Everything You Need to Turn Any Car Into a Camper Van

Who hasn’t thought about going off the grid? Just climbing into your car, driving into the sunset, and leaving the world behind sounds wonderful in these stressful times. But if you don’t have the budget to go and buy an RV fear not, turning your car into a camper van isn’t all that tricky. All you need is some basic camping equipment and then, at the end of the day, you use your car as the tent. Just don’t complain if you get some dirt on the seats, because you will.

Man preparing to sleep in trunk of car
Man Sleeping In Trunk | John Sunderland/The Denver Post via Getty Images

Sleeping accommodations, and a trunk big enough for them

While you could certainly sleep in the front seat of your car, it’s ideal to actually have a bed in the back. If you drive something like a Chevy Tahoe, you could fit an actual bed back there (likely a twin, but still). But if you lack cargo space, you may have to whip out some DIY camper van skills.

We’d suggest buying foam and cutting it up to fit your trunk’s dimensions since not all trunks are the same size and the wheel wells often get in the way. Use as many layers as you need to make your bed poofy enough, and then cover it with a sheet you don’t mind getting dirty. From there, all you need is a sleeping bag or some blankets, which most people have lying around anyways.

Sedans are at a severe disadvantage, as it’s hard to access and lie in the trunk if it’s not a hatch. For this, we’d suggest turning your backseat into the sleeping area. To do this, you’ll need to find a way to flatten the area, filling the footwells for the rear passengers, and then putting foam on top of that. The downside is that, at maximum, you could only bring one other person, and it’d be pretty cramped while you sleep in the car. But this does give you full access to your trunk, which can carry the rest of the equipment you need.

A power source for your camper gizmos and gadgets

Goal Zero Power Station
Goal Zero Power Station | Goal Zero

Most cars are riddled with USBs and 12-volt outlets that you could use to power your phone chargers and other small electronics. Some cars even come with traditional power outlets, such as the 2021 Toyota Sienna. But always consult your owner manual, and never plug in more power than the battery can handle.

If your car lacks power outlets, however, we wouldn’t suggest using it as a generator. Doing so requires you to either a.) rely on the 12-volt battery, which could die if you use it too long, or b.) keep the engine idling for an extended period of time. This wears out the components and uses an excessive amount of oil, so it does more harm than good.

The easiest solution is an external power source. If you just need to charge your phones, just grab a cheap portable charger and you’re good to go. And while you’re grabbing gizmos, you may want a fan depending on where you live. If, however, the appliances you use require more power, look into purchasing a generator.

There are gas generators, but those are noisy and require constant upkeep. Personally, I’ve used the Goal Zero solar and electric generators in my own camper van, which provide noise and fume-free power. Depending on how much energy you need, you can purchase one for only $200.

Food storage and cooking supplies

Portable Cooking Equipment
Portable Cooking Equipment | Getty Images

While you could just run to some fast-food chain for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, it feels a bit like cheating. Camping is all about adapting to your new environment, and this should include food. That being said, you don’t have to give up any of the amenities you’re used to even though you’re sleeping in a car.

Depending on how big of an electric generator you buy, you could also go all-electric with your stove as well. Those electric hot plates can be as low as 30 dollars, and make cooking easier and safer. However, if you’re comfortable with propane (and propane accessories), then a gas grill might be better. They cost a bit more, but are more thorough and don’t take as long to heat up.

But if you’re cooking meat, you have to find a way to keep it cool. The simplest solution is to just grab a cooler and fill it with ice, and stuff your food in there. But ice can melt and make everything wet, which is why, if you can swing it, we suggest investing in a 12-volt cooler/refrigerator. Most hatchbacks and SUVs have an outlet in the trunk, so you don’t even have to keep it upfront with you.

These are just baseline suggestions, and there’s obviously more you may want. Tables and chairs, entertainment, and the correct clothes just to name a few. But camping, whether you’re in a tent or a camper car, can be a great way to reconnect with nature, or just get away from the world.

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