Starting to Create a Minivan Camper

I had thought about documenting my creation over several posts… until I realized it is so simple, it can be created in a weekend, once the materials are gathered. So this will be the “starting” of it, and when it’s done, I will show the “completion” of it. That’s about how long it takes and there’s no need to drag it out any farther!

Over the past couple of weeks, I have been gradually obtaining some of the materials needed to create my minivan camper. Some things, I have already had from past campers. But this project requires a specially-built side gaucho couch that can be pulled out into a 48-inch-wide, 3/4-size bed (in official industry terms). To be able to do this without a lot of time spent cutting and fabricating, a lot of thought had to go into it… far more time than the time it takes to make it! After all, I wanted to keep it as simple as possible so that any of you readers will be able to do this so that you can create your own minivan camper in a weekend.

Please click the blue text link below the image if you want to open or download the .pdf version of the new floor plan, otherwise, you can click on the .jpeg photo below.

Chrysler Minivan Camper floor plan
Chrysler floor plan as being built.

Chrysler interior layout 1

Above is the new floor plan that works better than the one shown in the first post, along with the pdf link right under it. If the image above appears too fuzzy to read, click on the blue link that says “Chrysler interior layout 1” to open it. That one will be as clear as the original.

My first post showed the couch right behind the driver’s seat, with a 40-quart cooler at the back end, followed by a drop-down table at the liftgate. That would have worked, except that I overestimated the “true” amount of length available. The eight feet of length was measured at the bottom of the driver’s seat mount. In reality, the seat (and the seat back when reclining in normal driving position) actually overhangs that by nearly a foot! Oops!

So the first change was that the 40-quart cooler would not fit, and I had to order a brand new Koolatron P20 console-sized cooler. Both are Peltier Effect coolers (not true refrigerators) and will only cool down to about 40 degrees below ambient temperature in the van, but that’s OK. I can save my money and eventually buy one of the much more expensive compressor refrigerator/freezers of similar size later on… if I see a real need for it. For now, I will use some Reflectix to create a wrap and cover to go around and over the Koolatron, leaving only the cooling unit uncovered. That will help keep it cool.

Even with the smaller cooler at the back end of the couch, I realized that it would require the seat-back of the couch to be trimmed at an angle so as not to interfere with the driver’s seat position when it reclined. Also, the previous plan would have required the porta-potty to be at the back door, where the roof slope was such that headroom over it was greatly reduced, as well as having it right next to the kitchen setup. It would have also required the fully electric driver’s seat as well as the entire couch to be moved forward every night before pulling the seat out into bed position, to make room for it to clear the porta-potty. Not good in any respect. Back to the drawing board!

The most workable plan was to move the couch against the back door (the liftgate), and put the cooler in front of it (behind the driver’s seat), with the porta-potty behind the passenger seat. The passenger seat is not powered, and moves very easily to it’s most forward position as well as tilts forward. The porta-potty is much easier to scoot forward by that much so the couch doesn’t have to move forward and back. Also, there is now maximum headroom directly above the porta-potty.

At the driver’s side middle door, you can see in the photo below, the Koolatron P20 behind the driver’s seat. The couch back is folded down, without the cushions in place yet. Next to the door, you see an open spot behind the driver’s seat for the secondary battery (yet to be purchased) and it will have a shelf made for the top of it so things can be stored there. The battery will be a VMax Tanks 12V/125AH deep cycle AGM battery. More about that later.

Side door view 1
Side door view 1

To the rear of the battery space is an 8-gallon Hydroller water container, laid down. Don’t worry, it won’t leak. It has a very secure screw-on top, as well as a spigot on it. Maybe I’ll stand it up later, after I see how everything fits. It also has wheels and a pull-up handle so you don’t have to carry roughly 70 pounds of weight when it’s full. I will also have a small 1-gallon container that will be used for normal use at the back door, and which will be refilled from the Hydroller as needed.

(Update 3/26/18: I have determined that the Hydroller fits better (and works better) if turned with the handle side toward the Koolatron, and stood up close to the door. This way, the Hydroller stands up, so there is no chance of leaking, and is easily tipped forward toward the door, so that the spigot overhangs the doorway, making it easy to access. The battery still fits easily behind the couch. Extra inverters and a plug strip can be attached to the top of the couch back, directly above the battery, where they are easily reached from the couch. More will be shown on this with an updated drawing, and an explanation of securing the battery, later.)

With this change, all that is required is to pull the couch seat straight out (toward the passenger door) and lay the back down to change to bed position… no front to back (of the van) movement needed.

