I adore camping and plan multiple trips each summer, but you’ll almost never catch me sleeping in a tent.
I’ve been through it all too many times: mosquitoes getting in through forgotten vents, waking up baking in the sun at the crack of dawn, and being forced to pack up in the rain and — surprise! — finding mildew on our tent right before our next trip.
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I gave up on all of this the second I realized that it actually is possible to enjoy a good night’s sleep while camping. These days, I either tow a trailer — which is great, but it reduces on-road maneuverability and results in high fuel bills — or I opt for my go-to setup of having my daughter and I both sleep right in the car.
We’ve done this a few times now, including most recently this summer during our trip to central Quebec in a 2022 Nissan Pathfinder. For shorter trips of three or four days, this is officially our preferred method. It lifts us off the ground, we stay dry, and it’s surprisingly comfortable. Plus, we tend to drive a lot while we’re traveling, and this setup lets us be packed up and ready to hit the road each morning within about 15 minutes while taking all of our belongings with us.
Following the historic St. Lawrence River in a 2021 Dodge Durango R/T
Exploring central Quebec’s natural beauty and racing legacy in a 2022 Nissan Pathfinder
And if you just thought, “we’re a family of four/five, so this won’t work,” don’t write it off just yet. I always bring a backup tent with me (but have so far never needed to use it), and between that and the additional space we had in the Pathfinder, a larger family could take advantage of this method using a three-row SUV, too. The grown-ups can sleep in a tent while the kids are in a more secure location — or the kids can sleep in the tent while the grown-ups have a more comfortable night’s sleep. Either way, we’re not judging.
Here are some of the tips and tricks I use to help my little family of two camp in a vehicle in comfort, no tent or trailer required.
Choose the right air mattress
Functionally, there are a few steps we follow when we arrive at our campsite for the night. First, we take any bags out of the back and put them in the first row or under the second-row footwells. Next, we fold the second- and third-row seats and lay out our air mattress onto the load floor with the valve on the liftgate side and the other end as close to the front-row seats as possible. With the mattress in place inside the vehicle, we inflate it as much as possible, letting its shape form around the interior components. (If it buckles a little, it will flatten out once people pile on top of it.) Once we throw our pillows and sleeping bags on top, we’re ready to call it a night.
This can be accomplished in any vehicle with a hatchback. I’ve done this in everything from a Subaru Forester to a Porsche Cayenne, Toyota Sienna, and this Nissan Pathfinder, among others. For my 5-foot-7-inch frame, the compacts tend to be tight, but a few of the larger two-row SUVs are long enough in the back to let me lay flat, while just about every three-row SUV gives me more than enough room lengthwise.
Choosing the right mattress for this is key. This isn’t a situation where you want one of those super-cushy, double-high mattresses: you’ll lose too much height in the vehicle’s interior. A cheap-and-cheerful single-height queen-size mattress does the trick. What you will want to invest in is a good air pump, perhaps even a powered one, especially if you’ll be packing up every morning to hit the road. A vinyl patch kit is another essential item so you can repair any surprise punctures.
To pack up when I’ll need the mattress again that same evening, I take just enough air out of the mattress that I can fold it in half onto itself, leaving the bedding inside, and then I pile the bags from the first two rows on top of the folded mattress. We’re ready to go in no time, and the mattress is easy to put back in place once we’re back at camp for the night.
Check out these window screens
One of the downsides of car camping has always been that you have to choose between waking up to fogged-up windows or leaving them open and letting the bugs in.
This summer, I found a product that’s an absolute game-changer. These fabric pockets go around the outside of the second-row doors to act as window screens, meaning that you can open the windows partially to allow for some air flow. These are available from a number of brands and stores; I found this set on Amazon for $20.
These are fabulous, but there are a few things to note. One is that they don’t stop water from getting in, so you may want to skip them if there’s rain in the forecast. They also don’t block any noise, so light sleepers might not appreciate them if the vehicle is parked near a busy road.
