TURN YOUR VAN INTO A CAMPER!
You can do it. I started this conversation in 2011 to explain a simple way to convert a van into a camper. It's been seen by hundreds of people daily, almost 400,000 so far. Some send photos of their conversions and I tack them on.
Here's wishing you an endless summer of grand van adventures. Our last Big Trip was a 12,000-mile journey in June, 2018 in our "new" van. We've done a lot of weekend trips since then. The Golden Goose will carry us up into the Smokey Mountains this summer.
The latest is a 2012 Sienna and it became our second van conversion. I posted details of this undertaking my blog
http://thegroveguy.blogspot.com (Its my 5-28-18 blog). Here's a specific link, paste it in if clicking on it doesn't work.
From Coconut Grove, Florida,
Here we are on 2021's Summer Adventure, camping in Cataloochee Valley in the NE part of Smokey Mountain National Park. We love it here and so do the elk!
Now back to my 2011 conversion blog,
We loved our old VW camper but the darn thing kept breaking down. Last month we replaced it with a 2004 Toyota Sienna van. At first it looked like the dozens you see on the road. Then, we tossed the back seats and replaced them with a simple bed frame.
Next, I covered the frame with plywood on hinges. There are four parts and each end lifts up to give access to the storage areas below. On the port side I built shelves and a cooking area.
At his point a small brown dog discovered our mini-camper and took up residence.
Francesca made curtains and our friend, Gina, helped us with cushions that allow us, to have either a back seat or a bed.
A table pops up for fine dining and the blue box to the right keeps the wine chilled.
We did this for $200*. A California company (www.gtrv.com) can to the same thing [including a pop-top] for $20,000. There's another website (http://www.myminicamper.com/) than offers instructions on how to do cheap minivan conversions.
*Yes, I bought the mattress at the Goodwill store ($30), cut it down to size and it worked out great.
ONE FINAL TOUCH
A little tarp and two bamboo sticks gave us a front porch.
(May, '14 note. The 6x8 tarp is okay for shade but not the best in the rain. We're upgrading to 8x10')
Today's the Big Day. Francesca, Pi, and I are going to jump in our rolling home and head for Chicago. After that we'll go west on the Oregon Trail.
We'll probably stop at every place that allows dogs. Stay tuned for details.
Postscript, December, 2011
Our Big Trip: 49 days, 29 camping nights (we stayed with friends a lot) , and 14,000 miles in the last six months, we have no regrets.
We drove almost 11,000 miles around the U.S. last summer with no significant problems.
Our design works well and seems just right for us. If you have a question write to email@example.com and I'll try to help you.
VAN CONVERSION II , August, 2012
Here's how it looks folded down:
The back of the seat is held up by two pieces of hardwood (about 1.5"x3/16"x16") . I have had trouble with them splitting under stress and I may replace them with steel supports. They are pinned on each side with a 1/4" bolt tied to a piece of thin bungee cord (a rubber band would probably work as well). The cord loops around a screw head under slight tension to keep the seat back and the supportive strut pinned together.
Removing them for the bed conversion is a breeze. When not in use we keep them in the beverage holder a few inches away.
The bottom of the seat struts are hinged to a thin piece of 3/8 plywood that is attached to the side of the bed frame. They fold out of the way when it is time to go into bedroom mode.
The third piece of the bed is permanent, 6" wide 3/8" plywood strip and it helps hold the bed frame together. Hinged to it is the last piece which we call "the basement door". Lift it up to reveal the "basement", our large storage area in the back.
The removed upper seat belt holes make a fine place for a supportive bolt. A string loops on the "door" (each side)and hold it open when you want access to the back.
The basement revealed:
I hope this helps. I'll write more later...
Update-April 17, 2013
Our van's been chillin' for the last year, just occasion trips around the Sunshine State. In June we'll take it on another big adventure, north to Canada. We see no need to change anything.
What we created 22 months ago still works fine.
Update, August 22, 2013
We're back from our 7000 mile trip to Canada. It was great (and well-covered in this blog).
We still can't think of anything significant we'd change in our van.
I may build another one just for fun (and sell the '04 that we now have).
I am being encouraged to write some sort of van conversion book.
