Subaru Outback Camp Conversion

For many years when I would go on multi-day photo trips I was constrained by the availability of a hotel room each night. In the last couple years in order to save some money and keep me closer to the natural places I like to photograph, when flying to a location I would sometimes bring my tent and smaller summer-weight sleeping bag and stay in campgrounds.

I found camping enjoyable and was sufficiently comfortable doing it so, when my truck reached nearly 200,000 miles on the odometer and I needed a new vehicle, I decided I would get one that I could sleep in negating the need for a tent. Some of the criteria I had was for the vehicle to be Four- or All-wheel drive, for it to get better gas mileage than the 20 MPG (11.75 liters per 100 km) I was averaging with my pickup, and for it to be long enough for me to be able to sleep in comfortably with my 6'4" (191 cm) height. That last factor was the most difficult to meet but I found the Subaru Outback met all my requirements so bought a used one.

My overall goal was to not make any permanent modification to the vehicle so it could be resold, and also to be able to remove everything and store it in the storage room above my garage out of the way when not on an overnight trip. As I started the effort I also decided I wanted to be able to store everything in the back area of the Outback during the day and leave nothing at a campsite. That's essential because I often spend each night in a new location.  I also wanted to be able to put the rear seats up during the day so everything looked normal from the exterior beyond having a solar panel on the roof. After I completed the design the only space usually taken up in the back seats on the interior is the battery in one foot well and my camera backpack and tripod when not in use. I sometimes leave the small gym bag I use to store my clean clothes, dirty clothes, and toiletries on the rear seat behind the driver as well for easy access.

Subaru Outback packed with camping gear. On the top in the tan bag is a folding aluminum table. Below it at right is a blue folding pad and, below it, is my green folding sleeping platform. In front of them is my winter weight sleeping bag. On the left side bottom is the storage bin that holds my stove, emergency shovel, jumper cables, fuel bottle, tools, water pump, and other miscellaneous items. Above it is the plastic bin where I store all my food. Nearest the viewer is a 3 gallon water jug and beside that is one of the titanium cooking pots I use to cook all my food. I leave my cookware there to dry out after washing.

Items ordered for Subaru camp rig:

NOTE: I include links to each item from various suppliers and also list the price I paid.  Looking at these in October 2020 as I write this blog, I see that prices have gone up for quite a few of them.

Aluminum tent spikes to hold tarp poles in place. $4. I already had a lot of 550 cord and some cheap carabiners so I built two 9’ tethers with carabiners at each end to link the top of the support poles/outside edge of the cover with the tent spikes. These tent spikes have a small loop of 550 cord attached to them to which I hook the end of the 550 cord using a carabiner.  I put these spikes into the ground a little wider than the 3' cover to pull the front apart keeping it taut.

Adjustable height tent poles for tarp support away from vehicle. $40. The tops of these have a narrow part that expands back out to regular diameter at the end which hook into and hold the loops on the corners of the waterproof cover/awning.  I attach one end of the 9’ 550 cords to the corner cover loops to keep it all taut and hold the poles in place.

Waterproof awning as outside cover 3' x 6'. $42. I bought a cover 3’ wide because the roof rack mounting points are perfectly 3’ apart if I want to attach this over the back hatch opening. The anchors are also perfectly 3’ apart on each roof rack for mounting to the side of the vehicle, which is where I would typically install this thing.

These first three items give me a cover if I want it just outside the vehicle, although I will only use them if it is raining when I am stopped for the night so I can cook and also get into and out of the vehicle without getting wet.   The photos show the support poles at their maximum height but if it were raining I would put them at their minimum height so the rain would run off at their end and not run back to the vehicle because that would get me wet whenever I got into or out of the vehicle.  Typically from dawn to dusk I am out and about which is why this setup would only be used if it were raining when I stopped for the night.

October 2022 update: I have yet to actually take this awning setup on a trip, so it was a waste to design and purchase it.  I figure if it is raining I'll just get into or out of the car quick.  Taking time to set this up and break it down will only keep me out in the rain longer making me even more wet.

  • Outback with waterproof 3' x 6' cover over side door.

  • Outback with waterproof 3' x 6' cover over side door.

  • Outback with waterproof 3' x 6' cover over side door.

  • Carabiner attaching waterproof cover to Outback roof rack tie down point (from side).

  • Carabiner attaching waterproof cover to Outback roof rack tie down point (from above).

