My partner – Sam Salwei co-founder of YogaSlackers – and I traveled together in a 1988 Ford Festival (the Peace Love Car) for over 6 years. Now we live in a 1988 Mitsubishi Delica. Living in a micro car – now a micro van – for an extended length of time allowed us to learn a thing of two about turning any vehicle into a comfortable and utilitarian home.
A few years ago, we realized we could use an adapted version of our micro vehicle nomad system to avoid depending on hotels or expensive travel vehicles. Instead of spending tons of money renting a camper, we rent a car and turn it into a temporary camper ourselves.
In this blog series we want to share with you our system to turn any vehicle into a camper. Each article will address the essentials to live and travel as a digital nomad: sleeping (this blog), cooking, working and safety. It is our hope that you can use this guide to turn a car rental into a camper or to turn your current vehicle into a weekend warrior’s haven.
A Complete Guide to Car Camping: Sound Sleep Edition
Choose the right vehicle
Find a Space to Lie Completely Flat
Trust us on this one. You may think it will be ok to sleep in a fetal position – because that’s how you fall asleep daily. But our bodies toss and turn a lot throughout the night. If you don’t believe us, go ahead and try to sleep in a space too short to have your legs completely straight. We can bet that you will wake up constantly trying to move.
Increase the discomfort by a factor of two if you are sharing the space with someone else.
We learnt this the hard way in Belize when we rented a Suzuki Jimny. We thought having our legs slightly bent would be fine. Oh dear… that night was to this date the worst night of our lives.
Since then we make sure that any vehicle we rent has a space where we can lie completely flat. That could be the front seat, the back seat or most often than not: the backseat and trunk.
The front seat is always available. You seat on it while driving. You can certainly lie back to sleep.
Your legs will be bent. And the angle left by most cars, will make you constantly slide down during the night. If you don’t enjoy sleeping in an airplane, you won’t enjoy sleeping here either.
Front Seat to Back Seat
Sleeping front seat to back seat – as we did in the Peace Love Car – allowed us to use our trunk for storage.
Sam and I wanted to sleep snuggled up, so we added pillows and padding on top of the emergency break to make it into a 1.5 person bed.
When Sam traveled with our friend Dan, they each slept in separate front seats.
Most car seats do not fold flat. It can be a very narrow surface to lie down.
While your legs will be bent, at least they will be at the same height as the rest of your body.
Unless you have a wide vehicle, your are probably going to be forced to sleep with bent legs. Works for short naps, and a night here and there.
Back Seat to Trunk
This is by far our favorite way of sleeping in a vehicle. Laying the back seat down and sleeping from the back seat into the trunk.
You may think about this way of sleeping on an SUV vehicle, but also works on any car that has direct access to the trunk.
We have slept this way countless times when traveling and renting a vehicle. The advantage of sleeping this way in a sedan, is that most people don’t really know you are sleeping there.
The space is the equivalent of a large twin bed. If you are a tall person, you can make the bed extra large by storing luggage in the space between the front seat and the back seats. Then adding a few pillows, towels or clothing items to make it flat and comfortable.
It requires shuffling gear around to make sleeping space.
During a tip to New Zealand we slept in a minivan. Not a camper conversion, just a plain minivan. At some point there were 4 of us total!
All we had to do was lay the back seat down. They lay completely flat making a queen size bed.
Since we were originally all planning on camping, each person had a sleeping pad and a sleeping bag. The sleeping pads and extra towels were used to flatten out the seats. In an effort to increase personal space we alternated directions between people and each person slept in their own sleeping bag.
It was great! One of the things that will help you sleep better while traveling is being really tired. During this period we started the 12 Days of Handstand challenge, ran everyday, explored and ended the day with natural water cold plunges. It turned out to be the perfect recipe to sound sleep.
Oh yeah… and picking adventure partners that do not snore.
The first time we planned a road trip in a rental car our first stop was the closest IKEA store.
We purchased two pillows and a memory foam bed topper. Got some of their free tape and brown paper wrapping to cover the windows and a small cooler.
For a total of 100 Euros we converted our 20 Euros per day rental car into our traveling mini hotel. We figured that even if we couldn’t bring our purchases home, by the end of the two weeks of travel, avoiding hotels, hostels and paying campgrounds, our money was well spent.
We brought back with us the pillows and left the mattress and cooler with friends. Hoping that in another occasion we can start the road trip from their home.
