So I thought I’d try this thing called SUV camping. While I had heard of van camping, I honestly wasn’t even sure SUV camping was a thing. I thought I was being very clever and minimalist when I thought I’d throw a mattress in the back of my SUV and hit the road. And then I learned SUV camping really is a thing.
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Is SUV camping right for you?
Was SUV camping right for me? I didn’t know for sure, but thought I’d try. And maybe after you hear about my experience you can decide if SUV camping is right for you.
Why did I try SUV camping? Because I’m a travel blogger who couldn’t travel during the pandemic. In June 2020, I set a goal to hike/explore all Minnesota state parks before the summer of June 2021. At the time, I had only been to 6 of the 66 MN state parks.
Fast forward 10 months and I had hiked/explored most Minnesota state parks within two to two-and-a-half hours of my front door. I only had 23 to go. So this is a story about a non-camper and a reluctant glamper who took a solo SUV camping road trip around Minnesota to hike/explore 23 state parks in 13 days. If I can do it, anyone can solo camp in their SUV.
A non-camper’s experience with SUV camping
To give you some perspective. I don’t camp. Not since I was a Girl Scout when I told tall tales about being Karen Karen from the future (as in the year 2020) – read my full confession. I’m not even a fan of glamping in an RV. So when I announced I was planning a two-week SUV camping road trip, my friends and family laughed and rolled their eyes. And I’m pretty sure they took bets on how long I would last. One friend even told me she thought I’d end up booking a hotel room the very first night.
But I’m not surprised. Look at this. I can’t even set up an umbrella properly on the beaches of Maui.
Not knowing how I would respond to roughing it, I planned to spend four nights of my 12-night SUV camping road trip in a hotel – two for self-care (because I really didn’t know how this whole sleeping in my Nissan Pathfinder would work out). And I planned another two because my husband was joining me on my last few days of my road trip around Minnesota. No way could both of us sleep comfortably in the back of a 2005 Nissan Pathfinder. So I ended up SUV camping for five nights and three gracious Airbnb superhosts sponsored me on three other nights.
See my related post on how I planned and hiked all 66 Minnesota state parks in a year.
SUV camping tip for beginners: Sprinkle in a few Airbnb self-care nights during your first SUV camping road trip
That’s one of the perks of planning a solo SUV camping trip. You don’t answer to anyone, but yourself. And if you want to change things up on your SUV camping adventure, you can. If you want a private shower, running water or a comfortable bed for a night, then give yourself permission to stay in a hotel or an Airbnb. There are no real rules for your perfect SUV camping trip.
Reviews of Airbnbs near Minnesota state parks
Here are a few of the best Airbnbs near Minnesota state parks from my experience. While my stays were hosted, my opinions are always my own.
- Unique Airbnb near Minnesota state parks (repurposed grain-bin room in Alexandria, MN)
- Non-campers: Best Airbnb glamping site near MN state parks (charming and rustic room set in the woods – with a composting toilet and outdoor air-temp shower)
- Best Airbnb with a sauna near MN state parks (that’s this one in Grand Rapids, Minn.)
A beginner’s guide to SUV camping – the two most important pieces of equipment
I did lots and lots of research on the SUV tent and an SUV mattress – the rest I kind of winged it. That’s because I have packing anxiety (it’s a thing) and I wanted to keep things simple. Well, I overpacked and didn’t pack everything I really needed. But if you want to have the best SUV camping experience, do not compromise on your SUV tent and your SUV mattress.
The best SUV camping tent
Full disclosure, I don’t have any upper body strength. I need help putting my carry-on in the overhead on the plane. So one of my highest priorities when searching for the perfect SUV camping tent was one that was lightweight. The next two priorities: able to assemble it myself and that it didn’t let any mosquitos in.
Since I was solo, I didn’t require a lot of room. And with a mid-size SUV (Nissan Pathfinder), I selected the Napier Sportz Cove 61000 Easy Setup Small Midsize SUV Tailgate Shade Awning Tent.
And it was an easy setup. Simply slide the tent sleeve over your tailgate/hatch, attach the tent to the roof rack or car hood and wheel wells with provided stratps, connect the bumper straps, assemble the tent pole and slide into the awning tent sleeve, slide into pockets and secure the Velcro, and stake the guide lines. Your SUV camp will come with easy instructions and you can check out video online (I’ll create a video of setting up the Sportz Cove SUV tent and post here soon).