I may do that when things slow down. On the road, somewhere in Northern Michigan
Update, Nov. 19, 2013
Brian wrote asking "with mini-vans having uneven floors, how do you figure out how long each bed leg should be to have a level bed surface?" I replied,
Actually, all of the mini-vans' floors are uneven. What you do is to park you van in a level place. Then, you decide where you want your bed to be (like, 1 foot above the floor). Here are two methods to figure out how long the bed legs should be.
A) Get a level and mark the inside wall making a level line with pieces of tape. This is where you'd want your bed to "touch" the inside wall. Then you measure how long the legs have to be to reach the floor.
B) Another way is to build a simple frame for your bed, say, 6' x 4' with four cross pieces (I used 2x2 pine). Place this inside your van where you want your bed to be, on top of boxes or milk crates. Get it level using shims or whatever. Now you can actually measure how long each leg needs to be in the place that it will touch the floor.
Update, April 24, 2014
The van's in the driveway begging for the next adventure. No solid plans yet but Bill S. just wrote to ask, "What do you do when it gets too hot to camp? I responded,
I'm glad you enjoyed my blog and the Sienna conversion post. I
How do we stay cool while camping in the summer?
First, we bought a van with an AC that works great (unlike the VW's).
Second, we try to go where it is cool in the summer (The west coast and any mountains, work fine). We might camp on the ocean were there is a breeze and we also carry bring "our own breeze". We have a plug-in fan and one that runs on batteries (30 hours on four batteries!).
Obviously, making screens that keep bugs out is important as well (covered up above somewhere). Also, you make shade with
tarps suspended from your van (also above) or from nearby trees.
If you camp you see people creating portable carports with very large tarps tied to trees, protection from both rain and sun.
In west Texas three years ago we attempted to camp in 106 degree weather. I told my wife, "It'll cool off after sunset" and after the sun set, the thermometer climbed to 107.
We got a motel that night. How we snuck the dog in is another story.
I see that some create van "air conditioners" with ice-filled coolers and 12v fans (see 'em on You tube). Whatever works for you...or, you could plug in the real thing.
I once ran into a guy camping in the summer heat of the Florida Keys (not as bad as Texas) who carried a small AC on the floor of his van. When it got too hot he hung it in the right front window, plugged it in and had instant cool!
How cool is that?
I hope you find this information helpful.
In Coconut Grove where it's starting to get warm again (we're making plans to leave for the summer),
The Grove guy,
PS: A couple of reminders,
-If you have a question you can write to me (the info is somewhere above but it's getting crowded up there). My e-address is firstname.lastname@example.org. I am Glenn Terry and my wife and I live in Coconut Grove, Florida.
YOUR COMMENTS- It is hard for people to "comment" on this blog. Apparently they make you sign up to do it. It you do wrote a comment please do not ask me a question. I am unable to respond to comment questions and hey, I can't see your e-address either.
-I blog about all kinds of things at www.thegroveguy.blogspot.com. Of my 600+ entries, the one about converting the van gets the most hits (260,000+ as of 9-17)
- I am an artist and recently started my own "country", The Mango Republic. Its a great place and you can be a citizen for free. The ruler ("King Mango") is gracious, benevolent and tells good jokes.
You can buy cool Mango Republic t-shirts by seeing the Facebook page, or dropping me a line, email@example.com and I'll send you the one-page "catalog". They're perfect for camping.
Welcome to the site, Dave. It's gotten over 260,000 hits since I put it together six years ago. I know it lacks specifics but I haven't had time to add a lot of dimensions, drawings, more photos or so forth. I think its pretty good the way it is.
I'm going to add an introductory video one of these days.
Congratulations on getting through nursing school. I squeaked through law school many decades ago. Twenty years later, I left lawyering to become an art teacher. Best thing I ever did.
There are too many lawyers and I did my part to correct that problem.
THE BASICS OF BUILDING A CAMPER...
The Quick Version
You start converting your van tossing out the back seats. Then, you measure the area you have to work with (things like, "How far do I want the driver's seat to slide back or recline?" become important...) Then, it's how big to I want the bed to be? (Ours is a little narrower than a full ("double") bed) Make it an inch longer than the tallest person sleeping in it. Then, you build the shelves and stuff around that.
