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Car Camping 101: A Guide to Sleeping In Your Car

Car Camping 101 Pin

Car camping or vehicle camping is one of the fastest and cheapest ways to travel.  Instead of pitching a tent every night, or renting a hotel room, you can just sleep in your vehicle. And vehicles provide better protection from weather & animals, and offer more warmth when compared to tents.

Sometimes the term car camping refers to driving your car to a campsite and pitching a tent. But in this case, I’m talking about literally sleeping in your car.

Emily and I fell in love with this type of camping because it allowed us to do more during the day. We no longer felt the pressure to get to a campsite before dark to set up a tent. And no more packing up a wet tent in the morning. You can just hop up in the driver’s seat and go.

But be careful, car camping is a gateway drug to #Vanlife. It’s ultimately what lead us to embrace vanlife.

This post may contain affiliate links. Disclosure policy.

This type of camping has always existed, but it’s been gaining popularity for a number of reasons.

Outdoor enthusiasts, travelers, or the voluntarily (or un-voluntarily) homeless all find themselves enticed by the benefits of car camping.

Many mountain bikers, climbers, hikers, skiers, and other outdoor enthusiasts don’t care where they sleep, they just want to get out there and enjoy their hobbies.  So they are happy to ditch the daily tent-pitching game for something simpler and faster.

Or some car campers are just travelers who don’t want to pay for a hotel room.

And the movement keeps expanding with the explosion of mid-size SUVs and Crossovers.  Most of which now come equipped with modular seating to accommodate many layouts.

If you’ve been curious about sleeping in your vehicle, but aren’t sure where to start, don’t worry.  It doesn’t require that many special modifications or equipment to sleep comfortably in a vehicle.

Below, I help you explore the best car camping setups for sleeping in your car.

Let’s jump in….

Sleeping Platform For Car Camping

First, and most importantly, you need to figure out a viable sleeping platform.  The key is to achieve a relatively flat surface for your bed.


Height Matters

The hard truth is that the taller you are, the more space you will need.  So someone who is 5’2″ might be able to sleep comfortably in their Kia Soul, but if you’re 6’1″ you’ll probably need a bigger vehicle.

Permanent vs Temporary

Does your sleeping area need to transform back into seating every day? Or can you leave your bed set up for the duration of your trips.


When you clear out room to sleep, where will you fit your bikes, doggos, coolers, chairs, etc?

If you are still looking to buy a vehicle for car camping, here’s our top picks….

Subaru Outback

Honda Element

Toyota 4Runner (pre 2010)

Vehicle Types

SUVs or Hatchback’s

SUV with mountains in the background, great for car camping
Photo by Reynier Carl on Unsplash

These are the most popular type of vehicle for sleeping in. They tend to have the most interior space. And they usually have options for folding down seats or removing them altogether.

Check out the owners manual or do a quick google search of your make, model, and year to find out what options you have.  Test out all the possible configurations to find one that offers the best “platform” for sleeping on.

Sometimes you can fold the back seats down to form a continuous platform with the trunk.  This method is fast and easy.

But the primary problem with folded down seats is that they often don’t go completely flat. You may have to tolerate sleeping with your upper body on a slight upward slant.

And don’t forget about sliding the front seats forward if you need to get a little bit more headroom.


Dodge Grand Caravan Minivan is one of the decent vehicles to live in

Minivans are an awesome platform for car-camping. They usually have a completely flat floor, and removing or folding a couple seats provides ample room for sleeping.  So minivans usually don’t require any special modification to get a nice flat sleeping surface.

In our travels, we have seen tons of people living out of minivans full-time (#miniVanlife).  And yes, many are doing it by choice.  So we know that it can be a great option.

The negatives are that when seats are removed, you usually have to leave them behind.


A car camping sleep setup for two people in a sedan

Finding a viable sleeping “platform” in a sedan can be more tricky.  And depending on your height, it may not always be possible.

It usually involves removing or folding one of the seats to open up some space. Some sedans have back seats that fold down to connect with the trunk. Or others can fold the front seats to form a platform with the back seats.

