Thursday, June 6

DIY Ford Transit Camper Van (with removable bunks)

I have talked to my husband about getting a camper for YEARS. We've always loved camping, but we never loved packing up a wet tent at the end of a trip. And, is it just me, or does it always seem to rain?! I've dreamed about how a simple little camper could solve that problem. And I've dreamed about a pop-up camper for literally 20 years. Ever since I was little. And guys? That dream lives on. Because we still didn't get one. We may never get one. BUT we upgraded our family vehicle last year, and it surprised me with a brand new camper-esque opportunity.

Now let me stop you here for a minute: If you're looking for a beautiful, Pinterest-worthy camper van - you've come to the wrong place. This is not that van. It's nothing like a tiny house. There will be no beautiful interior shots with built-ins or even with the beds made, for goodness sake. It's not that kind of camper van.

But it is the kind of camper van that does exactly what we need it to do and takes us to beautiful Pinterest-worthy places.

So, if you're looking for a camper van that can fit four car seats, sleep two adults and four small children, prevent you from ever having to take down a wet tent, take you anywhere, and turn back into a regular old van between camping trips (thanks to a removable bunk system) - THIS IS THE BLOG FOR YOU. (You can find all our camper van posts linked here)


This van is our full-time family vehicle so we definitely didn't want it to be a permanent camper. We want to put seats in for friends and family, take them out to haul furniture, and then pop in the bunk beds and go camping again. It's a hard working, versatile vehicle!

Today I'll share how we made the bunks, then I'll work on separate posts to cover the rest of the details:
  • Bottom Bunk Shelving Unit
  • DIY Insulated Window Shades
  • DIY Window and Door Screens
  • How we pack and organize our camper van
  • Camping at Sleeping Bear Dunes + Petoskey 
I'm also creating a page with links to all our camper van posts here.
Esch Beach at Sleeping Bear Dunes, MI



When we're ready to go camping, we take out the back two rows of seats (we cover them with large plastic storage bags when they aren't in the van) and put in our DIY queen size bunk bed frame. Mom and dad sleep on top; kids sleep on bottom. And that's basically it. It's almost silly how simple it is. Because really, the only thing we're planning on doing in here is sleeping and maybe hiding out during the rain. We've always done all our cooking and eating outside. We always choose campgrounds that have bathrooms. That's all we need!


The Van:
  • Ford Transit T-350 XLT MR
    • This is the standard 15-passenger model...12-passenger and extended 15-passenger models will have less/more space than this one (but this seems to be the most common passenger layout)
    • Medium roof (5'8" floor to ceiling inside, 8'3" road to roof outside) 
    • Taking out the back two rows of seats makes it an 8-passenger (7 when we took out the extra seat by the door)
    • There is a whole online community dedicated to modding Ford Transits, fordtransitusaforum.com
Bunk Bed Details:
  • The back of the van is almost the size of a queen bed. Almost. With the back two rows out we sleep side-to-side and it's just a smidge narrow. For shorter folks like us it still works, but if you're taller you'll need to feel it out and see if you can lose a couple inches from the foot of the bed. My 5'2" self fits just fine; my 5' 7" husband found it snug but doable. If you have three kids or less, you could take out another row of seats and adjust the bed frame to run length-wise with plenty of leg room.
  • The bottom bunk is even a bit narrower than the top thanks to the wheel wells. Just fine for our little folks. It would also be a wonderful storage space for gear or bikes if you don't have kids!
  • The bed frame comes apart in three pieces (plus slats) for easier removal and storage. We roll the mattress pads and store them in the same plastic bags we use for the van seats.
  • I added a little shelf on the bottom bunk for storage 
  • This is what works for our family but, like all things on this blog, you assume all risk should you decide to try it. All hearts clear? Okay, let's get to it.

I'll show you how to build the bunk, and then I'll share more details on how we make it all work at the end. These are the measurements for our Ford Transit (detailed above), but you can probably take your own measurements and follow the steps to make a bunk for whatever van you have.

Lots of math and scribbles while I work out a plan.

Shopping List:
9  -  2x4s @ stud length (usually cheaper than 8' and still long enough for this project)
2  -  1x2s @ 8' long (we pieced together scraps to create the trim, you can use 1x2s or 1x3s of any length as long as it adds up to 57"!)
4  -  1 7/16" wood-to-wood angle corner braces
10  -  1/2" bolts 4" long with washers and nuts
1  -  set queen size Ikea LUROY bed slats (or make your own! you'll need 12 - 6' long 1x3s and 4 yards of webbing, details on that in a minute)
2  -   thin mattresses or mattress pads (more on that in a minute, too)

For the Front Leg Frame, cut the following pieces and assemble them as shown below:
  • 1  -  2x4  65" long top board
  • 2  -  2x4  25" long legs
  • 1  -  2x4  58" long bottom board

We used a Kreg Jig for all the joints, then reinforced the top board with 1 7/16" wood-to-wood angle corner braces for added support.