View of the back seat of the Outback. On nearest seat is my photo backpack, behind it is my tripod, and in the distance you can see my clothes bag and the cables running between the solar panel on the roof through the cracked window down to the charge controller in the footwell. I also have some shower shoes and a spare set of shoes in the closest footwell drying out.

Foldable 4" foam mattress. $60. This is very comfortable but takes up a lot of space in the back of the vehicle, so before I go somewhere I will decide if I want to bring this or one of the much-smaller blow-up camp mattresses I have. The photo showing everything in the back of the Outback shows this large blue mattress folded up on the right side of the vehicle rear behind the sleeping bag and under the tan folding table.

October 2022 update: I always bring this mattress with me since the comfort makes the space utilization worthwhile.  I also bought a larger plastic tub and now put all my tools, utensils, and food in that single large tub stored in the back on the left side of the vehicle.

Adjustable height aluminum table for cooking/eating. $65. If I'm staying in campgrounds, most provide a picnic table making this unnecessary. However, if I were to stay elsewhere this would come in handy. I wanted aluminum so I could use my gas stove on it with no fear of the table catching on fire. You can see this table folded up in the tan bag on top of everything in the photo showing the back of the Outback.

October 2022 update: I actually replaced this large table with a smaller one about 1' squared, but I have never carried either one of them on a trip.  Most places I stop have a table and if I don't have one handy I just cook directly on the ground.  Only if it was raining hard would I have a use for a table to cook under the shelter of the back hatch.

Winter weight long sleeping bag. $95. I have had a lighter/smaller summer weight bag I bought from REI for a trip to Norway in 2004 and typically use it since it packs up smaller and breathes better. However, if I'll be sleeping overnight somewhere where the temperature drops to close to freezing or below I’ll bring this heavier bag instead. This large winter weight bag is visible in the photo showing the back of the outback on the right side in the black and blue compression sack.

  • Folding aluminum table in bag.

  • Folding aluminum table base set up with top still folded in bag.

  • Folded aluminum table completely set up.

  • Cover over back of Outback with aluminum table below.

  • Aluminum table legs extended out in perfect spot to cook and eat seated on back bumper.

Front seat view showing where I keep the cooler during the day for easy access. It is connected to a plug in the center console that only gets power when the engine is running so that it doesn't draw down the car battery.

USB-powered fan to serve as A/C in summer. $15. This plugs into my solar charge controller's top USB port if I need some air to keep cool as I sleep in the warmer months.

Dolphin water bottle pump. $24. This thing is great for easily dispensing water from a larger water jug without having to heft the weight and tip it over. I am always worried something will push the pump accidentally when I am driving, or it will fall and activate dispensing water over my stuff, so only install it when I am cooking and remove it afterward. One tip I've learned is that you must ensure the draw tubes are firmly attached to the top or they will come loose in your water jug and are very difficult to remove. You can actually see that this happened in the photo of the back of the Outback, with the draw tube floating and jammed diagonally in the water bottle.

Solar shower. $20. If it is summer and you have a good clean water supply this thing is fantastic! It relies on gravity to feed the water so you must hang it on something using the attached handle or simply place it on top of your vehicle and keep the shower head below the main bag. I would not use this in the winter unless I had to because it would be too cold, but it is great in warmer weather if you are not near a shower facility yet have a clean water supply to fill it up in the morning and let it sit to warm up all day. When I was kayaking Virginia's Eastern Shore I filled this up each evening and left it in the back of my truck, and when I returned at the end of each day would use it to wash off the grime from my head, arms, and legs, and then used the remaining water to do the same for my kayak.

If not stored in the back section this is where I'll leave my clothes bag where I store my clean clothes, dirty clothes, and toiletries. I also happened to have a spare camera body in it this particular time.

Two 3 gallon water bottles with handles. $30 for both. I love these because they have built-in handles and are rectangular, making packing them with other things easier. Bathing water aside, one of these covers all my cooking and dish washing requirements for a week. I have yet to take both on a trip but doing so would cover me for two weeks without needing a refill.

50AH deep cycle battery. $100. In hind-sight I would buy a 100AH battery since this runs down easily when I use it to power my cooler all night, and doesn’t charge back up fully if the next day is cloudy or I am in a forest where my solar panel doesn't get multiple hours of direct sunlight. I will typically connect this to the solar panel at home to fully charge the battery before any trip, & a larger capacity battery would give me more leeway for multiple nights without worrying about fully drawing down the battery. Apart from powering my cooler, the only thing I will ever use this battery for is to charge my cell phone overnight, charge camera batteries via a USB charger, and run the USB fan to cool down on hot nights.

