CAR CAMPING SURVIVAL GUIDE
By: Sarah Stern
So you wanna go to dog shows, but campers are expensive, and so are hotels and airBNBs. And then it occurs to you: you can camp in your car! Which in many cases, is actually a decent option. I bought a transit connect LWB earlier this year after someone wrecked my Scion XB at a stop sign and have been camping in it most weekends since March. I thought I’d write up a little car camping survival guide for those of you curious about how this all works!
The biggest one is keep your expectations REASONABLE. People get vans thinking you’re gonna be in a camper/hotel room. You are not You are staying in a metal tent. You have marginal protection from the elements. Depending on how you set up your rig you may or may not have power. Gotta get up in the middle of the night and it’s raining? In my van, you get out of bed, congrats, you’re outside now unless you want to do some creative pretzeling. I CAN get a camp toilet in there but it’s not that convenient which I will cover later.
Keep in mind parking and power needs. I run an AC and electronics in my van. I have to pay for shore power. Sometimes this is cheaper than a full size camper hookup. Many times it is not.
Your storage space is going to be extremely limited. You may have to get creative or unpack things from on top of your bed when you arrive.
Chances are you will not have running water or a shower. Keep this in mind when planning extended trips.
Car camping may not be for you if you don’t like regular roughing-it camping. You are slightly above what one would expect out of a tent.
Setup/breakdown is going to take time, particularly if you bring an SUV tent/awning. If the ordinances wherever you are prohibit tent camping, they probably prohibit your SUV tent, too–it’s up to the show secretary whether it counts if you’re sleeping in your car and not your SUV tent.
Have a backup plan in case you can’t or don’t want to park wherever you are for whatever reason. There are locations I will not car camp in for safety reasons.
VEHICLE SIZE AND SELECTION
Is your car your daily driver? Then you probably don’t want to be driving around a bus. If it snows heavily where you live, a long-wheelbase, rear-wheel-drive vehicle is probably not for you. Are you a mechanic? If the answer is ‘no’, probably don’t buy the 1993 Dodge Joe down the street promises is ‘super clean’ unless you really like being stranded on the side of the highway and paying someone else to fix your stuff.
I ended up with the car I did because it was one of the few large-enough vehicles that came with something other than rear wheel drive, and I live in Buffalo. I’m also not a mechanic so I needed something newish and reliable. If I could swing another vehicle just for camping, you wouldn’t be reading this article.
Keep in mind the size of your vehicle in relation to how many dogs you have. In many cases, you want to go as big as you can practically afford to go. Generally, I like to have a vehicle I can park in a normal spot, which is why I got the transit connect LWB and not something larger. I have the false floor in the front removed, and I put an intermediate ruffland underneath an 18 inch mattress frame, with a regular twin-sized 8-inch bed-in-a-box on top of it. This is plenty comfortable for sleeping.
I will say it is impractical if I’m camping with more than one dog. I’ve done it, but it’s not comfortable, for me or for the dogs. I end up pretty close to the ceiling because one of my dogs is very large. If you are crating a very large dog without a way to REMOVE said crate, you will want something larger. I bring my full sized 28 foot camper if I’m going anywhere for extended periods with multiple dogs, because it’s just not practical to car camp with all four of the buggers.
This is actually easier than it sounds most of the time. In my vehicle, I can run an extension cord through one of the drainage holes in the bumper by pulling out one of the vent panels. Larger transit connects can run power cords through the door. This is a quick and easy way to get power into a vehicle to run an AC or other electronics. Keep in mind if you run an AC, you need to have some way to vent the hot exhaust. I generally do this out a window with a baffle (I run a portable unit) and it works for me just fine. Some locations give me a discount since I do not pull the same draw as a full-sized camper. Many will not. Keep this in mind–you may be paying 30/night to hook yourself up to shore power, so plan for it.
If you wanna be fancy, you can also drill a hole in the side of your van and add wiring. I didn’t personally bother. This is impractical in most smaller vehicles and in some passenger models.
WHAT TO BRING
Storage is limited, but keep in mind you are camping. You should have clothes to cope with whatever weather you are expecting. Bring a rain jacket if it is going to be raining. Bring extra sweatshirts. Bring bug spray and sunblock. Don’t forget WATER. I pack one or two big gallon jugs of water per day I intend to stay onsite. I don’t usually use them all, but if it’s hot, this can be vital later, especially if where I am has no water hookups I can use to refill my jugs.
Pack light and try to plan your storage out ahead of time. It can be annoying to try to get stuff out from the middle of the night when it’s dark. I like to use slide-out bins. Keep in mind your stuff will move around during transit, so if you need to, tape drawers shut/tape your storage solution to the floor. Keep heavy items you don’t want squishing you/your dog on the floor.
Holes in the framing can make great storage for items if you have a cargo van (I keep my glasses in them when I sleep) but keep in mind some will open into the various pillars in the frame. I lost my glasses at 1 AM to this last show and had to pull off trim panels to get them back. Don’t be dumb like me.
Magnetic hooks are a FANTASTIC way to store your keys, etc.
