Not so long ago I stumbled upon a blog titled “Hotel Prius”, and I loved the idea. Being a Prius owner myself, I decided to give Prius living a test run. Being cautious person I am, I decided to give it a test run for a week in a familiar area.
Preparing for the journey
First, I decided to tint my windows. In addition to making a Prius look much more pleasant, it keeps the car cooler throughout the day, and most importantly makes it hard to peek inside the car. Especially at night.
Next, I ordered a Prius Gen III Camping Sleeper Conversion Kit. It’s just a fancy name for two belts to push down the rear seats, and two wooden platforms with detachable feet to cover leg space. And two custom cut carpet runners to cover up the panels. Nothing one can’t make in their own garage, if the money is tight.
The kit requires front seats to be locked in the furthest possible position, rendering them unusable. So I only installed a panel behind a passenger seat. With the panel installed, I have nearly 7 feet of level surface to sleep on.
Another problem with the kit is that it blocks the console from being opened (arm rest storage between driver and passenger seat). I stopped using console as a quick access box, and it doesn’t feel like a big loss.
I packed all my clothes in a duffle bag, bought a small toiletries kit, and put the rest of my belongings in a backpack. Queen-sized sleeping bag I had came in handy as a bed (with a couple of travel pillows).
After a second night I swapped my sleeping bag with a lighter and more compact summer sleeping bag. That’s also when I added a 1.5 inch sleeping pad to my inventory.
My backpack/briefcase is on the passenger’s seat, I always take it with me.
In addition to all of the above, I took my guitar - even though it’s bigger than anything else I had to take with me, it’s a great source of entertainment.
If you’re feeling impatient, links to all the items are at the bottom of the post.
Sleeping in a Prius
First night in a Prius left me with mixed feelings. I parked in one of the corporate areas of the city at about 9 pm. I picked a well lit parking lot with some (but not much) evening traffic. I parked in one of the slightly darker areas of the parking lot (approximately one out of twenty parking spots was taken, and large number of cars made me feel safer).
It was 74F outside, slowly cooling after a 100F day. I left my car in accessory mode (spoiler: bad idea), turned on the AC, locked the doors, and hopped on my bedding arrangement to the back of the car. I didn’t want to keep the windows open since I just got them tinted. And sleeping with windows rolled down felt a bit eerie.
First thing I noticed was how obnoxiously bright instrument panel and GPS are. It was the opposite of stealthy, and it was plain annoying to sleep with those bright lights on. I reached out for my duffle bag, and pulled out a couple of towels to cover up both the instrument panel and GPS, as well as few AC control LEDs. This made me feel at ease, and I tried to doze off into sleep.
The parking lot lights were a minor annoyance, mostly filtered out by a 20% rear window tint. I’ve heard some people pass somewhere within 20 feet of my car a few times, but other than that it was quiet. Still, unfamiliar situation made it hard to fall asleep.
And then a few voices and an engine noise disturbed my peace, pretty close to my car. I waited for about 10 minutes, and the noise didn’t go away. I raised my head to see what’s happening - turns out someone had a tire blowout a 2 parking spots away from me, and a pickup truck pulled in next to them to help with changing the tire. There were anywhere between 3 and 5 people walking around and talking.
That’s when I quickly got dressed, climbed to a driver’s seat, and drove off to look for a quieter spot. It was 9:55 pm.
I went to a more secluded, but still well lit parking lot behind one of the offices. Concentration of cars was about the same, but it looked like those cars were left there overnight. I picked a spot within 50 feet of other parked cars, where a tree was covering my car from the harsh street light.
Accessory mode, AC, lock the doors. Climbed in the back, and after some restlessness (a fairly normal thing for me), I fell asleep. I woke up sometime around 11:30 pm. It was fairly hot in the car, and it was hard to breathe. Turns out accessory mode turned itself off at some point. Maybe the battery ran low, or maybe there’s a time limit of sort. I opened all the doors to air out a car for a couple of minutes while I walked around and stretched.
In the meantime, I also noticed that because of the tinted windows, it’s nearly impossible to see what’s inside the car while only standing a few feet away from it. That was comforting.
