How to Turn Your Car Into a Tiny Camper

Photo by Brent Rose/Gizmodo Five years was a long time to live in a van. Actually, that van was my home for five years. Strangely, I found moving from a van more stressful than moving in to one. I was worried that I would miss the freedom of having everything I needed to travel in my little turtle shell. I was able to convert my normal-person car into a mini-camper-van as soon as I bought it. Advertisement We are not proposing a complete, permanent conversion. My primary purpose was to get me around LA when I moved there. But I wanted to create a system that was easy to use for backcountry camping and road trips. A vehicle that I could park and pull up my shades and then go to bed. It was my hope that it could take me to places my van couldn't. There are many products available for this purpose. There are many options, so I did a lot of research and started testing gear. These are my top recommendations and some tips to help you get on the road this summer. You Need the Gear You Need for Your Car Photo by Brent Rose/Gizmodo G/O Media could be eligible for a World of Warcraft 60 Day Time Card at Eneba. Use the promo code: 20210704 This does not mean you have to buy a brand new car. You can use the car you already have for this purpose. You will want back seats that can be folded down as low as possible because this is your bed. Apart from the fact that more space is generally more comfortable, the main question is what kind of camping you are looking for. Let's break it down a bit. You need to consider where you want to travel, as well as the climate and roads you might encounter. I knew I wanted to go winter camping near ski resorts so I needed an all-wheel-drive vehicle. I wanted to be able go on dirt trails but I also didn't want it to be difficult to park in cities or have huge tires that would eat my MPG. I chose a Honda CR-V. It fulfilled all my requirements. It wouldn't allow me to rock-crawl on the Rubicon Trail, or any other trail. However, it has all-wheel drive and should be sufficient to cover me for most dirt roads. The back seat folds extremely flat. This is crucial. This crossover is a good choice for those looking for a car that can double as a campervan. It's something in the middle of a sedan or SUV. This would include the Honda CR-V as well as vehicles such the Subaru Outback and Toyota RAV4, Mazda CX-5 and Tesla Model X. Advertisement You might consider upgrading your tires depending on the type of road trip that you are planning to take. Photo by Brent Rose/Gizmodo Advertisement Have you ever gotten a crossover? That's cool. Take the tires off the car and use them to make swings. They might work on dry roads, but they won't be suitable for snowy or muddy roads. Many people will just put all-terrain tires made for pickup trucks on their crossovers and call that good. However, this can lead to some serious problems. Crossovers are not designed to carry heavy wheels. Putting them on can cause serious strain and even permanent damage. Pickup trucks and larger SUVs come in two parts: a body on top and a frame. Crossovers have a unibody design. They are more like a regular sedan but with more power and a higher center-of-gravity. Crossovers are a unique vehicle, so you need a tire that is specifically designed to suit them. Falken Wildpeak A/T Trail Tires were the first thing that I bought for my CRV. They are the only all-terrain tires specifically designed for crossovers, according to my knowledge. They do everything very well. They are lightweight enough to be used as a crossovers drivetrain. You also get good fuel economy on the roads. However, they are USTMA-rated Severe snow-rated and perform nearly as well as a dedicated snow tire. This winter, I drove up steep and very icy roads in Yosemite National Forest and Angeles National Forest. Pickup trucks 4WD pulled over to attach chains, while others were spinning tires or fishtailing badly. My car behaved like it was glued down, and didn't move once. It was amazing. Advertisement If you have a bigger vehicle, and can carry heavier tires, I've had great luck with BF Goodrich All Terrain K02 tires. These tires are quiet and have great off-road grip. These were the tires I used on my Sprinter van (which had light truck tires) and they saved me from many a headache on bad roads. You must have snow chains at all times on winter roads. You could face a heavy ticket if you don't have snow chains, or worse, be turned around. Although I was able to get the Falken tires, I wasn't required to use them this winter. However, I passed through several checkpoints with rangers to ensure that they were there. The Super Z6 tires cables were my choice. These cables are far easier than traditional chains. The bungee-like system means that you don't have to move your vehicle midway through. These are also quieter when driving. AWD and 4WD cars should have chains for each tire. You can also practice installing and removing them before heading out. Make sure that you have the correct size for your tires. Advertisement What gear you need to go to sleep Photo by Brent Rose/Gizmodo Advertisement Sleep comfort was not a primary focus of cars, crossovers, or SUVs. This was the hardest adjustment I had to make since I came from a van that had a large memory foam mattress. Foam is going to be more comfortable than air. Nevertheless, I was able to find an air mattress that made it easier. The Luno Air Mattress 2.0 was specifically made for campers who wish to sleep in their SUVs or crossovers. It will look odd if you lay it on the ground. However, it will fit perfectly in the back of your car if the rear seats are pushed down. The mattress has two chambers, so it can be inflated if you have two people (or spread out if you prefer). Or you can use one side to inflate if you don't need the rest for gear. The electric pump plugs into the car's DC outlet and inflates quickly to four inches. Advertisement Luno claims that its mattress can fit more than 1,800 different models of cars. It will tell you if your year/make/model