Things to consider when selecting an SUV camping tent
Here are a few things to consider when selecting an SUV tent for your camping trip.
- Size of your vehicle – make sure to read the description carefully to make sure the SUV tent will fit on your SUV.
- What time of year / season are you camping? I was camping in June/July so I didn’t need a tent to keep me warm (although temps did dip down to 45*F my first two nights – it was in the 80s/90s the remainder of my SUV camping road trip). So be sure to check the weather forecast!
- How many people can comfortably sleep in the back of your SUV. Even if the description says two, this SUV tent is really more suitable for just one person.
- Do you need a tent that detaches and can standalone? With the SUV tent I selected (doesn’t detach as a standalone tent), once I set up, I was committed. For example, on my first night SUV camping, I unpacked everything from the back and repacked into the front only to learn the campground had run out of firewood and ice. My dinner: beef jerky and Doritos.
- Will the SUV tent keep out the bugs? Read the reviews on the specific SUV tent you are considering purchasing. I was a little skeptical when I did my first trial run at home in my garage. While the tent seemed pretty taut, it wasn’t a perfect fit. The gaps between the tent and my SUV were minimal, but mosquitos are notorious for finding me. Well, no need to fret. I only had two mosquitoes enter my SUV tent the entire time I was camping – and not because of the tent. I left the passenger door open. Yeesh!
The best mattress for SUV camping or van camping or even tent camping
Okay. I am a bed snob. Read all my hotel and Airbnb reviews – and a comfortable bed is high on the priority list for me. I knew I couldn’t do an air mattress while SUV camping so I started researching memory foam mattresses.
And jackpot! The Milliard tri-folding 6-inch memory foam mattress with washable cover is the best SUV camping mattress! Imagine angels singing right now. That’s how heavenly this mattress is for SUV camping. I cannot rave enough about the Milliard tri-folding 6-inch memory foam mattress. It’s really the best mattress for SUV camping. I mean, it is so comfortable we are using it as an extra bed space when family and friends visit.
So I must credit the wonderful team at Take the Truck blog for helping me select the best mattress for SUV camping (I don’t know them personally; I found them on Pinterest). They’ve reviewed several different mattresses of all types and offer other tips about camping in a truck, van or SUV.
SUV camping mattress tip
Another SUV camping mattress tip before you order (or cut). Measure. And then measure again. And make sure all rows of the SUV seats are folded down when you measure. In my Pathfinder, the middle row folds up against the driver seat so I lost a couple of inches of length at the head of my bed.
I lucked out and the Twin XL Milliard tri-folding 6-inch memory foam mattress (78″ x 38″ x 6″) fit (almost) perfectly in the back of my SUV. A few inches hung over the end of my SUV, but it wasn’t an issue when I slept. And because it’s a trifold (and malleable), I was able to adjust the foam mattress by lifting it up slightly when I had to shut the tailgate while driving.
Protecting your SUV camping mattress while in transit
Theoretically, you could fold the mattress in thirds to create more space. But I decided to keep my bed made and simply placed the sheet of plastic the mattress came in over my bedding for protection and packed my other SUV camping items on top of the SUV mattress. This mattress came with a washable cover so wasn’t too concerned about it getting dirty.
Is a memory foam mattress for SUV camping worth the expense?
Yes! The Milliard tri-folding memory foam mattress for SUV camping is a little spendy – but it’s worth it! And I’m not alone. About 9k users gave this foam mattress a near-perfect 5* rating. The Milliard tri-folding memory foam mattress is the best for SUV camping because it is so comfortable.
Solo SUV camping packing list tip
My biggest tip and recommendation when packing for a solo SUV camping road trip: Pack half of what you plan to pack. And then pack half of that.
Seriously. I did not need the majority of the “just-in-case” items I packed with me. And I really believed I had packed light.
SUV camping packing list rookie mistakes
I must admit I made some rookie mistakes like forgetting to bring SUV camping curtains or window screens. It was fine my first night because my campsite was on the end and surrounded by trees and Lake Superior. But the next night, I felt like I was on display. So I spent way too much time MacGyvering together twine, masking tape and my Minnesota Vikings tailgating canopy panels (that just happened to be in my vehicle fortunately). My DIY SUV camping curtains were not pretty, but at least functional.
What to pack on your solo SUV camping road trip
So my SUV camping road trip list includes my top recommended products that I packed and used and items I should have packed. This list is not a complete list as it will depend on your length of stay, number of people, the campsite amenities, your cooking style, season/weather, etc. However, it does cover at least the basic equipment needed for SUV camping. I’ll share more comprehensive SUV camping packing lists in a separate post.