Second attempt, this time I turned on the car the usual way (by depressing the pedal). I used a foot brake for a peace of mind, set the AC to 68 degrees (with external air flow setting), locked the car, covered the instrument panel and a GPS, and climbed in the back.
AC was blowing on my neck, but I was too tired to worry about it. The car cooled down and I climbed inside a sleeping bag (it was too hot before, and I was just lying on top of it). I’m used to sleeping on hard surfaces, so the setup felt comfortable enough. The light from surrounding light poles was a bit too harsh, so I covered my eyes with a T-shirt. I fell asleep.
I woke up a few times throughout the night, but I feel like I’ve had enough sleep. I woke up with the sun at about 6:30 am, got dressed, opened all doors to ventilate the car, packed away a sleeping bag, and drove to work. I felt well rested, even though my throat and neck felt a bit sore from the AC directed at me.
Oh, and it cost me $1.40 to have an AC running through the night. The car would turn on for about a minute every once in a while (30 minutes?) to recharge the battery.
This time, I found a perfect spot in a small parking lot behind an office. Less crowded than the previous time, but still well lit. I got lucky and found a space with no direct street light being visible when laying down.
Turn the car on, AC to 68 degrees, lock the doors, hop to the back seat.
I’ve slept well for the first couple of hours, but I ended up waking up well rested at midnight. I stopped by my office and worked for a couple of hours. Back to the car to get 4 more hours of sleep.
It cost me $1.38 to camp through the night with AC on.
My sleeping bag was too hot to use at room temperature, so I swapped it with a summer down filled bag. I also purchased a self-inflating sleeping pad for more comfort.
Things are getting better from now on.
Feeling more confident, I found a four-story corporate parking lot and drove to the top level. I parked at a well-lit spot without any direct lights coming through the windows. I easily fell asleep a tad bit past nine, and woke up at 6 am refreshed and well rested. Secluded spot, comfortable sleeping pad, summer sleeping bag, and increased confidence - all contributed to making sleeping in a Prius a delightful experience.
This was also the night I learned a neat trick: if you recline the driver’s seat all the way, it becomes really easy to move between front seat and a sleeping area.
Cost of running the car through the night: $1.63.
I decided to camp out in the same multi-level parking garage I did yesterday (it has high enough number of cars so that I don’t stand out - about one per fifty parking spots; and the foot traffic is very low to non-existent). I found another part of the garage with a roof access on a second level and pulled in there. After getting situated, I realized I didn’t account for all the lights - bright parking lot lights from other levels ended up shining right in my face. And even though I knew I couldn’t be seen behind the tinted windows, it did leave me feeling exposed.
I slid to the driver’s seat and drove up a few levels to the previous spot. Doors are locked, AC is set to 68F, instrument panel is covered, driver’s seat is reclined. I climbed to the back, and fell asleep.
It was a warm night, temperature outside was at 73F. It was hot enough for me to wake up two times through the night, but that was a minor inconvenience.
It was one of the chillier nights, so sleeping was a very pleasant experience. I picked the same spot I used on the third night. Absence of direct lights visible from the car windows plays a huge role in making you feel safe.
Cost: $1.53 while also bringing Nexus 6 to a full charge.
Picked another spot in a similar area, I parked under a broken street light in a well lit parking lot. I’ve slept well. Mostly due to this being a cooler night (65F).
Cost: $1.29 while also bringing Nexus 6 to a full charge.
I was stuck in traffic in the evening, and I fiddled with the GPS for a while. Turns out you can disable the obnoxiously bright screen by going into “Setup” -> “Display” -> “Screen off”. Pushing any button on the GPS turns the screen back on. I’m still using the towels to cover up the instrument panel and AC controls though.
Another fairly cold night, which made sleeping more comfortable. I went back to the top of the parking garage. Night was a delight.
Cost: $1.39, with full Nexus 6 charging.
Stealthy living in a Prius is very comfortable. With tinted windows there’s just enough privacy, it’s safe and cheap to run AC through the night (cost averages to about $1.48 per night). There’s more than enough space for someone of my height (5’11”). It took me a couple of days to get used to feeling relatively exposed in public, but once I did - it was a breeze. Last five nights I have slept without any problems.
