My son Brent and his wife Arille commissioned me to design and build a camping conversion for their 2003 Honda Element. Brent's wish list included five items: the design must be comfy, clean, and visually appealing so that Arille (who I suspect prefers hotel-style camping) will actually want to use it; it has to include a shortened driving configuration which fits when the van's front seats are in use and the back seats are mounted on the walls; the entire unit has to be storable behind the back seats, for when passengers embark; it requires a lounge configuration for rainy days so the couple can comfortably relax, use their computers, or eat inside; and it needs plenty of drawers and cabinets for storage. The budget was set at $400.
I drew up a modular concept that should satisfy each requirement on the list:
The scheme included two short boxes, two long boxes, and three boards to bridge the boxes. The boxes and boards can be arranged in three configurations, for sleeping, driving, and lounging. Also, the components can be separated and stacked for storage. Wooden tabs on the underside of each board are designed to slip into slots on the boxes, locking the unit together in the various configurations.
Then I built it, using 3/4" white birch plywood, which I finished with Danish Oil. When broken down into its separate components, the camping unit fits neatly into the two-foot space behind the back seats:
The stack will be strapped to the van's cargo hooks to keep it in place while driving.
In its every-day drive configuration, the van's back seats are strapped vertically against the walls. The camping unit sits about three inches beneath the seats. Note the opening in the back of the unit, which extends forward from the tailgate to the dashboard, allowing transport of 2 x 4s and other long items. But the unit is designed with camping in mind, which means storing the rolled-up mattress in that opening and leaving the back seats at home in the garage:
Here's a photo taken from outside the driver's side showing the unit in drive configuration:
The seats here are slid all the way back and reclined slightly. The cargo space on each side is accessible only from outside, though one could probably squeeze a hand between the closed door and box to grab a water bottle or two. Since my son and daughter-in-law both work for tech companies, I also provided two storage ports accessible from inside for laptops, tablets, or even (gasp) books:
At the back are drawers usable only with the tailgate down. But removable shelves (the boards with bowling-ball-style finger holes in the preceding photo) allow access to the drawer spaces from inside the van. I used 1/2" plywood for the shelves and the drawer bottoms.
The drawers presented a particular challenge, because the tailgate protrudes upward in spots, hindering the drawers' movement. My solution was to attach a 3/4"-high lip under the boxes, to elevate the bottom of the drawer face. (See second drawing in first column of Sketch 4).
The following photos show Brent changing the camping unit from drive mode to lounge mode.
First, the front seats are pushed all the way forward, and the lateral board is lifted out. (Note in the first photo the two small light-colored boards on the floor under the seats. The floor slopes downward under the seats, and those boards level the boxes). Next, the front boxes are pushed forward and the rolled mattress is stuffed further into the opening. The lateral board is then emplaced as a table, completing the lounge.
As the photo on the left shows, the front seats can be used for back rests, though I think some lower-back support will be in order if using the seat for extended periods. And Brent can sit upright without hitting his head on the ceiling.
To change from lounge to sleeping configuration, one places the tabs of the lateral board into the slots between the front and rear boxes, and presses the board into place.
Then the mattress is retrieved from the opening in the back . . .
. . . a little wine (or Bourbon, or milk or whatever) is added, and maybe a good book, and -- voilà -- the metamorphosis is complete!
For the bed here, I used a 3" full-size gel memory foam mattress topper bought on Amazon, which I cut down to 42" x 72". To preserve the somewhat delicate gel foam surface, I then stitched together a mattress cover from a canvas drop cloth (which I preshrunk) bought at Home Depot for that purpose. The box lids can be accessed without leaving the van by lifting and rolling the mattress over to one side or the other. I'll leave it to the Element's owners to install bug nets, blackout curtains, and that sort of thing so they can rest comfortably.
The camping conversion took about a week and a half to build. I managed to stay within budget. The materials cost (figures rounded): $165.00 for three 3/4" panels of white birch plywood; $81.00 for a mattress pad; $30.00 for two drawer slides; $21.00 for two cans of Danish Oil; $19.00 for a canvas drop cloth; $15.00 for various screws; $15.00 for a project-size panel of 1/2" pine plywood; $11.00 for four pairs of hinges; $7.00 for six magnetic catches; $6.00 for two bungee cargo nets; and $5.00 for glue. Total material costs: $375.00.
For those interested in building one of these camping conversions, here are the drawings for the small boxes (Sketch 5). The big-box drawings are included above (see Sketch 4).
That was fun! My Honda Element camping conversion project presented plenty of engineering challenges, but based on the reactions of Arille and Brent while checking it out, I'd say mission accomplished! (That's good, because we plan to borrow it on occasion).
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