My miniVAN pseudo-RV-conversion project - Fiberglass RV


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Old 10-31-2008, 11:30 AM   #1
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Well, after taking a quick look at my financial situation (and especially finding out that I'll owe money even after a short sale on my house), I've come to the conclusion that I won't be able to get my Class B RV (Sportsmobile) for at least a year or two (probably longer), and I won't be able to "upgrade" to a newer minivan.

SO, in the meantime, I've decided to try a little "experimentation" on my minivan. I have a 1998 Chrysler Town & Country LX, FWD automatic, w/ a 3.3L 2-valve V-6 engine (158[at]4850 hp, 203[at]3250 torque). Lately, as I'm driving around, I imagine some of the things that I could maybe do to my minivan to make it a half-decent weekend camper. I've resaearched countless RV's over the past year, so I kind of know what should be included. I'm hoping this project (once completed) will help me decide if RVing is something I want to do regularly (before I drop a ton of $$$ on a Sportsmobile).

Since I'm an architect (by schooling and earlier career), and I do CAD for a living, I started this project off by taking measurements of my van and drawing the thing in CAD. This will serve as a base where I can design my ideas, and eventually produce "shop drawings" for any piece of construction I need to do. This will also help me space plan things, so I can be sure things will fit, not only inside the van, but also fit me and my fiancee (who hopefully will be joining me on my camping trips!). Maybe I over-think things, but CAD is fun to me, and this "RV" project should be fun, right?

Here are some of my ideas as to what I want to do to (put in) my van, and how to use the space:

Overall:
The RV modifications will be temprary removable components. Camping for two is one thing, but I still need my minivan to be able to handle my three kids when I have them, so nothing in the "conversion" will be permanently installed. The middle two seats are removable by design, and will be removed to maximize the interior space for camping.

Driving:
Basically, I'll be leaving the two front seats (driver's and passenger's) the way they are. I was hoping the passenger seat folded forward and down (like the middle seats do) so I could use that as a table (or something) while camping, but it does NOT fold past vertical. It's a bummer, so all I can do is slide the passenger seat forward more to maximize space (length) in the back.

Living Room:
This is also a simple thing to set up, since I'll be keeping the rear seat in the van at all times. I'll just use it as my couch. This will be good for reading or just relaxing.

Sleeping:
This is also sort of an easy setup (I hope). I plan on using the existing rear seat as a "base" for the bed. By laying it flat out (open toward the rear), I have a 40" long, 48" wide "bed" area. All I would need to add is a platform of some sort w/ a padded top, to slide up to the edge of the seat, to create an extension for my legs and feet. I figure an additional 24"-28" would be plenty, since the headrests help make up another 6" of length for my head.

I do have a few ideas as to how to construct the supports of this extension, but I'm not yet sure exactly how the base platform will be constructed, or how the overall bed "system" will work. The rear seat, while folded down, makes a relatively flat surface, but I don't think it'll be flat enough for comfortable laying for long periods of time. It dips dmwn in the middle where the seatbelts are, and the edge of the seat part angles up a little, too. NOT good for when you're used to a FLAT mattress.

Maybe I need to construct some sort of flat board base that easily sits on top of the rear seat, and is supported at the foot end somehow? This would need to be easily folded into a smaller size for storage, too. Hmmm....

Storage:
Like real RV's, storage in the minivan will be an issue. I think getting one or two of those hanging organizers (w/ pockets) for the back of the passenger seat (and maybe driver's seat, depending) would be a good idea. This would keep smaller items in-place and easily accessible. Also, there is plenty of room for stuff in the "trunk" while driving, but when it comes time to lay down w/ the bed contraption, the cargo area is significantly reduced, so where would the stuff go then? There is some space for things right in front of the passenger seat (on the floor), and under the rear seat. But that's much less than the regular cargo area in the "trunk." My van does have a luggage rack, so an easy solution may be to get one of those Thule bin things and toss it onto the roof.

Entertainment:
Ah, here's the tricky part. I'm a big computer geek. And I also enjoy watching movies and listening to music. As for ideas as to WHERE to set up entertainment options, here are a few:

- vehicle system. My van actually came w/ a VCR "built-in" under the passenger seat, but there never was any monitor or screen. Perhaps I could rig something to utilize this piece of hardware. Or, maybe it's not worth it and I should remoive it? But, how would i watch this? Buy and install a separate screen? on a 10-year old van? Probably not.

