What do you imagine when you hear (estate) car camping? Big caravans, campervans and trailers? Expensive high-tech vans with furniture inside? It used to be like that. But the days of car camping are changing: it’s now more accessible and cheaper than ever. This post sums up the easiest ways to sleep in your car and what car to choose for the best car camping experience.
What is (estate) car camping – suv camping – “microcamper” all about?
For our purposes, it is literally camping and sleeping in your car. I don’t mean just driving in your car, pulling into a campsite and/or sleeping in a tent. It is taking your car – driving to a nice spot and sleeping in your car on that spot. As simple car camping definition as it gets :). You might have also heard the phrases “estate car camping”, “suv camping”, “boondocking”, “dry camping” or “wild camping” associated with car camping. They are all a specific version of car camping, each with its own characteristics.
Car camping is also used to describe a way how to get out there – drive to a camp, hire a cottage and sleep in it, but there’s nothing new about it. It’s just standard camping. What we like here is car camping that utilizes your current standard car. No need to buy a campervan (VW Multivan and similar) or a caravan/trailer. If you have a standard size car (i.e. anything above mid-size), you can make it into a camping car and comfortably sleep in it. If you are thinking along the lines of any station wagon, MPV, minivan, combi, SUV, crossover SUV type of cars, your thinking is correct :).
Nimble Camper – (suv / estate) car camping – criteria
1. Car camping that is comfortable (a car long enough to stretch in)
Have you ever tried to sleep in a car? It’s not the most comfortable of experiences if you don’t have the right equipment and your car isn’t prepared for it. What we are going to focus on is comfortable sleeping in your car – so that you can travel, explore > rest > continue exploring. And comfortable means the ability to stretch your legs when you lie down in the back, without bumping your head into the front seats. A general rule of thumb – you’ll need about 170cm (5.57ft) boot length with rear seats folded down. I’ll allow some buffer as you can always move the front seats forward and easily gain about 20cm. That should give enough comfortable space for the average man (~175cm / 5.74ft) and woman (~163cm / 5.34ft).
Look, there’s plenty room at the back – and that’s just a tiny sample of all the cars and SUVs available:
Toyota RAV4 image: Reddit
2. Car camping that’s affordable – (car price max 10,000 EUR / 11,700 USD)*
This isn’t about buying a 70K campervan with everything ready for sleeping and just driving around. Anyone with 50K+ can be a happy car camper easy. This isn’t about easy – but about creative and DIY. It’s flashpacking vs backpacking. Anything is easy with money, we prefer things not being as easy, but a lot more interesting and challenging :). It’s about being creative with what you have and low cost. There’s no need to invest a lot into car camping. If you have an average size car (most sedans will do, a station wagon (combi in EU) or an SUV are even better, and the best is an MPV/Minivan – which is specifically aimed at providing more space inside.
*I understand this might be too subjective – you can set your own threshold of what’s affordable. These values should work well enough in EU / US.
3. Car camping gear that’s reversible – portable & minimalist
One car is enough to work as your standard day-to-day car and also as your camping car. The setup shouldn’t require a whole car rebuild – where you throw seats out and make it a camper forever. Nowadays, it’s easy enough to just fold down rear seats and throw a mattress in (in the most minimalist way), or add a few creative touches and handy gear to turn any standard car / suv into a useful and comfortable camper. And then take this gear out to have a standard car back again. A removable camper conversion is the goal.
With the criteria set, let’s move on to the burning question…:
What car is best for car camping / sleeping in (microcamper conversion)?
All you need is a bit of creativity and skill to make a car camping bed in your standard car – or in case of many cars, the only thing separating you from an outdoor car camping adventure is an inflatable car bed/mattress.
Start with a car that’s long enough for you to stretch your legs when you fold down its rear seats and lie down.
Most cars fit these criteria – except the smaller city cars and 3 door cars. Of course you can make do in almost any car (I’ve camped around Greece in an old Fiat Punto and explored Spain in a rented Fiat 500 – the new version. But we slept in the front, the back wasn’t much of an option. These cars, however, don’t fit our criteria above – it’s not very comfortable.
I’ve also left out many shorter options like Dacia Dokker (folded seats boot length 1.57 m (5.2 ft)) and cars with similar boot lengths.
