Why would you want to car camp?
I have always wanted to try living in a car; that was actually the primary reason I bought an SUV as my first car. The idea of being able to have a home away from home that would work with minimal recurring setup in almost all weather conditions is something that has always appealed to me. However, I was cognizant of the fact that I was going to be living in a busy city with limited parking so the SUV I bought is a 2002 Toyota RAV4, which is a small SUV and not a vehicle regularly used for sleeping inside. It has the regular options one would expect like 4WD, a limited low range gearbox and a spunky engine but no locking diffs or growling V8; and for an SUV, is fairly low on internal volume. So for almost a year and a half I toyed with the idea but finally in spring 2017, I decided to go for it and see if making a camper out of an old RAV4 would actually work.
I had to start with convincing Stefanie, which took some work. We were already working on a project to create an entryway table for our apartment and were in the process of staining it when I decided we should go buy the material for this project the same day. My dad was arriving the week after to stay with us for 10 days and we also had to make our apartment suitable for living before that. The secret sauce of convincing her was letting her imagine waking up in a field full of sheep after camping overnight in the field inside our car (it worked).
Once Stefanie was onboard, she wanted to see what I was talking about so I built a tiny cardboard model explaining what I wanted to do. We would have to take the rear seats out obviously but even then the length of our car was too short for me to sleep straight. I needed at least 6 inches more. The way to obtain that would be to push the front seats as far as they would go and recline them forward. Then a raised platform could be unfolded to get a length greater than 6 feet. A non-folding platform wouldn't work because when the car is being driven, the seats need to be pushed back and reclined the normal way. Here is the model with a whiteboard diagram that I drew to explain this to Stef (click/hover on images to see full photos and captions throughout this post):
Stefanie thankfully realized that storing that big a platform in our apartment was going to be a huge pain, so we figured we could solve that by breaking up the platform into multiple boxes. The boxes could be placed together to create the platform and when not in use, the modularity would help in storing them. The fact that they were hollow would also be useful since we could put other stuff in them and then put them away; also good for the car since we would be able to store our camping gear under our bed.
After all this planning (which took around an hour total), we decided it was time to go to Home Depot and get the materials needed. Our entryway table had been stained and was drying at this point.
The next two days were a lot of measuring, wood-cutting, measuring again and screwing. Our studio resembled a wood shop; thankfully our bed is on a loft else we would have had to sleep on a bed covered in wood dust! However, after a weekend of tired wrists and multiple trips to Home Depot, our camper was almost ready! Over the weekend while we were making the bed, I had also gotten us the only campground reservation I could find for the coming weekend. It was at Deception Pass, about two hours from Seattle. Our plan was to drive right back to our apartment if things didn't work out for some reason. Due to my existing summer travel schedule and campground reservations calendar, the next opening for us would have been mid-July at the earliest so we were set on giving it a go right the weekend after, just before my dad got here.
Everything fit in the car, as you saw in the video above, so our measurements had worked. It was mostly going to be a test of how comfortable it would be for two fully grown adults. Our SUV was the smallest setup by far in that park, with giant RVs and trailers all around us!
Turns out it's not bad! We had brought really warm sleeping bags and lots of blankets and pillows. The wood was harder than we thought under our backs (moving on from dorm mattresses to adult-life mattresses had made us soft) but next time we are going to put in a memory foam topper on top of the platform and we think that will solve it. It was all worth it because we woke up bleary-eyed in a misty forest, all warm and cuddly, next to this!
Update - Below is a video of what it looks like with a memory foam mattress. We camped for two nights in Oregon to watch the solar eclipse in summer 2017 and it was really comfortable. We couldn't feel the wood at all and slept really well (and of course, the total solar eclipse was glorious)! Below is a quick video of what the inside looks like with a real mattress inside.
So there you go -- camping in a small SUV is definitely doable and quite fun! It does take some amount of initial planning and work. As long you as you take the right measurements, the method I have outlined here should work for any car that is large enough to fit you. Measure more number of times than you think you need to; because building something that doesn't fit is literally the worst. Hit me up with questions (if any), let me know if this inspired you to go camp and enjoy the outdoors!