The other thing I really could not know until I got all the couch components together, was how much head room there would be over the couch for normal sitting. That would be variable, depending on how much the foam seat compressed when sitting on it. I hate to have my head brushing the ceiling all the time!

I had originally figured that to get enough headroom for my height, I could have no more than 7 inches of clearance under the couch platform for storage totes, but I ran into a glitch there, too, in discovering that the van floor was not totally flat. Starting at the back of the side doors, the van floor slopes up another two inches from there all the way to the back liftgate! I had already bought four storage totes to slide under the couch, and now I was concerned that the rear two would not fit!

So I literally placed the 3/4-inch plywood seat and 4-inch mattress cushion over the 6-1/2-inch-tall totes and climbed in to try it out. At the back of the van, where the roof is lowest, I had at least an inch of space above my head. At the front, I had at least 3 inches of extra headroom. So I made the decision to leave the back legs of the couch at 7 inches (enough to let the totes slide in and out easily), while raising the single front leg to 9 inches. That works for me. Someone extra tall may have to stay with a lower seat height, and low-profile totes (although locating some at less than 6-1/2 inches height is going to be difficult without building them).

I have also seen high density mattress cushions that are no more than 2 inches thick. They are often used in overhead bunks that slide out in sections in some larger vans. That would save some height. But don’t try to get by with cheap memory foam. It will collapse and leave you sleeping on the plywood!

I ordered my foam from The Foam Factory in Michigan. Their site is a little hard to navigate, but once you find the right page, it will walk you through all the shapes, foam types, and everything you need online. You simply fill in the blanks, and it will tell you the cost, and you can place your order right there with a credit card. The highest quality, multi-density foam designed for both sitting and sleeping is only about 10% higher in price than the cheapest stuff… so why not go with the best? I ordered two pieces 4″ x 24″ x 75″, and had them within ten days, even with custom cutting.

Mattress foam multi-density, 4" x 24" x 75", 30-year warranty.
Mattress foam multi-density, 4″ x 24″ x 75″, 30-year warranty.

They arrived by UPS in a box about a foot square and 18 inches long… vacuum shrunk as tight as they knew how! They were bagged and then shrink wrapped to hold the size. When I cut the final bag open… WOW! They started to swell up quickly! Within seconds, they were up to their full size!

For the plywood platform, I went to Lowes (Home Depot was on the other side of town), and had them pre-cut a piece of 3/4-inch plywood to 78″ length (I’ll explain that in a minute), and then cut the 78″ length right down the middle lengthwise to make two pieces 24″ wide for the seat and back of the couch. The end cut was brought home as it was cut, and I cut it up myself at home to use for the legs and other small parts. I also bought a pre-cut 3/4″ x 24″ x 48″ plywood piece so I would have plenty for the legs and other things.

The reason for the 78″ length on the plywood was to leave an extra 1-1/2-inches at each end of the mattress (75″ is normal RV length for mattresses) for the support chains to hold and adjust the recline of the back of the couch. I bought some small, 3/16″ welded-link chain while I was there, in two 30-inch lengths. At home, I cut saw kerfs 1-1/2″ deep, 16″ out from the intersection of the seat and back of the couch, and then widened them slightly larger. The ends of the chains slip into the saw kerfs, and can be adjusted to length to allow the couch back to recline as well as support it, and will not interfere with the mattress. To make the couch into a bed, all I have to do is pull the chain out of the seat slot, and let the back of the couch fall back as I pull the seat forward. In setting it back up, I simply pull the chain to raise the seat back up and then reconnect the chain into the slot as needed.

I used a 6-foot piano hinge at the joint between the couch seat and back, so that it can fold easily. I also bought some extra piano hinge for the legs that fold down on the seat back. I’ll explain more on that later, but basically, the seat back needs leg supports just as much as the seat… to prevent the weight from being on only the plastic totes. But the legs on the back can’t stick out when in couch position… therefore, they have to fold flat against the back of the couch when not being used.

I did have one more cut to make, though, that I had not thought about before. The liftgate on the van slopes inward, and at the upper left, also has a huge “bulge” sticking out that houses the door switch as well as an extra air spring for the liftgate. The couch back won’t lean all the way back without cutting out the plywood seat back to fit around it.

The plywood couch/bed platform being cut to fit the minivan.
The plywood couch/bed platform being cut to fit the minivan. (No legs on the couch yet).

