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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.

The Plan for my Ford T150 camper conversion

Thanks to the great climate in California I'm lucky to be able to cycle to work every day without too much thought about the weather. The van will be primarily used for weekend trips but also as an "occasional driver". Since I'm not living in the van long term the RWB & low roof were compromises to make it more practical day-to-day.

I'm into rock climbing, photography (particularly at night), walking and generally hanging out in nice places. This just means that a large living space isn't top priority as I plan to be in the van only to drive places, briefly in an evening after the activities, but mostly to sleep. Therefore it'll be a relatively simple conversion with a focus on the basics: road noise, heat insulation, airflow, light, practical storage & sleep comfort.

Perhaps the biggest reason for it being simple is that I have no idea what I'm doing and yet I'm already committed to doing the bulk of the work myself.

Road noise

I've already installed Dynamat Xtreme on the majority of the large panels and wheel arches

I've already installed Dynamat Xtreme on the majority of the large panels and wheel arches

I've already covered most large surfaces with Dynamat Xtreme. A single "mega pack" contains 9 sheets of 24"x48" which so far looks to have me covered - although at $289.99 it's really not cheap! While there are a bunch of other alternatives (e.g. Roadkill) that run about half the price, Dynamat Xtreme appears to be hands down the most heavily recommended product.

These noise isolation products generally require 25-50% panel coverage to significantly cut down on panel vibration. I'll write a more detailed entry later on but it's fair to say that initial impressions are good.

Insulation

Insulation is a double-edged sword. A well insulated van will retain heat through a cold night and keep out the heat during a hot day -- up to a point. In the day the reverse is true - a van left baking in the sun all day long will get hot no matter how well insulated but that insulation will prevent the hot air from getting out.

I've come across arguments for not insulating vans at all in hot climates like California, however from personal experience I know that it can still get very cold at high altitudes, with significant wind or in open areas (deserts) at night. Before reading more, please go ahead and follow the previous link as it is without doubt the most comprehensive round-up of different types of van insulation, as well as great explanations of radiation, conduction, convection & radiant barriars that I've found.

A Thinsulate-lined Transit ( moreysintransit.com )

A Thinsulate-lined Transit (moreysintransit.com)

Armed with some excellent information on the subject I've ordered a 150 sq ft roll of 3M Thinsulate which I hope will handle the whole of my van. Thinsulate generally appears to be shipped by a frequent van conversion forum member called Hein.

Again, more detail to come once I've insulated the van, but generally speaking Thinsulate makes sense because it's easy to work with, doesn't require worrying about vapour barriers and has a good but not crazy R-value (e.g. it'll keep me warm in California on cold nights, but perhaps not in more frigid areas).

Airflow (and light)

Airflow & insulation are not really seperate topics as they have a big impact on each other. Airflow is key to both keeping a van cool and free of moisture. In the insulation scenario above where a heavily insulated van heats up during the day, massive airflow is one way to quickly exchange the hot air inside with cooler air from outside.

A powered fan vent is one way to exchange this air - get back to a hot van in the evening, open the vent and crank the fan. The vent might be left open during the night, optionally with the fan running (on a thermostat) to increase airflow and remove moisture.

In our exhaust vent example the air needs to come from somewhere. This might be a cracked window or door or perhaps a dedicated floor vent. Such an idea is something I'm definitely considering as being placed at the front floor of the van (cool air) it would pass through the back and pass out of a roof vent (hot air) promoting airflow. Because it's always open this would work during a hot day when it's not feasible to leave open a window or door due to risk of theft.

Stock Ford window with sub-window on a dark green Transit Wagon

Stock Ford window with sub-window on a dark green Transit Wagon

Currently my plan is uncertain - I am having a Ford factory glass window with opening sub-window retrofitted behind the driver side soon. This will allow more light and air but beyond that I'm still undecided:

A standard 14x14" roof vent (powered or otherwise) would not only raise the height of the roof by 2-3" (no more parking in my garage) but would also be an obvious marker of a converted van.

