Outfitting a Minivan for Camping and Travel
Outfitting the GoneCamper Minivan
The "GoneCamper" concept was inspired by our desire to travel and explore – including both local overnight camping trips and multi-week trips covering thousands of miles. We have taken impromptu overnight trips to the mountains to escape the summer heat in Arizona. We have camped in the desert, lakeside, deep woods, and in waysides on the Interstate. We have also completed several three-week trips in the GoneCamper minivan – to Alaska and back and across Canada and down the eastern coast.
We TRAVEL in our GoneCamper minivan. This is unlike most RV’s that never go farther than a local campground, and some that are parked at the same “campsite” all summer. In addition, most “campers” are actually small mobile homes complete with forced air conditioning, flat screen TV’s, and even electric “fireplaces”.
Escaping the heat in Alpine, AZ at 7,900 feet
We applaud the “Snowbirds” who use their RV’s as a home away from home for the winter months. We have camped in our van among thousands of winter residents in Quartzsite, Arizona. But the GoneCamper minivan is not designed for full-time life on the road. We never intended the GoneCamper to be an option for the “van life”. (However, there ARE people living full-time in smaller cars and SUV’s.) Our concept of a minivan camper is simply a secure and comfortably place to sleep that provides storage for food and cooking equipment. Camping is secondary to the journey.
Likewise, the GoneCamper minivan was not designed for fixed base camping. We are typically setting up camp after a day of driving, then packing up and hitting the road again after a light breakfast. This means we travel LIGHT! We carry a folding table and small camp chairs for use when a picnic table isn’t provided – which is rarely. We usually don’t carry bikes, kayaks, or other sports equipment. When traveling we limit our “accessories” to basic hiking and photography gear.
This does not disqualify a minivan from fixed base camping for many days. If we plan a multi-day camping trip to explore an interesting area, we usually take along a screen tent for cooking and eating. If more gear or bikes are part of your plans, roof cargo boxes and hitch racks are available.
Camping at Organ Pipe Monument on the Mexican Border
Our camping destinations USUALLY are not big resorts with swimming pools, cable TV, and electricity and water provided. These “campsites” can cost as much as $75.00 or more per night! We like forest campgrounds (National, state, county) with fewer sites. Here we don’t get many amenities, but we enjoy the peace and quiet and pay only $10 or $20 dollars per night for fresh water, fire ring, picnic table and outhouse.
We sometimes will pay more to camp at a campground with more amenities, especially if we are going to stay in one location for a few days. Often these campgrounds have “tent sites” without sewer and water hookups for half price! The campgrounds usually have shower and laundry facilities, 120-volt power to charge batteries, and better cell phone coverage.
Occasionally we skip the campground entirely. We may be sightseeing until later in the day and then find a quiet spot to camp for the night in the forest or desert. Our GoneCamper is very “stealthy”. Minivans are so generic that they are practically invisible when parked in residential areas, recreation areas or commercial lots. It takes only a few minutes to get set up for the night, and only a few minutes to break down the bed and drive away in the morning. When traveling, we have “camped” right on the street or in safe public spaces like large rest areas, truck stops or Walmart parking lots. Of course, you need to obey “No Overnight Parking” regulations, whether in a city or the National Forest. Like us, you will find that some of the most magnificent scenery is in remote areas without official campgrounds. Most BLM and Forest Service lands are open to free, remote camping (typically limited to 14 days.)
Boondocking on the Mongollon Rim, north of Payson, AZ at 7,000 feet
The Dodge Grand Caravan is our choice in minivans. But the GoneCamper conversion will fit any minivan with a 4-foot by 8-foot cargo floor. The Grand Caravan (and Chrysler Pacifica) have the exclusive folding and self-storing Stow-N-Go seats for both the second and third rows. A GoneCamper will fit all other brands of minivans, but the second row of seats must be removed completely.
GoneCamper fits the 4-foot x 8-foot cargo area of any minivan
The GoneCamper design “inspiration” was the venerable teardrop camper. Since the early 1960’s, handymen have been building these tiny campers on 4’ x 8’ trailers. I liked the idea of a simple bed and rear kitchen. I was very close to building my own teardrop camper when I realized that minivans share the same 4’ x 8’ cargo area.
Yes, you can build your own teardrop with these plans!
