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Annie Agnone, her partner and collaborator, Kevin, and their dogs pose by their car-turned-camper (Photograph by Annie Agnone)

How to: Turn Your Car Into a Camper

Earlier this year, I was awarded a National Geographic Young Explorers Grant to spend four months driving around the United States documenting nocturnal culture with my partner and collaborator, Kevin Weidner (who helped me write this piece), and our two dogs (check out my piece on late-night Vegas).

Because the grant mostly covered fuel and food, and because we needed to cover a lot of ground in a relatively short amount of time, one of our first tasks was to figure out a reliable sleeping situation that would be both efficient and cost-effective.

Finding a place to camp, for free, or nearly free, every day seemed a daunting task that was bound to set us off course. And since we’d be driving and working at night and sleeping mostly during daylight hours, campground and hotel checkout times wouldn’t work for us.

We researched our options. Staying with friends would work in some cases, but would require advance planning. We couldn’t afford to rent an RV, so we had to make the most of the vehicle we had. Towing a trailer would be ideal, but what if we needed to go on a rough road or up a steep mountain? And what about the gas mileage we’d be sacrificing for the extra comfort?

Then we found a solution that seemed perfect: we would turn our 2008 Honda CR-V into a camper.

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Our platform (note the storage space below) (Photograph by Annie Agnone)

The simplest way to explain the process is that we built a table. An ugly table, made of plywood and two-by-fours, that fit in the back of the car. A table under which we could store all our stuff, and on top of which we could sleep, for free, almost anywhere.

After three months, 15,000 miles, 31 states, and sleeping through about 60 summer mornings in the car-bed we built ourselves, we can tell you this: it was pretty great. Challenging, yes, and sometimes frustrating, but worth it.

We could park the car — at once bedroom, office, tripod, living room, and kitchen — set up the bed, and be asleep within 10 minutes. We woke in parking lots and trailheads and tiny rest areas, atop a mountain in New Mexico, beside a blue lake in California, and about 100 meters from a Dunkin’ Donuts in Maine.

If you’re interested in following suit by turning your own SUV into a camper, here are the basics:

1. Preparation. We first removed the back seats. For our car, we removed a total of eight bolts and the seats were free, but you may consider having a professional help you out.

After removing the seats, we cleaned the inside of the car and cut a tarp to spread under where the sleeping platform would sit. Traveling with two big dogs, we knew the ability to remove the tarp and shake it out without having to move the whole platform would be a big plus.

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The platform when it’s set up for sleeping (Photograph by Annie Agnone)

2. Design. We began by looking around online (search “SUV + sleeping platform” and see what you find) and cobbled together a design based on our particular needs and wants. Because we wanted to maximize our gas mileage (and because our carpentry skills are pretty basic), we were looking for a simple, lightweight design that would be easy to set up, and outfitted with compartments to help us stay organized on the road.

3. Supplies. Our final design required sheets of ¾-inch plywood, two-by-fours, hinges, screws, cabinet-lid stays, carpet, staples, D rings — all of which cost us about $150 at the hardware store. We had some tools and borrowed the rest from kind friends: a drill, table and miter saws, and a staple gun.

4. Construction. It took us about six hours to complete our project. Knowing what you’ll need and being prepared pays off. That, and having a couple good friends who happen to be woodworking geniuses there to help guide you through the process (okay, we were really lucky that way).

Here’s what we came up with: Our design featured a main storage compartment (accessible from the back of the vehicle), a top-loading hatch compartment, and a bed extension that flipped up when the front seats were pushed forward. The total storage area under the platform was 40” wide, 58” long, and 14” tall. The sleeping space, with the extension, was a little over 40” wide and 74” long.

5. Security. We attached D-rings to the underside of the platform and used a ratcheted tie-down to secure it to the cargo area of the CR-V.

6. Outfitting. We had a futon mattress that happened to fit perfectly. It was thick enough to be comfortable, yet thin enough to fold in half so we could access the hatch compartment. Other options include inflatable or foam camping pads, or a foam mattress from a military surplus store.

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Simple curtains help with privacy and keeping the car cool while you sleep (Photograph by Annie Agnone)

The perks?

  • Maximized mobility (compared with something you would tow)
  • Plentiful overnight options beyond pet-friendly hotels, RV parks, and campgrounds (except in major cities)
  • Superior protection from the elements (compared with tent camping)
  • Affordability. It didn’t cost us a thing to sleep anywhere unless we were at a campground.
  • Eco-friendliness (at least compared with hauling a tow unit)
  • Coziness. Be prepared for serious bonding if you’re traveling with someone else, or serious alone time if you’re flying solo.
  • Privacy. Surprisingly, we were only disturbed twice while sleeping in our car, both times by friendly police officers checking to make sure we didn’t need help.

The challenges?

  • No back seats. You don’t miss them until they’re gone.
  • Hustling. Finding a place to sleep that is legal, safe, relatively private, flat, etc., can be challenging. But that’s part of the fun, right?
  • Navigating personal space. If you’re traveling with someone else, make sure you really like them.
  • Bugs. Choose when and where you sleep carefully. And consider mosquito netting.
  • Unholy heat! This usually only applies if you’re trying to sleep in the day, as we were. Sleeping at night is ideal, but make sure to crack the windows.
  • Rain. Close the windows completely for short storms. If it’s a longer storm, keep the windows cracked slightly and drape a tarp over the windows.
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Parking lots can become heat traps during the day. Try to seek shade! (Photograph by Annie Agnone)

What to bring?

  • Tarp(s), to keep out rain and protect your sleeping space during the day
  • Water, and plenty of it
  • A windshield sunshade and curtains for privacy
  • Mosquito netting
  • A flashlight
  • A sense of humor

Where to sleep?

The best place to sleep in your car camper really depends on your own needs, what you’re comfortable with, and where you’re traveling. Each of these locations offer unique benefits and drawbacks:

  • Trailheads: These usually offer the most privacy, but can be buggy and don’t always have restrooms or access to water.
  • Wal-mart parking lots: These big-box stores (at least the ones we encountered) welcome overnighters and even have security cameras and patrols. Plus, when you wake up you can run inside to use the bathroom and brush your teeth. However, they have little tree cover and can heat up fast, making it difficult to sleep for very long after the sun comes up. They are also reliably busier than national forests.
  • Rest stops: These vary greatly. Most have bathrooms, but some close at night. Many allow overnight parking, but some don’t. Some have guitar-playing that begins at 7 a.m., others are quiet and will offer you free coffee and brochures. You never know. Which is, maybe, part of the adventure.

In addition to documenting what Americans do when most everyone else is asleep, National Geographic Young Explorer Annie Agnone is pursuing an MFA in creative writing at the University of Alabama. Follow her story on Instagram @annieagnone.