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RV conversions, true RV conversions, can cost as much as a house. Until relatively recently, life in a van by the river was considered a lifestyle reluctantly accepted by the unlucky. It’s since become a status statement, thanks largely to Instagram and other forms of social media flaunting the highlights of living in a vehicle without bragging about the downsides (finding a bathroom in the middle of the night is one of the biggest minus points).
But just because you can spend thousands of dollars converting a vehicle into something you can comfortably sleep in doesn’t mean you should. There are many reasons for me not to make my Crosstrek or Flex a full-time camper, the main reason being that my wife and I use these vehicles as daily drivers. They have to hold a car seat, any friends and family we happen to be driving around with, and two medium sized puppies who like their own space. That leaves little to no room for permanent kitchen or bed furnishings. Luckily we have learned to sleep cheap and have spent many nights in the back of the car comfortably sawing logs and when we get home we unpack everything, store it in our garage and our vehicles are back to normal. All for under $100.
Is it the best setup ever? no But before you judge, see for yourself.
Air Mattress – $11.44
Grab your tape measure, lay down all your seats, and see what mattress size works for you. When it comes to the vehicles I have in my garage, a double size fits the back of my Crosstrek perfectly and is thick enough to take out the bulge in the rear. My Flex can handle a slightly larger mattress but as I want this to work for both I stuck with the twin mattress. It’s not the prettiest model you can buy, but considering I’ve bought six packs for more, it’s pretty damn good.
Air Pump – $8.99
A plug-in air pump sometimes feels like an incredible luxury to me and I’m not entirely sure why. I may feel like I have to inflate a mattress myself when camping, but in this day and age when many cars are equipped with an electrical outlet, why bother inflating your mattress manually then make yourself dizzy? This one plugs into any outlet and costs so little I can’t believe I even thought of not getting it. If you don’t have an outlet in your car, they make both a 12V DC outlet that plugs into a cigarette lighter and a 6C battery that doesn’t need to be plugged into anything.
Window Screens – $11.48
The air in the car is at its worst at night. Well, the second worst. Mosquitoes are the worst. Luckily, these window screens solve both problems. They cover the entire windows so you can roll them down completely if you want. I just roll them down a few inches. Open enough for good airflow, closed enough that a bear or other creature passing by can’t just get in the car before I wake up and get the fuck out of there.
DIY Window Blinds – $YMMV
In addition to window screens, blackout blinds are great for privacy and keeping heat in or out, depending on what time of year you’re camping. They’re pretty easy to make too; all you need is a foam core, reflective insulation and some tape. Watch the video above to find out how to create your own.
Another more permanent option is tinting your windows. Laws on this vary from state to state, so make sure to check beforehand, but window tinting can not only increase privacy and block harmful UV rays, it also helps protect your vehicle during those sweltering summer months to keep cooler.
Blankets and pillows – I already have
Most of us already have blankets and pillows. I use the ones I sleep with at home.
Stove – $9.99
Aside from sleeping, eating is a pretty important part of any camping trip. Many campgrounds have fire pits or charcoal grills available, but if they don’t, there are still ways to enjoy a quality meal at a great price.
This ultra-light stove is made for backpacking, but it’s just as good at a campsite. Also, it takes up very little space in your car. I always carry one with me, so even on a road trip I have a way to make myself a hot cup of coffee if none are available nearby.
Table – $19.99
This is another item that is usually available at a campsite. It’s also the most expensive item on this list, so you might be able to skip it and save some loose change. If not, a table like this can feel like a luxury when you’re used to eating your meals on the ground while camping. At 11.2 inches, it’s not true table height, something like that will set you back a little more, but it folds and folds away so storage isn’t an issue. If you camp with others, the $29.99 medium size might be a better option.
5 Gallon Water Pitcher – $9.99
When my wife and I started autocamping, I bought a 6 gallon pitcher with a spout. It’s big, heavy, takes up space even when empty, and awkward to lift and pour out when full. This collapsible pitcher is superior in almost every way. The spout in particular is much easier to use and since you’ll be using water for everything from cooking and cleaning to drinking and washing dishes, this is a must.
Cooler – I already have it
The cooler can be the biggest expense when it comes to setting up a camp kitchen, depending on what your needs are. A 9-liter hard-shell Coleman costs about $17, but a Yeti big enough to hold a moose costs thousands. Most people already have one, but if you’re just starting out I’d recommend going the inexpensive route and figuring out what you’ll need later.
Throw these items in your car and you’re well on your way to a cheap version of van life that’s easy to set up and take down. It might be tempting to go big and grab all the high-end gear right away, but if you go that route you can easily upgrade based on your needs rather than what looks great on Instagram. And if you find out that 16 days in your car isn’t all that matters, you don’t have to sell your house to learn this lesson.