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  • Writer's pictureRandy Reek

Why Camp In A Minivan? – Summer 2017 Recap After 16,000 Miles!

The GoneCamper minivan conversion began as an idea in 2016. The question was, “How do you travel frugally across the country AND camp comfortably at the end of the day?”

I have logged a million miles on everything from touring bicycles to 18-wheelers. At this stage of my life I wanted the most comfortable and economical vehicle to pile up LOTS of miles. We didn’t need four-wheel drive to travel. (I have a 4x4 truck and an ATV at home.) This was not “overlanding”. Our camping plans only required room for the two of us, although vacation trips would include other family members.

At the end of each travel day we need a place to sleep. I hate paying top prices for mediocre motel rooms. Traveling for weeks at a time would be prohibitively expensive when you are paying $100 or more per night. Plus, most moderately-priced motel rooms are pretty heavily worn. The “complimentary breakfast” of dry cereal doesn’t offset the high price either. We gladly skip it and go to McDonald's for an upgrade! We definitely don’t want to pay higher prices for a fancy motel just to have luxury bedding and a swimming pool. We JUST want a clean, quiet and comfortable place to sleep!

Of course, you can travel very economically if you drive a small car and sleep in a tent. We rejected this option – been there and done that. I have spent cumulative YEARS in tents of all shapes and sizes, in all climates, and during every month of the year. No, we wouldn’t be traveling extensively if we had to pitch a tent each night, or roll-up a wet tent and sleeping bags each morning. We ruled out the current fad of roof-top tents, too. Why would you pay over $1,000 for a tent, and then have to climb a ladder to your roof?

GoneCamper minivan camper

Ridiculously LARGE, EXPENSIVE, and Gas-guzzling 4x4 RV in Tok, Alaska

Why not drive a RV? Well, they are TOO big. Again, we just want a bed to sleep on. We don’t need to drag a three-bedroom fully-furnished house across the country. We are not LIVING in the RV. We are just traveling and sleeping.

We looked at trucks and campers, motor homes, pick-up truck campers, and even tiny tear-drop campers. No RV suited our needs. All these options had the disadvantages of terrible mileage, high maintenance costs, storage costs between trips, lousy driving manners in the wind and mountains – not to mention the HUGE purchase price, taxes, license fees and insurance.

The small tear-drop camper design was closest to our requirements: a hard-sided camper with a bed, plus a place to store basic cooking utensils, a cooler, stove and some water. I scoured the Internet for plans and visited many builder websites. But most of the complete trailers cost well over $10,000 – many over $20,000!!!

GoneCamper minivan camper

$25,000 tear-drop style camper

The interior of most teardrops was roughly four by eight-feet. This footprint was sufficient for our needs. Eight feet was enough length for a full-size bed plus a rear kitchen cabinet. Four feet was wide enough for a full-size mattress.

Of course, four-by-eight is also the dimensions of the standard sheet of plywood. I briefly considered using an enclosed cargo trailer as the base to build a touring camper, but I wanted to avoid a trailer unless it was absolutely necessary. A trailer is just a hassle in EVERY parking lot and many popular vacation areas with lots of traffic prohibit trailers completely! City driving is also less safe when you have reduced visibility and reduced maneuverability imposed by the trailer.

Finally, I discovered the topic of “van dwelling” online. There are THOUSANDS of people who are writing blogs, posting videos, and sharing their experiences traveling and even LIVING in their vans. Some of these vans are nothing more than a mattress on the floor. But others are fully-customized with hand-built cabinetry, complex solar power systems and even water pumps and toilets.

For traveling, the two of us didn’t need a gas-guzzling full-size van. We certainly didn’t need a $150,000 Mercedes Sprinter diesel van conversion. No, a regular minivan would be “just right” for a couple on the go.