A custom sunroof (such as CR Laurence's ridiculous 22"x38" NewPort) has the benefit that it would be largely flush with the roof (and therefore relatively stealthy) but would be unpowered and could not be left open during the day. There's also a pretty hefty cost both in buying the sunroof & having it fitted. Such an option is tempting though as you'd get crazy amounts of light during the day and an opportunity to see the stars or rain while sleeping at night.

Practical storage & sleep comfort

A fairly standard T5 layout with rock n' roll bed

A fairly standard T5 layout with rock n' roll bed

Standard van layouts often come with rock 'n' roll beds (seats that fold flat at night) that occupy about 4/5 of the internal width as well as cupboards along the side away from the door, often including a small kitchen the fridge, hobs & sink. Clearly these are optimised for day use and while there may appear to be a lot of storage spaces, the ability to stash larger items is limited.

I'll be installing a permanent bed at roughly 4/5 width at the back of the van, leaving an empty space at the side to allow storage of larger and longer items. This might potentially include space for a bike, bouldering mat, etc.

T5 platform bed with plenty of under-bed storage for large & long items (mine will likely not be full width like this one)

T5 platform bed with plenty of under-bed storage for large & long items (mine will likely not be full width like this one)

The bed will be raised quite high from the ground to leave space underneath for storing more large items, likely to be held in large, pull out bins. In future I may look at installing a single heavy duty drawer similar to that in Alex Honnold's van, although this would mean stripping the interior for general cargo use becomes much more difficult. Clearly there will be a balancing act between under bed storage and sleeping height -- I'm not going to be able to sit up straight in the bed but it would be nice to be able to sit up leaning against a side wall. I'm currently aiming for a US full size mattress which is approximately equivalent to a UK double. This will leave approximately one metre of space towards the front. The mattress will be foam, perhaps even from one of the well-known online retailers such as Leesa or Casper (depends on mattress depth).

Stretchy cargo netting can be used on the roof or side panels

Stretchy cargo netting can be used on the roof or side panels

At both sides of the bed I'll install small cargo nets for storing smaller items such as 'phones, wallet, keys, etc. Extending and collapsing tripods can be particularly annoying when shooting subjects immediately outside of the vehicle, so I'll experiment with a simple double loop system so that I can stash them on the ceiling at full extension.

I plan something similar, except attached to the larger of the 60/40 doors

I plan something similar, except attached to the larger of the 60/40 doors

Towards the front of the van I plan to have a small set of drawers for storing cook and tableware along with a top surface suitable for preparing and perhaps cooking food. I am not installing running water, a stove or a powered fridge. Most likely all cooking will be done on a small table attached to the larger of the 60/40 doors that will fold down outside of the van with the door open. Any perishable foods will be stored in a cooler box (sufficient for weekend trips).

I will install rotating bases to one or both of the cab chairs to increase usable space in the back. A freestanding collapsible table will likely be stored somewhere in the van for use from the cab chairs (think laptops). The table will be freestanding so that it can also be used outside of the van when weather permits.

Finish and panelling

Both the walls and ceiling will be panelled with a thin ply. For the roof I may look at using a low plush automotive-style carpet to help reduce sound reflections inside (this may not be necessary with a large foam mattress). On the free wall at the back (i.e. without an adjoining bed) I may use a thicker ply suitable for installing fixtures to help make the side space more usable. Wall finish is TBD but they may just be varnished and left as-is.

Finally the floor will be either lino or a low plush outdoor carpet. At the moment the practicality of lino is winning as do not plan to allow the floor to be removed easily.

Power

Initially the van will not have a leisure battery. That said, I will run wiring throughout to allow a relatively straightforward install in the future.

The ability to run laptops and use a roof vent fan is quite a compelling reason.

Already present in the rear are stock lights. I may or may not expose these but will likely not install my own lights as cheap, battery powered lights that can be centrally controlled from a remote control are plentiful on Amazon.