is available by simply entering it into the website. It was easy to use, and it kept me warm even at night. It could have some insulation or foil to reflect heat from the body on cold nights. However, it was comfortable and I did not feel cramped at all (I am 6). Photo by Brent Rose/Gizmodo Advertisement A sleeping bag that is designed for two people will be necessary if you have an air mattress. It's not easy to cuddle while you each sleep in your own sleeping bag. This setup was made possible by the Cabin Creek. It was easy to attach to the Luno mattress to ensure it did not slip around. It was filled with 100% recycled synthetic insulation, which provided tons of fluffy, soft loft that made it comfortable and cozy. Big Agnes chose not to insulate the bag's underside, as that is what the air mattress does. (And neither synthetic stuffing nor down can insulate when your weight compresses the air out of it). This caused a cold spot on my bottom at night when it was 30 degrees F. However, overall the bag lived up to its 15 degree F rating. Although I liked the Cabin Creek's spaciousness and ability to turn and stretch out, and the pillow barn and hood on the Cabin Creek, warmth is what I would recommend if I was going to be sleeping alone and I need to have more room than wiggle space. It isn't cheap at $450 but it's probably the most well-designed bag I have ever seen. It features temperature regulation zippable gills and is shaped to allow side-sleepers like me to curl up as we do normally. Advertisement The Gear that Keeps You Powered Up My favorite thing about van life was having all my work gear with. My laptop, phone, flashlights and cameras could all be plugged into the wall to charge up. I also had enough power to run my fridge. Campervans are equipped with a house battery to power all the extra equipment. Crossovers don't have house batteries but there are some very elegant options. Advertisement Although it was probably unnecessary, editing video can really drain a battery. Jackerys Explorer 1500 portable power station has an inverter and outlets. The Explorer 1500 packs a huge 1488Wh of power, but is compact enough to fit in the foot space of the passenger seat. There are two USB-A ports and one USB-C. Three grounded AC outlets can also be used. One 12-volt DC car outlet is included. It can be charged at home by plugging into a wall. You can also charge while driving with the car charger. It is always charged at home for emergencies. However, there are other ways to charge it while on the road. Advertisement Photo by Brent Rose/Gizmodo Advertisement These solar panels were very efficient and I was surprised. These panels fold in half, and then magnetically click shut. They have a solar conversion efficiency up to 23% when opened up, which is quite high for a portable panel. To quickly refill your portable power supply, you can daisy-chain up to four of these panels together. Two of these panels were placed on top of my Explorer 1500 and a cable was run through the crack in the sunroof. After I finished my breakfast, it was 92% full and 100% full. They weigh 9 pounds and measure 24x21x1.4 inches. You Will Need the Right Gear for Cooking Photo by Brent Rose/Gizmodo Advertisement Vanlife had one major advantage: I could have fresh produce in my fridge. It was crucial to be able to eat healthy while on the road. This saved me a lot of money and kept me from feeling like a garbage person. This was a top priority for me. There is an easy solution: electric coolers. These coolers are basically a mini fridge, but they have the same basic design as a regular cooler. Dometic CFX3 was the obvious choice. They are extremely efficient and well-insulated. The 35-liter capacity was the one I chose. It fit comfortably on my car's passenger seat, so I could quickly grab a cold drink and continue driving. It plugs into the DC outlet of the Jackery Explorer. Even though it was set at a frosty 37°F, it still only took 8% to drain the battery over eight hours. This is quite remarkable. Bonus: Although I wasn't sure where the cooler would be stored when I wasn't road-tripping, it can plug into an AC outlet. It also looks great so that it can be used as a mini fridge next to my couch for when I am not on the road. Advertisement An electric cooler that feels too complicated, large or expensive is not the one for you. After doing a lot of research, I decided to go with an Orca hard plastic cooler. They are very tough and cost around $200. If the right conditions are met, they can even keep ice frozen for up to 10 days. Photo by Brent Rose/Gizmodo Advertisement I normally prefer a liquid fuel stove to camp, because they are efficient, reduce waste, and make it easy to find fuel when you need it. However, I was afraid of accidentally leaking white gas into my car so I went with a canister stove. My choice was the MSR Reactor. The Reactor boils water at an absurd speed (I walked away from it for a moment and returned to a billowing column steam), and is also designed for melting snow quickly, which has been very useful while camping in winter. It can withstand extremely high winds and is compact enough to fit the stove and canister within the 2.5-liter pot. It could use push-button ignition. However, it is a bit tricky to get it lit in windy conditions. Advertisement The 2.5L was perfect for boiling pasta, but I prefer to go solo camping with it. I boil water, pour it into a pouch and freeze it. Important note: Never use a stove that burns fuel in an enclosed area. You could become ill if you are forced to cook in your car by the weather. Photo by Brent Rose/Gizmodo Advertisement This is a very expensive item. But, I absolutely love it. You can pour your coffee in a thermos-type double-wall thermos, but it will not stay hot for more than an hour. The Ember mug comes with an electric heater and a battery. It will then drop to your preferred temperature and keep it there. The temperature it reached was 133 F. The charger plugs into standard DC outlets, so it can be charged even for long drives. It is also