Now built it!
Improvised changing room, Cataloochee Campground, Smokey Mountain National Park, a very special place. Making this "room" is a rare thing for us (it's the only time I've tried it). I guess I was changing out of wet clothes after being caught in the rain.
WHAT WOULD YOU DO DIFFERENTLY?
Its odd but there is very little I would do differently if I were building the camper now. I would make the two struts that hold up the couch back stronger (thicker/stronger wood or maybe metal) because they cracked a bit and had to be repaired en route (no big deal).
We're just happy with our set up. It's simple. I even made a tiny fold-up toilet which also can be a stool or garbage can!
Your planned route for the summer sounds great. Did you see the one we took? If not , look at the blog entries from the summer of 2011 (beginning at the end of June, 2014. It is similar to the one you are planning). It starts right after the conversion piece.
(Response to a question on 5-18-14)
Glenn and Francesca
THE RONSMANS ON THE ROAD
JULY 1, 2014 We heard from the Dave and Meg Ronsman, a couple currently touring the west in their converted Honda minivan. Here's a note from them plus info on their blog and a short, descriptive video (go to the end, the first entry on their blog, "June, 2014") for the "how we did it" part.
July 10, 2014
I read that the Ronsmans (above) had begun their journey by driving from Wisconsin to San Francisco. My wife and I are visiting the Bay Area too so we invited them to come see us in Berkeley.
It was so exciting to see them drive up in the '06 Odyssey, tricked out much like the one I built in this blog. They've done a few things differently, like putting a plug-in cooler in "the basement".Dave is a happy camper
They're a wonderful couple and we gave them the Berkeley tour. Here we are in hills looking towards the San Francisco bay and the Golden gate bridge.
DROZENS BACK FROM THEIR 2000 MILE ADVENTURE
Ninh Drozen wrote to me last summer for a few tips on his Sienna conversion and I was happy to comply (see above).
Last month he and his wife completed their first adventure, a long awaited trip from the Bay Area to Seattle in their camper.
Here are his thoughts about his project.
2-19-15 Last month we took the van to North Florida to explore our state's "Forgotten Coast". We swam with manatees and camped on a windswept island. You can read about it in my January/February '15 blogs.
Terri M. , from Sebastian, Fla., wrote today about converting her '09 Sienna. Here's my reply:
4-13-15 BED DIMENSIONS
Today I went our to visit our camper in the driveway with camera, note pad, and measuring tape in hand.
A new friend, Hugh Andrews, wrote to ask, "I just bought an '05 Sienna and am ready to convert it. Could you measure the bed top for me?".
I did this, described the building process (with photos) and sent them along to Hugh. Now you can see them too.
The Grove Guy
( I live in Coconut Grove)
To: Hugh Andrews
Congratulations on your purchase. You're going to have great adventures in your converted van. Looking elsewhere on the Grove Guy blog, you can see that since 1911, we've taken our van all over the place.
Here are some suggestions and the measurements you asked for to help you build the top of the bed.
Use good quality plywood, just thick enough (I used 5/8") to keep it strong but light. One 4"x8' piece of plywood will do. I had the lumber yard cut it as their saws make these long cuts clean and easy (and are well worth paying the cutting fee).
Again, I made my bed as long as I am tall, 6'1". Our bed is 45" wide. Note: In May, 2018, I built a second bed that is 50" wide. That's as wide as you can go with a 2011=2018 Sienna. My wife wanted more room.
Then you make horizontal cuts of 30", 5", 17", and 21".
Here's how they break down. Imagine you are looking into the van from the back. You've already built the bed frame from 2x2 pine.
Below you see the inside of the bed from the back with the four pieces of plywood marked. In this position Piece #3 is ready to fold up to put the seat back in position.
Here is the same thing seen from the front right side. (yes, it is blurry but what the heck. That's piece #4 on the bottom with piece #3 on top of it, ready to fold up on its hinges to create the seat back.
1) As you look into the van from the back, just in front of you is the foot (bottom) of the bed. this is where the 30"x45" piece goes. It will be fastened by two hinges to piece #2 and it will be the door that you lift up (see photo to the left) to reveal the "basement" storage area.
