My First Night in the Minivan Camper

Before I get to the second part of finishing the van, I want to share some revelations I learned from my first night in the minivan camper and actually sleeping in the van. Overall it worked very well, but I will explain some observations.

First of all, the couch moves very easily, despite the load from covers and other things that had not been relocated yet… although… it would have been much easier with two people, one at the back door and one at the side door. One person has to “jockey” the couch a little from each end until it is in position for the back to lay down. I suggest laying the back of the couch (and the mattress) forward while getting the seat of the couch moved to the other side. Otherwise it is very difficult to hold the back of the couch up (and let it down easily) while moving the seat. The chains will hold it, but due to the size and leverage, the couch becomes a little “top heavy”, and will want to fall over backward when the front is lifted slightly to drag it. So… better to pull the legs out from the back and lay the seat back totally (from the driver’s side middle door) after the seat is moved all the way to it’s bed position.

The couch with a matching black "throw" cover and gold bolster cushions (not for sleeping on).
The couch with a matching black “throw” cover and gold bolster cushions (not for sleeping on).

I could have slept on the couch seat easily enough, but I wanted to make a full bed for my first night in the minivan camper for the purpose of a complete test of it. The black “throw” cover (just for looks) was removed and replaced with a sheet and blanket for sleeping… along with my contour pillow. I already had the foam wrapped with a heavy quilt plus a sheet, underneath the black “throw” cover.

I can say that with an overnight low of 62 degrees, the inside of the van stayed much warmer. Without a thermometer, I would guess it was at least 70 degrees inside. And I used my O2Cool fan (running on D cells) to keep fresh air moving. I left the windows closed, since I don’t have the screens made yet.

The foam mattress was very comfortable… firm, but not uncomfortably so. When a body is spread out on it, the weight is distributed to a larger area. Good foam also has to support sitting on it for long periods of time, where most of the body weight is in a smaller area. It doesn’t pay to go with cheap foam. I am very happy with my choice of the best multi-density foam for the price.

As with everything new, there are always going to be some learning curves, and modifications made. Since the couch platform has to pulled out again to be painted, it is good to find out what else needs to be done to it mechanically before getting to that stage.

I learned that I need to cut that rear “notch” in the seat back a little farther toward the front of the couch. Although it misses the “bulge” by the rear door, it still hits the top of the wheel well farther in. By cutting it back a little farther it will miss the back of the wheel well and be able to tilt back farther, making for more comfort when sitting on it, without it twisting it or being forced to sit too straight up. And when you want it to recline, you simply pull the seat away from the wheel well as needed and use the chains to support the seat back at whatever angle is comfortable.

Couch back showing where extra material will be removed.
Couch back showing where extra material will be removed.

The platform that fills the corner of the couch back when in bed mode will also have to be modified. The new piece that I have to cut out will have to be added to the back of the platform, but that isn’t hard to do. I also need to cut out a 4-inch square at the front left corner, to allow for long items stored behind the couch. The couch legs are already cut out that much on both the front and back, to allow for long things on the right side as well as the left.

<center> The filler box for the bed corner can be used for other things during the day. I'll add the newly cut off piece to it after removing it.</center>
The filler box for the bed corner can be used for other things during the day. I’ll add the newly cut off piece to it after removing it.

I will put together a working drawing with all correct dimensions when I get all the bugs worked out, so that anyone can duplicate my design. I have no interest in manufacturing a kit. That would be very difficult to do in a (near) full-time traveling lifestyle, with no shop to work in. And this isn’t that complex. Anyone with a hand saw, a hack saw, a screwdriver and scissors ought to be able to build this, once they see what is being done.

In the process of testing, I also discovered that the middle leg on the back of the couch can be shortened in length, as it also hits the top of the wheel well, keeping the back of the couch from reclining as much as it could. It doesn’t need to be so long that it meets the bottom leg when lowered into bed mode. It will also be moved toward the front end of the couch about an inch, due to the middle seat leg needing to be moved that much. I underestimated the amount of width the totes need in order to be pulled out and pushed in easily when using the angled shelf brackets for stability on the legs. The brackets get in the way. The rear leg on the back of the couch will also move forward by necessity, due to the notch being cut in farther.

On the back of the couch at the top rear, where the chain attaches in the photo of the couch back above (I forgot to mark it on the photo), I will also be taking off a small portion at an angle to match the slope of the rear lift gate. I have it almost touching at that point now, but when lowered into bed mode, there is about a 2″ gap between the bed and the rear door. By taking that corner off, the couch will be able to move back closer to the rear door, and add to the space at the front end of the couch… for the water container, the cooler, the Thetford Curve porta-potty, for storage and also for foot space.

