Van life gets a lot of attention, but vans aren’t the only vehicles people are converting into campers.
Cars can also make great fuel-efficient campers.
If you’re considering converting your car into a camper, here are some tips to help you get started.
Some Cars Are Better Than Others
Before you get started with your build, you may want to consider whether or not your car is actually a good candidate for a camper. Not all cars can realistically be turned into campers.
This is especially true if you’re on the taller side or if you plan on traveling with another person. For example, a Mazda Miata will never make a good camper no matter how much planning or time you put into it.
On the other hand, a taller or longer car or hatchback like a Mazda 3 hatchback might make a great car camper. Measure the inside of the car you already have and consider getting another car if the one you have doesn’t measure up. Remember, the car you use for camping doesn’t have to be fancy and for a small budget of $2,000 or $3,000 you could end up with a really great fuel efficient car camper to use for your travels.
Condensation Can Make Camping Difficult
Dealing with condensation can be a real hassle in a tent. It can make your tent uncomfortably wet and it can lead to you having to air your tent out.
This being said, condensation in a car camper can be much worse. For starters, it will fog up your windows and ruin any chances you have for stealth camping. People will see your fogged up windows and will know you’re sleeping in there. Since many people get into car camping to take advantage of stealth camping opportunities, this can be a big deal.
Even if you aren’t stealth camping, condensation can still cause a lot of headaches. It can lead to you and all of your gear ending up wet each morning and a car is much more difficult to dry out than a tent is.
On top of this, the moisture can get into your car’s upholstery and can eventually lead to mold. Also, suffer through enough wet nights in your car camper and even your car’s electronics can begin to break down.
You’ll Need Ventilation
In case it isn’t obvious from the last tip, ventilation will be needed to help combat condensation. Many van campers install large RV fans on their roofs, but you won’t really have this option. Instead, you’ll need to take advantage of smaller ventilation methods.
One easy trick that works for most people is to simply crack the windows. You can make this easy by installing window guards so that rainwater cannot get in through cracked windows. Add a bit of screening to the open gap and you’ll be able to keep bugs from getting in as well.
Another option might be to add a small camping fan or two to your setup. You could place one facing inward on one side and another facing outward on another side to create a solid flow of air through your vehicle.
This will help keep you cool in warm temperatures and will reduce the amount of condensation that accumulates in your vehicle while you sleep.
Gas Heaters Won’t Be Safe
Some van camper builders like to use ventless propane heaters to keep their campers warm. I don’t think this is a good idea for keeping vans warm and I know that this is a terrible idea for keeping cars warm.
Even a ventless propane heater is going to raise carbon dioxide levels. In a small area like a car, these carbon dioxide levels can quickly cause asphyxiation. Also, carbon dioxide can cause hypercapnia, also known as carbon dioxide poisoning. This doesn’t have to result from just one night of running the heater either. Carbon dioxide can build up in the bloodstream over time so each time you use your heater, you’re putting yourself at risk.
On top of this, you also have to worry about carbon monoxide. Carbon monoxide is even more dangerous than carbon dioxide and kills over 430 people a year. Detectors can detect this gas but again, it can build up quickly within the confines of a small car.
If these reasons weren’t enough to keep you away from gas heaters, they can also cause fires. Imagine waking up on fire and having to crawl out of your vehicle because it is too small to stand up in.
My advice would be to stay away from these forms of heat and to stay warm with a good sleeping bag and some cold-weather clothing.
You May Need to Increase Your Storage Capabilities
It can be hard to get a week’s worth of camping gear in a car even when you’re not sleeping in it. Lose 18 additional square feet of storage to sleeping and you can see how you might have to increase your storage capabilities before heading out.
One way to do this is to create additional storage opportunities within your vehicle. Some people create platforms with storage compartments in them. Other people use Velcro and netting to add storage to the sides and ceilings of their vehicles.
If you don’t want to modify the interior of your car, you might want to consider getting a bumper-mounted cargo rack or a roof-mounted cargo rack. A roof-mounted cargo rack may give you more storage than a bumper-mounted rack, but it will reduce your aerodynamics, so think carefully before deciding on one type over another.
Consider Using Your Rooftop
You don’t have to sleep inside of your car for it to be considered a camper. Some people buy rooftop tents and sleep inside of them instead. A rooftop tent can offer you many additional benefits that sleeping inside the vehicle cannot.
For starters, you won’t have to worry as much about ventilation or condensation. A rooftop tent should come with vents or windows that you can use and even if you make a mistake and wake up wet, at least the inside of your vehicle won’t be affected.
Also, when you switch to sleeping on top of your vehicle, you won’t have to worry about leaving the sleeping space inside of it. This means you’ll be able to pack a lot more gear with you.
Of course, there are a few downsides to using a rooftop tent for your car camper as well. For instance, you won’t be able to stealth camp out in the open with your rooftop tent up. Also, you’ll lose some aerodynamics with the rooftop tent so your gas mileage may not be as good and you may experience some additional wind noise when driving.
Lastly, rooftop tents can be expensive. Even an inexpensive rooftop tent is going to run almost $1,000 and this does not include the cost of adding a roof rack to the top of your vehicle.
Your Back Bench Might Have to Come Out
Some cars will be too small to sleep in with the backbench inside of them. For this reason, you may want to consider removing your backbench. The backbench will often come out with the removal of just a few bolts and it can be incredibly easy to do on some cars.
However, other cars can make it incredibly difficult to remove the backbench. These benches may have built-in airbags that can be damaged or they may have seat belt sensors that will confuse your car’s computer after they’re removed.