2) The second piece, the 5" strip, is glued and screwed to the frame above piece #1. This adds strength to the bed frame and it makes it more rigid. It is the only
piece of the bed top that does not move.Detail of right side corner where #1 and #2 attach in flat bed configuration. #2 does not attach to #3 as #3 has to be free to "swing up" to form the seat back.
3) The third piece, 17"x45" plywood, will be the back of the seat that the bed converts to. It has a piece of 2x2 attached to the bottom (where it meets #2) to give it strength and allow a good place to attach the struts that hold it up in the seat position. It is attached to #4 with three hinges (you can see them here).
4) The fourth piece is 21"x45" and it is the "head of the bed" and bottom of the seat. It moves forward when converting the seat into a bed. It has Two 2x2 on the bottom to add strength to the plywood and to prevent it from sliding forward when in seating position. The "south'' one goes next to the hinges.
You add these four length numbers and they come up to 73". Amazing, 6'1", just like I had planned.
Here is what the top of the bed looks like, from the front right side, when all of the piece lie flat for the bed configuration. #3 & #4 are attached by three hinges. The middle one is a brass piano hinge (but most any thin hinges will do).
That's about it.
Good luck on your project. Glenn
I added this photo for its entertainment value. I got hit in the head by a falling papaya last week. Hopefully, it will knock some sense into me.
Hugh Andrews just finished his camper and is on his first mini-camper adventure (New River Gorge, WV) How exciting.
He built his so he can easily put the seats back in when camping season ends. The bed is wider than ours (my wife loves this. "I'd like that room to stretch out", says she. What a craftsman, that Hugh. Check out the pictures he sent along:
He built the frame in his garage. Below is the finished product.The "side table" probably bolts to the frame above. The right side of it holds the front left side of the bed.
Lots of room here to stretch out
And now, back to serious business,
Mr. Andrews is raising the coolness level of his van to new heights. In the photo you can see his new tent extension that mounts over the raised back door ( a DAC Explorer 2, about $140) and and ARB 2500 awning (around $300). He also considered a Tail Vail (trailvail.com) which is a similar rear tent that extends to the ground.
These should keep the sun and bugs out....and speaking of bugs,
We were recently surprised to see evidence of termites feasting on our van's interior woodwork.
These piles of poop (and the bugs that were making them) had to go. We tried spraying termite poison in their tiny entrances and we gassed the van with a bug bomb.
We think these didn't kill the eggs because they were back in weeks.
Extreme temperatures kill these critters too. It never snows in Miami but it sure gets hot. We learned that termites die when the temperature gets to 140 degrees for an hour. So, here's shat we did...
We put a meat thermometer in the window and a heater (and a big thermometer) on the floor. We parked the van in the Miami mid-day summer sun.
It took two hours for the van's interior to reach 140. An hour later we unplugged the heater and let our sweltering camper cool down.
When opened her up there were about 40 winged termites dead on the floor. We could not detect any heat damage to our van.
We swept up the bugs and dumped them in our pond. The gold fish love baked termites!
Lobster tails on the grill. Camping on the ocean in the Florida Keys
A friend sent me a video of someone who has converted a Sprint work van into something like a lush yoga temple,
We kept our project simple and let the wilderness surrounding our van be our "temple".
We spent this summer exploring three European countries. We counted the (mostly uncomfortable) beds we slept in (twelve). We concluded is that one of the coolest things about traveling in a van is that you have the same bed to come home to every night.
If you want come on this adventure join up at www.thegroveguy.blogspot.com.
In van building news, Mark of Alaska sent me photos of a very simple van conversion project. It's a box with a front flap that rests on the folded middle seats. A friend of his built this for $70. It doesn't have a couch that converts to a bed or much storage.
It does allow you to switch back to passenger mode easily.
Last week my wife and I visited one of the sacred places for all who love, or have loved ( and probably suffered with), Volkswagen campers.
"GoWesty" is a thriving business on the central California coast (Los Ossos) that takes 86' to 03' VW vans and makes them like new. Their mechanics go from bumper to bumper replacing every worn part. They're not cheap. Prices range from $30,000 to $70,000.
Note: "Westy" is the affectionate name for VW Westfalia camper vans.