Again, check out the owner’s manual or do a google search to see if other’s have figured out a solution for your make and model.

Some solutions for car camping in a sedan are admittedly “coffin-like”, but sometimes you make the best with what you have.

a subaru sedan in the desert

In my case, my old car was a 2001 Subaru Legacy.  The front seats could be reclined all the way down to form a “platform” with the bench seat in the back.  A clever little nugget of information I learned from the owner’s manual. We could simply slide the front seats all the way forward, take off the headrests, and then recline them all the way down to form a semi-flat platform for sleeping.

We highly recommend inflatable sleeping pads for this setup because they help to even out all the irregularities underneath.


The easiest vehicles to modify for sleeping are trucks.  And they are usually the most capable off-road vehicles. If your truck bed is long enough to sleep in then there isn’t much more to it.  Otherwise, you may be able to lower the tailgate to gain a little bit more space, but possibly at the expense of being totally enclosed.

Here’s information on picking out a hard-shell truck bed cover to protect you from the elements. Or there are even truck bed tents as well, but that’s kind of getting away from the spirit of this post.

DIY Sleeping Platforms For Car Camping

To make a more permanent and flat sleeping platform you can make a DIY platform to provide a truly flat sleeping surface.

Wooden platforms are the most common conversion for car-campers.  They are most commonly used to smooth out some of the irregularities between the trunk and folded down seats.

The simplest designs are usually just a raised platform that allows for storage underneath… like this.  But the more elaborate builds may include built in drawers for storage and even a slide-out kitchenette.

This Subaru Forester conversion is one of the coolest and most innovative that I’ve seen.

But the complexity of your DIY conversion is only limited by your woodworking skills and imagination.  Or you can search the web for inspiration, you may even find others who have converted your same vehicle.

Here are instructions for building the simplest platform bed

Start by measuring the dimensions of your sleeping area.  Be aware that the space is probably not going to be a perfect rectangle.

For one person, you can design the platform to only cover half, but for two people, you likely will need to use the entire space.  Cut a piece of 5/8th inch plywood to fit the appropriate amount of space. Then identify the low points of your vehicle’s sleeping area (usually the trunk) and use 2×4’s (or similar) to create supports to level out the plywood sleeping platform. 

To protect yourself and gear from splinters, consider sanding & painting the plywood, or covering it with carpet, fabric, or moving blanket.

Beds For Car Camping

Car camping in a hatchback with a pillow and sleeping bag.

Once you have a flat (or flat-ish) sleeping platform, its time to put in a bed.  If you’re converting from tent camping, then you probably already own a sleeping bag and sleeping pad.

If not, check out our article, How To Choose The Right Sleeping Bag

While sleeping pads might not be the most comfortable option, they usually take up the least amount of space, and can also be stored away much smaller than any mattress.  Here are tips for choosing sleeping pads.

But if you have the flexibility for a more permanent bed setup, a mattress of some kind will always be more comfortable.

The most popular options are mattress toppers, futon mattresses, or thin memory foam mattresses.  Remember that every inch of mattress thickness is one less inch of headroom, so sometimes you need to compromise on the total thickness of your mattress.

And to keep warm, grab a sleeping bag or even just a blanket or comforter.

Storage | Car Camping

The one downside to sleeping inside your vehicle is that you lose a lot of storage space.  Where are you going to put your cooler, clothes, and other gear?

Here are some creative ways to maximize your interior storage space.

Under The Bed

Like I mentioned above, you can design a bed platform with space for storage underneath.  Shallow plastic bins are a great way to organize and access gear underneath the bed platform.

Behind Driver and Passenger Seats

I personally like to use this space for my cooler.  An average camping cooler tends to fit very well on the floor behind the seats. Plus it’s easy to shield the cooler from direct sunlight by covering it with other gear.  The cooler will also be somewhat secure, because in an accident, a cooler is the last thing you want to turn into a projectile.

It’s also a good place to put footwear because the floor mats handle dirty shoes well.


