SUV Car Camping Setup: Complete Guide For Solo Travel

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girl in an orange top spraying water from a Rinse Kit while camping on the beach

Car camping is my favorite way to travel across the country! I’ve been car camping on and off for years and love the freedom it gives me to explore hidden gems and surround myself with nature. It is also a great way to see the country on a budget. Overnight accommodation can get pricey, especially in the US, so sleeping comfortably in your car for free is a great way to save money.

One thing you will want when car camping is a solid car camping setup so you can remain comfortable and car camp for longer. You can car camp in any vehicle, but it is important to have a setup specific to your needs for optimal enjoyment while on the road so you will actually enjoy car camping!

In this post, I am sharing my car camping set up that is perfect for a solo traveler car camping out of a mid-size SUV. I have a 2010 Hyundai Santa Fe, and it is the perfect size SUV for me. I am 5’3” and can lay completely flat without pushing the front seat forward. I have plenty of room for all my necessities, like my sleeping setup, camera gear, clothing, shoes, accessories, a cooler, a Rinse Kit, and a Jackery, among other things.

Top Things You Need for the Best Car Camping Set-Up

There are a few essentials that you need for car camping, including water, food, a comfortable sleeping space, and enough storage space so you are not cramped when trying to live in your car. 

I always recommend taking a few overnight trips close to home or at least sleeping in your car for a few nights when it is parked in your driveway to test out your setup before a long trip. You will want to have some time to make any adjustments so you are as comfortable as you can be while on the open road. 

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The best thing I did when creating my car camping setup in my SUV was designate a defined space for all the big must-haves. This made it much easier to remain organized in such a small space. 

It is important to be efficient in your setup and take advantage of all the space in your car, using every inch of available space to your advantage.

Here are the top things you need for a comfortable car camping setup:

A Sleeping Set Up

Of course, you will want a comfortable sleeping setup with everything you need for a good night’s rest. 

Items for my sleeping setup:

  • Wood sleeping platform (designed and built to fit my space perfectly) 
  • Memory Foam Mattress (that can be cut down to any size)
  • 2 feather Pillows (because I love cold, squishy pillows.
  • 1 Sleeping Bag (I alternate between a fleece bag liner and a 15-degree bag for freezing nights)
  • 1 Blanket or comforter (optional)
  • PJs (I designate sleep clothing and keep them inside the mattress cover for easy access)

Food Prep/Storage Area

It is important to keep food together as best as possible to help keep things clean and sanitary. I use my cooler top as a prep station for sandwiches or cutting fruit and now mostly use the inside of the Yeti cooler to store dry food.

Ice is a pain to deal with so I started using a smaller backpack cooler that I can easily dump melted ice out of since I never have a lot of food to keep cool anyways. Instead of buying large bags of ice, I go into gas station convenience stores and buy an extra large drink and only fill the cup up with ice, sometimes the shopkeeper does not charge me for the ice. 

Since I am traveling solo, I do not need a ton of food at one time. If I am going somewhere remote, I always plan my shopping list in advance and take as much dry food (no refrigeration needed) as possible. 

I will also take frozen food and put it in the cooler without ice so when I get to my destination it is thawed and ready to cook. I always use two small coolers now. It really just depends on my needs at the time when deciding how to use each of them.

Items in the food zone:

  • Yeti Roadie Cooler (this has proved to be the best size cooler for a solo traveler that fits perfectly behind my passenger seat when adjusted all the way front).
  • IceMule Back Pack cooler (this is what I use to store my cold food (milk, cheese, yogurt) since it is so lightweight and easy to transport).
  • Snack bag (this sits in my front passenger seat or on top of my Yeti Cooler so snacks are an easy grab during long drives).
  • Electric Kettle (I use this every morning for tea and hot lemon water, and it makes preparing larger meals so easy) 
  • Dual burner Campstove (I rarely use this anymore since getting the electric kettle, but keep it on hand for bigger meals) 
  • Utensils (I always have a knife and spork handy)
  • Cooking supplies (these are stored in a small Tupperware container next to the camp stove and pans in my trunk since I use them all together) 
  • Towels (paper towels and reusable towels to make cleaning up easy). These easily fit into the car door storage pockets.

Sometimes, I put the Rinse Kit in my trunk and store food on the seat.

