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Building a bed

My untidy but finished bed seeing some use in Madras, OH for the 2017 Solar eclipse

My untidy but finished bed seeing some use in Madras, OH for the 2017 Solar eclipse

Design choices

These were my primary concerns when designing my bed (in no particular order):

Mattress size (length and width and depth)

I'm 6'2"/188cm and generally my feet hang off the end of beds. I can live with that. My van is to carry two. It's not luxuriously spacious but a US full/UK double fits the bill. Additionally it's a standard size that means no custom mattress, linen or duvet.

Some people have their beds spanning the width of the van; even by having the bed extend into the wall (i.e. beyond the plyline) this just did not sound like a great experience except when solo. So my head will be either towards the rear doors or the cab.

Space inside a van is the premium and since length is my specific premium here this make a full/double an easy choice. I do have width to spare so I could have gone wider but, see earlier comments on benefits of a standard size.

Finally, depth is important. Initially I wanted a fancy Casper or Leesa mattress for extra comfort. Unfortunately these come in at a minimum of 10" in depth which cuts into my headroom or storage space. The final mattress decision was an IKEA Minnesund foam mattress which at just $149.00 is just 3-7/8" thick and considerably cheaper and lighter than the alternatives.

I deliberately avoided memory foam as I have heard that when cold it can become hard. Latex is a very interesting option but having never tried one before felt like a more risky option. Latex does not suffer from the hardness of memory foam.

Head room

I'd like to be able to sleep without my nose touching the ceiling. Preferably I will be able to sit on either the bed while folded, or the end of the bed if fixed. I'd like to be able to sit up in bed. I don't mind slouching a little.

Storage space

I do care about storage space. I wanted to be able to get at least four large rucksacks in the van, a bouldering mat, camera gear, tripods, etc. without feeling constrained.

Fixed or fold-away?

So this is the big one. From the beginning I knew I wanted a fixed bed. The most frequent thing I hear is how I should have made a fold-away bed. I'd been through this many times in my head but these are the pros of a fold-away bed (along with my counter arguments):

  • More space during the "day"
    • I'm not sure I need that extra space
      • While my Transit is just RWB in the US it's longer than many UK vans, including the popular Transporter T4/T5
      • There's enough space for a side unit with sink and storage between the bed and the cab
      • There's enough space for two to move around; it gets most annoying as you're getting ready for bed but that applies equally to an folded out bed
    • It also offers less under bed storage space, however...
      • In practice I've found I primarily use the under bed storage towards the front/back. The centre is just too hard to reach. When I start carrying climbing gear as well as camera gear, or go on longer trips this may become useful.
  • More seating when folded up
    • Yes; I'm not sure I need it; I plan on having both front seats swivel and face the rear. This will allow me to seat four in the back of the van: two on seats, and two on the end of the bed.
    • Personally I'm more drawn to the additional comfort this would bring; I don't have any sofa like seating now and while I can lie on the bed it's not quite the same
  • More passenger seats when driving
    • Biggest pro in my mind
    • This isn't something I can DIY
    • Rock and roll beds run from £1000 in the UK. I expect they're priced slightly higher in the US as it's more of a niche option
      • Price wasn't really my main concern though
    • Require proper mounting into the floor for them to be safe; this requires more metalwork and is probably outside of my expertise

In case that wasn't enough here are what I consider the pros of a fixed bed (or cons of a fold-away bed):

  • Bed is always ready
    • When I'm tired I want to get straight into bed without faffing around making it
    • Sometimes I just want a quick nap (especially when driving ten minutes shuteye can make a big difference)
    • I'm lazy
  • During the day I can dump stuff on it
    • Goes somewhat counter to bed is always ready but moving things onto the side, floor or chairs takes seconds
  • I really just don't need that space
    • This is a weekend and occasional longer trip van
    • During the day (or night if I'm doing astrophotography) I will be out and about
Murphy bed being built in a big Ford Transit (source: Cargo Van Conversion Murphy Bed)

Murphy bed being built in a big Ford Transit (source: Cargo Van Conversion Murphy Bed)

So fixed bed it is. However, if I had a big van then the clear winner is a Murphy bed, such as the excellent example being done by My Cargo Van Conversion. A Murphy bed is one which folds down from the side wall.

Final requirements and the design

My final requirements just came down to:

  • Fixed length-wise bed
  • US full/UK double bed (54"x75")
  • Vertical height so I can just sit up in bed
  • Vertical height also allows under bed storage

Throughout my conversion I've wanted to make as few physical alterations to the van as possible. I decided to attach a wooden rail down one side of the van using plusnuts in existing holes in the sheet metal (the "wall side"). The other side of the bed would be supported by a rail held together with freestanding vertical uprights, a little like a picket fence ("support side").

I would use pine slats width-wise which would support the mattress and also keep the support side steady. Slats were an excellent design choice over plywood board. Not only do they allow the mattress to breathe, they also have some give which may not be present in a plywood sheet. I can comfortably sleep on my side on the bed and I believe some of that is due to the give in the slats.

Honing in on the final design took some time and discussion with both of my parents. Many other options (including buying a cheap IKEA frame and adapting it) were considered but ruled out.

Construction

Construction was straightforward and so I'm not going to go into the same detail as the discussion. The steps ultimately broke down into:

  • Find a long piece of wood and attach it to the wall using bolts into plusnuts (the "wall side rail")
  • Glue a lip onto the rail
  • Build a picket fence made of freestanding pine uprights and glue a lip onto this rail ("support rail")
  • Cut enough pine slats to length to allow a gap of ~3" between each other
  • Screw slats onto the lip at either side of the van
  • Attach a vertical piece of wood toward the cab end of the bed to prevent the mattress from sliding forward

Conclusion/changes

I've now been on five trips with the van for around ten nights. Some of these trips have been long (Bay Area, CA to Madras, OH (~10h/way), Bay Area, CA to Zion NP, UT (~8h/way)) but the bed still feels very solid.

Initially there were some creaks from the bed as the slat screws "settled" (I don't know if that's a thing but it stopped quickly) but since then it has been sturdy, comfortable and reliable.

I like the design and realistically would not change it. I would, however, have bought a longer duvet to keep my toes warm.