Updated: Oct 28
This week's blog is finally the super requested CAR CAMPING CONVERSION how-to on a budget for under $150! It's Jess here (hi!) with Gavin chiming in at certain parts to discuss the technical aspects of the build that he designed - guess that Engineering degree didn't go too much to waste, huh Gav? If you haven't seen our road trip adventures thus far (over on the @travelworldculture Instagram), we are over three months into traveling the US in our converted Subaru Outback car camper. In this blog, we've compiled all of the details you need to make your own camper (Subaru or not!), prepare for a road-trip, and hit the road! We've included our best secrets for finding free campsites and car camping long-term while working on the go.
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A little over two years ago, Gavin and I sold nearly all of our belongings, including our cars. As we moved out of our apartments here in the US, we began a multi-year journey of carrying our 40-liter backpacks from hostel to hostel (with some Airbnbs thrown around in there) around the world.
Then COVID-19 hit, stopping us and our growing travel business in its tracks. Cue a massive change of plans in both our personal and professional lives that involved us temporarily returning to our hometown of Dallas to social distance. Thankfully, now months into the pandemic, our TWC business is still here and back on its way to thriving. To make this happen, we have had to get creative and dream up new itineraries for group and custom trips that would take place right here in the US! And to make that happen, we needed an easy, comfortable, socially-distanced, and affordable way to travel the US to get all of the research and put together some amazing new domestic trips.
*The Subaru Outback has entered the chat.* Meet the ideal car for camping and road-tripping! With all-wheel drive, an average of 28 miles per gallon (32 highway), and being one of the longest compact SUVs, it was our top choice by far! So much so that we decided to make this car our first substantial purchase in TWO YEARS. After years of living in hostels and Airbnbs, we have our own little home on wheels. And, yes, Gavin did say to me how excited he was about "our first home" when we bought the Subaru...
Fortunately, our time traveling abroad is far from over, and we are nowhere near ready to have a home base in the US. We love being free to explore every day as we work online. Thus this little Subaru Outback camper has been the perfect compromise for us! We've driven from Texas to the Rockies, over through the Southwest to California, up the West Coast to the Pacific Northwest, and finally back over to the Rockies of Montana and Wyoming. It has been gloriously messy, imperfect, and inspiring. Expect many new domestic TWC group itineraries on the way...
Now we want to help you create your home on wheels! A car camper conversion is an affordable alternative to van life if you're looking for an adventure on the road on a budget for a few days, weeks, or even months. This build cost us less than $150, a couple of trips to Lowe's, and only a few hours of labor. Let's get started!
(Scroll to the bottom of this blog if you don't need the technical information on the build and instead are just looking for our packing list - with links for everything - and our advice on finding free places to camp, shower, and do laundry.)
DESIGNING YOUR CAR CAMPER CONVERSION
There are a few things to consider when planning out your car camper conversion. This list looks like a lot, but each section is pretty simple.
Gavin wanted the full length of the bed to fit at least a 6’2 person, as we're both pretty tall. It is ideal to have your height +6 inches to have plenty of room for a pillow.
We made the bed the maximum width from wheel well to wheel well. Pretty simple!
We wanted the height of the bed platform to be tall enough to fit two flat storage containers underneath. The storage containers also needed enough space to roll in and out easily. On the other hand, we wanted the bed platform to also short enough that we felt like we had enough space left to sleep without feeling claustrophobic once the platform was covered with carpet, our mattresses, sheets, etc.
WILL THE BED PLATFORM FOLD UP?
As opposed to some other stationery designs we've seen online, we wanted to keep the back seats in the car and have a design where we could easily put the seats back up during the day. This was so we'd be able to have our siblings join us on adventures!
From the beginning of the design period, we knew that the platform would need to be cut into multiple pieces that would then fold up with hinges into the trunk space while the back seats were up during the day. From there, we had a bit of trouble during the build period because we initially didn't plan out the lengths of each piece of the platform very well. During our first attempt, we made the second piece of the platform too tall because it kept hitting the roof of the car when we tried to fold it up - oops! After our second attempt, we ended up with the bed platform being in three separate pieces that each folded up onto the one before it into the trunk and thankfully did not scrape the ceiling during the process - read more about each measurement below.
We knew that at times there would be four people plus the build itself plus a lot of luggage and gear in the car. Once we got started on the road trip, we definitely felt all of that weight while driving, and that did drive down our MPG. To offset that, we went with thinner plywood and were mindful of materials and while packing to try to keep our weight down. The Outback's payload (maximum payload = total cargo weight + weight of passengers) is only around 1000 lbs.