- portable DVD player. My fiancee has one of these, and I have a travel case for it that hangs on the front seat for watching movies from the back This would work perfectly (until the batteries are dead).

- laptop computer. We don't own one yet, but a laptop would pretty much be a necessity for me for camping, since I want to eventually have a mobile office for my side business anyway. That way, I can watch movies, play mp3 lists, do my CAD/GIS work on-the-road, etc. This would require internet access as well, which is a whole other thread somewhere. Also, how would the laptop be powered/recharged? The cool thing is that I could set up the laptop to be my navigation, entertainment "system," and work computer for the RV.

I was thinking that, for when the rear seat is up as a couch, I could make a small portable table to use when working on the computer. Think of the small mobile table in hospitals, that slide right up to your lap. I think something DIY like that for the van would work.

Also, between the front seats there is abut 9" of width to build a little console area, sort of like what the upfitted van conversions have.

One thing I was considering was adding a "house" battery to supply all my electrical power. That way, I'm not draining the van's starter battery while camping. A small AGM may be a good investment. This would supply all the power for the camping trip, and I could maybe even install a small solar panel to charge it back up. More research into that would be necessary, but it's an idea.

Kitchen/Cooking/Washing:
I plan on keeping things simple in my minivan RV. There isn't enough room for a refrigerator to be installed anywhere, so I'll probably just use a small cooler for semi-perishable items, and just buy what I need at-the-time to minimize the amount of "stuff" inside.

I was considering building a small removable "base cabinet" that would fit in the "corner" in front of the rear seat, behind the driver's seat, and in the door "nook" complete w/ a countertop. This could be a simple cabinet, and would house a small wash basin and have a hose connecting the drain to a 5-gallon container under the "sink" as a gray water tank. The supply water could be gravity-fed either right on the countertop somewhere (the tank being raised a bit), or hung on the hooks in bladders near the ceiling. Running water, with a pump, etc, is simply not... well, simple enough.

Along w/ the sink in this countertop, I had been considering a one- or two-burner camp stove that runs on propane cylinders, but really... I don't really want to mess with propane in my minivan. I think that if I truly want to cook, I should do it outside in nature! I also considered a tiny mocrowave, but then I'd need an inverter, and then my electrical system would get even more complicated. This would leave a little more room in the cabinet for storage I guess (or maybe that battery?). And depending on the size and shape of this cabinet, the bed platform would have to be shaped and formed to install around the cabinet. A little width around thefeet would be lost, but I don't think it would be a big deal at all.

Bathroom:
Here's another tricky part. Sure, my fiancee will be with me for the camping trip, but still... privacy and "odors" will still be a big problem. I've read about the "bottles" to pee in, or using a 5-gal bucket w/ special seat on it (like an emergency toilet), and even thought about buying a Thetford Porti-Potty. My Sportsmobile would have the Thetford option, so maybe I'll just buy one early. Obviously, if we're in civilization, we'll hit the Wal-Mart or Mall or wherever and use the facilities. But for boondocking... we'll have to come up w/ a solution! One problem w/ the Porti-Potty is.. where does it go (both for storing it and using it)??

Privacy:
I've seen plenty of solutions that others have done in their vans to solve the privacy and "room darkening" issues. I'm considering a simple curtain-and-rod option to hang a black curtain all around the inside of the rear of the van. I also considered some sort of window treatments that would keep nosy people (and the light) out. The rear windows are already tinted, but the front ones are not. The curtain idea is probably going to be the easiest and cheapest, instead of cutting and making 8 separate window covers. That way I won't have to worry about the front windows and the windshield.


Well, that's all I have right now (I think). I am trying to think way ahead before doing anything on it, and the weather is getting cold, so I have plenty of time until the Spring to figure it out. Besides, it'll be a nice little winter project for me to focus on.

Please let me know your thoughts and/or better ideas!!! You all have more experience than I do, so I'm all ears!

