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
How To Convert Your SUV Into a Camper:
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 our favorite 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 fits 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 into 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 pillowcases 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 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 were 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 on 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 it 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 the 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 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
- The 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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56 thoughts on “How To Convert Your SUV Into A Camper In 8 Simple Steps”
Nice! I’m converting my element as well, it’s always I interesting to see the different approaches people take. Just wanted to mention the toxicity of pvc leaching into your shower water. Safe travels!
Thanks for your comment! Hopefully, this article gave you some good ideas for your conversion as well. We are aware of the pvc leaking, so we are only using that water for showering. We use bottled or filtered river water for drinking and dish cleaning. Good luck with your project!
Awesome, we have a Subaru Forester I would love to do this to… Are these fixtures all permanent? I couldn’t really tell. If we did this would it be a lot of trouble to change back into our regular car?
These fixtures are not permanent, they can all be reversed back to their original state. We actually recently sold our Honda SUV and moved on to a van conversion project. The day we sold the Honda we converted it back to its original state in about 2 hours. If you do decide to convert your Subaru and have any further questions, don’t hesitate to ask!
Nice job. I’m looking to do this to my Prado Landcruiser but don’t quite understand how you made the sliding bed. Do you have a more detailed description or drawing you could share that would show the make, model and length of the rails you used and how they were placed etc..? Thanks.
Thanks Richard! We didn’t use any rails to make the bed.
Instead, if you look closely at the first picture under “Step 2: Create a platform bed frame”, you can see a metal bar that is only screwed to every other slat. It also has an identical metal bar underneath that is not visible. When you pull the end of these slats out to open the bed as seen in the first picture of “Step 4: Make a tent cover”, these metal bars act as guides to allow only those slats to slide out and because there are metal bars on top and bottom, the slats cannot fall out of place.
The stationary slats that don’t pull out are screwed down in the front and in the back. On the front they are screwed onto a 4′ aluminum corner bracket that goes across underneath the slats, and in the back they are screwed onto the 2″x3″ that goes across. In the same pictures I mentioned you can see all the screw down places for all the slats.
Hope that helps!
Hey, I was just wondering what you guys did to cook the food, I love the battery fridge idea but did you guys have a kitchen area at all? Would love to hear about it
Hi John, the storage area behind our fridge became our kitchen. The area was the perfect depth for our camp stove and we used a medium plastic container to store our camp pots, utensils, and dry or canned foods. Since the Honda Element has a two part rear door, the lower tailgate was used as a kitchen and cooking table and the top liftgate protected us from the elements while cooking.
I love this build! How does the fridge hook up to your second battery?
We wired the batteries to a fuse block, then powered everything from the fuse block.
Wow! You guys have some serious amenities in your conversion. I converted my own Element in November, I think it came out quite beautifully and functionally, but lacks the refrigerator and shower and other things of that nature.
Wow, great job on the conversion! Super impressive!
The fridge was a must for us so we built the base of the bed around it. It definitely helps save money on food and stay healthier with eating habits. The solar shower is great to have but you can also buy a solar shower bag on Amazon and those work equally well.
I just bought an Element and I am so excited by the possibilities!
Congratulations! Element is a great car! It can handle very rough terrains and the possibilities for conversion are great as well. Hope this article can give you some good ideas : ) Cheers, Laura
Amazing conversion, well done and quite inspiring. I just read a comment on you moving on to a van conversion project. How’s that going? I’m planning on doing something similar, but instead of camping, using a car to live in while co-founding a startup in Silicon Valley. Your design with a fridge caught my eye because I consider healthy eating essential so there is no way I could eat out everyday, or make meals without one. I am planning on having a 24/7 gym membership because I workout daily, so that solves the showering issue, and am only planning on using my car for sleeping, cooking and eating. Which car do you think would work better for me the Element, minivan, or full size van? Your advice is greatly appreciated. 🙂
Side note: How did you two get started in this lifestyle? Did you go camping a few times and decide you wanted to travel for longer time periods?
Yes, we recently finished a van conversion project on a Promaster van and we have been living and traveling in it for 4 months now. Although we loved our Honda Element, we wanted to upgrade to a bigger vehicle for extra comfort and room for our long-term travels. We are currently on a 2-year long road trip from LA to Argentina and although we could have done this trip in our SUV, it’s definitely nice to have that extra room especially for cooking and hanging out at night. You can check out Part I of our van conversion article here: https://funlifecrisis.com/dyi-promaster-campervan-conversion/. I am currently working on Part II of the article covering the furniture built as well, coming soon.
We just slowly progressed into this lifestyle over a few years. At first, we did a lot of car camping in our SUV and recently decided to upgrade to a van after we decided to live in our car full time. It definitely helps us save a lot of money and gives us the freedom to travel anywhere at any point we want. Hope this helps a bit! If you have any other questions, don’t hesitate to ask.