Their vans are for those who have dreamed of owning a VW camper and who can afford the best. That's not me but,
check 'em out at www.gowesty.com .
We used to own (and often repair) one like this, an '87 VW Westfalia camper.
In Europe, California, and Hawaii you can rent them.
My brother-in-law and his family are now living in one for a week as they explore Yosemite National Park.
I had to laugh at this cartoon in last Sunday's paper. It captured the troubles we had with our '87 VW camper.
OFF TO THE FLORIDA KEYS (10-12-15)
Our van spent months in the South Florida heat this summer (we were looking for cool weather in Europe). We dusted it off last weekend and headed for a spot in the Keys.
You can camp just ten feet from the Great Atlantic and Havana is just over the horizon.
More on my 10-12-15 blog, "30 Feet of Beachfront, $40".
Nov. 3, 2015
This just in from a new friend, "Jim". I'm not sure just what he did with all the drawers sliding here and there but he seems very happy with the results.
Brilliant design! I copied it for my 2007 Sienna. I used an single IKEA pine bed for the base turning the headboard upside down.
I used a 2' drawer slide to slide in for the seat and out for the bed. I used 3/4 ply for the bed hinged like yours. I made the seat back low enough to see out the back windows.
With only a few inches left, I hacked an IKEA small 3 drawer one foot wide x 3 foot chest in to a sink with a large stainless steel bowl, a grey water tank and two small drawers. This is mounted on flat mounted drawer slides I can slide forward with the front passenger seat. there is a folding shelf that folds out the side door for cooking if there is no table.
For privacy I made refletex window covers with black fabric sewed and glued to one side. These have grommets which hold clear plastic suction cups that attach to the glass.
Your design is the best I've seen for a minivan. I'm so inspired! on MINIVAN CONVERSION
(Thanks Jim. Your enthusiasm is contagious!) G
FIVE YEARS LATER WE'RE
HEADING WEST AGAIN!
Here we go, getting ready for another 11,000 mile trip from Miami to Berkeley with many, many stops along the way.
The van's been thoroughly checked out. She's got new tires and a bigger awning. We "spread her wing" today for the first time.
This one is bigger and white (to reflect the sun better). Stay tuned to www.thegroveguy.blogspot.com for more stories from the road!
July 29, 2016
Many people look at this blog to see how we have converted our van into a camper. That's great but what you are reading is just one of 500+ entries in my "The Grove Guy" blog.
If you want to see where we are traveling this summer just go to www.thegroveguy.blogspot.com .
We are now 5000 miles into another cross-country tour of the USA. Except for replacing one set of wheel bearings ($300, Lexington, Va.) our van has been behaving perfectly.
A camper van can take you to many fantastic places (like Rocky Mountain National Park) This is my wife, Francesca, watching a distant moose!
We met another couple (Larry and Melanie) in Canyonlands NP last week. They had converted their 2001 Sienna as well. Incredibly, it has 281,000 miles on it and they say they've had no serious problems.
This happy couple retired early. They spend the summers van- camping and their winters on a 46' sailboat in Mexico. Above, Larry giving the thumbs up for his Sienna
I'll tell you about their conversion later. It is more simple than mine.
Wishing happy trails to you this summer,
Glenn & Francesca
8-2-16, Headline seen this morning:
VANDWELLING IS THE NEW AMERICA DREAM
Maybe we're on to something. Below is a link to an article about folks who live in their vans all the time.
It's not our American dream but the folks described are living in rolling homes are a lot like our camper van,
9-16-16 Hello van fans. We've been on the road for three months now. Two weeks ago I went to my first Burning Man (the 8-day festival in Nevada's desert)
and after that, the van was thrilled to be visiting Yosemite NP again. We're in Hurricane, Utah, at the moment, about to plunge into the wonders of Zion National Park. I'm happy to report that our Toyota camper ("The Amber Rambler") is carrying us everywhere with a smile and no problems. We'll be back in Florida in two weeks.
HOME AGAIN- We made it back to South Florida without any problems. The American southwest is fantastic as ever. If you want to see details they're on the blog in the August/Sept. 2016 section.