Existing foot space in front of bed and porta-potty.
Existing foot space in front of bed and porta-potty.


Clearance between couch and porta=potty with passenger seat moved forward.
Clearance between couch and porta-potty with passenger seat moved forward.

The other problem I ran into was tucking in covers at the sides of the bed. I had the foam cushions cut so that they fill a 48″ width. That is totally not necessary! Even if there are two people in the bed, they will still have the 48″ width between the wheel wells without the mattress using up every inch of it! It would be better to make the couch back foam 2″ narrower, and then center the mattress in the space, so that there is space to tuck the covers in at the edges without forcing them down into the crevice.

In turn, the plywood back of the couch could also be cut 2″ narrower (the height). Although that is not critical, it would reduce the overall width of the platform and allow more foot/legroom at the passenger side door. In trying to get dressed in the morning, I was able to swing my feet over the edge of the bed into the passenger side door well to sit upright, but I still had to turn my feet sideways a bit, which is uncomfortable. I had hung my shaving mirror on the coat hook on the passenger side, and that worked well enough, but being able to have more foot room on that side without twisting my back and hips would be a bonus!

As it is, the foam of the couch back is designed to set on top of the seat foam when in couch mode, which makes the back of the couch very high. It actually sticks above the plywood back by the thickness of the seat foam (4″). By making the foam on the back 22″ wide instead of 24″ it would work much better. Of course, if the plywood is also cut 2″ narrower, the foam is still going to stick above it by 4″, but that can’t be helped, and doesn’t hurt anything.

The foam mattress has a tendency to spread out a bit, too, and wants to push the chains out of their notches at the ends of the couch, so I will have to add something to keep the chains in their notches. Maybe another notch cut only partially through the plywood on the back/underside crosswise of the first notch at the deepest point will grab the last link of chain to keep it from slipping out, and still be easy enough to pull it out when needed. I’ll report on that and show pictures at a later date.

As far as overall space and comfort, the bed, the mattress and being able to use the porta-potty was no problem, and I’m slightly above average height. Having the couch move back toward the rear of the van another couple of inches will help the foot space in the front of the bed, and cutting the back of it a couple inches narrower will increase the foot space by the side door, making getting in and out of bed and sitting on the bed (especially when there are two people), much more comfortable. One person can sit facing the space between the front seats, and the other can sit facing the side door.

It would be very difficult to move the bed back into couch mode (or from there to bed mode) from inside the van. So being able to get undressed in the evening and dressed again in the morning from bed mode is important. That’s all the more reason that having as much foot space along the side and at the end of the bed as possible really helps.

Reflectix has been cut to fit into all windows, and is self-supporting.
Reflectix has been cut to fit into all windows, and is self-supporting.

I have Reflectix cut for all the windows (for privacy), and everything is (mostly) ready on the van. I plan to paint one side of all the Reflectix with flat black Krylon Fusion spray paint (after cleaning it good with alcohol), so that I can use the shiny side out in bright sun, or when I need to be stealth, I can turn the black side out… at least on the front windows.

On the side doors and on back, including the liftgate, I will cover the shiny inside of the Reflectix with curtain fabric, to make the inside seem more “homey”. The outside can remain black all the time, so that the Reflectix won’t be noticeable from the outside.

You can see why I want to paint the Reflectix black for all of the rear windows. It sticks out like a sore thumb!
You can see why I want to paint the Reflectix black for all of the rear windows. It sticks out like a sore thumb!

The van was ready enough for travel, but it was I who was not totally prepared for a trip so soon. This opportunity to travel and try it out came up unexpectedly. A change of clothes was no problem, but grabbing all the other little items at the last minute made for much disorganization. I discovered that some things that I needed in the morning had been stored up in the front passenger floor board… totally out of reach without getting out of the van.

Thankfully, I was parked out in a secluded area, and the passenger side was out of sight of the nearest people who “might” see anything, so it was no problem… this time. If I were “lot-docking” in a public parking lot for the night, it wouldn’t be cool to have to get out of the van half-dressed. But I now have a few more weeks before I hit the road again, so hopefully the next trip will go smoother.

In any kind of small vehicle the axiom becomes even more true that “there has to be a place for everything, and everything must be put in it’s proper place”. It may take a few nights out to figure out where all those proper places are and what needs to be in them, but it will come with experience. I’m sure that things will get shuffled around a lot before they find a permanent home! I know that there are many storage spaces that were not used on this short trip. I will have more things with me the next time, and all those little storage places need to be found and used!

