Car camping typically falls under two categories, and they vary depending on who you ask. It either means sleeping inside your car, or sleeping in a tent outside of your car. Both types are excellent ways to ease yourself or your family and friends into camping and being outdoors without much hassle. Camping in a tent appeals to traditional folk, while camping in a car usually attracts those who favor convenience.  For my fiancé Benjamin and I, as people who’ve utilized both approaches, camping inside of my car works the best for us as we get to enjoy nature while also employing the potential of our Subarus. With our experiences, we hope to inspire a fellow adventurer to give camping in a car a shot.

The Advantages of Car Camping

Ben owned a 2002 WRX wagon before we started dating, and it didn’t take long for me to buy my 2011 Forester when the opportunity presented itself. With two Subarus now in the picture, this posed a question: whose do we bring camping? We decided both – not out of necessity, but because we loved the idea of using our cars as they were intended. When it came time to pack our Subarus on yet another camping trip, I was struck with an idea as I folded the back seats down. I was confident that with the right materials the two of us could fit fairly comfortably. If it worked, we’d no longer be burdened with setting up or taking down a tent. We figured that we’d sleep in my car, and he’d haul the general and emergency supplies. Thus, the experimenting began.

Sleeping on top of a camping pad in a sleeping bag seemed like a great idea on paper, but the execution was far from comfortable considering I toss and turn a lot. I came across a full sized four-inch thick memory foam pad and thought it’d be comfier to stack queen sized blankets, a comforter, and pillows I had lying around. A sleeping bag on top added extra comfort and warmth. To date, this combination has been the most successful setup we’ve tried.

For us, camping in my SUV makes a spontaneous trip more attainable. Simply pack up the bedding and strap gear to the roof, grab the essentials (trash bags, camping stove and propane, toiletries, food for the night, an emergency kit, axe, fire extinguisher, etc.) and head out. Using my car to sleep in is also more flexible; the ground doesn’t need to be dry or level, we’re safer from bugs and other nosey critters, and we’re better protected against the elements.

A good illustration of this is when my dad and I went camping in the Sierra Buttes one early September. I woke up before the sun from hearing my old man stumble out of his tent and hobble to his truck to warm up by the heater. I had no idea it was below freezing until I opened the tailgate, and was amazed with how warm my car kept me. Ever since Ben and I started car camping, we’ve kept dry in the rains of spring and warm in the chilly winds of winter. If my car can trek through it, we have a place to camp – and that’s what motivates us to explore as often as we can, regardless of what the forecast says.

Another aspect we adore is the ability to traverse across the area off-road. Because we’ve got everything we need in our cars, we’re able to plan a route from our road atlas and disappear.  No matter how late or far we end up traveling, we’ve got dinner, water, and a safe spot for the night. An added bonus is we almost always find additional camping spots to come to on a later date.

Our Cars and their Mods

Originally, carrying both spares atop Ben’s car did no favors for either his mileage or handling, so we bought a roof basket for my car, as well as a plethora of ratcheting tie downs for peace of mind. I now carry my own spare with other equipment, while he carries his spare and both jerry cans (carefully labeled, since both cars take different grades of gas). This gives us the ability to carry a fair amount of gear on top without sacrificing our comfort or visibility inside the car. We enjoy trekking trails well into the evening, so we outfitted our cars with additional lighting. My car sports two fog lights on a rally bar while he’s got a skid plate to which he mounted two bright driving lights. With these, we’re not limited to traveling in the daytime. To prevent bottoming out, he fitted his WRX with bigger off-road tires on his stock 16” wheels and a 1.5” lift all around using taller aftermarket springs. Given the stock height of my car being 8.7”, we skipped a lift and went with the best brand of all season tires we could find. So far, this is the most we’ve had to modify our cars to adhere to our lifestyle.

Important Notes:

Whichever kind of car camping you choose to implement into your outdoor adventure, it’s crucial to the health of our environment that you comply with the Leave No Trace guidelines. I strongly recommend you bring a fully charged portable jumper pack, as a dead battery will ruin your entire trip. Also, it’s common sense, but do not sleep in your car with the engine running under any circumstances. Lastly, you should not store propane or stove fuel inside your vehicle at all if possible, and definitely not while you’re sleeping.

From two journeymen to another, we sincerely wish you safe and happy travels. 

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About the Contributor
Kristen Finley
Sep 10, 2018

A passion for all things automotive began with the indulgence of childhood curiosity. My dad was almost always underneath a car, and because I wanted to be with my old man, I offered to help hand him tools. The motivation to learn more as I grew was undeniable, and once the fundamentals were down, I wasted no time in delving into any project I could as I got older; whether it was swapping a clutch or rebuilding motors. Cars may not be for everyone, but to me, they’re everything.

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