We believe in having the right tools for every job, so when we needed a comfortable everyday commuter car that could quickly pull double-duty as an all-conquering weekend warrior camper, a Subaru Outback seemed like the only logical answer.
With a few simple bolt-ons and modifications, we easily turned our new Subaru Outback into the most off-road-worthy and comfortable yet fuel-efficient camper we’ve ever built out.
Over the last year, we’ve put our off-roading Subaru Outback to the test by camping all over the West Coast, from the blistering heat of the valley floors in Death Valley to the snow-covered roads high-up in the Sierras, only to come back more impressed by its comfort and capabilities after every trip.
The best part is, all the modifications are so quick and easy to adjust that we can quickly put them on and take them back off before and after each trip. We’re talking grocery getter to adventure mobile in under 30 minutes.
How to turn your Subaru Outback into a camper in 7 easy steps:
- Install a roof top tent
- Throw on a good set of all-terrain tires
- Add a 12V chest fridge
- Get an all-in-one battery pack
- Pack a compact cooking and camp setup
- Add a suspension lift
- Prepare for the worst with emergency and recovery gear
1. Install a Roof Top Tent
Nothing transformed our Subaru Outback into a camper more than adding a rooftop tent. And that’s coming from someone who used to be a big skeptic when it comes to roof top tents. After all, we’ve spent countless nights in many of our previous cars before sleeping in remote places on the cheap. So how could spending so much money on a rooftop tent be worth it?
That all changed after our first night in our Tent Box Classic hardshell rooftop tent.
The Tent Box roof top tent is so comfortable with its memory foam mattress that it makes us forget we’re not sleeping at home, making us wonder how and why we endured so many restless nights tossing around the inside of a car or in a tent.
And the insanely quick setup to open and close the rooftop tent means we don’t have to spend half our trip looking for the right place to pitch a tent or rearranging stuff around an SUV to make enough room for sleeping.
The aerodynamic shape of the hardshell roof top tent barely affected our fuel efficiency, and it’s lightweight enough to not make the Outback feel tipsy while trying to go over rough terrain.
When closed, there’s enough room in the TentBox classic to store any bedding, sleeping bags, and pillows which is really convenient because we don’t need to spend any time at all setting up the bed.
But there’s also enough room to store our folding camping chairs and table which really clears up the interior car space. I like to keep that stuff in the back of the roof top tent so if we need to get it out without setting up camp, I can pop open the back of the tent and easily access the camping chairs and table through the back window.
We highly recommend our Tent Box Classic rooftop tent which we previously reviewed here. There are cheaper alternatives, but the numerous benefits of hard shells like the ease of use, storage, and durability are well worth the extra cost.
2. Throw On a Good Set Of All-Terrain Tires
While the rooftop tent made the biggest change to the comfort of the Outback camper, the all-terrain tires easily made the biggest change to its capabilities.
We regularly take our Outback camper deep into the woods through seldom-used roads, and the last thing we want is to get stranded in the middle of nowhere because we skimped out on the one piece of the build that actually keeps us going.
The stock tires that came on the Outback, just like any other SUV’s stock tires, were decent enough on the road but pretty unreliable off-road. The very first time I went on a loose dirt path with the Outback I got stuck on a completely flat surface.
We wanted the most dependable all-terrain tires available for our Outback camper so I knew there was really no substitute for the tried and tested BFGoodrich All-Terrain T/A KO2 tires.
BFG All-Terrain KO2’s are tough, grippy, and durable. Yes, these tires are noisier than stock – everything is. And yes, these tires are stiff and heavy. But we’ve driven about 10,000 miles since fitting the Subaru Outback with KO2’s through all imaginable surfaces like sand, mud, snow, ice, rocks, dirt, and these tires simply grip everything in their path without slipping.
BFGoodrich All-Terrain T/A KO2 tires on TireRack
It’s nice being able to just fly through mountain roads with these tires without worrying about getting a flat or being able to tackle deep-rutted hills without slippage even when teetering on two wheels. We rode around on the stock road tires for a while before switching to the BFG AT KO2’s and I was always worried about blowing a sidewall whenever we went off the pavement.
And while the biggest improvement was made in driving off-road, these tires made the Outback feel sporty on-road as well. The stiff sidewalls coupled with grippy rubber make the Outback feel completely planted on curvy roads to the point where it’s actually hard to make the tires squeal, something I could easily do with the stock tires.
We went a couple of sizes bigger compared to stock and installed 245/65R17 tires on the stock Outback which fit perfectly without any rubbing issues. Without a lift, the tires fill the wheel wells perfectly and don’t have any clearance issues even while off-roading. They are significantly bigger and heavier than stock so our fuel efficiency dropped by around 2 mpg during the 2,000 or so miles we had them on without the lift.
