Last updated on April 10th, 2022 at 10:41 pm
Are you tired of the price of hotel rooms making weekend getaways too expensive for your budget? The answer to your money problems might be sitting in your driveway–your minivan.
A minivan can easily be converted into a comfy camper. You can park it not just in campgrounds, but in free spots like rest areas, Walmart, BLM land, national forest land, and more. Here are twelve essential items for building a minivan camper that can make your next road trip possible on the smallest of budgets.
12 Essential Items For Building The Best Minivan Camper
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1. A Way To Store And Use Water
Bottled water will work fine for drinking purposes, but chances are when you go camping you are going to want water for a few more uses other than drinking, such as washing dishes, brushing teeth, and washing up a bit.
We started out with a 2-gallon beverage container with a spout. Since we only camp for 2 to 3 days maximum, bringing along a case of water bottles for drinking and using paper plates and bowls, 2-gallons was adequate for us.
Eventually, however, we began to feel guilty about the environmental impact of all the plastic water bottles we used for drinking water and so we upgraded to a 5 gallon BPA free water jug (these are much cheaper at Walmart with water in them, and can be refilled) with a hand pump style top that requires no electricity. By placing a collapsible sink below it (ours is similar to this one) we can use it to brush our teeth and rinse off dishes.
In general, the back of a minivan fits a full-sized (also known as double) mattress perfectly. We had a Honda Odyssey and we used two of these super single tri-fold mattresses side by side–they worked great. It is not a memory foam mattress, but we have had them for several years now and they are still as comfortable to sleep on as they were when we first bought them.
We could have got the double size, but we found the two small ones easier to get in and out of the van and easier to store. That was important to us since our minivan camper had to come apart after our travels so that it could be used once again for hauling people to and from places.
Another bonus of them being so portable is that they can quickly be brought out for overnight guests when you are at home. If you don’t want guests to be sleeping directly on the floor, they fit well on a basic sleeping cot like this one.
And if you find the minivan camper a bit stuffy on a hot night, you can drag the mattresses out and place them in a tent (we used them for tent camping on top of cots).
3. A Foundation For The Mattress To Sit On
Minivan floors are not level. So before you decided what to use as a foundation for your bed, you are going to need to figure out how you are going to make it level.
For our first build, we built a plywood platform bed frame that was higher at one end than the other. When placed in the van it created a level bed for sleeping. The bed was hinged in the middle, allowing you to lift up one side or the other to access the storage space under it.
If you are not up to a DIY build, I watched a YouTube video where a couple used this full-sized futon frame with a full bed tri-fold mattress on top and it seemed to work well for them. Not only did it function as a bed frame but it also became a couch during the day –giving them a place to sit on rainy camping days. The only downside to such a setup is the loss of under-bed storage.
You could make up for some loss by building narrow shelves that could fit into one side between the bed and sliding door. You lose one point of access, but you gain valuable storage.
If just one person is sleeping in the van, a cot with a block of wood under one end and a foam mattress on top is a simple no-build bed solution. You can secure the cot to the van by zip-tying the frame to the slots where the seats fit in. Place bungee cords between each of the legs of the cot to hold the stuff stored under it in place while driving. Plastic drawers like these ones would work well under the cot. This setup is super simple to pack up and put away when you are done camping.
4. Window Coverings
Window coverings, when done right, add not just privacy but a bit of insulation from the heat and cold.
We have tried two different types of window coverings before deciding that a combination of both works best.
First we tried black blackout curtains that were clipped to a rope sideways using small binder clips. This was a very last minute, “Oh my goodness, we forgot about curtains,” idea we had on our first trip in our minivan camper. We strung the rope through the handles that you find around the top of the side walls of most minivans. It worked, but curtains hang straight down and minivan walls are curved so we lost a fair amount of indoor space to the curtains.