You’ll want reflective covers for the windows while you’re sleeping at night and to keep the rig cool during the day, they’re available for most models on Amazon. You may want a window vent you can close the window around if they make one for your car. I personally bring earplugs because I am a light sleeper. Bring an extra towel, it comes in handy for multiple things. I bring a ventlock as well in case I want to prop the back open for whatever reason. I always pack extra pillows/blankets, which have had various uses. I use rumen magnets from tractor supply to stick curtains up around the back which further cuts out light and gives me a way to cover windows in a pinch if for whatever reason my window shades are insufficient.
Plan for the weather.
I’ll say it again, PLAN FOR THE WEATHER.
You don’t need to worry about cold as much as you think. I’ve slept in my transit connect on a 20 degree night with no problems, I just bought a bunch of cheap 10 degree sleeping bags and wrapped them around the dog crates, lined the floors, and lined the walls and stayed toasty warm all night. A propane or diesel heater can help if it’s cold, but I have only needed one once before I nailed down sleeping in a van when it’s cold out. Don’t run space heaters in enclosed spaces and don’t run propane heaters not designed to be inside in enclosed spaces because you can die or your rig can catch fire.
Heat is the real killer. It is very difficult to cool a vehicle down if it is very hot out. I have a portable AC that I vent out a window, but it can struggle on hot days. You *can* run the engine to run the onboard AC, but it will obviously drain your gas, and it’s also not good for the engine and leaves you open to the risk of carbon monoxide leaking into the cabin.
If you can afford it, maxxair fans or a roof-mounted AC are worthwhile upgrades. If I had the money I’d get a 12v DC minisplit meant for truck cabs. I don’t have the money right now so portable AC it is.
Insulation helps *a lot.* I have all the trim panels and most of the body cavities in my van lined with Havelock wool, which makes a massive difference in both noise reduction and overall heat/cold retention. Those pink insulation foam panels work well if your van is big enough to sacrifice a few inches of space, mine’s not. Don’t use anything that might mold such as denim, condensation likes to collect in vans. Don’t use household fiberglass or rock wool batting, it’s bad to breathe and not designed for a small, enclosed space like a van.
Regardless of weather you’re going to want ventilation, sleeping bodies put off a lot of condensation and condensation leads to rust. Crack a window or something if you aren’t running an AC with dehumidify mode.
You usually will have access to a bathroom, which hopefully is unlocked overnight. You may or may not have access to showers. I personally pack a portable camp toilet if I’m unsure there will be restroom access in the middle of the night, but I only use it in dire emergencies. If your van is big enough to leave this just sort of in its own corner it can be a good permanent solution, mine is not.
For showers, you have options. Most truck stops will allow people traveling alone to shower, and won’t make you pay, but always offer to. This is especially true if you are a woman.
Public parks often also have showers. Google is your friend here. Some state campgrounds do as well. For the less legally inclined, KOAs often aren’t monitored enough to even notice you’re there, especially at night. Gyms/YMCAs have day passes but have started cracking down on people van camping, so I don’t like using this option. If you’re truly in a pinch and are only gone a couple days, baby wipes can be a godsend.
If the place you’re at doesn’t mind you discharging water onto the ground and you have an SUV tent and it’s warm enough out, solar powered camp showers can be a viable solution. If you have room, you can also drain these into a collapsible kiddie pool and then drain the kiddie pool into a gray water tank.
TAKING CARE OF YOUR DOG
Bring food and water for your dog. Bring extra water for your dog. I recommend having a temperature monitor in your vehicle if it is very hot OR very cold out. Keep in mind your dog is going to need space to sleep and move around. If you can take their crate inside, great, you don’t need to plan for underbed storage. I won’t leave my dog inside a venue overnight, so they sleep under my bed. I like to put an expen around the entire van, but this isn’t always viable depending on where I am/where I’m parked.
Keep in mind where you’re sleeping and lock your doors at night. Don’t advertise to randos that you are alone, it’s an invitation to break into your van later. This is a bigger location some places than others, most dog show peeps know I am by myself. Some laugh at my teeny camper which is fine with me.
YOU NEED A FIRE EXTINGUISHER, CO ALARM, AND SMOKE DETECTOR. These are not optional devices. They are inexpensive to buy, and you can get all three for under 20 dollars at home depot/camping world/wherever. There is zero excuse not to have these. You MUST have them, especially if you are running power or idling your car to keep warm/cool. CO is a silent killer and people can and have died sleeping in a vehicle overnight with their engines idling. Put your CO alarm on the floor somewhere, stick the fire alarm to the roof somewhere, and put the fire extinguisher near where you sleep.
Make sure your extension cords are both outdoor-rated and rated for the load you place on them. I like to use the big, thick ones that are like, 50 bucks at walmart. It’s worth it for things to not catch on fire.
Again, don’t run space heaters without proper clearance because they can catch your shit on fire. Don’t run propane or other combustible fuel heaters in an enclosed space unless they’re designed for that.
I made sure everything I used to outfit my van was fireproof. I suggest everyone do the same.
Camping in your car can be fun and cheap. Just keep safety in mind and your expectations reasonable.