Are you overwhelmed by the complexity and cost of all the advanced camping conversions people make YouTube videos about? don’t worry – it doesn’t have to be that complicated. You can sleep in any car if you follow the key steps outlined in this post, without breaking the bank. You will also find example camping conversions with pictures that are easily adjustable to any car.
This post is primarily intended for people who:
- are new to car camping and sleeping in everyday cars
- have used bigger campers (caravans, trailers) and want to downsize, but are not sure where to start
- have some ideas about camping conversions, but they all feel too expensive or complicated
- like simple and cost-effective solutions that deliver 80% of the benefit for 20% of the cost (and time investment)
- you don’t want to take all the rear seats out because you’d like to use the car for everyday tasks and sometimes for camping
Key steps to follow to sleep comfortably in any car
1. Don’t jump into a complex camping conversion right from the start
Although wooden shelves and sliding drawers under a comfy wooden bed look very sexy, especially in YouTube videos and Instagram, most of us don’t have the time or resources to build that in our spare time. Or you might be just starting and don’t know exactly what layout will work best for your camping and sleeping needs.
The best way to approach this is to start small and learn on the go. Start with the most basic setup, use it on a few camping trips and see what works and what doesn’t. When you’ll get a better idea of how you want to use your car when camping and sleeping in it, you can try a more advanced conversion.
🏆Best cars for camping 🏆
- Fiat Doblò camper XL, High Roof 🇪🇺 4.0/5
- Honda Odyssey 🇺🇸 4.0/5
- Volkswagen Sharan 🇪🇺 3.9/5
- Caddy Maxi Camper (Life) 🇪🇺 3.8/5
Make your car comfortable to sleep in and store what you need with a basic setup, like the ones listed below. There is a big difference between not having any setup, and sleeping in the back seat for example, and having a basic bed in the boot of your car. But there is only a marginal difference between sleeping on that basic bed and sleeping on a complex camping conversion with all the bells and whistles, that will cost you. All we need is a flat surface with a comfortable mattress and some storage. There’s no need to overcomplicate this.
Here are a few examples of folded seats and various levels of how they sit with the boot floor – flat, almost flat (ok to sleep on with a good mattress) or not flat (a step from the seats to the boot floor that needs to be filled).
Here’s what other campers have to say about this:
Very good points. Always my first point to people is “KISS – keep it simple, stupid”…lol. I’ve refined my build after years of camping in various different vehicles and tents so I know what’s important to me and what I want…but it takes time to figure that out. And even now my camper build isn’t perfect, but I have to work around things that make life a bit more difficult…like accommodating dogs and sacrificing being able to cook inside. Best to start simply and figure out what you want, need, don’t like and don’t need as you spend a few nights out.CJ Mickey
I have had the bigger set up with bells and whistles. Most of it is just for the sake of it. I downsized because i prefer the simplicity of just a bed, sleeping bag and rucksackHazel May
Enjoyed reading your article and I completely agree that you should start simple and work out what you want and need, not what you think you should have based on other people’s experiences.Elaine Moore
2. Fold the rear seats down, then create a flat surface big enough for sleeping on
Most rear seats will fold down (i.e. their backrests will fold over the seat cushion). Some fold down flat, others don’t – you have to test it in your car to decide how to proceed. But once folded, you should have at least 160cm/63” long and 100cm/40” wide sleeping area. This depends heavily on the type of your car – how long and wide is it, how long and wide is its boot. This website is all about choosing the right car, so if you don’t have one yet – check out our database of the best cars for camping. You can filter by their boot length or width, brand, fuel consumption, or NimbleCamper rating, which reflects all these stats.
If your car is a 7-seater, it’s likely that you will have a flat (enough) surface if you fold all the seats down. In newer cars, there won’t be any gaps between the folded seats, so all you need to do now is to put a good mattress down. Find out what options are there and which one is best in this post.
