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2009 Outback 2.5i 5MT
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Discussion Starter #1
I had a different kind of car camping experience in mind for my Subaru. My design goals were: stealth, health, comfort, safety, reliability, efficiency, and a modular build that requires no tools for setup/breakdown.

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IMG_0517.jpg IMG_3361.jpg IMG_3369.jpg IMG_3172.jpg Zen Micro Hotel.jpg

This is a very practical camper, something I can use for camping but also for emergencies such as escaping the wildfires of the West Coast in a hurry if needed. Best of all I did not “convert” my car into a camper. The car retains all of its original functionality (such as carrying passengers in the back seat) even if I’m camping.

Here’s a video of my build:

And here are the details behind my design goals…

Stealth
I wanted complete stealth. I can sleep anywhere a car can park, without being noticed. I’ve slept at rest stops, hospitals, parking lots, etc. Having that capability is really amazing. I call my Subaru a hotel alternative. Over time, the money I’ve saved on hotel stays has paid for all the costs of my camper build.

Health
For my health I wanted fresh air all night rather than a stuffy cabin full of condensation from breathing (my windows are fully closed/sealed when I’m car camping). To accomplish this I took the hard route of purchasing solar panels and an expensive LiFePO4 battery and wired this to run the car vent fan at night. The battery is in the spare tire storage area and it does not offgas in the cabin. It charges from solar panels on the roof. I also mounted a separate fan controller in the rear cabin. This setup allows me to control the car fan from the rear cabin to bring in as much fresh air as I’d like during the night.

Comfort
When I was 25 I could sleep on rocks and be happy. But not now. I wanted this camper to be something I could sleep in for however long I need. I chose to use latex mattresses for the bed. These are comfy, warm, soft, and better than most hotel beds. I use real sheets instead of a sleeping bag, and I use a real pillow. Total comfort. Also, with the windows up the soundproofing in the car is great, and the white noise from the fan is very relaxing.

Safety
Mainly this means making sure my electrical modification and my solar panels/battery/controller are all set up well. So far so good on that note. The other safety consideration is being able to lock the doors if I’m ever sleeping in an area where that is necessary. Also I wanted to make sure the camper was not cluttered or loose or all over the place in the car. It shouldn’t rattle or move in any of its configurations while I’m driving. This also applies to the solar panels on the roof. I’ve mounted them low in a rack so they do not catch a lot of wind and are totally stable.

Reliability
Well, first I’m counting on the Subaru itself to be reliable. As long as it doesn’t break down (which my first Outback never did in 18 years of use) then things will be fine. For the camping build itself I wanted to make sure that what I created is low maintenance. The last thing I want to do is have to figure out some complex wiring situation on the road, for example. I’m hoping what I built will not need attention later. I do carry spare electrical parts for my build just in case.

Efficiency
I traveled the world when I was younger, carrying only a backpack, and I’ve also done some backcountry exploration in extreme weather. From these experiences I learned that traveling/camping does not require a lot of gear. The gear I take should be light, strong, and multipurpose. Multipurpose in this case also means that the camping setup can be changed/altered if needed. Also, setting up the camper requires no tools.

Modular
This is where I think my build is different from others. I wanted this build to be flexible. As I was building all this I kept an imagined scenario in my mind: what if I was car camping with two people in a remote location and I drove past someone who broke down and needed a ride. With my setup I can handle that scenario. I can break down the platform and bed on the road, store it all in the rear hatch, and then transport 3 people in the rear seat if needed. Hopefully I’ll never have to do this, but I wanted to be able to if needed.

Now, here are some things I can’t do that other builds can do…

Kitchen

I cut the kitchen out altogether. I see many builds that have nice two burner stoves, and pull out drawers, and a lot of cooking utensils for every occasion, even refrigerators and special coolers and I’ve even seen vans with ovens and so on. I had no interest in using the minimal space in my Outback to set up a kitchen. Why? Because I can always cook outside, using the same MSR white gas backpacking stove that took me through so many backcountry adventures without fail. It works, it’s small, it’s efficient, it’s enough. I usually just heat water and pour it into dehydrated food packs. Easy. And of course if I’m not camping but am staying in a populated area (stealth camping) I can just get takeout from a restaurant.