I hated to do that, as it seems to leave a huge corner out of the bed… but… in reality, other than hurting the looks, no one is going to be sitting that far to that end of the couch anyway. And I can easily make a small box out of the cutout piece, making the sides the same height as the legs on the couch. It can be placed into that corner (open side down) when the couch is made into a bed, and the similarly cut out foam can just lay on top of it. The platform isn’t going to move, and the bed covers will hold the foam piece in place. When in couch mode, the loose piece of foam can be stored behind the couch, over the wheel well.

I felt that legs for the couch and bed were necessary to keep the entire weight off the totes. I was hoping the totes would be strong enough to support the couch and bed by themselves, but if two people are setting on the couch, that could mean nearly 400 pounds total sitting on the couch (that’s a lot of weight to support), and I didn’t think the plastic totes were up to the task. Besides, with the two different heights in the floor, and the fact that the totes would be hard to pull out if the couch was setting on them, the legs became necessary.

For the couch/bed legs, I’m simply cutting flat pieces of the 3/4″ plywood, to 24″ length and 7″ height (for the rear legs) and 9″ height (for the front leg). They will stand on edge, with 3/4″ hanging out behind the seat, and recessed that same amount from the front. The reason for that is to provide a support for the couch back at the hinge joint when it comes down, rather than just depending on the piano hinge.

I am using 1″ aluminum angle, 20″ long, along the length of each of the legs (front to back) at the top where it joins to the seat, so it will have plenty of stability for pulling and pushing the couch seat in and out. For stability on front to back movement within the van, I’m also adding some corner shelf brackets at each end of the legs. Those are very low-profile, and will still allow the totes to be pulled out from under the couch without interference. The space between the rear legs is about an inch wider (34″) than the combined width of the two totes (33″) that fit in that space. The front leg is spaced about 8″ farther apart, and that leaves some extra space for loose items to be stored under the couch. Both front and back legs are held in about 1-1/2″ from the ends of the platform so as not to interfere with the chains.

Support is also needed for the other side (the upper edge) of the seat back when it comes down. The side near the piano hinge can rest on the 3/4″ of legs that stick out the back of the seat platform. For the outer edge, some legs also have to be provided, but they must be able to fold flat against the seat back when in couch position. For that, I attached them with the extra piano hinges (rather than solid metal angle), and placed them such that they would be in line with the seat legs. They have to come down between the totes and other things that are stored under the couch in the same space that was left by the other legs (and seat) moving forward. To keep them folded out of the way when the seat back is up, I bought some small squares of self-adhesive Velcro. But not trusting the adhesive on wood, I also stapled the squares to the wood.

(Update, 3/26/18): At the last minute, I decided to cut out a 4-inch square at each end of the bottom of the couch legs, on both the seat legs as well as the legs that fold out from the back of the couch. This allows a “pass through” area along the back of the couch (or at the front of it when pulled out into bed mode), so that long items can be stored behind the totes. As an example, I have a long hiking pole, and a 4-foot double-prong hot dog fork for use over an open fire. It can also be used for a fishing pole, ski poles, or anything else that won’t fit anywhere else. More details and photos and updated drawings will appear later.)

I’ll show more photos as the work progresses, and try to include some drawings of what the leg layout on the couch looks like. After all, if I gave you all the details at once, you wouldn’t have any reason to come back again… would you?

All of the plywood has to be thoroughly sanded, especially the edges, to remove any sharp corners and chance of splintering, and especially the bottoms of the legs, so they slide easily on the carpeted floor. It wouldn’t even hurt if they were coated with a very hard varnish, to prevent drying out and splintering, as well as to make them slide easier on the carpet. If I have trouble sliding the legs, I can buy some 3/4″ inside diameter C-channel and attach to the bottoms of the legs later, being sure to fasten it from the sides so there isn’t any hardware on the bottom. For looks, I will also spray the outer edges of the couch seat, the seat back and the legs (basically, anything exposed that could be seen in normal operation) with black enamel to match the other seats in the van. It’s not fancy, but it works for me.

For mattress covers, I’m just going to put a large quilt over the cushions for now. A couple of bungees tied together across the length of the hinge point will hold the crease (and cover) in place between the cushions. The top, seat front and ends can simply fold under the cushions. I don’t have time to deal with custom covers before I want to leave for the summer. Next fall, I know someone who can make dust covers as well as outer covers for the cushions. When that happens, I’ll talk more about the details then.

For sleeping, I have a sleeping bag, and will also carry some sheets and blankets… and a pillow, of course. The nice thing about this layout in the van, is that for one person, the couch is wide enough to sleep on by itself, without using any more floor space. By pulling the seat out a little, you can adjust the recline angle of the back of the couch, too!

