Dream big, live small. At least, that’s how Kat Carney sees it. When the adventure photographer and her then-boyfriend, now-husband Craig Kinsley wanted to maximize their travel stoke while minimizing their cash outflow, they budgeted a relatively slim $10K to purchase and build out their very first home on wheels—and a very tiny one at that. The couple planned to cruise around North America full-time in their modified Chevy Suburban—that is, until Kinsley got a job, which kept him grounded back home in Rhode Island most of the year. Carney stuck to the plan, living full-time on the road, racking up clients like REI, Outdoor Research, and L.L. Bean while chasing sunsets around the American West. Of course, Kinsley came out to play from time to time, joining for canyoneering and climbing adventures, and a particularly epic month-long surf trip along the Baja, California coast. Carney’s now Phoenix-bound, where she’ll park their rig to serve as her satellite office between stints back east. Here’s what she has to say about making the most out of #trucklife.
Year, make and model?
2002 Chevy Suburban 4×4.
Does the vehicle have a name?
It does—it’s Hooper. We originally named it something else. Then we started driving it for a little while and we were like, that doesn’t really fit. Craig was like, “What about Hooper?” It has Cooper tires and Craig’s sister’s chinchilla’s name is Cooper…it just sounds cute. It fits the personality of the truck.
How did you get it?
We bought Hoop at some random used car salesperson’s place in San Diego. I’m pretty sure it was repo’d because the guy told us he bought it at an auction, so you’re very unsure of the history and that sort of thing, but we got it for a good price. It definitely smelled. There were Cheerios and dog hair everywhere. We pulled out all the seats, we vacuumed everything, and then we scrubbed all of the carpets with a mixture of vinegar and water and we kind of just let it soak for a little while. That took most of the smell out. I think we did that a couple times, and then maybe we shampooed the carpets as well.
We bought it in, I think, December 2015. Then we started building it out in May or June of 2016, and we built it out basically in seven days. We went hard, working, like, 12 hours a day. I was still working full-time and my husband was a professional track and field athlete training at the Olympic Training Center in Chula Vista. That was an Olympic year; he injured his elbow earlier in the season, so his Olympic dreams were over, but he turned all of his attention to building out the vehicle. I would go to work and then we have an amazing friend named Grinder—it’s his trail name, but that’s what everyone calls him—and he has a workshop in his garage, and so we just took it over. He’s also a brilliant engineer, so he was amazing in not only lending us the tools but his brain too. We had an idea of a design, and then he basically improved upon our design idea and helped us achieve it.
How did you modify it?
You can take out the back seat and that’s easily removable, but the second row of seats, those are bolted in, so you have to undo them and then you have to decide—am I going to cut the bolts, or am I not going to cut the bolts? Is this ever going to become a normal Suburban again? We decided to cut the bolts. That makes it easier to move about because the area where the bolts are is what we call the footwell; it’s the head of the bed, essentially.
We found this sliding drawer on Craigslist for, I think, 20 bucks. We essentially just built it into the bed platform. So in the Suburban, where the second row of seats is, it dips down a bit, so you have extra room there and that’s where we put the drawer. I ended up putting in foam dividers, kind of like you would see in a camera bag, so I can rest everything in there in an organized way. It even fits my underwater housing for my DSLR camera, and all my little point of view cameras have a place.
We ripped out the center console in between the two front seats, and we put a fridge in there. You can get snacks while you’re driving! It looks like it was built to be there. We cook outside of the truck, so we open the back door, which actually becomes a rain shield because it lifts up instead of opening out, and then you can flip up the mattress, because it’s a tri-fold mattress, and the sleeping platform is a perfect height table. We set up the propane stove and cutting board, and there’s enough space to make food and still be dry, even if it’s raining.
A lot of people are familiar with and comfortable with vans. When you’re living in a Suburban or something that’s a little bit smaller, you can’t stand up in it. You really have to be super, super smart with how you use your space; it’s like having a tiny house on steroids—or whatever the reverse of steroids is! A lot of initial ideas that we had about how to build out the space ended up not working because you think you have so much space, and then you do one thing and everything affects everything else, if that makes sense. So you have to really be careful about using every square inch. Lucky for me, Craig is really good at Tetris. So this is like an advanced game of Tetris.
I’m fascinated with how you figured out that Tetris to make it livable!
I feel like we got really lucky, not only with having our friend Grinder, who knows how to build things really and improved upon our initial plan. Our plan came about because one of my best friends was climbing Mt. Whitney and she met this guy in the parking lot with a Suburban who happened to manage the climbing gym that we go to in San Diego. When they both came back home, she connected us. We went to the parking lot of our climbing gym and saw his built-out Suburban and our minds were just blown.
We have these completely custom-built side shelves that fit perfectly and allow for a lot more organization basically, and he had a similar kind of set up with the side shelves. We saw his situation and we were like, this is brilliant, it looks super professional and beautiful, and we can totally do something like this. You don’t even know it’s happening when it’s happening, but it fell into place for us really having the perfect build.
How many states have you visited?
So, Mexico and Canada, and then— [digs out a map and begins rattling off state names, then proceeds to count them down]—probably close to 30 of the states.
What do you get up to out there?
The rest of November and part of December, I’m heading out to the Southwest. I have three different projects that I’m working on, so I will travel between locations. In between those work projects, I will shoot stuff that I just really like shooting, which is mostly night sky and canyons and climbing and that sort of thing.
Lack of community is my first thought. There is community, but it’s more like a nomadic community, so there are chunks of time when you are by yourself. I always have work to do, but if I don’t have an active project that I’m preparing for or wrapping up, you can feel a little bit aimless, I guess. It’s not as easy of a community as you might have when you live somewhere permanently; everywhere you go, you’re sort of reaching out to new people.
The bonus of that is that you have friends everywhere. You go to Arizona or New Mexico, Colorado, Utah, Nevada—you’re like, I need to get in touch with so and so or so and so. You meet a lot of different people in a lot of different places who might not otherwise have been part of your community.
Certainly, the reason we did it is the freedom to do what we want, to make our own schedules, and to see as much of North America as we could in the time that we had. You know, surfing the entire peninsula of Baja California is such an awesome and fun thing to do, and it was super challenging because we were learning to surf at the time. Now we surf twice a week, year-round, so really, it gives you the time and ability to learn things and try things that you might not otherwise get to. Who gets a month out of their year to go surf the entire peninsula of Baja California? Not that many people have that opportunity, so I’m really grateful.