Turn your car into a camper for under $100

Camper van conversions, true camper van conversions, can cost as much as a house in the midwest. Until relatively recently, living in a van down by the river was considered a lifestyle only reluctantly accepted by those who were down-on-their-luck. It has since turned into a statement of status, thanks mostly to instagram and other forms of social media that parade the highlights of living in a vehicle without showing off any of the downsides (finding a bathroom in the middle of the night being one of the biggest negatives). But just because you can spend thousands of dollars converting a vehicle into something you can comfortably sleep in doesn’t mean you should. For me, there are plenty of reasons not to turn either my Crosstrek or Flex into a full-time camper, the main reason being that my wife and I use these vehicles as our daily drivers. They have to hold a car seat, any friends and family we happen to be driving around and two medium sized pups that like their own space. That leaves little to no room for a permanent kitchen or bed setup. Luckily, we have learned to sleep cheaply, and have spent many nights in the back of the car sawing logs comfortably, and when we get home, we take everything out, store it in our garage and our vehicles are back to normal. All for under $100. Is it the best setup ever? No. But before you judge, check it out for yourself. #camper #campervan #vanlife

Video Transcript


CHRISTOPHER MCGRAW: "Autoblog" senior producer Christopher McGraw here. I am sitting inside my daily driver, a 2017 Ford Flex with the ecoboost. That's important to me.

And right now, it does look a little different than it does from factory because, for now, I have turned the rear of this vehicle into a camper. You don't have to spend tens of thousands of dollars upgrading a Sprinter, Econoline, or Pro Master to get a camper out of a vehicle. You don't even have to spend $1,000. In fact, I'm here to tell you you can spend less than $100 and get a relatively comfortable camping setup with the vehicle that you already have.

So obvious things out of the way-- yes, the Flex is a relatively large three-row vehicle. So it'll be a little bit easier to turn this into a camper than it would be some smaller cars-- easier, but it doesn't mean that turning smaller cars into campers is an impossible task.

My other daily driver is a subcompact Subaru Crosstrek. And until recently, we didn't have this Flex. So we did all our camping out of that vehicle, taking it everywhere from the Colorado Rockies to the Grand Canyon. All you need is a little creative thinking. So let's break it down.

First things first-- you need something to sleep on, a mattress. Now, while you can spend up to hundreds of dollars on these, if you're just getting into camping and you don't really know whether or not you'll like it, it makes a lot more sense to spend less than $12 on a twin inflatable air mattress like the one that I bought from Walmart.

It's twin-size, so it fits in a lot of different vehicles, like this Flex or like my Crosstrek. And they're relatively easy to inflate, especially if you have one of these, a pump. Now, there are a few different types of pumps, and they all depend on what you have in your car.

Now, say, you don't have any power outlets-- cigarette lighter outlet, like, on my Crosstrek, hasn't worked for a few years-- this is the kind you're gonna want to get. It's powered by batteries, so you use it wherever. I've used it in a tent in the middle of nowhere before. And it works great.

This one is cheaper, less than 10 bucks. I think this was 8.99. And this is an A/C-powered one. I'm lucky enough to have a plug in the back of this vehicle. So I can plug it right in and turn on the car and pump up the mattress.

I can also deflate the mattress just by moving this piece here onto the top. And it deflates it a lot quicker when you're done camping than it would be just by opening the valve and letting the air out. I highly recommend getting a pump. That way you're not gonna be dizzy after blowing up an air mattress. It takes all the pain out of setting up camp.

The next thing I would get is this. And it's a screen for your windows. Stagnant air while camping in your car is the worst. The main reason that I go camping is to get out into the fresh air of the mountains. And so if I have the doors completely closed at night, it just feels stuffy in there.

And that's where these screens come in. You can put them over all of your doors. And that way you can crack the windows without having mosquitoes or anything come in.

I don't like to keep my windows open completely. I like to just keep them cracked just enough to let a crossbreeze through. That way I'm not inviting any other animals inside the vehicle because, if you look, this is not going to prevent a bear or anything like that coming into your vehicle-- mainly just to keep out mosquitoes and other bugs.

