Creating a Minivan Camper

There are four main reasons I’m creating a minivan camper… (1) economy, (2) handling, (3) maneuverability and (4) versatility. I’m sure that there are other reasons that could be thought of, but these are the main ones that I am considering.

Most new minivans are getting up to 28 mpg (according to the manufacturer’s ratings), but that also depends on the weight it’s carrying and how it’s driven. Still, that’s roughly four times what the average RV is getting! I can do a lot of traveling, more often, and with less stress with all that money saved!

In general, the smaller a vehicle is, the less it costs to maintain. The tires are smaller, maintenance and repair bills are less, and you can even fit into a standard car wash with it! What is there not to like?

Okay, space might be the only thing missing. But if you don’t try to take any more than what you will absolutely use within any given week, you’ll find you don’t need a whole lot, and won’t have to clutter it up with excess “junk”. Also, a minivan has more inside length, height, and width than any other “economical” SUV of comparable size.

As long as you don’t pull a trailer with it, the handling of a minivan is about the same as any mid-sized family sedan, so it can be driven by anyone. Even if you add a receiver hitch and rear storage pod, there’s really little change in handling, and no worries about backing up.

Maneuverability is FAR better than any other RV, thanks to a shorter wheelbase and tighter turning radius. You can go nearly anywhere a small car can go, and park anywhere you want to… in a single parking space, with no “overhang”. With less weight and a lower profile, the stress of traveling is less because you won’t have to worry about bridge weights or low clearance areas.

Without any additions to the outside, you basically have a “stealth” vehicle. No one will know it’s a camping vehicle unless they actually see the inside. You can park in any neighborhood, in any garage or carport, in any parking lot. This alone gives you much more versatility than most larger vans or RVs.

With no major modifications, and nothing “built in”, a minivan is very versatile to serve as an all-around family vehicle. With seats that hide away in the floor, there is nothing to store elsewhere if you want to open up the cargo area for hauling things. It can serve as a hauler, a family “taxi” for up to seven people, and in 15 minutes it can easily convert to a camping vehicle for getting away on the weekends… or much longer! So why spend money on a larger RV, unless you plan on full-time RVing in it? If you do that, use the RV as your “mobile home base”, and use a minivan for your shorter excursions!

A full-size pick-up with a tall cap provides the same amount of space as a “grand” van, but has the disadvantages of no side doors for the bed area, a taller entry from the rear, and usually far less fuel economy. Of course, it’s easier to get four-wheel-drive in a pick-up truck, but unless you really want to get into remote places, it isn’t really necessary, and can also take even more away from fuel economy. You can’t put the kitchen in the back, because it would block access to the sleeping area. If you put the kitchen in the front, it can’t be reached easily except from the sleeping area.

With a camping layout and setup that is basically the same as most tear-drop trailers, the minivan makes the most sense. The kitchen in the rear lets you access it easily from outside without even stepping up to reach it, while still being able to reach most things from inside the van. Also, the lift gate provides a nice shade or rain cover over the kitchen area, the same as most tear-drop trailers. If the lift gate has a light on the inside of the door, it can even provide overhead lighting for the kitchen at night when the lift gate is open!

Although there are several good choices for the interior layout, a rear kitchen is really the most practical as it leaves the entire middle of the van available for a bed. If a side “gaucho” style couch is used, and can also serve as a single bed, a single person can get by with that and have other things (like a kitchen cabinet setup) along the opposite side. But that can be a problem if you ever want a wider bed for a second person, or just more room for yourself.

As one who likes to have as many options as possible, I am choosing a side futon style jack-knife sofa that can be opened to a 3/4-size bed (in professional mattress industry terms, that’s 48-inches wide). That gives me the option of sleeping on the couch and keeping the opposite side of the van available for other things. If it becomes uncomfortable, it is easy to open up the couch and make a bed out of it, as per the plan shown below:

My proposed minivan floor plan.
My proposed minivan floor plan.

You can use your “zoom” feature on your browser to enlarge the image, but that may not help the clarity. I will try to solve that issue. Later on, I will make this image downloadable. It was created on an Excel spreadsheet, using the drawing toolbar. It will also open with OpenOffice.

By leaving the couch in “couch mode” it also makes it possible to pull the passenger side middle seat out of the floor and use it for a third passenger. It also keeps anything permanent out of the way on the right side, for easy access in or out from the rear of the van, such as if a rear minivan tent is used for extra space and standing room.

In place of a comfortable recliner, an oversize bolster pillow (or the travel bags) can be used at the end of the couch as a back rest, for watching TV, or other leisure use. For eating, or using a makeshift desk, a portable table can be set up in front of the couch or the mid-row seat. The Table Mate adjustable folding tables work great with a minivan.

Plastic totes will be used under the couch for pantry items and general storage. Soft-side duffels and travel bags will be used for most clothes, and what few hanging clothes I have can be hung along the passenger side of the van. If I carry a TV with me, it can be set up on the passenger side wheel well, directly across from the couch.  With the bed opened up, any excess travel bags can go in the front cab at night, or at the foot of the bed near the kitchen.

The “Luggable Loo” portable toilet can be placed in the back of the van, where it can easily be used, or it can be moved to a rear tent (with privacy, of course) or can go into a portable shower/toilet tent away from the van when in remote camping areas. It could also be placed by the side door, where there is more headroom. Even the couch/bed could be moved back, against the rear door, and still have easy access to cooking facilities.

Smaller items that are used on a every day basis can go into cargo nets hung above the side windows. With no need to carry everything that I own (other things will remain at my “home base”), the only things I will have with me is what I use at least once a week. And yet I will have everything I need to travel for a few days, or for months at a time.

I will have plenty of food, water, a sink, heat and air conditioning (both from the van’s dash), ventilation with fans, rain guards and screens, bathroom facilities, a way to shower and stay clean (if I have no other showers available), standing room (when I set up the rear tent), several types of cooking facilities, refrigeration, plenty of power for what I plan to use, sleeping for up to two people (even more with a cot in the rear tent), and tables and seating. If I want additional heat in the morning, a small catalytic heater can be used in the van or in the rear tent. With electric available at a camp site, even a small electric heater can be used. What more could a person possibly need?

I’m not sure there’s a way to add a swivel to the passenger side front seat in a minivan, but it would be great if it could be done. With using windshield and side window coverings, it would open up the living area even more and provide a nice reclining seat as well as a place for a facing dinette with the middle row seat. I will be searching for a way to make that happen. I don’t want to have to remove the seat and re-bolt it in the reverse position. I still want a front seat to use normally.

At the suggestion of another blog I have been reading, I may add a swing-away rear hitch with a storage pod on it. That will be handy for larger lawn chairs, a larger propane bottle, dirty clothes bag, and other things that don’t need to be stored inside the van. But before I do that, I will opt for a roof storage pod and see how that works out.

There has been much thought put into creating a minivan camper, but many of the ideas have come from other people. I am still compiling a list of the sites, blogs and YouTube channels relating to minivan campers that have been influential in my decisions. Those will be listed and constantly updated at the bottom of the right-hand margin.

For now, this is long enough to show what I have planned in the coming months. Feel free to ask questions or make your own comments.

Thanks for reading,

“Vinny”

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