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Camper conversions, real camper conversions, can cost as much as a house. Until relatively recently, living in a riverside van was considered a lifestyle grudgingly embraced by those down on their luck. It’s since become a status statement, thanks mostly to Instagram and other forms of social media that showcase the highlights of life in a vehicle without exposing any of the downsides (finding a bathroom in the middle of the night is one of the most the big negatives).
But just because you can spend thousands of dollars turning a vehicle into something you can sleep in comfortably doesn’t mean you should. For me, there are many reasons not to convert 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, all the friends and family we happen to be driving around, and two medium-sized pups who love their own space. This leaves little or no room for a permanent kitchen or bed. Fortunately, we’ve learned to sleep on the cheap and have spent many nights in the back of the car, comfortably sawed on logs, 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 this the best setting? No. But before you judge, check for yourself.
Air Mattress – $11.44
Grab your measuring tape, lay out all your seats and see what size mattress fits you. As for the vehicles I have in my garage, a double size fits the back of my Crosstrek perfectly and is thick enough to eliminate bumps in the back. My Flex can handle a slightly larger mattress, but since I want this to work for both, I stuck with the twin mattress. It’s not the prettiest model you can buy, but considering I’ve been buying six-packs for more, it’s pretty good.
Air Pump – $8.99
Including an air pump sometimes feels like an incredible luxury to me, and I’m not sure why. Maybe I think camping should involve inflating your mattress yourself, but in this day and age when many cars come with an AC outlet, why bother blowing up your mattress by hand? This one will plug into any AC outlet and costs so little I can’t believe I even considered not getting it. If you don’t have an AC outlet in your car, they make both a DC 12V that will plug into a cigarette lighter and a 6-C battery powered one that doesn’t need to be plugged into anything.
Window Screen – $11.48
Stagnant air in the car at night is the worst. Well, second worst. Mosquitoes are the worst. Fortunately, these window screens solve both problems. They completely cover the windows, so you can remove them completely if you want. I roll them up just a few inches. Open enough for quality airflow, closed enough that if a bear or other critter walks by, they can’t easily get into the car before I wake up and get 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’re camping. They’re also pretty easy to make; all it takes is a foam core, reflective insulation and some tape. Watch the video above to find out how to make your own.
Another more permanent option is to tint your windows. Laws on this vary from state to state, so be sure to do your research beforehand, but tinting your windows can not only add privacy and block harmful UV rays, but also help keep your vehicle cooler through these hot summer months.
Blankets and pillows – already there
Most of us already have blankets and pillows. I use the ones I sleep with at home.
Stove – $9.99
Aside from sleeping, eating is a pretty important part of any camping trip. Many campsites have fire pits or charcoal grills, but if not, there are still ways to enjoy quality food at a low price.
This ultra-lightweight stove is designed for backpacking, but it’s just as good camping. It also takes up very little space in your car. I keep one with me at all times, so even if I’m on the go, I have a way to make a hot cup of coffee if there isn’t one nearby.
Table – $19.99
This is another item that’s usually available at a campsite, it’s also the most expensive item on this list, so you might as well skip it and save some change. If not, a table like this can feel like a luxury if you’re used to eating your food on the ground while camping. At 11.2 inches, that’s not the true height of the table, something like this will cost you a bit more, but it folds up and away so storage won’t be a problem. If you’re camping with others, the $29.99 midsize might be a better option.
5 Gallon Water Jug – $9.99
When my wife and I first started car camping, I bought a 6 gallon jug with a spout. It’s big, heavy, takes up space even when empty, and isn’t cumbersome to pick up and pour when full. This collapsible jug is superior in almost every way. The spout in particular is much easier to use, and since you’ll be using water for everything from cooking and cleaning to drinking and washing dishes, it’s a must.
Cooler – Already has
A cooler may be the biggest expense when it comes to setting up a camp kitchen, depending on your needs. A hard-sided 9-gallon Coleman will run you about $17, but a Yeti big enough to hold a moose will cost thousands. Most people already have one, but if you’re just starting out, I’d recommend going the cheap route and figuring out what you need down the road.
Throw these items in your car and you’re on your way to a cheap version of van life that’s easy to set up and take apart. It can be tempting to go big and get all the high-end gear right away, but this path will allow you to easily upgrade based on your needs instead of what looks cool on instagram. Plus, if you find out 16 days from now that living out of your car isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, you won’t have to sell your house to learn that lesson.