How I converted my Honda CR-V into a camper

Although I like sleeping in a tent, schlepping sleeping gear back and forth and waiting for the tent and ground cloths to dry off on wet mornings gets old, so I’ve been thinking about getting a camper van.  But I love my 1999 CR-V, and after watching some videos of people who had managed to live out of their Toyota Prius’ (or Subaru Outbacks) for months at a time, I decided to try to see what I could do with the CR-V.  The car is AWD, will go almost anywhere, and still averages 30 mpg.  It runs great and still has a lot of life left, so modifying it seemed worth the effort.

I often camp in dispersed sites (aka boon docking), and I’m a photographer and sound recordist, so I carry a bit of gear with me.  My 60-lb. dog also takes up quite a bit of room.   The seats on the CR-V do not fold down flat, and only leave about 5 feet of not-quite level sleeping room.  I’ve slept in the back before, with the seats folded down, and could barely fit my 5’6” on the diagonal, and it wasn’t very comfortable.   Scouring the internet, I learned that others had made their CR-Vs more livable either by building a platform over the top of the folded up back seats, or by removing the seats and building a platform.   I wanted to maximize storage space for my gear, so I pulled the seats out (not easy in this version of the CR-V).   I  use the table that comes with the car on occasion, so I left the carpeting that covers the back cargo area.

Interior of the car with the back seats removed.

Interior of the car with the back seats removed. I covered the bare metal of the bottom of the car with car mats.

I also wanted to maximize headroom, as I know from having had a variety of small pickups with toppers, that it is much easier to change clothes if you can sit up straight.  The cargo area has just enough headroom for me to sit up straight and barely brush the headliner with the top of my head.  So I opted for a platform of the same height as the back of the car, in other words, I only built a frame for the area where the seats were.  The frame is built from 2x3s and 2x2s.

The framework for supporting the front of the platform.

The framework for supporting the front of the platform. To prevent the whole platform from flying forward in case of a front-end collision, the frame is anchored to bolts that previously anchored the seats. The frame is actually nice and square – the distortion is from the camera.

I then attached 5/8 plywood to the frame, in 4 pieces.  One piece covered the backend of the car – over the table in back so that I could remove the table and still have a flat, solid surface.  The board is hinged to the front panel, so I can lift it up to access the table and the storage area under the table.  The other pieces went over the framework, and included two hinged doors for access to the where the seats and foot wells were.

The plywood platform in place.

The plywood platform in place.

I then added carpet padding and a carpet remnant to the top of the platform.

Carpeting in place.

Carpeting in place. The platform is completely flat and quite comfortable. With the front seats pushed forward, I have plenty of room to stretch out.

One big disadvantage of this setup is that to remove it, you have to remove the carpeting and padding, unscrew the platform from the frame, possibly unscrew the piano hinge for the board covering the table, and remove it all in pieces.   To remove it and reinstall the seats is probably several hours of work.

Access to the storage area under the platform.

Access to the storage area under the platform.

My dog used to ride in a hammock which covered the back seat.   With no seat now, I learned quickly that stuff slides around a lot, and a quick stop means all the gear slides forward.  So I put together a cargo net to keep the gear in the very back, and keep the dog closer to the front.  It anchors to gear ties on the bottom (built in to the car) and to the top of the seat belt anchors.  I also sewed up some curtains and attached them to the windows with Velcro (we’ll see if it holds).  I made screen sleeves to cover the windows, and made a small tent to cover the back window, which allows me to leave it open in a light rain and have good ventilation.  The tent is nylon, with mosquito netting to cover the window opening.  It attaches by bungees and magnets.  I use the dog hammock to cover my bedding when we are traveling, in case the dog wants to go swimming or play in the mud.  At night I can stretch it over the front seats for additional privacy.

Camper in action, with screens and tent in place.

Camper in action, with screens and tent in place.

I’ve spent a few nights in the new camper, and it is very comfortable.  It is much easier to get in and out of than a truck topper, and the back of the front passenger seat forms a nice backrest. The cost for the framework, plywood, and carpet materials was about $50; material for the tent, screens, cargo net, and other add-ons brought the cost to about $150.

The conversion did require me to cut back on some of my gear.  I often camp in bear country, so I want to make sure any gear with food smells (stove, cooking gear, cooler, food containers) can fit in the car when it’s in camper mode.  Here’s what fits in the camper:

Water: 1 gallon container for the dog plus 1-5 gallons depending on how long I plan be out.  I use a no-tip bowl for the dog to make sure he always has water.

Food: a cooler for fresh stuff, and a reusable grocery bag for dried stuff.  The dogs food fits under the platform.

Bedroom:  I use an air mattress, plus layers of sleeping bags and blankets to adjust for different temperatures.  The car is much warmer than a tent, so even on cold nights, I seldom need to zip up the sleeping bags.

Kitchen:  I used to carry enough for two people, but I’ve cut that back to one: 1 bowl, 1 plate, 2 each of knives, forks and spoons.  1 non-stick skillet, a collapsible kettle and collapsible pot.  The collapsible pot often doubles as a bowl, as it seems to keep food hotter than a plastic bowl.  Also in my cook kit: 1 cloth pot holder, 1 pot scraper, 1 butane lighter, 1 SteriPEN water purifier, 1 cup, 1 tin for tea bags and coffee packets, 1 spatula, 1 small clothesline with clothes pins.  All of this fits in a plastic hinged-lid box.  For a table (if not at a campground), I use a roll-a-table, which fits easily under the platform.   If I’m staying more than 2 nights, I’ll pull out the CR-V’s table.   For a chair, I prefer a folding chair to the roll-up chairs which hurt my hips.

Lighting: 1 solar lamp/phone charger, 1 headlamp, 1 clip on light for my Kindle.  Plus there are the overhead lights in the car.

First Aid: I use a small plastic box to carry bandages, antibiotics, chigger meds, etc for the dog and myself.  Fits under the platform.

Sunscreen/bug repellant/field guides: go either in the map pocket of the passenger side front seat, or in a tote that includes all my maps for the trip.

Clothing:  I keep most of my clothes in a duffel.  Because I often cover a range of elevations, I always pack extra jackets, which I use to cover the cooler.  A down coat goes in a small stuff sack under the platform.  Shoes go under the platform or in the passenger foot well.

Camera bags (I usually carry 2 cameras): one within reach in the front seat, the other tucked in the back near the cooler.  Tripods go under the platform.

Recording equipment: in a duffel in the passenger foot well.

It all fits, but it’s tight.  Packing and unpacking takes a bit of time, although set up and breakdown in camp is very quick.

The CR-V packed for a two-week trip.

The CR-V packed for a two-week trip.

Update September 28, 2016:

I spent 24 days sleeping in the car over the summer, including a 2 week trip from Carson City to Glacier National Park and back to Tucson.  The camper performed very well, and kept me warm and dry in spite of some very wet weather in Montana.  It was a bit cramped at times, but I think this set up would work very well in a larger SUV.