Ten Inventive Attempts to Make Camping More Comfortable

Making a stay in the great outdoors more luxe isn’t new—even if glamping and #vanlife are

bunk bed trailer.jpg
Monon and Ottily Bayer, the daughters of Mr. and Mrs. Otto Bayer of Costamesa, California, pose in a small, "bunk bed" trailer at their campground in the Shasta National Forest. California, August 1953. Corbis via Getty Images

“Home is where you park it,” one now-famous Instagram influencer Foster Huntington—a former New York designer at Ralph Lauren—titled his Kickstarter campaign when he traded his fast-paced, high-pressure life behind for days on the road in a suped-up Volkswagon camper in 2013. Now, #vanlife on Instagram has racked up nearly 6 million posts of folks chronicling their adventures in conversion vans, retrofitted school buses and other motorhomes.

Part of glamping—or glamorous camping—is staying in decked out airstreams and trailers in gorgeous places without sacrficing amenities. As advertised on Glamping.com, some of these vehicles can run for more than $300 per night depending on the location. These amped up recreational vehicles have perks like TVs, air conditioning, multiple queen-sized beds, luxurious slide-out additions for more space, mini-kitchens, electricity and so much more.

But downsizing and escaping to the great outdoors is certainly not a new phenomenon—even if trending topics on Instagram make it seem that way. A browse through the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office archives shows that inventors have been trying to figure out ways to take beds and kitchens on the road with them for a long time. In honor of this human pursuit, we’ve pulled a few of the more quirky patents from the last century that have paved the way for today’s car campers.

Folding Camp Bed and Tent, 1917

An early iteration of the pop-up camper looked and opened more like a book, folding at a hinged pivot point not unlike the spine of a hardcover novel. Inventor George Chapman of Fort Collins, Colorado, describes the contraption in his 1917 patent: “[The] objects of my improvement are to provide a simple, roomy, combination of folding tent and beds of substantial build yet relatively light in weight, capable of being very quickly set up or folded.” He goes on to explain that the beds would automatically unfold and a tented roof would rise when opened; then, the whole thing would automatically reverse itself when closing.

Motor Vehicle Body, 1925

In 1925, Charles Turner of East St. Louis, Illinois, proposed something that, to the modern eye, looks like a cross between a Ford Model-T and an Airstream travel trailer, which would enter the scene in the 1930s. Technically speaking, his invention isn’t the vehicle, it’s the object mounted on it. He writes in the patent: “[The] body is given stream-line as much as possible and in cross-section is generally cylindrical or tubular.” The whole bit is made of sheet metal, with a door on one side that’s curved with the shape of the chambered cab. Inside, there’s a cot or bed frame with a mattress. His targeted consumers were tourists, campers and sportsmen needing shelter on the move. “The necessity of stopping before dark and to locate a suitable camp site and then the work of making camp for the night as well as the work of breaking up the camp in the morning [...] are avoided by my invention.”

Tourist Car, 1930

For the indecisive campers out there, Harry Berneking of Cypress, Illinois, invented a so-called "tourist car" that included indoor and outdoor sleeping chambers—and a playpen attachment for a baby. In the patent, he writes: “The bed compartment is defined by walls built in a side wall of the car body by swinging doors. When the bed is not in use outside of the compartment is closed by the platform. Should it be desirable to sleep inside, the doors are opened and the bed places within the car.” The outside portion comes with collapsible flooring with a portion that can be altered into a couch of sorts. There also seems to be a rather elaborate convertible furniture unit that can transform into a playpen, a lawn swing or a loveseat.

Motor Car with Trailer For Camping, 1935

In 1935, Antoine Marie Louis Levoyer of Paris, France, invented what he described in a patent as “a motor-car and a trailer for camping, the trailer being arranged so as to be connected with said motor-car for travelling or to be transformed into a camping bungalow at halting places.” That certainly sounds bougie enough, but it looks sort of like a miniature semi cab with a long-haul truck attachment. The car can be driven without the trailer with a cute-looking removable hood that resembles a collapsible baby stroller hood. The “camping bungalow” attachment has removable walls that can be arranged into a number of independent rooms. Levoyer proposed that it could be used for more than just camping, perhaps also as a traveling store.

Vehicle Accessory, 1940

Shifting away from trailer-attachment campers, this 1940 invention patented by Ray Strauss of Madison, Wisconsin, turned the roof of a vehicle into a tent with a bed inside and a swing down ladder. The tent unfurls with a sort of crank, pop-up spring system; bows in each corner keep the walls, which seem to be secured by snaps, raised, and adjustable metal bars hold the roof aloft. Let’s hope that’s enough to prevent you from rolling off!

Combination Boat and Trailer, 1952

Here we have a camper trailer with a boat that can be stored upside-down on the trailer’s roof. The objective of Richard Somers’ patented invention was to make something that can be used by hunters, fisherman and sportsmen on short-haul trips on rugged terrain. By prioritizing power over space in the living quarters, the San Pedro, California-based inventor aimed to create something that would withstand the path less traveled while keeping the bells and whistles of the camper to a minimum.

Camping Apparatus for Station Wagons, 1959

With the rising popularity of station-wagons in the 1950s, inventor Allen B. Coon, Jr. of Pasadena, California, designed a collapsible kitchen area for the trunk of the vehicle. It had enough space to fit a stove, wash basin, water supply, cooking utensils and, as the patent states, “the foundation for a bed.” With the back-seat laid flat for a bed, the kitchen area in the trunk could be pulled outside of the vehicle like a drawer so as to not smoke-out the sleeping quarters.

Combination Camper and Boat, 1970

Want a camper and a houseboat, but feeling too indecisive to choose one or the other? Well, inventor Gerald Platt of Salt Lake City, Utah, understood your plight. Platt’s transportable home, patented in 1970, fit comfortably in the back of a pickup truck for transportation by road. Then, you could flip the whole thing over and the roof became the hull of a houseboat.

RV with Floating Second Floor, 1994

Sure, the whole point of a camper is to downsize while you’re on the move, but who says you have to sacrifice all that space? Raymond and Hilde Smith of North Tonawanda, New York, hold a patent for a recreational vehicle with a first floor and a telescoping second floor. (Because double decker vehicles shouldn’t be restricted to big-city tours, clearly.) The innovation doesn’t stop there: they also crafted a lift mechanism and pulley system to act as an elevator between floors. A bathroom opposite the elevator can also change floors.

Camper-Trailer Combo with Collapsible Canopy, 2007

Believe it or not this patent for a covered wagon is from 2007—not the 1700s. Indeed, the inventor John Ray of Maryville, Tennessee, cites the iconic Conestoga wagons as inspiration. Surely a hit with hipsters, this camper trailer has four half-circle shaped bars that can fold down for compact storage. Travelers can remove the bars and use the contraption as a utility trailer.

Get the latest stories in your inbox every weekday.