I didn’t want to buy another trailer or store it and wanted to avoid towing a trailer. So, I switched gears and focused on minivans. “Necessity being the Mother of Invention”, I relied on my years of design and woodworking experience to build the “GoneCamper”. The design objectives were:
A full-size bed
Storage for clothes and camping gear
Storage for cooking supplies, water, and food
If possible, the camping package should not require any permanent alterations to the minivan.
GoneCamper "kitchen", cooking on the picnic table
Peninsula State Park, Door County, Wisconsin
Minivans are perfect because you have a blank “canvas” to work with. The rear cargo area is sized to accommodate 4’ x 8’ sheets of plywood. This is your maximum dimension – with two qualifications. First, the actual inside width of the van is just over five feet above the rear wheel wells. This means you have EXTRA elbow room above the 48-inch width of the bed. Second, the full 8-foot length of the floor is only AT THE FLOOR. Because of the slope of the front seat backs, you have LESS usable length as you raise the height of the bed and mattress.
My standard GoneCamper floor plan includes the following:
A 6’2” platform bed with a 4-inch thick tri-fold foam mattress. (Since each GoneCamper is custom-made, I have built beds as short as 5’6” for smaller travelers.)
The bed platform and mattress fold and retract for storage. The bed and mattress also form into a couch.
When folded the standard bed is designed to store behind the second row of seats. This means that the entire GoneCamper – bed, mattress, and rear kitchen – can stay in the minivan while you still have access to four passenger seating.
The bed is raised 8” at the front to allow room for storage underneath the full length (although the storage depth decreases towards the rear of the van. This dimension can also be customized but raising the bed decreases headroom for the couch. There are three sets of three legs on the GoneCamper bed. The height of these NINE legs are staggered to provide a flat sleeping platform on a bumpy and sloping van floor.
A rear kitchen galley. The kitchen provides space for a propane stove, water jug, cooler, and two drawers for cooking utensils and food. (The rear kitchen can be deleted from the GoneCamper package if you strictly need a bed for sleeping - or plan to pack your cooking supplies in an exterior cargo carrier.)
All the components that make up the GoneCamper conversion are installed without ANY modifications to the minivan. The complete GoneCamper conversion can be installed or removed in 15 minutes or less. The GoneCamper can be transferred to another minivan just as quickly (with some variation between brands for the length of the bed legs.)
Extended full-size bed, storage underneath
The GoneCamper is designed to provide space for everything you need. Some people have labeled the GoneCamper a “minimalist RV”. This does not imply that the GoneCamper requires hardship or discomfort. I have spent cumulative YEARS in tents, hammocks, cargo trailers, and crude campers. A minivan with “four walls”, 12-volt interior lights and power outlets, power windows, power locks, numerous cup holders, hooks, and storage niches, and huge doors on both sides of the minivan is PURE LUXURY compared to tent camping!. When you combine a comfortable bed plus economical and comfortable travel you can also see why many former RV owners have voluntarily downsized to minivan camping.
A comfortable camp on the Kennecott River, McCarthy, Alaska
The GoneCamper conversion package includes a rear kitchen that is 48-inches wide. The right lower compartment is sized to fit a 12-volt Coleman cooler. Again, this can be customized to fit any cooler. We prefer the 12-volt cooler and find that we only need to buy a bag of ice every three days The internal fan removes warm air, but only operates when the vehicle is running so it cannot drain the battery. The left side of the galley is divided into two deep drawers that hold all the cooking utensils, pots, coffee pot, spare gas canisters, and dry goods.
The top of the rear galley has a tray that is divided into two compartments. The left side holds a 7-gallon cube water container. Three or four gallons is enough for several days of camping, so we seldom need to completely fill the water jug – plus that makes it many pounds lighter! Some people prefer individual gallons of drinking water. The right side holds our 2-burner propane camp stove. Another option is an inexpensive one-burner butane stove.
Rear kitchen: 2 drawers, Coleman 12-volt cooler, Stove, and water
Large GasOne propane/butane stove does NOT fit all minivans
The fully loaded GoneCamper rear kitchen doesn’t block the rear-view mirror. The cooler is shaded from the sun. Everything is instantly accessible via the rear hatch for a roadside picnic lunch at noon as well as meals at the campsite.
Lunch on the Mongollon Rim, north of Payson, AZ
The galley and the bed platform are constructed of high-grade birch solid core plywood. All edges are routed, sanded smooth, stained, and varnished. The best possible components and joinery methods are utilized. The GoneCamper is solidly built and will last a lifetime.
