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!
Why camp in a car?
- It’s cheap – at its most basic, a duvet or sleeping bag is all you need. You won’t be all that comfy, but it’s fine for a night or two. 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 p
ark up almost anywhere (more on that later) or disappear into remote spots for some wild camping.
- It’s multi-functional – 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.
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
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.
Beds and space
The ideal is a car with removable backseats and a more-or-less flat floor. Here’s how we did that in a Berlingo, but the Kangoo was another option.
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 these 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. Click on any picture to find out more.
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.
A base of storage boxes
We love the storage box option for under mattresses because it’s configurable in so many ways, it gives you space for all your stuff and 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, Really Useful Boxes are…really useful. Make sure they’re see-through so you’re not hunting for lost gear.
Duvets and mattresses
There’s no need for sleeping bags. A duvet will keep you warm and let you move around more. The sleeping bag hybrids like the Vaude Navajo, though, are a good multipurpose option, but not warm enough for winter camping. There are some other hybrids in our sleeping bag guide, by the way.
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 Sea to Summit and Expeds, but they’re not cheap. Just opt for the thickest you can afford. Self-inflating ideally. Also, get single rather than double for ease of storage and versatility.
Be aware that if you want to set up camp quickly – after a day’s driving for example – you don’t want to be fiddling with blowing up mattresses or getting everything out of the car to find the things you want.
Get yourself a couple of packable, but super-comfy memory foam travel pillows. Gorgeous – especially our favourite breathable bamboo-cover ones.
If you seal yourself up snuggly in your car, you’ll find a lot of condensation in the morning. If you have a sunroof, open it up a little. You can make a mosquito/fly screen with a bit of mesh fabric and some magnets if you’re worried about insects getting in.
No sunroof? Leave a window open a bit. Here’s a great tip for insect screening when it’s hot – make a pillowslip of netting with the slit on the long side. Slip it over the open door so that it covers the window. You’ll still be able to close the door, but you can also open the window for air. There are readymade versions of these ‘sunsock’ window covers too.
If you’re in a secure spot and the weather’s good, you can also fix a standard mosquito net over the open hatchback.
If you’re planning on camping in cold weather, take thermos flasks (we like Isosteel best) of hot water for quick cuppas and to fill hot water bottles. Layer clothes and don’t wait to get cold before you add layers or get under the duvet…it’s harder to warm up again.
We like these seat heaters!
Read our article on cold weather camping and our guide to campervan heaters.
Light, dark, privacy
The best kind of camping lighting we’ve found is LED and can be recharged (or left running) from a USB adaptor in the 12V socket.
There are lots of options to choose from – from fairylights that will give you atmosphere to bright reading lights.
We’ve been using the Luminoodle recently – it’s a light rope that folds into its bag to create a lantern. It’s bright, has magnets and clips to fix anywhere and is really versatile.
We also like this foldable LED lamp, which we use at home as well as on the road. It has three brightness settings and is touch sensitive, all in a neat, adjustable package for around a fiver.
If you don’t want to be woken at dawn, you’ll need to create some dark (and privacy). Those folding silver sunshades work well on the front and back windscreens, and some come in packs with side blinds too. You can make yourself some blackout blinds or curtains for side windows using fabric and suction pads. If you have a small unlined van or car doors with metal surrounds, magnets can work too.
Eye masks and earplugs take up no space and will give you a more peaceful night!
Keeping clean…and going to the loo
If you’re on a campsite (and remember that not all campsites will allow car camping, see below) then you’ll obviously have showers and toilets.
Going to the toilet in the wild, though, requires some work – you need to be 50 metres away from water and you need to dig a 15cm-deep (or more) hole with a trowel. You must cover your doings completely with earth and must put toilet roll or wipes into your rubbish bag. If you’re wild camping, have a look at our article on the the best options for camping toilets (including some that fit in a pocket!).
We never mention toilets without a mention of the £4 Happy Going – our long-time favourite bit of kit…because it’s both useful and hilarious. It’s a waterproof, hanging toilet roll cover with built-in lights (and a flashing mode!!)
Take a portable water carrier like the four-litre Source Liquitainer and refill whenever you get the chance. For longer trips, intersperse campsite stays or use the facilities in pubs, leisure centres and the like.
We have lots of other recommended water storage and dispensing options in our water carrying feature too. All BPA-free.
On our last trip, we ran out of water and had to refill from a VERY clean-looking river. We did have some water purifying tablets in our kit too, though.
There are a few portable showers out there, and some homemade options, but you’d need to be somewhere quite warm to make these bearable. We’ve also found the trickle you get from them is just not worth the bother.
We’ve tested them all and the Colapz camping shower is brilliant. Fill a bucket with warm water from your kettle, drop the pump inside and get a decent shower with real pressure! Great for washing dogs too.
A note on shoes!
When you’re living in a small space, and especially in bad weather, it can be hard to keep everything clean and dry. Have some easy-on/off footwear like Crocs or better still these cheap neoprene Dirt Boot shoes (3-12 sizes). Leave muddy boots and shoes in the driver or passenger footwell.
Creating car camping space – storage, awnings and more
For quick and stealthy trips, you really won’t want to make yourself obvious with anything outside the car or van. In these cases, being well-organised inside is key.
It takes trial and error to discover how best to pack (and what to leave out), but it’s an interesting challenge. We’re always changing how we do things as we learn more and it’s fun to find a more efficient bit of kit or way of doing something. Hunting for just the right size storage box that’ll fit between the seats, maybe, or stick-on hooks for the ceiling.
