Many of us enjoy the great outdoors, but it’s no secret that not everyone loves tent camping. Being exposed to wildlife and the elements, fighting the dirt and bugs that get inside, and shoving wet tents into storage bags gets old after a while. If this sounds like you, know you have options. Cabins and semi-permanent structures like Parks Canada’s oTENTiks are among them, of course. But if you find yourself longing for some time in nature and these sorts of accommodations aren’t available, consider learning how to camp in an SUV instead. We’ve been camping this way for years, and it’s by far our preference over sleeping in a tent.

You’ll need to bring some equipment along, but these are most likely items you’d bring to a campsite anyway. Here’s how you can sleep comfortably in an SUV. You’ll wake up feeling refreshed and ready to enjoy your time in nature.

Camping this way is especially helpful in natural areas with fewer roofed accommodations. Consider giving this a try on a Lake Superior road trip >

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How to load up to camp in an SUV

Here’s a list of the equipment you’ll want to pack for your SUV camping adventure:

  • A quality air mattress
  • A vinyl patch kit designed to work with your air mattress
  • An air pump
  • Sleeping bags and pillows
  • The rest of your usual camping kit, such as food, kitchen tools, toiletries, a hatchet, etc.
  • Optional: these universal window screens for your car to improve air circulation while keep mosquitoes out at night
  • Optional: a small fan to improve air circulation, such as this battery powered fan or one you can power with an extension cord at a campsite with electrical hookups

How to set up your SUV for camping

We recommend having a mid-size two-row SUV for this at a minimum. The Ford Edge, Nissan Murano, and Honda Passport are examples of mid-size two-row SUVs. Smaller compact SUVs can work, but most adults will find they don’t offer enough room to stretch out. A larger mid-size three-row SUV such as a Hyundai Palisade, Kia Telluride, or Subaru Ascent will be even better. A Chrysler Pacifica minivan with second-row stowaway chairs or a minivan with removable second-row seats will also work. Most other modern minivans don’t allow the second-row seats to be removed. This means they don’t provide a large, flat sleeping surface.

When you arrive at your campsite and are ready to set up your SUV for camping, follow these steps:

  • Remove your bags and supplies from the back and place them in the first row. You won’t be driving while you’re using your SUV as a tent. You can shove things into the footwells and on top of the dashboard to make the best use of space.
  • Fold all of the rear seats flat. You likely won’t notice any gaps between the seats, but ideally you’ve chosen an SUV with as flat a floor as possible. If the seats don’t fold completely flat, you’ll be at an angle you may not find entirely comfortable. This is something to check before you leave on your car camping trip.
  • Set out your air mattress across the load floor. Position the inflation valve on the liftgate side of the vehicle and the other end as close as possible to the first-row seats. Don’t use a double-height air mattress here. The taller your air mattress is, the less height you’ll have to work with inside the vehicle once it’s inflated. Some manufacturers such as Luno offer custom-fit, low-profile air mattresses for this purpose, and they’re wonderful if you can afford them. If you’re on a budget, a cheap single-height double air mattress will do the job.
  • Once the mattress in place, inflate it as much as possible. If you’ve chosen a standard air mattress, its shape will form around the SUV’s interior components as it inflates. Don’t worry if it buckles slightly: it will flatten out once people lay on top of it. A powered air pump is very helpful for this step. Either a battery-powered pump or one that operates off your car’s 12-volt outlet will work well.
  • Place your pillows and sleeping bags on top of the air mattress, and you’re ready to call it a night!

One of the best parts about this setup is that it’s easy to break camp and get under way the next day. It generally takes us less than 15 minutes to reverse this setup, and we can have it up and running again the next night in half the time.

Simply deflate the mattress—for expensive ones I deflate them all the way, but cheap ones I don’t care about I’ll deflate just until they’ll fold in half—and fold it in half onto itself, leaving the bedding in place. Reposition the rear seats, then take the stuff out of the front row and pile it on top of the folded mattress in the cargo area. You’re ready to drive, and you can reverse this progress to set up camp again later that day.

How to be comfortable and safe while camping in an SUV

If you’ve opted for the optional universal SUV window screens, stretch them around the rear door’s windows. These make a huge difference for overnight comfort as they’ll reduce interior light and humidity. They can be tricky to get into place, but it’s sometimes possible to get them to catch on some of the door trim so they don’t slip.

It’s also possible to run an extension cord underneath the screens so that you can have interior power for something like a fan. In our experience, this doesn’t create a large enough gap to let mosquitoes find their way through. They do let rain in, though, so it’s best to skip these on rainy nights.

Once your sleeping quarters are set up, you’ll find it easier to get in and out using the liftgate rather than by opening the side doors, especially when your window screens are in place. We like to drop our shoes under the car to keep them dry, then close the rear liftgate with the key fob.

It may be helpful to lift the bottom of the air mattress until the liftgate latches, then push it back down into place. We then lock the doors and drop the key fob into one of the rear cup holders so it’s easily accessible in the morning. Be sure to turn off as many beeps and alarms as possible to keep disturbances to a minimum!

When you’re camping in a bear area, note that open food in your vehicle and open windows with screens may be enticing enough to attract the local bear population. We keep food inside the vehicle only while still packaged or within a cooler. If your campsite has bear lockers, that would be a safer option. You can reduce the likelihood of attracting bears by keeping your campsite bear-safe. Clean your dishes soon after eating, and don’t leave open food or beverage containers, or scented products like toothpaste, sitting around your campsite.

With these tips, we’ve enjoyed years of using an SUV as a camper. What are some of your favourite car camping tips? Share your best hints and tricks in the comments!

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