How do you live in a van and make it comfortable at the same time? Especially if you’re traveling with another person, it’s vital to maximize every inch and make sure there’s plenty of available space for stretching out. Even more so if you have dogs (or cats) in the van with you.
In our van we have two humans and two dogs all sleeping together, so having plenty of bed space was a top priority. But we also didn’t want our bed to take up too much of the living area. How did we solve this dilemma? With a pullout bed frame that tucks away into a couch during the day and transforms into a queen-sized bed at night!
We first got the idea for an expanding bed frame from Van Dog Traveller’s bench that pulls out into a bed. We also relied heavily on IntotheMystery13’s configuration of a bed platform in the back with a pullout frame supported by the kitchen unit. We created our own version that’s incredibly sturdy and also leaves tons of room for storage under the bed and bench seat. Read on to see how we did it and how you can build your own.
Designing Our Bed Frame
The general concept of a pullout bed frame is simple. Half of the bed is a fixed platform, and the other half pulls out like a drawer when you convert it to bed mode. The mattress is supported by slats. Half the slats are fixed to the platform, while the other half pull out with the expandable part.
There are a few things to think about when designing this type of bed frame. We’ve seen these questions answered in many different ways, and how you answer them will depend on your van and the kind of setup you’re going for.
How do you make sure the pullout part is strong, stable, and doesn’t tilt up or down?
If you just have free-floating slats attached to a front piece, then you’ll have problems with the pullout part tilting up or down and twisting side to side. It will also be very structurally weak, and I probably wouldn’t trust it to hold much weight.
To solve this, we added a crossbar underneath to connect the pullout slats, and side rails to guide and support the frame as it slides in and out.
How do you support the bedframe when it’s pulled out?
The pullout part needs something to rest on if it’s going to hold up a mattress (and you). IntotheMystery13 solved this by having the bed pull out over his kitchen unit on one side, and building a small bench that supports the bed on the other side.
Van Dog Traveller took a different route and included legs that pull out with the bed frame.
We ended up creating our own variation of IntotheMystery13’s configuration. The bed rests on the kitchen unit on one side, and we built a support shelf on the other side that we screwed directly into the van’s metal frame. It’s simple and it works great.
How do you make the bed functional when it’s not in bed mode (i.e. pushed in)?
When you’re living in a van, every bit of space counts, so it’s important to think about what purpose your bed will serve when it’s not in bed mode. IntotheMystery13 uses his as a seat. Van Dog Traveller’s bed becomes a nice bench seat that also flips open to access a storage area.
Our bed acts as the backrest for a bench seat that’s revealed when we push the bed in. The platform itself is a great resting place for our dogs, and we built it high enough to provide a very large storage area underneath where we stash our instruments, camping gear and tools. The bench seat also has storage underneath, and we can even access the rear storage from the living area.
What happens to the mattress?
Where does the mattress go when you push in the bed? IntotheMystery13 has this folding mattress, and it simply folds back onto the main platform when he pushes in the bed. Van Dog Traveller’s mattress also serves as the cushions for his bench seat. We’ve seen other designs where the mattress folds up into a futon-style couch.
We went with a modular design where pieces of the mattress become the cushions for our bench seat. We cut our mattress into three pieces - one large piece for the stationary platform, and two smaller pieces that we remove from the frame and place over the bench seat when it’s in couch mode.
Building Our Bed Frame
Customizing This Design for Your Van
With any van build design, it’s tough to give measurements that will work for everyone. Every van is different and every build out is unique. We found ourselves borrowing a lot of concepts from other vanlifers and modifying, improving and customizing them to our needs. Our van might be a little shorter than yours or our kitchen unit might be a different size - both of which affect the actual measurements. Please borrow freely from our bed design, but make sure to change it to fit your van!