For the Back Leg Frame, cut the following pieces and assemble them as shown below:
  • 1  -  2x4  60" long top board (yes, it's shorter than the front section)
  • 2  -  2x4  25" long legs
  • 1  -  2x4  40" long bottom board
This one is a little more specific - make sure the legs are set in 8 1/2" from the left side and 4 1/2" from the right side to fit around a couple obstacles by the rear doors. Just like the front section, we used a Kreg Jig for all the joints, then reinforced the top board with 1 7/16" wood-to-wood angle corner braces for added support.


Now you can add 1x2 trim along the outside edge of each leg section. This trim creates a lip that prevents your bed slats from sliding off ! The trim needs to be screws along the outside edge of the top board, sticking up 1/2" above the top of the top board (see below). The front leg frame is reversible, so you can attach the trim along either side. But for for the back leg frame make sure it's facing the right way with the 8 1/2" overhang on the left and 4 1/2" overhang on the right.



Now you can build the rest of the bed frame. Cut:
  • 5  -  2x4  @  57" long
Assemble them as shown below:


Again, we used the Kreg Jig for the initial joints then reinforced everything with 2x4 top-mount joist hangers for added support.



The center beam was pretty straightforward with the joist hangers:



For the corners, I started by attaching the inner side of the joist hanger:



Then used a hammer to bend the outer side around snugly against the frame before screwing it in place.



You now have your three frame pieces, and it's time to put them all together!

Line up the bed frame with the back leg frame section (make sure the 1x2 trim is facing out). The top of the back section will line up flush. Use a 5/8" drill bit to drill all the way through the top board of the leg section and the side of the mattress frame. The 5/8" bit gave us more wiggle room to line up the pieces when we reassemble it. You'll need 5 holes spaced along the length of the board (be careful not to hit the braces with you drill). Use five of the 4" bolts to secure the two sections together. Place a washer on the end, then tighten a nut over it.  Depending on the bolts you use, you may want to put a washer on both sides of the wood to prevent the bolt head from pulling through.  We poked the bolts through from the outside so the exposed end of the bolt is hidden under the bed slats, not sticking out to tear the seats or scratch the van. Or our legs.

Now you can line up the front section and do the same thing with five more bolts. But pay attention, because this time it won't line up flush. The leg frame will overhang the mattress frame 2 1/2" on each side. Once you have it lined up, go ahead and drill your holes and install the bolts. Now grab a sharpie and label which side of the mattress frame is facing front and back, and which way is up! So you don't have to try to line holes up next time. Trust me.


You can also build a handy little shelving unit to fit under the bottom bunk. Plans for that coming soon!



When it's time to go camping, we find it easier to assemble the pieces in the van. Start by putting the front leg section in place.


Trim boards facing forward, bolts facing backward.


Slip the mattress frame over the bolts (even with 5/8" holes we have to use a mallet to pound it on). If you marked which way is up and facing front on your mattress frame, it's super easy to line everything up.


Slide on the washers and tighten on the nuts.


Slip the back frame in place and do the same thing.


The kids love to help tighten the nuts with a ratchet. But last time we cheated by using a drill and it went so much faster.


All that's left is adding your slats. We bought a LUROY Slatted Bed Base from Ikea for $50. Why? It seemed like at least one easy shortcut. But in hindsight I'm confident I could have very easily DIYed it for way less $$. Live and learn, peeps. So, you can buy the slats, or I'll give you DIY instructions in a minute. First, a few tips on using Ikea slats:

One thing I love about the Ikea slats is that they are all connected by fabric webbing strips. They're super easy to bundle up for storage, and easy to lay back out on the frame when you set up the bed. Since our bed is a smidge shorter than a standard queen, when you lay them out the last few slats will hang off the end. Go ahead and cut the webbing to remove those sad little slats.

The Ikea slats for a queen bed also come in two 30" sections that meet in the middle of the bed. It will be super easy for them to shift around and slide off if each slat doesn't stay lined up end-to-end. To keep the slats from shifting, make sure they are completely open so the webbing is taught and two slat sections line up perfectly. Then put a small wood screw (we used extra 1 1/4" screws) just inside the first and last slat like this:

See how the slats rest against the lip created by the 1x2 trim.

