• Hannah Smentkowski

Budget Car Camping 101: The Ultimate Guide to Sleeping in Your Car for Cheap

Hannah Unbound camping out of her car in Colorado

Almost everyone I know has had a fantasy of living out of a van for some period of their life or the badass Overlanding jeeps with the rooftop tents that people take out to remote locations to camp and offroad. But what if you can't afford to renovate a top of the line Sprinter van or a rooftop tent on a 4x4 and you really want to hit the open road for a weekend or even a few months, then you'll have to make do with what you've got to make those dreams come true.

The first time I went camping in my 2 wheel drive Toyota 4 Runner I had no idea what I needed to be comfortable in my car. I knew I had all the regular gear I needed for camping like a sleeping bag and lanterns, but I had no idea if that would translate. Plus, I had practically no money to put into building anything or purchasing generators or cooling systems so I just went with everything I already had and hoped for the best.

After going on several long car camping trips now I can gladly say I've found a great system for sleeping, cooking, and relaxing in my car for long periods of time with only the basic neceseties. So now I'm confident enough to show you how you can make your car camping (or living) dreams come true for the cheapest price tag possible!



(Disclosure: Some of the links in this post are affiliate links and if you go through them to make a purchase I will earn a small commission at zero extra cost to you. I link to these companies and their products because of their quality and not because of the commission. Thank you!)


Table of Contents




Vehicle Maintanence







Organize Your Vehicle

Let's begin with organizing! The most important part of car camping is keeping your things organized. If everything you brought is in one giant bag or rolling around the floor, you'll never be able to sleep or eat comfortably, this makes organization your top priority for an easy car-dwelling experience.

To stay organized for cheap, look around your house for any Tupperware or other storage containers you can use. For dry kitchen items, I found it best to have a multiple drawer system like this 4 tier drawer system. This was a great way to take up more verticle space and less floor space while keeping your items easy to get to. For my cooking items I used a random plastic storage bin I found in my closet, and for my clothes, I used one of these flat under bed plastic storage containers.

You can also get a cargo bungee net to affix things to your ceiling at night, so they're out of the way, or in the back seat pockets of your driver seat is a great option as well.

The best way to create more space for you and your items is to take the seats out of your vehicle, but depending on how much room your need for living it may not be necessary. The empty seat area is where I put my flat clothing bin instead of the seat and I slept on top of it, it saved me a ton of space.


Sleeping in Your Car

Cheap sleeping arrangement for camping in your car

The next most important part is being able to sleep comfortably. If you have camping gear then you're already a step ahead! For my set up I used a couple of thick blankets from my home on the bottom covered by a thick 2-inch sleeping pad, similar to this one, but you could also use any kind of twin size or smaller type mattress toppers depending on the size of your vehicle and your preferred comfort level.

Then, I slept inside my military surplus sleeping bag. This 25degree bag with an optional insert was definitely the right choice for almost any temperature between spring and fall. You could also simply grab some blankets from around your house for warmth and since they'll stay in your car they won't get very dirty. And as always, don't forget to bring a good pillow.



Privacy For Living in Your Car

For privacy while sleeping or changing inside your vehicle, it is best to come up with a curtain solution between the front seats and the back seats, and a cutout solution for each of the back windows.

For my curtain, I simply bought a cheap plastic black shower curtain and used a bungee cord (it's best to get a set of bungees, you'll use them for everything) between the handles of the front seats. You can also use a shower rod between your ceiling or small pieces of velcro to help keep the curtain in place. The curtain is easier than having more window covers in the front and helps keep your things hidden during the day as well.

Black foam window covers for car camping

As for window covers, the first covers I made I cut out foam board to fit each of the 5 back windows. Each board I bought for $1 at a local dollar store and I used 6 (2 for the rear window) totaling $6. This process is quite tricky and time-consuming to cut each piece to fit exactly to each window, if they don't quite stay up you can add a piece of velcro to the window, but they are still hard to put in place and to store while driving.

The better (slightly more expensive) option is Reflectix, a reflective bubble wrap( as seen in the GIF above), which you will still have to cut to the shape of your window, but it is so much easier to push into the window for tracing and for nighttime placement. Not to mention this product is a lot more insulating than the foam board for those cold nights or hot days. At roughly $17 a 24" by 10' roll and needing 2 of those to complete all of my windows totaling roughly $35 I think it's definitely worth the price to upgrade if you plan on living in your car for a while.



Taking Care of Your Car

An SUV outfitted for car camping in the woods

As for the vehicle you're driving, it is always best to do a pre-trip once over. If you are more mechanically inclined you can do this yourself, but most mechanics can do a thorough check on your car for around $40. You should make sure all of your fluid levels are good, including your oil (a good oil change before a road trip never hurt anyone). Make sure you have a spare tire in good condition and all of the parts to change if necessary (jack and lug wrench). you will also want to make sure you have adequate power by checking your battery, alternator and making sure all of your exterior lights are functional (blinkers, breaks, headlights, etc.)

For repair accessories, a "Fix a Flat" can be a lifesaver and at the minimum jumper cables if you can't afford a portable jump starter. These can become necessary if you go to a lot of places that aren't around other people or services. This is by no means an exhaustive list of how to maintain a vehicle, but I couldn't in good continence not mention a few basics.

There are also upgrades and accessories you can add to your vehicle to make it more badass and capable for your crazy trips ahead, but you can really go in almost any vehicle and make it happen. You don't need the all-terrain tires, the lift kit, or the roof rack accessories, I've seen people live out of a Prius so I think you can make it work with whatever you've got.