Forget traditional camper vans for a quick getaway… fans of the outdoors are now converting the car for the perfect overnight stay.
While sleeping in your motor might not sound like the dream holiday, it has soared in popularity as staycation costs and camper van prices shot up in the pandemic.
Dog-walker Vickie Marks enjoys trips away in her VW Golf, sharing it with her pooch and her partner – but admits it’s “a bit of a squeeze”.
She said: “We couldn’t afford a camper van but wanted to stay in lovely places. I love the freedom of waking up in a really nice place.”
Vickie, 27, from Claverdon, Warks, and partner Amy Guest, 30, started making videos about car camping before the pandemic.
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She shares them on her YouTube channel, Wander with Vickers. And she says the benefit of a car is that it is “stealthier” than a van, explaining: “A lot of people get stick for camping in car parks in a motor home.
“In our car we’ve never been moved on or told to go anywhere else.”
The couple say their favorite spots are beaches and rural car parks.
Vickie, who owns a dogwalking business, added: “We’ve not made changes to the car apart from taking the back seats out and adding foam and boxes in the footwells for support.”
The thrill of “getting away with it” is just as big a deal as the cost-saving for enthusiast Brendan James.
He said: “You can go out and have a little overnight holiday to clear your mind.
“It gives you a bit of excitement as you think, ‘Can I get away with this?’”
Filmmaker Brendan, 29, had been thinking of buying a motor home for a few years when the pandemic hit.
He said: “Prices for them – or van conversions – shot through the roof because everyone wanted a staycation as they couldn’t go abroad.
“So I thought, ‘What have I got to hand?’ “I realized that the middle seats of our small Renault Grand Scenic could come out. I went to B&Q and bought some planks and some legs to make a sleeping set-up.
“I’ve now got curtains, a single bed and a place to sit.”
Brendan, of Shrewsbury, added: “The whole set-up cost less than £100. Some motor homes cost £60,000.”
He also has a YouTube channel, Brendan Explores.
He recently enjoyed a “fantastic” stay at Cole Mere in Shropshire – despite signs warning against camping.
Brendan said: “We had a comfortable night’s sleep and watched the sun rise over the lake.”
History teacher Laurie Alyce has racked up around 5,000 miles after setting out to explore the UK, stealth-camping in her Fiat Punto.
She said: “Sleeping in my Fiat is pretty tight but the goal with car camping isn’t comfort – it’s convenience.
“Often I’m so tired from driving and exploring that, once I’m tucked up and warm, I just crash out.”
Laurie started stealth camping just after lockdown in summer 2020 as a cheap way to explore the country.
She said: “My stepdad helped me build a bed with a removable platform so I could store clothes underneath.”
Laurie, 27, from Torbay, Devon, even went on a 28-day tour from the southern tip of England to Johno’Groats in Scotland – spending only a few nights in a hotel.
She said: “As it’s cheap, you can do more in the day because you have more money.
“I also like the flexibility and the peace and quiet.”
As a solo traveler, Laurie said she felt safer in a car than a tent as she can block out her windows and lock the doors.
But she still had one experience that gave her a fright. She said: “I was car camping in Essex when I was approached by two police officers who advised me to move on because the area had become a bit of a party spot and I was likely to encounter some trouble if I didn’t.
“They weren’t stern and just wanted to make sure I was safe – but I was pretty much tucked up in bed so it was a shock!”
At 6ft 4in, Alex Smith admits that his first night camping in his Volkswagen Polo was “the worst night’s sleep of my life”.
He said: “At New Year I decided to try new things every week and travel to new places.
“I was scrolling through YouTube and saw a car camping video and thought, ‘Why don’t I turn my car into a little camper?’
“My first time was in January in the Lake District. I put down the seats and lay in my sleeping bag across the boot with my head on the driver’s seat.
“It was so uncomfortable – I couldn’t lie flat.”
The 23-year-old from Brighton – a full-time YouTuber whose Just Alex channel has nearly 42,000 subscribers – decided to make things more comfortable and try again. So he took out not just the back seats but also the front passenger seat, letting him build in a wooden bed frame.
Alex says the key to stealth camping is to avoid drawing attention to your car so you can sleep in peace.
He said: “I’ll never forget the time I camped in a McDonald’s car park and people were peering in.
“I’ve stealth camped six or seven times now, it’s something fun and exciting to do. It’s not like going to a hotel – it’s more about the experience.”
Alex uses an app called Flush to find public toilets near to where he parks up. But he added: “The easiest way to have a shower is to pop into a leisure center – or take a dip in the sea…”
It was the extra comforts of a car that persuaded Adam Neal to try sleeping in his Zafira.
He said: “Stealth car camping is great because it gets me away from the normal grind and out into the countryside.
“You get more creature comforts in a car than a tent. You can turn the heating on and it’s easier to put the kettle on.”
Adam, 47, a part-time delivery driver from Leicester, cooks meals using a small gas stove. He has fitted curtains in the Vauxhall to stop his interior lights attracting attention.
But his sleep has still been disturbed twice – including by a couple having a romp nearby when he camped overnight in a graveyard in Leicester. It was a key lesson.
He said: “I try to avoid car parks where there are doggers.”
Dad-of-two Adam found out about stealth camping through YouTube. In the past year he has racked up 16,000 miles on 50 trips around the UK – and now shares videos on the site of his own adventures on his “Wandering Where” channel.
Adam’s advice for would-be stealth campers is simple: “Put the seats down in your car, see if you can get comfortable – then go and do it.”
He uses the park4night app to find overnight stops and urges people to keep to popular camping spots where they will find “safety in numbers”.
He said: “One of the best park-ups was in the North York Moors – a little car park at the top of a quaint fishing village, with sea views.”
If you park on a road intending to camp, you technically require permission from the landowner, which is very often the local authority. But in practice stealth campers are rarely moved on by the council, especially as they usually stay for only one night in a lay-by.
While car parks may allow overnight parking, this does not automatically grant permission for overnight camping and you may be asked to move on.
Camping on private land can be more complex and it is always advisable to secure the landowner’s permission first, otherwise it is classed as trespassing.
Also, keep in mind that sleeping in your car is illegal if you are under the influence of drinking or drugs.
Top tips for car camping
- Check out apps like park4night for good camping locations reviewed by regulars.
- Carry wet wipes or use the showers at leisure centers or motorway service stations. Flush app shows public loos.
- For privacy and total darkness, invest in a front windscreen sunshade and black curtains for the side windows.
- Take an insulated cool box with you for storing your chilled food.
- Carry a fire extinguisher if you are cooking in or near the car.