Make sure you do the outside ends, and where the slats meet at the center support beam. As long as the webbing is taught, you only need to put screws for the outer slats and the rest will be held in place by the tension. Since you're not actually drilling through the slats, you can just pop them off when you're ready to pack up, then pop them back over the screws when you set up again. Here you can see how the two sections meet in the middle:


If you want to make your own slats, just cut:
  • 12 -  1x3s  @  60" long
One big perk over the Ikea slats is that these will run the whole width and you don't have to worry about meeting up in the middle! Lie the slats out across the bed frame with 2 1/2" space between each slat. Run a strip of webbing across each end of the slats and use a heavy-duty stapler to attach it to each slat. This will make it easy to bundle them all up for storage and to lay them out when you set up the bed. Follow the steps for the Ikea slats to add screws by the first and last slats. The tension on the the webbing will  keep all the slats in place while you drive!

Helpers gotta help. Or kick you while you work or whatever:


Now that you have your bed frame in place, we recommend securing it as much as possible. Without making any permanent alterations or damaging to the van, of course. The frame has a pretty snug fit to the van, but we want to make sure it's not sliding around while we drive, or rocking when we're climbing on it. We use simple ratchet straps to secure the frame to the vehicle seats as shown below. If you have kids sleeping down there, don't leave any tails hanging down for safety reasons. Your best bet is to buy a ratchet strap specifically for this bed, ratchet it in place, and cut off the extra tail (glue, sew, or melt the raw end to prevent fraying).

This is the jump seat by the door, but we ended up removing it (and definitely recommend that for space reasons!) and only anchored to the other seat section. It was still nice and secure.

All that's left is to add the mattresses! We actually just purchased foam mattress toppers from Ikea instead of full mattresses. They are lighter weight, easier to roll and store, and don't take away from our precious headroom. Win win win!

We bought a $100 2 1/2" mattress topper for the bottom bunk and splurged on a $170 3" topper for the top bunk. Which sounds like such a small size difference, but I was afraid of feeling the slats through the topper. We don't feel them a bit! Those prices slightly embarass me, but I want you to know what we paid so you can plan accordingly, and maybe plan better than I did and get these much cheaper mattress toppers on Amazon that I didn't even think to look for before. *face palm* But be warned I have never in my life slept on, touched, or even seen these Amazon pads, so you take your fate in your own hands. Also note: if I bought these I would sew two cheap, flat sheets together to make a mattress cover because they are raw, uncovered foam. The Ikea ones come with covers. Remember, we store them rolled in plastic bags when we're not using them.

We also installed a flip-down tv and digital media player, but that's a post for another day.

Now your bed is done, and this is how we make it all work:

Before a trip I make the beds with sheets and blankets, then roll up the bottom bed toward the left side of the van. We pack camping chairs, water jugs, and totes with our food on cooking supplies on the right side. Then when we get to the campground I move the supplies out (or put them up in the seats if we're expecting rain), unroll the bed, and our campsite is set! We also pack a screen house tent to use for food prep, but didn't even set it up on our last trip.

See the bottom mattress rolled up on the left and our camp chairs on the right? We found we could even leave the back shelf in and pull everything out through the side door, then unroll the bed.


I also built a little shelving unit that sits against the back door and holds bins for everyone's clothes. You can see it in place here:


Here's a late sleeper on the bottom bunk (you can see the clothes totes behind him):


And here's a late sleeper on the top bunk:

See this seat on the left with the carseat? We also removed that seat for this camping trip and it made a world of difference! Easier to get in the bottom bunk, more room to stand when you pile in the van. We put a door mat down on the floor to wipe our feet and leave our shoes on. Definitely recommend taking that seat out if you don't need all 8 seats.

And here's a chilly Michigan sunset from our campground in Petoskey:

Plus a whole family of rain boots drying out by the tire - I'll probably pack rain boots for every camping trip from now on!

Those are the basics of our part-time camper, full-time van. I'll share more posts soon on the other things we DIYed for the van, and more tips on how we packed and organized everything!

The Dune Climb, Sleeping Bear Dunes, MI

Like I said, we don't have any beautiful interior shots to share (and probably never will) but I'll leave you with just a few of the beautiful sights this perfect little camper van carried us to. 

Empire Bluff Overlook, Sleeping Bear Dunes, MI

Esch Beach, MI

Platte River Campground, MI


Tiny escape-er.

Platte River Campground, MI

Magnus Park Campground, Petoskey, MI

Let me know if you have any questions! And I'd love to hear your best camping/camper tips. Especially your favorite camping locations that are tons of fun for little fellas! Hook me up, friends!

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