SUPPLIES FOR YOUR BUILD
1/2” plywood, 4' x 8' long $28.00
4 Heavy duty hinges $32.00
Nuts, bolts, large washers, lock washers, and screws $30.00
Outdoor rubber mat, 2' x 3' $20.00
Grey Area rug, 4' x 8' $16.00
Multi-purpose adhesive $8.00
Legs - Wood found on side of the road: Free
TOTAL COST OF SUPPLIES: $144.00 (For the build only, not including other items we use for car camping. For details on those car camping items, scroll down!)
THE BUILD: STEP BY STEP
If you find any of these steps confusing, watch our Youtube video above to see the build in more detail and to see how the pieces can fold up into the trunk!
STEP ONE: Cut the plywood into the various lengths and the width needed. If you're buying the plywood at a big store (Lowes or Home Depot), they will do this for you for free. We ended up needing to make some additional changes even after leaving Lowes, so we borrowed a circle saw to do some additional cuts ourselves as we went. Our dimensions ended up being 72 x 42 inches. The length was then cut into three pieces at approximately 40, 16, and 16 inches.
STEP TWO: Decide on the height of the platform and where you want your legs to be. Our height ended up being approximately 8 inches. For our legs under the first section of the platform in the trunk area, we put four legs (one on each corner) and another one down the middle that extended almost the entire length of that piece of the platform. For the legs under the second piece of the platform that would go over the folded down back seats, we felt out where the more flat and tough parts of the backs of the seats were (to avoid damaging the seats by putting too much pressure on the softer areas). The second piece of the platform ended up with three legs, one on each side and one in the middle. We decided that the third piece of the platform would rest on the tops of the front car seats (with the headrests removed). That made the build much simpler, yet supported, and also saved space in the trunk when the build is folded up.
STEP THREE: Cut the legs to the height you've chosen and set them in the car with the plywood on top to check the placements. If the placements work, outline the placement of each leg in pencil on the plywood, and make sure to label the direction of the legs. This will make it much easier when screwing the pieces together.
STEP FOUR: Place the brackets, hinges, and legs and screw them in place. We decided that the legs for the first piece of the platform in the trunk would be stable, so we used brackets only for these. The legs for the second piece of the platform needed to have hinges to be able to fold down so that the build pieces would lay flat in the trunk when it was all folded up when the back seats were up (see second photo below). Again, the third piece of the platform had no legs.
STEP FIVE: Screw together the platform pieces with extra strong hinges. Warning: make sure you're placing the hinges so that the second and third platform pieces each fold upwards towards trunk. Tip: Offsetting the hinges by about half an inch or so makes the connections stronger.
STEP SIX: Add-ons: Carpet, containers, and an outdoor mat to protect your seats.
Before gluing on the carpet, place it on the platform and use a boxcutter to cut the carpet to the length desired. We also cut around the hinges to make sure the pieces folded correctly and as flat as possible. Glue on the carpet with extra strong spray adhesive. Warning: wear a respirator when spraying the glue for safety. Use the outdoor mat for padding between the back seats when they are down and the legs of the second piece of the platform. Lastly, roll in your plastic containers under the build.
OUR PACKING LIST TO LIVE OUT OF THE CAR CAMPER LONG-TERM (OR SHORT-TERM!)
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STORAGE & FURNITURE: :
Two rolling clear containers that fit underneath the sleeping platform.
One cooler - You can buy a more expensive one that will keep food refrigerator-level cold for up to five days, but we opted for a middle-range option that keeps food refrigerator-level cold for up to two days.
One bubba keg to store drinking water - TIP: refill any containers for ~30-50 cents a gallon outside most supermarkets! This is what we do, and it works super well.
One luggage container on the roof rack - Optional depending on how much stuff you have! We borrowed ours, as they can get super pricey.
One pot and one pan
Two plastic bowls
Two sets of camping cutlery (or one of each per person)
Seasonings and cooking oil - We use coconut oil because it lasts super long.
Stojo portable coffee cups (perfect for camping and travel!)
One dishtowel (quick dry is best!)
Biodegradable soap (a MUST - you can't wash dishes camping without this)
One (or ten) pack of biodegradable non-rinse wipes - I can't tell you how necessary these are when you're disperse camping.
Quick-dry towels - Essential for all types of travel and camping!
Something to make a drying rack - We just use ties and string up a line in the back of the car.
Shower shoes! So necessary if you'll be staying at campsites with showers and bathhouses. Lightweight is always best.
An insulated blanket: Super important! Even in warm places, it can get really chilly in the morning, especially in the desert! Don't be fooled by those hot temps during the day in the desert.