The screens can also be a bit fiddly to get into place without leaving gaps open around the bottom where bugs could get in, a situation that changes from one vehicle to the next depending on exterior and interior door design. I found that once I had them where I wanted them I didn’t want to open the side doors again, so we end up getting in and out of the vehicle via the rear liftgate instead. In some vehicles I need to pick up the bottom of the mattress to allow the liftgate latch to close, but once the door is shut the mattress can be pushed down into place. I like to drop the key fob into one of the cup holders toward the rear of the vehicle so that it’s easy to open the liftgate again when we wake up in the morning.
Consider springing for electricity
This is a personal choice, but I almost always opt to pay for electrical at campsites for a whole host of reasons.
One is that I like to use a powered cooler so that I can keep perishables refrigerated without losing interior space to ice. This isn’t essential; there are good quality coolers out there that will stay cold on a single bag of ice for as long as a week. I just prefer the peace of mind that comes with consistency. To use this type of cooler, though, I need to be able to take it out of the vehicle and plug it in outside overnight to create space for the mattress. I drape the entire cooler and all electrical components with a tarp so that I don’t end up with surprise electrical damage thanks to unexpected overnight rain, a hard lesson learned from experience.
I also find it helpful to bring an extension cord, which in combination with my new window screens lets me run power to the vehicle’s interior. This means we can charge our smartphones without exposing the chargers to the elements. I also brought a small fan along on our trip to Quebec, which helped keep us comfortable through one particularly muggy evening.
And as a hopeless coffee addict, I really appreciate the convenience of being able to plug in an electric kettle to make a French press of coffee in the morning — or, under duress, some instant coffee — without having to use a camp stove or light a campfire.
Here’s a bonus tip that I didn’t know about until this summer: I made my bookings for La Mauricie National Park at the last minute, and there were no electrical sites available for all three nights I wanted to stay. However, thanks to a new feature on the Parks Canada reservations website, I was able to secure a different electrical site from the same campground for each of the three evenings we were visiting and combine them all into a single booking. Since we pack up and leave our campsite each morning anyway, it makes no difference to us to come back to a different one each night. This feature is easy to use and saved us from having to go without power during our stay.
Pack like a pro
This method is great overall, but it does mean packing a little differently than one might for other types of travel.
For moving things around in the evenings and mornings, it’s much easier to use multiple smaller, soft-sided bags than a larger suitcase, which can be difficult to work around in tighter spaces.
I also like to pack all of my implements for cooking and serving food into one reusable bag that I can easily pull out of the car at mealtimes and know I have everything I’ll need close at hand. This bag stays like this permanently, even during winter storage. There’s a decent knife that stays stored in the box it came in for safety, plus a plastic cutting board, some metal serving bowls and cutlery, and folding pots and pans that store in a convenient pouch. I bring a bucket to wash all the dishes in every night and dump the grey water into a privy or, where the campground has one, an interior sink meant for this purpose. Everything gets a good cleaning when I get home and goes straight back into the bag so that it’s ready to go for our next camping trip.
Along the same lines, a dedicated bag for the bathrooms and showers containing toiletries, brushes and combs, flip-flops, and towels means that nothing gets forgotten before the long walk to the campground facilities, as long as you remember your change of clothes.
And one of my best road trip camping tips for people with kids along is to pick up a car caddy, which holds my daughter’s favourite books and activities along with some snacks and a water bottle so that she’s fueled and entertained on longer drives. As I’m often the only adult on our trips, I also like to pack a box of healthy snacks that sits within easy reach on the passenger seat, which lets me easily respond to wails of hunger from the back without having to pull over.
These are the best tips I’ve gathered from years of car camping experience, but I’m sure there’s a treasure trove of ideas out there that I haven’t yet discovered. Do you have a favourite product or routine that helps make car camping comfortable? Share it with us in the comments section below.