The GoneCamper sleeping area is divided into two sections. The rear section of the bed platform extends from the kitchen box to the back of the second row of seats. This fixed rear platform is about 3-feet deep and holds the folding mattress. The rear platform is raised and provides storage for camping chairs, folding table, and tool bag.
The bed and kitchen fits behind the 2nd row of seats
The compact GoneCamper design combined with the Stow-N-Go seats means that you have the flexibility to carry two, three, or four people without removing the camping package! Many people leave the GoneCamper in their minivan year-round.
To make the bed you first slide the front seats forward. Then you attach the three legs that support the front bed platform. Each leg attaches to the fixed rear section with a simple steel pin.
Three removable legs support the front sections of the bed platform
The bed platform is completed by laying the hinged front platform sections over the extension legs.
The front bed platform drops over the legs and locks in place
Then the tri-fold mattress folds forward. We typically use conventional full-size sheets, mattress pad and blankets to make the bed. Sometimes we use a double sleeping bag instead of sheets and blankets. When traveling, we leave the mattress pad and sheets on the mattress, so completely making the bed takes about TWO minutes!
Most people are satisfied with the comfort of the four-inch foam mattress. However, for longer trips, we add a one-inch memory foam mattress topper. While this topper is not hinged like the base mattress, it still folds easily.
In the morning, we “unmake” the bed by folding the mattress back into the rear section. We fold the mattress, foam topper, mattress pad, sheets, and blankets in thirds. Then we add the front bed platform to the stack and cinch it down with a strap to keep everything from sliding around or unfolding. The three front bed legs detach and store under the rear platform. (Although, we usually leave the center leg of the bed in place and it doesn’t touch the front seats or center console. The totes simply stack on the floor when traveling.
Packed for THREE weeks on the road! Totes for suitcases. Double sleeping bag.
The break-down process takes less than 5 minutes with us working together from the two open side doors – WAY less time than packing a tent, sleeping bags and foam pads. Been there, done that and not doing it anymore!
The tri-fold mattress also gives us the option to make the rear bed section into a couch – another exclusive design feature of the GoneCamper.
Bed retracted, mattress folded into couch. Folding table stores under bed.
Just stand two mattress sections vertically against the rear galley and sit on the flat third section. (You can place the front bed platform against the front seat backs or behind the mattress, leaning against the kitchen.) You now have a spacious “living room”. We can place our folding table (available separately) in front of the couch and enjoy a nice picnic lunch, work on a laptop, or play cards before bedtime.
Overhead lights in the minivan make great reading lamps. We also add an LED rope light for more light, stretched between the two coat hooks. After we get settled, we prefer to switch off the interior dome lights so that we aren’t blinded if one of us gets up during the night and opens the door.
Spacious "bedroom" on the road! LED rope light instead of dome lights
For still hot nights we pack along a small 12-volt fan that plugs into a USB outlet. The fan clamps onto the tray on top of the rear kitchen, which serves as the "headboard" to the bed. We also carry a rechargeable LED lantern for the picnic table. You can buy USB outlet adaptors, but I added another set of outlets to the rear “sleeping compartment”, and hard-wired the outlets directly to the battery (pictured above with the LED rope light plugged in.) We can run the fan and/or LED lights for many hours with no effect on the battery. The other option is an inexpensive power bank or lithium battery/booster combination. Our phones, cameras, and lantern are fully recharged in an hour or two of driving the following day.
12-volt USB fan for hot nights on the road
The front bed platform is raised eight inches for storage underneath. We have found this to be the optimal dimension, allowing for storage without compromising headroom above the bed. There is room for four storage totes that measure about 25” x 18” each. We each use one tote for clothes, one for extras like shoes, rain gear, toiletries, and fourth for camping gear like a hatchet, nylon tarp, rope, etc. Obviously, we pack only what we need, and we plan to do laundry every 4 – 5 days.
