Thinking of transforming your station wagon into a camper? I’ve listed below the equipment we used for our car camper conversions. We did a few road trips in Australia in our station wagon Peugeot 307 and Citroen C4 Grand Picasso.
Sleeping in your vehicle while travelling not only makes you save money but also gives you more flexibility. And if it’s a lot easier not to book all the hotels you need during your road trip, there is a bit of work involved in preparing your car, so it’s comfortable for sleeping. If you’re travelling to remote places or if you want to save time and money by skipping the restaurants, you’ll also need equipment for cooking and eating.
Why did we choose a station wagon camper rather than purchasing a van?
First, we use our car for many other purposes than just travelling, like commuting to work every day. We also wanted a fuel-efficient vehicle for the environment and to save money on fuel. Plus, we could have a younger car for the price of an old van. A station wagon is also a lot more discreet than a camper van and easier to drive and park.
This article is based on my experience of converting a station wagon (Peugeot 307 first, then a C4 Picasso) into a camper for road trips around Australia (Brisbane to Sydney multiple times). If you want a good read about tips to live in a van, check out this post!
1. Car camper conversion, stage 1: Create space for sleeping in your car
Finding where you are going to sleep and making it comfortable is the biggest challenge in a car camper conversion.
Not all cars will give you a nice flat surface to create your bed. We opted for a station wagon where we can fully collapse the back seats – or even leave them at home for our Peugeot 307 – to have a nice flat surface. If you’re not as lucky as us, you may need to be a bit creative and build your own flat surface, using a piece of wood, for example.
If you have the budget to install a tent on the roof of your car, it will save you a lot of space. However, you lose the discreet advantage of sleeping in a car, and you may need to stick to camping grounds. Check out this roof tent for a car on Amazon* for inspiration. Most rooftop tents are suitable for bigger vehicles like SUVs, so keep this in mind.
Still, a rooftop tent would be my preferred option for a car camper conversion if we weren’t looking for cheaper solutions. Not only is it the most comfortable solution for sleeping, but it also allows to have more space for storage and fewer things to move around at night time.
Once you have your flat surface, you can buy a foam mattress to fit on it. For us, it has been challenging to find something that wasn’t too expensive. I’m a big fan of reusing rather than buying, so I opted for a combination of foam mats (yoga mats)* with a mattress pad*.
For some people, this is not enough comfort. Remember, the most important parts to protect are your upper body down to your butt, so you can fold your mats accordingly.
Two other options to consider for more cosiness:
- a self-inflating airpad*
- a thick foam mattress*: You’ll need this one to be easy to roll or fold as you shouldn’t place anything on top all day. Otherwise, your mattress will get flat quickly. But in terms of comfort for sleeping in our station wagon, it is by far my favourite mattress.
We initially had a big air mattress which was super comfortable but a lot less convenient. It is more fragile, and you need to blow air into it every night. We had an electric air mattress pump* that we could recharge in the car, but we dropped that solution when we went away longer than one weekend. You don’t want to spend too long preparing your bed every night.
And here’s another option for those who don’t have a wagon: the back seat inflatable mattress*. I have never tried it, but it looks like an interesting idea – although I’m not sure the length of this option is comfortable. I also have reserves about air mattresses, as explained before, as most mattresses don’t last long. You’d need to be careful to deflate it during the day, as when the temperature increases, the air takes more space and could damage the mattress.
We cover our mattress, sleeping sheets, pillows and blankets with a tarp* when we’re driving. It ensures that they don’t get wet and dirty if something spills on them. Plus, the tarp can also be used for other purposes if needed.
2. Car camper conversion, stage 2: The windows
To feel comfortable while you’re sleeping, you want protection from light and heat and curious people.
We live in a tropical climate, so this is almost as important as the mattress if we want to sleep well. Even during winter, it can quickly get hot if the sun hits the car and the sunrise happens before 7 am.
For the side doors on our station wagon, I opted for window shades that I can slide on the entire door*. It allows opening the window without risking that too many insects come in – which I find a lot more comfortable as it can get hot and sticky otherwise. For more darkness and privacy, it is easy to slide a piece of cardboard in or to attach an opaque piece of tissue with clothespins. It was also a lot easier than building customed curtains for the station wagon. Please note the image and the link are provided as an illustration: this is not the product I own, and you’d need to make measurements to confirm it fits your car.
