Turn your car into a comfortable camper for less than $500


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Camper van transformations are currently in the spotlight, with some conversions reaching prices comparable to real estate. Previously linked with a lifestyle embraced mostly by those encountering difficulties, the narrative has undergone a transformation. Thanks to platforms such as Instagram, TikTok and other social media outlets, living in a van has evolved into a symbol of status. However, this portrayal often highlights the benefits while downplaying the challenges (such as the difficulty of locating a restroom at night).

It’s essential to consider whether an expensive vehicle conversion is truly necessary. There are compelling reasons why I opt not to convert my Crosstrek or Flex into full-time campers. These vehicles serve as our daily drivers, accommodating car seats, friends, family, and even our medium-sized dog. Given such diverse usage, permanent kitchen or bedding setups aren’t practical. However, we’ve found budget-friendly sleeping solutions, frequently enjoying comfortable nights in the car. Upon returning home, a quick cleanup restores the car to its standard setup. All of this comes at a cost of under $500.

Is it the best setup ever? No. But before you judge, check it out for yourself.

Sleeping setup

$59.49 at Walmart

Your mattress is arguably the most important part of your sleep system. While a cheap air mattress will do the trick, one made specifically for a vehicle offers quite a few features that a regular air mattress doesn’t. One of the worst things about sleeping in your car is that there are a lot of nooks, crannies and crevasses for things to disappear down. This vehicle-specific air mattress helps eliminate some of those thanks to its shape, which can contour to the interior shape of your vehicle. It also features a pump as well as four separate air chambers, allowing you to inflate it fully for multi-person use or partially to 40% or 60% for single-person use, depending on your vehicle’s available space. Add the two inflatable pillows that are included and you have yourself a quite comfortable base to your sleep system. 


Sleeping Bag

$69.96 at Amazon

Story time: Quite a few years back, Autoblog went to Iceland to test-drive camper vans (we were originally there to drive a 70 Series Toyota Land Cruiser but that’s a whole other story). Halfway into our drive around the volcanic island, the diesel engine in our Renault Trafic camper sputtered and never started again. With no engine to power the auxiliary battery in the back of the camper, our heater went out after a few hours and we were stuck on the side of the road overnight in near-freezing temperatures. Luckily, I had thought to throw a couple 0-degree sleeping bags in my luggage the day before. We were able to keep pretty warm all night while we waited for the new van to be driven to us.

These days I keep those same two sleeping bags in the car each winter, just in case I get stuck overnight in the mountains. Synthetic sleeping bags like the one above are much cheaper than their down-filled counterparts, and, unlike down, will keep you warm even when wet. They don’t pack down quite as small but that matters less if you’re keeping them in your car. Keep them stored out of their stuff sack in order to preserve the loft and life of the bag.


Window Screen – $8.98

screen

$8.98 at Walmart

Stagnant air in the car at night is the worst. Well, second worst. Mosquitoes are the worst. Thankfully these window screens solve both of those problems. They cover the entirety of the windows so you could roll them down completely if you want to. I only roll them down a few inches. Open enough for quality air flow, closed enough that if a bear or other creature wanders by, they can’t easily get into the car before I wake up and get the heck out of there. 


DIY Window Shades – $YMMV

In addition to window screens, blackout window shades are great for privacy, as well as keeping the heat in or out, depending on the time of year you happen to be camping. They’re fairly easy to make too; all it takes is some foam core, reflective insulation and some tape. Check out the video above to figure out how to make your own. 

Another more permanent option is to tint your windows. Laws on this vary from state to state, so make sure to do your research beforehand, but tinting windows not only can add privacy and block harmful UV rays, but also helps keep your vehicle cooler during those blistery hot summer months. 


Extra blankets and pillows — already have

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Most of us already have blankets and pillows. I use the ones I sleep with at home.


Kitchen setup

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$97 at Walmart

Last year, I received the Blackstone Adventure Ready 17″ Tabletop Outdoor Griddle as a birthday gift, and it has truly revolutionized my camping experiences. Priced affordably at just $97, this portable griddle has become an indispensable part of my outdoor cooking arsenal. Its compact design and tabletop format make it incredibly easy to transport and set up at any campsite or outdoor gathering. What makes it truly remarkable is its versatility in cooking options – from sizzling bacon and eggs for breakfast to savory burgers and stir-fries for dinner, the griddle’s flat cooking surface ensures delicious results every time. Its efficient propane-powered heating system heats up quickly and distributes heat evenly, making cooking a breeze. Plus, the non-stick cooking surface makes cleanup a snap, allowing me to spend less time washing dishes and more time enjoying the great outdoors. 


$199.99 at Amazon

The BougeRV 12 Volt Refrigerator’s compact size and lightweight construction make it incredibly portable, allowing you to bring perishable items on outdoor adventures without the hassle of bulky coolers or ice packs. With a 23-quart capacity, it offers ample storage space while still fitting easily in most vehicles. Powered by a 12-volt DC power source, such as a car battery or portable power station, this refrigerator provides efficient cooling performance even in remote camping locations. It can quickly chill food and beverages to the desired temperature, with adjustable settings for precise control. Despite its powerful cooling capabilities, the BougeRV refrigerator boasts low power consumption, making it ideal for off-grid camping. Its versatility extends beyond camping, making it perfect for road trips and tailgating as well.


5-gallon water jug – $34.99

Water Jug1

$34.99 at Amazon

When my wife and I first started car camping, I bought a 6-gallon jug with a spout. It’s big, heavy, takes up room even when it is empty and unwieldy to pick up and pour from when full. This jug may be nearly as big, but is superior in almost every way. Pair it with the spout below and it is much easier to use and since you’ll be using water for everything from cooking and cleaning to drinking and washing dishes, this is a must have. 


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$6.99 at Amazon

This spout is easily rechargeable in your vehicle assuming you have a 12V USB charger, which in today’s day and age most of us do. It makes filling up water bottles and doing dishes a breeze.

Throw these items in your car and you’re well on your way to a cheap version of van life that is easy to setup and tear down. If you’ve done the math you may have noticed that this list is a good $50 shy of the $500 total. With that money you can purchase a lot, be it a table, chairs or a dish and utensil set, whatever your camping setup is still lacking. It may be tempting to go big and get all the high-end equipment right away, but going this route will allow you to easily upgrade based on your needs instead of what looks great on instagram. Plus, if you find out 16 days in that living out of your car isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, you won’t have had to sell your house to learn that lesson.

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