How to: Turn Your Car Into a Camper

Earlier this year, I was awarded a National Geographic Young Explorers Grant to spend four months driving around the United States documenting nocturnal culture with my partner and collaborator, Kevin Weidner (who helped me write this piece), and our two dogs (check out my piece on late-night Vegas).

Because the grant mostly covered fuel and food, and because we needed to cover a lot of ground in a relatively short amount of time, one of our first tasks was to figure out a reliable sleeping situation that would be both efficient and cost-effective.

Finding a place to camp, for free, or nearly free, every day seemed a daunting task that was bound to set us off course. And since we’d be driving and working at night and sleeping mostly during daylight hours, campground and hotel checkout times wouldn’t work for us.

We researched our options. Staying with friends would work in some cases, but would require advance planning. We couldn’t afford to rent an RV, so we had to make the most of the vehicle we had. Towing a trailer would be ideal, but what if we needed to go on a rough road or up a steep mountain? And what about the gas mileage we’d be sacrificing for the extra comfort?

Then we found a solution that seemed perfect: we would turn our 2008 Honda CR-V into a camper.

Our platform (note the storage space below) (Photograph by Annie Agnone)
Our platform (note the storage space below) (Photograph by Annie Agnone)

The simplest way to explain the process is that we built a table. An ugly table, made of plywood and two-by-fours, that fit in the back of the car. A table under which we could store all our stuff, and on top of which we could sleep, for free, almost anywhere.

After three months, 15,000 miles, 31 states, and sleeping through about 60 summer mornings in the car-bed we built ourselves, we can tell you this: it was pretty great. Challenging, yes, and sometimes frustrating, but worth it.

We could park the car — at once bedroom, office, tripod, living room, and kitchen — set up the bed, and be asleep within 10 minutes. We woke in parking lots and trailheads and tiny rest areas, atop a mountain in New Mexico, beside a blue lake in California, and about 100 meters from a Dunkin’ Donuts in Maine.

If you’re interested in following suit by turning your own SUV into a camper, here are the basics:

1. Preparation. We first removed the back seats. For our car, we removed a total of eight bolts and the seats were free, but you may consider having a professional help you out.

After removing the seats, we cleaned the inside of the car and cut a tarp to spread under where the sleeping platform would sit. Traveling with two big dogs, we knew the ability to remove the tarp and shake it out without having to move the whole platform would be a big plus.

The platform when it's set up for sleeping  (Photograph by Annie Agnone)
The platform when it’s set up for sleeping (Photograph by Annie Agnone)

2. Design. We began by looking around online (search “SUV + sleeping platform” and see what you find) and cobbled together a design based on our particular needs and wants. Because we wanted to maximize our gas mileage (and because our carpentry skills are pretty basic), we were looking for a simple, lightweight design that would be easy to set up, and outfitted with compartments to help us stay organized on the road.

3. Supplies. Our final design required sheets of ¾-inch plywood, two-by-fours, hinges, screws, cabinet-lid stays, carpet, staples, D rings — all of which cost us about $150 at the hardware store. We had some tools and borrowed the rest from kind friends: a drill, table and miter saws, and a staple gun.

4. Construction. It took us about six hours to complete our project. Knowing what you’ll need and being prepared pays off. That, and having a couple good friends who happen to be woodworking geniuses there to help guide you through the process (okay, we were really lucky that way).

Here’s what we came up with: Our design featured a main storage compartment (accessible from the back of the vehicle), a top-loading hatch compartment, and a bed extension that flipped up when the front seats were pushed forward. The total storage area under the platform was 40” wide, 58” long, and 14” tall. The sleeping space, with the extension, was a little over 40” wide and 74” long.

5. Security. We attached D-rings to the underside of the platform and used a ratcheted tie-down to secure it to the cargo area of the CR-V.

6. Outfitting. We had a futon mattress that happened to fit perfectly. It was thick enough to be comfortable, yet thin enough to fold in half so we could access the hatch compartment. Other options include inflatable or foam camping pads, or a foam mattress from a military surplus store.