For instance, this van has two glove compartments in the dash, which are nowhere near full. The center console has storage that can be better organized to make more space. There are nets on the backs of both front seats that can be used for “thin” items like books and maps. And there is still storage space under the front seats and couch that hasn’t been used, as well as some triangular storage space between the cooler and the driver’s seat.

Due to the newness of this van, and the fact that I “might” trade it next fall for a much larger one, I chose not to remove the extra seats that are stored in the floor. But if someone has an older minivan that they plan to keep indefinitely, there are HUGE storage areas in those seat wells! However, with this couch setup, the rear one would be difficult to get to without some way to lift the end of the couch and hold it up and out of the way. The driver’s side seat well isn’t so hard to get to, as the couch just needs to slide over to bed position. And I may want to pull the passenger side seat out of the floor to use it, so that eliminates me using that side for storage.

I have been torn between adding a rear swing-away hitch and storage pod, or just one on the roof. The latter is no problem, and could even be transferred to another vehicle. To put one on the rear requires a receiver hitch first, but if I trade the van, that part would be lost. And with any newer (and larger van), if I ever wanted to pull a trailer, the swing-away pod would not allow that without removing it totally, and then where would I store it? Once I am sure I won’t need a trailer, I might consider a rear pod again, as it could also be used on another vehicle.

So for now, I have purchased an inexpensive yet very large roof top storage bag (soft-side, of course) that will let me carry everything else that I want to take along for a longer trip. It measures 47″ long x 31″ wide x 17″ high, and is made of a material similar to convertible tops on cars. I did a “test load” on an outside table to see how everything fits inside of it, including two reclining bag chairs, the larger stove and accessories, the portable shower unit and enclosure, fishing gear, butane/propane cans, outdoor games and much more! This thing holds up to 150 pounds of gear and is HUGE! I still haven’t filled it, even with all that is shown below!

The roof pod will hold all the stuff I don't want inside the van, or don't use on an everyday basis.
The roof pod will hold all the stuff I don’t want inside the van, or don’t use on an everyday basis.

Only one catch, though… it would have to set directly on the roof, and could wear on the paint on the roof, even though it is held in place with the straps. So in addition, I purchased a roof rack steel “basket” large enough (48″ by 39″ x 5″ high) to contain the storage bag within it’s 5″ side rails, so that there is no possibility of it sliding froward and back or breaking the straps that secure it. The rack will set above the roof on top of the van’s existing roof rack rails. (Unfortunately, the way the built-on rack is made, the front and back rails aren’t far enough apart to hold my roof bag within them.) With the side rails of the add-on rack providing extra tie-down points, I can add some extra ratchet straps to make sure the pod can’t move in any direction.

During this next three weeks, I will be making the final modifications to the couch, hopefully getting it recut, legs repositioned, and the frame parts painted. I will also be getting the Reflectix painted flat black on one side (so that it will be reversible for day or night/stealth use). (The curtain fabric is in storage and will be “laminated” onto the Reflectix with 3M-77 spray tack adhesive at a later date). And I will be finding proper storage places for all my “little stuff”, and also getting the “home base” organized for my being gone all summer (and maybe beyond).

I have some things in a remote storage area half-way across the country… such as a rear tent, extra pots and pans, kitchen utensils, dinnerware, a couple of small Tablemate adjustable folding tables, the curtain fabric and more, so I will be forced to “get by” with minimal facilities until I can get up there. That means not only having no standing room with privacy, no screen room, having minimal cooking facilities, but also using paper plates and plastic silverware, until I get there. It’s a three-day drive. I’ll show the unpacking of the rear tent and other new pictures after I get there.

Fortunately, the van is designed to allow for stealth camping when no tent can be used, and I can get by with food from the cooler for a few days if I can’t get outside to cook. I “could” cook inside the van, if necessary, but as long as I am in a park setting, I can always use a picnic table, or even cook in the open lift gate opening… just not in a Walmart parking lot!

Oh, and the Koolatron P-20 cooler got a good test during this trip and performed very well. I didn’t have a lot of food in it to start, but brought back some leftovers. I started the cooler the day before I left (powered from a 120-volt extension cord) and then switched it over to 12-volts when I was ready to leave. I shut it down at bed-time and restarted it the next morning. I should be able to get about 13 hours of use without running the 125 amp-hour secondary battery down too far, but with driving most days and shutting the cooler off at night, I should be able to stay within the tolerance of the battery. More testing is needed for more accurate facts.

Once I have the rear tent for privacy, I will even show my complete shower setup… for those rare times when I need to use my own facilities, rather than public ones. This van literally has all the comforts of home… when I need them!

More photos of the progress will be coming as things are completed… as long as I can remember to take them. So make sure you subscribe to future posts so you don’t miss anything, and thanks for reading about my project!

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