What We Used
- 2x3 Studs
- 2-½” Pocket Hole Screws
- 1-½” Angle Brackets
- Heavy Duty Angle Brackets
- ¾” Self-tapping Screws
- 1x3 Board
- 1x2 Board
- 1x4 Board
- 1x3 Board
- 1x4 Furring Strips
- 1x2 Furring Strips
- 1x1 Strips
- 1-¼” Pocket Hole Screws
- 1-¼” GRK Trim Head Screws
- Heavy Duty Felt Furniture Pads
- 1x3 Furring Strips
- 1x2 Furring Strip
Build and Install the Support Frames
We used 2x3 lumber for our main supports. Many vanlifers use 2x4’s in their bed construction, but 2x3’s are more than strong enough. If you’re really worried about van weight you might be able to get away with using 2x2’s.
Each support frame consists of a crossbar that runs across the width of the van, with two legs holding it up from underneath.
The support frames are 24” tall, which matches the height of our kitchen unit.
We attached the legs to the support frame using pocket holes on one side and 1-½” angle brackets on the other side.
We positioned the rear support frame about 2 inches from the back of the van, and the front frame right up against the storage bench (leaving about an 8-½” gap between the support frame and the edge of our kitchen unit to accommodate the back cushion and bed frame).
We screwed the legs down to the laminate flooring with 1-½” angle brackets and ¾” self-tapping screws.
After we installed the main support frames, we screwed a 1x3 board on top of the rear frame and a 1x2 on top of the front frame. These are both cut to 62-½” and centered on the support frame.
These boards provide something to screw the side rails to and bring the height of the support frames up to 24-¾”, which is where we need it for the bed frame to clear our kitchen unit.
The 1x2” on the front also creates a little shelf for the front of the bed frame to rest on when it’s in couch mode.
Build the Pullout Frame
We built the pullout frame using 1x4 pine lumber. The front is a nice-looking 1x4 piece attached to a 1x3 bottom piece to screw the slats to. We cut the 1x3 a few inches short on one side so it could slide over the support shelf.
For the sides of the frame, we used 1x4 furring strips, which are slightly thinner than regular 1x4 lumber. This was essential to make sure the frame slid smoothly in and out of the side rails. We also screwed 1x2's flush with the bottom of the side rails to provide support for the mattress.
We attached the sides to the front of the frame with pocket holes, screws from the bottom, and cleats made from 1x1 strips for extra stability
Build the Side Rails
The side rails add a lot of stability to our bed design and help the frame slide in and out with ease.
We cut two 1x2’s and four pieces of ½ plywood to the length of the rear platform. For the plywood width, we cut two pieces to 5” and two pieces to 3-½”. We sandwiched them together using wood glue and screws.
We mounted the side rails to the support frame by screwing them into the ends of the 1x3 (in the back) and 1x2 (in the front) boards sitting atop the support frame.
Finally, we added 1x2's to the bottom of each side rail (flush with the top of the support frames) to guide the bed frame from underneath and prevent it from tilting down.
The side rails provide a sturdy channel to guide the bed frame and prevent them from moving up and down or side to side.
Cut and Install the Slats
We used 1x3 furring strips (and a 1x2 furring strip) for the bed slats. You want to space your bed slats wide enough that they have room to move, but also close enough that they’ll provide plenty of support for the mattress.
After some trial and error, we settled on having 12 stationary slats screwed to the bed platform (all 1x3’s), and 11 slats that move with the pullout frame (ten 1x3’s and one 1x2).
We cut the slats to the proper length (this all depends on your specific van configuration and the length of the bed platform) and screwed them down, alternating between stationary and moveable.
The stationary slats are screwed down to both support frames. The front ends of the moveable slats are screwed to the pullout frame, while the back ends are screwed to a 1x2 crossbar that runs underneath the bed slats. This 1x2 ties the pullout frame together and provides additional stability.
The stationary slats extend into the rear door frame. By building our bed all the way against the rear doors, we were able to get an extra 4 inches of space inside our van.
Build the Support Shelf
We needed something to support the bed frame on the passenger side, so we built this support shelf that does the job perfectly.
For the supports, we screwed a 1x3 directly to the metal post next to the side door using 1-⅝” self-tapping sheet metal screws (countersunk into the wood so the heads aren’t sticking out), then screwed another 1x3 on top of it.
The shelf is a 1x4 screwed down to the supports, then we added heavy duty angle brackets for extra strength.