Power and Electricity
Many builds have more power. At least for vans anyway. But I simply don’t have a need for power. I can charge my phone and also my camera battery via a USB plug in the car. That’s all I really need. And if I ever need to take my laptop on a trip I can charge it with a small inverter that I can carry along.

Lighting
Lots of van builds use additional interior and exterior lights, LEDs, etc. I have several small flashlights around when I travel, and a headlamp. I actually can’t stand too much light at night. In my opinion one of the beauties of camping is getting my eyes adjusted to the dark and seeing the stars. And if I’m cooking in the dark, a small flashlight that doubles as a lantern is sufficient. Oh, and I have two interior lights in the cabin already. So I use those for interior lights. I replaced my car battery with an Optima Yellow Top battery so I don’t really have to worry about the interior lights running down the car battery.

Bathroom
Well, I have one. It’s very small. It’s a leakproof plastic jar, and also a collapsable bucket if I ever really need that. I haven’t had to shower on my trips because I am usually around a real shower during my trips at some point. But if ever need to I can bring a handheld camping shower with me. And I have a tarp for privacy if needed.

Summary
Overall I’ve been very happy with this build. The main costs were the lithium battery, roof rack to hold the solar panels, the panels themselves, and the latex mattresses. Other than that it’s mostly labor for the wiring, woodworking, window inserts, making an attic, etc.

I’m posting this for others to get ideas if they want. I can’t tell you how to construct this exactly. I can’t give designs/measurements/etc because I would have to create them. This was a trial and error build. However, I have documented the hardest part of the build (modified wiring for the car fan) in another post on this forum. Keep in mind I’m neither a mechanic nor a carpenter nor an electrician :) And certainly you are on your own in terms of liability if you try any of this. I am only showing what I’ve done with my Subaru, with the idea that it might help others to come up with their own custom builds.

If you want to see what this build looks like and how it works you can watch the video above. There is also a longer version of the build video if you want more details. Just go to the first video and look for my other videos and you’ll find it.

Good adventuring!
 

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2011 Outback 3.6R Limited 2013 Crosstrek (traded) 2020 Outback premium pkg11
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Got some pics looking in from the rear doors? My sister is wanting to do something in her new to her 2018. Her boyfriend is 6'3" so trying to fill the gap between the rear seat folded and the front seats but have it removable to drive.
 

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2009 Outback 2.5i 5MT
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Discussion Starter #3
Got some pics looking in from the rear doors? My sister is wanting to do something in her new to her 2018. Her boyfriend is 6'3" so trying to fill the gap between the rear seat folded and the front seats but have it removable to drive.
I don't have pics but the video has some shots around 3:58, 11:55, 13:18. The long video might have more detail on that, I don't remember. Anyway it was possible to set it up so that it's completely removable/storable and yet fills the gap.
 

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2012 OB Limited 3.6Rrrrr
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Awesomely helpful, greatly encouraging! I've been enthralled with such as what Chris here and others have done, and seeing yours also is wonderful... thanks for sharing

This is one of the reasons why I too bought an OB.

Excellent work there Curt

 

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Discussion Starter #5
Awesomely helpful, greatly encouraging! I've been enthralled with such as what Chris here and others have done, and seeing yours also is wonderful... thanks for sharing
Thanks Zahn, glad it's helpful. Regarding the platform I wanted the simplest, most modular design I could make. And it was easier to build than the fixed-in-place platforms I see online like the one you linked. Good luck with however yours turns out!
 

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Somebody Else's XT
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I really like the 'non-conversion' aspect best. I had a camper van for years and there were a lot of "ordinary car" things it couldn't do because it had a kitchenette instead of a normal seat count.

