Camping is a grand tradition where we get out of town and become one with nature. OK, it’s actually a multimillion-dollar business where you buy as much gear as possible to keep you as comfortable as possible while you sleep on the ground after a night of heavy drinking. I’m mostly kidding (not really), but the notion of using your daily driver as a mobile campsite is easier than you might imagine.
Although the industry wants you to fork over all your hard-earned cash, outfitting your vehicle to enjoy the great outdoors can actually be pretty inexpensive — if done correctly. And having a relatively comfortable outing in the back of your SUV or truck can be as easy as finding the right gear and deciding which type of camping experience you prefer. It just takes a bit of know-how and education, and you too can enjoy a stress-free camping experience.
We enjoy life in the wild much more than being chained to our desks, so we’re going to take you through a few options to turn your vehicle into a mobile campsite without spending thousands of dollars. If you do want to spend thousands of dollars, though, we’ll tell you how to do that, too.
The Safety Briefing
Safety first, campers! Here are a few quick tips to keep you alive during your vehicle-camping experience. The good folks at KOA have a good primer for camp safety, and my own experience has taught me a few tips I’d like to highlight.
First, watch the weather. While we’re not quite to a “Back to the Future” reality where Doc Brown accurately forecasts weather down to the second, we’re close. Do thorough and regular checks of the weather for your camping destination ahead of your travel dates and just before you leave. Pack clothing for a variety of scenarios: rain, heat, wind, snow, or whatever might turn your way.
Next, ensure that you have enough food and water. Even if you are semi-close to civilization, it just takes one road washout to leave you stuck out in the wilderness. Keep your food safe as well. Use tight containers, ideally waterproof ones. They will keep things not only nice and fresh, but they’ll also reduce the likelihood of critters taking a run at your delicious stash. Protecting your food from bears requires a much higher level of protection, according to the U.S. Forest Service. Otherwise, storing your food in the vehicle is a great option, if you have space.
Bringing along basic protections such as sunblock and bug spray can make your trek a bit more enjoyable. Finally, toting along a first-aid kit sounds a little obvious — something you may have learned as a Boy or Girl Scout — but it’s essential. Check out the EVERLIT 250-Piece Survival First-Aid Kit, which has everything you’ll need in a handy bag.
The Inside Gear You’ll Need
The best part about vehicle camping is that you won’t have to struggle with setting up a tent. Your vehicle is the tent. However, vehicle camping is typically a one- to two-person max-capacity situation. In case a few friends might like to tag along, I purchased a LETHMIK Pop-Up Tent. It comes out of the bag and almost immediately pops into place. You just need to drop a tarp, stake it into place and pop it. It takes a couple of attempts to get it up smoothly, but setup time can be measured in seconds versus minutes.
You’ll also need something to sleep on and in. I typically like a good cot when tent camping, but the confined space inside a vehicle means you’ll need a lower-profile option. I recommend a camping mat if you want to go minimalist or an air mattress if you have space. You can get started with a basic roll-out mat, such as the TETON Camp Pad, which is available in a variety of sizes, or a Coleman air mattress, which is akin to a full-blown bed. From there, just pick your favorite sleeping bag.
Be sure to measure the space between your wheel wells to see what size bedding you can fit. Before the first cross-country trip, my wife and I took, I bought a futon mattress off Craigslist and shaved off some of the stuffing so it would fit in our Jeep Wrangler Unlimited. We left the back seats down for the entire trip, then tossed our bags upfront for a few truck-stop overnights. A nice middle ground between a full-size mattress and a camping pad is the Klymit Insulated Static V Sleeping Pad. It’s a cost-effective inflatable sleeping cushion that’s easy to inflate and takes up a small space in the gear bin.
Next, you gotta eat and drink. I typically use a basic storage bin. Rubbermaid makes a nice locking version called the ActionPacker, which should keep your food safe and sound, but just about any bin will do. We still recommend leaving the food inside your car for extra protection for foraging animals. A cooler such as Coleman’s 50-quart wheeled cooler is a good bet. A full-on water-storage solution, such as the Reliance Products Desert Patrol 6-Gallon Rigid Water Container, is a good option. I took something similar in my Jeep on the last cross-country trip where remote camping was the plan.
Finally, you need power. I typically bring along a basic battery-powered charger to keep my devices connected. This FosPower Emergency Solar Hand-Crank Portable Radio is a great option and even has a hand crank. There are also a bunch of other solar options, so depending on your site setup, you can keep the batteries topped up.
How To Outfit Your Vehicle in Order To Camp Properly
The actual outfitting of a vehicle can go from mild to wild, but the general spectrum goes from “I slept in the back of my Jeep” to “I bought a purpose-built overland vehicle.”