Simple curtains help with privacy and keeping the car cool while you sleep (Photograph by Annie Agnone)
Simple curtains help with privacy and keeping the car cool while you sleep (Photograph by Annie Agnone)

The perks?

  • Maximized mobility (compared with something you would tow)
  • Plentiful overnight options beyond pet-friendly hotels, RV parks, and campgrounds (except in major cities)
  • Superior protection from the elements (compared with tent camping)
  • Affordability. It didn’t cost us a thing to sleep anywhere unless we were at a campground.
  • Eco-friendliness (at least compared with hauling a tow unit)
  • Coziness. Be prepared for serious bonding if you’re traveling with someone else, or serious alone time if you’re flying solo.
  • Privacy. Surprisingly, we were only disturbed twice while sleeping in our car, both times by friendly police officers checking to make sure we didn’t need help.

The challenges?

  • No back seats. You don’t miss them until they’re gone.
  • Hustling. Finding a place to sleep that is legal, safe, relatively private, flat, etc., can be challenging. But that’s part of the fun, right?
  • Navigating personal space. If you’re traveling with someone else, make sure you really like them.
  • Bugs. Choose when and where you sleep carefully. And consider mosquito netting.
  • Unholy heat! This usually only applies if you’re trying to sleep in the day, as we were. Sleeping at night is ideal, but make sure to crack the windows.
  • Rain. Close the windows completely for short storms. If it’s a longer storm, keep the windows cracked slightly and drape a tarp over the windows.
The whole enchilada (Photograph by Annie Agnone)
Parking lots can become heat traps during the day. Try to seek shade! (Photograph by Annie Agnone)

What to bring?

  • Tarp(s), to keep out rain and protect your sleeping space during the day
  • Water, and plenty of it
  • A windshield sunshade and curtains for privacy
  • Mosquito netting
  • A flashlight
  • A sense of humor

Where to sleep?

The best place to sleep in your car camper really depends on your own needs, what you’re comfortable with, and where you’re traveling. Each of these locations offer unique benefits and drawbacks:

  • Trailheads: These usually offer the most privacy, but can be buggy and don’t always have restrooms or access to water.
  • Wal-mart parking lots: These big-box stores (at least the ones we encountered) welcome overnighters and even have security cameras and patrols. Plus, when you wake up you can run inside to use the bathroom and brush your teeth. However, they have little tree cover and can heat up fast, making it difficult to sleep for very long after the sun comes up. They are also reliably busier than national forests.
  • Rest stops: These vary greatly. Most have bathrooms, but some close at night. Many allow overnight parking, but some don’t. Some have guitar-playing that begins at 7 a.m., others are quiet and will offer you free coffee and brochures. You never know. Which is, maybe, part of the adventure.

In addition to documenting what Americans do when most everyone else is asleep, National Geographic Young Explorer Annie Agnone is pursuing an MFA in creative writing at the University of Alabama. Follow her story on Instagram @annieagnone.


  1. amaroo
    August 10, 2014, 9:51 am

    We have finally upgraded our car-camper from a WRX to a Forester XT – love the space, and the ground clearance.

    To answer the side-door-mozzie-net question.
    Step 1 is to avoid a car with frameless doors (older Subaru).
    Make a pillow-slip of mozzie netting, with its slit on a long side. Open door and slide pillow-slip down. Can adjust window and open/shut door easily. Use on front doors too, which often negates need to open/screen rear hatch. Further refinement is fridge magnets (or fridge door seal magnet) to seal outside bottom edge of netting to door.

    Other issue in warm humid climate is rainproof ventilation.
    Step 1 is to avoid a car with frameless doors.
    Fit standard weathershields to top of all doors. Can use corflute hood jammed in to extend coverage. Usually need some stiff plastic sheet (ring binder divider) , pegged to window glass, to fill gap at side of window.

  2. Alfred
    July 16, 2014, 6:09 pm

    I spent 12 years living in a van as a full-time stealth camper. Manhattan, Fairbanks, Quebec, Boston,, Bar Harbor..and many places in between. I was based in San Francisco where I worked construction to finance my travels..including the PanAm Hwy from Lima to Fin del Mundo. I did the above from my late fifties to my early seventies.

