A night under the brilliant, undiluted stars is one of the best ways to escape the stresses of daily life, but to do it right, you’ll need supplies. Firewood, graham crackers, and chocolate are obvious choices, but the right vehicle can be the gooey marshmallow that brings it all together.
A lot goes into choosing the ideal camping car. It has to get you there for one, so it must be adventurous and at least somewhat tough. It should also be reliable, with lots of cargo room and seating for all your friends and gear. We’ve already done a list of our favorite trucks and the best 4x4s, so when we set out to choose the best cars for camping, we focused on fun. That’s the point of camping, right?
Citroën Cactus M
This one may be a concept, but this beach car is just too perfect as an outdoor adventurer to exclude. First off, the cabin is covered in water-resistant neoprene, which means you can hoof it to the coast and not worry about wet surfing gear, clothes, or spilling a drink. There’s an integrated tent out back as well, and the rear seats fold to create a sleeping area for two.
Because it’s weird and French and awesome, the Cactus M embraces a special kind of eccentricity. As such, the entire exterior is coated with an air-filled “second skin” that prevents scratches, bumps, and damage from salt water. Oh, and it has its own surfboard.
The worst car ever made might just be the best camping trip companion. Despite its fugly looks and bad reputation, the mid-sized crossover is chalk-full of crafty features, including a swing-open tailgate, a removable cargo tray (pong anyone?), and a center console that doubles as a cooler. If that weren’t enough, the available camping package includes an air compressor, inflatable mattress, and of course, an attachable tent.
Even without the extra knick knacks, the Aztek is plenty capable. With the rear seats down, the vehicle boasts 93.5 cubic feet of cargo space and a 10-speaker stereo system with rear controls. Just make sure to face your tent away from the car; a Pontiac Aztek is not the first thing you want to see in the morning.
The Element is famous for its easily washable urethane floor, but an easy cleanup isn’t the only reason the SUV appears on our list. The rear seats, which are covered in stain-resistant fabric, can recline, fold up, and be removed for extra cargo room. It’s a tall vehicle as well, which makes it easy to store awkward items like water tanks or even grills.
In addition, Honda offers a genuine factory hatch tent as an accessory, which measures 10 foot by 10 foot and sleeps six. Add in available all-wheel drive and this lunchbox on wheels could be the perfect fit.
Land Rover Discovery Sport
Let’s class this up a bit. Despite the fact that 90 percent of Land Rover owners never use it, the automaker’s off-road prowess is nothing short of legendary. This particular model includes Terrain Response driving modes, which automatically adjust the transmission, suspension, and traction control based on what surface you’re driving over. Because of that, the Discovery can ferry seven campers to just about anywhere in the world.
Sure, it’s no fancy Range Rover Sport SVR, but with a base price of $37,695, this British bulldog is the one many of us can actually afford.
What’s better than one lunchbox on wheels? Two lunchboxes on wheels!
Joking aside, this rolling toaster is perfectly suited for light camping duty given its almost offensively square shape. You can jam tents, sleeping bags, folding chairs, and just about anything else you can think of inside the xB, and better yet, the first-gen five-door returns up to 31 mpg on the highway. Take that, aerodynamics.
Is was tough to decide just which Subaru would appear on our list first, but in the end, we settled on the only “truck” the company has ever made. It was either that or the BRZ.
Built before the active lifestyle automobile trend was born, the Baja combined car-like handling with truck-like utility in a funky, but likable way. It wasn’t received or sold particularly well over its four-year lifespan, but it had character, and sometimes that’s all you need. Add in Subaru hallmarks like all-wheel drive, solid reliability, and healthy fuel economy ratings, and you’ll understand why Bajas are so popular with aficionados of nature. Is there an automaker more closely tied to camping than Subaru? If there is one, it’s probably the brand behind our next entrant.
The Wrangler is one of most iconic off-roaders ever built, and for good reason. The SUV’s body-on-frame construction and rigid live axles give it a toughness newer crossovers can’t match, and the culture behind it is as strong as any car. Newer models have added electronic traction control, premium sound systems, and leather interiors, but the Wrangler is still a dirty dog at heart.
There isn’t a copious amount of room inside for coolers and things (unless you opt for one of Jeep’s countless camping accessories), but who cares? You can take the doors and roof off!
Minivans get a bad rap, but if you can get past their manatee-like exterior, these family haulers are some of the most practical and tech-rich vehicles on the road. Take the new Pacifica, for instance, which offers a generous 197.8 cu. ft. of storage space with the third row stowed. With all the seats up, this thing can haul up to eight people around, but there’s a lot more to offer than sheer volume.