Surprisingly, I’ve slept better in a Prius than I did in my own bed. Here I should probably note that I’ve been having troubles sleeping on an off for some time lately, and sleeping through the night in a car was a step up from where I was before.
Some things I didn’t know before trying out sleeping in a Prius:
- Pick a well lit parking lot, ideally with some cars of similar value parked overnight. Make sure there’s not too much foot traffic.
- Park in an area without direct light source near you. Also account for lights visible from inside the car (light nearly a hundred feet away can still be bother).
- If you’re using the AC, turn Prius engine on instead of leaving it in accessory mode.
- Proper AC vent direction is important. Fiddle with those until there are no drafts in the sleeping area.
- Use a sleeping mask to avoid being bothered by the lights if you couldn’t find area without visible light sources shining directly through the windows.
- Since the temperature inside the car is regulated, summer sleeping bag is a must.
- Sleeping pad is very helpful in making the surface softer. 1.5 inches made a huge difference in comfort.
Items I used
Here are the items directly related to the trip which I either purchased or already owned.
- Prius Gen III Camping Sleeper Conversion Kit. While not as good of a fit as something one can make with a garage and a set of tools, it’s a quick (but rather expensive, depending on your situation) solution.
- eBags TLS Mother Lode Weekender Convertible Junior.
- Kelty Cosmic 550 Dridown Sleeping Bag, Regular/41-Degree. I started a journey with a sleeping bag I already had around - winter Coleman Calgary Cold-Weather Scoop Sleeping Bag. Needless to say, Kelty Cosmic 41 is lighter, and by far more compact.
- Therm-a-Rest ProLite Plus Sleeping Pad. It’s a 1.5 inch tall matress, I found it to be extremely comfortable.
- REI Roadtripper Duffel - Medium. I don’t have too many clothes (and I live in California, taking winter clothing is out of the picture), so everything fits in a duffel bag.
- Eagle Creek Pack-It Clean/Dirty Cube. Holds underwear and socks, also doubles as a sealed laundry bag for both.
- Therm-a-Rest Compressible Travel Pillow, Medium. A comfortable pillow which goes under a sleeping bag.
- REI Grande Shower Kit. It’s fairly big and holds all my toiletries.
- Ready America Emergency Kit, 2-Person, 3-Day Backpack. Something I always have in a car for the peace of mind.
Future improvement ideas
I have a great stealthy setup, but having more privacy would’ve been a nice bonus. I’ll probably look for some inconspicuous looking shades or curtains, provided that the setup doesn’t look too obvious.
This was an interesting experience. Inability to retreat to the safety of my house got me out of my comfort zone. Initial discomfort passed quickly, and a world of possibilities opened up to me.
Not having access to a house made me, well, feel bored. And that’s amazing. Without having an ability to default to a TV, gaming platform, or even a laptop (it’s really not that comfortable to work on a laptop in a car) - I had to get creative. I got to play a guitar, a piano, sing, practice with a drum set. I worked on my blog (this article took multiple revisions and hours upon hours of time to look the way it does now). I went to Mozzart’s Don Giovanni publicly hosted in a nearby town.
And I finished this article, which took me about 8 days of revisions and additions to finish.
Now, thanks to self-imposed restrictions, I’m doing all the things I wanted to do.
I’m a perpetual planner. And that sometimes becomes a problem, since I’m always looking forward to the next thing that’s going to happen, sometimes not paying attention to life right in front of me. With everything I have packed in a car, there’s nothing on the horizon. Nothing is far away. There’s no home to go back to, so I don’t rush anywhere. I savor every moment I have.
October 2018 update. After pulling off a year traveling in a Prius full time – this article is really fun to revisit. It brings up so many memories! Rachel from Hobby Help recently reached out to me and shared the ultimate beginner’s guide to camping, which feels like a great complimentary article. Rachel goes into quite a lot of detail about car camping and solidifies the basics when it comes to venturing outside. I enjoyed it, and so might you. Give it a read!