Let me warn you. One you switch from car camping – setting a tent near your vehicle – to comfortable sleeping in your vehicle, you can’t go back.
The trick is learning how to control the temperature of the inside of your vehicle. (More below.) Plus, you can sleep in more places than if you needed to pitch a tent each time. We have even slept in hotel parking lots this way.
This time around we scored by getting a free upgrade. The car had a full glass roof. Which made for star gazing nights and soft flowing leaves in the morning.
Bring with You
We pack our sleeping bags even while traveling to warm climates. Because if it is warm, we can always simply not use it. But we find that – more often than not – there is that 1 hr period during the night when we reach for them in search of warm comfort.
I have a Spark Ultralight Sleeping Bag from Sea to Summit. While Sam also has one of these, he often travels with an old down sleeping bag from Montbell. It is not quite as warm anymore. But feels like home.
Cocoon Liner with Insect Shield
Using a Cocoon liner provides an additional level of comfort wherever you are using a sleeping bag. We pack ours Cocoon Liner with Insect Shield every time we travel. Not only in car, but airplanes and overnight camping. We pack them even if we are not taking sleeping bags as a way to be prepared for the unexpected.
The Insect Shield keeps bugs away without us needed to wear insect repellents or deal with a smelly or sticky situation. Insect Shield is a process that binds a proprietary permethrin formula tightly to fabric fibers—resulting in effective, odorless insect protection that lasts the expected lifetime of apparel. It has been proven and registered to repel mosquitoes, ticks, ants, flies, chiggers, and midges (no-see-ums). With it we sleep anywhere without worrying about creepy-crawlies.
If we are staying in a ‘questionable’ hotel, we open up our Cocoon Liners with Insect Shield, wrap the pillow in it and slide inside. We sleep soundly knowing that we are isolating our body from the sheets while still enjoying using the hotel sheets and covers for warm.
In a car camping situation, we enjoy using them as our main sheet. If it gets too cold, we reach for the warmer bag. We often forget that they protect us from bugs until our travel mates express being bugged by mosquitos all night long. While we slept soundly.
The only downside of using your own sleeping bag or liner is missing out on cuddling with your partner. Luckily several companies are working on double size liners and bags. Cocoon has both of them, we used these in our van for a long time. The added advantage is that no one can really steal the sheets!
While we own some amazing full size sleeping pads from Sea to Summit. We almost always pack our tiny Klymit Inertial X-Lite Sleeping pads.
Take it, we often want to pack ultra light and ultra small. We this pads as additional padding, or count on not using them if we are purchasing a bed. Yet it is very nice to know that they are available for us. We have used them countless time to catch a nap in the airport or when flights or plans change unexpectedly.
At the beginning of this blog I mentioned that being able to control the temperature and humidity inside your vehicle is crucial for sleep comfort. More often than not, cracking a couple of windows to create a cross breeze is enough. But what happens if the nice summer night also has tons of mosquitos, flies or any other flying insects outside?
Cocoon makes a variety of lightweight yet large travel mosquito nets. We take them camping often and have found ourselves and all our friends playing cards inside these small spaces while attempting to avoid flies. In the Sahara we also buried the edges in the sand to help prevent visits from scorpions and other unwanted multi or no legged guests too.
While car camping we use them to cover an opened door or window. In the Peace Love Car we made mosquito nets to fit our windows. But while traveling, since we don’t know what type of vehicle or what situation we will encounter, we pack our Cocoon Outdoor Double Net. And plan on draping them over an open door or window.
Cocoon Liner with Insect Shield
You – like us – are probably used to sleeping with a pillow. Skipping on a pillow while traveling will only cause sleepless nights and a tight neck mornings.
If we are traveling for a long period of time, we plan on purchasing a real pillow on arrival. We are just not a fan of inflatable pillows.
If we are traveling for short periods of time we use our clothing as a pillow. A well packed Eagle Creek Packing Cube often does the trick. If you want your makeshift pillow to be extra soft – and is not cold – pack your puffy jacket in it. It will probably be the most expensive and comfortable pillow you own.
Noise Cancelling Headphones
Or if you are on a budget earplugs.
A word of warning. Once you start traveling with noise cancelling headphones you simply cannot go back to listening to all the background noise the modern world has to offer. It is not possible.
Maybe not while camping in a forest, the desert or away from other people. But if you find yourself attempting to sleep on a busy road, a busy rest stop or surrounded by young cheerful campers, then noise canceling headphones are the way to go.