Before our second trip out we made window coverings using the following supplies:
- Reflectix (our van took just over one roll)
- Gorilla brand spray adhesive (my husband went through 2 1/2 cans)
- Lightweight black fabric (we got ours from Joann’s using a 50% off coupon, of course)
- Brown kraft paper roll (we used some that came in an online order, we just smoothed it out)
- Masking tape
- Black fine tip sharpie
- Sharp scissors
- Gorilla brand black duct tape (my husband is obsessed with Gorilla brand, he says nothing beats its high quality)
Once we had all the supplies gathered, my husband used the kraft paper to trace each window in our van to make templates for the Reflectix. To keep the paper from moving, Jack placed a few pieces of masking tape here and there as needed on the window and paper.
He then cut out the templates and used them to cut the Reflectix to size. After that, he cut a piece of fabric using the paper templates as a pattern; cutting the fabric roughly one inch bigger than the template all around.
He used the spray adhesive to glue the fabric to one side of the Reflectix (the side that faces out of the van) and then trimmed the excess material off. The last step was applying duct tape around all the edges of the window coverings so that it was half on one side and half on the other.
The window coverings stuck to the interior side of the van’s windows like magic. Well, not quite magic–it did take a bit of fiddling to get them in exactly the right place–but once they were in, they stayed in really well. The only one that tended to slip a little in the night was the one covering the front windshield.
The windshield in our Honda was massive and did not seem to fit mass-produced windshield sun covers so we were hoping our homemade one would work and it did–sort of.
We now have a Toyota Sienna minivan and in it, we used curtains behind the front seats and window coverings on the rest of the windows. Although we don’t use it for camping (we bought a secondhand truck camper) our daughter does and she says the combination is working well.
5. Window Screening
You are going to want some way to circulate fresh air through the minivan camper while you are sleeping. If you don’t, you are going to get a lot of condensation build-up in the interior of your van which could lead to nasty issues like mildew. Of course, fresh air means opening a window, and opening a window makes a way for the mosquitoes to come in.
Our solution to this problem was to buy a pair of these car window screens. They are a bit short for the front windows of our van, but they do allow us to leave the front windows down several inches. They are a well-made and inexpensive fix. Since we bought them they are now making bigger ones that are probably better suited for minivan windows.
Another thing we did was cut plastic snap-in gutter guards to fit the windows on the sliding doors of our van. Ours rolled down and were relatively straight compared to the curved front windows. We spray painted them the same color as our van. Both edges of gutter guards have a small groove that our window fits in perfectly. We got them on and then slowly roll up the window. It did take a bit of work to get them in place, but when they are in place, they worked beautifully letting air in and keeping the bugs out.
In our Toyota van, the gutter guards didn’t fit so instead my daughter has used these magnetic screens meant for patio doors. She wraps them around the sliding door before closing them and places the magnets on the frame. It works in a pinch but we are looking at better solutions. I noticed that this company sells tent-like back door coverings for those who sleep in their SUV on Amazon and in the comments I found a few people who say they work well on camper van conversions too.
If your van has a moonroof it is the best window to keep open a bit if you are camping in a Walmart parking lot or rest area since no one can see that it is open unless they jump on top of your van. They sell screens with magnets to hold them in place that fit most sunroofs or moonroofs.
6. How To Keep Comfortable Sleeping–Beyond Your Mattress Choice
Bring whatever bedding you sleep best under. For us, we like our bed set up as close to the one we sleep on at home as possible. That means no sleeping bags for us. We like a down comforter and a set of sheets. We bring the pillows off our bed at home.
If the weather is hot, we sleep with just a top sheet and a crocheted blanket I got at a yard sale for $0.50. We also bought a small USB rechargeable fan to help circulate the air.
If the weather is cold we find sleeping with a sock hat (called a toque if you are Canadian) and socks on helps keep you warm. I got this tip from another minivan camper, but have yet to try it-–purchase hand warmers and just before you go to sleep, activate them and place them in your bed so it is warm when you climb in. You could even sew in pockets for them on your fitted sheets so that they stay right where you want them all night.