SUV camping packing basics
With the exception of a few just-in-case items such as bear spray. Please note that I may receive a commission (at no extra cost for you) if you click on any of the following links. Also note that if the links appear broken, they are not. You can click on the links safely.
- Napier Sportz Cove 61500 Mid to Full Size SUV Tailgate Shade Awning Tent
- May try a detachable standalone SUV tent next time: Napier Backroadz SUV Tent
- Milliard Tri Folding Memory Foam Mattress with Washable Cover (mine was Twin XL – 78″ x 38″ x 6″ – click through and find a mattress size that fits your SUV)
- Milliard Tri Folding Memory Foam Mattress Carrying Case
- SUV Window Shades with Screen Cover
- Windshield Shade (not only to keep your vehicle shaded from the sun, but also serves as a privacy curtain while SUV camping)
- YETI cooler (be realistic about what size you really need – maybe a smaller YETI cooler to hold your beverages is more suitable) OR my friend who is converting a van camper recommends a KENAI cooler.
- Hydro Cell Stainless Steel Water Bottle with Straw and Wide Mouth Lid
- Waterfit Paracord Carrier Strap Cord and Carabiner (for the water bottle)
- Microfiber towel like this super absorbant (and super cute) Akumal 2.0 beach towel from Wildhorn Outfitters. I was gifted this ecofriendly towel and love it especially since it dries so quickly! And this eco-friendly beach towel is made of 75% recycled bottles! It also comes with a convenient storage bag that can hold shower necessities when using campsite showers (or does double duty as a beach bag if you go kayaking or swimming on your SUV camping trip.
- Utility Cord
- Swiss Army Knife
- Bear Spray (2-pack because they say to practice with the first one ???) / Bear Spray Holster / Bear Bag, Bear Horn (never used, but would still pack)
- TickEase Tweezers – I was gifted these dual-tipped tick removal tweezers, which are designed to remove ticks safely, completely and effectively. They work on people and pets!
- Sawyer Picaridin Insect / Tick Repellent (skin and for products) – Tick tip: spray all your SUV camping gear and hiking gear (especially the cuffs of your hiking pants/shorts, socks and hiking boots)
- Aunt Fannie’s DEET-free Mosquito Wipes
- Mosquito Net Head Mesh
- Multipurpose Lighters
- Citronella Candle
- Fire Starters
- LED Camping Lantern (I preferred the collapsible ones as you can adjust the light inside the SUV while camping.
- Extendable Marshmallow Roasting Sticks
- USB Fan
- Duct Tape
- Power Strip
- Disinfectant Wipes
- Hand Sanitzer
- Shower Shoes or Water Socks
- Camp Slip-on Shoes (makes it easier when getting in and out of the SUV)
- Headlamp (when reading inside your SUV camp and walking to the latrine)
- Portable Grill with Propane Tank or an Electric Grill (just make sure your campsite is electrical)
- Pie iron (easy-to-make sandwiches in the campfire)
- Clear Bins (to stay organized)
- Reusable Trash Cans (leave no trace!)
- Portable mobile device charger – like the Battpak, which also serves as a portable mini-safe where you can keep keys, credit cards, cash, etc. I was gifted a Battpak – and it worked great on my SUV camping trip.
- Fairy Lights
- Biodegradable On-the-Go TP Kit. I was gifted a sample and it was necessary to have a stash on hand as restrooms and latrines do run out of toilet paper.
- An old-fashioned printed map or atlas (I camped and road tripped in some remote places with no service – not even AllTrails worked sometimes. Tip if you have no map and no service: I would screen shot the GPS directions and maps from one park to another while I had service).
- Of course, this SUV camping packing list is not exhaustive. You’ll want to also bring clothes, toiletries, blankets, pillows, serving dishes, eating and cooking utensils, etc. I’ll soon publish a separate blog post with a more comprehensive list for SUV camping. And also what not to pack – I thought I would make French toast so brought a camping egg tray, bowls, whisk, etc. They just took up precious real estate in my tiny home while SUV camping.
SUV camping campfire tip
Check your campsite locations about firewood criteria. You can only use Minnesota Department of Agriculture (MDA)-approved firewood at Minnesota state park campsites – purchased nearby in the same county or in the state park. Make sure you keep your receipt and the county harvest label to prove the firewood is MDA-approved. These guidelines help eliminate spreading insects and disease from one location to another. Additionally, many campsites ask that you do not collect firewood at your campsite for campfires. Also look for any campfire restrictions (website or signage at the campsite).
