Minivan Camper Conversion
For some time now I’ve been wanting to travel out west. For this I wanted a vehicle that would allow me to sleep inside, carry a variety of outdoor equipment, camera gear, and get decent gas mileage.
Initially I was considering a Sprinter, Promaster, or Ford Transit to convert. All of these models offer a high roof option that allows you to stand up inside the van as well as offering a generous amount of interior space. Unfortunately, this extra height meant that it couldn't fit into my garage. If I chose this option, I'd be forced to store the vehicle when not in use adding extra costs and logistics. I really wanted a vehicle that could serve as a daily driver and function as a weekend or longer camper.
Working as a freelance digital marketing and SEO consultant, I have the freedom to work remotely. I also work as a photographer for clients as well as selling landscape and outdoor photos. As a means to explore and photograph more places, I set out to find the ideal vehicle to support my travels.
Honda Odyssey vs. Toyota Sienna vs. Chrysler
First off, Chryslers were ruled out only because recent model years were incompatible with Thule roof rack systems capable of carrying sea kayaks and bicycles. After much research and comparison, I was torn between the Toyota Sienna and the Honda Odyssey. I was drawn to the Sienna's all-wheel drive, but it lacks a spare tire. The Odyssey lacks all-wheel drive but has a better safety rating and better gas mileage. Both have similar interior dimensions. After searching for low mileage used vans, I found a good deal on a low mileage 2017 Honda Odyssey. Had I found a Sienna at a good price I would definitely considered it. The choice ultimately came down to price and availability in the used market.
Let Minivan Camper Conversion Begin!
I had specific requirements for the van conversion. I wanted to be able to sleep in the van, have a small kitchen with stove, cooler, fresh water, and some sort of "indoor plumbing" for when other accommodations aren't convenient. I also wanted to be able carry a bicycle inside the van. Since I still need to be able to work online, I also needed space to work as well as power to recharge my laptop and cell phone.
This conversion is intended for one adult. It's minimalist and luckily, I'm experienced in ultralight backpacking and kayak camping so in comparison, this will be a bit plusher.
Sleeping Platform and Storage
I designed a sleeping platform that would allow storage underneath and includes a sliding drawer for the stove and kitchen supplies. This main fixture would provide the organization needed for managing the various needs in a small space. I intentionally designed the sleeping platform and kitchen combo so it could be easily removed and stored when not in use.
The platform only required that the middle row of seats be removed. The third row seats remain in place but are folded down into the van floor. Some van conversions I have seen (both Honda and Toyota) remove the third row seats and gain more storage space. If I need extra space in the future, I can modify the platform to accommodate the deeper seat wells.
The platform is constructed from 2x2's and 1/2" birch plywood. The front legs are pre-made table legs from Home Depot. A 36" drawer slide mates with the drawer that is made from 2x2's, 1/2" plywood sides, and 1/4" plywood for the drawer bottom.
Thule tie-down straps secure the platform to the seat mounting fixtures in the floor so that the platform won't move under braking or accelerating.
The top of the platform is two pieces of 1/2" birch plywood. I used a hole saw to cut holes for ventilation as well as to act as handles so that I can easily remove the panel to gain access underneath if necessary. I haven't finished the additional holes in the section above the drawer as I haven't yet decided if I'm going to make this into a hinged cover or not.
There is room underneath to store backpacks, duffel bags, and storage bins.
Window and Sunroof Ventilation
Ventilation while parked meant having bug screens for the windows and sunroof. The sunroof screen is fiberglass screen window material cut to size and secured with magnets.
The side window vents are made from Home Depot gutter guards. These do have a fine mesh screen that keeps mosquitoes out. Cut to size and trimmed with Gorilla tape, these were super easy to make.
Both of these were inspired by others from various YouTube videos and Facebook groups. The same groups provided me with details on making dual purpose window covers that provide privacy as well as insulating from heat and cold.
Reflectix Window Covers
For privacy as well as reducing heat on sunny days, I made a set of window covers using Reflectix insulation and some black cotton twill cloth. When the shiny side is placed outward, it reflects the sunlight helping to keep the interior cooler. You can reverse these and place the black side out to darken the appearance of the windows and block out light giving you a bit more privacy compared to the factory tinted windows.
These are easily made by tracing a pattern and cutting the Reflectix to size. I used 3M spray adhesive to glue on a black cotton twill. The black cloth provides a blacked-out appearance that blends in with the factory tinted windows. After gluing, I trimmed the excess cloth. They fit into place by friction. Simple and easy.
I fashioned a curtain from the same material I used for the window covers. A simple adhesive Velcro patch on the interior of the van and on the curtain, keeps the curtain simple and easy to put up or take down.
For hotter conditions or when I want a breeze, I use an Koonie/OPOLAR USB rechargeable fan. UPDATE - The fan is now being sold under the Koonie name. The fan has a swivel base that allows a full 360 degree pivot in any direction. It can sit on a level surface or it can be clamped to just about anything. I typically clamp it to the grab handle in the rear of the van. It has three (technically four) speeds. On a full charge it will run overnight. On the low setting it is very quiet. The noise level on the higher speeds is still rather low and not disturbing at all. The OPOLAR fan seems very well made and well worth the price.
You can see the Reflectix window covers in this photo. The rear is shown in "black out" mode. The dark side facing outward, while the other is shown with the shiny side out.