great for preventing spills. The 12-ounce capacity is too small for me. Please give me 16-ounces hot bean water! Photo by Brent Rose/Gizmodo Advertisement A basin is a great place to wash dishes and other items. You can wash dishes, clothing, and even your own personal items (sponge bath-style). It's basically a small basket that can hold 2.5 gallons of water. This is a very handy item. Make sure to use gentle, biodegradable soap. It is always a good idea for your car to have a few gallons water, no matter if you are camping. It's great for keeping hydrated, for emergencies, and for washing your shoes after a dog bite. The cube is simple. It is made from soft plastic so it can be folded away when not in use. However, it holds 3.9 gallons and is lightweight. It should always be full and kept behind my driver's seat. For longer trips or desert camping in hot, dry areas, you might want to have multiples. Advertisement You Need the Right Gear You want to protect expensive, high-end gear that you have loaded into your car. Window shades are important, but I believe that an alarm system is even more essential. The Viper SmartStart system was a great alarm system that I had for over five years. It gave me peace of mind and gave me security. It would be arm when I was sleeping inside in a dangerous area. I would also arm it when it was time to leave, as all my possessions were there. Advertisement Vipers is modular but SmartStart Pro has GPS and two-way connectivity. You'll be notified if your alarm goes off if you are more than 1,000 miles away. You can check the lock or locate your car on a map. You have the option of auto-start, which is great for cold days, and the highly-recommended Glass Crash Sensor. This uses a microphone to detect that distinctive sound. Two-way key fobs can be purchased that will ring when your car alarm goes off and you are within a mile. Although some of the more advanced features, such as GPS and phone connectivity, require an annual subscription of around $100, I believe it is worth it. This is a complex process and you should not attempt it yourself. Viper suggested that I visit Long Beach Audio Shop to do the installation. The staff was quick to get me in and out and the system has been running flawlessly ever since. Ask for Efren, and tell him Gizmodo sent. Photo by Brent Rose/Gizmodo Advertisement The number one rule. The No. 1 thing you can do to ensure your safety while sleeping in your car is not to be seen. Blackout shades are essential. Although many people make their own using Velcro and felt, I decided to buy a complete WeatherTech kit. They will send you a blackout shade to fit every window of your vehicle. I received eight panels for my CRV. You can choose between a black or reflective side depending on the temperature. Once they are in place, you just need to put them in. They can be inserted into windows, so you won't have to break them. Photo by Brent Rose/Gizmodo Advertisement It is important to know that sleeping in your car requires you to open a window. Multiple windows are better. Condensation will form in your breath and it will appear as if it has rained inside your vehicle by the morning. It may also cause windows to become iced inside if it is freezing outside. If you do this more than once, your vehicle will smell very bad. You don't want bugs and mosquitoes getting in. These cheap screens were purchased from Amazon. These brands are familiar to me. I haven't! They received the best reviews in the category and did the job. The rear window screens slide over your door like porous condoms. Magnetically attached, the moonroof screen allows for a cable to be run from my solar panels into my car's battery. Extra Storage: The Gear You Need Photo by Brent Rose/Gizmodo Advertisement Crossovers are great for this type of camping. However, they have their limitations. With just one person, I was capable of carrying all my gear, plus two snowboards, and all the equipment, without any problems. But if there were two of us, it might have been too tight. External storage is a great way to make your car's interior more comfortable. The Yakima SkyLine system, with JetStream bars, was the one I chose. They are very low-profile, quiet on the highway, and great for large items such as surfboards. Yakima's Exo System was what I really wanted. It is a rear-mounted dual shelf system. The swinging mechanism allows you to access your trunk without being restricted. Because everything is behind your car, it's easier to reach, and doesn't affect your MPG as much. It was supposed to come with a basket and a lockable Gearlocker. This would have given me a lot more storage. It required a 2.25-inch hitch. My car had a 1.25 inch hitch. Yakima stated that it would not work with an adapter and that it would cost $1,500 to have a new hitch fitted. I was devastated. It looks great, but make sure it is compatible with your vehicle. Advertisement Miscellaneous Gear That You Will Need The headlamp is lightweight, compact and very comfortable to wear. It is very simple to use and provides enough light for your car's interior (and night walks). There is also a red-light mode that won't blur your night vision. It's also USB rechargeable so you can plug it in to your Jackery Explorer every morning without worrying about running out. Advertisement Living in small spaces requires minimizing clutter. I bought a seat-back organizer to hold all my toiletries. It was easy to access my toothpaste, toothbrush and shaving kit, extra toilet papers and trowels, headlamp, bug spray and lantern. I also had the ability to store my phone in it while I slept. It didn't take up any space on my bed. Advertisement All the essentials. Photo by Brent Rose/Gizmodo Advertisement They are just sporks. It's not rocket science. You will need something to eat. You will need sporks. There is much more, but these are the essentials and should help you get started. This article will be updated as I test new gadgets and refine my gear. Let us know if you have any gear that you love for road trips in the comments.