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Old 10-31-2008, 02:39 PM   #2
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Moved this out of the modifications forum. Although a very interesting concept, the modification form is "All About Our Unique Little Molded Fiberglass Trailers" of which a conversion van, of any kind is not. And David, we welcome you to FiberglassRV, but please be aware this site is about Molded Lightweight FiberglassRVs so the amount of comments and traffic to your topics may be limited.
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Old 10-31-2008, 06:29 PM   #3
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I have a full size van that I use sometimes if it does not suit to take one of my trailers.
I don't spend much time in the van, just use it for sleeping and I have an awning for the side so cooking is done there.
biggest problem is the headroom, gets to be a pain after a while getting in and out, dressing in there and such, a pop-top roof conversion would make it much more user friendly but they are expensive.
I found this neat kitchen idea on the net last night that fits on the hitch, they have a car topper tent on top of the van.
As you said you are on a budget another idea is get a vintage tent trailer, I have a 1965 Apache tent trailer that holds all my camping gear and when set up has lots of headroom and storage.
Here is the link to the hitch kitchen site.
http://www.hitchkitchen.com/
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Old 10-31-2008, 10:20 PM   #4
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Moved this out of the modifications forum. Although a very interesting concept, the modification form is "All About Our Unique Little Molded Fiberglass Trailers" of which a conversion van, of any kind is not. And David, we welcome you to FiberglassRV, but please be aware this site is about Molded Lightweight FiberglassRVs so the amount of comments and traffic to your topics may be limited.
I'm sorry, Donna. I only posted this sort of thing here because of a FGRV member's mods to his Honda Odyssey, which is a TV for these trailers....
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Old 10-31-2008, 10:21 PM   #5
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... biggest problem is the headroom, gets to be a pain after a while getting in and out, dressing in there and such, a pop-top roof conversion would make it much more user friendly but they are expensive.
I found this neat kitchen idea on the net last night that fits on the hitch, they have a car topper tent on top of the van.
As you said you are on a budget another idea is get a vintage tent trailer, I have a 1965 Apache tent trailer that holds all my camping gear and when set up has lots of headroom and storage.
Here is the link to the hitch kitchen site.
http://www.hitchkitchen.com/
Thanks, Denis. I'll have to check your link out. And +1 to van toppers being expensive. I have a feeling I'll get sick of the low head room, too (and I'm 6'-0" tall).
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Old 11-01-2008, 11:26 PM   #6
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If you add up the cost of all the improvements I think you would be better off with a SMALL used very basic pop-up. It will still work when there are kids. It did for me. The VW campers were marginal when the kids were small and kids don't stay small. The VWs had pop-tops which your minivan doesn't. You will probably will have to hunt dilligently to find a small basic pop-up. They have grown a lot since we had our first one.
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Old 11-02-2008, 10:40 AM   #7
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****"All I would need to add is a platform of some sort w/ a padded top, to slide up to the edge of the seat, to create an extension for my legs and feet. I figure an additional 24"-28" would be plenty, since the headrests help make up another 6" of length for my head.

I do have a few ideas as to how to construct the supports of this extension, but I'm not yet sure exactly how the base platform will be constructed, or how the overall bed "system" will work. The rear seat, while folded down, makes a relatively flat surface, but I don't think it'll be flat enough for comfortable laying for long periods of time. It dips dmwn in the middle where the seatbelts are, and the edge of the seat part angles up a little, too. NOT good for when you're used to a FLAT mattress."****

I camped in a VW bus in a similar way for a couple of months, and used the back bench for a bed. I constructed a small platform to extend the bed another foot, and used it for a storage area. My solution to the "lumpy" bench was to toss a full sized futon mattress on top and a good layer of sleeping bags/blankets. I built a small cabinet to store my food and basicly only slept or got dressed in it. The rest of my living was done outside under a canopy of tarps.

Best of luck to you!
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Old 11-02-2008, 11:56 AM   #8
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Dave,

I know you want to end up with a motorhome, and that your resources are limited, but have you considered the cost of all your modifications vs what it might cost to get a used 13' Scamp or similar? If you can swing it, then you can tinker with the trailer to your heart's content without taking the van out of commission, it will have resale value probably equal to what you pay for it, the bed can become a table for your work, it has a place to store the porta-potty, and you can just about stand up in it! On top of that you'll have this great group of folks on here to coach you!


