery system in my subie.
A dual battery system consists of hooking up a secondary battery to the subie’s main car battery, which allows the secondary battery to be charged whenever I am driving. This secondary battery can then be used to power anything even when the subie is not running.
With such a setup, I practically have infinite electricity as long as I drive a couple hours each week to keep the secondary battery charged.
I use the Goal Zero Yeti 1400 as the dual battery linked with my subie’s main car battery. To create this setup, the following accessories are needed in addition to the Yeti 1400:
- Yeti Link Expansion Module – This expansion module is a required add-on to connect the Yeti 1400 to the subie’s main car battery and provide isolation so that the Yeti 1400 doesn’t drain the main battery.
- Male EC8 to Ring Terminal Cable and EC8 12Ft Extension Cable – These are the cables that need to be routed between the Yeti 1400 and the main battery to connect them and allow the Yeti 1400 to be charged.
Having a fridge that can run 24/7 in a subie? Sounds pretty extra, right? You’re right. It’s probably not necessary to have a fridge, but it is absolutely convenient. From storing cold drinks, to holding leftovers, to even keeping groceries fresh if I plan on doing some cooking…this is a small luxury that I do not regret having!
The fridge I use is the Dometic CF18.
Reviews of the Dometic CF18:
- Van Kookz – Dometic CF-18 Fridge/ Freezer Review
- The Vantasy Life – Van Life: Dometic CF 18 Fridge Review
Ah yes…the bed. If I’m going to be living the subielife, having a comfortable bed is essential. Unfortunately, there aren’t any pre-made bed platforms nor mattresses I could just purchase and throw into my subie. Fortunately, it wasn’t too hard to DIY my own bed platform and mattress set.
Having a bed platform creates a flat surface for the mattress and also has the added benefit of extra storage beneath the bed. Below are resources and inspiration I used to create my own bed platform.
- VanKookz – 2009 Subaru Camper Blueprints
- Jordanmaki – A Place to Call Home: Build Out for a Subaru Outback
- Erin Outdoors – Guest Post: How to Turn Your Subaru Outback Into a Camper
- Nick John- Subaru Outback LIVING CONVERSION
- NakedintheWild – How to be a Dirtbag 101-Living in Your Car
- Pair of Drifters – Car Camper Conversion Under 100 Dollars | Subaru Outback Tour
- LesGoes – Platform Bed for Subaru Forester/SUV
Once I had a bed-platform, the next step was to add in a super comfortable mattress!
The mattress I have is the Zinus 5″ Memory Foam Mattress* (Quick shoutout to Parked in Paradise, where I got the mattress recommendation from).
*Note that this is a full-size mattress (53″ x 72″), which is a little too wide to fit into a Subaru Outback. The width had to be cut down by 10″ in order to fit into the subie. This was easily done by removing the mattress cover and cutting the foam underneath with a kitchen knife. The final mattress dimensions are 43″ x 72″.
Proper ventilation is crucial if I’m going to spend an extended amount of time in my subie. Having the windows up when camping in any small vehicle will lead to depletion of oxygen, build up of carbon monoxide, lots of condensation, and no air circulation. The solution? Rolling down the windows. 🙃
But wait, what if it rains and what about mosquitoes and other bugs that come around during the summer? I’m glad you asked…
To be able to roll down the windows when it’s raining or snowing, I installed window deflectors. Subaru makes really sleek and easy-to-install OEM deflectors for Outbacks and other subies.
OEM deflectors can be purchased online at better prices than at car dealers. I got my deflectors at Subaru Online Parts.
If you end up ordering and installing OEM window deflectors yourself, they will come with a set of installation instructions. Check out this video for an example of how deflectors are installed. Note that actual installation will vary depending on the subie’s model and year.
Now, what about those bugs?? The last thing I wanted was to wake up in the morning with a swarm of mosquitoes in my subie. Luckily, I was able to find a solution in the form of an obscure part known as car window vents.
Primarily used in the world of car rallying, window vents are a way to allow for airflow while keeping windows rolled up and not having to use a car’s A/C system. These parts slide on top of your subie’s windows and have circular holes in them to allow for airflow. Additionally, the holes can have mesh in them to act as a bug/dust screen while still allowing airflow.
The windows vents I have were made by Billetworkz and have foam mesh in them.
Windows vents are a rather obscure item to find. If you don’t have a shop nearby that can make them, and can’t find them online for your specific subie, here are a couple alternative options…
- Use a one-size-fits-all sunshade like this.
- Make DIY window vents. It probably won’t be as clean looking, but it’s better than having the creepy crawlers in your subie. Here are some resources:
The last crucial item for ventilation is having a fan. In many vanlife setups, a rooftop mounted fan is the way to go. However, that involves cutting a giant hole on top of my subie…definitely not something I wanted to do. Additionally, I already have a cargo box up there. So what’s the next best thing? Getting a portable fan to run inside! Definitely not as efficient as a rooftop fan, but hey—it does the job.