Marine battery box. $8. This is where the battery sits. I attached the charge controller to the top, and also wired in a switch between the charge controller and battery's hot terminals, which I attached to a recess in the battery box, so I can turn off the charge controller and not drain my battery when I am storing the battery and box at home. Finally, I installed a cigarette lighter socket in the end of the lid which is where the cooler plugs in. That socket is wired to the charge controller and not directly to the battery so the controller can cut the current if the battery voltage drops too low to avoid damaging the battery. In short, I added three things to the lid of this battery box: the charge controller, the charge controller on/off switch, and the cigarette lighter socket.

The 50 Amp-Hour battery housed in a marine battery box with the charge controller fastened to the top and connected to the solar panel on the roof. The outlet I installed in the box to power the cooler is visible at the near end.

100 Watt solar panel. $83. I measured the space between the roof rack risers on my Outback and also the distance between the front and rear rack supports (which swing out from the risers but stow in the risers when not in use) and searched for a panel that had the dimensions which would allow it to fill the rectangular area in the middle of them all. This panel fits which is why I bought it.

Copper 10-14AWG crimp loops for battery connections. $7. I crimped and soldered these onto the end of the wires that connect the charge controller to the battery to facilitate connecting and disconnecting them.

10 foot each of red & black 10AWG wire. $9. I only needed a couple feet of this wire but this was the shortest length I could find. This is only used to connect the charge controller to the battery.

View of the solar panel on the roof with the cables going into the window. Those plastic guards keep the rain out and allow me to keep my rear windows cracked both to allow the solar cable to run down to the battery and ensure I have fresh air in the vehicle day and night.

10 foot red & black MC4 connector wires for solar panel to battery connection. $18. I connect one end of these to the solar panel on the roof, and the other end to the charge controller in the left side rear passenger seat foot well.

Solar charge controller with built in USB outlets & regulated power out. $16. This has three main wire connectors and I use all three sets. The first has some short MC4 connectors which I use to connect the charge controller to the solar panel via the 10 foot connector wires, the second connects to the battery, and the third connects to the cigarette lighter plug which runs my cooler.

3 foot red & black MC4 connector wires for charge controller to 10' wire connects. $10. I trimmed each of these down to a single foot in length since I only needed enough to get from the charge controller to the 10 foot cable that goes up to the roof solar panel.

View from above showing the solar panel and the brackets which lock it onto the roof rack. On the near edge you can see one of the two tabs which keep the panel from sliding side-side when I go around corners. I hadn't anticipated that so had to fabricate and add them after I first installed it to test it out.

120VAC to 12VDC battery connector to run cooler off regular outlet. $20. I bought this just so I could pre-cool the cooler if desired at home before leaving for a trip. In practice, I find I am typically driving a few hours the first day of a trip which is plenty of time to cool things down off one of the built-in power plugs in my car powered by the alternator. I do keep things destined for the cooler in a refrigerator at home until the day I actually leave so they are cold before even going into the cooler.

Igloo iceless 12VDC Peltier cooler. $90. This thing uses the Peltier effect to keep the contents of the cooler around 30 degrees Fahrenheit cooler than the surrounding air, and only draws around 5 Amps at 12 VDC when running.

October 2022 update:  I replaced this Igloo cooler with a true compressor refrigerator, the Alpicool K18.  $220. The Alpicool only draws a few amps when it is running and otherwise sits idle drawing minimal current to power the LED display and monitor the internal temperature.  I was running out of battery power with the Peltier cooler since it never stops running, but the Alpicool works fine with my same 50 AH battery. I keep the Alpicool on the rear seat directly behind the driver and right over the battery. I can't reach it while driving but can from both the front and back seat.  I also now carry a pillow and store it over this refrigerator when not in use since the lid is the thinnest part of the refrigerator and the pillow provides additional insulation.

Collapsible dish pan to carry food & wash dishes. $15. I haven't really used this since I tend to wash my dishes with as little water as possible in my own hands and dump the dirty water on the ground, but if in a campground with a dishwashing sink, this would come in handy to carry all dirty and later all clean dishes back to my camp site.

October 2022 update: I don't ever carry this dish pan with me and instead just wash my pots and spoon with a dish sponge, dish soap, and water directly out the back of the Outback using my bottled water.

