After traveling around in New Zealand in an adapted surfer van, I realized I could make some adaptions to my “plain Jane” SUV and save some serious coin. The most expensive aspects of travel are housing, food, and gas in that order. The following adaptations will make your wheels more versatile while drastically reducing the cost of road-trips.
While there is no house involved, you will have a roof under your head. With a few small modifications to the rear compartment of your SUV you can create a quant sleeping space. I own a 2013 Ford Escape and can comfortably fit a double high pillow top airbed in the back (after I drop down the rear seats). If you pick up a tension rod (for showers) you can run a privacy curtain that separates the front compartment from your sleeping space. You can also run a chord from the front roof handle to the back and run a blackout curtain along it. The tint on my car is so dark I don’t feel the need to shield the side or back windows.
If airbeds aren’t your thing, or your particular SUV won’t fit the size airbed you prefer, I recommend purchasing a large foam pad, measure and cut out the exact dimensions of your back compartment. While road-tripping you can keep it installed or roll it up after your done sleeping for the day. Make sure your padding is at least three inches deep.
If you’re really excited about touring backcountry and take frequent trips, you might consider investing in a roof-top tent (price ranges from $700-5000). It’s exactly as it sounds, a tent designed to install on the roof of your car. You will have a birds-eye view of your surroundings, fresh air through the screened windows, and won’t need to worry about water, snakes, or critters. The nicer roof-top tents have a slick fiberglass top that can actually improve your gas milage when closed. With a rooftop tent you can focus the rear compartment to serve as a chill out space.
I always use real bedding, with silky sheets and blankets. I feel like it’s more comfortable, but to each their own.
Restaurant and fast food bills add up quick! There is a simple solution involving one hand pump sink, a camping stove (or a propane tank with a burner installed directly on-top), a cooler, skillet, kettle, and pot. Measure that back of your SUV, and build a few shelves to hold your cookware and pump sink. The shelves must be adjustable so you can put them in for road-trips and take them out for regular life. The propane tank or camping stove should fit under the sink. Building storage boxes on a trailer-hitch rack is also a great way to save space. Take care to cook outside—propane in an inclosed space is poisonous. You may need to move the rack to the front compartment in order to inflate your airbed for sleep.
When I considered what was missing in my car-camping experience, one biggie was a way to relax outside of the car. After ten hours of driving the last thing I want to do is sit in my car to enjoy the scenery. Now I carry a nylon hammock that comes with it’s own stuff sack, two camping chairs that I store on the roof rack, and a tarp I use as an awning for shade and rain shelter. You can either buy a prefabricated retractable awning or simply convert a multi-use tarp with some paracord. Either way, you secure one end to your luggage rack and if using the tarp you secure the other end to nearby trees or other structures with paracord. If you want to be tree independent carry two thin pvc or similar rods and store them with the tarp alongside the luggage rack until ready for use. Run them along each side of the tarp, one end secured to the car the other end securing the tarp to the rod. During the summer, I often throw a small battery operated fan into the mix.