Prius Camping- New & Improved

August 15, 2012  •  13 Comments

Earlier this year, I posted a blog entry about my experiences with Prius camping. Since then, I've become much more experienced at camping in my Prius. Recently, I completed a 21 day trip to four national parks. I camped in the Prius for all 21 of those nights. I've received numerous questions about Prius camping which I'll try to address in this posting.

Cost

The obvious advantage to using the Prius rather than a more traditional RV is the lower cost of fuel. For most people, a larger savings is the lower cost of lodging (see campgrounds section below). During my recent trip, my Prius averaged an overall 54.0 mpg for the 5,500 mile journey. In Yellowstone National Park, the slower speed limits enabled the Prius to improve its gas mileage to nearly 63 mpg!

The fuel tank read half full after traveling 457 miles in the parks. Please keep in mind that it usually takes only 10 or 11 gallons to fill the tank when the low fuel indicator warning lights.

Convenience

An equally, if not more, important benefit is the convenience that Prius camping provides to outdoor photographers. In Yellowstone, the sun rises at 6:00 am in July and doesn't set until 9:00 pm. I usually arrive at the location by 5:15 am to set up and to capture some shots before the sun rises. Often times, these locations are 30 minutes or more from the nearest lodging. With the Prius, I am often situated just minutes away! During this last trip, I experienced 17 consecutive sunrises.

During the trip, there were a few occasions when the campgrounds were full when I arrived. Having the flexibility to sleep in the Prius provided an easy solution to this problem (more on this later in the "Campgrounds" section below).

Comfort

Comfort probably isn't the first thing that comes to mind when you think about sleeping in the car! However, I'm rather tall (6'3") and find the Prius to be quite comfortable for sleeping. To create the most room, I slide the front passenger seat all the way forward toward the dashboard and then push the seat back until it touches the back seat. Then, I push the back passenger seat down until touches the front seat. I use two floor pillows to flatten things out in the area where the back seat meets the front seat. This creates a flat space that is nearly nine feet long!

When traveling alone, I leave the passenger side of the car as shown throughout the day. There isn't any set up or take down time involved. Even when it is raining in the morning, I simply move over to the drivers seat and get started. I met one person who was hooking up his RV at the campground who told me how envious he was of my mini-RV! During the day, I use the pull cover to hide the entire trunk area from view when the car isn't being used for sleeping. As you can see, I use a Thermarest mattress and a sleeping bag along with two pillows.

Initially, I planned to stay at Hampton Inns (my usual lodging choice) while outside of the national parks. But, the thought of checking in and carrying many of my things to/from the car seemed like a hassle--especially considering that I would only be at the hotel for about 6 or 7 hours! Instead, I opted for continuing to "sleep in my own bed." In fact, I actually slept better in my Prius throughout the trip than I do at home. Although, I'm not sure how much the 4:45 am wake up times impacted that!

Temperature Control

Another surprising benefit of the Prius is that you can control the cabin temperature during the evening. This is possible because the hybrid battery, rather than the gas engine, supplies most of the power. When the battery runs low, the gas engine kicks on for a few minutes to regenerate the battery. When the battery is charged the gas engine turns off. During this trip, I only used this feature once--and that was because the temperatures were too high in North Platte, Nebraska (90 and humid)! So, I set the cabin temperature to 72 degrees for that night. In Yellowstone, the temperatures were in the upper 30's at night. Yet, it was warm enough inside the car--especially with the sleeping bag (which is rated for zero degree temperatures). During past trips, I found it necessary to turn the heat on once the outside temperatures dropped into the mid-20's. For this trip, I purchased a portable carbon monoxide alarm--just in case the gas engine didn't turn off as it should and carbon monoxide were to become a problem.