I just bought an element with the intention to convert it, How do you affix the fixtures (bed, fridge, etc) to the floor so that they do not move around as you drive?
On the front of the bed frame, we took out the rear seat belts and attached the frame to the bottom seat belt mounts. In the back, we drilled a few metal screws into the floor to hold the wood down with metal angle braces which can be found at Home Depot. This kept it all super sturdy both while we drove and while we slept, and it never made a squeak.
Good luck with the conversion, let us know if you need any more help!
One more question. What type of wood and wait is the thickness that you used to replace the moonroof?
We used 1/2″ plywood and the original brackets to create the moonroof. Then we covered it all in varnish and added sealant around the edges to make it waterproof. Let me know if you have any other questions!
I’m interested in adding a fan in place of my sunroof too. Mine is a sliding sunroof. Question… what sealant did you use?
We just used regular outdoor window sealant that you can find at any HD or Lowes
This is awesome! You’ve inspired me to convert my wife’s old Saturn Vue instead of retiring it. Thanks!
Hi! I have a question, when installing the venting fan system how did you wire it?
Also, I read further down that you converted the Honda back to original to resell it. How did you recovert the glass for the sun roof? Thanks!
We wired the fan from a fuse block that we installed under one of the interior side panels, and powered that from the additional battery we added under the hood. If you don’t add the additional battery, the fan would probably kill the car’s starting battery within a few hours since the stock Honda Element battery is tiny.
When we sold the Element, we simply put the hinges back on the factory glass moonroof and reinstalled it as before. The factory moonroof can be taken off and put back on by squeezing the latch as you open it, so nothing was damaged when we took it off.
This is great! I’ve been wanting to do something similar to my subaru forester! You wouldn’t happen to have some more in depth information (for a complete newbie!) about installing your house battery and wiring would you? Also learning about how you did the flooring would be so helpful too! Great job!!
Check out our Promaster build where I made a wiring diagram for the van. The Element’s wiring was much more simple – you can just ignore the solar part and the second battery. If you want a short quick answer, the wiring goes like this:
Element’s battery – 6 ga cable – isolator solenoid relay – 6 ga cable – deep-cycle battery – 10 ga cable – fuse block – 16 ga cables – accessories
Of course, make sure you ground everything with the same size cable, so add a 6 ga cable from the negative of the battery to any point on the SUV, and 16 ga cables from the negatives of the accessories to the SUV.
Incredible! You guys rock, man so cool.
I have a 2003 element that I built out pretty well. I am about to do the Fan build you did.
Question: would you still choose that same model fan or suggest anything different? My idea is to copy you all but instead of wood use Polycarbonite so that it is still clear see through material. Feel free to push back if you think a bad idea.
Thanks, cool to hear you’re doing the same thing.
Poly is probably a good idea as long as it’s thick enough to not bend much and be durable enough to not break with the weight and vibrations while driving. I would think a 1/4″ poly would work really well though, just make sure to use a good amount of silicone to seal it up.
As for the fan, maybe look for one of these Maxxfan models where the fan can be reversed to blow out or in. When it’s really hot, I wish ours had the feature to blow air directly on us instead of pulling air by us. If you don’t plan on being in really hot places, then the new Maxxfan Mini looks like a great option that takes up less space.
Very Helpful! Thanks for the tips.
Nice build! Starting early 2018, I started doing the same thing with my ’03 Element EX (same exact color, too). I’ve had 100-watt solar running to a 100 Ah Renogy battery. I’d love to relocate the battery somewhere and I’ve seen several people — you included — move it to the engine compartment. Did you have to remove the air intake resonator (all the black plastic parts to the far right side under the hood) to accomplish this?
Yea, we had to remove all those black plastic pieces of the intake and create a new hole in the filter housing. There is a surprising amount of room in there to fit a second large battery, we fit a group 31 but didn’t have room for anything bigger. Check your battery size to make sure it’s smaller than a group 31 before you start. Also, I didn’t find any prefabbed battery trays that will fit for this so you’ll have to make your own out of sturdy sheet metal. Good luck!
What vent cover did you buy for the max fan. Im installing this fan in my HE 2005. Also, can i give u credit for my purchase somehow?
We just used the standard vent cover that comes with any of the standard Maxxair fans. The Deluxe versions of the Maxxair fans have bigger covers that are nice to have when it rains but stick out a few more inches and are much more expensive. Either one of them works, just depends on what features you’re after. As for giving us credit, just click on any of our product links on this page and if you buy anything on Amazon within 24 hours, we get a small commission!
Glad to hear your SUV conversion into a camper went so well. You guys did an awesome job on the roof top installation. I would also like to recommend a coating of RV Roof Magic. It works great on water leaks and punctures.
Good to know, thanks!
What else did you have to do do get the second battery that far forward? Looks like it would be right where the air intake is. I want to do the same but don’t want to have to reroute a ton of extra things. Any advice is appreciated!
