Tuesday, January 24, 2017

How we turned our car into a camper van one evening after work

I love to read travel and van life blogs as much as the next person. It's inspiring that some people are willing to leave everything in search of the next dream-like location to explore and write about. But that's just not my life. My husband and I have 9-5's that we enjoy and that help us to feel like productive, contributing members of society. Not to mention they provide some delightful financial stability and allow us to live close to family and friends. So instead, we weekend warrior, and that's just right for us.

It's just the two of us right now and we usually go just for a night or two, so we don't need a full on cargo or sprinter-type camper van just yet, as much as my soul would delight in the process of building one. We like the idea of having a bed ready to go whenever we get to our destination while having easy access to all our stuff. So we turned our Toyota Highlander into a simple camper-vehicle in just a few hours one evening after work. Here's how.

 Sleeping Platform

What you'll need:
  • Sleeping platform
    • Materials
      • 1 - 4'x8' of 3/4-inch plywood
      • 1 - 2"x4"
      • 1 - 6' PVC pipe insulation
      • 10 -  1 1/2-inch wood screws
    • Tools
      • Power Screwdriver
      • Jig saw
      • Power sander or sand paper
      • Staple gun
  • Window covers
    • Material
    • Tools
      • Sharpie
      • Scissors
As if I didn't love him enough already, my husband actually surprised me with this sleeping platform. He's always been so sweet to file away things I show him or tell him I think are fun, then somewhere down the road he makes his own beautiful version and tada! I love surprises!

Here are the hubby's instructions:
Be prepared to improvise. These instructions are very basic and vague. That is intentional. Every vehicle is going to be different, so you will have to do many of your own measurements. Another tip: consider getting a higher grade plywood (B or A), it will be a little more expensive, but will be a smoother surface to avoid splinters.

Our highlander has wheel wells that serve as a great base for the platform, use what you have in your vehicle. I used the 2x4's to add supports where I felt like they were needed. I ended up with 6 supports in an X pattern: a support in each corner, and two extras down the middle. Use a tape measure to determine the proper height for the each support. Its unlikely that your cargo area will be totally flat, so expect some longer and some shorter.

I had a cargo cover that follows the contour of the back door of our SUV, so I used that to outline the edge. After marking the edge, I used a jigsaw to curve the edge of the plywood. I highly recommend doing your best to match the contour of your car. This makes for a tight fit and prevents things from following through the seam to the area underneath your platform.

After you have the curved edge, you can trim the square edge if needed. Measure out the distance from the back door to the back of your front seats. Trim as needed. Our platform ended up being just over 6 feet. 

We set it up so that our heads are near the rear of the car. This way our feet can hang over the driver and passenger seat. (I'm 6'4", so my feet hang over a bit, but I was very comfortable with the length)

Sand all the edges, especially the edges you cut. This will help you avoid splinters that damage you or your gear. 

Use the PVC insulation to cover the edge of the plywood that faces your back door. This serves as a padding to protect you and your car, and creates a cushion to fill the gap. Use a staple gun (or small screws if you don't have a staple gun) to secure the insulation to the plywood.

We covered the platform with a fleece blanket, threw our 3 inch mattress topper in, then added another fleece blanket on top below our sleeping bags. Sleeping platform complete.

Sleeping Platform Steps

  1. Make a rough outline of the shape of your car's trunk. Suggestions: strips of butcher paper or a tape measure and your well trained eye.
  2. Cut the plywood to fit the outline you created.
  3. Use a jigsaw to curve the trunk side of the plywood if desired.
  4. Cut 2x4 supports as needed - we suggest 3 down each side and 2 down the center line. Make sure to measure for each one separately unless you're sure your trunk is level.
  5. Slice one side of the PVC insulation hotdog style and staple to the back edge of your platform for padding.

Window Covers & Privacy

We originally wanted some window covers just for privacy but actually really enjoyed the insulation as well. We stayed plenty warm camping in November, and I am all about extending camping season! Plus the privacy allows for urban or not-so-urban camouflage (a cheap and easy way to explore), but I'll save that for another time. 

The window covers were super quick. Basically I just climbed in the car with the Reflectix and a Sharpie and did my best to jam the Reflectix into the shape of the window so I could get a good Sharpie outline. Sometimes that meant drawing part of it, cutting that part off, and continuing that process until you have the right shape. After the first one I realized it was beneficial to cut about an extra 1/2 inch outside my outline. The Reflectix stays up by itself pretty well if you cut it a little large and shove it into the cracks around your windows. Plus I just did this process for the windows on one side of the car, then traced those covers to make a copy for the other side of our car. Easy!

I made enough for every window in our car except the front. We used a cheap sunshade there. When we actually went to sleep it seemed a little extreme to have every window covered, so as an alternative I made a little curtain to hang between the front seats and the platform. Just tie some twine using the handles above the doors and tie on a sheet. I got lucky and had a sarong I bought at a farmer's market in Hawaii on a whim. It was part of my efforts to surround myself with beauty that makes me smile when I see it, even if it's a little silly and impractical. Anyways, it was just the right size and added a little personality to our car.

Window Cover Steps

  1. Cut a rectangular piece of Reflectix you estimate to be slightly larger than one of your car windows.
  2. Jam said piece into the window, going around with your finger to really push it into the edges.
  3. Outline window shape with a sharpie.
  4. Cut around the line - I'd suggest about 1/2" wider than you drew.
  5. Jam your window cover in to check for sizing. If it's the right size, it should stay in the window all by itself when appropriately placed.
  6. Adjust as necessary.
  7. Repeat for each window.

Disclaimer: this is the super simple version. There are many things I hope to add onto our little creation. For example, I'm going to add black fabric to the outside of the window covers using spray adhesive so they really just look like blacked out windows. We could also buy a used futon bed or mattress topper and cut it to the right shape and size for our platform. Hinges can be added to the platform legs, or you can even cut the platform in half and add hinges to make storage more simple. Get creative to make it fit for you and your camper vehicle!

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