How to Build a Bed in Your Car, and Why You Need to Do It
Why outfitting your regular rig with a bed and easy storage and embracing car camping is smarter than chasing the #vanlife
photography by Erik Hedberg
If you’re a surfer, climber, or general mountain person, you likely already know that building a bed in your car opens up a whole world of new possibilities. Not everyone has the cash or time to buildout a fancy van like they saw on Instagram, nor do they need to. Creature comforts are a choice, and sometimes keeping things simple works just as well.
Inspired by the cult classic snowboard films, “Car Danchi” (Japanese for car hotel), I started sleeping in my Subaru whenever the snow was good. This led to plenty of cold nights followed by heavenly mornings sampling the finest powder in the Pacific Northwest. The Subie was functional, but not so ideal for a tall guy like myself. My girlfriend’s old Land Rover Discovery proved to be a nice upgrade, until the engine blew up. After laying the Rover to rest, I’ve since gotten my hands on a new project in the form of a 100 series Land Cruiser (aka Lexus LX 470).
In fact, from now on I’ll probably have a hard time buying a car I can’t sleep in. Here’s why:
1. Cheaper than a van
Van life is great, but it’s not practical for everyone. We’ve all seen that pimped out sprinter van at the trailhead, the one with the ninja bike storage and solar powered workstation. It’s sweet. It’s pretty much the best setup ever, one that you could easily live out of... but it costs a fortune, even before the buildout. For those of us who already have a car, there’s a much cheaper solution that comes in the form of plywood and 2x4s. If you’re not worried about being fancy, you can build a car bed for under $100 and one stop at your local hardware store. Just think of how many trips you can fund with all that money you’ll save.
2. Weekends get longer
Waking up at 4 a.m. to drive for a few hours and then do some sort of outdoor activity is fun and all but… wait, no it’s not. It actually makes you more tired and less on point for whatever you’re going to do. Now imagine waking up at 7, well rested and snuggly in the back of a 4 wheeled vessel you drove out in the night before. Much better. Leaving town after work on Friday has become my go-to method for extending the weekend. From Seattle, we can get to world-class everything in under four hours. So if you take off by 7 p.m. you can be at the trailhead, parking lot, or beach in time to check out the stars and tuck into your five star car hotel before midnight. By the time you get home on Sunday, you’ll feel like you just had a three day weekend, because you did, sorta.
3. Camp anywhere
Drank too much at the bar and can’t drive home? There’s a solution. Even if you’re not into outdoor sports, building a car bed is a stealthy way to camp wherever you damn well please. If you’re in a pop top van, truck camper, or rooftop tent, chances are people will notice. This can lead to getting kicked out of spots in the middle of the night because you’re not supposed to be camping there. If you happen to be in a stock Toyota Previa or a banged up Honda Element though, you’ll look like all the other normal cars parked on the street and no one will hassle you. Road trips become free flowing and spontaneous because campgrounds and hotels don’t matter anymore. Park that stealthy beast wherever you want to wake up. Whether it’s an epic forest road overlook, the ski hill parking lot, or on the street outside the local coffee shop, you can sleep there. Just try to keep it low key when you roll out of bed to get that cappuccino in the morning.
4. Your car is waterproof
This might sound dumb, but your car is extremely weather resistant. It’s designed to withstand rain, snow, sleet, and high speed car crashes. So even the gnarliest of weather is nothing compared to what it can take. If it’s going to snow two feet and the road’s sure to be a mess in the morning, then you know you’re in for a stormy night. Getting a hotel would be unnecessarily expensive, and pitching a tent is a terrible idea for obvious reasons. This is prime time for a car bed. With a warm sleeping bag, camp stove coffee supplies, and a quick drive up the night before, you’ll be ripping first chair while everyone else is still stuck behind that guy in the 2WD Buick spinning out on the highway.
5. It’s not hard to build
If you have power tools and know how to use them, awesome. If not, that works too. Many hardware stores like Home Depot will cut your wood to size and rent you the tools you need. If you’ve ever seen some of the bed frames at Ikea, you know it doesn’t take much to support a couple of sleeping humans. Just measure out all the internal dimensions and draw up some plans. Have a friend or family member who knows how to build things? Buy them lunch and ask for their help. More complex elements like drawers and hinged flaps can be super functional, but not totally essential. If you’re brave enough to take the back seats out, you can open up a lot of valuable storage space under the bed for gear bins, kitchen supplies, etc. As a designer, I love the challenge of trying to make the most out of limited constraints. The back of your car may not be huge, but the options are limitless when it comes to designing a killer sleeping platform.
Now that you’re totally sold on the car bed concept, heed the following pro tips to venture further down the road to #adventuremobile success
- Put a space blanket reflective side up under your mattress to help keep you warm.
- Cut Reflectex panels to the size of your windows for extra insulation
- Moving the front seats all the way forward gains you another foot of sleeping space. Design the platform to extend further when the seats go forward. Ours has a flap that folds out on a piano hinge
- Keep what you can on the outside to make room for sleeping on the inside. Roof box, bike racks, etc. help maximize space
- Warm sleeping bags or nice blankets like the Rumpl can make all the difference in cold weather
- Get a Moment Superfish Lens for awesome interior photos of your setup
- Use the MSR wind burner for quick and low profile cooking (Annie’s White Cheddar Mac and Cheese + sliced avocado + sausage = best dinner)
- Get a doormat or tarp to lay down on the ground for changing clothes
- Snuggling for warmth can lead to increased happiness