The Chevy Express 3500 Extended Van we purchased for Tricia’s birthday seated 15 and slept 0. While this configuration can move an entire youth baseball team with 3 coaches, it wouldn’t work for the summer road trip! Building bunk beds in the camper van was what we planned to do, we just needed to figure out how. We needed to sleep at least 6 and probably more as Tricia planned to bring additional friends and family along on the summer road trip. A Chevy 3500 Extended Van has four rows behind the driver and passenger seats. Our plan was to remove the last two rows and build bunk beds in the camper van for sleeping space.
There were a few challenges with building bunk beds in the camper van. The most pressing problem was dimensions. Although the extended van seems huge, a good sleeping space takes A LOT of room. Even with the last 2 rows removed, the distance available for sleeping is only 6′ 5″, barely enough to fit my 6′ 3″ frame. Sleeping in a space where you can’t fully stretch out quickly feels claustrophobic so space was at a premium. A Ford Econoline Extended Van was only 6′ 1″ from the back doors to the second row which is the main reason we eliminated it as a choice.
The other dimensional problem with building bunk beds in the camper van was height. Express Vans are only about 4′ 6″ from top to bottom. When you split that distance between 2 bunks and consider the space needed for the bed frame and mattress, less than 2 feet remain per bunk! I was concerned about this but actually a standard bunk bed only provides about 20″ above the bottom bunk. The design for building bunk beds in the camper van just needed to be very efficient with vertical space. Every inch makes the space feel more open. A Sprinter van provides more vertical distance for bunk beds but we didn’t purchase this for other reasons, which you can read about here.
Sturdiness was also a MUST HAVE for building bunk beds in the camper van. If the bed rattled as Tricia traveled down the road it would quickly get irritating over the 13,000 miles she was planning. And obviously if the bed collapsed and dropped on top of bottom bunk sleepers, it would be a major fail.
Finally, when building bunk beds in the camper van, the beds had to be comfortable. I am happy to sleep a few nights on the ground during a backpacking trip, but my family planned to sleep in this van for over 60 days! If they didn’t get good sleep over such an extended period of time, everyone would be too grouchy!
Building Bunk Beds in the Camper Van
Part 1: The Bed Frame
Given the space limitations and the need to be especially strong, I determined that the frame for building bunk beds in the camper van needed to be metal. Wood doesn’t work well across a 6′ 5″ span without being extra thick or having an additional support, both of which would take up a great deal of valuable space. At first I tried finding metal supports at our local hardware stores but they did not have great choices and the materials were expensive. Eventually I came to the idea to use an existing bed frame. This is made for the purpose of safely holding up a bed, can be inexpensive, and could be cut and welded to match the required dimensions. I was all set to purchase a bed frame and work on it with friend who had an arc welder, but then my neighbor told me that he had seen someone throwing away a complete metal bunk bed. How lucky! I was able to salvage that bed frame for free for use on our van. And I could cut the bed frame to size and secure it with metal nuts and bolts. For me this was much easier than welding.
Speaking of my neighbor, we are blessed to have a retired NCR technician and business owner living across the street from us. Karl has all the tools, knowledge, energy, and kindness to be a perfect partner for a building project. I could not have completed this project in time without his help! Hopefully if you are taking on a project like this, you have a neighbor like Karl as this made the project much more enjoyable!
Here is what I used for building bunk beds in the camper van:
- Salvaged Bed Frame (full size futon on the bottom with twin sized bunk on the top)
- Assorted Bolts and Nuts
- 5′ section of 2″ PVC Pipe
- Black Spray Paint
- Miter Saw for Cutting PVC
- Drill and bits
- Adjustable Wrenches
- Heavy Gloves and Goggles for safety when using Grinder
- Clean off the salvaged bed frame with soap and water.
- Measure the dimensions of the sleeping space. Draw out design that will exactly split the vertical space for each bunk exactly in half. Consider the flooring and the space for mattress. Also consider any windows. We had our bed exactly align with just under the bottom of the window so the frame could never smash into the glass.
- Use the grinder to cut metal pieces to size. Be sure to wear goggles and gloves as the grinder throws huge sparks.
