A couple camping in their SUV
A couple camping in their SUV

If you’ve ever shopped for a tent, you know most claim to “set up in minutes.” But that doesn’t take into account the time it takes to circle a campground to secure a site, dig through your trunk to locate said tent, locate a patch of big-enough, flat-enough ground, and remind yourself what all of the different tent parts are for and where they go (why did this seem so much easier last time?). Attempt all of this in the dark after a long drive and skipping lunch, and actual sleep starts to feel like a vague impossibility.

For outdoor enthusiasts who are long on adventure and short on tent-logistic patience, skip the tent altogether and soak up some #vanlife vibes. Don’t have a tricked-out Sprinter van or vintage VW bus? No problem. The answer may just be sitting in your driveway. SUV camping is all the magic and freedom of camping in the comfort and convenience of your own car.

The simplicity of SUV camping is undeniable any time, but particularly when you arrive late at the trailhead and plan to start hiking at first light. Or when the weather calls for showers and the thought of leaky tents or packing up wet gear in the morning threaten to put the kibosh on your trip. The mantra of SUV camping is minimal gear, minimal effort. If that sounds like your mode of adventuring, read on for how to do it right.

A good night’s sleep

The goal here is to convert your car into a bed. This can be done any number of ways, but let’s start with your vehicle. While it can be done, car camping doesn’t work well in a coupe, sedan, or compact, mostly to do with that coffin-like feel. Crossovers, SUVs, and hatchbacks are by nature more spacious, and you can typically fit a two-person sleeping pad or air mattress when the back seats are folded down.

It’s important to scout a level spot to park. If you’re not sure if your spot is flat, our KEEN hack is to stick a half-full water bottle in back to use like a level. If you get cozied in and realize it’s not flat (and there’s no way you’re getting out again to move the car), be sure to sleep with your head higher than your feet. Also, if you sleep with your head toward the front of the car, it will likely give you a little more room.

Once parked, you’ll want to push the front seats forward as far as they’ll go, and fill in that gap on the floor behind the front seats with your backpack, cooler, bins, etc. Then you can take an air mattress or a nice thick foam mattress (doesn’t matter if it’s heavy — that’s the beauty of SUV camping) and cover the whole thing up. Add your sleeping bag or comforter, and voila! Bed sweet bed. Tip: A nice, full-size pillow makes all the difference.

To add some privacy and block out light, cover your windows using bungee cords, clothes pins, and towels or sheets. You can also buy stretchy window screens that pull over the car door, which allow you to roll your windows down at night. Speaking of ventilation, be sure to create some, otherwise you’ll end up hot and sweaty and your windows will be completely fogged up by morning. Cheap mesh or mosquito netting can be used to keep out the bugs.

SUV and car camping
KEEN Tempo Flex hiker sneakers ready for an early morning hike.

Storage hacks

Anyone who’s spent time on a boat or shared a dorm room knows how essential it is to keep your stuff contained and organized. For SUV camping, the key is storage bins. Have one designated for cooking gear, one for food, one for hiking gear, one for clothes, and one for personal items. With bins, you can easily move gear from the back of the car to the front seats and out of the way when it’s time to sleep. Labeling the bins so you always know where everything is will save you the frustration of rummaging through piles of clothes to find a spatula.

Another storage option is a cargo box or roof bag that secures to the top of your car. If you want to bring extra gear like fishing poles and tackle, climbing gear or camp chairs, roof storage is likely the best way to go. The upside is that you can bring that inflatable canoe or extra set of waders. The downside is that if any of your essentials end up in the cargo box, it’s a bit a pain to get to them.

Powering up

When it’s time to hit the road in the morning, the last thing an SUV camper wants to discover is a dead battery (why oh why did you stay up so late finishing that whodunit by your overhead car light?). Be sure to pack headlamps to avoid using your car lights after the sun goes down. You can also hang LED lanterns or twinkly lights (festive!) from your car’s grab handles to light up your interior without draining your battery.

Keep in mind that most charging ports that are built-in to your vehicle don’t work when the car isn’t running. So you may want to invest in a charging brick or a portable solar charger to keep your phone, GoPro, fitness watch, or other devices charged on longer adventures.

Playing cornhole while camping
A portable mini cornhole game is always a camping crowd pleaser!

Three extras worth packing

Everyone has their own must-brings when it comes to adventuring outdoors. For SUV camping, these three top KEEN’s list (also check out our Car Camping Checklist). They may not be essential, but they do make SUV camping that much awesomer.

1. Portable shower: There’s nothing like a hot shower after a sweaty day outdoors. SUV camping gives you the freedom to sleep anywhere, but that likely means you won’t have access to showers. A portable shower doesn’t take up much space or can be easily bungeed to the top of your car. Hot water also comes in handy when it comes time to do the dishes.

2. Awning: Practically speaking, an awning provides shade and weather protection, but what it also gives you is an extra “room” to hang out in. The easiest way to rig an awning is to extend it from the trunk of your car. Tie some paracord to the corners of a tarp and secure two corners to your roof rack rails. Tie the other corners to extended hiking poles; if it’s windy you can secure it using more paracord and tent stakes. Cook, play cards, or read under the awning, then quickly dismantle it when it’s time to go.

3. Slip-on shoes: Camping and shoelaces do not go hand in hand. Once you’ve gone into and out of your SUV home a dozen times to fetch things you need or have forgotten, you’ll understand the necessary convenience of camping shoes you can slip into and out of. We recommend Howser slip-on shoes, which also come in a fleece-lined version for extra coziness and slipper-like comfort. For warm-weather camping, any slip-on sandal will do, like easy Yogui clogs.

Now the only thing left to decide is where to go. The beauty of SUV camping is that you don’t have to limit yourself to designated campgrounds, and there’s no need to pay for camping. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and Forest Service lands almost always permit dispersed camping for up to 14 days (you can even park on Forest Service roads, but only for one night). For more ideas of where to set up camp, including tips and tricks for snagging a reservation, check out our Guide to Finding a Summer Camping Spot.

Once you experience the simplicity and freedom of SUV camping, you may never unfurl your tent again. Last-minute, weather-independent, and easy-peasy, SUV camping is just a car ride away.

SUV and car camping in national monuments

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