Minimalist Prius/Car Camping Equipment, for Weekend Warriors

A pictogram for indicating camping in a car


 Ever watched influencers like Nikki Delventhal and started imagining yourself traveling the country in your car, no hotel or RV necessary? Turns out, for those of us more interested in weekend outings than long term travel, it's quite easy. I have enjoyed using my Prius as a sort of minimalist RV for about a year. That being said, I can say from experience that there are some supplies you should not leave home without, for your comfort and sanity. Here are the 7 main areas you need to plan for. 

a shade sock for a car window, such as a Prius
One of the many shade socks you can find on Amazon

  1. Privacy While Car Camping in a Prius

Window covers should be the first thing you buy. Window shades are essential for a few reasons. First, you need a private place to change your cloths, and sleep without feeling like anyone could see you. Second, shades help insulate the windows and regulate the temperature of the vehicle while you sleep. Thirdly, they help darken the vehicle if you sleep past sunrise, which is especially important in the summer. You can order Reflectix or similar products for your front and rear windows. Then, for the door windows, I recommend window socks. I bought these ones from amazon. Or if you are really crafty, there are also ways to jerry rig fabric curtains. 

  1. Turning Your Prius Car Into Your Bedroom

Your vehicle will be your bed, and the quality of your sleep can define the next day, so make sure you give your bed adequate thought. 

First, get the back of your vehicle to fold flat. The Prius is perfect for this, as well as many SUVs and minivans. If you have something like say, a Malibu Max, you should make a platform to flatten the sleeping area. Or, you may be able to find an inflatable mattress online that is specifically designed to help level the sleeping area of that vehicle. 

Next, get a mattress. How thick or squishy you need will depend entirely on your body and preferences. I have gone camping with just a foam mattress topper and plush comforter working as my mattress when I’m camping solo, and I have also used a Prius-specific air mattress with a 12 volt air pump for camping with my partner. People who like a more traditional mattress feel swear by furniture foam from craft stores. Other people might like the sleeping pads bought from a camping outfitter. 

Bring weather appropriate blankets or a sleeping bag rated for the right temperature, especially if it will be chilly. Sleeping bags are especially convenient because they say right on the packaging what temperatures they are safe to use at. Keep in mind that “safe” and “comfortable” are different. This article by REI has more information about comfort ratings and safety ratings.  

a red Colman brand cooler, as commonly used for camping
The ubiquitous Coleman cooler
  1. Food, Cooking, and Food Storage in a Prius

You need a system for storing and cooking food. This can look very different depending on what you personally consider a requirement, and how much space you have for equipment. Some people might not even consider this a challenge worth considering, and assume that a cooler and the firepit that comes with a traditional campsite to be enough. And, in many cases this could be sufficient. However, rain, humidity, and high temperatures can sometimes make a campfire difficult or uncomfortable, and worrying about when to buy ice to keep food safe can become a hassle. (Ask me how I know.) It's always best to make sure you have a backup plan. Additionally, when car camping, space is at a premium, and coolers can’t be left outside, due to the change of critters getting in.

If you must bring a cooler, consider bringing the smallest one possible, and freezing refrigerated items before leaving, rather than buying ice. If you have a hybrid vehicle like a Prius, I would also recommend using a small 12 volt fridge to cool critical items. You can also get away with only non-refrigerated items. Tuna packets, pasta, peanut butter, bread, canned items, fresh veggies, crackers, apples, oranges and many other items can be used to make well rounded meals, at least for a weekend. 

For cooking, consider bringing an electric kettle or a small propane stove like a jet boil. When I am traveling solo, an electric kettle is actually my primary cooking source. (I also went through college without a microwave thanks to that handy gadget.) You can go the way of ultralight backpackers, and bring food that can be “cold soaked”, or requires no cooking at all. Bagels, cabbage or bean salads, and fruit can be eaten as-is. Surprisingly, mashed potatoes, ramen noodles, and oatmeal aren't so bad when cold soaked. 

If you go sans-cooler, don't forget to store your food properly in sealed containers. You wouldn’t want critters getting into your dinner!

A hiker in the rain
Don't forget your rain coat at home!
  1. Climate Appropriate Gear for Car Camping

Forgetting your raincoat when you need it is a bummer on a normal day. When you are camping in a Prius or another small car, it's a disaster because you have nowhere to go but stay in your car. Make sure you bring sunglasses, sunscreen, bug spray, gloves, hats, and footwear as appropriate for your location and activities. 

  1. Electronics for Prius Camping

Don’t forget an inverter to power your phone. A 12 volt or battery fan might not be a bad idea either. 

  1. A Plan for Cleanliness

When you spend more than 24 hours using your car as a living space, it will get messy. And guess what? YOU will get messy too. Make sure you have a plan ahead of time so that your duffle bag of clothes doesn't explode all over the seat and make it harder to pack up. Make sure you think about where the dirty clothes are going to be stored, because free-floating socks are a recipe for nasty smells. A muddy campsite makes getting into bed tricky, so keep baby wipes on hand. Don’t forget to use the campsite shower before returning to civilization

  1. Planning for Emergencies and Accidents

In addition to a first aid kit, consider bringing extra water, paper maps, and tools for car maintenance. If you go during a cool season, make sure you have a window scraper and extra blankets. It is always better to be safe than sorry. In fact, you may even want to bring a tent the first few times out, in case you discover that your car has a leak, or if it gets too hot and humid inside the vehicle. 

Final thoughts

I hope these help. I honestly think everyone should try minimalist camping, such as Prius camping at least once in life. It won’t be for everyone. But for the people who like it, it's a great tool for getting out on more adventures. With a good attitude and a little preparation, it will be a memorable escape.


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