Mattresses: We have one backpacking weight blow up mattress per person. These are really small in width, so two fit side by side on the sleeping platform. They are decently comfy but were a bit pricey from REI. We invested in them to use on overnight treks as well. Alternatively, a lot of car campers use foam mattresses (twin-sized or king-sized folded in half for extra comfort depending on how much room you have).
An extra lantern for when you are hanging out at night or need to cook/clean in the dark
A pocket knife - all-around useful!
Masks (!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!) If you're at all close to another group, masks on! Outdoors and indoors.
Bear spray: Gavin thinks I'm dramatic, but I'd rather be safe! If a bear has ANY interaction with a human, it usually means very bad news for the bear. It's best for you AND the bear to use bear spray to get them to leave the area altogether.
Proper food storage. If you're camping, there's likely wildlife around you. You need to be sure that you're properly storing your food anytime you are not directly in front of it. For example, leaving food in a cooler out of your vehicle at night is not
A SPECIAL NOTE ABOUT FIRE SAFETY: Always check for fire/stove restrictions anywhere you are. Let's all do our part to prevent wildfires.
Lightweight shoes (sandals, hiking boots, snow boots, running shoes, etc) - This brand is the BEST for traveling, road tripping, and busy lifestyles. Their shoes are all lightweight and make packing so easy.
Synthetic down jacket
Generally - prepare for both warm and cold and also to be active quite a bit!
RELAXING: (All optional!)
AJNA yoga mat - biodegradable and comes in such beautiful colors
FINDING FREE PLACES TO STAY & SHOWER
*Special 2020 note: There are some disruptions to "life on the road" as normal in 2020, as expected during a pandemic and with wildfire season being worse than usual on the West Coast this year. National Parks are open, with the exception of those affected by wildfires, but many require advance reservations or disruption in shuttle schedules.
We can help you plan your road trip (or any trip!) at no cost to you. Book with someone who has been there and can give you the best updated recommendations and travel advice. Get a quote on a custom trip here.
FINDING PLACES TO SLEEP:
Free campsites: Dispersed camping is our preferred way to sleep. It just means camping without any amenities like bathrooms or showers. To find good spots that feel safe, we use the FreeRoam app! You can filter on the app for cell coverage, reviews, safety, etc. Most national forest and Bureau of Land Management land can be camped on for free (except for the designated area where camping is not allowed). Just check the national forest website for specific restrictions, especially fire restrictions. There are also some other random places you will find are free to camp: Walmart parking lots, Cracker Barrel parking lots, and private recreation land where camping is specifically allowed.
Paid campsites: To find paid campsites with amenities like showers, bathrooms, Wifi, etc, we still use the FreeRoam app or sometimes just Google. We've also heard of another campsite app called The Dyrt but haven't used it before.
Hotels/motels: Whenever you just need a night in a real bed (we did this about every 2 weeks), we use booking.com to find a good last-minute deal on a motel.
FINDING PLACES TO SHOWER:
A lot of van lifers and road trippers would get a monthly gym membership at a place like Planet Fitness with locations all over the US to shower at on the road. If you're sleeping for free, you need to find a place to shower! This would be a great option, as a Planet Fitness membership can be under $30 a month, but during Covid, this is unfortunately not an option for the time being, as a lot of gym showers are temporarily closed.
Paid campgrounds! While we prefer to disperse camp for free, sometimes we know that we will be hiking a lot or that the weather will be cold, so we book a paid campsite for the showers and the bathroom!
Hotels/motels! Far from cost-effective, but sometimes you just need a bit of comfort!
Find a river! Lol, some people will shake their heads at this, but, if the weather is nice, this is actually so refreshing and makes us feel as clean as a normal shower. Be extremely mindful of any products that might get in the water and don't bring any products directly in the water. Only use biodegradable non-toxic products VERY, VERY SPARINGLY if you are near any water sources. The proper way to use biodegradable soap is to dig a hole away from water sources for the runoff.
FINDING PLACES TO DO LAUNDRY:
Laundromats! We find coin machines everywhere we go, even in remote places usually. We carry powder detergent with us, and we made a drying rack out of ties in our car that we put up for drying any items that can't be machine dried.
Sink wash! This is a trick of the trade we learned while backpacking abroad.
We would LOVE to answer any questions you have or hear any of your comments. Send us an email to firstname.lastname@example.org or find us on Instagram and send a DM! Happy travels! Don't forget to check out our road trip adventures @travelworldculture and stay tuned to our website (travelwc.com) for upcoming trip releases!