4x4Car Advice

Top tips for camping comfortably in your car

Don’t let a lack of equipment stop you from giving camping a try. Here are our top tips for camping comfortably in your car.

RECENTLY, I HAD the opportunity to spend a weekend driving on sand, alongside a great team of experienced 4WDers who are members of the Mitsubishi Pajero Club of Victoria.

All our group lined up and ready to go

About 30 minutes from the city of Portland VIC, past Warrnambool and not far from the South Australian border are the Portland Dunes. Amazing sand dunes with limited public access (you need to get permission from the Portland Dune Buggy Club), one of the benefits of the location is that the camping site where you can stay is, literally, a 30-second drive from the dunes.

This makes it a great location for sand driving, where you’re not wasting lots of time driving out to find the dunes. But confession time: I haven’t been camping since I was a teenager.

To look at me, you’d think I’m exactly the type who wouldn’t enjoy camping. I love my long hot showers, I blow-dry my hair every day, and I’m rarely seen without at least a little bit of makeup.

But of course, I actually love the idea of roughing it and sleeping under the stars. And if you’re going to reach some of the more interesting places to test your 4WDs capabilities, then being able to camp is a non-negotiable.

That said, I wasn’t about to spend a fortune on equipment I may never use again. I was able to borrow most small items, but the tent was going to be a challenge – not least of all, because I knew I’d be arriving at the site after dark. The idea of putting up an unfamiliar, borrowed-or-new tent in the dark was definitely not appealing.

Our group, with every camping option possible - from cars, to small and large tents, and sophisticated caravans.
Our group, with every camping option possible – from cars, to small and large tents, and sophisticated caravans.

So, after bouncing the idea off a few more experienced travelers, I settled on sleeping in my car.

If you’ve invested in a car you love, it’s worth thinking about different ways you can use it. This includes finding ways to do more, and spend more time with, your car.

But even if you’re not into camping, knowing how to grab a comfortable forty-winks in your car is handy – when you need to take a rest on long road trips, for example, or if you just haven’t gotten where you’re going as quickly as you planned.

Fortunately, I was in possession of a very large, very comfortable new Pajero Sport that was loaned to me by Mitsubishi. As far as in-car accommodation goes, it was pretty great.

Mitusbishi Pajero Sport on the beach
Mitusbishi Pajero Sport on the beach

However, it would have still been a very uncomfortable night if I hadn’t been given some great advice beforehand, and picked up a few tips of my own along the way.

You’ll still need a mattress

It’s helpful to remember that car floors really aren’t designed to be slept on.

Even the most luxuriously-carpeted vehicle is going to have lumps and bumps under the floor surface, which you won’t know about until they’re keeping you awake at 2am.

So no matter how comfortable it looks, you’re not really going to have a good nights’ sleep unless you put down some kind of mattress.

You could go for the full inflatable mattress, but to be honest, it’s probably not necessary. Plus, if you’re sleeping too high and you sit up in the middle of the night, you risk hitting your head on the ceiling, hard.

I was lucky enough to be loaned a self-inflating camping mattress. These can be rolled up neatly so they’re easy to transport, and once the cap on the inflation nozzle is removed, they fill up with air on their own.

In-car camping kit, including rolled mattress and tarpaulin
In-car camping kit, including rolled mattress and tarpaulin

An excellent compromise that’s also comfortable is a foam mattress or sleeping mat. These roll up as well, and should provide just enough cushioning to ensure you don’t wake up sore in the morning.

In a pinch, even something like that yoga mat you never use will do. But you really want to look for high-density foam, that doesn’t take up too much space but will still cushion your bones as much as possible.

The same goes for a pillow, though if you haven’t brought one, a rolled-up coat or backpack stuffed with clothes should do just fine.

Positioning your vehicle is important

In terms of how you position your vehicle for a good nights’ sleep, there are two things that are really going to impact upon your experience.

The first is where you park.

Your car is unlikely to come equipped with blinds or curtains, though it’s a good idea to rig some up if you can. Fortunately, I was surrounded by only our friendly group, but if you’re alone and you don’t like to idea of waking up to a strange face peering in your window, creating some privacy is a good idea.

Our group at the Portland campsite, with the track leading up to the sand dunes visible on the left.
Our group at the Portland campsite, with the track leading up to the sand dunes visible on the left.

Whether you string up your home-made window dressings, or just stack your belongings up against the windows, your efforts may only be marginally effective against that morning sun. And there’s nothing like blinding sun in your face to wake you up in a bad mood. So work out which way is east, where that morning sun will be coming from, and angle your vehicle accordingly.

Likewise, look for any shelter – rock formations, trees, even other vehicles and tents – that might help block that first light.

Note that even with your best efforts, you might need to be prepared for a fairly early start to the day.

The other important decision in positioning your vehicle is which way you’ll lie. Even the slightest incline will be very noticeable when it’s pushing your weight and all your blood towards your head.

Find as flat a spot as possible. Look carefully at the lay of the land, and if there’s any slope at all, then – just as if you were sleeping in a tent – make sure your head is uphill.

Bring a tarp so you can store your belongings outside

As above, you might want to stack some belonging up against your windows to help provide some privacy.

And if you’re lucky enough to have a large vehicle, there might even be some storage room in the front seats and floor.

But it’s handy to have the option of storing your belongings just outside your vehicle, and to do this, you’ll want to have a tarp to protect them from dew and moisture overnight.

The long 7-seat Pajero has plenty of room in the back
The long 7-seat Pajero has plenty of room in the back

After folding down the rear seats of the Pajero, my 166cm frame could stretch out quite comfortably on the diagonal. If you’re any taller than I am, or just a restless sleeper, you’ll want to create a much space as possible.

A tip from my experience: place your belongings just outside your nearest door. You’ll thank yourself when you hear that pitter-patter of rain on the roof at 4am and you need to scramble to bring anything that’s precious or not well-covered into the cabin.

You won’t want to always sit in your car

You might have visions of reclining in your drivers or passengers seat, reading a book or sipping your morning coffee. And this might be possible for short trips.

However, the reality is, your car is made for sitting in for long periods when you’re a passenger or driver. It doesn’t necessarily lend itself well to rest and relaxation.

The interior of the Pajero Sport; comfortable for a long drive, but you might still want to bring a camping chair.
The interior of the Pajero Sport; comfortable for a long drive, but you might still want to bring a camping chair.

I thought I’d be comfortable in my car seats, but found myself very much wanting to sit outside in a proper chair. And then there are the inevitable ‘fivesies’ drinks-and-nibbles gatherings, as well as marshmallow-toasting over the open fire, where you’ll want somewhere to sit as well.

Luckily, I’d thought to bring along a good camping chair (and had a few generous folks offer to lend me their spare as well), so I was set.

Question: have you camped and slept successfully in your car? Any other tips to add?


Jane Speechley

Jane Speechley

Jane Speechley is an experienced freelance writer whose natural curiosity means she knows enough about cars to hold a decent conversation. While happily admitting her Toyota 86 makes promises her street driving can’t quite keep, she’s relishing the opportunity to review some of Australia’s most interesting new vehicles from an ‘everyperson’ perspective. She’s on a mission to understand and explain how all those features and gadgets actually impact upon your driving experience. http://www.charismaticcommunications.com.au