Here Is Why Station Wagons Are Best For Car Camping

Being a fan of both camping and cars in general, ever since I got my license 15 years ago, I quickly started connecting these 2 passions. So I’m really writing this out of pure joy and the fact that I have at least 10 years of experience car camping in all kinds of cars and I have finally decided on the final verdict. Big station wagons are the absolute best choice for car camping and there is very little one can say to change my mind. This article will quickly got through why I think station wagons are best for car camping and which station wagons I think are best for car camping.

How I Found Out That Station Wagons Are Best For Car Camping

I started car camping when I still owned my hot hatch, the Renault Clio RS200 and I made a big trip through Italy. I drove on what are arguably the best roads in Europe and slept in a tent right beside my car for 2 weeks straight. A true petrolheads adventure. I quickly realized that sleeping in a tent on the ground is not that great so I started exploring other options. 

I bought a 328i E90 BMW 3-Series and started once again taking big trips and somehow tried to sleep in the car with comfort. I was single at the time so I folded down the back seats, placed in a sleeping mat and somehow suffered through the night. But that was not it, even though the car was great for driving, I quickly sold it and bought my first minivan. Yes, a minivan.

The Citroen C4 Grand Picasso in all its glory made me feel like a soccer mom and it drove like a minivan too, not sporty but very spacious and comfortable like a French sofa. I loved it. I was also getting a bit older so I changed my approach to driving and car camping. I used to love having sports cars and having driving as the central point of all my trips to Italy, Austria, Switzerland, etc. But with the Citroen minivan, I really started car camping, driving even more but driving calmly and exploring. With the rear seats in the garage and a full size mattress in the boot, the Citroen was a true campervan that fitted both me and my partner with ease. Eventually I sold the Citroen because I wanted it to be at least a bit exciting to drive.

I changed a few cars that winter (including a Mercedes-Benz ML, which was useless in terms of boot space) and finally settled for a 2009 320CDI V6 Mercedes-Benz E-Class. The extra two cylinders and all that torque coming from a V6 Mercedes diesel engine was exactly what I was looking for. The back of the car with the seats folded down was completely flat and long enough for a tall guy like me. I found the perfect combination of a driver’s car and a car camping station wagon.

mercedes e class station wagon S211
My current “luxury” station wagon camper.

Why Big Station Wagons Are Best For Car Camping

In my opinion, there are three things that make big station wagons the perfect choice for car camping.

Station wagons are still great cars to drive

As the sub-title suggests, station wagons are still amazing handling cars to drive. Compared to an SUV, Crossover SUV and Minivans you still feel like you are driving a true driver’s car, low to the ground and with much less body roll on tight corners. Coming from a history of sportier cars, I loved that about station wagons. I still got to have fun while driving through Swiss alps and I also had a place to sleep in the back, perfect!

Station wagons have a lot of space in the back, a lot!

If you choose the correct station wagon, like the W211 E-Class Mercedes-Benz you don’t just get an amazing, comfortable car, you also get a flat 6’3ft (190cm) flat space in the back. A station wagon like that offers amazing practicality, great power and you still get to sit low to the ground like in a sports car. No SUV out there can match the practicality of a low and big loading space of a station wagon.

Station wagons have big roofs that are close to the ground

You don’t realize how important it is to have a big roof on a car until you get packing for a big car camping trip. My W211 E-Class had a roof big enough to hold my bike, my roof box and my stand up paddle board at the same time. That meant that I had my bed ready at all times in the back of a car, ready for sleeping as soon as I found the appropriate spot in the wild or at a campsite. You can also use that roof space to mount a roof top tent. 

Having a roof lower to the ground compared to an SUV or a crossover also means that loading things onto the roof rack is much easier, especially heavy things like mountain bikes.

Which Station Wagons Are Best For Car Camping

Instead of listing exact station wagons, we want to focus on what characteristics you should be after when choosing a station wagon for car camping. We have a completely different variety of station wagons in Europe or the USA. So listing exact vehicles really does not make much sense, focusing on what makes a station wagon a good camping vehicle however, does.

Bigger station wagons

I have been camping in a Volkswagen Golf station wagon before and I have to admit it was not pleasurable at all. The VW Golf station wagon is considered to be one of the best mid-size wagons and while it is a pleasure to drive, it is just too small for comfortable camping. I usually had my feet dangling out and I was always annoyed with having to have the boot open. 

That is why, if you are interested in car camping you should look into cars that have at least 6ft (180cm) of a flat loading area in the back. In my experience, at least 6ft seems to be enough, even for me at 6’3, I can still stretch my legs diagonally so sleeping is comfortable.  Here is a list of all big station wagons of 2022.

Station wagons with a flat loading area and little to no boot lip

Having a flat loading area with a small boot lip means one thing, you can easily throw in a regular or camping mattress and sleep on a flat surface with no problem. Station wagons with a loading area that is not flat, are not comfortable to sleep in without creating a double bottom out of wood. You can find many such DIY projects. You can always do the same in a station wagon with a flat loading area to get some additional storage compartments below your sleeping area. 

station wagon camper conversion
My E-Class in a campsite near Italy.

Pick reliable station wagons

One thing that I have learned over the years of constant car camping is that nothing matters more than being out there, exploring new places and camping under the stars. I used to be obsessed with doing performance modifications to my car but they have only led to me spending insane amounts of money and lowering the overall reliability of my car. All that lead to me missing out on beautiful weekends while my car was at the shop. Such a shame. That is why now, as I get older and wiser, I choose reliability over anything. Go for something that has little to no major issues from the get go or buy a used car with a rich maintenance history.

Making a “mini camper” project out of your station wagon

If you can’t afford the perfect station wagon from the get to, there is so much you can do to transform your little wagon into the perfect weekday commuter and a little camping vehicle on the weekends. You can extend your sleeping area with wood, you can make a double bottom for yout trunk and gain additional space in that way, you can buy a boot tent and extend your camping comfort in that way. Get creative, it does not even have to look good, it just has to be good enough for you and functional. We are going to talk about that in a second.

Buy a boot tent to extend your living area

If your station wagon is too short to sleep in with extended legs, you can always buy a boot awning or do as I do and buy a super practical (and reasonably priced) car tent which you will definitely use on longer trips and they are also super useful to get some additional privacy and a space where you can get comfortably dressed, sit and cook in. Below are our picks from Amazon (I use the Rightline boot tent, it is fantastic).

Conclusion

I started car camping when I was young because well, it is super affordable and fun. You need very little to enjoy an amazing trip. You don’t need to book expensive hotels, worry about when the breakfast is served and so on. I loved the freedom of just having my sleeping bag and camping mattress in the back and driving off to places I have never been and have not seen.

As I got older, I started thinking about car camping as much more that a cheap vacation, it is not about money at all. For me it is a way to gather new ideas for this website, to reconnect with my passion for driving, cars and spending time with my girlfriend. The fact that it is cheap is not even at the center of my attention. I love spending time in my car, preparing my car for the trip and feeling that sense of freedom I used to feel 10 years ago when I first started car camping. That feeling never goes away. So go buy a station wagon and head out, you will thank me later.

Frequently asked questions

What are the best station wagons for car camping?

The best station wagon for camping needs to be two things: big and reliable. Our choice would be:

  • Honda Accord / Acura TSX wagons
  • Subaru Outback
  • Mazda 6 wagon
  • Volvo V70/V90

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