Campgrounds

During the vast majority of the trip, I parked the Prius in formal campgrounds. In Grand Teton National Park, I stayed at Gros Ventre and Colter Bay campgrounds for two nights each. In Yellowstone, I camped at Grant Village and Bridge Bay for two nights each. During some nights, the Yellowstone campgrounds were full. So, one night I "camped" behind the Old Faithful Inn. This was advantageous as there are no campgrounds within 15 miles of Old Faithful. Yet, I was able to practically see the geyser from my Prius. This made it much easier to be out on the trail capturing photos at 5:15 AM. Here is an image of the Prius parked at the back of the parking lot at the Old Faithful Inn:

Walmart was another convenient option along the way! Most Walmarts allow RV's to park overnight in the parking lot. The idea is that campers will most likely purchase food, ice and other supplies while they are there. I "camped" at four Walmarts during the trip--and all of those experiences were a pleasure:

  • Rock Springs, WY
  • Kalispell, MT
  • Helena, MT
  • Eau Claire, WI

At each of these locations, there were plenty of other campers in the lot. Here's my Prius RV at Walmart: Security and Privacy

In some ways, the Prius offers more security than other forms of camping. In Yellowstone and Glacier National Park, campers are required to store all food in bear boxes--as bears were visiting the campgrounds at night. Sleeping in a hard vehicle certainly offered more peace of mind with grizzly bears roaming nearby!

In general, it's more secure to camp in established campgrounds. When staying in areas outside of formal campgrounds (such as the parking lots at Walmart or other visitor centers and lodges), it's best to camp in a larger group (as the photo above illustrates). I also keep the windows closed and covered, the doors locked and the alarm system activated.

For this trip, I purchased some custom window coverings from the store at the Prius Chat website. They attach very quickly and precisely to the windows with suction cups. The window covers provide privacy and keep the interior of the car very dark. I sometimes used the window coverings to darken the car while uploading pictures from my storage cards to my laptop in the middle of the day!

Showers

In most private campgrounds, restrooms and showers are available to the guests. However, there were times during this trip that I parked on consecutive nights outside of formal campgrounds or in primitive campgrounds without showers. In the national parks, a listing of available shower facilities is usually available at the entrance gate. Many times, there are public shower facilities within the national park. The Grant Village shower facility in Yellowstone charged $3.50 for a shower, for example. Or, some private campgrounds offer showers for a fee. I haven't tried any of the public shower facilities outside of the parks as I rarely go two nights in a row outside of established campgrounds with showers. However, I understand that several truck stops offer showers for about $7.00. The Grant Village shower facility is immaculate. The employees clearly take pride in keeping the facility very clean...and the guests responded accordingly by taking extra care to keep things clean.

When not staying in a formal campground, I stop at a rest area or a visitor center to use the restrooms for brushing my teeth. If a visitor center isn't convenient, I keep a large bottle of water in my car and use that water to brush my teeth.

Power

One issue with car camping is that there are so many items with batteries that need to be recharged (camera, laptop, etc.). In the hotel, I usually charge batteries at night. To address this issue, I purchased a power inverter from Costco for about $40. This adapter plugs into the car to provide a power outlet. While driving, I recharge batteries for my camera, electric toothbrush and razor, laptop, phone, iPad, etc.

Accessories

Those who have camped before will probably already own many of the camping accessories. The amount of items somewhat depends upon the length of the trip and whether you plan to cook or not. Here is a list of items that I brought on my trip. I quickly discovered that it is far more efficient to place each item in the same location within the car throughout the trip. It makes it much easier to locate things and makes the whole experience far less frustrating. So, I will also list where the item was stored.