  • Folded down rear seat and front seat slid forward to make room for my 6' 4" frame.

  • View from the rear of the vehicle showing my sleeping area.

I had some 2" x 4' aluminum bars already on hand as well as a metal brake and used both to build supports for the solar panel so I can firmly attach it to the roof of the Outback. After multiple trips reaching speeds up to 80 MPH on the Interstate, I have had no problems or concerns with the solar panel ever moving or coming free at speed. The way I designed it so the Outback roof rack cross supports swing out to lock the bent aluminum bars solidly in place, and also added some side supports at each end of the panel to keep it from sliding side-side, it is not going anywhere! I used short bolts, locking washers, and locking nuts all purchased at a hardware store for a couple dollars to attach everything to the solar panel so I don't have to worry about them ever vibrating loose.

I also already had a soldering iron and solder to build the electrical connections, and a drill and bits to drill holes in the battery box for mounting the on/off switch & charge controller to it with some small screws I also already had on hand.

For the sleeping platform, I had previously built a kitchen coffee bar and used only half of the 4' x 8' x 3/4" plywood sheet for it, so I cut the remaining 4' x 4' section into two even 2' x 2' squares attached with hinges for easier storage both at home and in the back of the Outback. I also had some spare 2x4 so measured the distance and cut two legs to support the front of the platform and transfer weight to the vehicle floor where it hangs over the folded down top of the back seat and bumps up against the back of the front passenger seat. Those are also attached with hinges for easier storage. I offset the inside support leg to meet the flat portion of the rear passenger footrest and be out of the way of the transmission tunnel in the middle of the vehicle. I need this platform because of my height, and painted it all green so it would look nice and then attached a carpet to the side that sits against the car with a staple gun to protect the car. I added a handle to make it easy to carry the platform to and from my vehicle, and the handle folds facing the foot well when the platform is in use keeping it completely out of the way. The carpet and hinges were purchased at a hardware store and I used my table saw to cut the plywood and miter saw to cut the 2x4s.

In short, I needed a hardware store to source the short bolts, plastic lock nuts, and lock washers all used to attached the solar panel supports to solar panel. I also bought the small switch there to easily disconnect the battery from the charge controller so the controller isn't eating battery power while the battery is stored between trips.

  • View from rear of the vehicle showing sleep support frame folded and stored behind the rear seat.

  • View from rear of vehicle with sleeping support frame folded out ready for a cushion to be placed on top followed by a sleeping bag.

Other camp gear I already had which I use:

Set of 2 pots & 2 pans titanium hiking cookware. $100. I never use the pans but always use the pots. I also store a small plastic tube of dish washing liquid and a scrubber pad in the middle of them for washing off this cookwear and my titanium spork.

Titanium spork. All I need is the spoon portion and I've never used the knife/fork, although I suppose it is nice to have them in case I ever wanted to. $18.

Large MSR fuel bottle that lasts a week with the stove cooking 2-3 times/day. $24

MSR WhisperLite International stove. $100 I keep a couple lighters in the bag with the stove to start it up. This has been a great stove that I've had for a few years now. At first I was using regular gasoline in this because it is readily available, and I still do that when I fly somewhere and camp with my tent, but I now use white gas in it when I am traveling from home because it burns a bit cleaner than gasoline.

Pop up solar LED light. $20. I leave this thing on my dash or seat to charge during day, then use it to see while cooking after sunset and before sunrise, or at night when I need light for something while sleeping. I also have a cheap $1 LED flashlight as a backup and of course my cell phone also provides light.

  • View from rear right passenger door of sleeping frame in place. This is the door I use to get into and out of the vehicle at night.

  • View of the rear footwell showing the 2x4 support legs. When I first built this I had these measured to perfectly touch the floor but have since added seat covers to protect the seats from my dogs, so they are floating a bit due to the additional height caused by the seat covers. When my weight is on the support frame the seat and covers compress and these legs make contact with the floor as designed, transferring my weight to it.

At some point in the future I'll probably buy a new 4x4 truck and put a camper back on it that includes a wet bath, so I have everything I need in a vehicle yet can still travel to the places I want to visit. A camper, RV, or 5th wheel don't offer that option. For example, I would not want to try to drag those through beach sand or over a 4x4 road! The advantage of this will be that I will have a refrigerator that will run on propane, and have my own shower/toilet available too, plus a more comfortable cooking top.

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