How to choose and build the perfect festival camping vehicle

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How to choose and build the perfect festival camping vehicle

festival camping
Words by Leah Hulst and Lucas Radbourne

Festival camping, you know the drill. It’s day one and the group usually meet at someone’s house early in the morning to ensure we secure the best possible camping spot. Someone’s running an hour late. You leave at the crack of midday.

You’re exhausted and your Honda’s so full its scraping the bitumen, but with boundless enthusiasm pumping through your speakers, you’re ready to convoy. You follow each other down the freeway, stopping only to refuel with coffee and McMuffins. Nobody acknowledges it at the time, but the drive to the festival is one of the best parts of the festival camping experience. Sometimes you’re amping each other up, sometimes you’re just quietly enjoying that feeling of motion, as you watch the city transform into the dry paddocks and rolling hills of country Victoria.

Growing up in Australia, camping, festivals and roadtrips are a rite of passage. After two hard years, we’re all looking the light at the end of the tunnel (or maybe the doof stick at the mainstage) and that means there’s never been a better time to ditch the lemon and follow our guide to choosing and building the perfect festival camping vehicle.

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Step one: choosing your festival camping vehicle

If your vehicle’s old or unreliable normally, think about what you’re putting it through at an average festival:

  • You’re driving it hundreds (sometimes thousands) of kilometres loaded at its max weight
  • Taking it over the dustiest, most pot-hole laden terrain when you arrive
  • Draining the battery and throttling the alternator with accessories, lights, camping fridges
  • Running and leaving it sitting in the scorching summer sun

Sure, your Mistubishi Lancer might survive a couple, but you’re playing Russian Roulette with getting stuck on the side of a highway or even worse, at a festival when everyone else has left…not the vibe.

Therefore, the first and most important step is choosing a reliable vehicle.

Buying a new or used camping rig

In the post-Covid market, it’s more important than ever to compare prices and do your due-diligence to ensure you’re getting a fair price. We’ve bought an overpriced lemon or two in our time and being the only car in the convoy to start overheating outside Lexton…let’s not go there.

Buying a secondhand camping rig is almost always a cheaper purchase upfront, but first, you have to consider the fuel economy. You can find older four-wheel drives or vans that make excellent campers, but they can cost you a fortune to run.

For example: if you do 15,000 kilometres per year at a cheap average petrol price of $1.60 per litre, a vehicle that uses 15 litres per 100 kilometres will cost you $1,500 more each year than one that uses nine litres. If you’re a regular traveller or you use it for your daily commute, you could be looking at $3,000 per year. Factor that into the price over five years, and suddenly you’ve paid for that more comfortable, efficient option anyway. Fuel efficient vehicles are the new black, and while purely electric vehicle ranges tend to make them obsolete for camping rigs, a good hybrid can save you a small fortune.

Then you have the ongoing maintenance costs (including major services every 100,000 kilometres), and the quality and availability of spare parts. Major services that include your cambelt, hoses and water pump can easily set you back a grand, so factor that in if you’re eyeing a second-hand vehicle nearing one of those intervals.

If you want a vehicle that’s already decked out and ready to hit the road, it’s worth remembering that you can access rental cars, vans and motorhomes that come with everything including the kitchen sink, literally. There’s loads of different places you can check out, but always ensure you run through the terms and conditions (particularly the insurance) with a fine tooth comb. Chances are though, you’re here because you’re passionate about owning your own rig. In short, we reckon there are two purchases in life where you don’t cut costs: your car and your house.

Once you’ve made the decision to buy your own van, the next choice will be to go new or used. Both have their pros and cons; new are, well new… but come with a much heftier price tag. You also lose 20% of the value as soon as they leave the dealer. The upside is reliability and that maybe once-in-a-lifetime new car smell however! Keep in mind though that current delays on new vehicle imports have extended  to many months, so hunting a bargain or getting something new into the country isn’t nearly as convenient as pre-pandemic.

The flow on of all this has been that demand for secondhand cars and vans is up, which has seen vehicles hold their value, which while good for sellers isn’t ideal for buyers. Good deals on secondhand vans are still out there if you’re willing to do the leg work however. If you are planning on buying a new or secondhand vehicle, then it’s worthwhile learning just how much you can comfortably borrow on a car loan before you start looking. This can save you money in the long run as you can negotiate a more favourable interest rate with your bank or broker.

