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Almost everyone loves being outdoors, exploring nature, and visiting national parks. However, not everyone loves camping in a tent, and not everyone can afford an RV or camper van. This is where a car camper conversion comes in! Luckily, we are going to go through how to convert your car into a camper, so you can explore the outdoors without needing a tent!
While some cars are obviously easier to convert into a camper than others, it’s possible with almost any car out there.
Not sold on car camping? Check out these 7 reasons you need to go car camping!
Materials for a Car to Camper Conversion
1” x 7” Lumber
4” Upholstery Cushions
3” Memory Foam Mattress Topper
Seat Configuration for a Car Camper Conversion
To start your car camper conversion, you will first need to figure out the best seating configuration in your car so you can have the most sleeping space.
Do your seats fold down to create a flat floor? Do they fold forward? Can you remove your car seats?
If your back seats fold down and create a flat surface in the back of your car, that’s the best possible scenario! This makes for a very nice surface to sleep on while turning your car into a camper.
You can also remove the back seats. If you do this, you’ll have a gap between the trunk of your car and where the rear passenger’s feet go, so when building your sleeping platform you will need to have longer legs to go down to the floor in this area.
If your car is big enough and your seats don’t fold down or come out, you can just slide them as far forward as they go. This will make a lot of room for you to sleep.
Lastly, if your front seats lay all the way back, do this. You can build your sleeping platform around them, so they can be upright while driving and laid flat when sleeping so your legs can stretch out.
Once you decide on the best way to configure your seats for camping in your car, you should decide how you want to sleep.
How many people will be sleeping in your car? Is it for 1 or 2? Will your head be by the front seats or the back of your car?
Likely, the location of your head and feet will be determined by whether you have a hatchback or trunk. You can’t really go wrong either way, but decide which way you feel most comfortable with and go with that one.
Building a Sleeping Platform in Your Car
Your car is now ready to start building your sleeping platform. Sure, you can just throw down some blankets or a sleeping pad and camp in there, but a sleeping platform will provide storage underneath and a full bed to sleep in.
If you are camping in your car with another person, a sleeping platform is the way to go when converting your car for camping. If you are just camping in your car by yourself, you can get by without one though.
This is the part where the car camper conversion process can really differ from car to car because the amount of space you have available changes a lot depending on your make and model.
You will want to use at least 1” x 7” lumber to build your platform. The 7” depth will give you enough storage without sacrificing headspace.
We converted our Honda Fit for camping, which is a pretty small car, and did it with 1” x 7” lumber. You can read all about our Honda Fit Camper Conversion.
Start by measuring out your vehicle and then cutting the lumber. Make sure it can fit in the trunk too! You don’t want to build a platform for the inside of the car just to have it be too big to fit through the trunk!
The platform should have vertical and horizontal supports, especially if its for 2 people. You won’t want a wobbly or unstable platform.
After your car is measured, cut the lumber to the correct sizes and drill them together with screws. Then, you will cut the plywood for the top of your platform. The top of your platform should be cut in different sizes so you can have various openings for your storage spaces.
All of the storage spaces under your platform will be accessed by lifting up the plywood platform that is connected to the frame by piano hinges.
You can make as many separate storage compartments as you’d like, but remember that you will have to lift them up with the bed on top. For our car camper conversion, we did one small compartment behind the driver’s seat and one bigger compartment for the rest. It was pretty heavy to lift up, but still accessible.
Now that you have your sleeping platform for camping in your car, your car to camper conversion is almost complete! You just need your bed!
Your bed can be as cushiony and soft as you want to make it. You can use a simple camping sleeping pad that will provide minimal comfort or you can buy memory foam mattress toppers or upholstery cushioning.
When buying a mattress topper or cushioning for your car camper conversion, make sure you buy a little bigger size than you need. You can mark the foam with chalk or a marker and cut it with a bread knife to the exact dimensions that fit your specific car.
They cut surprisingly well with just a bread knife!
You can use the extra pieces that you need to cut for filling in little areas that might need more cushioning, like by the doors or other areas with small gaps. You could also use them for pillows.
In our Honda Fit camper, we used a 4” upholstery cushions and a twin XL 3” memory foam mattress topper. In hindsight, we should have gone with a queen size so it could have really cut it to the exact shape of the car.
