Building a bed in a Sprinter camper van conversion

Posted on Tuesday, Feb. 09, 2016 in Van Building

Prepare yourself, because my bed-building process winds a path through experimentation. I clock in at around 5‘9” tall. If I owned a NCV3 Sprinter van, I would orient my bed cross-ways, no question. However, since I owned an older T1N van, my height is almost exactly the width I have to work with inside the van at the height at which I want the bed positioned.

The bed platform is sized primarily due to how big I wanted the trunk to be. My trunk storage requirements were four bicycles, a big box of climbing gear, another big box of cycling gear and other misc items like backpacks, etc. Putting the bikes on the outside of the van would have saved so much space, but hauling over $8,000 worth of bikes on the outside of my van for months at a time, exposed to the elements and the risk of theft wasn’t something I was willing to risk. And hauling adventure gear of any type on the exterior of the van would also certainly kill any hopes of stealth when we need to crash on a city side street.

So this requires my bed to be as high as my biggest bicycle is tall, without wheels on, of course, and as deep as the bike frame.

I hadn’t yet determined if I would be able to sleep cross-ways or not. Since I was sizing my bed to fit over the bikes, I would build it, take a test trip for a weekend to try it out, then make any changes I’d need at that point. I figured the worst case scenario would be that I would have to build a fold-down shelf to extend the bed so I could sleep length-ways. One of the best implementations of this idea I’d found was on this beautiful build posted on the forms. I just wasn’t a fan of having this shelf folded up during the day cutting the van in half, so I hoped cross-ways would work!

Building the bed (Part I)

A lot of people build very complex bed platforms. Some have good reasons as their vans double as work trucks. Others use their vans to haul big toys like motorcycles. I had no intentions of doing either of these things (though I do admit being able to haul a moto would be pretty awesome), so I figured my bed should be pretty cut and dry.

The main platform would be constructed just as you would any floor with joists and two end caps. I planned to use 2x3 lumber and center my joists on 10” centers if I remember correctly. I’m certain I far overbuilt my bed, but I wanted to ensure it would be sturdy for when everyone at the camp site wanted to crowd in out of the cold.

Bed 1
Bed 1

I started by measuring out just exactly where my bed would sit vertically. It would be supported by a set of risers attached to the nearest horizontal rib in the wall, which was about 9 inches or so lower than where I wanted the platform. At the very rear, instead of risers I used heavy duty L-brackets to affix it to the rear vertical rib.

Bed 2
Bed 2

Once I had all my risers cut and in place, I constructed my bed platform outside of the van, then propped it up at a diagonal and wrestled it into place without damaging my new walls too much.

Now that it was confirmed to fit, I chopped up a sheet of 1/4” plywood and proceeded to tessellate it into place. In the course of 2-3 hours, I went from a big empty to box to having a bed!

Bed 3 Ignore the benches already being test-fitted here, I told you I didn’t do anything in order!

The front of the trunk / bed platform was framed out with 2x3’s spaced much wider apart. I only have four vertical studs across the entire width of the platform. The only load these would possibly need to support would be that of the dining table to come later. This was then surfaced with 1/8” MDF.

A few days prior, I’d happened across smoking deal on some outdoor carpet at Home Depot. It wasn’t exactly what I’d pictured, but since I snagged the entire swatch for maybe a third of retail price, I couldn’t pass it up. It would be enough to cover my bed platform, benches and cab floor with plenty to spare.

Bed 4
Bed 4

I attached the carpet to the top surface of the bed platform with your standard, run of the mill outdoor carpet glue. I left the front surface unglued for the time being since I suspected I might have to make some major modifications after an upcoming weekend trip to Zion NP.

Bed 5
Bed 5

Building the bed (Part II)

The weekend in Zion NP to attend a friend’s wedding came and went and my girlfriend and I quickly discovered that sleeping cross-ways was a no go. We are both about the same height, which happens to be almost exactly the same as the width of the bed platform. Laying flat meant both out feet and heads were touching the walls. We could make due by sleeping at a bit of a diagonal, but this wasn’t at all comfortable and certainly not a good setup for long term travels.

Back to the drawing board…

The only option I had on my mind thus far was what I mentioned earlier – the hinged shelf that would fold down at night to extend the bed platform out toward the front of the van. This would work, but I disliked the idea of having this shelf folded vertical during the day, cutting the usable space in half. I wanted to be able to utilize the bed, the dining table and the kitchen area simultaneously.

I stewed on my conundrum for about a week before coming up with my chosen solution – a sliding rail system that slid into the bed platform itself. I assumed that since I’d so overbuilt my bed platform, it could withstand a fairly severe cantilevering force projecting out the front without needing additional support. I’d never seen anything like this attempted before, so I had no one to sanity check my idea.

After a little sketching, I was off to Home Depot to pick up two sticks 1” heavy-walled gas pipe, a stick of 2” angle iron and two sticks of 1 1/4” PVC pipe. My girlfriend thought I should divide the extendable shelf into two halves so one side could be out and the other in. I liked this idea.

Bed 6
Bed 6

I suited up with a heavy drill equipped with a hole saw, a tape measure and a pencil and got to work hollowing out my bed frame. Each shelf would have three rails extending into the bed frame, so six total. The lengths I wanted the rails at meant I would need to drill through four of my bed joists. This meant I was in for a day of drilling 24 holes.

Each hole slowly went down with a fight, followed up by an extra reaming with a drill-mounted rasp bit. I needed each hole just big enough to fit the PVC pipe I intended to use as the sleeve for the rails.

Bed 7
Bed 7

Once I completed the holes and tapped the PCV pipes into place, it was time to chop up the gas pipe, fit them into the sleeves and figure out how to hold the angle iron on to the ends long enough to get a tack weld applied to hold the whole system together.

Bed 8
Bed 8

I admit, I had to grind off quite a few tack welds before I got everything aligned just right. But once I got them aligned right and tacked well enough to hold so I could carry it into the shop, I laid down a thick weld all the way around the joint. A bit of grinding to smooth out my shoddy weld job and a thick coat of paint and it looked like I knew what I was doing!

Bed 9
Bed 9

The rails fit perfectly! I could pull them out to the needed length, sit on them and bounce my 175lbs on them without a budge. I know if I pulled it out far enough, or put enough weight on it, my bed frame would eventually give away under the cantilever load. I chalked this up as being a very unlikely combination of factors and put it out of my mind.

Bed 10
Bed 10

Once I was happy with the fit, I trimmed up the rest of the carpet and glued it into place. As for my plan for what to cover the rails with, I figured both my bed and my seat cushions would be made of the same 4” thick foam. I would simple make a board to span the rails on top of the extendable shelves then move the seat cushions up and pull the blankets out over the shelf.

Bed 11
Bed 11

I’m coming up on a year after building this bed platform and it has performed flawlessly. It’s a little annoying to have to set it up every night, but without a wildly different van layout, I don’t know of any alternatives.

Bed In Everything is nice and compact during the day

Bed Out Once night falls, the bed rails pull out and I have a bigger than queen sized bed