NEW FRIENDS FROM CANADA Dec. '16
Isabelle and Hubert drove down from Quebec in November to
spend a month in Florida. Here are some photos of their Dodge Caravan conversion,
Didn't they do a great job? Isabelle reports that, since South Florida campgrounds are so crowded and expensive, they're often finding refuge in Cracker Barrel restaurant parking lots. Apparently, the CB folks are okay with overnight camping.
Our Quebec friends are now passing through the American southwest on their 6-month tour. We wish Isabelle and Hubert all the best.
THE PLYWOOD BED DIMENSIONS
May 1, '17
Joe Timm wrote asking me about the dimensions of each piece of the 1/2" p-wood bed. I covered them earlier in the blog but here they are again:
ATTACHING A TARP TO THE OUTSIDE
May 1, '17
Lisa has asked questions about the tarp we attach to the van to protect us from the sun and rain. The little blue (6'x8') one you see at the blog's beginning was okay but a little small. We now carry
two, one for rain and the other (larger for shade). Here's my response:
TWO SHOTS: CAMPING IN THE FLORIDA KEYS
SPRING CLEANING 2017
Every couple of years we take everything out. We clean, vacuum, and throw out things never used. People sometimes ask for more explanatory photos. Okay, here's what parts of the van's interior look like "bare" six years after the conversion:
It hasn't changed much. Here's how we fasten the back of the couch to the bed frame.
This is what it looks like with the "couch" portion of the bed removed. Below is what we
store below the couch. The two plastic boxes pull out like drawers when it is covered.
What we call the "basement door" (the bottom of the bed which lifts up).
I like this feature a lot, a drawer filled with kitchen
gear that pulls out both inside or outside.
July 29, 2017
I'm spending the summer in California. There is no shortage of cool campers here. Here's one I saw in Santa Cruz recently,
In other news,
I just got a note from Trina L. asking, "How can I put a simple toilet in my van? I don't have much room and I don't want to go the
5-gallon bucket route".
My solution is something like a bucket that folds up. I replied to her,
(Response to questions about the plywood bed sections)
June, 2018 NOTE: See all your question answered in detail (and photos) by going to my June, 2018 blog "Chapter Two")
the rig that was right for them.
I just finished my second Sienna Conversion. It took two weeks and a good bit of woodwork. I spent $120 on materials and about the same on the cushions for the mattress and couch. See the whole, detailed process by going to my late May, '18 entry.
Here are some photos from my latest creation. It's a lot like the first one 'cept the van is newer and the bed, 5" wider.
Now we need to put in the cushions load 'er up for the next adventure. We begin a 10,000 mile cross-country trip next week. We're excited!
Sept. 10, 2018
Hey, We're still excited. We just drove our van from Miami to Canada and down to California. 8,000 miles of fun and everything worked perfectly.
I took it to Burning Man in the Nevada desert two weeks ago and it kept the dust storms at bay.
With our bikes on the back
Banana jet at BMan
My son, Ian, waking up. The van is sheltered behind him. If you want to learn about our BMan adventures, go to www.thegroveguy.blogspot.com , Sept. 2018 .
In two weeks we'll take the long road back to Florida. I'm happy to report that everything has gone so well on this trip. Our camper van has been the perfect way to enjoy a long summer on the road.
The size of a notebook, you can take anywhere that nature calls. Think of it as a bathroom you can keep in your backpack.
This project began with a common campsite accoutrement, the simple folding step stool.
Staring at mine two summers ago I realized I could turn it into a toilet, a skinny-mini porto-potti.
My wife and I were camping in SE Arizona with no one around.
Francesca took the dog for a walk
while I tried out my tiny toilet.
I was in one of the most open, beautiful places on Earth but the
darn thing could have worked in the privacy of our camper van as well.
Pondering further possibilities, I thought, "In a pinch I could sit on this thing and relieve myself!".
I fashioned a plywood toilet seat that fit snugly on top.
Yes, it's better suited for a six-year-old but in a pinch, in The Great American Desert, it worked for me.
Psst: It's really small but serves it purpose when needed. Most times we use the loo in campground bathrooms, or, when rolling, rest stops and fast food joints.
I would like to thank this project's chief photographer, Francesca, for taking on this assignment.