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No Van? Try These 10 Car Camping Tips

This post was updated on June 27th, 2023

Maximize Your Comfort & Convenience With These Car Camping Hacks

Sometimes in life, you just have to work with what you’ve got. While beautiful, converted vans have stolen the camping spotlight, there are other vehicles that are waiting in the wings–including your own. If you don’t own a van but have an SUV, minivan, truck, or another hatchback vehicle, there are many ways that you can turn it into a great car camping expeience.

The best thing? The conversion does not have to cost a small fortune.

Different vehicles are going to have a wide range of interior space and setups. However, the main challenge with converting a car into a camper is the lack of headroom. You may not be able to stand up inside these vehicles, but there are ways to integrate the necessary sleeping, cooking, eating, and even bathing areas.

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To Platform or Not to Platform?

In various videos and blog posts, you will see owners building out the back of their vehicles with a sleeping platform. These platforms allow for raised sleeping with space underneath for storage and maybe even a cooking space.

While these platforms do allow for a ton of extra storage, your headroom will suffer. It will also be more difficult to get in and out of bed, and making the bed is more of a challenge.

If you don’t have the building skills, the time, or the money to build out a platform, then it’s perfectly okay not to have one. In fact, we advocate keeping any kind of car camper as simple as possible.

Here are 10 tips for successful car camping if you don’t have a van.

1. Create a Semi-Permanent Bed When Car Camping

One of the best things about sleeping in your car is knowing that you have a ready-to-go bed with you all the time. Set up a semi-permanent bed with a thick mattress, pillows, and bedding to make your SUV feel more like a tiny home. In addition, when you have your bed ready to go, you can avoid doing the dreaded nightly setup in a dark campsite or busy Walmart parking lot. Use something like a folding or adjustable tatami mattress to allow for both sleeping and sitting options.

2. Use Soft-Sided Bags for Storage

With your bed set up most of the time, you are going to be snuggling up to all your other gear. Make sure that gear is stored in soft-sided duffel bags or totes to make your entire space just a little bit more soft and comfy. Clothes, packaged foods, tools, extra bedding, and other gear can go into these bags.

3. Store Items in Their Designated Places

Anyone who goes camping knows that being organized is very important to keep from going a little batty. Having a place for all your items and putting them back into those places every time will save time and headaches. In addition to smart storage, color coding these items will also be helpful. Having designated colored bags for items will help you find them quickly.

4. Hang Up as Much as Possible

Put up some simple hooks, straps, or seatback organizers to hang up clothing, towels, hats, headlamps, or other gear to keep it up and off the floor. Hanging items are also easier to find in what can quickly become a cluttered space. Consequently, for this extra space, there is no need to drill any holes. Use S-Hooks, two-sided Velcro straps, or bungee cords over passenger handles to hang even more items.

5. Find a Solution for Garbage When Car Camping

In a tiny space, one of the main challenges is figuring out what to do with garbage. Keep trash and recycling in a dedicated place to make it easier to deal with. Use a plastic food storage container or dog food container with an airtight lid to keep smells out of your vehicle.

In addition, take a cue from the overlanding crowd and place your trash in an outdoor bag like a Trasharoo. These bags keep trash away from small critters and birds but still might attract larger animals such as bears or stray dogs.

6. A Folding Table is Your Best Friend

A small, folding camp table can take the place of a more elaborate platform system. It can be everything from a table to eat and cook on to a place to put your soap and shampoo while showering with a camp shower. Small folding tables from Walmart or Amazon are inexpensive and can be tucked away easily in any space.

7. Pack Precooked and Packaged Food

We advocate eating as much fresh food as possible. However, being able to store simple, prepackaged food in your car will give you the opportunity to have a quick, healthy meal on the go. Precooked rice and pasta packets, Indian meals, cans of tuna, and raw vegetables and fruit do not need to be refrigerated and can be cooked up in minutes.

8. Try Out Different Stoves for Car Camping

The typical two-burner Coleman stove may be great for tent camping or van camping but may not work the best for car camping. These stoves can be large and bulky and difficult to store. Depending on your space, try out various stoves, like a packable backpacking stove or a butane stove.

9. Keep Power and Water Simple

It will be tempting to have all the power and water systems available in a fully converted van. However, keeping your power and water systems simple will save money upfront and frustration later down the road. For water, check out the USB rechargeable faucets from Amazon. These simple faucets can be attached to a variety of water containers and don’t require power to run. For a simple sink, just use a mixing bowl like this woman who camps in her Toyota 4Runner.

For power, there are so many portable generators available on the market that can power up devices or run a portable refrigerator. Plugging these generators into your vehicle while driving will keep them charged up. Many of these generators will also come with their own portable solar panels.

10. For Extra Space, Add a Tent

It’s so great to see so many manufacturers that now design and build products just for car camping. One of these companies is Napier Outdoors. They make tents specifically for SUVs that attach to the back and essentially add an extra room to your vehicle. This room can be used for sleeping, cooking, eating, or even taking a private shower.

What are other car camping tips we could add to this list?

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2 thoughts on “No Van? Try These 10 Car Camping Tips”

  1. Some interesting ideas. But if I cannot stand up inside, I do not want it; been thru that years ago, and not repeated it since. Even the VW camper I had was equipped by a small square popup that provided standing space, a world of difference.
    An option would be to put a high top, or even a pop top (not my personal choice), on a van or SUV.

  2. Forgot. If I was going this route I would get something longer than a regular SUV. I would opt for something like a Suburban, or Dodge Grand Caravan, longer wheelbase, meaning increased room.

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