Sleeping

  • Sleeping pad (left unrolled on passenger side of car)
  • Pillows (passenger side on sleeping bag)
  • Sleeping bag (left unrolled on sleeping pad)

Eating

  • Propane stove (trunk side well, drivers side...see photo below)
  • Propane (trunk side well, drivers side)
  • Pot, utensils, dishwashing soap (trunk side well, drivers side)
  • Lighter (side panel storage, front driver seat)
  • Cooler (front passenger seat...between sleeping pad and dashboard)
  • Vitamins (clear storage box in trunk, passenger side)
  • Food and snacks for 21 days (Rear seat, drivers side...two clear storage boxes...see photo below)
  • Soft drinks (rear floor, drivers side)

Photography

  • Laptop (secret storage...see photo below)
  • Card reader (secret storage)
  • Two external hard drives (secret storage)
  • Camera and lenses (trunk, drivers side)
  • Back up camera (secret storage)
  • Gimbal head (secret storage)
  • Photography books and maps (between cooler and sleeping pad)
  • Tripod and ballhead (trunk, drivers side)

Cleanliness

  • Toiletries (separate pouch stored in duffle bag with clothes)
  • Towels (rear seat, drivers side)
  • Large water bottle (rear floor, drivers side)
  • Shower shoes (trunk side well, passenger side)
  • Tide detergent pods (rear floor, passenger side)

Power

  • Power inverter (glove compartment)
  • Chargers for razor, phone, iPad, camera, laptop, toothbrush, etc. (clear storage box, trunk, passenger side)

Clothes

  • Clothes (rear seat, passenger side...on top of sleeping bag during the day)
  • Coats (rear floor, passenger side)
  • Rain gear (rear floor, passenger side)
  • Hat (front seat, passenger side)
  • Gloves (pouch, behind drivers seat)
  • Boots (trunk, drivers side)

Security

  • Carbon monoxide detector (glove compartment)
  • Window panels (front floor, passenger side)
  • Windshield sunscreen (trunk, under mattress passenger side)
  • Garmin GPS unit (glove compartment)
  • Cell phone (center console)

Entertainment

  • iPod (center console)
  • iPad (front, drivers seat at night...serves as alarm clock)

Secret Storage in trunk near spare tire

Food storage (note position of cooler as well)

Cooking center (stove, pot, utensils)

Disadvantages

There are many advantages to Prius camping. Clearly, there are also some disadvantages. There is limited space, so Prius camping is most likely limited to solo travelers. The limited space also means that you probably won't want to spend more time than you have to in the vehicle. This wasn't an issue during my last trip as the sunset was a 9:00 pm and the sunrise at 6:00 am. But, during my trip before this one, the sun was setting at 6:00 pm and not rising until 7:30 am--and that's a lot of time to kill outside in the dark!

Another disadvantage is that the Prius is a low clearance vehicle. This makes it difficult to leave the main roads. My Prius suffered some damage (scratches) while navigating the dirt road down to Schwabachers Landing in Grand Teton National Park. Then again, a large RV is even more limited in this regard.

Maybe this renovation is in my future?  :)


Comments

15.Phil(non-registered)
Wow!!!! What a great write up. Thank you for sharing all of this with the community. That is so helpful.
14.2 Prius owner.(non-registered)
Own a 05 and 07 his and hers. I find my 07 I rarely carry passenger if I do it is one person. I am going to get the back seats out and see how much space that frees. The 07 already has a trailer hitch that I can tow a trailer 20 mpg interstate speed head wind or I can place a platform on the rear that gives me space to carry stuff like animal cages boxes or fuel cans. IDK if people realize this but they can take my Prius with the gas cans on the rear covered (prevent theft) and they could enter Ca with a Prius drive the entire state and never buy a drop of Ca gas. PRICE FUEL IN PHOENIX VS ANYPLACE IN CA YOU WILL SEE WHY THIS IS IMPORTANT. I was thinking what I could do is get some wood and make a bed base for a mattress but hinge the boards so they fold in half so I can make them fit inside the car. I think I might get that rear hatch pop tent thing that lady makes for the car? I might just make my own from foil bubble wrap material it would be bulky but I will have space with the seats gone.
13.Glenn Nagel Photography
Bryan, Funny you should say that. I got the idea for Prius camping after looking into purchasing a Teardrop Camper. Glenn
12.Bryan(non-registered)
It's like a Class A Teardrop Camper!
11.James Gill(non-registered)
Thanks for your article, I now plan a summer trip that I would not have been able to afford. Wonderful!
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