GoneCamper minivan camper

GoneCamper along the Kennecott River at McCarthy, Alaska

The humble minivan is so generic that you may drive by hundreds every day and not even notice them. Millions are sold each year and millions more are available on the used market. Dodge, for example, has been selling the Caravan for over 30 years. Collectible VW Vans were first sold in the 1960’s. There simply is no other vehicle that offers so much versatility. The modern minivan is also very comfortable on the highway because of its long wheelbase. Finally, even with the spacious interior and V6 engine, the minivan is still an economical vehicle that gets about 30 miles-per-gallon running down the highway. With millions on the road, the drive-train is proven and maintenance expenses are minimal.

We chose the Dodge Caravan as the blank canvas for the GoneCamper minivan conversion design. The deciding factor was the exclusive “Stow-N-Go” seating that allow the second and third rows of seats to fold into the floor. With the seats folded, you have a completely bare four-foot by eight-foot cargo area. There is easy access through the rear hatch and sliding doors on both sides. The van is finished top and bottom, unlike bare cargo vans.

The GoneCamper minivan conversion package transforms the Dodge Caravan into a versatile traveling and camping vehicle. The GoneCamper has two main components: a kitchen and a platform bed. The kitchen galley faces back from under the rear hatch. This galley has two drawers for cooking utensils and staples. There is an open compartment that is sized to fit a Coleman 12-volt cooler. On top of the kitchen there are compartments that hold a 5-gallon water jug and a 2-burner propane stove.

GoneCamper minivan camper

GoneCamper rear galley kitchen

The GoneCamper bed has two sections. The rear platform section is fixed and fills the space between the kitchen galley and the back of the second row of seats. This allows this rear bed platform to remain in the minivan even when you need to carry four people. This rear bed platform is raised about six-inches so some camping equipment can be stowed under the bed between trips. We store two folding chairs, a folding table, the folding portable toilet and a tool box under the bed.

The front section of the bed can only be used when the second row of seats are stowed. This is very easy with the Stow-N-Go seats in the Dodge Caravan since the seats fold forward and disappear into the floor! The GoneCamper will fit in other brands of minivans, as well, but the second row of seats must be unlatched and removed from the vehicle.

Minivans advertise that they can haul four-by-eight sheets of plywood, but the reality is that there is only room for one or two sheets before you need to move the driver and passenger seats forward. This is also necessary to gain the maximum floor space for assembling the platform bed in the GoneCamper.

After sliding the front seats forward, three legs are attached to the rear fixed platform. These legs attach with quick-release pins and support two panels that complete the 6-foot 6-inch platform bed. The legs also raise the platform above the sloped floor of the minivan about eight-inches, providing a flat platform for the mattress and a level bed for a good night’s sleep. Under the front bed platform there is room for four large totes with lids. We each use one tote as our “suitcase”, with a third tote for miscellaneous camping supplies like flashlights, a 12-volt fan, an axe, a small tarp, and other gear. The fourth tote has overflow clothes, rain coats, toiletries, and so on.

The bed is completed by a foam mattress that folds in thirds. This mattress simply folds backward onto the rear fixed platform. The two panels that make up the front bed platform slip under the mattress. The legs are quickly disconnected and stowed behind the totes, or under the rear platform. (We never disconnect the center leg when traveling.) The whole process of folding the mattress back and disassembling the front bed sections takes about two minutes. We slide the front seats back into driving position and hit the road.

Here is a video showing the assembly of the GoneCamper bed:

Since this is a recap of our summer adventures, it’s time to answer the question: How did the GoneCamper work? Was it as efficient and comfortable for traveling as expected?

The answer is 100% YES!

The GoneCamper has now completed many overnight camping trips, several multi-day explorations, including driving the back roads in several National Forests, and boondocking beyond water and electricity.

GoneCamper minivan camper

GoneCamper boondocking in the Coconino National Forest in Arizona

The GoneCamper has also completed a 10,000-mile trip from Arizona to Alaska – and back! We made a fast trip that lasted 24 days and crossed the western U.S., British Columbia, Yukon Territory, a huge circle route around Alaska, and a return through the Yukon, British Columbia, Alberta and the mountain states.

