The Sailing Car Camper

“Mr. Elon,” I thought of him before I found out he was Richard Chaytor. The Elon University sweat shirt he wore was homage to his daughter’s alma mater; I later learned. When I first walked past his campsite at Lake Powhatan Recreation Area outside of Asheville, North Carolina, I noted that he only had a car: I presumed he was packed up and ready to go. The next day I walked by his campsite again, and he was still there. I stopped to chat. It turns out, his car was his camper, and he was staying at Lake Powhatan, soon to start a four-month car camping tour of the western states.

Mr Elon
Richard Chaytor (Mr Elon)

“Seventy-six years young,” he told me, as introduction to his story of growing up an army brat, never living in one place very long. Born in Singapore, his grandfather a New Zealander, he was bred to travel, and that he does. He grew up in the United Kingdom after the war and remembers rations, picking up nails to sell, and learning to be resourceful and frugal. Those traits were aptly exhibited by his well-organized car life, ready for another solo car camping adventure. 

His life has been a continual adventure. Richard learned to sail in Malaysia where he began to build and repair boats. He worked on boats in Australia and Mombasa, Kenya. In the United States, his boat building career took place in Deer Island, Maine; there he eventually had a gift shop and worked in a boat yard on the Maine Coast.

However, staying in one place was never long lived for Richard because he is a wander-luster at heart. “I never wanted a home or to be tied down to a mundane life” he said; “I like to meet different people because it’s really interesting to find out about what they’ve done.” He managed his need for an income and travel by saving money for several years and then taking eighteen months off.

He has traveled to Afghanistan, Kashmir, India, Nepal, Burma, Thailand, and Malaysia. Another one of his great adventures was shipping a car to Uruguay and traveling through South America and the Andes Mountains. He also drove across Canada to British Columbia, drove a Volkswagen Beetle across the United States two times, and traveled around Alaska.

Now, at age 76, he prefers shorter, four-month trips, in large measure to get out of hot summers in South Carolina where he lives part of the year. He outfitted his Honda in 2013 and began test runs in the Smokey Mountains, fine tuning his passenger-side car bed, food organization in the hatchback, and snap-on canvas and screen panels, used on boats, for bug control and ventilation - all skills from his boat building days that he has applied to his current “Sailing Car Camper.”

Canvas & Screen Panel

Canvas & Screen Panel

To prepare for his four-month adventures in the United States, he did test runs in local areas and then spent the winter months modifying his equipment and car outfitting. Preparing food for four months and cooking on a tiny Coleman stove took a lot of practice. Richard tries to eat salad every day, and lots of canned chicken, curry, oranges, and oatmeal. Soaking rice and lentils in a jar of water in the sun for an hour helps them cook quickly. Richard constantly experiments with his culinary efforts. For example, drinking tea can help cover the taste of bad, local water. 

Hatchback Storage
Richard Chaytor is a brave man, but he is also pragmatic and aware of staying safe. He tries to let rangers know where he is when in remote areas. When he decides where he is going next—on a day-by-day basis and never in advance—he writes the road numbers in big letters on paper, so he doesn’t have to use his GPS when traveling. He also keeps a journal of where he’s been, who he’s met, information about National Forestry Campgrounds (where he often stays: $7/nightly), free camp grounds, boondocking, Army Core of Engineers, and information from the Bureau of Land Management.  

His latest trips have taken him to Bryson, Arches, Canyonlands, Zion, and the Redwoods, where the views are “unbelievably dramatic,” and the “redwoods are tall and majestic above an underbrush of ferns and bracken.” A man who “never books ahead and never knows where I’m going,” Richard is a traveling Sailing Car Camper with a zest for travel that is extraordinary. Sitting around the campfire and chatting with Richard Chaytor is a treat beyond measure. I hope we meet him again somewhere out West, in the near future. Happy Car Sailing, Richard!

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