Car camping in our Toyota Rav4

My wife and I booked a tenting trip to Yellowstone National Park last summer. We had never been there before and were really excited to go, but weren't thrilled that we were sleeping in a tent in bear country. We are fundamentally too cheap to buy a camper trailer, and our Toyota Rav4 doesn't have a big enough engine to pull anything larger than a ladybug anyway, so our options were pretty limited.

During a discussion of those limited options just weeks ahead of the Yellowstone trip, I Google'd "car camping Rav4" and discovered there's a whole sub-culture out there of people who have retrofitted their Rav4 vehicles to sleep in the back. We started devouring other people's blog posts and videos on the subject and quickly set about to lifehacking our car and our trip to suit our needs.

So we did a live beta test in Yellowstone and slept in our vehicle. We loved it. Sleeping in our Rav4 was quiet and dry. We didn't have to worry about wildlife, and with a roof-top carrier, we still had ample space to bring gear. Since that inaugural trip last summer, we've tweaked our setup a bit, and here's how we're doing it now.

Obviously, you start with your back seat down. We've also removed our tonneau cover for the time being. The back of our Rav4 doesn't lie completely flat - there's a bit of a lump where the hinge of the seat folds, and it slopes downward towards the back of the vehicle. So we needed to find a way to deal with the slope and make a more flat and level sleeping surface.

We decided to use those puzzle piece foam mats that you can buy for kids bedrooms, and are often used inside or outside tents to make a dry floor. This is five layers of them carefully cut out, put together and bound with some tape to keep them in one piece for inserting and removing. We call it our Reverse Wedge.

Up until our trip to Elk Island National Park on Canada Day weekend, this was our new base on which we added our four-inch foam sleeping mattress. It was really good, but it still didn't fully deal with the "lump" where the seats fold. So my lovely wife, who has been quite genius about all of this, decided one more layer was required.

So we added a piece of wood. Actually, this is tile board, but any thin flat particle board type of deal will work. So now we have a box spring of sorts on which we can place our mattress and sleeping bag.

The four-inch-thick foam mattress is a 44-inch wide twin that squishes just a bit around the wheel wells. We zip two sleeping bags together to make one big one.

And that's basically what it looks like when the sleeping bags and mattress are in place. Crawl in, shut the doors, lock the car, and go to sleep.

At  night, our clothes and (depending on where we're camping) our cooler goes in the front seats, which are tilted forward a little bit to give us more headroom in the back.

My wife also sewed slip-over-pillowcase curtains for the windows that magnetize to the outer door frame. We use these at night to provide privacy. We can keep the windows unrolled a bit for air circulation and keep out insects. (The only downside to these window coverings is that they are not waterproof, so she also created an all-plastic version out of heavy duty garbage bags that keep out more water during rain storms. The air circulation isn't great, but then we just keep the car vents open instead. She's also created a daytime version of these out of mosquito netting that we're going to try on our next trip so we can roll down the windows all day at camp and keep air moving in the vehicle but keep the bugs out.)

The back gate window is covered on the inside with a black piece of fabric that velcros to the inside of the car. The tiny back side windows are covered the same way. The front window is covered with a store-bought interior sunshade.

Something new we are trying on our next trip is the addition of a shelf.
The tonneau cover can hold a little bit on its own, but we added another piece of the tile board and so now we can store a few things there at night while we sleep, like our phones, glasses, some toiletries and even tomorrow's clothes. I was hesitant about this because I thought my legs would hit it at night while sleeping, but we did a trial run in Elk Island without the board and it worked just fine.

There are tons of people on the Internet who have made themselves bed frames with built-in shelves, and places to cook and everything and that's all awesome. I applaud them for their ingenuity and thank them for the inspiration for what we did. Our setup is not fancy at all. It cost us very little money. But it works just great for us. And none of what we've done would have been possible without my wife, who has been amazing in her ingenuity and coming up with solutions.

It's not quite #VanLife, but it's pretty fun.


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