Skip to main content

Budget Vanlife Stealth Camping Gear Guide

Charles has long experience fishing, hiking, exploring, and camping in the Northeast.

An example of vintage car campers from the early days of van life.

An example of vintage car campers from the early days of van life.

A Brief History of Car Camping

Humans have been car camping since the first car was built back in 1885. By 1919, Tin Can Tourists was formed by Ford Model T owners and grew to 100,000 members by 1930. With our love of the outdoors and our obsession with cars, it's only natural we combine these two iconic past times and hit the roads and highways looking for adventure.

In 1916, Henry Ford, of the famed Ford Motor Company, Thomas Edison, Harvey Firestone, and conservationist John Burroughs set out on the first of several annual road trips in custom Model Ts outfitted for camping. These vehicles were designed with a built-in stove, cooler, and custom bins for tents, beds, and lawn chairs. This was in 1916!

1916 Model T Camper

1916 Model T Camper

Modern Day Car Camping

Fast forward to today—vehicles are more nimble, capable, and spacious. Allowing us to reach new places and heights in our quest for adventure. With the recent surge in #Vanlife, numerous YouTubers, content creators, and just regular everyday folks like myself, are all contributing digital content dedicated to this decades-old pastime.

The popularity of car camping has led to the resurgence of this exciting, inexpensive adventure lifestyle with blogs, vlogs, and websites galore. Today's social media feeds are alive and bustling with examples of everyday people enjoying the outdoors with their vehicles.

Today our culture begs for the latest and greatest technology, comfort, and affordability. All of these car camping accessories are readily available at your local big box or mom and pop store with countless others offered up for sale on the Internet. The times and the vehicles have changed but the intent has remained the same. Get outside, explore the outdoors, and sleep comfortably! Wake up and start all over again!

My budget car camping sleep system

My budget car camping sleep system

Who can afford a traditional camper or motor home these days! A decent camper can start at $10,000 or a fully loaded motorhome can top $1,000,000. In my opinion, you can have a pretty great experience right in the comfort of your own vehicle without spending thousands of dollars.

I've researched tons of car camping setups throughout the years. Most of these systems are designed with some sort of platform in the back of the vehicle leaving storage space underneath for personal belongings and supplies. I've seen these setups come in a wide variety, with most of them a sort of DIY type of situation and some created by skilled carpenters and craftsmen. For those of us not really professional carpenters, the DIY way is probably the way to go. With a few rudimentary tools such as a jigsaw, hand saw, a hammer, and some screwdrivers, you could probably get away with a decent sleeping platform and storage spaces that would work for you.

For those with disposable incomes or who lack the time, facilities, or patience to construct their own camping system, there are other options. During my research, I found quite a few companies on the internet that offer ready-made car camping solutions for a wide range of vehicles, these include rear storage area conversions or rooftop tents. We'll dig into some of these offerings.

Store Bought Car Camping Systems

Most of the store-bought camping systems I found were designed to be used with an SUV. These range from a tent that connects to the rear of the SUV providing a large covered space at the rear of the vehicle. This can be used for hanging out, dining, cooking, etc.

A company called Napier (Available on Amazon), provides a universal solution for SUVs and Minivans by the way of a waterproof tent that connects to your vehicle with a sleeve, it has screened widows for ventilation and is accessible from the outside. A decent option designed to suit many vehicles.

For a more custom fit that is tailored to a specific vehicle, I found actually provides a custom solution for sleeping platforms and will create a sleeping/storage system for both cars and SUVs. Something like this can be pricey but definitely worth it for a complete turnkey solution to your car camping needs. This is an American company that is located in the Pacific Northwest of the United States and easily found on the Internet.

Rooftop Tent Systems for Car Camping

There are many rooftop camping systems designed to attach to the roof rails of many vehicles. This is another turn-key option for car campers needing a place to sleep in the outdoors. It takes away the need for a platform in the back by providing sleeping space above the car, accessible with an included ladder, this type of camping system provides a stable platform as well as freeing up space at the rear of the vehicle for storage.

An option I looked at was the Thule Tepui Explorer Kukemon 3 person rooftop tent. It is available on Amazon and looks to ship out pretty quickly. Another rooftop tent system offered by Smittybilt, the Overlander, has been featured on many YouTube Vlogs recently and is very popular and rugged.

The Thule tent seems very pricey and provides similar features to the less expensive Smittybilt. Something to consider when making your decision. The Smittybilt and the Thule appear to be rugged and both have the ability to be expanded with an annex that is sold by the manufacturer. Both of these items and accessories are found at

Budget car camping gear

Budget car camping gear

My Budget SUV Car Camping Setup

My current vehicle is a 2008 Ford Edge. It has served me well throughout the years but it's definitely getting tired and has quite a few miles on it. Over 300,000 at the time of this article.

Once I started looking at my car camping options, I found it quite overwhelming. I decided to keep it low-budget and simple. I am currently looking for a different vehicle, definitely an SUV. Depending on what I purchase will dictate which type of camping setup I will use.

Right now, my basic setup serves me well. I have a place to sleep. I use a sleeping pad from NorEastOutdoors that I picked up at Sierra. My sleeping bag is a Coleman 40 degree from Walmart paired with a Wenzel Camp Quilt for colder nights. When I fold down the rear seats, I keep one side of the back of my SUV set aside for sleeping while the other side is set aside for my gear storage.

On my adventures, I bring along a basic set of necessities, you can check out my other article where I detail my basic hiking/biking packing list. Including my hiking/biking gear, I bring a folding chair, a small folding table, cooler, camp stove, a Stanley 2 person cook system, along with serve-ware and eating utensils.

I don't think I have invested over $300 bucks on everything maybe even $200. I really like to keep it simple. You can check out some of my photos to get an idea of what it looks like. I thank you for stopping by! I hope that I provided a bit of inspiration for your next budget SUV car camping expedition.

My Stealth Camping SUV Setup

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2021 Charles Kikas