The fan I use is the O2COOL 10-Inch Portable Smart Power® Fan.
I found it was best to run the fan off of DC power for lowest power consumption. Since I already used the 12V DC port on the Yeti 1400 for my fridge, I had to purchase an additional adapter to be able to run the fan on DC with the Yeti 1400 as well.
6. Cargo Box
You probably think there isn’t much space while living the subielife. Well, you’re right. There isn’t much space at all. With the bed taking up most of the back, where do I keep any extra stuff like essential supplies (toilet paper, jumper cables, etc.), miscellaneous gear (for hiking, climbing, and other adventures), or even extra clothes? The answer—in a roof-mounted cargo box!
The cargo box I use is the Yakima Skybox 16.
When the sun goes down, the stars come out, and although they are beautiful, they aren’t bright enough to light up my subie at night. This is where having additional lighting, such as a solar lantern, is useful if I need to find something in the dark.
The lantern I use is the Goal Zero Crush Light.
8. Water Tank
Having a supply of water is crucial for any long road trip. However, since I did not plan to be far away from civilization for the most part, I decided on a smaller tank to save on space.
The water tank I use is a 3.5 Gallon Water Tank by WaterBrick with a spigot for easy dispensing.
Note on safety: I keep this tank in the back of my subie on top of the mattress. One thing to keep in mind is that anything on top of the mattress can come flying up towards the windshield if not secured when suddenly braking. Thus, for safety, the tank is secured with a quickdraw to the subie’s backseat latch catch.
When living the subielife in more remote areas, it can be quite the magical view looking out the windows and sleeping under the stars...but what happens if I find myself in a city and decide to stay there for a night? It would definitely not be magical to wake up with a stranger looking in from outside. 😱😱
Thankfully, there are a couple options to increase privacy...
The first thing for additional privacy is adding window tint.
If you happen to be in the SF Bay Area and need window tinting, I recommend this shop in San Mateo, CA. Ask for their ceramic tint for better thermal performance.
But even with window tint, there is not true privacy since light can still pass through. For true privacy, I needed to make myself a DIY set of window covers...
Below are resources I used to create my window covers:
- Ethan Maurice – How to Make Beautiful Blackout Window Shades for a Camper Van (or Honda Element)
- Sara & Alex James – 40 Hours of Freedom – VAN LIFE: Custom Reflectix Window Coverings for Insulation & Privacy
I’ll be honest, although I originally did have a cooking setup in my subie, I’ve only ever used it once. Eating out with friends and exploring the local cuisine is much more fun and less of a hassle than cooking on the road.
But what about when I’m not in a city and have no access to restaurants? Well, it turns out having food in the fridge along with a stock of non-perishable foods has been more than enough for me, even if I were in the wilderness for a week. Thus, after about 3 months of subielife, I have decided to remove the cooking setup from my subie completely.
11. Other Miscellaneous Items
The above sections cover the major items in my subielife setup, but there are a few miscellaneous items I have also brought along for convenience and safety. Below is a list of some items I’ve found useful to have.
- Nalgene bottle - For when nature calls and there’s no bathroom nor nature around... (P.S. My female friends tell me a funnel may be useful to have, too. 🙃)
- Microfiber towel - How else to dry off after a shower?
- Laundry supplies – Detergent pods (much more convenient than liquid and powder) and plastic trash bags to separate out dirty clothes.
- Portable vacuum - Gotta keep my subie clean!
- Safety items:
- Offline GPS – I have both my phone with offline maps downloaded and a dedicated GPS device with offline maps. Perhaps one day we will have absolute WiFi coverage across the globe, but until then, better to be safe and keep offline options handy.
- Carbon monoxide monitor – Definitely needed when car camping. I found that this monitor did pick up small traces of CO (from me breathing!) if windows are rolled up. This is why I highly suggest having window vents and always leaving the windows cracked even if the weather outside is freezing.
- Rain‑X De-Icer® Windshield Washer Fluid – Although warned by my coworker beforehand, I forgot to change out my wiper fluid before getting to Washington, D.C. and my lines froze overnight in January. 😅
- Portable jump starter or at least jumper cables – I haven’t had to use these, but a good safety item to carry for any vehicle.
- Personal locator beacon (PLB) – For the off chance that I wander into the wilderness. Having peace of mind knowing I can have help come my way in the most dire of circumstances is very relieving.
Whew, that was a lot...
If you’ve gotten this far, I hope that you have enjoyed seeing my setup. If you’re interested in trying out the subielife yourself, I hope and you now have all the info to get started. As always, if you would like to know more about anything, please feel free to send me a message anytime.