Stealth camping, car camping, makeshift campervanning…call it what you will, there’s huge interest in keeping camping simple, cheap and spontaneous.
So, follow our guide to turning your car (or small van) into a part-time camper and start exploring!
Latest update: October 2021
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Why camp in a car?
Make a few affordable additions to your kit, though, and you’ll have a mini campervan for not much money.
It gives you freedom
When your car can become a tiny campervan at the drop of a hat, you’re free to set off and explore.
You can stealth camp
No-one notices a car (unless you’ve kitted it out with fairylights, of course). You can park up almost anywhere (more on that later) or disappear into remote spots for some wild camping .
But…It goes without saying that your freedom shouldn’t impinge on anyone else’s – so respect the areas you camp in and the people who live there.
It’s your go-to-work car during the week; at weekends, it’s your funmobile (did I really write that word!).
Why have an expensive, rarely used campervan or motorhome on the driveway when you can convert your car in the twinkling of an eye?
It’s an adventure
Find yourself in new places, be amazed at how well you can manage on very little, enjoy the satisfaction of designing your own space.
But…here’s why you SHOULDN’T camp in a car
You might not want to squeeze a family of four and a Great Dane into your Ford Fiesta.
In fact, if you have a very small car, you might struggle. Having said that, we know of people who’ve had a good night’s sleep and woken up to views of lochs and mountains through the windows of a Renault Clio. Almost anything’s possible with a little ingenuity.
Sleeping in your car in comfort
Backseat beds and more
Get it right and sleeping in your car or van can be a lot more comfortable than in a tent. You’re protected from the wind and rain, it’s more soundproofed and you’re off the ground.
The ideal is a car with removable backseats and a more-or-less flat floor. Read how we did that in a Berlingo.
Cars with big hatchbacks are much more suited to camping than those with a basic boot. Even in a ‘normal’ car, though, a backseat bed like those below can be the answer. Prices are between £20 (for the one that simply fills the gap in the rear footwell) to £90 for a full and comfy mattress.
Here’s a Skoda Yeti with the seats folded. They come out too. Why oh why did Skoda stop making this car?
In a car or van where you can empty out the back (or fold the seats flat), you have lots of options for sleeping – from the storage box method described in our article on Berlingo camping to building a basic bed base, to simply rolling out a standard sleeping mattress on the floor.
Multi-use Backseat Bed
This airbed can work on the backseat or lengthwise into the boot with seats folded. It comes with a pump, pillows and a section to hold up the bed in the rear footwell.
Boot Backseat Bed
A more expensive mattress for the boot of the car, but it has side bumpers to cover the wheel-arches.
It comes with a 12V pump and stows away to just 25 x 22 x 10cm.
This boot mattress has two advantages – it’s self-inflating (though you might need to top it up with a bit of breath) and the fabric is more comfortable than some.
Bridge the footwell gap
A bed base made of storage boxes
If you have a car (or van) with a more-or-less flat floor in the back, then the storage box option is fantastic.
The boxes give you space for all your stuff and form a base for your mattress. It’s easy to turn your car-camper back to car when you need to carry passengers.
Ikea boxes are good, though test for sturdiness. For ultimate strength and the biggest range of sizes, 64-litre Really Useful Boxes are what we’ve used…really useful. The 84-litre boxes are also perfect in the Berlingo.
Make sure they’re see-through so you’re not hunting for lost gear.
Four storage boxes with air mattresses on top. Very comfy too.
Duvets and mattresses
There’s no need for sleeping bags. A duvet will keep you warm and let you move around more.
We do like sleeping bag hybrids, though, because they give you lots of options.
A bargain for warmth, this cosy bag comes as a double or single. The double can be turned into two single bags. Both work as a flat duvet.
Because your floor will no doubt have a few lumps and bumps, go for a decent mattress that will even things out.
During the day, you can let a bit of air out and fold it up to make a chair.
Our favourites are the Klymit Static V Luxe, but for more softness, go for something like the Vango Comfort, which is a good balance at 10cm thick and under £60. I’d choose single rather than double for ease of storage and versatility.
Reader Tomazs told us that the usual double mattresses wouldn’t fit in his Honda, so he recommends the 120cm Decathlon airbed. A perfect fit.
Blowing up an airbed in a car isn’t our favourite camping job. Go for self-inflating if you can.
Lots more comfy camping mats in our guide too.
Good All round Mat
For comfort, the best choice from the Klymit range is the Static V Luxe. There’s also an expensive Static V insulated version. They’re super light and the V-shaped baffles keep air in place for a more restful sleep. These are around 7.5cm deep. They’re not self-inflating, but the company promise it’ll take just 10-20 breaths!
There are lighter weight and double versions available too. Best of all? No crinkly crunchy noise when you roll over!
- Size: 193cm x 76cm
- Packed size: 14cm x 25cm
- Weight: 992g (non-insulated)
A mattress topper is another option, but check you can fold it up, as some can be bulky. We’ve had a couple of readers recommend a Latex Plus By Yanis 5cm Dunlop Latex Mattress Topper to us. It’s little more expensive but has the advantage of a cover. There are plenty of sizes to choose from in unbranded memory mattresses that you could then cover with a sheet.