Good luck.
Parker
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Old 11-02-2008, 04:13 PM   #9
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Parker's idea is brilliant.... Fix up a 13 footer, and you'll have an item with resale value equal to or greater than your improvements and initial investment. Fix up an older mini-van, and you'll have, well, an older mini-van with odd equipment.... and no increased value (I have an older Plymouth minivan... not much for resale, but it just keeps on rolling along.... )

Later on, sell the 13 if you want and use the funds as a down payment on the Sportsmobile... or keep it, and tow it with the Sportsmobile for kids, guests, or just because you will have fallen in love with it.... You probably will fall in love with it, you know!

If you decide to stay with the van-camping idea, keep it simple. Sleep in the van, and keep everything else outdoors... outdoor kitchen, privacy enclosure for a portapotty, portable canopy for the sun, etc... That way, you can keep the equipment you bought for boondocking pleasure with your new RV, and sell the van as a standard van later...

Best of luck,
Sherry

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Old 11-02-2008, 05:05 PM   #10
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if you go with a van concept one place to look for ideas is the Expedition Portal Website. Their are several folk in there who did just like your thouhgts but in 4wd's.

One plan to use for small height campers is to use a rolling office chair or mechanics stool to move from front to rear. Or a bench with a sliding top or something.... that allows you to stay sitted and scoot yourself easily from for and aft. This will save your back!!!!. Moving around hunched over on your feet is not a good thing.

This idea goes wayyyyy back. My German Unimog Radio Box had such an arangement. It was too short to stand in.

Another idea I saw was from someone who took a unimog Radio box and put a rotating stool in it that was central to everything. Turn one way and your at the sink. another way and your at the table to eat, do computer work, watch TV. another way and can scoot off into the bed.... another way and you can scoot off onto the porta potty etc etc.

For design ideas for soemthing where you are allways sitting, look at design of rooms for those in wheelchairs.
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Old 11-02-2008, 10:46 PM   #12
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Several years ago I wanted a VW westfalia, but when I saw that used models were going for $20K more than a basic VW van I decided to get a basic VW transporter cargo van and make my own. I wasn't able to find vans in wrecking yards to scavenge parts as I'd hoped so while planning my custom made interior I made up a temporary set up which worked so well I never bothered making anything else. I even ended up "stealth camping" in it for six months, basically just sleeping though as I was able to prepare most of my food and shower at work.

I lined up five folding plastic storage bins in the back, covered them with a piece of thin plywood, and put a narrow mattress on top of that. A few cushions along the side and my bed became my couch as well. The bins I bought had side doors which opened so I was able to access most of the contents without lifting up the mattress. I also used one of those four drawer bins with clear drawers as my night table/dresser. This arrangement gave me a single bed/couch along one half of the van with an aisle to move back and forth. When I brought a second person I used two rows of bins with a second single mattress to fill the back of the van with a double bed. This worked fine but it's much harder to access the storage bins without the floor space.

For privacy I just velcroed heavy black material around the back windows and made a large blackout curtain which hung from velcro attached to the headliner just behind the front seats. While this was useful for sleeping undetected while parked on city streets, they're not really needed and I don't use them now when camping.

For bathroom needs I used jugs for night time and campground or public washrooms for everything else.

For lighting I used a combination of the vans interior roof lights, battery powered lamps and headlamps.

It's not worth cooking in the van, one bin contains all the kitchen related stuff and another has all our dry foods, we use a 12v cooler for perishables and we just buy ice for overnights once we're at a campground. These bins get put on the picnic table or our folding table. I'll set up a tarp if it looks like rain.

I have watched movies using a laptop hooked up to a small inverter on a second car battery. I just charged it up at home before heading out. I used a small radio hooked up to battery powered computer speakers. These days we have a portable dvd player which works fine.

I agree with the others about spending the money on an older trailer instead. The van is great for sleeping and lounging in for an hour before bed, but really cramped for anything else.

Kevin
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Old 11-02-2008, 10:56 PM   #13
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you got me searching about compact camping. In the process found the web site of the guy in the second youtube video I posted.

http://blueskykitchen.com/
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Old 11-04-2008, 07:49 PM   #14
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One problem I found with minivan camping was the ventilation. When it was warm I would like a window open, but bugs would come in. Hot weather, can't sleep. It always felt really cramped, too. I velcroed opaque plastic sheeting over windows to get some privacy but they didn't want to stay up. I bet you could find some aftermarket source for mini blinds to fit your windows, though. If you can find a way to attach screens you'll have a better shot at staying comfy in warm weather.

Mike


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