To make up for the heavier tires and to better accommodate the wider tire size, we went with this set of 17” Motegi MR118 wheels with +45 offset. The Motegi MR118 wheels are lightweight, tough, cheap, and look pretty good, so it’s easy to see why so many Outback owners choose them.
Motegi MR118 Wheels on TireRack
We bought our wheels and tires through TireRack which we highly recommend because they make it extremely easy. This site is very user-friendly because they have a ton of reviews, tire tests, and a tool that lets you see what different wheels would look like on the car. But the best part is that since we bought the wheels and tires at the same time, they came to our door mounted and balanced so all we had to do was put them on without having to visit a tire shop and pay additional mounting and balancing fees.
3. Add a 12V Chest-Style Fridge
We’ve always added a fridge to our builds, no matter how small the car, because we’ve found that it really changes the way we travel.
A fridge allows us to stock up for days when going off-the-grid and still be able to make good meals with fresh ingredients. Without a good fridge, we’ve found that we start resorting to fast food and restaurant meals a bit sooner than intended.
Equally important, a good fridge keeps the cold beer aplenty because, well, what’s camping without some good refreshments!
We’ve tried some nice roto-molded coolers in the past but they’re just too much of a hassle for us. They constantly have to be refilled with ice which can be pretty hard to do when out in the middle of nowhere. But the bigger hassle was always getting water inside of everything no matter how tightly we thought it was sealed.
In our Promaster camper build, we used an upright, built-in style 12v Dometic fridge which worked great for our long-term travels since it had a small freezer and looked more appropriate for our built-in kitchen cabinet. However, we kept hearing about how much more efficient a chest-style fridge was compared to our upright.
Since this Subaru Outback camper build was all about flexibility and the ability to quickly transform in and out of camper mode, we decided to try out a chest-style 12v fridge so we got the 38 Qt ARB Zero Fridge Freezer.
ARB Portable Fridge Freezer on Amazon
The 38 Qt ARB Zero is the perfect size for our Subaru Outback because it can fit enough fresh food and drinks for a week-long trip for two people without taking up too much of the interior space. The interior baskets keep things organized and easily accessible, and the drain plug is nice for cleanup if something ever spills.
The ARB Zero fridge comes with strong loopholes on the front and back to easily tie it down to our existing cargo area hooks, and even without any kind of slide, it opens wide enough inside the Outback to easily grab the food inside. The tough exterior helps keep it protected when we throw all kinds of stuff in the trunk around it, and the handles make it easy to move in and out when at campgrounds.
Over the past few months of use, it seems to be much more efficient than our van’s upright Dometic fridge and can easily go 4-5 days without draining our Jackery 1000 battery pack. Part of the reason why it seems to be more efficient could be because the upright in our van has both a fridge and a freezer, but it could also be because the chest style fridge lets out less of the cold air each time it gets opened.
At 49 lbs., it weighs as much as a comparable Yeti cooler full of ice and since the ARB Zero fridge doesn’t need to give up half the space to ice, it holds much more food in a much smaller space than a cooler.
4. Get an All-In-One Battery Pack
The electrical setup is what always intimidates people when building a camper but with an all-in-one battery pack like the Jackery Explorer 1000 Portable Power Station, it couldn’t be easier.
I love how simple the Jackery 1000 is to use and it comes with everything we need out of the box. We plug the Jackery Explorer 1000 into the 12v car plug in the cargo area which charges while we’re driving and plug the fridge into the Jackery. Literally, 2 plugs and we’re ready to go!
Jackery Explorer 1000 on Amazon
The Jackery Explorer 1000 is a lithium battery, solar charger, and 120V AC inverter put together into a small, lightweight package that is perfect for a weekend camper like this. It’s slightly bigger than a gallon of water and weighs 22 lbs so it’s really convenient to pack in.
It easily runs the fridge while simultaneously charging our phones, cameras, laptops, or drone at the same time.
Since we keep the Jackery Explorer 1000 plugged into the car, it charges while we’re driving so it pretty much always stays fully charged. When we stop for longer periods of time, we connect the Jackery SolarSaga solar panels to charge it quickly thanks to its built-in MPPT charge controller.
At campgrounds, we use the Jackery to plug-in string lights and on colder nights even a small 250-watt heater to heat up our roof top tent.
When on the move, we use a small strap to quickly tie it down in the cargo area of the Outback next to the fridge. When we’re done with our trip, we just undo the strap and use the large handle that comes on the top to easily take it out.
Check out our full review of the Jackery Explorer 1000 power station here!