Festival camping checklists

In order to figure out how much space we require, we need to get into the nitty gritty of camping checklists. First, the festival basics: some of our non-negotiables are:

  • Esky and ice
  • Snacks and drinks
  • Bedding and pillows
  • Phone charger
  • Camping chair
  • Socks and jocks
  • Toothbrush and toothpaste
  • Towel
  • Camping light
  • Garbage bags
  • Sunscreen
  • Ear plugs
  • Toilet paper
  • Water bottle
  • Hiking boots
  • Rain jacket (ideally packable)
  • Day backpack
  • Bandaids / blister pads
  • Baby wipes
  • Deodorant
  • Portable charger
  • Sunglasses
  • Printed ticket, just in case

Now you’ll notice we haven’t included many of the usual suspects; inch-thick sleeping mats, air pumps, tent, pegs, poles, ropes, hammer and all the accoutrements. That’s because as seasoned festival veterans, we gave up on the restless nights in tent city ages ago, and prefer to let our vehicle provide the perfect night’s sleep. Having a camping vehicle comes with its own necessities though, so here are some of the vehicular essentials:


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  • Mattress
  • Pillows
  • Doonas / blankets
  • Stick-on or hanging LED lights
  • Breadboard and basic cooking utensils (no gas, no stoves etc)
  • Fold out table
  • Multi-tool
  • First Aid Kit
  • Patch repair or tiny sewing kit
  • Hidden wallet
  • Oil
  • Pre-mixed coolant
  • Duct tape
  • Rags
  • Socket set
  • Tow strap and ratchet straps
  • Jumper cables
  • Tire inflator, iron and swap-kits
  • Folding shovel

Then of course you have your creature comforts, all the stuff that makes your festival experience just that little bit nicer. Everyone will have their own version of this, but here’s ours.

  • Camera
  • Hydration tablets
  • Camelbak
  • Sports drinks
  • Lipbalm
  • Hand sanitiser / soap
  • Panadol
  • Bug repellent
  • Thongs
  • Inflatable raft (for festivals with open water)
  • Doof bike (for large festivals)
  • Rope / line and pegs for wet gear
  • Carpet

SUVs vs vans

Let’s face it, some of us are Bear Grylls, others are Russel Coight. Wide open spaces can be daunting to some, where others thrive in the wilderness. It honestly comes down to what your level of comfort is, and how comfortable you want to be.

While a rooftop tent on a standard sedan is a nice intermediate between pitching a tent on the ground and a fully-fledged camping rig, it’s far from optimal. Your first concern when choosing the perfect camping vehicle should be maximizing the amount of liveable space to enjoy your downtime throughout the festival, which leaves you with either an SUV or a van, due to the superior height they offer over other standard vehicles.

The perfect festival vehicle needs to handle rough terrain, but you don’t need a GU Patrol. If you’re looking to tackle 4WD tracks, check out this guide, but for the festival setting, a 4WD sacrifices a lot of usable space and utilities for power and capability. For our purposes, that’s a poor trade off. For an SUV to attain the same level of liveable space as a van, you need both a rooftop tent and an external side awning with side-zips, which will allow you to form a second living space with the potential to be fully enclosed in poor weather.

The rooftop tent provides the bedroom, the external side awning provides the living space, and the rear of your SUV provides the storage. To best utilise the rear space of your SUV in this configuration, we recommend installing pull-out drawers on sliding rails. The most popular configurations also include a sliding rail for a camping fridge, turning the rear of your SUV into a fold-out kitchen. You can fairly easily build these yourself, and if you prefer the additional flexibility of a 4WD, this is the set up we recommend.

However, our ultimate recommendation is a van conversion. This is because, put simply, vans tick the most boxes for the ultimate festival camping experience. They have far more usable interior space, which makes them perfect for those who like their creature comforts, because the best van conversions can be all-inclusive.

With modern fuel efficiency, the Mercedes Sprinter has become one of the most popular van conversion models because it offers superior height, allowing a person of average size to stand-up easily within the rear section. However, their sheer height makes them a top-heavy inflexible choice, which vastly increases drag on a highway. Optimal van conversions have a pop-top roof with an in-built, slide-out bed, because these offer the lowest profile while in motion, but then the choice between maximum living space and a hidden sleeping area while parked. Here’s just one example of what we mean:

Ultimately, it doesn’t really matter whether your chariot takes van, stationwagon, ute or SUV form. The most important thing is that you’re safe, comfortable and reliable so that whatever option you go with, you can pump ‘Life Is A Highway’, feel the sunshine, soak up the live music and embrace the hugs from your mates.

If any of these ideas have whet your appetite, head over to Savvy and start planning out your ideal budget.

In partnership with Savvy.