There’s an old saying that you can’t fit 10 pounds of stuff in a 5-pound bag. Making a minivan into a camper is precisely the kind of thing they meant. If you have visions of putting a stove, toilet and shower into a minivan, it’s not going to happen without intervention from a custom auto builder. However, making comfortable sleeping quarters with excess storage space for camping gear can happen. We will assume that if you are seriously considering this conversion you are on a tight budget, if not in an outright bind.
1. Plan the conversion. List everything you want in your camper. Make a preliminary sketch showing where you think everything should go. Think, measure, plot, plan and redraw your sketch until you think everything will fit the available space.
2. Build your bed and under-bed storage first. Cut ¼-inch plywood to fit from wall to wall inside your van. Cut four pieces of 2-by-4 to the height of your inside fender wells. Use sheetrock screws to attach them to the four corners of the plywood. Place your mattress/futon/foam and bedding on top of the plywood. If desired, add a ½-inch thick, 4- to 6-inch wide board across the end of your bed to create a boxed-in storage space. This will prevent items from rolling or sliding when you are in motion.
3. Use spray paint or window stain to tint your windows to the extent permitted unless you can afford a professional tint application. You can also use tinted window cling where it is permitted. Use 16-gauge steel wire to make a curtain rod behind the driver’s seat. Use existing interior screws to attach the wire. Add any available curtain to block any view into the van’s interior from your windshield. Use the same method to make curtains on all your windows if desired. If you tint your windows instead of making curtains, stretch elastic cargo netting across them for added clothing and soft item storage.
4. Use rooftop cargo carriers, trailer hitch cargo racks, and trailers as needed for exterior storage. Overloading the vehicle will shorten its life, however. If you have too much outside storage, you will draw unwanted attention from thieves, vandals and law enforcement. According to Tools of the Trade Magazine Online, “Drivers…admitted they didn’t have a clue as to properly set up or handle a trailer, yet most also felt they didn‘t need to learn … the proper way to drive with a trailer or distribute trailer loads (Reference 1).”
5. Lifelong van camper Gypsy Wilburn recommends making an emergency toilet from a large plastic coffee can, lined with a plastic grocery bag. “Put a couple handfuls of kitty litter in the bag. Waste can then be discarded by tying the bag and throwing it in a garbage can (Reference 2).”