The Minivan Camper
When we are not out cruising on our boat, this is how we land travel. By minivan camper. We wanted a reliable car with good gas mileage that also allows us to sleep in it on occasion and the Toyota Sienna fit that bill (see further down how we rented a Nissan Pathfinder and set it up to sleep in for a week). Of course a bigger van or small RV would be a lot more comfortable but it wouldn’t get great gas mileage or easily fit in an average parking space, and most of the time this is still our everyday grocery-getter. Sometimes we have to just pull over and go to sleep — sleeping incognito in a minivan is much easier than in an obvious camper van. When we are camping there is no need to set up a tent and the bed is a lot more comfortable!
Check out our posts from the road in the minivan. We have made several cross-country trips and one trip to Alaska in our minivan camper (a 2004 Toyota Sienna) and are still happy with our choice. Check out our video about taking the minivan on the Alaska ferry! As of of December 2017, we have over 230,000 miles on our little minivan camper van!
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Everything we might need to hit the road (or the sea or the air) is listed in our free travel packing checklist. We pick and choose from the checklist depending on the adventure ahead. To get access to our free, editable packing list please subscribe to our website. If you enjoy the checklist please share a link to this page on social media as a thanks. And be sure to Like our FaceBook page And if you really love this info please consider donating via PayPal and leave us a comment below. Thanks!
The best thing about this minivan camper conversion is that we have made no modifications to the minivan. We just remove the middle row of seats and, depending on the setup, the backseat. We can convert it back by simply removing the bed and putting the seats back in.
Depending on what we are heading out to do we have different types of beds and gear. We added carriers for our bikes and a cargo box for fishing and ski gear. The SUP (standup paddle board) is inflatable and stored under the bed (we’ve been very rough on this board and it is holding up great so far).
Gear Intensive/Long Trips
If we need to carry a lot of gear (like we did on our six-months trip up to Alaska) we store six Action Packers below a sheet of plywood. The minivan fits exactly one standard sheet of plywood (4’x8′ or 48 x 96 inches) though we had it trimmed by nearly two feet to gain space between the bed and the front seats.
The photo shows us using foam padding but after a few nights we thought it was a bit too hard. Now we use this air mattress topped with this memory foam. Way more comfortable and easier to fold up and pack away or move aside; unlike the bulky foam sheets. The memory foam does a great job of keeping out the cold that an air mattress attracts.
In front of the six Action Packers are three clear tubs. We each have one tub allotted to our clothes (sometimes this is a suitcase). The middle tub holds our laptops and other electronics. We also each get a gear hammock which are great for the stuff we use all the time like jackets, hats, gloves and our Kindles for nighttime reading.
Long Camping Trips
Here is another way to set up the bed when most of our stuff doesn’t have to come along, but we’re heading out to go camping for more than just a weekend. Mike built a platform for our bed and we use these shallow tubs like drawers under the frame. With the back seats removed we are even able to fit our inflatable kayak and inflatable SUP under the bed!
Once the platform is in place and the front seats are pushed all the way forward, there is a good amount of space in front of the bed. I recently even found a tub that just fits under the center console to hold all of our shoes.Sometimes you have to get something from way underneath the bed…We drove the minivan to Alaska and back with some of it traveled on the Alaska Marine Highway. Watch our video about traveling on the Alaska ferry here.
The Alaska Highway (aka Al-Can Highway) can be hard on cars. We lost several hubcaps and had a thick protective layer of dirt and dead bugs.
If we are just heading out for the weekend we use the air-mattress and memory foam after lowering the back seats. We really like this brand because it holds up much better than the rubbery air mattresses we all grew up with (and they don’t have that bad, plasticky smell). Somehow a cheap, queen-sized air mattress (60″ width) from Target or Walmart is way too wide, but since the Lightspeed queen mattress is not as tall it fits great (on the floor or the platform). The taller air mattress also means that you lose some headroom when sitting up in bed. The photo below shows a cheap air mattress. Notice the bump on the left? With two people laying down that bump starts to grow in the middle and you end up wedged on the outside! Ask me how I know that! 🙂
Camping in a Rented Nissan SUV
While cruising the Inside Passage of British Columbia on our boat we wanted to explore the west coast of Vancouver Island. Since we have to leave our minivan behind when we go cruising we rented a Nissan Pathfinder SUV. Using our favorite air mattress and mattress topper we were able to make a pretty comfortable bed after folding down all the seats.
I love my Ricardo toiletry bag. I have had it for over 12 years and it’s holding up great. Mike really likes his Sea to Summit toiletry bag. His is much smaller and super light-weight. A recent great find are these squeeze bottles for shampoo, lotion, etc. They are three ounces which is under carry-on size and just enough for about 2 weeks of use for me. They are easy to fill and clean, and have never leaked. They also stand up with the nozzle down so they are always ready to use. When we are on the boat they are nice and small to toss in a bag with a towel and head to the marina showers. Check out more of our favorite gear here!
I read all the time, but books can take up a lot of space. On our boat we only have one small bookshelf with reference books and in the camper minivan there is no space at all. So we each have a Kindle Paperwhite. The Paperwhite is backlit and can be read in the dark. So I’m not disturbing Mike when he is trying to sleep and I’m not using any electricity. Check out the post I wrote on how to get free books for your Kindle from your local library — you can do this from anywhere in the world!
Camp and Cooking
We love these folding chairs. They take up a bit more space than those folding chairs that fold into a tube-shape, but they are so much more comfortable! We also have this small folding table for camping and picnics.
To keep our camp kitchen supplies organized I use wine bottle 6-pack carriers (I also use these on the boat). We have a Jetboil to heat water super-fast to make coffee and tea. We also have a bigger (cheapo) single-burner butane stove because it can be challenging to balance pots or pans on the Jetboil. Also love our collapsible cooler. We have an REI brand cooler but it seems to be similar to this one. For doing the dishes these tubs are great. We have a whole bunch of them (they are stackable!) since they are also great to hold parts while doing projects around the boat, clean fish, as a temporary aquarium, you name it. They are super versatile. Want a list of everything we might take camping? To get access to our free, downloadable, and editable packing checklistlist please subscribe to our website.These plates are great! They act as lids and keep our food warm while more is cooking. They can stand a ton of heat without melting and can double as a cutting board. But they will get damaged by a direct flame!!
Since we live full-time on our boat we don’t have much storage. This little storage trailer is our garage and when we are out traveling with the boat it is where we can park the car long-term. Learn more about why we have it here.
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