- Use the drill, nuts, and bolts to drill holes and secure metal pieces together according to your design.
- Our salvaged parts did not have supports that worked for one half of the Bed. I used 2″ PVC instead and spray painted it black to match the rest of the bed frame.
Part 2: The Bed Platform
Once we had the bed frame design we needed to cover it with a platform to support the beds. For this I used 5/8″ sheets of plywood. Cutting the plywood to fit in the van was harder than I expected: the flooring of a 3500 van is not flat at all, the sides of the van are curved and have cuts outs for the wheel wells, and the width is longer than a 4′ sheet of plywood AND wider the door opening, so you have to use two pieces.
I also wanted to be able remove the bunk beds for times we wanted to transport a large number of people.
- 3 sheets of 5/8 inch 4×8 MDF plywood ($45)
- Assorted Nuts and Bolts ($5)
- Small Metal Plates to hold plywood pieces together ($5)
- Large cardboard scraps for cutting template (I used a broken down box)
- Circular Saw and Jigsaw
- Drill and Drill Bits
- Scissors for cutting cardboard
- Use the cardboard to create an exact template of the curved sides of the van. I cut the cardboard until it perfectly matched. Because the van is wider than the door opening, I knew we had to cut the plywood into 2 long pieces.
- Transfer the cardboard template to the plywood using a sharpie. Cut the plywood using the circular saw and jigsaw.
- To install the plywood on the floor I used hook bolts that attached to the frame that normally holds the bench seats. I drilled a hole in the plywood so the straight end of the hook would pop through.
- To install the second plywood I installed the bed frame, then used metal screws to attach the plywood to the bed frame.
Part 3: Mattress and Final Touches
Now that we had a solid frame and platforms in space, it was time to install the beds. We did some research to determine what the best material for the mattress would be and came up with 3″ open cell lux regular foam that we purchased from The Foam Factory. While it is somewhat expensive, this foam makes for a very comfortable sleeping surface. At times I think the foam seems more comfortable than our bed at home. To cut the foam to match we again used the scrap cardboard. Interestingly enough, we found that an electric turkey knife was the best tool for cutting the foam to size. Because our bunk bed design has posts for the top bunk, we had to cut holes into the bottom mattress for the posts to go through. Since the foam is pretty firm, we added an inexpensive egg crate mattress topper to make it slightly softer and it worked great. Once the mattresses were in place, I was concerned that the limited space between the top and bottom bunk would lead to banged up foreheads when sitting up in the night. Using an inexpensive full size egg crate as a cushion, we stapled it to the underside of the top bunk (which is the ceiling of the top bunk) and around the bed frame at the foot of the bed. Tricia then stapled a large sheet of the extra fabric she had purchased to make the camper van curtains to cover the egg crate and also surround the metal bed frame at the foot of the bed. This added some much needed brightness and color to the enclosed space and definitely helped to avoid sore noggins!
- 3″ Open Cell Lux Regular Foam – Two 82″ x 76″ Full Sheets ($93.99 Each Sheet)
- Electric Turkey Knife
- Staple Gun
- Full size egg crate (about $45 each)
- Fabric (Ours cost about $15)
The Total Cost of Building Bunk Beds in the Camper Van – $368
Once we were finished building bunk beds in the camper van, we purchased inexpensive sheets and quilts in a colorful print to make a cute and comfortable sleeping space. We usually put two people on top and two on the bottom bunk which works great, but we occasionally have had three on top somewhat comfortably. Initially I had worried that the bottom bunk would feel like a dark cave, but it is actually quite comfortable and cozy. Since we usually sleep with the back doors open, everything feels quite spacious considering that we are living in a van!
Overall, the bunk bends have served us amazingly well. We have the option of using both beds or we can take the top bunk out when less people are traveling. Recently I removed the top bunk for a trip that Tricia and I took on our own which made it feel especially roomy. We also have the option of removing the whole bunk bed system so that we can transport a large group of people. I like the flexibility & comfort of our bunk beds and hope that if you have interest in doing something similar, this gives you ideas. Let me know if you have any questions. Happy Travels!