The bed is probably going to take up the most space in the van, especially when its out. Getting this right is important. If you’re living the van life, you probably enjoy spending time in the outdoors and do some sort of sport/activity that requires a bit more effort. Being able to sleep in the van and still perform the next day was an important factor for me in working out my sleeping arrangements.
By this stage in the design/build i’m sure you’ll have at least thought about a rough layout for your van. The purpose and people considerations of you van purchase will together define which bed style you’re going for. Your van choice, door location and bed style will narrow down your options for your bed location and orientation.
Longer wheel base vans with high tops are generally a few inches wider than the typical short wheel base low top van. This means that its possible to rotate the bed 90 degrees and sleep in a cross car orientation. Having the extra height, this can also allow the bed to be slightly higher and provide space for large equipment such as bikes or surfboards. The extra width, length and height means that the bed could also be permanent, saving the need to any complex wood origami to maximise your available space during the day.
The typical ‘builder’s van’ – a short wheel base, low top – is not wide enough to sleep in a cross car direction and therefore
There are so many ways that you can create the right start and finish shapes for your bed, but the most common is a standard rectangular bench that somehow pulls out to become roughly double the width to produce your bed. In vans with a single sliding door, the bench is best on the other wall immediately behind the front row seats. This allows access from both the side sliding door and the rear doors.
Single beds can perhaps be the easiest. The default option would be to build a permanent bench seat against a side wall which is wide enough to sleep on. This could be a solid frame, no extension functions required so no tricky wood work. A ‘level up’ from this would be a shorter bench that extends out into a full length bed, but it again depends on your purpose and whether you need to save space. Alternatively, if you need space during the day, some sort of frame that hinges on a side wall can be folded away to maximise your space.
Double, or near double, bench beds.
Perhaps the most common set up I’ve seen for a DIY van converter is the full length bench seat running behind the driver’s seat. This usually extends width-ways to produce a 4ft bed, or a half double. This is a great size, big enough for two small-ish adults and a standard size meaning fitted sheets are easy to get hold of! There are many features that can be integrated into this; hinged base to allow top access to under-bed storage, or split extension table seats to name a couple.
Rock & Roll beds
Rock and roll beds also come in all forms, but typically the bed concertinas into an upright position. More expensive models can have integrated seat belts while DIY versions can be made for next to nothing. Rock and roll beds will generally be the full width of the bed and hence you will not be able to walk through. Some of the designs can mount to rails that allow sea to move backwards and forwards depending on what you’re carrying, and this also means that the bed can be in slightly different locations. In long wheel base versions of the standard vans, this can leave up to 3ft of space which could be enough for a dog’s bed, bouldering pads, bikes etc.
Our sleeping arrangements
Fitting into the standard van category, I knew i wouldn’t be able to sleep sideways in the van due to the width and hence i’d be forced to have either a bench along a side wall, or a rock and roll bed in the middle. I opted for the extendable bench seat which provided seating during the day, access from both doors, storage space for bikes and large climbing gear and enough space for two of us.
I set about building a rigid frame into the van above the wheel arch, ensuring that there was enough head room while sat on the bench. I used a simple wooden structure, to which I mounted two sliding extensions. I found that using interlocking slats made the extension process very straightforward although the calculations for packed away vs extended got pretty confusing at times. The slats and sliding mechanism were all mounted to a hinging back beam, which enabled top access to the under bed storage.
As I mentioned earlier, sleeping is a really important part of our trips – getting a good night’s sleep means we’re far more likely to enjoy the next day, or just be able to spend longer in the great outdoors. A mattress is a defining point of a good nights sleep. I always knew I’d go for a foam mattress to enable easy shaping. I by chance came across a 2nd hand IKEA memory foam mattress on gumtree and collected it for £30. The mattress had seen one use and came in its original packing, so I got a great bargain. I’d have definitely happily spent more to ensure I was sleeping comfortably, after all the majority of people living the van life have a van so they can sleep cheaper, if not for free and most of the time spent in the van will be to sleep.
Fortunately my university had a hot wire cutter that made short work of the foam layers. And perhaps even more fortunately, I had a friend whose parents owned an upholstery company. I dropped the various bits of foam off one evening and collected them the next day, covered in a hard-wearing fabric with zips to allow the covers to be washed and industrial velcro to join the two parts together.
All in all, I think i got quite lucky with the building of the bed, but I couldn’t be happier with how it turned out. The comfy setup, along with blackout curtains, means we sleep far better in the van that we do in the bed in our house.