7. A Way To Keep Food Cold
Unless you are eating out the entire weekend and you are purchasing all your beverages already chilled, chances are you want a way to keep food cold when you camp. We bought this 12-volt iceless cooler, but after camping a few times I wished we would have just bought a traditional cooler that requires only ice.
Why? Because when we were not driving, the cooler was not getting the power it needs to keep the food cold. To fix this problem, we needed to come up with another way to power it when we were not near a power source and that was going to cost us more money.
8. A Way To Cook Food
We bought a classic two-burner propane stove for camping. There are, however, a lot of different options out there. Which one is right for you? That depends on how much you plan to cook at one time and what you plan to cook. One additional thing to think about is where you are going to store it.
9. Places To Store Supplies
In a minivan to camper conversion there are two main places to build in storage. One is under the bed and the other is in the trunk area. In our original minivan camper conversion, we had storage in both places and yet we struggled to get everything we wanted to bring for the weekend to fit.
This is one of the top reasons why we switched from #vanlife to truck camper life. To us, it seemed like a minivan conversion had enough room for one, but was a bit tight for two. Not to say that two people can’t successfully do van life in a minivan, they can, but they need to be minimalist packers –and we are not.
Here is what we learned about storage during the time we had the minivan build: you need a defined space for everything and you need to keep everything in its space.
The second thing we know is that each time you head out you are going to figure out a better way to store items than you did the last time so don’t spend a fortune on organizing supplies during the building stage. Try to use what you have until you are 100% sure you know exactly what you need to bring and how to best store it in the van.
One more spot for storage that you might not think about is the ceiling. You can utilize this space with a car ceiling net.
And don’t forget about the exterior of the van. Jack and I both agree, that if we were ever to go back to the minivan camper weekend lifestyle we would purchase a roof storage box to hold some of our gear. This would make the inside less crowded for two.
10. Cooking Prep Surface
If your build has a rear kitchen without countertop space like ours did, make sure to bring along a large-sized cutting board that you can plunk down on a picnic table and use as a clean surface to prepare your meals. You also might want to bring a vinyl tablecloth to place between your cutting board and the public picnic table if you don’t like the idea of putting your cutting board directly on a surface that has been used for who knows what.
Of course, some places might not have a picnic table so make sure to pack along a table that can fit both your camp stove and your cutting board. We brought along a folding camp table that adjusts to 3 different heights. It fit between our trunk kitchen and the trunk door of our van and stayed put when we open the trunk thanks to a bungee cord.
If we ever build another camper van (and we might be helping our daughter build one, right now she is borrowing our van to see if she likes it) we would make sure that there was some type of indoor countertop that could allow for inside preparation of food on rainy, windy, or super cold days.
11. Power Source
We didn’t have any source of power when we minivan camped except for when we were driving. When driving, the 12-volt outlet in the back of our van powered our iceless cooler and the outlets in the front of the van charged our phones.
However, if we were to do another build we would purchase a portable power station to power the fridge during the night and other times when we are not driving.
12. A Source Of Light
One last item you need to think about is what you want to use as a light source at night. We bought these lanterns and are happy with the soft, yet bright light they provide, we still use them in our truck camper. We like that they use batteries as it is nice to have something that doesn’t need to be recharged during our trips, however you could use rechargeable double A batteries if you want to be environmentally friendly.
A Few Questions To Ask Yourself Regarding Your Camper Van Conversion
Do you want to bring along camping chairs? If so, where will you store them? What items do you need to prepare your food? How many personal hygiene items do you need to bring? And how and where will you store them? What activities are you planning to do during the day? If you need supplies for those activities, where will you store them? What clothing do you need to bring?
POSTS TO HELP YOU TRAVEL MORE FOR LESS
WHERE WE HAVE TRAVELED LATELY
Want to know how we afford to travel so often? It is because we have developed thrifty living principles that allow us to live a full life for less money. You can learn exactly what those economical living principles are when you read my book, Thrifty & Thriving: More Life For Less Money. You can stop dreaming about travel and start traveling when you apply the 40 thrifty living principles shared in this book.