5. Pack a Compact Cooking And Camp Setup
When turning an SUV or crossover like a Subaru Outback into a camper, it’s equally important to pack light as it is to pack small because the rear suspension can easily get overloaded.
For cooking, we like to bring along a setup that is small and made of lightweight aluminum to keep the weight down.
We’ve tried a few setups with different stoves and cookware and after many trials and errors, we’ve found that the setup that works best for us is a small butane camp stove and a stacking cook set.
We use this Gas One Butane Stove from Amazon which weighs only 3 lbs. and packs nicely into its carrying case right behind the fridge. Setting it up for use takes less than 30 seconds and includes a Piezo electric starter which eliminates the use of lighters. The butane fuel bottles it uses are readily found anywhere for a few bucks.
Gas ONE Portable Stove
Another popular option is this Eureka SPRK+ Butane Camp Stove that packs down very small and almost always includes a carrying case. And unlike the bigger two-burner propane stoves, the fuel canisters for most butane stoves can be stored inside the stove so it doesn’t take up any additional space.
For cookware, we love our GSI Outdoors Pinnacle Camper Cook set that comes ready with everything we need like pots, pans, cups, plates, bowls, and a carrying bag that doubles as a wash basin to clean it all up when we’re done.
GSI Outdoors Camper Cook set on REI
The pots and pan are made of Teflon coated aluminum which is great for us because as much as we like to cook, we’ve never mastered the art of cooking on stainless without an abundant use of oil, and always take us way longer to clean afterward.
The mugs included in the GSI Outdoors Pinnacle cooking set are insulated which help keep our morning coffee warm on chilly mornings, and the lids keep the drinks from spilling when constantly moving around the campsite.
When it’s just the two of us, we leave a couple of the plates, bowls, and cups at home and instead use the space inside the pots to store our folding MSR Alpine Spatula and Light My Fire Camping Sporks.
MSR Alpine Spatula on REI
We use our trusty folding aluminum camping table that we’ve had for years and endured daily use throughout our 15-month South America trip. It’s lightweight, folds flat, and is easy to set up and break down. When done, we throw it inside our Tent Box rooftop camper with ease since it weighs only a few pounds.
Aluminum foldable table on Amazon
For hanging out, we love the REI Flexlite Air Chairs. They take a bit longer to set up and break down than a traditional folding chair but they pack so small and light that it’s worth the extra effort. We tried a couple of other brands before settling on the REI Flexlite Air Chair but the others didn’t last long, usually snapping in half or stretching too much.
REI Co-op Flexlite Air Chair
In all, the entire cooking, eating, and camp set up for two people weighs 13 lbs with the stove, fuel, cookset, dinnerware, table, and chairs and takes up minimal space in the trunk thanks to the added space in the TentBox rooftop tent.
6. Add a Suspension Lift
This step is pretty optional since the Subaru Outback already comes with 8.7 inches of ground clearance but adding a suspension lift makes it so much better.
We mainly use the Outback camper to get to our favorite off-the-grid camping or hiking spots and rarely needed more than the stock ground clearance to get to where we were going. However, we did find that the Outback likes to scrape the front and rear bumper a lot due to the long overhangs and relatively low approach and departure angles. With the additional weight of the rooftop tent and camping gear out back, it tends to hang a tad bit lower too.
After a lot of research, we found that most lift kits for the outback were all very similar, providing around 1.5-2” of lift and all requiring the exact same installation process.
We went with the Ready Lift 2” Outback Lift Kit which retails for a few hundred dollars less than the Cobb, LP Adventure, or Tuff Country equivalents.
Installing the ReadyLift 2″ Outback lift took about 2 hours with a few wrenches, a garage jack, and a couple of jack stands. It’s pretty straightforward and includes alignment specs to give the alignment shop after it was installed.
Subaru Outback Lift Kit on Amazon
With the added 2″ of ground clearance, the Outback easily goes over any obstacles and we haven’t had a single scraping incident since.
The 2020 and newer Subaru Out backs already fit 245/65r17 sized tires without any rubbing, but the lift gives them a little more space around the fenders.
On the road, the Outback feels a bit more top-heavy and tippy while cornering much the way a typical crossover or SUV would feel when stock. Thankfully, the wider and stiffer BFGoodrich AT KO2’s we installed help balance it out to where it’s not really noticeable and always feels planted which is especially useful since we added the tent weight on the roof.
Off road, the combination of the lift and bigger tires make every rut and rock seem like tiny potholes and anthills. The higher ground clearance and bigger, grippier tires really make Subaru’s X-Mode and symmetrical all-wheel-drive shine as it slowly applies torque to the wheels with the most grip and keeps the Outback moving.