I also use a sunshade for the windshield* and the rear window with an easy system to fix them.
For our C4 Picasso, we’ve been thinking of buying custom-fit window shades*. Our backseat windows are already tinted and have sunshades we can pull up, but these additional sunshades would allow us to open the window and get some air without bugs.
You’ll quickly find out that you need to have a towel to wipe your windshield if you plan to drive within the hour after waking up.
3. Car camper conversion stage 3: Organising storage
When you travel and sleep in your car, you have less space than in a real campervan, so organising storage is important.
Having clever storage is key to keeping you sane: every evening, you’ll need to move things from the boot to the front of the car so you can sleep. And do the opposite in the morning – while leaving the things you’ll need during the day easily accessible.
To make this easier, I use boxes. I can easily pile them up; they’re easy to access (no need to open) and solid to be carried around. The big advantage is that if I don’t need them, they take almost no place at all as they fold and collapse. Your life will be easier if you can get different colours or mark them so you can easily differentiate them. Click on the image to get more info.
It’s also important to use all the space you can with organisers so that you won’t need to move around: behind the back seats, the sun visors, between the car seats or on the air vent, for example. Click on the image to get more info.
4. Car camper conversion, stage 4: Kitchen equipment
Your station wagon camper cannot be complete if you are not able to prepare your own meals while on the move.
For cooking, we use the usual camping equipment: a cooler, a stove, a folding table and folding chairs. Most of our plates, glasses, and bowls are collapsible or can fit into one another. I put the essentials in a transparent box (like Tupperware), the one we always need on the table when we are going to eat (remember: smart storage is key!). A small hard cutting board and at least one good knife will make your life easier. Don’t forget the can opener.
We also carry a small charcoal barbecue that folds completely flat. It’s fun to make a fire, and the food tastes delicious. In many places we visit, open fire is not allowed but we can make a fire in the barbecue.
The small espresso maker will be a real treat for those who love their coffee in the morning. That’s how the Italians do it at home!
For the cooler, we chose to have one with ice for budget reasons and because we already owned one. However, if you are willing to spend money on your car camper conversion, an electric car cooler would be a more appropriate solution to keep fresh food. Check it out here*.
5. Car Camper Conversion stage 5: Lights
You need to think about how you want to lit the interior – and the exterior – of your car.
It is not recommended to use the lights that are already in the car for a few reasons: they can drain the battery, they get hot as they are not meant to stay on, and they are not very comfortable. Our solution was to have a line going from one side of the car to another, and we attached a camping lamp up there. When we were in a more relaxed setup and needed less light, we opted for solar-charged LEDs.
6. What if it’s raining?
You need to think about this before a storm hits you. Where can you put your wet items in your station wagon? Can you eat inside the car?
We hang wet items in the car using bungee cords*. We can also use bungee cords to fix the tarp and get shelter if needed. The tarp can make a cheap awning to protect from light rain and the sun. If you are looking for something more convenient and easy to set up anywhere, there are car awnings that are made for the back or the side of cars (check this one*).
Wet items can also be placed in dry bags* or in a box, but be aware that they will be smelly and will need to be washed if you choose this option. We’ve also used the tarp as a protection for the bottom of the boxes so we can place wet items, as the tarp is easy and quick to clean.
If your equipment is safe, now what about you? Where do you go when it’s raining?
With our Peugeot 307 station wagon, we could fold the parcel shelf and use it as a table and seat on each side. In the Citroen C4 Picasso, there are little tray tables like in an airplane on the back of the front seats.
If it doesn’t work for you, you may consider having some extra equipment like a mini picnic table*. Not the best, but take it as a romantic dinner in bed! Having this option available can also save the evening when you realise you stopped somewhere full of aggressive and annoying mosquitoes.
When the rain is light, the tarp or the boot can be used as a shelter for cooking and dining. But it’s recommended to have some food that does not require any cooking in case the rain is stronger, and you need to prepare it all in the car.
Think of having some entertainment in your car too, like a card game or a tablet to watch movies. With limited space, there isn’t much you can do once inside your car. You can get some ideas for road trip activities here.
Have you ever converted your car into a camper for a road trip? What equipment is most important for you?
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