Four totes fit under the front bed area for clothes and camping gear
We each have a personal bag with a laptop or tablet, reading materials, and cameras. At night, we place these bags and our clothes for the next day on the front seats. Some people like to carry doormats for outside the “bedroom”. After picking sand burrs out of the carpet, we changed over to a 4’ x 8’ rubber mat under the bed which makes keeping the floor clean much easier. This is a 4' x 8' mat designed for the bed of a pickup truck. We knock off the trail dust, kick off our shoes and tuck them under the bed. There is just enough room to untie your shoes alongside the bed frame with the sliding side doors closed. In the morning, we get dressed, slip on our shoes, and then slide open the side doors.
The 4' x 8' rubber mat is easier to keep clean than carpet!
For privacy, we cover all the windows in the GoneCamper. We use a windshield cover cut exactly to the dimensions of the large glass of the Caravan.
You will need to make or buy a full-coverage cover for the windshield
The six side windows and the rear hatch window are covered with lightweight panels cut from Reflectix, which is two layers of reflective foil over a center layer of insulating bubble wrap. We made our own side window covers from Reflectix and added flaps to regulate ventilation. Similar side window and rear hatch window covers are also available online. The panels simply press into place and are held only by tension against the window frames. There is no alteration of the windows and no other hardware attached. These window covers provide privacy and block interior light from leaking out while maximizing the interior light from our LED’s. Side note: these solid window covers are a necessity to block exterior light during the summer in the Land of the Midnight Sun!
Windshield cover, side window covers, and window vent shades shown
I have installed exterior window vent shades on the front and center windows of the Caravan. With the dark tinted exterior shades, we can open the windows a few inches and yet prevent rain from entering. The dark vents also keep light from escaping from inside the van. I recommend the AVS brand and specifically the external mount versions (available separately.) I have used these on several vehicles and been very satisfied. They have been through hundreds of car washes!
Window vent shades improve air flow even in light rain
With the four windows cracked open, we can regulate the interior temperature by raising or lowering hinged flaps along the top two inches of the Reflectix side panels. We can start with the flaps fully open and then close them during the night as the temperature drops, all without touching the window controls.
Window shades for specific minivan models are available from several companies online. Some handy people prefer to make their own cloth curtains, attached by magnets or elastic cords.
In the forest we pack along four pieces of nylon window screen to cover any window openings. I have also modified the front and side window covers with sections of netting behind the ventilation flaps. Recently I started using commercial window screen “pockets” from Skeeter Beater” and other brands available online. These are netting “socks” that slip over the entire door frame and are custom made for individual brands. Note that both the commercial screens and modified window covers do not block all interior light so we save this option for the side of the vehicle facing away from any campground neighbors.
Basically, we don’t camp in extreme temperatures – extremely hot or cold. We have comfortably camped below freezing. If we are intentionally camping below freezing, I pack along a small 120-volt ceramic heater – but we would need to be in a campground with electricity.
The topic of extreme heat or cold, along with heavy rain or intolerable bug hatches brings up the need for flexibility. For the most part, I have out-grown winter camping. (I used to race long-distance sled dogs!) and have nothing to prove. Since we need to do laundry every few days anyway, extreme weather or severe storms give us an excuse to find a motel for a night. If we were planning a meal at the campsite but run into heavy rain, we grab a meal in town before camping for the night. If we wake up in the morning and it is pouring rain, we pack up in five minutes and catch breakfast in the next town.
GoneCamper minivan in a "tent only" campsite
Oak Creek Canyon, Sedona, Arizona
Other Minivan Modifications for the GoneCamper
The Caravan is equipped with tons of cup holders. So many, in fact that we can sacrifice one in the dash for a multi-outlet 12-volt charger. This unit is designed to fit in the cup holder and has two 12-volt outlets and two USB outlets. On our Grand Caravan, below the cup holder along the floor is a 12-volt outlet that is always “hot” and we plug the multi-charger in here. This means we can plug our GPS and cell phones into the cup holder outlets and the charging or GPS operation isn’t interrupted every time we turn off the van. We can leave our phones on and charging while we sleep. These items draw too little amperage to drain the battery when the vehicle is not running.
Turn a cup holder into two 12-volt outlets and two USB's
There is one oddity that I discovered when shopping for our Dodge Grand Caravan and I assume it applies to other brands, as well: the spare tire is optional! Today most people don’t know how to change a tire and since many minivan drivers are women it is best to just call for roadside assistance if you ever have a flat. In reality, many people will never have a flat tire if they don’t leave the city. But I still want a spare tire for insurance when I am traveling because I PLAN to be out of cell phone range A LOT!