You could even leave the middle passenger seat up for more comfortable sitting… and it even reclines! But if you need to make room for a second person, the middle seat is easily tucked away into the floor, and the couch is easily pulled out into a bed wide enough for two.

Also, if you want to carry equipment, like a bike, a kayak, or even skis, you have one half of the van plus the full length of it to load anything long into it. This is the most versatile floor plan I could come up with. And even though the porta-potty “can” be used in the van, it can also go into a rear tent or an external shower tent if you prefer. You have lots of options, and that is what this design is all about! It isn’t just for me… its for anyone!

As far as the totes under the couch (for my use), the rear one will hold the kitchen equipment, and the second one will hold food. When pulled out, they can be turned endwise, and partially out over the threshhold, and used for a workspace for preparing and cooking food at the back door… and at close to normal table height, just like a tear-drop trailer would have! (The rear van floor is about 24 inches off the ground, and with 6-inch high totes, there’s your 30-inch table height!) When working from inside, they can also be reached easily, and stacked in front of the couch for a quick work table.

The “most used” portable stove… a single burner butane model… can sit by the back door, and be easily laid flat and slid under the bed for night time storage (along with anything else not over 7 inches tall). My rule is that I can carry whatever I want inside the van, as long as it’s out of the way of my feet and can fit under the bed or in the front seats at night (when I have company with me)!

Just remember, literally “everything” in the van has to be secured for travel… just for your own safety! That includes the couch, the totes under it, and anything laying loose inside the van! There are tie rings at the back door of this van, and bungees can easily be slipped into the slots where the seats fold into the floor, as well as tying off to the two huge rings that are the middle seat anchors (and which are flush with the floor).

Even the porta-potty should be tied to the front passenger seat for travel. You certainly don’t want that 70-pound “bowling ball” coming loose and tipping over! The same goes for the 70-pound AGM battery on the other side (tied to the driver’s seat base), and the 70-pound Hydroller full of fresh water! Isn’t it strange how so many things weigh roughly 70-pounds? I’ll bet even the couch platform with legs and hardware weighs close to that!

But on the other hand, nothing weighs more than that! To be able to empty the van out to use it for some other purpose (in about 15 minutes, by the way) it can be done by one person! And everything can be put right back into any other van if you trade! All of the equipment is yours as long as you want it, and no damage is done to the van that will cost you money down the road! How many other RVs can do that?

I also have two folding, adjustable Tablemate tables that can be set up inside or outside. They can be adjusted for height, and even for tilt… to be used as a computer desk, an eating table, serving table, prep table, or for whatever I need them. Two of them back to back can even serve as a card table, or for other games. They can also lay flat under the couch at night.

Of the other two totes, the front ones, it isn’t definite yet what they will hold. One will likely also hold food items, while the second one will likely be hardware type items… but time will only tell for sure.

Non-wrinkling clothes (I’m certainly not going to iron anything!) will remain in soft-side carry-on style bags, which can also be used as a backrest at the end of the couch for reclining to watch TV or reading. What few hanging clothes I carry (jackets and such) will hang from the clothes hook on the passenger side, by the rear wheel well.

An alternate plan that I had in mind, but decided against, was to have one long under-bed style tote like a large drawer, that would pull out from under the couch through the open liftgate. With part of it remaining under the couch for stability, the back 2/3rds of it could serve as a prep or eating table.

The reason I rejected that plan is because it would take away from versatility… you would have to go outside the van and open the liftgate in order to use it, and none of the items in it would be accessible from inside the van. I wanted my design to be more versatile than a normal tear-drop trailer, so that all kitchen equipment and food would be accessible from inside.

In the next post, I’ll talk about what I am using for window coverings, and later on, how the van will be ventilated. That is always a highly debated subject in the van circles, as vehicle windows are always very difficult to fit curtains and screens to, especially without drilling any holes. I’m making it easy, and yet aesthetically beautiful, and practical, with very little work.

I’ll also get into more of the details of other features of the van, from the installation of rain guards over the windows, to other items I am adding to the van. The couch and legs are the only things that require a little bit of cutting (a hand saw will work) and minimal assembly (with a screwdriver). The window coverings only need a pair of scissors. Everything else is all ready-made components. So I hope you will stick around and learn how to do it so you, too, can get on the road and see some of the world at very little cost!

I know some people will still say that they can’t live in something this small, even for a long weekend. But think about it… this van is rated at 27 miles per gallon! Run the numbers on fuel economy, between this and what you have now, and then stretch that out over a year. Then think about all the things you can do with that extra money! I have, and I’m going to be doing them! Care to join me?

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