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 2020
Why camp in a car?
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.
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
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.
You can fold it lengthways for a rather sumptuous mattress for one, or roll it out for a fully wide bed. Packs small. Around £80.
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.
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 (£50) or single (£27). The double can be turned into two single bags. Both work as a flat duvet.
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 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 £25 120cm Decathlon airbed. A perfect fit.
Lots more comfy camping mats in our guide too.
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 5cm-deep latex topper to us. It’s around £90 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.
Get yourself a couple of packable, but super-comfy memory foam travel pillows. Gorgeous – especially our favourite breathable bamboo-cover ones.
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.
If you’re wild camping (or stealth camping), you’ll need to prepare.
Going to the toilet in the wild 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 that’s not enough for you, 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!!)
For a couple of days, biodegradable and all-natural Aqua Wipes or Nilaqua waterless wash will be enough for a makeshift clean-up. We actually make our own wet wipes to avoid waste and more plastic. Remember that biodegradable doesn’t mean it can be chucked in a hedge because it stays as litter for a long time. Take wet wipes and paper home with you.
Take a portable water carrier like the four-litre Source Liquitainer or new favourite, the Sea-to-Summit 10-litre Packtap and refill whenever you get the chance.
For longer trips, intersperse campsite stays or use the facilities in pubs, leisure centres and the like.
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.
We have lots of other recommended water storage and dispensing options in our water carrying feature too. All BPA-free.
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.
The trickle you get from many is just not worth the bother, but we do like this pumped shower (in action here on a cold car camping trip).
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.
Cold weather and heating
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.
Find a nearby pub with a log fire and, if you’re somewhere private where the noise won’t annoy anyone, start the engine to warm up the car just before you get into bed.
Read our article on cold weather camping and our guide to campervan heaters.
Lighting your car-camper
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 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.
For both illumination and phone charging in a lightweight package, try the Luci Base Lamp. Brightness options and you can hang it or even float it in a river!
Privacy and darkness
If you don’t want to be woken at dawn, you’ll need to create some dark (and privacy).
If you have a 2008-2017 Berlingo, you can get a VERY smart but expensive eight-piece set of thermal blinds that will fit perfectly.
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.
Thanks to Dave Gray for his suggestion of using tailored sunshades with a cut-out sheet of Proplex or Correx held behind for total darkness.
You could also try some suction-cup-held curtains like these ones from Zamboo.
Eye masks and earplugs take up no space and will give you a more peaceful night!
Ventilation and pests
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.
A note on shoes!
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 elasticated 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.
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.
Fishing umbrellas for shelter?
One of our readers told us they used a fishing brolly instead of a tarp. It’s a great tip.
Utility tents for versatility
Our preference would be a pop-up utility tent with a porch that can be fixed to the side of the car with magnets or rope.
Lots to see in our guide to multipurpose shelters.
A smart, surprisingly sturdy and affordable option.
The Lumaland gazebo comes with one side wall and you can buy the others separately as needed.
Comes in a minimal black, a vibrant lime and a rather nice blue. It takes less than 30 seconds to set it up or take it down. It’s waterproof and includes a bag and pegs.
- Floor size: 250 x 250cm
- Height: 190cm
- Pack size: 120 x 14cm
- Weight: 5.9kg
- Price: Around £110, £25 for extra panels
There are few decent tailgate tents out there for small campervans and cars. Air versions tend to be more expensive (and heavier) than poled tailgate tents.
Skandika make a great tailgate tent for SUVs, vans or car-campers. Around £170 and with lovely big windows and standalone/driveaway ability.
This has the advantage of working perfectly alongside a van or car, or as a standalone utility tent. Plus, it’s affordable.
- Floor size: 200 x 200 cm
- Height: 180-240cm (van height)
- Weight: 5.6kg
- Pack size: 67 x 46 x 44cm
- Price: Around £160
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).
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 small fridges 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 or fridge.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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).
France, Spain and Portugal are super for wild camping. There are restrictions in Scandinavia, the Netherlands and Germany but, in compensation, there are far more places set up for overnight stops or for wild-ish camping.
Don’t push it!
Car camping is about freedom NOT about taking liberties.
Some people rock up in a car, light a fire in a field, chuck beer cans around and leave used toilet paper in the bushes. This is disgusting and it gives everyone else a bad name.
It also makes it harder and harder for sensible, respectful car campers to find a discreet spot.
Treat everywhere you go with sensitivity, put yourself in the shoes of local people and leave nothing behind.
A Caddy California? What do you think?
For around £30,000, you’ll soon be able to have all that VW California neatness in a small campervan. But is it worth the money?
The new California version has the advantage of a big glass roof to liven things up, plus California accoutrements such as built-in table and chairs, blinds on the windows and a neat pull-out kitchen under the tailgate
But is it better than a DIY car-camper or a proper campervan?
We did look at the standard Caddy as a possible workaround. What put us off was the low driving position (compared to Transporter-sized) that was aggravated by the rather dark, hearse-like feeling inside.
The factory-built campervan version would definitely have tempted us with its brightness, and we can see there being a lot of fans!
Building your own or enjoying the workaround-ness of an ad hoc car camper still tops the options for us.