Chrysler has engineered the spare tire holder under the van, directly below the center console. The compact, temporary spare tire and wheel is suspended by a cable, like the spare tire carrier on pickups and SUV’s. It must be lowered to the ground and then retrieved from under the vehicle. It’s not the easiest to access, but I still prefer having the temporary spare to traveling without one. Otherwise, your minivan likely only includes a pressurized can of Fix-A-Flat. I prefer to have an emergency spare tire, jack, Fix-A-Flat and a tire plug kit for minor leaks. My advice is to look under your minivan to confirm that you have a spare tire. If not, you may be able to have the dealer install one or pick up the parts from a salvage yard.
Potential “Van Living” Modification to Your GoneCamper
I would like to add two more options if you plan to use your minivan exclusively as a camper - part-time or full-time. As mentioned at the beginning of this story, we chose the Grand Caravan for the host of the GoneCamper specifically because of the Stow-N-Go seating that is exclusive to this brand. Both the second and third row seats fold flat into the floor. The seats fold into wells that are molded into the steel frame and floor of the van. The result is a relatively flat 4-foot by 8-foot cargo area.
The fold flat, Stow-N-Go seats in the Dodge Grand Caravan
When used as a passenger vehicle, these floor storage wells provide tons of space for miscellaneous stuff. You can imagine filling this space with camping gear – UNTIL you fold the seats and the space is completely consumed by the seats.
Now we use our GoneCamper as BOTH a camper and a passenger vehicle. We also don’t want to make any alterations to the minivan that we would need to reverse when it is time to trade it in. But if you will only be using your minivan ONLY as a camper, then I suggest you remove the passenger seats entirely! You will gain an incredible amount of below the floor storage. I only recommend removing these seats once because you are going to have to unbolt them from the floor and mounting brackets. It is going to be a painful job to do this repeatedly. But if you NEVER need the passenger seats, get rid of them. In fact, you may even want to sell them on Craig’s List, so you don’t have to store them!
In the Grand Caravan, the center storage compartments (that is, where the second-row seats would store when folded forward) are covered by folding lids. These bins will be easily accessible only when the front sections of the GoneCamper bed are retracted. Removing these fronts seats is a great option. Remember, you still have the third row passenger rear seats when the GoneCamper is removed or GoneCamper couch.
Potential for huge storage IF the 3rd row seats are removed
The third-row seats fold backward into the rear storage well. These seats then form the floor of this rear cargo area. When you remove these seats, you will have a deep storage well the full width of the van - BUT you will also not have a floor to support the rear galley. If you chose this option, you would need to add a floor (that is, a lid) over this compartment. As an alternative, I can modify the bed to stand on tall legs that reach to the bottom of this storage well. You would still need to remove the rear kitchen to have full access to this lower compartment, but for seldom used items like emergency tools and a spare tire this is a good option.
Another option that makes a minivan a better candidate for van dwelling is using only a single bed. Many solo GoneCampers have chosen this narrow bed which is 28-inches wide versus the full 48-inch bed. You gain an open floor area that is 20-inches wide and over 6-feet long. GoneCampers have used this space for narrow shelving, a porta-potty, a desk, and dog beds.
28-inch wide GoneCamper single bed extended - any length is possible!
The narrower bed still converts to a chair. When positioned on the passenger side, you do not need to retract the bed for travel and can leave it fully extended all the time. Both shorter and longer single beds can fit on the passenger side.
The tri-fold mattress converts to a comfy chair!
Still other GoneCampers have requested a bed that can be set up BOTH as a single AND a full size. I call this a 60/40 bed and it would have a 48-inch full width fixed rear section – the same as the full-size bed. The front sections would be approximately 26” wide and 22” wide.
Finally, I have also built the rear kitchen to accommodate large coolers (Yeti, Orca, Engel, etc.), additional drawers and even sinks with drains. Anything is possible since every build is a custom order!
Frank has a large Yeti cooler and room for 4 x 1-gallon water jugs
Soozie has a large Orca cooler.
The lower "camping box" extends into the storage area along the single bed
Susan with a vertical cooler, 3 drawers, and sink.
Why not join us on the road? Minivan travel and camping is fun and economical. Wherever you can drive, you can explore, then camp in comfort. Contact Randy to schedule the design and assembly of YOUR GoneCamper!
Traveling Efficiently, Camping Comfortably, Living Frugally