If you need more? Well…try a couple of nights and see whether simplicity trumps luxury!
Tarps, awnings and shelters
If you’re on a campsite or in a private spot for a few days or more, then it’s time to extend outwards!
Here’s where a simple tarp can become a rain shelter, an outside dining room, a camp kitchen or a sunshade. Fix it from the boot or the side doors, suspend it from nearby trees (and don’t forget to use bungee cord to save your tarp in a wind!). We love the versatility of a tarp and you can read more in our tarp article.
Awnings give space…and take up room
An awning is another option, but the problem here is that, when they’re folded away, they take up too much room inside your already limited space. If you’re going somewhere where you know you’ll spend most of your time outside, then have a look at our recommendations for small and lightweight awnings.
Our preference, after a tarp, though, would be a pop-up utility tent with a porch that can be fixed to the side of the car with magnets or rope.
The bivvy option
It’s good to have options. So, we always take a couple of bivvy tents or hammocks with us. These pack away to nothing and mean we can head off into the trees or stretch out on the ground if the place is right and the weather amenable.
If you have a flatpack or pick-up, how about one of these truck tents…
Camping food and outdoor cooking
Except in an absolute emergency, you probably won’t want to cook inside the car.
Camping in good weather is easy – you’ll simply use your stove or barbecue outside. In bad weather, it’s a choice between using the protection of a tarp, going to a pub or restaurant to eat or taking a supply of meals that can be prepared using just hot water.
Lots of the stuff sold as camping food is pretty awful, so be warned! Have a look at our recommendations for readymeals that are fast and easy, and actually delicious (plus fairly healthy).
You’ll no doubt have your favourite camping stove and kit already. If not, you’ll need to balance the storage space available with the sort of cooking you want to do. We take a Campingaz Bivouac for fast-boiling a kettle of water or a pan of soup. It’s tiny but super-efficient. If we have more space, it’s the Cadac Safari Chef, which gives us lots of cooking options (from a griddle to a wok) but still isn’t too big. Remember that there’s both a low and a high pressure gas version (see the Cadac review for more info)
Make cooking easy
Taking a lot of provisions with you isn’t easy – partly because you’re limited for space and partly because the more you have, the harder it is to find anything! We tend to buy as we need things, but take a basic kit of herbs and spices, a few tins and other essentials.
Make it easy for yourself. Cook when you can and you want to, but don’t feel it’s cheating to pop into a café or open a packet of Firepot (we’ve used them a few times and they’ve always been like real food!). See other readymeal recommendations too.
Remember to keep a bag on the go for rubbish. We do try to recycle when we’re camping. It might mean carrying a few bottles and cans around till you find a recycling spot, but it seems wrong to chuck everything away when pleasant camping depends on caring for the environment.
Fridges and coolboxes
What do you do about keeping milk, butter and other things cool? The ideal option is a 12V compressor fridge. There are tiny ones that are ideal for basics and will fit easily into a car. These aren’t cheap, but they stay at the right temperature even if it’s +30 outside. Coolboxes are OK, but you’ll need to change icepacks constantly and they can be bulky. Have a look at our guide to choosing a cooler.
Some campsites, like this one in the South of France, have fridges you can borrow or hire. Alternatively, use small cartons of UHT milk or non-dairy, use olive oil instead of butter and learn to go fridgeless!
Where can I camp in my car?
As mentioned above, there are some campsites that don’t allow car or van camping.
Some are especially unhappy if you turn up in a small van with the name of a company on the side. I guess they’re equating small vehicle camping with riff-raff – ie, people they think can’t afford a tent or are a bit too ‘alternative’ to be trusted around immaculate hedges and clean caravans.
If you have an awning or utility tent, then there’s no need to tell anyone that you’ll actually be sleeping in the car or van; they’ll just assume the tent is your sleeping area. If that’s a bit too risky for you, then it’s either a question of showing the owner or warden your set-up, so that they can see it’s legit, or moving on to somewhere else.
As for wild camping, there are some fantastic apps and websites that help you find places to stay. Facebook is full of these too, but is also absolutely rubbish when it comes to tracking down information beyond the ‘just-posted’. Everyone asks the same questions, gets recommendations and then they’re lost in the flurry of subsequent posts. The apps and websites in our guide are much easier to use.
As a rule of thumb, you can’t generally wild camp in England or Wales, but you can in Scotland (restrictions in some tourist hotspots like Loch Lomond). In France, Spain and Portugal are super for wild camping. There are restrictions in Scandinavia and Germany but, in compensation, there are far more places set up for overnight stops or for wild-ish camping.
Don’t be afraid to ask! We recently spent the night in the (rather picturesque) car park of a farmshop. We checked with the owner, promised to have breakfast in her café and slept well. The same goes for many pubs. We’ve also slept in the forecourts of closed campsites (after checking with the wardens), in remote country parks and hidden away on forestry roads.
A few ideas…and don’t forget to share your own in our competition below!
Enter our competition and win a camping prize
We’ve only scratched the surface of the fascinating world of car and small vehicle camping. There are people out there doing amazing things, having great adventures and finding simple or ingenious ways to make their vehicles comfortable.
We’re offering monthly prizes for suggestions, photos, workarounds and tips that we can add to this evolving article.
Just send us an email with a few details. It doesn’t have to be a journey across the Himalayas – we’re just as interested in the best folding kettle or a new way to fasten a tarp in place.
Meanwhile, happy car-camping!