Did your tentmate track dirt all over the sleeping bag again? No worries, the Pacifica has a built-in vacuum. Have too much gear in your hands to open the door? Easy fix; you can open this van by waving your foot around. There are also eight USB ports in total for smartphone charging, two 12-volt outlets for blowup mattresses or heaters, and best of all, 13 cupholders. That’s right, 13. Thats a lot of … soda.
If there is one word to describe Honda’s only truck, it’s “quirky.” Everything about the Ridgeline is just a little bit off, but that’s certainly not a bad thing. As we found out when we drove it, the truck’s weirdness is one of its best attributes.
More impressive than the Ridgeline’s ride, handling, and engine power are genius features like the dual-action tailgate, which can swing open like a door or be folded down. The truck also has a lockable trunk and an audio system inside the bed, and new tech like adaptive cruise control, collision mitigation braking, and lane keeping assist keep you safe both to and from the campsite.
Mini Clubvan Camper
Of all the car brands in the world, Mini is one of the last you’d associate with roughing it. In an attempt to change that, the automaker released three camping-centric concepts back in 2013, the most memorable of which was the Mini Clubvan Camper.
This car differs from the rest of our field due to its limited occupancy. With a cot on one side and an extendable kitchenette on the other, there isn’t much room for anyone except the driver, meaning this compact prefers to camp solo. It’s a shame really, because with its propane stove and chest fridge, this thing is a party on wheels. There’s even a handheld shower, which means your vacation stops whenever you want it to.
It would appear the only way Americans like their wagons is with a lift, and while that might not be a styling decision we agree with, it does come with the benefit of versatility. Taking a Golf Sportwagon into the boonies for a spot of camping might be risky business, but with the Alltrack’s 4Motion all-wheel drive system, a bit more ground clearance, underbody protection, and plastic moldings around the wheel wells, you can venture (within reason) into the great unknown. Better yet, the Alltrack and its 66.5 cu. ft. of cargo capacity starts at a supremely reasonable $25,850.
We’ve mentioned some “creative” camping car solutions thus far, but let’s not forget the gold standards. Though the 4Runner is long overdue for an update, its rugged body-on-frame platform and dependable four-wheel drive system can take you just about anywhere. If you spring for the TRD Pro and its increased ride height, bigger tires, and skid plates, you’ll face few obstacles. The alien front fascia may not appeal to everyone (we happen to dig it), but it’s hard to argue with up to 89.7 cu. ft. of cargo capacity and 5,000 pounds of max towing. Need another reason? The back window goes down so you can air out the cabin — and its inhabitants — after a smelly few days in the woods. That’s fun for the whole family.
We shed a tear in 2015 when Nissan announced the Xterra was ending production. The quirky model remains a favorite among adventurers for its dependability and creative cargo solutions. In addition to a solid 65.7 cu. ft. of max cargo room, there are storage areas within the cabin floor and one built into the design of the construction-grade aluminum roof rack. To access those top-stored items, the Xterra has built-in bumper steps. Like the Honda Element, cleaning the interior is a breeze, thanks to “Easy Clean” materials.
If you score a six-speed manual version, the Xterra and its 3.6-liter V6 is even fun to drive. Finding a four-wheel drive version in good shape is becoming harder and harder these days, as people are realizing what a great adventure vehicle the Xterra was, but you should budget about $15-20K for a late production model.
The Subaru Baja is just plain cool, but if you want a new Subaru that’s still affordable, give the Forester a shot. It’s certainly not the most exciting crossover on the market, but what it lacks in pizazz it makes up for in practicality. Five passengers fit easily within the tall, spacious cabin, while 34 cu. ft. of cargo volume is available behind the rear bench. Standard all-wheel drive and plenty of ground clearance will broaden your campsite horizons as well. Also, unlike four-wheel drive rigs, the Forester returns up to 32 mpg on the highway, meaning you won’t need to lug fuel reserves wherever you go. The Forester really is a no-brainer choice for a camping companion.
Toyota’s Tacoma needs no introduction, as it’s one of the best-selling trucks of all time. However, we will give you a warning — if you buy a Tacoma, the “Taco” family comes with it. The Tacoma has such a thriving adventure community, you almost can’t escape the combined enthusiasm. Be it overlanding, rock crawling, or hauling duty, the Tacoma can do it all. The availability of a double-cab and/or a long-bed configuration expands storage or people-hauling options considerably, and multiple variations with different degrees of off-road capability, means there is a Tacoma for everyone.
If you can resist the urge to modify, the Tacoma is affordable, has incredible resale value, and is easy to maintain. That said, don’t be surprised if you start shopping aftermarket bumpers and rooftop tents immediately after leaving the dealer lot.
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