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Van Dwelling in a Mini Van: Why, How, and Getting Started.

The cost of fuel can dramatically affect your mobility when it comes to living a mobile lifestyle. With RV’s pretty much topping out in the neighborhood of 10 miles per gallon, and a standard cargo van maybe raising that to about 14 MPG maximum, many find travel too expensive.

It doesn’t have to be that way.

I know because I created a one-man mobile dwelling that allowed me to travel the country very economically.

In only one year I piled on 19,000 miles, and each night I slept very comfortably.

Because I lived in a standard mini van, I was able to keep the cost of long distance travel down to mere pennies per mile. That’s not the case with your typical travel trailer or motorhome setup.

This wasn’t accomplished accidently. I had specific needs when it came to purchasing my van. The whole point was to create the most economical camper possible while maintaining a high level of comfort and usability.

I chose a 2013 Dodge Grand Caravan as the best candidate for this project. I specifically shopped for one with “Stow and Go” seating.

My Dodge Grand Caravan van camper

Why The Dodge Grand Caravan?

Here’s a few reasons why I chose the Grand Caravan for my mobile home on wheels:

  1. As a stock van it was capable of carrying up to seven people.
  2. When you want to haul cargo, all the rear seats fold down into the floor providing a perfectly flat surface that accommodates a 4′ x 8′ sheet of plywood with room to spare.
  3. High resale value. A passenger van gets higher resale prices than a cargo van.
  4. With the 3.6 liter engine and 6 speed automatic transmission I could get 25 mpg on the highway. In reality I regularly got mileage in the 30 to 33 MPG range.
  5. With the large opening provided through the rear hatch, the whole workings of the conversion slid out the back. This made it a 10 minute process to go from soccer mom van to personnel stealth camper.

How to Plan Your Van Camper Layout

Having learned through other cargo van camper projects in the past, you’ll want to focus on sleeping arrangements first.

Don’t scrimp on the bed.

With plans to travel coast to coast, I ponied up the cost of a quality twin sized pillow top mattress. Forget cheap foam futon mattresses, or other make-do contrivances.

With a little shopping effort a quality twin mattress can be had for around $150. That will be the best money you ever spent.

Cooking inside a minivan is generally a poor idea.

It’s just too cramped to be safe. The logical solution is to build a chuck wagon style kitchen that is accessible from the outside when you open the rear hatch.

Not only does this keep all the kitchen and cooking materials in a convenient place, it also provides a good work surface allowing you to prep food, clean up after, and even use it as your dining table.

With the installation of a house battery system, you can install an inverter of sufficient wattage to operate a low power consumption microwave oven.

When on the road, it’s likely the majority of your cooking will be along the lines of heating up something from a can. Soup, stews – that Hot Pocket sandwich you picked up from the convenience store.

Having an onboard microwave will take care of 80% of your cooking needs, including your mandatory cup of morning coffee to get your day started.

Focus on Your Sleeping Area First

Storage can be difficult when your bed consumes 95% of the available floor space.

The answer to this problem is to raise the bed off the floor.

A mattress laying directly on the floor is awkward for most people to get in and out of. Swinging your legs over the side of the bed to put your pants and shoes on really is a big deal.

By having the bed on legs, you make this problem go away.

Interior view of my camper van

Just make sure to set it at a height that still allows you to sit up properly in bed.

Being hunched over trying to get dressed is equally difficult. There may be some trade off on the height issue because the most logical place to mount the house battery system and microwave is under the bed.

Inverter stored underneath the bed

You may find that having the bed high enough to allow for that installation reduces the head room to some extent.

Getting Started on Your Camper Van Bed

Building the bed requires the use of sturdy, but lightweight materials.

Remember your weight is spread out over the bed, so there is no need to get “industrial” in your construction methods.

1/4″ luan plywood is adequate for the floor of the bed box.

I say box, because the point is to have the mattress nestled in a box so that it remains in place while driving.

Building the bed for the van camper

This also helps keep your bed linens snug, and adds to the tidy and neat appearance during daylight hours when others may be giving your small home a once over.

1” x 3” pine makes the best choice for sides to your box. I used 1″ x 6″ pine, but found it more cumbersome when removing the bed – and the extra strength really isn’t needed.

Additional 1” x 3” boards should be added across the bottom of the bed box to improve the strength of the luan plywood.

Getting ready to install the wooden box frame

You may want to use 1” x 6” pine to construct the legs for the bed. That will give a wider base to the legs and allow for a stronger bed frame.

All joinery should include glue.

Nails and screws are a great start, but for better strength and longevity, be sure to glue all joints as well. This includes attaching the plywood to the pine sides.

Finishing Up

Personally I like the look of finished wood. I would recommend applying a coat or two of clear polyurethane to your bed frame upon completion.

It adds that professional look that will have everyone “oohing and ahhing” at your craftsmanship.

It also helps when the local law enforcement has an issue with where you decided to park for the night.

Looking the best you can in any situation is always a good thing. 🙂

Stay tuned for more articles on converting a standard mini van into your personal van camper.