GearCars & Trucks

How to Set Up Your Subaru Outback for Car Camping

Packing—or even sleeping in—your small station wagon requires extra planning. Here are our favorite tricks for taking your Subie on long trips.

How to go camping with your Subaru Outback and take all your gear with you, too (Photo: Chris Bennett/Aurora)
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Vanlife might dominate Instagram, but I’d wager that the vehicle you see most often at trailheads and campgrounds doesn’t have sliding doors, a raised roof, or even a built-out flatbed: it’s the Subaru Outback. (On any given morning, I find as many as four of them parked side by side in the Outside lot.) The Japanese company’s classic all-wheel-drive station wagon rolls reliably over every kind of surface, from snow and mud to rocky, rutted two-track. It also has a laundry list of adventure-friendly features, not the least of which is a hatchback trunk with enough space to fit two bikes if you fold down the back seats—a total cargo area of 73 cubic feet. With 39 inches of head room, comparable to a two-person tent, that rear is also spacious enough to sleep comfortably. 

Of course, an Outback is considerably smaller than a truck or Sprinter van, which means packing for camping takes extra forethought. Over thousands of miles, I’ve developed my own list of tricks for making my Subie a comfortable base camp. So have several other Outback owners in the Outside office. Here’s our best advice for getting your adventure wagon road trip ready.

Turn Your Roof Bars into Drying Racks

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(Photo: Alison Van Houten)

Hanging a standard set of over-door hooks like these on the rails of your roof-rack setup makes for a convenient place to dry out wet stuff, such as towels and bathing suits, after a hot-springs dip or a day on the river. It’s even great for airing out sweaty layers that you don’t want to shove back into your tent for the night. You can place a towel under the hooks if you’re worried about the metal scuffing your paint job. —Alison Van Houten, editorial fellow

Take Advantage of the Hooks Above Your Passenger Windows

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(Photo: Alison Van Houten)

There are two little hooks in the back of my Subaru, near each window, which are perfect makeshift hangers if I’m crashing in the trunk for the night. They keep small crucial items, like keys and headlamps, handy so I’m not scrabbling in the dark when I have to pee at 3 A.M. —AVH

Use the Hatchback Pockets as Nightstands

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(Photo: Ariella Gintzler)

You know those random little cutouts on either side of your trunk, near the hatchback door? I never had use for them until the first time I slept in my car, when I discovered that they’re great for stashing things you want to have access to during the night, like a water bottle, book, or hat. —Ariella Gintzler, assistant editor

Get a Mattress

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(Photo: Nicole Barker)

At five foot seven, I can sleep fully stretched out in my Outback with the back seats down. I have a California king-size, four-inch memory-foam mattress topper, which perfectly fills the back when folded in half and provides a cushy eight inches of padding. (Though I’m planning to change this out for an air mattress soon: memory foam is hot in the summer and freezes in the winter, which are particular disadvantages in Santa Fe, given the temperature swings of the high desert.) —Nicole Barker, marketing manager

Store Gear in Rectangular Bags and Boxes

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I’m a pretty messy packer, but using rectangular duffels, coolers, bins, and packing cubes really helps with space (and sanity). Being able to stack and/or slide things into my car at neat right ankles makes the game of gear Tetris easier, a particular benefit on long trips that have me constantly in and out of my trunk. —Abigail Barronian, assistant editor

Line Your Trunk with a Cargo Tray 

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(Photo: Ariella Gintzler)

Essentially an all-weather mat for your trunk, this removable plastic liner may seem like an extravagance, but it’s worth the extra cost if you plan to sleep in your trunk using a sleeping pad, not a mattress. They’re easy to shake out or brush off, which you’ll be grateful for when the back of your car is dusted with a week’s worth of dried mud, grass, and sand. They also shed water. On days when I’m tossing muddy or rain-soaked gear in and out of my car, I use a rag to wipe down the mats so I have a dry place to roll out my sleeping kit. The only trade-off: I need to sleep with a double layer of foam underneath me so that the lip of the tray doesn’t dig into my back. —AG

Filed To: CampingCar CampingAutos
Lead Photo: Chris Bennett/Aurora
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