This area often gets forgotten about because it’s not a normal place to store things.  But every inch counts when you’re living out of a vehicle. Just don’t leave anything up there once you’re ready to drive.

Outside The Vehicle

If theft isn’t a worry, then storing things outside the car is great.  To protect your stuff from rain or dust put a tarp on the ground and just fold some gear inside like a taco.  Just make sure that there isn’t anything scented that will attract animals.

Nooks and Crannies

Make sure you find all the nooks and crannies.  Explore every last inch of your vehicle to find creative little spots to put gear.  Some of the most common spots are doors pockets, back of seat pockets, under the seats, the center console, and the glove box.  Little storage spots are great for keeping things you don’t want want to lose, like headlamps, hats, books, and water bottles. Once your car is full of stuff, it’s easy to lose track of the smaller items.

A pro move is to get a seat-back organizer thats loaded with tons of pockets for keeping track of your small items.


Finding creative way to hang thing when car camping

Make use of those little hooks or handles above the doors to hang clothes or other items.  Or you can hang a headlamp or lantern from them for convenient overhead lighting.

Cargo Box

Yakima SkyBox NX 16 Roof Box | REI Co-op

Yakima SkyBox NX 16 Roof Box | REI Co-op

Or if you simply can’t fit everything inside your vehicle it’s be a good idea to invest in a cargo box.

They provide a secure and weatherproof enclosure that can greatly expand your gear storage capacity. Or if the cargo box is a little bit outside your budget, check out the Rightline Cargo Bag.

Cargo bags are a good entry-level storage option that’s affordable and still weatherproof.

Best Storage Options for Camping and Road Trips Pin

Check out my other article that describes all the best external storage options on the market.

The Best Storage Options for Car Camping and Road Trips


While we’re on the subject, here are some great lighting options for car camping.  You can’t just keep your vehicle’s interior lights on because you might kill your battery.

Luci Lantern

MPOWERD Luci Inflatable Solar Lantern: Outdoor 2.0 | REI Co-op

MPOWERD Luci Inflatable Solar Lantern: Outdoor 2.0 | REI Co-op

Our favorite pick is the Luci Lantern.  This little solar-powered light is extremely lightweight, compact, versatile, and efficient.  If you are in a place with decent sunlight, you should be able to keep it charged by just putting it on your dashboard during the day.

Or the Luci Lux Series has the ability to charge devices with USB.

E-Trends LED Light Bulbs

Or if you want a battery-powered option, these simple LED lightbulbs are a great design.  They diffuse light for broad coverage, and the hooks make it easy to hang them for overhead lighting.

Black Diamond Spot 325

Black Diamond Storm 500-R Headlamp | REI Co-op

Black Diamond Storm 500-R Headlamp | REI Co-op

Or another good option for lighting is this best-selling Black Diamond Headlamp.  It’s an ideal combination of features for a reasonable price.

Charging Up

What about keeping your phone and devices charged up?

Cigarette Lighter-USB Adapters

For most people, the best solution is to use a USB cigarette lighter adapter to charge up while driving.  They often allow multiple devices to be charged at once. Here are the best ones.

This top-rated one has USB A and the newer USB C, which can even charge some laptops.

Or if you only need USB A ports, this is the one that I have been using for years.  It has over 9,000 5-Star reviews.

Or if you are an absolute device addict and need 4 USB ports, this one has got you covered.

AC Power Inverters

If USB just doesn’t cut it for your needs, you can invest in an AC power inverter.  This will give you power outlets like the ones in your house.  They can be used for laptops, and some can even handle small coffee makers, hairdryers, and more.

Give Car Camping A Try

There’s no “right way” to sleep in your car, so give it a try and see what works for you.  There may be an adjustment period to find your perfect setup.  But once you have it dialed in, you may never look back to sleeping in a tent.  We hope this car camping 101 guide has helped open your eyes to a whole new way of camping and traveling.

Also check out our: 10 Expert Tips for Sleeping in your Car.  It’s all the best things we’ve learned over the years to take your car camping to the next level.  We cover lots of key strategies for dealing with moisture, bugs, storage, and more.  

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