We won’t pretend this thing is a rock-crawler because it’s not. Without a low-range transfer case a Subaru simply can’t compete with real body-on-frame trucks and SUVs when doing serious off-roading. What the Outback can do is tackle any forest or fire road and get us to our favorite spots, no matter how bad of shape they’re in or what kind of weather we encounter.
7. Prepare For The Worst With Emergency And Recovery Gear
Maybe this should be the first step because no matter how much or how little we prepare the rest of the car for off-road and camping adventures, preparing for the worst with recovery gear is an absolute must.
At a minimum, we always have the following gear somewhere in the car:
- A decent tire inflator to add air to the tires after off-road use.
Driving a FWD Promaster through extremely rough terrain in the Central American jungles and South American mountains taught me how important it is to air down when off-road which means we need a tire inflator to reinflat the tires when getting back on the road.
We always carry a good tire inflator like this one from Slime that can actually reinflate all four tires without burning out. It’s heavy-duty and connects directly to the car battery to give it extra power, and comes with a nice carrying case to store it.
Slime Heavy Duty Tire Inflator
We burned through a lot of different ones until realizing that any tire inflator that plugs into a car outlet simply can’t keep up when trying to reinflate 4 tires one after another.
I’ve only used this stuff once when our tire picked up a nail but it did its job of plugging up the hole and getting us to a tire repair shop.
Slime Emergency Tire Repair Sealant
In the past, we’ve also carried an actual tire plug kit which works much better but takes way longer to repair and is way more involved. Neither one can fix a big sidewall gash or anything like that, so it’s still best to have good all-terrain tires to begin with which have stronger sidewalls and deeper threads.
- A small tool set designed for cars.
Sometimes things just come loose or break and nothing can make me feel more helpless than knowing that I could easily fix it and get us back on the road if only I had the right tools. Luckily, I’ve learned my lesson so now we carry this small tool set designed for car use.
Auto Tool Kit on Amazon
It has everything I could ever need to make field repairs without the random stuff that household toolsets have like hammers and tape measurers.
People always think I’m kidding when I say duct tape can fix anything.
Duct tape will fix all kinds of things both on the car and on your gear, as well as serve as immediate first aid. It can be used to keep pressure in a burst coolant hose or keep a window up that fell off its guide rails. It can quickly fix a tent that’s leaking or a backpack that tore its shoulder strap mid-hike. For first aid, it can be used to stabilize a twisted ankle or create a splint for a broken leg.
I highly recommend the T-Rex brand of duct tape, especially the T-Rex Brute Force, which has been shown to hold an insane amount of weight and pressure before ripping, much more than the others.
T-Rex High Performance Duct Tape on Amazon
It’s so cheap, takes up so little space, and has so many uses that there’s really no reason to not carry a roll.
Winches are nice but they add a lot of weight and usually require heavy modifications to the bumpers or whole new bumpers. A simple tow strap will work pretty well if there’s a passerby to help pull you out.
Heavy Duty Tow Strap
We’ve used ours several times when getting stuck in the mud and without it, we would have to rely on other people being responsible and carrying recovery gear with them.
Most cars come with a small donut tire or some other kind of crazy emergency tire that’s pretty useless if you’re caught needing to put on your spare off-road. Thankfully the Subaru Outback comes with enough space to fit a full-size spare in the trunk. When we switched to the new wheels and tires, we simply threw in one of the original tires and wheels as a spare. It’s slightly smaller but it will do in an emergency.
Rinse And Repeat
The best part of this quick and easy Subaru Outback camper build is that nothing of it is built-in so everything is easy to put on and just as easy to take off.
Installing and taking off the tent takes about 15 minutes with this simple chain pulley attached to our garage’s ceiling. Putting in the battery and fridge and connecting them together takes all of 2 minutes.
BIG RED Chain Block Hoist on Amazon
Taking it all off is just as quick and can be done in well under 30 minutes. There is no easier way to turn an ordinary car into a full-fledged camper than this!
As much as we loved traveling in our campervan full time for months, it hasn’t seen nearly as much use since getting back to the US. Our Subaru Outback gets daily use in its normal attire and quickly pulls double duty as a weekend camper, getting us places the Promaster could only dream of going.
Looking for more info on our car builds and favorite gear? Be sure to check out some of our other popular posts below!
- Tent Box Classic Review: Best Hard shell Rooftop Tent of 2021
- Jackery Explorer 1000: Best Power Station For Traveling
- How To Convert Your SUV Into A Camper In 8 Simple Steps
- Road Trip Essentials: Our Ultimate Packing List
- DIY Promaster Camper Conversion Guide – Part I
Interested in stepping up your photography skills? Here is the camera gear that I use and recommend to create amazing travel photos:
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