Car Camping: How To Turn Your Kia Into a Bed-On-Wheels

When you think of the most expensive aspects of travel, the two that come to mind are transportation and lodging. When you’re on the "college student" budget, even the cheapest of flights can break the bank. That’s why Elise and I are huge fans of the monthly low-cost weekend road trip. You would be surprised at the sheer number of beautiful sites you can see in your area if you snake around your city on mini road trips. 

Thankfully, driving helps alleviate lofty transportation expenses, but what about lodging? You can use AirBnB to cut the price of a decent hotel in half, or maybe even stay in a local hostel, but were thinking bigger picture here... we're thinking free. If you're looking to really slash prices you can always tent it, but this method can still be less than ideal. Campgrounds in Southern California are atypically expensive (I'm looking at you San Diego), and you'll have a hard time finding a good deal unless you're willing to shack up with the coyotes in the boonies. After weighing our options, Elise and I sought to create a free, portable, and comfortable place to stay so we can take as many weekend trips as possible.

Car camping may seem impossible without a large van or SUV, but we're living proof; shoving two people into the trunk of a tiny Kia isn't a death wish, it's actually quite fun! So without further ado, if you have a 2015-2017 Kia Soul (or really any hatchback) get ready to learn from a new master. All in all, fitting out our Kia took about 3 hours and cost less than one night at a cheap motel. Now we have a place to sleep for years to come!

I’d like to shout out Votive Photography for giving us an template for us to use on our Kia Soul. If you need the exact science of sleeping in the Kia 2009-2014, be sure to check them out. 

Step one: What you’re going to need

We are making a wooden board to lay across the folded seats of the Kia Soul. It acts as a flat surface to bridge the gap between the center console, where it rests, and the lumpy seats below, giving us a larger surface area to lay our air mattress or camping mats in order to sleep.

Plywood ($20 - $30)

I can only offer two pieces of advice when it comes to the plywood. First was something Elise’s dad told us: "You’re going to pay about 20-30 dollars for a piece of plywood anyways, so you might as well pay a little more for something that’s going to hold up!" For this reason, we decided on the thick and sturdy Pine. It was about $27, and didn't show any signs of splintering or compromising. Secondly, if you don't have the proper tools to cut wood at home, be sure to measure the interior of your car before going to the hardware store. I know that Home Depot will cut wood to any measurement for free, and you want to make sure they cut it right the first time. “Measure twice, cut once.”

4 Door Hinges ($10 - $20)

These hinges are used to fold the board in half longitudinally so you can properly insert, remove, and store this huge sleeping mat. You can use as many hinges as you feel necessary, but remember that the more you use the more sturdy your back rest is going to be. 

Optional: Weather Striping or Pipe Foam Insulation. ($5 - $20)

If you’re concerned about scratching or scuffing the interior of your car, then you may want to consider adding a bit of protection to the outside of the wood. Personally, we didn’t feel this was necessary, and instead opted to sand and round the edges of the plywood. You could also consider getting some paint or wood stain to go that extra mile. 

Step two: Building the backrest

Kia Soul Car Camping

So now that you have your supplies, it’s time to find out what you’re trying to do. The back of the Kia Soul with all of it's seats down is not perfectly flat, nor is it long enough for the average person to lay comfortably. What you’re going to want to do is build a backrest that allows you to make every inch of available space into a sleeping area. In turn, it also helps level the uncomfortable bumps for a more satisfying night's sleep. So let’s get started.

MEasuring Your Car

As I previously mentioned, be sure to measure the interior of your car properly. This entails documenting the length from the center console to the storage area, and the width from door frame to door frame, excluding the divets for the wheels. I read some different guides giving measurements for Kia Souls and found that after measuring my own car, we would have to make some slight adjustments.

Our measurements ended up being 34" x 53". So, we marked our measurements and cut. Simple as that! 

Well… Kind of. 

Cutting out The basic shape

Kia Soul Car Camping

Once you’ve measured everything out and written it down, do it again. Then when you’re sure it’s good to go, start cutting the basic square shape to the correct measurements, or take the measurements to the local hardware store and have them cut it for you. We first cut the square, then conducted some totally professional guesstimation (with more measurements, of course) when it came to the exact indents for the wheels. By the end, the board looked like a really thick, curvy "T."

Cutting Lengthwise

Next you’re going to want to cut the whole thing in half lengthwise. While this is technically optional, you’re really going to struggle getting it in and out of your car if you skip this step. Plus, cutting the board helps with storage when you’re done. Again, be sure to double check you're not cutting any corners and getting it clean down the middle. 

Apply The Hinges

Now that you have all your wood cut and lined up properly, be sure to place it in your car to see if everything fit perfectly. Once you’re sure it all fits, take it out and line it up on a flat surface. Make sure the two boards are perfectly parallel, then move them ever so slightly apart, just enough for the hinge to settle in to the crack. You’re going to want to lay the hinges where you want them with equal spacing. I wouldn’t use less than 4, and remember that the more you use the longer it will last you. 

If you're not a professional handiworker (guilty as charged), line the hinges up and use a hammer and nail to mark the center of each hole where the screws will go. This way you know exactly where the screws are supposed to go if you bump a hinge out of place. 

Step Three: Beautification

With this step you can go as crazy or as minimalist as you want. Honestly, you can even skip it if you want, but if you want to lug around more than a rugged slab of wood you should consider adding some flair to it! I would say we did the bare minimum by sanding and rounding the edges to help mitigate the risk of scratching the interior of my car, but there are plenty of fun ways to really make this your own.

Here are some ideas:

  • Paint it
  • Stain the wood
  • Apply felt to both sides of the backrest
  • Apply weather stripping to the outside if you're worried about scratching
  • Tape pipe foam insulation around the outside

Step Four: Prepping the Car 

Once everything is built, sturdy, and beautiful, it's time to fit it all in your car.

Placing the wood

First, move your front seats all the way forward and as low as the can go. Then, put the rear seats down. Your new backrest will sit between the back seats and the center console. You may want to place a blanket or towel over the center console if you want to avoid scuffing it up, but honestly I didn't do try to protect it and my car was more than fine. It may cause issues with repeated use, so be wary. If everything is situated correctly you should still be able to access the storage area below. 

Setting Up the Air MAttress

When picking out a proper air mattress, you want to make sure it will fit. We read on another guide that it's important to find a "full" sized mattress, or else it won't fit. While I agree that it would have been slightly more comfortable with the former, we used a queen sized mattress and it was more than doable!

One thing that is not interchangeable is the mattress height. We would definitely opt for a single mattress, not a double. We had an old double sitting in the rafters of our garage, and we tried to shove it into the Kia. It nearly pressed against the ceiling! This mistake lead to a whole late-night fiasco as we hunted for a proper mattress so we wouldn't suffocate while we slept. 

Step Five: Get out there!

Now that your hatchback is looking comfy and cozy, get on the road! Pack light, as all of your belongings will have to be shoved into the folded front seats, and bring bug netting so you can crack a window and wake up without thousands of bug bites. Most of all, have fun! Take this baby to every free BLM wilderness you can find without the burden of a huge trailer, exorbitant expenses, or scary night crawlers. There is something incredibly magical about popping the trunk and looking our at your bedroom: the vast, stunning, and wild outdoors. 

Hopefully this helped you all out there trying to car camp in your cars! As long as you measure it out and get the tools for the job, this is an easy and fun project. Let us know in the comments below what cars you have camped in, and how you made it work! If you have any more questions we will be available in the comments to help you guys out! Thanks for reading.