Washing/Nighttime Routine Area

I am a stickler for brushing my teeth and washing my face 2X a day. I use car seat organizers to store my toiletries and skincare, so I have easy access to all of my products whenever I want them. They are secure, out of the way, and easy to see so I can grab items quickly and complete my nighttime and morning routines easily. 

Items I store in this area:

  • Rinse Kit
  • Face towel (drying face only)
  • Handtowel (for after washing hands)
  • Skincare
  • Toothbrush + toothpaste
  • Body wipes
  • Lotion
  • Hand Soap

Body wipes, body lotion, and hand soap fit well in the storage compartment on the side of my door.

Defined Storage Spaces

The largest storage areas in a car camping SUV are the trunk and the back seat floor. If you do not have a built-in compartment in your trunk, you may want to build an elevated sleeping platform so you have more storage space under your bed in the trunk. 

I have a built-in storage compartment, but it is hard to get to. In order to open it up, I have to take out everything on top of the hatch, so it is not a convenient storage option. I store things I rarely use in this hatch. 

To add more usable space to my trunk, I built an elevated sleeping platform so I could 1) sleep flat and 2) create more storage. 

I usually keep my shoes, heavy coats, a gym bag, and a dirty clothes bag in this area.  

I use a 66 qt clear plastic container to store clothing. It fits perfectly in my trunk next to my bed. I use packing cubes to keep small items like socks, underwear, and workout gear together to make them easier to find when I need them.

You can see in these photos how I organize everything to fit well in a certain area. I love the feeling of everything having its own place.

The major items I need to find storage for:

  • Shoes
  • Clothing
  • Dirty Clothing
  • Gym Bag (with a change of clothes, shower stuff, shoes and water bottle)
  • Hats (accessories)
  • Camera Gear
  • Computer + iPad
  • Water Jugs
  • Jackery
  • Magnetic screen sunroof cover

(photo above) I cut the foam pad smaller to fit in my sleeping space, which opened up some room for storage.

Keep in mind that you may have door storage, storage under the seats, seat back pockets, a center console, a glove compartment, and of course, floor storage. Make sure to use all of these spaces to your advantage.

The only area I keep clear all the time is the driver’s seat. I do not store anything on the ground or on the seat (especially not by the pedals) to make sure I can leave in a hurry if I need to.

I like to use this soft storage container from Peak Design on the floor to keep my camera gear together. I store other items like my Peak Design Travel Tripod, Drone, and Computer in this area.

Bathroom Area (optional)

I just started with a bathroom system in my SUV. I rarely ever need to go to the bathroom in the middle of the night, but on those rare occasions when I have to go and I am parked in a public parking lot overnight without a restroom open, I have been forced to pee in a go-anywhere bag. It is very difficult squatting in your front seat, and peeing into a bag. I am always praying the bag does not slip and leak all over the place, so I decided to use a more robust system that includes a pee funnel, a gallon jug, and a sturdy bucket for the jug to sit in. I have not had to use it yet, but it sits on the floor of my front passenger seat for those just-in-case moments.

Items in my bathroom area:

  • Pee funnel
  • Gallon water jug
  • Sturdy bucket with lid
  • Spray bottle with alcohol and water
  • Wet wipes
girl in an orange top washing her hands with a Rinse Kit while camping on the beach

Key Tips For The Best Car Camping Setup

When getting your car camping set up started, keep a few things in mind for optimal comfort.

Use a car big enough to lay flat

It is going to be really difficult to get a good night’s sleep in a cramped sleeping space. You may be able to stand it for a few days, but if you have a longer trip planned, make sure to create a comfortable space for sleeping.

Pack like a pro

Really focus on what you will use. With my first go at car camping, I packed way too many “luxury” items that I never used. I had way too many clothes and brought tons of food with me, even though I was never in an area without a grocery store or food options for more than a day.

My best suggestion is to pack the top essentials and buy anything else you need while car camping if it becomes unbearable to live without it. After my first few months on the road, I realized that I could live with a lot less and be perfectly content.

Always stay organized

Putting your gear back after a long hike or organizing your toiletries or clothing after a long day might be the last thing you feel like doing, but making sure your gear, food, and other supplies are secured in their designated area will help you keep your small space in check. You’ll have less clutter and be able to find things easily, which, in the long run, is exactly what you need when car camping.

***

I hope my solo SUV car camping setup will help guide you in creating your own space that is perfect for you! Happy car camping!

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Sam wearing backpack and hat walking through town.

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