SUV camping frequently asked questions (FAQs)
Here are a few SUV camping FAQs I’ve received about SUV camping. If your question isn’t addressed or if you have any SUV camping tips of your own, please feel free to leave them in the comments. Thanks!
What SUV tent did you use? And did you like that set-up?
I purchased the Napier Sportz Cove 61500 Mid to Full Size SUV Tailgate Shade Awning Tent and it was perfect for my solo SUV camping / road trip around Minnesota state parks. This SUV tent was lightweight and pretty easy to set up for one person (gets a little challenging if windy). And setting stuff up is not my thing at all. But I did it!
A downside is that I did not anticipate how much time it would take for me to unpack, set up and repack once I reached my camping site. First night took me two hours! I finally got an organized system going so it only took me an hour by my last night. That’s because all your SUV camping equipment is in the back when you are driving. So then you have to remove everything from your sleeping quarters and find space in the front. And once you’ve done that, you’re pretty much committed to your campsite. You can’t simply drive off because your tent is attached and everything is packed in the front.
I think next time I’d like to try a detachable standalone SUV tent such as the Napier Backroadz SUV Tent. Of course, I’ll have to see how easy that is to set up with one person. It may be easier just to pack less on my next SUV camping trip – and there will be a next time!
Did your SUV tent keep the bugs out?
Yes. I was worried initially about mosquitos getting in as the SUV tent fit snugly, but wasn’t a perfect fit. I didn’t have any bugs inside until my last night of SUV camping. Two mosquitos found their way in – not from the tent, but because I left the passenger door open.
What about rain? Did your SUV tent keep you dry?
Yes, my SUV tent kept me dry. It rained twice during my SUV camping trip and I never experienced any rain getting inside my vehicle. I did have to air the tent out and let it dry in the sun once it stopped raining.
Where can you SUV camp?
You can pretty much SUV camp at any drive-in campsite. I recommend reserving electric campsites so you can charge your mobile devices and use electric appliances if you pack them.
What is the best mattress for SUV camping?
As I’ve mentioned, I’m a bed snob and not a camper. So finding the perfect mattress for SUV camping was a high priority. And I found the perfect memory foam mattress for SUV camping (my days with an air mattress are decades in the past). For my Nissan Pathfinder, I selected the Twin XL Milliard tri-folding 6-inch memory foam mattress (78″ x 38″ x 6″). This SUV camping mattress fit (almost) perfectly in the back of my Pathfinder.
Do you have to cut your foam mattress to fit when SUV camping?
Fortunately, the SUV camping trifold mattress I found for my Nissan Pathfinder fit pretty well so I did not need to cut my foam mattress.
Because the SUV tent gave me extra room, I was able to sleep on the mattress when it was completely folded out. The SUV mattress hung over the edge a couple of inches, but didn’t affect me and was well within the tent. And the two nights where I didn’t use the SUV tent, I was able to sleep fine with the mattress elevated a little.
If you do find you need to cut your mattress, make sure you consider anything that may obstruct the mattress from the sides, the tailgate and the folded second row width.
While on my road trip, I kept my bed made and simply pushed the mattress up enough so it fit inside and didn’t block my vision (also created a nice wedge to store other things while driving.
Where did you keep your food (away from bears and other animals) while SUV camping?
I did bring a utility cord and dry bags to hang my food safely away from bears. And you can also use a bear canister. Some campsites/parks require bear-resistant canisters.
But then my cooler became a problem. Most of my food was inside my cooler. You can’t hang a cooler. My cooler that didn’t keep ice frozen (highly recommend investing in a YETI or KENAI cooler).
They recommend that you keep your cooler and all food locked inside the vehicle and not in your tent. Herein lies the problem. My SUV was my tent. So I left my cooler outside the first couple of nights. And then I ended up throwing away all my food (I felt bad being so wasteful). One – I was too anxious about bears (as there were black bear signs / warnings where I was camping and then I actually saw a mama bear and three cubs). And two – it was 90+*F out nearly every day so ice was melting faster than I could replenish. Therefore, I didn’t think the food was safe to eat.
Alternatives to SUV camping meals
So I ended up eating at small-town restaurants or grabbing food for that night to grill before I set up camp. That’s my recommendation when SUV camping – don’t buy food for your entire trip up front. While I was remote, I always found a grocery story or convenience store near camping sites.
