Everyone knows about #Vanlife, but Brooke’s here to champion #SUVlife. Here’s how to turn your car (or SUV) into a camper.


I reckon the SUV is quite possibly the most under appreciated vehicle of the adventure world.

Not as gas-guzzling as a 4WD, an SUV has high-enough clearance to get over some of the more dodgy-looking roads, yet it’s small enough to commute into the city. As for those persky underground parking garages? Well, they’re as easy as a Sunday mornin’. 

But, I’m not done yet. An SUV is also the perfect vehicle to convert into a mini-camper if you don’t have the budget (or reversing skills) for a van.

I’ve had a love-love relationship with my 2004 Honda CRV, named Freeda, since I bought her in 2017.

She’s been through two conversions and I’m currently planning my third. So, without further ado let’s take a look at three different ways you can convert your SUV into a camper – no matter your budget. 

Read more: The Do’s and Don’ts of Sleeping in Your Car

1. The ‘Rip Out the Back Seats and Throw Down a Mattress’ Approach

When I first got Freeda (short for the freeeedddooom she gave me), I knew I needed to find a way to sleep in the back. And I needed it pronto as I had a month off work to make the most of.

But, there were a few challenges I had to face before my baby was road-trip-ready.

  1. To put it mildly. I was broke. FLAT broke.
  2. My DIY skills are about as good as my ‘eating without dropping food down my shirt’ skills. AKA, non-existent. 

Luckily, a friend of mine had one of those blow-up, dark blue mattresses that everyone seems to have stashed away in the back of a closet somewhere. They make you sweat more than the gap between your boobs on a 35-degree day, and will inevitably have a slow leak, but for the purpose of this trip, it did the job perfectly. No DIY required. 


How to turn your SUV into a camper for free:

  • Step 1: Take out the back seats. My Honda back seats were split into a single seat and a double. I took out the double seat, so that I had an extra seat to carry around my (equally broke) backpacking friends.
  • Step 2: Blow up your mattress, hope it stays inflated, and throw it into the space where the seat(s) once was.
  • Step 3: Get some fabric (pillowcases, sarongs, old t-shirts, whatever, no judgment here). These are what you cover your windows with. Simply open the doors, drape them over and close the doors. Who needs fancy curtains when you have old laundry?
  • Step 4: Use the space in the boot next to the mattress to store your cheap-as-chips camping kit. I had a plastic box with donated plates, cup, saucepans, camp stove etc.
  • Step 5: Commence road trip and spend each night feeling your mattress slowly deflate beneath you

Read More: Essential Gear For Your Camp Kitchen

Although this was only ever supposed to be a temporary solution, I ended up keeping Freeda like this for two years and doing tonnes of road trips around NSW and beyond. I did upgrade that blue blow-up mattress to a comfy foam one though. 

There were actually a lot of positives to this set-up, including the fact that I could easily put the seats back in so I had five seats again when the family came to visit. Plus the fact there was no built bed-base meant I had tonnes of head clearance, making it feel super roomy. 

Please note! Taking the back seats out of your car may deem it unroadworthy! Make sure to check the laws in the state or territory where your car is registered before ripping them out!


2. The ‘Bribe Your Handy Friend With Thai Food To Build a Bed Platform’ Approach

After a few years of squeezing myself into a single bed, and getting jealous of my van-lifeing mates with their sumptuous doubles, I decided it was time for an upgrade. Sadly, although I had a teensy bit more cash this time, my DIY skills remained as non-existent as ever. 

Say hello to Ed. Ed is the type of guy everyone needs in their life. Handy with tools, loves solving problems, and is easily bribeable. 

My brief was simple: I wanted a double bed, with room for storage underneath for my camp kitchen and my SUP board, but I also wanted to be able to keep all my back seats. 

This is an important question to ask yourself when you convert an SUV. You’ll definitely have more space if you take them out (and it’ll mean your bed set-up can be permanent) but it also means you’re limited with how many people you can offer a ride to. Not a lot of my friends have cars, so having those extra seats means I’m in less danger of being a Billy-no-mates whilst adventuring.

Ed’s a busy man and I didn’t want to take the piss too much, so I found a design online from a blog that I thought would work. It’s a simple design that stays stored in the boot (meaning you can keep all your seats) and then you fold it out when you need it. It features a simple table in the boot, and then a sliding bed platform that’s hinged in the middle so it can fold onto itself. It’s then supported at the other end by folding legs that go down into the footwell.

We only had one night to get it built (as I was heading off on another roadtrip. I really should plan things better), so I rocked up with my pre-cut plywood (thank you Bunnings), my printed off ‘pattern’, and the hope that what I had planned was actually going to work. 

It turns out it didn’t. Surprise surprise, the design I had randomly downloaded from some girl’s website didn’t fit the car and we were limited to what we could do thanks to my pre-cut ply. At this point, Ed politely asked me to leave and go and buy Thai food whilst he got his thinking cap on.

I came back to a modified design that works just as well; instead of hinged parts, it slides onto a ‘lip’ that supports the frame. A variation of this should be pretty easy for many people to create. 

3. The ‘Fancy People Got Time and Skillz’ Approach

I’m not there quite yet, but I plan to take inspiration from some of these builds for ‘Freeda take three’.

Fancy SUV conversion No.1:

Here are a few photos of a conversion Ed did for another friend of his during lockdown. I regret not giving Ed longer than one evening with my car. He probably could have built me a palace based on this bad boy. I mean, it has a drawer. What more does a person need?


Fancy SUV conversion No.2:

I really like how this guy has built his SUV fitout as it feels way more like a van conversion. It makes better use of the space and gives more flexibility too.

Most SUV conversions just have a bed and storage, but this has a lounge/office which then converts into a bed. Plus, there’s loads of sneaky storage too. For someone who would love a van but can’t afford it just yet, this gives me hope that there’s way more potential for an SUV than I ever could have thought. 


Three tips for converting your SUV into a camper

  • Don’t let budget or skills put you off. Whether you have lots or none at all, there’s a camper conversion that’ll do the job and that will open up loads of new ways to adventure.
  • Figure out what’s a priority for you. Storage? Keeping your seats? The ability to fold the bed away? You’ll need to make compromises, more so than if you had a van, simply because the space is more limited.
  • Plan properly. Although my current conversion is going well, I wasted a lot of money getting wood cut to size that ended up not working. Plan properly, and drum up some help from others if you need it. Winging it can work (it’s literally how I survive life), but I have to say, I wish I’d planned better.


Feature photo thanks to Zoe Parsons