Airports, airplanes, train rides, bus rides and pretty much any ride is made better by having the choice to cancelling noises.
We started with inner ear headphones and after about 5 years of traveling with them, we upgraded to Sony WH-1000XM4 Wireless Overhead Headphones. They arrived just in time to make our first Covid-19 era flight. We put the ear loops of our masks around them for noise and ear pain free flying.
Is your partner snoring? These help with that too.
Pack them. Use them. Rest fully.
Water while sleeping? Yes! You need water for pretty much everything.
In our experience sleeping in a car can cause more dehydration than in other locations. Maybe because you are less likely to have a nice glass of water sitting next to your bed. To protect us from dehydration we hang an Aquamira Pressurized Hydration Reservoir next to our heads.
We install on all our bladder hoses a self retractable cord. If we get thirsty all we have to do is pull the cord have a sip and let it go. The string makes it even more accessible and – most importantly – keep the mouth piece away from the ground and from anyone mistakenly sitting on them. Which inevitable ends up in a big spill, or awkward questions on which bladder has the liquid come from.
These water bladders push water out with such force, we use them for washing our face, hands, brushing our teeth and even to do our dishes.
While not necessary for sleeping, having headlamp accessible eases the process of falling asleep. Particularly if you are in a vehicle that is not a true camper.
Headlamps allow you to move around, search for gear, go to the bathroom and even read a book with ease.
These small BioLite headlamps are bight, small, light and rechargeable. They have become a must for our travel needs.
Diffuser & Essential Oils
Yes, we carry a diffuser and essential oils while traveling. What can we say? We travel with all the comforts of home.
Renting cars, staying in budget accommodations and playing hard come with their own assortment of smells. We like to keep our sleeping area smelling fresh and to add humidity to the air.
A travel friendly – USB – diffuser helps us do that. We also use it to sanitize our spaces. Adding antibacterial and immunity enhancing essential oils while traveling.
Our current vehicle has three Yakima Roof Boxes. Three of them. Traveling while having all our worthy possessions is our favorite thing in the world. There is no need to pack, unpack and repack the van depending on what we have planned. We simply drive there and use what we need.
If we are flying somewhere we don’t – yet! – have the luxury of packing a roof box with us.
Yakima Racks has a roof bag that we used in several trips. It has the benefit of being a bag! You can use it as a funky shaped bag while flying or store it inside your luggage. Once you pick up your car rental simply attach it to the roof without the need for a rack.
The one thing to consider is that they are not 100% waterproof. So if you want to avoid packing and up packing, don’t take them with you to rainy locations, or you can put your stuff in dry bags. If you simply want to extend the amount of storage space you have – let say because you want to sleep inside your car – then absolutely pack this bag with you! It will make your current vehicle feel huge!
In Your Own Vehicle
12 Volt Fan
It is essential to learn to control the temperature and humidity inside your vehicle for a sound sleep. While cracking two windows to create air flow can highly increase comfort, having a fan that we can run through the night is now on our essential list. We run a 12 volt fan throughout the night, even on cold nights! It helps with keep the temperature, increases the amount of fresh air we breathe and keeps the car smelling fresh.
These vans run on batteries or 12 volts. So you can purchase them for your own vehicles or take them with you when renting one.
To increase it’s mounting versatility, we glued rare earth magnets to the legs. They are strong enough to hold the fan to the roof, on the side of the van or near a window where there is exposed metal.
Permanent Window Covers
With added insulation.
In the Peace Love Car we used curtains for a while and prefabricated window covers, but we ended up loving our homemade Double Bubble Reflective Foil Insulation.
We purchased a roll of foil insulation at the hardware store and cut them a little bigger than each window. In most cases we didn’t need to hold them up with anything. They simply stay put with a tiny little bit of pressure. In some windows, we never bother to take them down. If they were left permanently up we used flat elastic shoe laces to keep them in place.
This type of window cover gave us privacy, protected us from the sun or other lights and helped us keep the inside temperature comfortable.
We had a sunroof in this car, so placing our fan on the cracked sunroof allowed us to circulate air while all other windows where closed.
The only downside we saw with this covers, is finding a place to store them. Our solution was to bungee them to the ceiling when they were not needed.
Tern Arctic Window
Go big or go home… right?
After living for years putting up window covers, mosquito nets and worrying about opened windows, we went big and installed two Tern Overland Arctic Windows.
These windows are fantastic. Here are a few of our favorite features.