Unfortunately, we did have to move a few things around to make it fit. We had to take out most of the air intake’s plastics in front of the air filter, move the fuse box back, extend the battery cable, and fabricate a new battery tray. It probably took us a full day to do it all but it’s really the only way to add a second lead-acid battery in such a small SUV. Another great option is using a small deep-cycle AGM battery and putting it inside which would be much easier and would keep everything stock under the hood.
Cool build! I have been thinking about putting a roof vent in my Durango and came across your site in my research. Thanks for well written and informative post.
Would this suv conversion plan perhaps work on a 2004 Ford Escape LTD? I know the element is bit bigger inside than my Escape. Does anyone know which of these superb, well thought out conversion plans might need different adaptations on the Escape or has anyone done this conversion on an Escape? Ps Um 72 yr old single but able woman TIA
You can use any SUV for the conversion, but the layout will have to change. The Escape is not as tall inside, and does not have the flat floor of the Element. It also doesn’t have the two-part tailgate-liftgate combo in the rear to extend the sleeping area or the pop-out sunroof to easily add the roof fan. If it was me, I would just make a very simple, flat, permanent sleeping platform in the Escape and add a rooftop box for storage. Forget about all the extra stuff and enjoy
This is really great !! I’m just starting to convert my Jeep Compass. I am not so handy, but think I can do the solar shower. I’m not understanding how you attach the presta valve and the ball valve to it’s respective pvc pipe/ends.
We just drilled holes into the flat parts of the end caps and put nuts on the backside to hold them in place along with some thread sealant and glue to seal it all up.
How has the zinus mattress been for you? Did you try something different in your van? Hope the two year trip is going well! Best regards
The Zinus mattress ended up not holding up too well. It got too soft to where you could feel the wood underneath and we just weren’t getting the best sleep after a while. There is another brand called Best Price that we tried and was really comfortable.
Hi Laura and Joel, I am wondering if you open the trunk door, will you not drain the battery?
Another question, as a single woman who knows nothing about the wires and carpenter things, where can I find the professional conversion company? Thank you very much.
Having the trunk door open won’t drain the battery.
We did our SUV conversion completely ourselves. I am not aware of any professional SUV conversion companies, but there are some for campervan conversions.
Hi Laura and Joel, I’m really impressed with your bedframe! We just purchased a 2007 HE and we’ve been getting a lot of inspiration online. We want to do something with slats, like you have, but flip it around so the bed frame extends over the front seats (laid flat of course). Could you tell me more about the mechanics of your build? I’m wondering, specifically, how you were able to make the slats slide past each other and they’re still strong enough to support half of the bed. Do you have any other legs/support in the middle of the bed?
How much volume water can you fit in the black PVC pipping, for the solar shower hose?? how did you add the schreder pressure valve? I think this sounds like a great idea.
The PVC pipe fits around 6.5 gallons of water which lasts us a few showers. To attach the schrader valve we drilled a hole in the plastic cap and tightened it with a nut in the back.
Hi there! My husband and I were wondering if you had more details on how you fitted a tent to the back of your car? Any advice you have to offer would be much appreciated! My husband is super tall and would love the extra leg room.
We cut up a tent and used some aluminum tubing to make a new frame for it, then attached it to the bed frame we made. It’ll really depend on the car so you just have to try a few things to see what works
Just discovering this word so I am a newbie. Question about the fridge and perhaps a microwave. Does it require this special battery hookup? And if so how hard is it to do. Prefer to use the standard Element equipment but not sure if that is realistic.
You need to have what’s called a “house” battery. It’s just a battery that’s made to run the camper part and separate from the “starting” battery and it has to be a special type of battery that’s called deep-cycle. The reason you want to have two separate ones is that the starting battery the car comes with is only made to start your car, delivering high power for a very short time. The house battery is a different type of battery that is made to power things with very little power for long periods of time. If you use the starter battery that’s already in the car to power your other stuff like a fridge, it will die after a few hours of being parked and your car will no longer start. You’ll also ruin the battery because it’s not made to do that. What I would recommend is to use something like a Jackery power pack that can easily charge from the car when it’s running and power your stuff when you turn your car off. Check out our review here: funlifecrisis.com/jackery-explorer-1000/ The Jackery can power a small fridge and even a small microwave and is super easy to use
Hey guys! My partner and I are hoping to begin this journey – wanted to see what year/model (ex,ex-l etc.) of Honda Element you guys had. And about how much weight does the bed frame you made support? Do you think there’d be enough room for a dog to sleep somewhere in the car with 2 adults in the bed? Thanks in advance 🙂
We had a 2004 EX-L I believe. The bed frame was made of solid wood which could easily support a couple of average build people. We had an 85lb dog with us and he slept on the floor between the front of the sleeping platform and the rear of the front seats so it’s definitely doable but very tight.