Wednesday, May 18, 2011

How to Turn your SUV into a RV (updated!)

As most of you know, we began our Alaskan adventure last year by investigating how to turn our SUV into a RV (see June 27, 2010, post).  While we ultimately purchased an ultralight 4x4 tent camper for the bulk of our 105-day adventure, we spent many comfortable nights sleeping in the Xterra, particularly while on the Haul Road.   Many folks have requested that we give more specifics on how to turn a SUV into a RV.  This post will offer the details.

To outfit the Xterra for sleeping, we purchased a 5” foam pad and cut it (with a serrated electric knife) to fit the cargo area.  If you are interested in doing the same and are unable to find thick foam in your area, you can purchase a queen size 4” memory foam mattress pad for about $120 from places like  NOTE:  We remove the Xterra’s back seat bottoms when we travel to allow for a longer sleeping compartment.   

We stow heavy gear behind the front seats (which also bolsters the foam pad area not supported because of the missing seats).  The remaining gear is stowed in nets that came with the Xterra.  We hang the nets along the side panels rather than in the rear.  This allows for greater visibility through the rear window and offers easier access to the gear from either the side doors or hatch. 

We stow sleeping bags and pillows, emergency gear, a few day’s worth of clothing, foul weather gear, toiletries, and the day’s rations in the nets.  We use totes, stuff sacks, and the day packs to keep like-items together.  We are extremely frugal in packing the nets.  Remember that everything stowed in them must fit in the passenger seat while you’re sleeping.  We always leave the driver’s seat accessible (and keys in the ignition) in case an emergency exit is required during the middle of the night.

The foam pad is covered with a sheet to keep it clean.  We also top the sheet with an easily removed waterproof cover (we use an old ground cloth from a retired tent) to keep it dry and prevent Rox’s muddy paws from leaving dirt on our sleeping quarters.  When sleeping, we roll out the sleeping bags on top of the foam pad. 

We use Magna Screens for ventilation when we sleep.  These wonderful contraptions are magnetic and snap around the windows to keep out the mosquitos (see  During inclement weather, rain guards allow us to crack the windows without getting the inside of the vehicle soaked. 

All additional gear is carried “upstairs” on the Xterra’s roof rack.  For nearly 25 years, we have used the same soft-sided Kanga pouch (see ), without a failure or problem. You will be surprised at how much gear you can stow in the pouch, however, be prepared for your calf muscles to get a workout when you’re standing on the tires and bumper, to load or unload gear.

Our next post will focus on special amenities, including our kitchen, followed by our solutions for the bathroom potty and shower...


  1. My husband and I drove the Haul Road in June 2009. (We live in North Pole) We slept in the back of his pickup. One thing I would recommend to you is some kind of screen house that you can rig to the back of your SUV, because the mosquitoes were HORRIBLE! Here's my blog entry with commentary and photos of our trip:

    As you can see, we used an old screen house draped around the truck (it wasn't pretty, but it was efficient) so that when we opened the back hatch, we were able to step out into a relatively mosquito-free environment. It also afforded us additional shelter when it rained on us. We were able to set up small camp chairs and eat without being eaten.

    It didn't keep them out 100%, but that's because they're pretty darn smart and found their way under the truck and into our space. Perhaps you could rig up something more efficient.

    Also, don't forget head nets. You can get them inexpensively at WalMart. In the 9 years we've lived here, we have never used head nets. On our trip to Prudhoe, they were necessary.

    You're going to love the trip. It's gorgeous! I look forward to doing it again sometime. Enjoy!


  2. Susan
    You are right on about the Mosquitoes, they are horrible. Your answer is very creative...a great idea. It is a great blog on your trip, I really enjoyed it. We did the Dalton in 2010 and enjoyed it (our post is July 21,2010). However it rained most of the time so we didn't get many great pictures. We will be adding more about our trip up the Haul Road in the next few weeks. Thanks for sharing.

  3. I just checked out your Haul Road blog entry from last year. Sorry your weather wasn't better, but WOW on seeing the Musk Ox! I love those big hairy beasts! I hope you have a better (drier) experience this time.

    Have you driven the McCarthy Road to Kennecott?

  4. Yes, we did drive the McCarthy Road... in fact, we tried to cover every major road in Alaska. It was such a fantastic experience that we can't wait to go back.

    Thanks for your interest. Saw your site... fantastic photos!


  5. Have you considered a roof top tent AKA a car top camper? These tents sit on top of your SUV and include a built in 8' long mattress with mosquito screens over the built in windows. They set up in about 3 minutes.

  6. Thanks for your comment! Yes, we did consider the roof top tents. Had we been a few years younger, they would have been a great option for us. However, recognizing that I am notoriously clumsy at stairs and had the 100-pound Golden Retriever to consider, we felt that the 4x4 ultralight Kamparoo would be a better fit for us. Ozzie sets up in minutes, has easy entry and exit, offers ample floor space for Roxanne to sleep, and allows us to stand up to change clothes, etc.

  7. Fantastic experience! How exciting and thrilling.

  8. Hey, I just did this for the first time with my 5 year old son! I know this post is old but since it was one of the sites I found when looking for advice I'm sure other people will find it too.

    I have an '03 Trailblazer, the back two and center 3 seats fold completely flat (minus a "dip" down at the trunk area). We bought 2 standard pool floaties as mattresses - inexpensive and super easy to inflate. If I needed to pop up the middle seat(s) they were also super easy to move around. I brought real pillows and didn't fully inflate the floaties pillows so ours would stay put. I'm 6' tall and had plenty of room, but I would have put something under the foot area to even out the little dip.

    The sun doesn't go down here until 11pm in the summer, so one absolute must I will do for next time is bring along a tarp to cover the car and cut a lot of that light out. I was thinking I'd just throw it over the vehicle and pin it down on the sides, that way I still have trunk access during the day, and the added benefit of extra privacy inside the vehicle.

  9. Sounds like you and your son had a wonderful time. Using pool floaties as mattresses was a great idea!

    My husband used an eye mask (the airlines gave us some on a late-night flight) to keep the sun out of his eyes while we were sleeping on our trip up the Haul Road in Alaska during the summer. Another solution that you might consider to block out light would be to take heavy fabric and cut it a bit larger than each of your vehicle windows. If your vehicle has carpet on the walls like ours, you can simply adhere the sticky side of a piece of Velcro to the fabric and stick it directly onto the carpet walls. Another idea is to attach the shades to the windows with little suction cups. We use a sun shade (purchased from Walmart) to block light from the windshield.

    Please keep in touch and let us know more about your SUV-RVing... enjoy!