One of the neatest things about building your own camper van is that you can design the layout any way you want. Because there is such limited space to work with inside a van, you, as the builder, must carefully evaluate how your van will be used when it’s finished and decide on a layout that will serve that purpose most effectively.
For full time van dwellers, the most common layout arrangement has a raised, fixed bed platform in the rear of the van which creates a large space underneath the bed for storage and mechanical/electrical systems. Arranging a bed in this layout occupies a large footprint, but creates a tremendous amount of designated storage to squirrel away all of your belongings. If you have the need to bring a lot of stuff with you everywhere you go, this is likely the most practical layout option for you.
On the other hand, layout arrangements can differ quite significantly among folks who use their vans for more recreational purposes. For many weekend warriors, like us, their van is just a tool to enhance and accommodate their other hobbies. Carrying oversized objects like dirt bikes and snowmobiles require special layout considerations. Making accommodations for more than 2 passengers can also present some unique layout challenges. Everything has it’s trade-offs; every “yes” is a “no” to something else. More room for people means less room for stuff. More room stuff means less room for systems and resources. Everyone’s van build is different because everyone’s priorities are different.
When we were designing our layout, our objectives were to:
- Safely and comfortably transport and sleep both of us, plus two additional passengers and our Great Dane.
- Be able to transport a Dirt-bike.
- Be able to transport a Paramotor (see our “about” section for more details on this amazing “backpack aircraft”).
- Be able to tow a boat or other trailer.
- Maximize the livable space for the occupants after arriving at our destination
Of course, we did not expect the layout to be very livable with all this stuff inside at the same time. Our priority was just to make it possible to transport all of this to our destination, with the expectation of off-loading everything upon arrival.
In order to accommodate this use, we modeled our layout to function like a “toy-hauler” camper.
There were really only two bed options that would have made this arrangement possible.
- A Murphy bed – fold away against a wall when not in use.
- Vertical Bed lift – raise to the roof when not in use.
The vertical bed lift was the obvious choice for us because:
- It allows the bed to be positioned at infinite sleeping elevations to accommodate different cargo dimensions underneath the bed.
- It provides more usable space along the walls/floor when the bed is not in use.
- It does not require the bed to be made every day – a small benefit, I know, but anything we can do to reduce the number of steps in our daily routine is a win in our book!
While you don’t see bed lifts in vans very often, it has been done before. A company by the name of “Happijac” is the primary manufacturer for almost all travel trailer bed lifts and a few people have successfully fit them in their vans. The Happijac lift is a fantastic solution but it is pretty expensive and due to the configuration of the vertical rails, they can somewhat obstruct the width of the cargo area. If someone was looking for a mostly “turn-key” bed lift solution, this would be the way to go, no doubt.
The price point of the Happijac was a bit too steep for us, and since Justin built elevators for a living in a previous job, we went the DIY route and created our own from scratch. Here is what we came up with…
Our design for the lift was modeled after mechanisms commonly used on four-post automotive shop lifts.
It consists of a simple rectangular bed frame (full size mattress) made out of 2” angle iron. The frame is attached to 16mm linear ball bearing glide blocks, which slide on 16mm vertical linear motion rails positioned at each corner of the frame. We purchased all four rails and bearing blocks on Amazon for less than $200. As prices are subject to change over time, you can check latest price on Amazon (HERE).
The rails are a structural element of the lift that transfer all of the weight to the floor of the van so that no weight is hanging on the walls or ceiling. The rails are secured to the walls at the top and bottom with adjustable brackets that are pined/screwed in position to prevent movement once properly aligned. The brackets themselves were fashioned out of 1/4″ think flat stock steel welded to some 1/4″ thick Unistrut angle brackets.
Though the rails themselves are pretty strong and rigid, to prevent any deflection and add additional strength, the rails were secured to a 1.5” x 1.5” square tubing with self tapping screws. Each rail has a cable anchor point at the top of the rail where the hoisting cables terminate. Each cable end is fitted with a wire rope thimble to reinforce the cable eye where it is bolted to the rail. We chose to use 2.5mm Dyneema rope in lieu of steel cable because it is light weight, has great abrasion resistance and limited stretch, allows for quiet operation over pulleys, and can hold thousands of pounds. Steel cable is a perfectly acceptable option, and if we were to do it again, we would probably choose to use traditional steel cable because we believe it might be easier to create cables of precise length. All four cables are then routed from their respective anchor point at the top of each rail, through a series of pulleys, to bring all 4 cables together into a common mallion link. The common mallion link is then connected to the main cable of a 2,500 lb ATV winch that is mounted to the under-side of the bed frame. The winch cable can be retracted or extended at the press of a button. When the cable is retracted, the bed frame is raised and when it’s extended, the bed frame is lowered.
The winch draws approximately 95A when raising the bed and travels from bottom to top in about 5 seconds. We chose to use this $70 ATV winch from harbor freight primarily because of its affordable price (only $56 with a 20% off coupon), compact size, and ability to hold in position under a load without unspooling. It is bit louder than we would prefer, but it functions very well for this application. As an additional safety feature, adjustable mechanical stops are locked into place with a steel pin on each rail so that the bed can be lowered onto them for a secure sleeping position.
The trickiest part of the installation is getting the rails plumb and parallel with each other so that the dimensions between rails stays exactly the same from top to bottom, and does not cause binding as the frame travels up and down. In order to do this, you must designate one of the rails as the “master” rail. The master rail is aligned to be as plum as possible (use the structure of the van for reference, not a level or plumb bob). This rail is then be used as a reference point to set the positions of all the other rails. The best method of making sure the rail dimensions remain consistent and accurate is to cut a piece of lumber to the correct length, and use it as a measuring gauge to space the rails appropriately from the “master rail”. The gauge will ensure that the rails are set perfectly parallel to the master rail.
Once all the rails are set, the frame can be installed, and the alignment can be verified or tweaked as necessary to get a smooth motion from top to bottom. Once you’re happy with the alignment. Put self-tapping screws through all of your brackets to prevent them from moving.
I chose to exclusively use steel in the construction of this lift because it is easier to weld and cheaper to buy, but aluminum could be substituted and would certainly save some weight.
To finish it off, we laid several, evenly spaced, 2×3 planks into the channels of the angle iron frame to provide support for the mattress. Many people have had good success with the bed slats from Ikea, but there have been a few stories of them breaking and people falling through… Since we plan to have guest sleeping underneath, we didn’t want to risk it, so we went with the sturdy, yet heavier, lumber instead.
When we arrive at our destination and the bed is raised to the ceiling, we utilize the space underneath as a dinette that can comfortably seat 6.
Chinese checkers anyone?