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Camper van conversions, real Camper van conversions, can cost as much as a house. Until relatively recently, living in a truck down the river was considered a lifestyle only begrudgingly accepted by the down-on-their-luck. It has since become a status statement, thanks in large part 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 is one of the biggest negatives). .
But just because you can spend thousands of dollars to turn a vehicle into something you can sleep comfortably in 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, whatever friends and family we happen to have around, and two medium-sized puppies that like their own space. This leaves little to no room for a permanent kitchen or bed setup. Luckily, we’ve learned to sleep cheap and have spent many nights in the back of the car comfortably sawing 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 it the best setup ever? No. But before you judge, check it out for yourself.
Air mattress – $11.44
Grab your tape measure, recline all your seats and see what mattress size works for you. As for the vehicles I have in my garage, a double size fits perfectly in the back of my Crosstrek and is thick enough to eliminate rear end bumping. My Flex can handle a slightly larger mattress, but since I want it to work for both, I stuck with the twin. It’s not the nicest model you can buy, but considering I’ve bought six packs of more, it’s pretty good.
Air Pump – $8.99
A plug-in air pump sometimes seems like an incredible luxury to me, and I’m not exactly sure why. Maybe I feel like camping should require me to inflate a mattress myself, but in this day and age, when many cars have AC outlets, why bother blowing up your mattress by hand? This 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 or a 6-C with a battery 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 of these problems. They cover all of the windows so you can take them down completely if you want. I only roll them a few inches. Open enough for quality airflow, closed enough that if a bear or other critter wanders by, they can’t easily get into the car before I wake up and get the hell out of there.
DIY Window Tints – $YMMV
In addition to window screens, blackout window shades are great for privacy as well as keeping the heat in or out, depending on what time of year you happen to be camping. They are quite easy to make as well; all it takes is some foam core, reflective insulation and some tape. Watch the video above to learn how to make your own.
Another more permanent option is to paint your windows. Laws on this vary from state to state, so be sure to do your research ahead of time, but window tinting can not only add privacy and block harmful UV rays, it also helps preserve your vehicle cooler during the hot summer months.
Blankets and pillows – already have
Most of us already have blankets and pillows. I use the ones I sleep with at home.
Stove – $9.99
Besides sleeping, food 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 a quality meal on the cheap.
This ultra-lightweight stove is made for backpacking, but it’s just as good for camping. In addition, it takes up very little space in your car. I always have one with me, so even if I’m on a road trip, I have a way to make a hot cup of coffee if there isn’t one available 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 be able to skip it and save some change. If not, a table like this might seem like a luxury if you’re used to eating your meals on the ground while camping. At 11.2 inches it’s not true table height, so it’ll set you back a bit, but it folds up and away so storage won’t be a problem. If you’re camping with others, the medium size for $29.99 might be a better choice.
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 cumbersome to pick up and empty 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 up, this is essential.
Cooler – Already has
The refrigerator can be the biggest expense when it comes to setting up a camping kitchen depending on your needs. A hard-faced 9-quart Coleman will set you back 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 finding what you need along the way.
Throw these items in your car and you’re well on your way to a cheap version of truck life that’s easy to set up and tear down. It can be tempting to go ahead and get all the premium gear 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 that 16 days isn’t all you need to live out of your car, you won’t have to sell your house to learn that lesson.