If the rear seats have some gaps between them – you have two options:
- use a thicker mattress that will bridge the gaps (best if you don’t need storage underneath your sleeping area)
- use some cheap plywood from your local hardware shop (they usually come in 100cmx50cm/40”x20” sizes, so should fit the width of your car nicely. Or anything flat and not too heavy you have lying around in your home. I have used OSB boards, they work fine, but crumble much more, so will make your car messy with splinters. I have even managed to use my Sharan’s boot floor as the bed platform in my second camping conversion).
- if your mattress is sturdy enough, you could try using a bed slat (slated mattress base) like this one. Recycling a used one from an old bed could work very well.
In shorter cars, it’s best to push the front seats forward + lean their backrests forward as much as possible and fill the gap between the driver’s and passenger’s seats and the second row of seats with something. It will give you at least 20cm/7.8” more length for sleeping + storage underneath.
You can do that either with storage boxes/crates – plastic or wooden or by building a simple frame (like a table). Or you could even see if you can find a small table that will fit there. People have also used beach loungers – see the gallery below. 🙂
Here are some examples of how people have approached this problem:
More about the Twingo camping conversion from the above image.
What to do when your folded seats are higher than the boot floor?
This is the most typical situation – you fold your seats, but the boot floor is lower, creating a step you have to fill in first, to get the desired flat bed surface.
Option 1 – storage crates
The easiest option is to measure the height of the step (from the boot floor up to the folded seats) and see whether there are any sturdy crates in your local hardware store with the same height. You’ll get your base levelled, the plywood can safely rest on top of it (you don’t have to join the plywood, it was my choice as it’s easier to carry + doesn’t slide under itself):
That’s what I did in my first Sharan camping conversion – I used wooden crates, with the same height as the folded seats, as the base for my bed. This is basically the same thing as transporting a bunch of crates, plywood and bedding in your boot – it’s just cargo. Of course, it’s up to you if you want to drive like this on long journeys or prefer to secure each moving part to the car, so they don’t fly around in case of an accident.
You could also try under-bed wooden storage like this one from Ikea.
You can store your camping gear underneath the bed and access it just by lifting the plywood up.
Option 2 – simple wooden or aluminium frame
If the crates are not an option for you, you can still build a simple frame to support the plywood / OSB boards (or whatever you will use as the bed platform).
Option 3 – combine a frame with crates
The hardest part when building a frame is to make it sturdy in the middle of the boot so that it will support the weight of two people lying there. You can make it easier on yourself by building a frame around the edges of the boot and then using crates as support in the middle. See how the Chenguins did it in their Jogger or in the images below.
3. Throw in a good mattress, some lights and bedding – and you’re done!
Now you have a flat bed surface with some storage underneath that will be enough for a good car camping trip. All that’s needed now is a good mattress – I have written a separate post about what car mattress options are best, but here are the key points:
- don’t use heavy and thick bed mattresses, they will reduce your headroom by a log and are very hard to move around or lift (if you have storage underneath)
- keep it simple – a good self-inflating camping mat does wonders (use the thin ones, the thick ones are too unstable). Decathlon has a good selection of camping mats (like the ones below) or GoOutdoors too.
- Do not use the thick inflatable bed/mattress you have for the occasional guest sleepover at home – they puncture easily and are very unstable
Simple DIY camping conversion examples
These posts demonstrate many solutions that fellow campers use to support their bed. Some posts list a few conversions, from easy (no build or simple build) to advanced:
4. The final touches are up to you
Now you have storage and sleeping sorted, it’s up to you to make it feel yours – add your favourite blankets, LED mood lights, use bungee cords with hooks to hang stuff. For privacy, you can cut simple window shades out of cardboard or a plastic sheet/insulation sheet to the exact shape of the windows, or hang curtains on bungee cords.
Drive safely, camp responsibly and enjoy the outdoors!
Founder of NimbleCamper.com, avid traveler and outdoor enthusiast. Car camping and microcamping allows me to keep traveling and exploring with a much greater level of freedom & privacy – to go anywhere and sleep anywhere. I didn’t have 30K to buy a VW Multivan, so found my way to the world of everyday car camping conversions. Here I share my experiences and what I learn.