    I’m currently outfitting my 2014 Ford Fiesta for Stealth my mid seventies. The novelty never wears off.

  3. Bethany
    United States
    July 3, 2014, 3:28 pm

    We’ve car camped in our Subaru and found that would have made it much easier would be a door latch for the rear door. Exiting out the side doors takes a bit of flexibility that in our mid 60’s we are losing. Mosquito netting that would work on the rear door when open would also be great. Any ideas?

  4. Miriam Lilly
    Everywhere America
    June 21, 2014, 6:30 am

    I am excited to follow in your footsteps, I will be doing all 50 states in 1 year before I turn 30. #50by30. I am getting a blow up bed for the back seat, but I need your curtains! -Miriam

  5. Robby
    saint louis, mo
    June 5, 2014, 11:26 pm

    It is the only way to live cheap and see the usa! Have done it plenty! And in a 1973 vw bug! From fort lauderdale to LA and back 3 times! Was bedt time of my life! Am 62 now, retired and getting ready to load up my dog and head out to warmer climate….no more midwest winters for us! Great way to travel! Am building me a camper bed for my truck!

  6. wildfaerie
    March 25, 2014, 3:54 pm

    This looks great. I have 2 big dogs. Where did your dogs sleep? I’m worried that they’d take up all the room in the back and leave no room for sleeping humans.

  7. Roger Steen
    March 3, 2014, 4:43 pm

    I’ve been van camping for a year now, in the western U.S., and I wrote a book about putting my little camper together. I took a “casual” approach to the interior, so it’s not so much “house-like” as it is practical and reasonably priced:

  8. Iwan
    North Wales
    November 14, 2013, 4:54 pm

    This is definately the eco way to explore, camping in your car. Check out this setup Ive come up with and you can even keep your back seats in. The bed is really comfy and even a pullout cooker.

  9. Michael rice
    Homestead Florida
    October 27, 2013, 11:52 am

    Excellent I have Anissa’s pathfinder 2002 will your idea fit in my suv also I have the same looking dog .? Where does he sleep. Michael

  10. nelleke
    texel the netherlands
    October 22, 2013, 2:47 am

    hi, do you have more pictures of the conversion. we would like to do this with our crv but have a door that opens from one site to the other
    bye nelleke

  11. Ross
    September 20, 2013, 3:50 pm

    Great post, Annie! It’s good to share the behind-the-scenes of an epic project like yours. Very ingenious design! As always, good luck and all the best out there!


  12. Tom
    Oakland, CA.
    September 14, 2013, 10:16 pm

    Travelled more than once cross country on the blue highways. Never tried a Wal-Mart parking lot but found college parking lots great as a shower in the gym was usually available. Also found motel parking lots available as well. Off the beaten path wonderful places to stay and I never had a problem, did use velcro on mosquito netting to cover the open windows when it was warm at night.

  13. Evan
    Oakland, CA
    September 12, 2013, 2:09 pm

    Fantastic! Where’d your dogs sleep?

  14. Ryan
    On the Road
    September 11, 2013, 11:38 am

    Cool setup, I’ve got something similar in the back of my pickup truck–but pretty creative to install one in the back of an SUV. I’ve spent quite a few months traveling around the country, living in the back… It’s awesome! :)

  15. Christopher Andreae
    Cincinnati, OH
    September 11, 2013, 3:00 am

    Spent a few nights sleeping in my VW Jetta Diesel Wagon, but spent a few years roaming about the country in a 22′ Fleetwood Tioga. I must admit the real-deal motorhome was far more comfy and could tow the wagon…but the wagon got 50mpg…the motorhome got 10mpg…all in all, I highly suggest hitting the road and camping, in any kind of vehicle.

  16. aldo adinata
    September 9, 2013, 2:36 am so jealous…i hope i can do it like u guys (camp)

  17. Ian Faulds
    Bellingham, Washington, USA
    September 7, 2013, 1:20 pm

    Sounds like a great trip and learning experience! I have a Subaru Outback and I think that would be the perfect car to do this type of setup in.

    Ian Faulds
    My Blog