Minivan Camper Kitchen
The sleeping platform has an slide out drawer that houses my kitchen.
The kitchen drawer stores a two-burner propane Coleman camp stove along with a collapsible sink, an organizer container for cutlery and kitchen items. There's room for paper towels and even some food storage. The drawer slides out and the raised tailgating provides overhead shelter.
Fresh water is stored in two four gallon Reliance water jugs. I also carry a tarp that can be fitted to the tailgate or the roof rack if desired.
Minivan Camper Electricity
Some van camper conversions have elaborate supplemental electric systems. These are necessary if you wish to power appliances. Refrigerators, heaters, and TV's all suck up large amounts of power. My needs are a bit simpler.
A Jackery Explorer 500 power station provides additional power to recharge my cell phone, camera batteries, and laptop. On long trips I intend to recharge the Jackery at campgrounds. Later I might purchase a solar panel depending on my needs and travel plans. I'd prefer to camp at more rustic locations when possible.
The Odyssey has 12 volt outlet in the rear hatch area as well as the dashboard. I also have a 110 volt, 100 watt power inverter.
UPDATE - See Electric Options for Van Campers for more options and details
Update 12/13/20 - I have added a Jackery SolarSaga 100W solar panel. The SolarSaga 100 plugs in directly to the Explorer for recharging. It also has two USB ports to recharge cell phones, laptops or anything else with a USB input.
So far the combination of the Explorer 500 and the SolarSaga 100 has eliminated any need for external power sources while traveling. On a recent two week trip to Colorado, the combination worked flawlessly.
The SolarSaga 100 folds up into a convenient 21" x 24" size that stores under my kitchen drawer.
The solar shower holds five gallons and also serves as a backup container for additional water. It heats up quickly when left in direct sunlight. The nozzle does a decent job of dispersing the water making it easier to rinse off.
The Riigoo Portable Camping Shower is battery powered using a USB rechargeable battery. It actually comes with two batteries. In addition it can be powered directly from a 12 volt dc outlet.
The pump motor fits inside whatever container you like. It fits inside my water jugs nicely. It has a filter to strain out any large matter in case your water source is not completely clear. You could use this directly in a lake or stream if you really wanted or needed to.
It also does double duty as it is useful for rinsing off dishes. If you need to pump water, you can remove the hose from the shower head and pump into another container.
The Riigoo comes with a suction cup and hook so you can position the shower head for hands free use.
For more details on bathroom amenities check out Bathroom Options for a Minivan Camper
Additionally I needed a means to carry either a road or mountain bike. For weather and security purposes, I'd prefer that the bike was stored inside as opposed to an outside bike rack. I fashioned a fork mount rack that would accommodate both types of bikes. The rack is modular, so it is an optional piece depending on the trip.
The rack attaches to the passenger seat back with a pair of Thule straps. A latch slides into the platform for an additional stability as well as a guide for positioning the platform. The bike rack has a small wooden "tounge' that is hidden from view and acts as locating guide. It inserts into the handle recess on the seat back.
The fork mount brackets were recycled from an existing bed rack.
My costs were kept down as I was able to repurpose existing camping gear that I already owned. I was lucky enough to have tools and a few supplies already on hand so the majority of the out of pocket expenses were limited to lumber, drawer slides, Reflectix insulation, and a few odds and ends. Ultimately, I did have purchase a number of items to furnish the van with items my existing camping gear wouldn't cover. Cost of materials for the platform, window covers, and curtains came in under $350.
On the Road
So far I'm pretty happy with the Honda Odyssey Camper Van Conversion. It has been adequate on multi-day trips and works well as a remote office. With the bike inside it is a bit snug. On my last trip through Michigan's Upper Peninsula, I averaged 28 miles per gallon. I'm looking forward to more trips including a month-long excursion through the Rockies later this summer.
Update - During my trip to Colorado in September of 2020, my gas mileage averaged 30.2 mpg. This was without the Thule roof rack and using cruise control on most interstate highways,
Minivan Camper Resources
REI and Amazon have been good resources for unique items. Here is a list of many of the items I use.
Coleman Triton Propane 2-Burner Stove
The classic two burner camp stove. Super reliable, and easy to use. It provides a full heating range from simmer to a raging boil in no time. The propane tanks are cheap and easy to find at most any hardware or camp store.
REI XL Self inflating Deluxe Bed
Another item that I had already owned. This is nice and thick and works well for me. You can adjust the firmness by the amount of inflation. Yes, it even works for side-sleepers like me.
Ultimate Survival Technologies FlexWare Sink - 8.5L
A nice compact collapsible sink.
Reliance Luggable Loo Seat and Cover
When you got to go but there's nowhere to go. Effective - not glamorous.
Reliance Aqua-Tainer Water Container - 4 gal.
I chose to use two 4 gallon containers as opposed to one larger container. Easier to manage and pack.
Katadyn Gravity BeFree Water Filtration System - 3 Liters
I use this for backpacking a kayak camping too. It allows you to filter water from questionable sources and make it safe to drink. Works great in the backcountry, it should do just fine with dubious spigots wherever you may find them.
Thule Thru-Axle Adapter - 15mm
A simple adapter for through axles.
Adventure Mat Foldable Rubber Mat
I wanted some sort of mat to stand on outside the van while showering. It can be easily carried into campground showers too. Folds up, cleans easily.
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