Option 1. Run What You Have
It is as simple as it sounds. Nearly every sport-utility vehicle or crossover is a ready-made camper.
As my wife and I were planning a big cross-country trip just before we got married, we did a test run. We booked a campsite for a weekend and showed up with the aforementioned modified Craigslist futon, a bin of basics, a bag of food, and some adult beverages. There’s no better way than to just do it. You’ll learn from your experience in a low-consequence environment, meaning relatively close to home or at least to a convenience store. It’s a great way to see what works and what doesn’t.
We quickly realized that during our upcoming warm-weather cross-country drive, we would need a way to stay cool at night, so basic additions such as a mesh window curtain allowed us to keep the windows open at night while keeping the bugs out. They also helped keep the interior cooler with UV protection from the morning sun. I recently grabbed a two-pack of battery-powered O2COOL Treva Portable 5-Inch fans to clip on to the interior trim bits and circulate some air.
You can also hang towels with binder clips, clothespins, or Velcro to give you some much-needed privacy while also keeping the vehicle dark in the morning.
Option 2. Add a Rooftop or Attachable Tent
The next phase is a bit more expensive but might be worth it if you plan to vehicle camp with any regularity. If you are a truck or an SUV owner looking for more space, you’ll want to consider how to add shelter to your vehicle, such as a rooftop or side-space tent. I’ve had the opportunity to check out both, and they have their pluses and minuses.
Options such as the Smittybilt Overlander Tent are pretty popular, especially in the Jeep community. It’s not that simple, however, as you’ll need to have a set of factory or aftermarket crossbars to mount it to that are rated for the total weight of the tent, its tenants, and whatever gear you might have up there. These tents live fairly flat before you set it atop your vehicle and somewhat easily fold over/open. It gives you a decent-sized two- or three-person tent and keeps you off the ground, which can help with moisture and animal control.
Another option is the pop-up tent. The KingCamp Rooftop Tent is very similar to the RoofNest tent we used during Overland Expo East. They are more expensive than the average fold-out rooftop tent but can be a bit more simple to set up. Of note, my colleague Kamil from Hooniverse bravely volunteered to “pop down” the RoofNest when one of its interior struts failed. I thought we had lost him.
Truck owners can also check out the Guide Gear Full-Size Truck Tent, which affixes to the bed of your pickup to maximize your overnight camping experience. There are also more-robust solutions, most of which require modifications to the bed of the truck to support the tent, such as the Body Armor 20010 SKY RIDGE PIKE Two-Person Tent. Some cool high-end options exist, such as a 50TEN tray tent, which adds a semi-permanent shelter to your truck.
Option 3. Go Full Overlander
A “rig” in the overland world is a purpose-built vehicle intended to go off-road and accommodate guests. This is not your average daily driver, and they go from pretty basic to “Wow, that costs more than my house.” This is definitely not for the average #vanlifer and may be something to get into over time.
The Car Bibles Questionnaire
Car Bibles answers all your burning questions!
Q: Is it expensive to outfit my vehicle for camping?
A: Not necessarily. You can probably pull it off with nothing more than some basic supplies, a comforter, and a pillow. However, the more you do it, the more you’ll start to understand how to improve the experience, and that’s where it starts costing you dolla bills.
Q: Where can I park while camping on a road trip?
A: It will vary from state to state, and some locations charge a small fee to park overnight. Other full-on campsites will obviously cost more but have real amenities such as electric hookups and bathrooms. On a long road trip, you can typically utilize a truck-stop parking lot. Just don’t park near refrigerated trucks as they are quite noisy.
Q: Can I camp in my car?
A: Sure, but most won’t give you the ability to stretch out on a flat surface the way an SUV or a truck will. There are options such as the SAYGOGO Inflatable Car Air Mattress Travel Bed that are actually intended to go across the back seat of a vehicle.
Q: Where do I put my stuff if I’m sleeping in the vehicle?
A: Generally, up front. I typically ensure that whatever bags and bins I have will stack up in the driver and passenger seat. Keep critical items such as keys, wallet, and cell phone accessible just in case, but the less you have in the rear, the more room you have for sleeping — or whatever you crazy kids plan to do back there.
Video Tutorial on Outfitting Your Vehicle for Camping
Let our own Andrew Collins talk you through how he outfitted his Montero for slumber while camping.
Best Places To Buy Gear To Outfit Your Vehicle for Camping
The short answer is just about anywhere. If you are the kind of person who needs to touch and feel stuff, head to your local outdoor equipment store. Walmart also has a robust outdoor section.
I typically just pop onto Amazon and start browsing their camping and hiking-gear section. Several well-reviewed options are available via Prime, and I recently bought a camping shovel, some chairs, and all the aforementioned tent and sleeping gear. If you can’t find it in there, tweet @Jeff Bezos and complain.
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