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The Dirty Truth Of SUV Camping

SUV camping
The Dirty Truth Of SUV Camping

The Dirty Truth Of SUV Camping

It’s the curse of the camper. Once you become an aficionado of traveling outdoors, you can never look at another vehicle again without envisioning it as some sort of converted RV. This might go double for SUVs.

Popular sport-utility vehicles might just be the gateway drug into the camping life. They are a major step up from sleeping in a tent but don’t require the cash or experience needed for a traditional RV or travel trailer.

Many people already own an SUV, so turning it into a stealthy, off-road camper really only requires some thought, a few basic building skills, and a sense of adventure. Oh, and a healthy acceptance of a little bit of extra dirt.

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SUV camping
Converted SUV from The Beating Road

What are the best types of SUVs for camping?

Several SUVs and crossovers have become the go-to option for camper conversions. The type of buildout or supplies you want may depend on the size of the rear areas of these vehicles. Some of the top choices include:

  • Subaru Outback or Forester
  • Ford Explorer or Expedition
  • Kia Sportage or Soul
  • Toyota 4Runner or RAV4
  • Honda CR-V or Element
  • GMC Acadia
  • Nissan Rogue

When turning an SUV into a camper, you can go as fundamental as you want. A basic conversion of an SUV only requires you to add a mattress for sleeping and some bedding. In addition, a cooler, portable battery, and camp stove would make traveling more comfortable and give you more independence. Blackout curtains or screens will give you both daytime and nighttime privacy.

SUV camping
Youtuber This Girl Hikes lives in a small and simple converted SUV

SUV owners such as Christine of This Girl Hikes, travels full-time out of her Subaru Forester XT with a minimal conversion. Her back seats and trunk are lowered and covered with a tri-fold mattress. She levels out the uneven space created by her folded down back seats with her camp table.

She also added a Yeti cooler, camp stove, and portable power station to the back. She stores backpacking and hiking gear in a Thule cargo carrier on the Subaru roof. That’s it. No complicated build-out or cabinetry skills needed.

SUV camping
A simple setup from Tristan of SUV RVing

You can also upgrade your basic conversion to something a little more creative. Tristan of SUV RVing might just be the epitome of how to think outside the proverbial RV box. Tristan travels extensively in his Toyota RAV4 SUV camper.

He has built numerous innovative systems for sleeping, cooking, and eating on the road. Some of them he even sells on his website. Within his tiny space, he fits a platform bed, homemade cargo nets, a storage cabinet, a 12-volt cooler, and a Jackery portable generator. He also has a cargo rack with a rigid solar panel on top.

If you have some construction skills, building out the back of an SUV may allow you to add some additional space and more organization to your car camper.

There are various tutorials available on how to create sleeping platforms, storage cabinets, pull-out kitchens, and even conversions that are completely removable. For even more inspiration, check out this FJ Cruiser conversion by Navigation Nowhere or tips and ideas from The Beating Road.

There are several kits available for SUV camping. Photo by QUQUQ

Some companies have also picked up on the SUV camper conversion craze. There are now several kits available for different sized vehicles. The kits typically include a bed platform, storage cabinets or cubbies, and a pullout work table for cooking and food prep. SUV kits are available from EGOE Nest (Europe) and QUQUQ.

Even though SUVs are a more inexpensive and simple option for camping and traveling, there are a few cons to sleeping and cooking out of a space the size of a queen mattress. A few of the SUV camping cons include:

1. Lack of headroom and foot room

Depending on your height and the size of your vehicle, sleeping in the back of an SUV might be challenging. Some adjustments to seating, bedding, and even the vehicle itself might need to be made.

This comes in double when the space is being shared by more than one person. When converting an SUV into a camper, work out the bed space first and then add in the storage and cooking options later on.

2. You will need to expand to the outdoors

Because of the lack of space in the back of an SUV, you will most likely need to do what Christine and Tristan have done, and add some storage to your SUV’s roof. In addition, you will also be doing your cooking, cleaning, and showering outside the vehicle. It’s a good thing that many SUVs can go off-road for a little more privacy.

3. Lack of storage

In an SUV conversion, there is no way you will be able to take along all the gear, clothing, and food you can fit into a fifth wheel or travel trailer. Storage options will be relegated to the front seats, the roof, and maybe even outside under the car.

4. It will be cramped

SUV sleeping and living works best with one or two people sharing the space. These vehicles are not the best options for families or children.

5. No systems or RV amenities

In an SUV conversion, you are not going to have what traditional RVers have. This includes wonderful systems such as hot running water, toilets, propane heat, or even insulation.

SUV camping after dark. Photo by Holly Mandarich

So, is it worth it to try to turn your plain jane SUV into a camper? Why not? If you have an SUV that you love to take out exploring, adding a conversion can give you travel options you may have never thought possible.

While you may not have a full refrigerator or the granite countertops of a luxury RV, what you will have is a more streamlined and portable way to live on the road. Check out our top picks here for SUV and crossover conversions.