On the Alaska trip we averaged over 400 miles of driving per day – some more and some less. The GoneCamper Dodge Caravan got great mileage and was 100% reliable. We were never inconvenienced by dragging a trailer through congested cities like Seattle, or excluded from popular destinations like Yosemite or Glacier National Park – where trailers are prohibited in many areas. We could travel longer each day because our “RV” only required a small parking space and not a full-service camping site. We stayed in private campgrounds, National Park campsites, and boondocked when no campground was convenient.

Here is a slideshow of the GoneCamper trip to Alaska:

The full-size bed was cozy and comfortable. We did add a memory foam topper to the base mattress. We used standard full-size sheets. We used a sleeping bag as a comforter and rolled it into its stuff sack each day.

The kitchen carried everything we needed. For breakfast, we brewed a pot of coffee in a percolator while cooking a pot of oatmeal, finished with a selection of toppings for variety. We had milk and orange juice in the cooler. Suppers were simple, one-pot meals like Hamburger Helper, soup, or stew.

The cooler, while 12-volt, also included a bag of ice to keep the contents cold even when the van wasn’t operating. The Caravan has a 12-volt outlet near the driver’s side passenger door. This outlet is only “hot” when the vehicle is running, so you can NOT drain the battery by leaving the cooler plugged in all the time.

We didn’t come close to filling the cooler, so we kept our breakfast fixings in a shopping bag inside – even though nothing required refrigeration. The rest of the space was filled with fruit and vegetables for lunches and suppers. We also had a food bag with trail mix, snacks and canned goods that fit under the bed platform, within reach from the front seats while traveling.

Both of us had a travel mug for our morning coffee. We also each had an insulated water bottle for drinking during the day, or for a sip in the middle of the night. The Caravan has convenient cup holders in the center console, door side compartments as well as in the bed section – or what is otherwise the third row of seats.

Every few days we bought some fresh fruit and a bag of ice. Every campground had water available. We filled our water bottles from the 5-gallon jug several times each day. We only needed to fill the large jug every other day.

GoneCamper minivan camper

GoneCamper outside of Sequoia National Park in California

We did not need to worry about water for bathing. The water jug provided all we needed for washing dishes. We picked a private campground every other day to take advantage of hot showers. Most forest campgrounds only have outhouses and no showers, with a few exceptions in the largest parks.

After many miles of travel and many nights of camping, we agreed that we had room for everything we needed. We didn’t need a bigger vehicle. We were glad not to be driving a larger vehicle. We would have traveled slower and at a much greater cost in anything larger!

Now if we were going to boondock for extended periods we would add a few things. First, we would carry a shower/outhouse tent. These small pop-up tents can serve two functions. We would also carry a small portable shower that is based on a two-gallon sprayer. We would also carry a portable toilet – we use one that folds and uses disposable plastic bags for waste. (We did carry the portable toilet all the way to Alaska and back and never needed it!) If we planned to camp in one spot for several days we might also pack a pop-up picnic shelter for some shade. All this extra stuff won’t fit inside the Caravan, so we would use an enclosed car-top carrier or roof basket.

GoneCamper minivan camper

GoneCamper minivan camper

GoneCamper minivan camper

That’s the only change we would make. For extended travel and camping we wouldn’t change anything else. The GoneCamper minivan conversion works! Of course, YOU must cooperate. You need to pack efficiently. We took enough clothes and the right clothes for about five days. We took light synthetic clothes that washed and dried easily. We did laundry every four or five days at campgrounds or motels. All in all, we agree that you could repeat this routine indefinitely - unless the climate changed drastically, which might require an additional clothes tote or some shopping.

Yes, it is not only POSSIBLE to travel in a minivan – it is FUN and COMFORTABLE! Why not join us on the road? We will build your GoneCamper minivan conversion package to order and meet you in the middle to deliver it. We are always looking for an excuse to travel to new destinations. With the GoneCamper, we can hit the road without giving a thought to motels or crushing travel expenses!

GoneCamper minivan camper

Traveling Efficiently, Camping Comfortably, Living Frugally

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