Best camping cars to sleep in 2021: The comparison table
On mobile? Scroll the table to the right for more info (MPG, l/100km…) >>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>
|Body type||Make||Type / Model||Folded seats boot length (cm)||boot (trunk) height (cm)||Comfort & driving score (equipment, furnishings, handling, safety, costs)*||Car Camping Rating||Comment||Dimensions Information source||l/100km (average 2017 or closest match, Fuelly.com)||MPG (US, average 2017 or closest match, Fuelly.com)|
|MPV/Minivan||Seat||Alhambra||208||113||1.5||⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐||It's basically a Sharan||source||7.4||31.9|
|MPV/Minivan||Volkswagen||Caddy Maxi Life (review)||225||113||1||⭐⭐⭐⭐||Longer and taller than Sharan, but not as comfy||source||7.4||31.6|
|MPV/Minivan||Peugeot||Partner (L2 - Long)||217||113||1||⭐⭐⭐⭐||6.8||34.4|
|MPV/Minivan||Peugeot||5008||186||97||2||⭐⭐⭐⭐||slightly bigger version than 3008 (outside measurements, but all inside measurements I found are the same). 5008 is a 7-seater, has 17mm more ground clearance. See this comparison||source||8||29.3|
|MPV/Minivan||Peugeot||3008||186||97||2||⭐⭐⭐⭐||source 1 - source 2||8.1||29|
|MPV/Minivan||Chrysler||Grand Voyager (long cut)||230||115||0.5||⭐⭐⭐⭐||Big, comfy (at places too much - fold up TV), but expensive to run.||source Every source I found had different height and sometimes length, so values here are an average of those||12.4||19|
|MPV/Minivan||Renault||Grand Kangoo||221||113||0.5||⭐⭐⭐⭐||Big, good storage, but low comfort & quality of drive||source||8.3||28.2|
|MPV/Minivan||Volkswagen||Touran||179||94||1.5||⭐⭐⭐||It's just a bit smaller Sharan - easier to park, but less space inside, rest is about the same||source||7.5||31.5|
|MPV/Minivan||Citroën||C4 (Grand) Spacetourer (Picasso)||177||91||1.5||⭐⭐⭐||key difference vs C4 Picasso is 7 seats||source||6.4||36.6|
|MPV/Minivan||Citroën||C4 Spacetourer (Picasso)||176||90||1.5||⭐⭐⭐||source||6.4||36.6|
|MPV/Minivan||Opel (Vauxhall)||Combo XL||176||100||1||⭐⭐||source||5.7||41.5|
|SUV||Honda||CR-V||162||91||1.5||⭐⭐||should be ok with front seats pushed forward||source||8.3||28.4|
We then calculate a weighted score. The logic of weighing length (40%) & height (40%) higher than comfort (20%) being - headroom is important when you sleep in the back of the car, so is the length. A comfy ride is a factor, but you can sleep in a big car that's not that comfy, however you can't sleep in a comfy car that's too small.
You can see the calculation in this spreadsheet, 2nd tab.
(I update the table often – some of the data is hard to come by, some of it I just have to measure myself… by asking strangers if I can measure their car :D…)
- MPVs (EU) / Minivans (US) – by far the best category you should look into. The cars might not be the sexiest, but they make up for it in the available room department. The list is long, also depending on what part of the world you live and whether you want more of a van feel or nicer finish to your interior – my best picks are:
- Citroën C4 (Grand) Spacetourer (formerly the Citroën C4 Picasso)
- Citroën Berlingo (Long) / Peugeot Partner
- Renault Espace
- Opel Combo (XL)
- Ford Galaxy, S-Max
- SUVs – plenty of options here too, SUVs tend to be a bit shorter at the back, but should still fit within the criteria + they have a hidden bonus of higher wheelbase – allowing you to find the perfect spot even further off the road. The most common in the US and EU are:
- Toyota RAV4
- Honda CR-V
- Subaru Outback
- Station wagon (US) / Estate (UK) / Combi (EU) – this car body type is long enough, with a lower roof, hence less headroom. But it’s the easiest to drive and manoeuvre/park. The most common ones in the US and EU are:
- Audi A4
- Skoda Octavia Estate
- Volkswagen Passat Estate
- BMW 3 Series
- Volvo V70 / V60
- Mazda6 Tourer estate
- Kia Ceed Sportswagon estate
I know, I know, it’s still a long list to choose from – here’s a handy table you can sort by the criteria that’s most important to you:
As you can see in the table, the top ones offer the longest & tallest boot space (lots of headroom and legroom for sleeping and erm… playing cards…). Of course, some of you might accept a slightly shorter car if it offers a higher level of comfort/safety. Others will prefer space over comfort.
What car do I recommend for car camping?
What to consider if you can’t decide whether to go for more space or more comfort?
First, you should think about how are you going to spend most of your time in the car:
- Is it driving for many hours (long trips) and then just sleeping? You probably want a car that offers more comfort – you want the drive to be safe and comfy if that’s what you are going to use it for most of the time. Look for 1.5 – 2 in the comfort grade column. Ford Galaxy offers good comfort and still is quite spacious, followed by Skoda Octavia or Volvo V70.
- Or is it actually living in the car (not just sleeping, but also doing things – spending time reading, preparing the trip, relaxing, moving about inside the car). Then you should choose a car with the longest & tallest boot space. VW Caddy Maxi Life is a winner in this category.
- If you want something in the middle, go for VW Sharan or Seat Alhambra – they offer plenty of space, but also good level of comfort.
What’s next? Some car camping essentials to make your trip marvellous!
Depending on the car you have chosen, you’ll need to kit it out – primarily something comfy to sleep on, some storage, something for privacy and useful tools for camping.
What car did / will you choose for your next adventure?