Over the years, our trusty Honda Element has taken us on countless backroad trips from National Park hopping in the scorching Utah heat to bone-chilling cold nights at Crater Lake. The spacious interior allowed us to easily sleep inside on our favorite forest roads, eliminating the need to find hotels or book hard-to-get campsites.
However, sleeping in sleeping bags on thin sleeping mats, with no shower, and no convenient way to store cold food often left us a bit eager to get back to civilization.
After spending more and more nights in our car, we had a thought: “Why don’t we convert our Honda Element into a full-time camper car?”
So we set to work and over two week time of non-stop runs to Home Depot, screwing, sawing and drilling we were able to complete our DIY car conversion project.
After finishing the conversion, our SUV is now equipped with a foldable sleeping platform, a full-size bed, tons of storage, a fridge, a fan, and even a solar shower!
Below is a guide on how we, with a low budget and lots of sweat equity, converted our Honda Element SUV into a full-time camper car in 8 simple steps:
- Step 1: Create The Layout
- Step 2: Create a platform bed frame
- Step 3: Make the mattress
- Step 4: Make the tent cover
- Step 5: Install a house battery
- Step 6. Install the fridge
- Step 7. Install a ceiling fan
- Step 8. Create a solar shower
Step 1: The SUV camper layout
The first step of our conversion project was to come up with a layout and brainstorm some SUV camper ideas that fit all of our needs. Some of our “must have” requirements were:
-a semi-enclosed bed platform
-a solar shower
-a ceiling fan for hot summer days
-extra storage for clothing, food and my travel gear
Based on these requirements we came up with a general design of what the conversion layout should look like for our Honda Element.
Once we had a general layout figured out, we took measurements and made sure everything fit in our car like the mattress and the fridge. Then it was time to get to work and start building!
Step 2: Create the SUV sleeping platform
One of the trickiest but most important steps of the small camper conversion was creating the SUV bed platform that fit a full-size bed on it. We wanted our camper bed to be comfortable but not take up too much space.
For our conversion, we decided to create a bed frame that fits in the back of the car during the day and extends out for sleeping at night. We also wanted to install a fridge underneath the sleeping platform so we had to take that into consideration as we built the bed frame.
We created a general bed platform from wooden beams and added aluminum bars as guides and support. The idea was to keep half the wooden beams in place and the other half set up to slide out and support our feet while we sleep.
We used a metal bar as a guide to slide out the wooden slats and a wooden beam at the end to keep them together. A metal rod was added in the back of the car underneath the platform to support the extended wooden beams at night.
Inside the car, we added a 1×6 to keep the mattress from sliding forward during the day and to add extra length at night on the sleeping platform. We added a gate lock to keep the flap up and in place during the day.
Step 3: Choose the best mattress for a conversion
Once the bed platform was built we bought a 4 inch full-size memory foam mattress on Amazon. It was the perfect thickness because it is extremely comfortable without being too thick.
Our Honda SUV is not perfectly square so we had to cut the mattress to fit the shape of our car. We also cut the mattress in three parts and sowed them loosely together through the mattress cover sheet so we could fold the mattress during the day.
We used a blanket and these bed sheets and pillowcase for a twin size bed.
Step 4: Make the tent cover
We wanted something to cover the extended bed platform at night to provide more privacy and to protect us from bugs or bad weather. We used a small kids tent from Walmart to create a custom cover in the back of the car that extends out at night along with the wooden slats.
We sowed it into a shape that fit snuggly around the car’s frame and the wooden beams. We used tent rods, hooks and velcro to keep the tent upright at night.
Step 5: Install a house battery
During our Honda camper conversion we wanted to install a small fridge and a fan in our car so first we had to add an extra house battery and wiring to power up these additional features.
We used a Pro Start Marine & RV Deep Cycle battery from Pep Boys.
We moved the regular battery a few inches back and added the new house battery in front of it. We bolted both batteries to a custom stainless steel plate to hold them into place.
A Battery Isolator Relay was installed to charge both batteries from the alternator when the car is running, but separate them when the car is off to make sure we don’t drain the starter battery and get stranded in the middle of nowhere. This worked out great and was super easy to install.
Step 6. Install the fridge
One of our must-have items for our camper conversion was to install a Dometic high-efficiency 12V fridge in our SUV. This would help us keep healthier eating habits and avoid restaurants and fast food which means more savings in the long run.
We had to consider the fridge parameters as we built the bed frame. We wanted the fridge to fit under the bed frame and the mattress to sit on top of it. We had to place the fridge in the car before we secured the bed frame to the floor.
Once the fridge and the bed frame was secured to the car’s floor, we ran wiring along the sides of the car to power up the fridge. The extra house battery can provide enough electricity to power up the fridge as long as the car runs for a minimum of 15 minutes a day.
Step 7. Install a ceiling fan
We decided to install a ceiling fan into our Honda Element’s sunroof to alleviate some of the heat during the hot summer seasons. We used this rooftop RV fan from Maxxair, which is great because it comes with a thermometer that you can set to turn on automatically when it gets too hot inside the car.
In order to install the fan in the roof, we replaced the sunroof with a piece of wood.
Then we cut a hole in the wood the size of the fan. The outside part of the wood was sealed with varnish so water can’t get in. Then we transferred over the hinges from the sunroof to the wood piece to secure the wood piece on the roof.
We placed the fan in the hole and screwed it into the wood, making sure to add some caulking to the screws so water wouldn’t get in. Then we transferred the finished wood piece and fan onto the sunroof and secured in with the hinges.
Step 8. Create a solar shower
One of the hardest parts about traveling in a camper car is finding a place to take a shower. Wet naps and dips in the river are very scenic but can only go so far.
Sure we could pay $10 for a day pass at a gym, but we’re all about saving money where we can. So instead we decided to create our own custom build solar shower kit out of black PVC pipe from Home Depot.
We chose a black pipe because black color heats up water during sunny days and keeps the water warm.
We added caps on both sides to keep the water in the pipe and a Y-joint to fill it up. At the very top, a Schrader valve was added so we could add pressure with a car tire inflator.
At the end of the shower, we added a ball valve to the end cap and attached an RV Shower Hose when in use. When not in use, we simply close the valve and remove the hose.
While traveling in an adventure van looks glamorous, not everyone has the luxury and time for a campervan conversion. Sometimes we just have to make the best of what we already have.
An SUV might not be as roomy as a van, but it still has a lot of space inside that can be utilized for sleeping and storage.
The best part about converting your 4×4 or an all-wheel-drive car into a camper car is that you don’t have to worry about your car getting stuck on rough roads and unlike a van, you can take it on just about on any trail or small road. But if you do decide to go with a campervan for extra comfort, here is our guide on how we converted an empty Promaster van into a full-time campervan.
If you are thinking of converting your SUV into a full-time camper, here are some rough estimates of the time and money it took.
The estimated cost of our DIY camper car conversion totaled approximately $1200:
- Platform bed frame $100
- Mattress& Bedding $136+ $25= $161
- Tent cover $10
- House battery & Battery Isolator Relay $69 + $16= $85
- Fridge $500
- Fan $135
- Solar Shower & Shower Hose $50+19= $69
- Other supplies $150
Estimated conversion time: 2 weeks working on it every day, about 100 hours.
We took a different approach on our newest Subaru Outback camper conversion, choosing instead to use off-the-shelf parts to quickly turn it into a camper within minutes and not days, but the cost was significantly higher.
Converting your car into a camper vehicle is the cheapest and most convenient way to travel around. And by following these 8 steps you too can convert your everyday SUV into a full-time camper car!
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