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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



 



 

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.


 

Powering Your Life in a Car


For power inside your vehicle, this is where it gets a bit difficult to go cheap when camping out of your car. While you could get a massive Jackery generator for $300 and spend another $200 on a solar panel for it, there are ways to start simpler.


For instance, using your car's power for most of your charging while you're driving. Just try not to plug into your car when you're sitting at the campsite since you do not want to drain the battery so much that you can't start your car in the morning.

One of the cheaper charging options I started with was this laptop power bank for roughly $120. While this may seem like a big chunk of cash I needed something that could charge my laptop, drone, and camera overnight, then I used the car or a cafe to recharge it during the day. If you only need to charge a phone and laptop then a bigger power bank may not be necessary, but it is nice to be prepared.


One of the best pieces of advice is to always have backups! I frequently use a 30watt solar panel that can charge my phone in an emergency, and I have a few other weaker power banks that I keep charged as backups. Not to mention my drone comes with a power bank and the remote can charge my phone as well, so I always have power when I need it.

Again, not everyone needs power when they camp but my job comes with a lot of things to charge so it's best to be prepared.


 


 

Lighting Options For Camping in Your Car


Lantern used for living inside your car

For lighting, I use a super cheap $3 100 lumen lantern I found at Walmart a few years back for overhead things, it hooks to any handle making it easy to put up, and is surprisingly bright for something so cheap. I also use this Bio Lite lantern if I need something brighter or for some fun color-changing action, but it is rather pricy and not always necessary for in the back of the car, but it is great for cooking or setting up outdoors at night. Also, don't forget to bring a headlamp! Even the cheapest ones are super useful for midnight bathroom hikes and looking for quick things around the back of the vehicle.




 



 

Hygiene For You and Your Vehicle


Hygiene is a difficult thing to keep up with when you are camping out of your car, but you do have a lot of options on how to keep it up. The best way I found to make sure I brush my teeth and wash my face every day is to keep my toothbrush, toothpaste, and face wipes in an easy spot like the back of my driver's side chair. That way I don't have to dig around to find my everyday items.



As for showering, I tend to go through a lot of wet wipes and either dry shampoo or no-rinse shampoo. They are the easiest way to freshen up between actual showers. To get a "real" shower in, it is best to have a solar shower that you can hang in a tree. Solar showers are simply big black bags with a hose so you can fill up with water and spray yourself down, you can grab one for about $10.

But if you want to go super cheap you can grab a biodegradable soap (like Dr.Bronners or Campsuds, they're great for everything) and grab water from a nearby river or lake to rinse off. I highly suggest not washing off in the water source because the soap can harm the native ecosystem, so please pull the water to another area to rinse.


For washing your clothes the cheapest option is a simple foldable sink with biodegradable soap and a clothesline. Just grab some river water and get to scrubbing. A mesh bag is a nice help for dunking multiple cl You might as well wash your dishes here too, again, you can use the biodegradable soap for every washing need.


And don't forget you'll also want to keep your vehicle clean as well when you're out in the wilderness. The most cost saving option is to sweep out dirt with a simple hand brush-like (this tent broom), and make sure you shake out your sleeping mat and sleeping bag every evening before bed. Also, be sure to keep your shoes in a floor area that isn't near your clothes or sleeping arrangement to keep the smell and dirt away from those areas.

 

Cooking While Living in Your Car


Cooking dinner while camping in my car

Last but not least, cooking. I used a small folding table to do all of my cooking and it fit perfectly in the back of the car, . To keep groceries (and beer) cool on the road I used this 20L Camp Zero bear proof cooler, which was a cheaper option to one of the pricy Yeti coolers, and still kept my groceries cold for days at a time. And as I said before, for dry food I used a plastic drawer system that was easy to access and give me an extra surface to prep things on. Then, I used another Tupperware I already owned to carry my cooking supplies (simple cooking utensils from my actual kitchen like a knife, spatula, etc.).


Cooking for cheap while camping in my car

For the actual cooking, I used this Gas One butane stove which works very well for a $25 stove. Plus, butane only costs about $2 a can and can last through almost a week of cooking. I try to not have to heat things up while I'm camping to keep things easy, but this is the best and cheapest way to heat up and cook just about anything when camping inside your car.

Also, don't forget to keep your own water with you, I fill up a 5 gallon soft container which usually is enough water for 3 or 4 days depending on what I need water for.


 


 

Hannah Unbound camping inside a car

While I tried my best to get everything I could think of in this guide I know there are still so many things to learn about living out of my car. And I can't wait to take many more trips and share everything I learn with all of you!

Just remember, try to keep organized and clean, and use as much verticle space as possible to save floor space. Another big help is the window covers and taking out the seats for a lot of extra room. All of this makes for an amazing and comfortable experience in the outdoors allowing you to actually enjoy your road trip instead of spending your money on hotels or time on setting up a tent.


Are there any cost-saving tips you would add to this car camping guide? Is there anything on here that you learned for your next adventure? Let me know in the comments! Or feel free to DM me on Instagram or Email me privately!


Until Next Time,

Happy Trails!



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2 Comments


Hi Hannah, thanks for your story and ideas.


The photo to the opened up rear side, I remembered that I have a drawer cabinet also stashed away somewhere in my house, which is ideal for storage of anything I need for cooking instead of the foldable crates I initially had in mind. My two burner stove can be easily set up on a low folding table inside the boot while myself standing outside under the backdoor, so using the car (Honda HR-V 2016, should sleep okay despite that I'm 6'3") for sufficient wind and weather protection.


In a few months I do a roadtrip to Norway and Sweden (I LOVE driving & long exposure photography) and it's my first trip…


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Apr 25, 2023

Thank you! Helped me start on my list of items I need!

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Hey there! My name is Hannah Smentkowski, I'm the photographer, writer, hiker, camper, and craft beer drinker of this blog!

 

Here, I share my travel, camping, and hiking tips to help anxious explorers get outdoors with confidence!

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