Do you keep the tailgate up when you camp with an SUV camping tent?
Yes. You keep the tailgate up all night when SUV camping. And I say that as I laugh. My faithful 2005 Nissan Pathfinder gets me from here to there safely. Ideally, the tent could be much higher than is shown in this picture. Some nights it was. However, my 15-year-old Pathfinder did the best that it could do. I am very empathetic when it comes to age and sagging parts. The tailgate, that is. It wasn’t the prettiest, but my tailgate did keep my tent up – just not always as high up as in the product pictures and video.
How do you get in and out of your SUV camping tent?
The SUV tent comes with a screen/mesh door just like other tents. However, I found it more practical and easier to exit and enter through the passenger doors than the tent door.
Did you get hot inside your SUV camping tent? Did you have screens for your tent and your windows? How do you get air flow when SUV camping?
It would get a little warm inside my SUV especially when it was 90*F during the day (the SUV retains the heat). But it quickly cooled off to comfortable sleeping temps during the night especially with air flowing through the SUV tent screen door. One of my lessons learned while SUV camping is that I did not have proper curtains or screens for my windows. That would have been perfect to let the air flow in and also allow some privacy. Another SUV camper recommended these car window shades and screen covers that I will try next time.
How is SUV camping with a tent different from just sleeping in the back of your SUV?
The only difference between SUV camping with a tent and sleeping in the back of your SUV is that you’ll gain a little more living space with the tailgate open and tent extended. And the screen door on the SUV tent lets in fresh air.
Temps dropped down to 45*F my first two nights of 12-night SUV camping road trip. So I decided to try sleeping with the tailgate closed without setting up the tent. And I slept great! It was a little chilly so am thankful I brought several fleece and wool blankets and fleeced-lined leggings. But once I was snuggled in for the night, I was cozy and comfortable. I’m 5’4 so sleeping in the back of my SUV wasn’t an issue. If you’re tall, it may not be as comfortable.
Well, until I needed to use the bathroom. I am so sorry fellow campers for setting off my car alarm at 12:30 a.m. Rookie mistake. Another SUV camping tip for beginners: Do not lock your doors while SUV camping. I mean, the tent doesn’t have an alarm or a lock so it really isn’t necessary. Habits, I guess.
Does keeping your tailgate open all night while SUV camping drain your battery?
No, at least it didn’t for me. I shut off all my interior lights (as I didn’t want to attract bugs). I used a headlamp and lantern inside my SUV while camping. And I believe lights in most vehicles these days turn off within 20 minutes. I recommend checking your SUV manual to make sure.
How many people can sleep in an SUV tent comfortably?
The number of people who can sleep in an SUV tent comfortably depends on the make and model of your SUV and your SUV tent. And your bed partner! The SUV tent and SUV mattress I selected was very comfortable for one person. Could we have fit two people? Possibly. But it was summer and very hot so am thinking no.
Do you have to convert your tent to fit your SUV for camping? Can you use an SUV tent for hatchback cars or vans?
No, the Napier Sportz Cove 61500 Mid to Full Size SUV Tailgate Shade Awning Tent is designed specifically for my size of SUV. You can also find other SUV tent models for larger and smaller SUVs, trucks, vans and hatchback cars.
Any safety concerns with this SUV camping set-up?
I was a little nervous the first night I went SUV camping because it was my first time camping solo. I didn’t state where I was exactly in any of my social platforms and didn’t post in real-time on my public posts. I just kept my bear horn and security key fob close by (but not too close that I would accidentally set them off – well, not after that first night).
The only real safety concern I had while SUV camping was the black bear warnings. I had food in the cooler so I couldn’t hang it or put the cooler in my vehicle because that was where I was sleeping. And then when I saw a bear and three cubs cross the road in front of me at a park, I decided to toss the food (wasteful, but lesson learned). It was hard to keep the food cold with the high temps anyway. So I ended up buying /preparing food daily. It gave me peace of mind and wasn’t a hassle.
And, if I’m really honest, I was more concerned about ticks and mosquitoes than bears.
Can you provide an itinerary of your SUV camping road trip around the Minnesota state parks?
Other questions about SUV camping?
Do you have any other questions about SUV camping? Please leave them in the comments and I’ll be happy to share what I learned from my experience. And if you are a more experienced SUV camper, I would love to hear any tips and recommendations.