DIY Vanlife: Part 1

Location: Perth, Western Australia

Not all of us have the means to acquire nifty little van that’s decked out with all the trimmings for living a life on the road. As much as I would love to sell my beloved Rav4 for one of those instagram worthy #vanlife VW’s, the cost and effort involved with not only making the switch, but also keeping the thing running just isn’t worth it. So with that in mind, I’ve opted to make the most of what I have, and give my lovely Bea the Rav4 her own extreme makeover.

To help decide whether or not this was the best option, I considered a few scenario’s:

  1. I could just bring a tent like most normal people. However, the time of year that I’ll be heading off means a lot of rain, especially through Victoria, and I didn’t want to deal with wet a wet tent stinking up the car.
  2. Hire a Campervan and sell Bea. Campervan hire is generally done on a returns basis and to be able to do a van transfer for your particular destination at the time of year you want to go isn’t always possible – plus campervan hire is EXPENSIVE!
  3. Book accommodation along the way. Nah I’m too cheap for that and where’s the fun!?

So after considering the alternative options, it looked like altering Bea was the best option as we could stay in cheap campsites and not worry about packing and unpacking gear.

Can I fit in the back of the car?

Luckily for me, I am not a very tall person, nor is Siu On a giant, and with the back seats taken out of the car we could both lay down at full spread with the front seats moved forward. Neither of us sleep at full stretch so it wouldn’t be a problem.

Can I fit enough gear in the car if we’re sleeping in it?

Storage space is vital to this trip as we won’t be hauling a trailer behind us, nor do we have roof racks to store things (although this is a possibility we will consider once the sleeping platform has been built). I know that we’ll have two 32kg plastic tubs, and two 30kg plastic tubs filled with food, kitchen gear, climbing gear and electronics; as well as a large backpack of clothing and probably another bag of miscellaneous items. We will have two additional 20kg jerry cans for fuel, and two 10kg bottles of water along with an esky for perishable food items. Now that’s a lot of gear! Ideally we want these items to be hidden from view as well, and since we’ll be keeping the rear seats in the car (incase we need them once we settle and for resale value if we do sell Bea there), space will be at a premium.

DIY Vanlife - measuring

How to build it?

Luckily for me, my dad is a carpenter and is very openminded to my strange requests for things, and talking to him about the possible options helped me to make a good decision based on my main priorities:

  1. Lightweight structure.
  2. Waterproof or able to resist damp.
  3. Strong enough to hold a combined weight of 110kg.
  4. Easy to remove from the car.
  5. Provide enough hidden storage.
  6. Meet a budget of around $200.

Based on those requirements dad recommended using Slotted Steel Angle for the framework, and structural plywood we could seal ourselves. Slotted Steel Angle is the metal work that is used in storage racks and display fittings, it’s strong and light, easy to cut to size and comes with nut and bolt packs that include joints that will help strengthen the integrity of the structure. All up the wood, framework and accessories came to $167.02 from the hardware store.

The bed platform

The frame was built to sit above the two rear seats when they are folded down, giving ample storage underneath the bed platform. Using four posts with supporting beams running along the middle of the top, as well as between the front and rear it looked like a bed frame already. Now all we had to do was secure the Slotted Steel Angle using the joints, nuts and bolts making it sturdy. Once that was done, we had to consider how the plywood would be arranged.

DIY Vanlife - Structure support

To keep the integrity of the board we had a few choices to keep the board in as little pieces as possible. Keeping the entire board in once piece however, wasn’t an option as it was too big to put in the car, so we played around with cutting the board in pieces. I wanted to have easy access to the storage area underneath the bed platform and decided to cut the board into three pieces, and add hinges to the two pieces that would act as a door to the storage areas.

birds eye view of the bed platform Slotted Steel Angle framework.

Fig 1.1 A birds eye view of the bed platform Slotted Steel Angle framework.

Fig 1.2 Front (dotted line) and back (solid line) ends of the frame form a box shape which is reinforced with joints, nuts and bolts. The side frames do not have a bottom support running across.

Fig 1.2 Front (dotted line) and back (solid line) ends of the frame form a box shape which is reinforced with joints, nuts and bolts. The side frames do not have a bottom support running across.

NOTE: The lower support is slightly higher on the front frame to accommodate for the uneven floor surface around the centre console. A bespoke centre board was created from plywood to provide more support in the centre of the platform’s frame for the hinge areas.

Once the framework was in place, and the entire frame was level and square, the bed platform plywood sheets were cut to size and put fit into the frame with hinges installed on the two rear sheets; allowing for easy access to the storage areas. The only downsides to this design is that the two plywood boards that allow access to the storage area can’t flip back over the main board, as the curved interior design of the Rav4 doesn’t allow for them to open completely. The best way that we will remove the boards will be by unscrewing the hinges and taking them out separately.

DIY Vanlife - Working on the platform

Turning a platform into a real bed

I toyed with the idea of just using our inflatable sleeping mats, however, this wasn’t going to be the most comfortable option. Investing in cut to size dense foam is the preferred option, but also the most costly item of the entire project, and especially as I only had $32.98 left from my initial $200 budget. In the end it was comfort that won out and I went for the better foam at $149, as a good night’s sleep would be vital to driving long distances.

Was it under budget?

Absolutely not. Even though I could have easily done the entire project for $200, I did go with sturdier materials and better bedding as this was going to be my home for anywhere between 2 and 9 months. However, as my dad is a professional carpenter, he had all the tools needed, as well as other things like hinges, screws, and paint, so I didn’t have to pay for those things – plus he did the job for me for free which is always great!

Final Costing for the project: $ 316.02
Fig 1.3 A birds eye view of the bed platform with the plywood sheets in place. Sheets 2 and 3 have handles cut out in the corners, and the hinges allow for access to the storage area.

Fig 1.3 A birds eye view of the bed platform with the plywood sheets in place. Sheets 2 and 3 have handles cut out in the corners, and the hinges allow for access to the storage area.

Check out my DIY Vanlife Part II, where I go into more detail with how I made the car more van life friendly, and prettied it up a little so that we don’t look like destitute hobo’s on the road!

Images and photographs by Jelena Stipanicev.