The upholstery cushions and the memory foam mattress topper for the car camping bed made it super comfy, but it might have been a little overkill. It used up more space, but we slept like babies. If you have the room and are worried about having a soft enough mattress for camping in your car, get both of these. We promise you won’t be disappointed.
Lastly, just throw a sheet over the mattress, add some pillows, and figure out where you want your camping food, water, backpacks, and anything else you’ll be bringing.
Make sure to also buy window screens for camping in your car. You take these off when driving and put them on at night. It will allow a nice breeze in and keep bugs out of your car. These are an absolute necessity if you want airflow when camping in your car!
Another thing to buy for your car to camper conversion is a windshield sun protector. This will give you a little more privacy and keep your car from getting too hot when camping in hotter climates.
Now your car is completely converted into a camper, and you’re all ready to get out there and explore!
As you can see from the photos, your car to camper conversion can be as simple or elaborate as you want it to be. Some are more permanent structure, while others are meant to be used for a week or weekend and removed.
Decide which one style you prefer, what your budget is, and how much time you want to spend building it, and go with that one! Give ‘car camper conversion ideas’ a quick search on Google too if you are looking for more inspiration for converting your car into a camper!
Once you’re done, if you need some inspiration of where to go, check out all our information about different national parks and reasons why you need to go car camping!
Question? Do any of your lights stay on when you have the hatch up? Do you have battery problems?
We haven’t had battery problems because of leaving the hatch up. We make sure to turn off all the lights when the doors are open, so it doesn’t kill the battery.
You can also do what my wife and I do with our fit. If you take an old credit card you can close the mechanism on the rear hatch so the car reads it as closed and the lights cant accidently be left on. When you are ready to close it(if you have the electronic trunk opener) you can just hit the button and the latch will release then you can close it fully.
That’s a great hack! Thanks for sharing, Austin! It’s definitely something we will try next time we are car camping.
My Travel BF and Austin-
My trunk area light comes on; so, I am needing Austin’s hack, but am unsure where to put the credit card. A photo would be helpful.
Hi Laverne! We’re not 100% sure where Austin is talking about on the trunk, but it should be where the trunk latches down. It might be on the trunk door or the car with it closes down.
It’s the latch mechanism that keeps the trunk closed while driving(it’s on the actual trunk door itself) for our 2015 we have to press it in until it “clicks” 2 times. Then that small trunk light should be off.
I love your ideas. I am wondering what you do with your food when camping in bear country
Thank you! The only bear country we’ve been in was Yellowstone, and the ranger said you could leave food in your car because their bears weren’t as smart as Yosemite bears. That being said, we recommend you check in with a park ranger wherever you’re camping to get the most updated information as far as bears go. Definitely not something you want to mess around with!
Hey Patti, short of Yosemite or Yellowstone or the Smokies you basically just close the food in the car with you. Invest in some tent mesh & magnets/velcro to cover the window gaps when you ventilate (which you should even in winter slightly to keep condensation down.)
Check with rangers in the crazy beareas. I suspect what they’ll tell you is to get a bearproof container you lock to a tree outside. Campsites sometimes have them built in. Perhaps they’ll tell you to hang it way up off a big branch, which is what I’ve always done backpacking.
It’s not that big a deal typically. I camp in Shenandoah (maximum bear density in the world) frequently. Most def I hang my food away from my hammock on foot, but just closing the car doors suffices for car camping. I don’t even close the back all the way in my Element. I just close the tailgate & keep the upper door in arms reach from bed. The bear will wake you up & remind you to close the window if necessary. Only happened to me once w/ a bear. More often w/ raccoons!
Bears are pretty chill around here though. Seen a couple hundred on foot. No issues. Cool critters.
Thank you for the detailed info on your experience! When in doubt, always check with the rangers at the park!
What would you say was the overall cost to convert your car into a camper?
The total cost for us was around $250, but we opted for the extra layer of cushioning for the bed and window screens.
Did you get the window mesh for all 4 car doors or just the back? Thanks for the info.
We only got the window screens for the back windows, but you could probably get them for the front ones too for more air flow.