This little shelf holds up our bed frame like it’s nothing, and makes it rock solid when it’s fully extended.
Lubricate Moving Parts with Johnson’s Paste Wax
After spending so much time designing and building this pullout bed frame, we were pretty excited to test it out. And it worked, but it was very, very difficult to move. All that wood rubbing together caused a lot of friction and made it a huge challenge to pull out the frame.
Relying on our internet research skills, we found out that many woodworkers that build all-wooden drawers solve this problem by waxing the drawer slides.
We picked up some Johnson’s Paste Wax (available online or in the cleaning section of Home Depot) and rubbed it on all the moving parts of our bed frame.
And WOW did it make a difference! Our frame now slides in and out easily, and we’re able to convert it from bed mode to couch mode and back again with hardly any effort.
Picking Our Mattress
Our bed frame was built, but we were still missing one crucial component: a comfortable mattress that we could modify for our bed design.
The perfect mattress for our bed setup had to hit a specific set of criteria:
- Not too thick. A really thick mattress would be unwieldy and take too much height away from the bedroom area.
- Not too thin. A really thin mattress might be lighter and easier to deal with, but it would also sacrifice on comfort.
- Not too expensive. No sense dropping hundreds of dollars on something we’re going to cut apart and beat up on the road.
After some research and looking around on Amazon, we decided on this 6” queen-sized memory foam mattress from Modway. It’s gel-infused so it stays cool, it’s very comfortable (it even rivals our nice Tuft & Needle mattress that we had in our previous life), and the foam is CertiPUR-US certified to be free of formaldehyde and other nasty chemical compounds. We found the 6-inch thickness to be the perfect balance of comfort and compactness.
Cutting Our Memory Foam Mattress
We needed to cut our brand new mattress into three pieces for our bed design. We had heard that using an electric carving knife is the best way to cut foam mattresses, but we didn’t have one handy and didn’t want to buy one just for this. Instead, we used a regular serrated bread knife and it worked perfectly.
If you want your cut to be straight, make sure to draw the line you need to cut with a Sharpie and a square. Then, start cutting.
It’s surprisingly easy to cut through memory foam, so just take it slow and follow the line.
Upholstering the Mattress Pieces
We upholstered the seat cushions with some colorful fabric that we picked up at Hobby Lobby. First, we covered the cushions with pieces of the cover the came with our mattress, using Heat Bond to attach the seams.
Then, we wrapped the fabric around the cushions like we were wrapping a present. We tried using Heat Bond to attach the seams here also, but the hold just wasn't strong enough. So, Jayme quickly taught herself how to cross stitch and sewed all the seams together.
Here's a quick tutorial on cross stitching:
And here's the cut and upholstered mattress inside the van:
The seat cushion fits underneath the kitchen unit and the backrest fits behind it.
NOTE: After using this setup on the road for awhile, it turned out to be a pain in the ass to pull the seat cushion out from under the kitchen unit every time we want to access the storage under the bench. We decided to cut it into two pieces to make it easier to maneuver.
Our Pullout Bed Frame in Action
Here’s what our bed looks like when it’s in couch mode:
To convert it to bed mode, first we take the couch cushions off, stack them on top of the bed platform, and pull out the bed frame:
Then, we insert the cushions into the extended bed frame
Finally, we pull the mattress cover, sheets and blankets over the cushions.
Check out our Instagram page for a video of how this works.
And there you have it! A queen-sized bed in a camper van!
There’s still a lot of space in the van even with the bed fully extended, and all the storage underneath the platform means we can stuff a guitar, banjo, mandolin, ukulele, lots of tools, a gas can, a 6 gallon water bottle, backpacking packs, a tent, extra dog food, shower stuff, spare cooking fuel, and shoes back there and still have plenty of room for more. Not to mention the two huge batteries for our electrical system that we have stashed under there.
This bed design has proven to be very functional and space-efficient. It’s also easy to setup and breakdown, and the mattress is super comfortable too! It’s definitely a great place to cuddle up with the pups after a long day of enjoying the wilderness.