This being said, most older car campers won’t have these issues and if you can remove the bench, you open up a whole new world of possible car camper configurations. You can use this extra space to gain more headroom while sleeping, you can store additional gear, or you can create a platform to make sleeping more comfortable.
Just be sure you save any bolts you remove when taking out your bench so that you’ll be able to safely put it back in when you’re done camping.
You’ll Have to Get Creative if You Want to Cook Inside
Cooking inside a car camper can be difficult if not impossible. I would not recommend that you use any gas or alcohol stoves while inside the vehicle.
However, if you absolutely must cook inside of your car camper, there are a few options. One option you can use is heater pack meals. These meals don’t require the use of a flame and they can heat your food up without the risk of a fire.
The downside is that they create a lot of steam so you’ll definitely need to have your windows completely rolled down before you use them.
Another option is to use 12-volt cooking options. You can find some of these cooking tools at your local truck stop. For example, you can buy cups that will heat themselves up. These are great for heating up soup or making coffee.
You can also buy small boxes that get warm on the inside. While you can’t cook a meal from scratch inside of them, you can heat up pre-cooked food like leftovers and hotdogs.
You May Want to Soundproof Your Vehicle
A vehicle isn’t the quietest place to sleep. This can be especially problematic for those of you who want to sleep in parking lots and truck stops. The hum of diesel vehicles and the sounds of the city may be soothing to some but will keep most people up at night.
To combat this problem, consider soundproofing your vehicle. Soundproofing material will give you a quieter ride while driving and sleeping and can also offer up some insulation as well.
Add enough soundproofing and you’ll be able to heat and cool your vehicle more quickly and get a better night’s rest each night.
Reflective Insulation Works Great on Windows
Cars have a lot of windows which can make stealth car camping more difficult. On top of this, they let out heat and aren’t very soundproof. For this reason, many car campers turn to reflective insulation.
Reflective insulation can be purchased in large rolls and can be cut down to fit the size of each window. Get a large roll and make window screens for all of your windows. When it is hot out, but the reflective material in facing out. When it’s cold and you want to keep your body heat inside the vehicle, face the reflective material towards the inside of the vehicle.
The reflective insulation will keep people from being able to see inside of your car and it will provide an additional sound barrier as well as an insulating barrier between you and the outside world.
As an added bonus, it looks similar to sunscreen so many people won’t think twice when walking by a car that has these items in the windows.
Front Seats Can Be Slept On
Don’t restrict yourself to the back of your car. You can gain additional space by pushing the front seats forward and placing part of your platform on top of them.
In a pinch, you can even recline the seats back and sleep in them as you would a recliner. I’ve done this more than a few times and it can work great when you’re really tired.
Also, you’re much less likely to be hassled by law enforcement when you’re sitting inside your car instead of laying in the back of it. People who may complain about someone sleeping in the back of the car usually won’t have much of a problem with people sleeping in the driver’s seat.
Consider a Rear Tent
Auxiliary tents don’t have to be restricted to the rooftop of your car. You can also buy tents that fit over the rear hatch. These tents offer additional airflow and space without the need to set them up on the ground.
Also, because these tents are not placed on your rooftop, you won’t have to worry about any aerodynamic losses. These tents won’t take up much space inside of your vehicle and they can be set up with relative ease.
The downside is that you may not find one that will fit your car which means you might have to make your own.
Removable Platforms Add Versatility to Car Campers
Most cars will not provide a flat and level surface for you to sleep on. For this reason, many people build platforms that go across the back of their vehicles.
Some people can do this simply by folding the seats in the back to the rear and folding the seats in the front forward. Others will have to take the backbench out to make their platforms work.
One thought to keep in mind when building a platform is that you can use hinges on them so that they can extend over the front seats when needed.
Placing the hinge on them will make it so that you can pull the platform back from the driver’s seat when you need to drive without the need to physically move the entire platform.
Inside Storage Can Go Below or On The Sides
Another thought to keep in mind is that platforms can be built high so that storage can be placed underneath or they can be built low so that you’ll have additional headroom. Personally, I prefer lower platforms with storage shelves built alongside them. This offers additional storage options without taking valuable headroom away from an already cramped vehicle.
Remember Your Vehicle’s Weight Limits
Just because you can fit a lot into a car camper, doesn’t mean you should. Cars aren’t meant to carry a lot of weight and you could end up damaging your suspension by loading it up too heavily. In fact, many cars can only handle an additional 1,000 pounds and this includes passengers, so you’ll want to be especially careful when loading up a small car.
Also, the more stuff you put into your vehicle, the worse your gas mileage will be. A car camper with poor gas mileage loses its primary advantage and at this point, you may be better off buying a minivan to camp in instead.
Think About Using Teardrop Trailers for Inspiration
If you’re having trouble deciding on how to build out your car camper, you may want to take a look at some traditional teardrop trailers for inspiration. These campers are built with low ceilings in mind and they are great at maximizing small spaces.
I’ve seen some car campers that completely emulated teardrop trailers. These car campers had platforms inside the car and used the trunk area to create an outdoor kitchen area. They even placed portable awnings over the back end when camping in state parks so that they would have a nice dry area to cook inside of while camping.
Putting It All Together
Converting cars into campers can be a lot of work but it can also be a lot of fun.
Think creatively and you’ll find that there are many different methods you can use for creating the perfect car camper for your needs.
Be smart and be safe!
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Morten is the founder of GoDownsize. He has filmed and interviewed people living in tiny houses and RVs since 2011. He grew up on the coast where his dad took him boating from a young age. He has completely rebuilt two RVs in which he travels with his family for months at the time. Read more about Morten here.