That being said, having these on your windows does add a layer of privacy, which is kind of nice. It darkens the windows so people can't look in very easily. Now, for the blankets and pillows, this is the easiest part because all I did was use what I have at home.

You probably already have blankets. You probably already have pillows at home. I just moved them from my house into my car.

You might need a few more blankets than if you were sleeping inside your house depending on what the weather is like. You may need fewer blankets because it's hot out in the summer.

If you're going to be camping in the fall, late fall, winter, early spring, when it's gonna be really cold out, I highly, highly recommend you get a sleeping bag that is rated to the temperatures you are gonna be sleeping in. It'll make things way more comfortable. And, most importantly, it'll keep you safe.

I keep a 0-degree sleeping bag in the vehicle at all times in the winter, just in case I get stuck on I-70 during a snowstorm and have to spend the night. So if you're planning on spending the night in your car, in the winter, I would highly, highly recommend breaking that $100 budget and getting a sleeping bag that is rated to those temperatures.

Now, almost as important as sleeping, when it comes to camping in your car, is eating. Actually, for some people-- sometimes myself included-- it's more important than sleeping.

And while, for 100 bucks, you're not gonna be able to have the greatest chef's setup in the world, you can get a few different things that will make camping more comfortable, leave you with a full stomach at night when you're going to bed, which always helps me sleep better, and put a smile on your face in the morning when you wake up, have a good breakfast, and have a nice hot cup of coffee.

First things first is water. We got ourselves a six-gallon water jug right here. You can pick these up on Amazon, at Walmart, a lot of different places. Got a spout right here.

It's not the easiest thing to use. There's no spigot, which is why I also recommend a collapsible water jug with a spigot. You can get them-- they're, like, 10 bucks for a five-gallon jug. Those ones, the collapsible ones, are really nice because when they're empty, they don't take up a lot of space like this one does, though they do tend to leak.

The one that I got for this video specifically, I opened it up, filled it up with water, and it was spewing out everywhere. So I couldn't use it even in this video. So having the spigot is nice. But you also want to just double-check, triple-check, before you leave on your trip, that it'll actually hold water. Otherwise, you'll be in for a lot of hurt.

You want to carry way more water than you'll think you'll need on a trip, especially if you're gonna be hiking. Hiking and just being outside all day does take a lot out of you, including water. So if it's a hot day, like today is, and you're sweating a lot, having a lot of water is number one priority.

Second is a little stove like this. And so this actually isn't the whole stove. Part of this is the gas canister. I'll set that down. That's it. That's a stove. 9.99 for a stove.

And so what it does-- like you saw before, it just screws right into the top of your fuel container. It's got this little knob on the side, which, when you open it up, you can hear the gas coming out. And then it's got a little lighter. Boom. There you go.

When you're done, just turn it to the right, and it's off. This is super small, super lightweight, super easy to just keep in your car pretty much at all times. I keep mine in my glove box. I have two of them-- keep one in each glove box, just in case, you know, if you're camping, you can eat those dehydrated meals just by pouring some water into a metal container, heating it up, pouring it into one of those dehydrated meal bags.

Or, if you want to make coffee in the morning, same thing-- just throw a little pot of water on top of that, turn it on, and it'll boil really quickly. I've even used it on road trips when I wasn't camping when I just needed a coffee and I happened to have everything I needed with me.

Another thing that I think is nice to have but not a necessity is a little table. A lot of campsites in the US have picnic tables. In fact, all the campsites that I've rented out here in Colorado, Arizona, Wyoming have had picnic tables at the campsite. So I didn't need a small little table.

But if you're gonna be going into the backcountry, or you're going to a place that is dispersed camping that won't have picnic tables, a little table is a nice thing to have. They're not that expensive-- about 19.99.

You can make your dinner and breakfast there. You can play cards there. You can eat there. And they fold up pretty small, so that way it's not taking up a bunch of storage in the back of your car.

So there you have it. I spent way less than $100, turned your vehicle into a camper. Now all you have to do is get out there and go camping. If you decide you like it, maybe you'll pick up one of those Volkswagen Vanagons or a Mercedes Sprinter that is just dying to be turned into a full-time camper. And if not, you haven't spent all that much money.