Please consider adding a smoke detector & CO alarm. You never know who's going to set up upwind from you in the middle of the night.
 

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Discussion Starter #7
Please consider adding a smoke detector & CO alarm.
If an alarm ever went off at close range in the cabin that might kill me too, though. I spent a few years recently in different houses where the smoke alarms went off randomly (false positives) and I had to knock them off the ceiling with a pole like a piñata. But I like your safety tip. Thanks for mentioning it. I will look for an alarm with an adjustable volume, if one exists. I hear you about the kitchen!
 

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I will look for an alarm with an adjustable volume, if one exists. I hear you about the kitchen!
I'm certain you can find industrial ones where the detectors are divorced from the sirens, then just add an appropriate signaller.

However for cost and size purposes I think you'd do best by getting an ordinary household unit and a stick of Juicy Fruit, if you know what I mean.
 

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Discussion Starter #9
I'm certain you can find industrial ones where the detectors are divorced from the sirens, then just add an appropriate signaller.
I looked for an hour just now for alarms for the deaf. They exist and either use strobe lights or vibration. But they all need 120V wired. If you find something let me know. I'm never around cars idling right next to me for long periods. I think on the risk scale, this one's pretty low for my particular situation. But if such an alarm exists I'd get it.
 

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2006 Subaru Outback Wagon LLBean 3.0R Automatic
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Here’s a video of my build:
enjoyed that
admire your commitment to stealth airflow

like your blackout curtain w velcro
and the simplicity of the platform

also good to see how the cooler fits.

as to your collapsible toilet options.. thats a fail for my needs
I require a solid support structure to sit on.. so I experimented with this:

a gamma lid (O ring seal, screws on by hand, water and odorproof seal) on a bucket. Doubles as a "stool"...

the bucket is intended to support a bag system like you have.

the main drawback is that the round shape is bulky, but the odorproof O ring seal is a major benefit imo.. When not in use as a toilet, it also doubles as a cooler, and a leakproof trash container. Pack it in, Pack it out.
 

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Gamma lids are great. Home Depot sells them. I’ve bought them for years from pleasant hill grain. Can get different colors and different colored buckets to color code storage.
 

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Discussion Starter #13
enjoyed that
Thanks for watching the build video and for the compliments on the setup.

a gamma lid (O ring seal, screws on by hand, water and odorproof seal) on a bucket. Doubles as a "stool"...
My wife said my toilet was the light version, she called it "travel ready" and she said yours was the heavy version, "heavy duty" or "heavy doodie." She also said neither of the toilets have a seat. And she wants to know why we're all so determined to sh|t in our cars.

But really, this is something that I gotta solve. The collapsable bucket is ok but I'd like a better solution. I did experiment, without going too far, with how I'd actually pull this off in the car if needed. Put the bucket behind the driver's seat in the floorboard, then kneel in the rear seat facing the hatch, and hold on to the seat. Just saying. For an emergency. I once got so sick from dysentery that I could barely make it to the tent door to throw up. So I want to have some kind of in-car option.

For the outside...I've been resisting this purchase but I'll probably get a good privacy tent (standing tent) soon. Those just have too much functionality in such a small container that it's going to be worth it. Handles showers plus toilet, right outside the car.
 

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I can sit behind the front seats comfortably, on the rim of the bucket, feet on the floor, doors closed.

I also bought an inexpensive privacy tent to experiment with. Fearing it would blow over in the wind and leave me exposed (and being on pavement where driving stakes is not an option)..., I stood in the tent, placed inside an open back door and hooked the tent door opening over the window. That worked fine in an emergency.
 

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Discussion Starter #15 (Edited)
I can sit behind the front seats comfortably, on the rim of the bucket, feet on the floor, doors closed.
Yes that's what I mean too, I think it's the same position. The collapsable bucket seems like it's going to work fine in reality. It's rigid enough to hold its shape ok when unfolded (even if the pictures make it look otherwise). It's a little lower than a normal bucket but that's not a problem for me. The form factor of a solid bucket was what turned me away from that approach initially. Everything that goes inside the car needs to be as small/compact as I can make it, that's my design objective.

