My youngest daughter’s determination to take a massive road trip across the United States, as economically as possible, led to an entirely new project for me—converting our minivan into a campervan. After hours of research and a couple of woodworking projects gone awry, I managed to create a suitable home on wheels for her journey.
Planning the Campervan
Before starting the build, we talked quite a bit about how my daughter planned to use the van. This is a critical step if you’re thinking of converting a vehicle into a camper. How you will use your vehicle will influence what you build and how you build it.
My daughter planned to do some camping at conventional campsites as well as overnighting at Walmart parking lots and possibly even stealth camping (yikes!) if there were no other options. We thought about weather–she would be travelling in the summer, so high temperatures might be an issue. We thought about how much she would need to pack–clothes, shoes, shower supplies and toiletries—because we had to figure out where all of those things would be stored in the van. We thought about if she would need to take water along. We thought about if she might need a portable toilet. As we considered all of these factors we pondered how they would affect how the campervan was put together.
We knew going into the project that we wanted to maintain the van’s normal interior for future use. In other words, we weren’t going to gut it, tear out seats or install additional insulation. When not used for camping, our van would return to it’s normal life of hauling us around town. We had a Chrysler Town and Country with seats that fold into the floor, so with them neatly tucked away we had a big open space to work with.
We also knew that we wanted the build to be as user-friendly as possible. From all the videos and articles we saw we learned that the more stuff you have to move around to get to the things you need the quicker you become frustrated and irritable.
Figuring Out How To Build the Bed
The biggest undertaking of transforming the minivan to a campervan was the bed. Not only was it the largest item that would have to fit into the van, it required the most planning.
Since the interior of our van is only four feet wide, we knew that the bed would be oriented length-wise and would, therefore, take up the majority of the back of the van. Thinking of my daughter camping, and considering the weather and potential for rainy days, we decided that she should be able to sit up on the bed without crouching. That way, she would be able to be out of the weather and be comfortable reading, using her computer, playing guitar, whatever.
After viewing many van bed configurations on the internet, I found a YouTube video at Wizard Dream Van Dwelling: Simple Bed with Pop Up Bench Seat in Astro Camper Conversion that featured a bed that seemed both practical and doable. I set out to construct a similar model.
Deciding it would be a good idea to see what it was like sitting on something other than a car seat in the back of the van, I conducted some high-tech research; I got some plastic milk crates which seemed close to the right height, put them in the van with pillows on top and sat on them. Surprisingly, I discovered that the height was just about right. There were several inches between the top of my head and the ceiling of the van. So I determined that the top of the bed near the center of the van could be about 18″. I also knew that the bed cushions would be about three inches thick, therefore the bed platform should be about 15-16″ high from the floor of the van near the center, where the back seats are usually located. Because the cushions would flatten some when they were sat on, 16″ seemed a good height. Every inch of storage space underneath the bed was going to be needed!
Building the Campervan Bed
Having experienced kids travelling for many years I knew that the first order of business was to protect the wood against spills and dirt. With that in mind, I found some leftover paint in the basement and gave all of the wood two coats.
Next I cut the 8′ x 4′ sheet of plywood width-wise into four, equal, 18″ pieces. I didn’t need to cut the width because the four-foot sections fit perfectly between the narrowest points in the van.
We thought it would be great to build the bed in a way that would allow for part of it to be used as a bench outside of the van. To accomplish this I planned to build two platforms. The larger of the two would be the main part of the bed and would measure 54″ long. The smaller, removable bench part would be 18″. When together, the entire length of the bed would be 72″.
The second benefit of building the bench in two parts was that the entire bed did not need to be removed to use the second-row seats. Extra passengers could ride in comfort without de-constructing the entire bed.
The Challenge of the Legs
Next I had to tackle the difference in height between the front and the back of the van. I had some rough measurements for legs that I figured out by using a four-foot level and pieces of scrap wood. I’m sure there’s a much more scientific method of figuring this out but I’m by no means a carpenter and algebra is NOT my strong suit. So I improvised with the pieces of wood and a level, working from the center of the van which would require longer legs. My method actually worked really well and I only had to trim a bit off of two of the legs. Before screwing the platforms together I set them up on the legs inside the van and double-checked with the level. It worked!
But a new challenge presented itself. In order to be level with the bed, the bench legs had to be cut at two different lengths. There was a little over an inch in difference. In the van it worked perfectly, but used outside the van, the bench rocked front to back and was unstable. The answer to this issue was adjustable feet (aka leveling feet or leg levelers). Simple, right?
Not really. It became apparent very quickly that the little adjustable feet sold at the local hardware store simply weren’t heavy-duty enough for this application. So back to the internet I went. Purchasing heavy-duty adjustable feet wasn’t an option because the prices were way too high. Luckily I found a how-to article at Heavy-Duty Leveling Feet on the Cheap that taught me to make my own. We were back in business. By adjusting the leveling feet, the bench legs could be adjusted for use inside the van or out. I attached sliding door latches (aka café or saloon door latches) between the bench and the larger bed platform to hold the bench to the bed.
Making the Bed Convert to a Couch
Another feature we wanted in the van bed was for it to convert into a couch. I accomplished
this by attaching piano hinges to the three panels which would sit atop the main bed frame. In the video above, the width of the bed platform was reinforced with 2 x 4s. Additional boards were attached next to, but below, these cross braces. When the platform pieces were folded, two boards formed the back of the couch. The long edge of the board that supported the back of the couch could be placed into the corner created by the cross brace and the board underneath it. I replicated this design but was lucky enough to have a board that had a corner notched out already (a piece of an old bed frame). I was happily justified in saving that piece of “junk.”
Constructing the folding platform took me several attempts. Suffice it to say that those piano hinges were NOT my friend. I learned the hard way that they DO NOT open both directions. We wanted the bed to fold both ways, so that the couch could face either the front or the back of the van. I talked to hardware store employees, friends and the guys remodeling my house. I searched the internet for entirely too much time. Finally I conceded. If such a hinge exists at a reasonable cost I couldn’t find it. The couch can still face both ways by removing the board and putting it back in the van the other direction. Compromise.
It was a very happy day when the platform was completed.
Time to move on to less complicated matters.
Making the Cushions
For a mattress, we bought a full-size, 3″ foam mattress topper. I then cut it into four sections so that the cushions could be used in whatever configuration the bed/bench was set up. Following the instructions of The Campervan Converts, I sewed covers for them from colorful outdoor fabric my daughter chose. (Although I skipped the wadding and practice run.) Each cushion had two different fabrics, one for each side, so she could change the look. And despite my limited sewing ability, I was able to incorporate zippers for laundering.
I was glad to have the bed constructed and move on to other projects. Check out Part Two of this post to find out how we dealt with window coverings, storage and more!
Continue reading about converting a minivan to a campervan at Part Two – Everything But the Bed
Click here to read about how this trip came about.
Have suggestions? What do you think of our design? Let me know by commenting below.