I wish my collapsable bucket could have a lid seal. But if the doodie bags I have are legit, they say they contain the odor. Also I keep a small container of something called Ona Gel in the car, which truly does eliminate all odor. It's an odor neutralizer and works almost immediately when opened, very helpful in various situations including this one. The privacy tent setup you have is what I was thinking, good to know it actually works and has been tested! Thanks for your take on how to improve my bathroom.

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Discussion Starter #16
Whenever I have new info about my setup I'll post it here.

Recently I added a "rack within a rack" to my roof. Here's a photo of the dual rack system.

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It may be hard to see what's going on in that photo. Here's the footprint of the new embedded rack...

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Why did I do this? Well, I wanted to be able to store things on the roof without touching the solar panels. The embedded rack floats above the panels.

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This rack-in-a-rack system is really only necessary for a 2-person camping situation. If I'm solo everything can fit inside the car. If there's 2 people in the cabin, though, it's helpful to be able to use the roof rack.

I'm sure there are other rack combinations that would work for solar panels. But here's what I ended up using:
  • Yakima Load Warrior
  • Load Warrior Extension kit (which comes with one "Load Bar" part #8870042)
  • A second Load Bar
  • Yakima Basket Case (discontinued but can be found used occasionally)
  • 2 Yakima WhispBars (these are the crossbars onto which everything is mounted)
I chose the Whispbars because they are lower to the roof than other crossbars. The problem with that though is they have reduced load capacity at around 100lbs. And the panels and 2 racks weigh about 80lbs. So technically I can only carry 20lbs on the roof if I'm driving. If I ever find I need more load on the roof I can upgrade to other crossbars. For now I put light items on the roof, things that would be bulky in the car but are fine on the roof (folding chairs, as an example).

I got a lot of help with the rack from ReRack in Portland. Great, friendly, helpful rack experts. I'm just mentioning them because I can't take full credit for the rack setup (they actually mentioned the Basket Case to me as a solution for the rack system I was trying to create).

If 20lbs sound too low to be useful for travel (it really is) keep in mind I can store more weight on the rack when I'm parked and camping. I can load it up at night to clear out the cabin for sleeping, for example.

Also you might wonder about the reduced solar capacity. It's hardly noticeable with the racks empty. If I start loading stuff on top then obviously it reduces solar. If I need to charge the solar battery and travel at the same time then I can keep everything inside the car while traveling, and then use the roof rack at night to clear the rear cabin space for 2 people.

Before the rack-in-a-rack setup I would have to move everything from the rear cabin to the front seats at night for a 2 person camping situation. This new roof setup eliminates that problem for me, and allows me to have 2 normal seats available in the car at all times. My whole principle with this setup is to have as much flexibility as possible so that I can retain the car's full capability.
 

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I wanted to be able to store things on the roof without touching the solar panels.
:) congrats on your new mini basket

thanks for posting pics... really helps me

future upgrade dreaming
replace the solar panels with a flexible version, that might be roof mountable, under the main basket... lower weight...
 

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how did you attached the rear ceiling cargo net? I see the handgrips over the rear seats, but what about in the very back of the cargo area? thx
 

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Discussion Starter #20
how did you attached the rear ceiling cargo net?
Here's a video showing the details up close...

Creating a Subaru Attic

The straps bear the weight and are really taut. I bought straps with buckles and cut the straps to length. You can singe the cut with a lighter or flame to seal the straps so they don't fray. The netting is garden netting I had laying around. If I did it again I'd use a tighter weave on the netting, but it's not necessary.

For the front...I stripped a machine screw under the hand grips when testing ideas. So watch out. The copper you see is mounting hardware for copper pipes, found at a hardware store. Just reshape the copper and make sure it doesn't force the screw in at the wrong angle (that's how I stripped it).
 
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