There’s a deep joy that comes with waking up in the mountains or nestled among red desert rocks. It’s quieter than a city or a suburban neighborhood, but not silent. Wind sighs through the trees. Birds call to one another. Lizards rustle leaves.
Whether you’re planning to mountain bike, paddleboard, hike, or simply soak in the scenery from a hammock, eye-catching views surround you, and your energy level and ability to appreciate the magnificent scenery is influenced by how well you slept the night before.
“You’re going to enjoy your adventures a lot more if you know you have a cozy bed to climb into at night,” says Kaylee Kline, part-time van-lifer and full-time marketing director at VanDOit, a van conversion and rental company in Blue Springs, Missouri.
Thankfully, saggy air mattresses and thin sleeping pads aren’t the only way to sleep while enjoying the freedom and boundless possibilities of the open road. #VanLife (a lifestyle and Instagram hashtag with almost 8 million photos posted since 2011) beckons you to bring the comforts of home—including a spacious, comfortable bed—on the road.
To help inspire your own van conversion (or simply to fuel your imagination and wanderlust), we spoke with five owners of remarkable rigs to get a peek inside and find out how they designed and built their unique camper van beds.
The Inside-Out Bed
Max Dreher and Alexandra Bauer, a German couple who love being surrounded by nature, designed a bed that slides out of the rear doors of their van and hangs in the open air above whatever type of striking scenery they choose to park near: cliffs, the ocean, desert sand.
Dreher and Bauer built the bed frame themselves. It sits on industrial-strength slides made by a German manufacturer that can support the couple's combined weight. To optimize comfort, the duo also outfitted the bed with a slatted bed frame that has an adjustable base, enabling them to prop up the top or bottom of the bed—perfect for working on a laptop outside.
From past travels, Dreher and Bauer knew that sleeping well is one of their top priorities. They’d already used a cold foam mattress and knew the firmer feel worked well for them. The couple put the same style mattress in their van and went with 100% cotton bedding since it has outstanding breathability in any climate.
The Murphy Bed
Because they’re working artists striving to create collaborative art on the road, their bus needed a studio space (actually, a few of them). The back room of their skoolie is not only their bedroom but it also provides a sound-proofed recording studio for Cora and a portrait photography studio for José, among other uses.
To fit so many functions in a small space, the couple chose to install a Murphy bed. Rather than buy an expensive Murphy bed kit, they used swiveling seat bases (often found on boat seats) to provide the hinge for the Murphy bed. Support legs on the bottom of the bed double as floating shelves when the bed is folded up, providing a base for mic stands, photography lighting, and sound absorption panels. Thanks to the recording studio soundproofing in their school bus bedroom, Cora and José have never had any trouble sleeping when parked in noisy areas!
Cost was a major factor in outfitting their bed. The couple went with a 3” full-size Ikea mattress and a 3” topper from Walmart—their perfect combination of comfort and cost-savings. They kept their bedding—also purchased at Ikea and Walmart—simple and inexpensive.
The Convertible Couch and Guest Loft
Teachers Emily Ackroyd and John Jones, of E & J Van Adventures, make the most of their summer vacation by traveling Europe in their campervan, which features not just one but two beds.
To create the main, full-size bed, they pull out one section of wooden slats from their L-shaped couch (like this). Then, Ackroyd and Jones simply use the rear cushions from their couch to cover the bed frame and form a mattress.
The couple also wanted a spot for guests or little ones who may join their family in the future, so Jones designed a lofted, permanent single bed that’s tucked in a rear corner of the van. A skylight over the bed and the curved lines of the van’s frame give the space a nautical feel.
Both beds use medium-density foam mattresses. The twin-size mattress is repurposed from an old camper that Jones’ family used to own, and a family friend created the custom cushions that make up the double bed’s mattress. Duvets keep both beds cozy. The larger bed repurposes bedding from the former Jones family camper, and Ikea sheets are used on the smaller bed.
Ackroyd and Jones’ campervan design layout has become so popular that they have already had requests to build vans for other people.
The Hydraulic Bed
Wouldn’t it be cool to be able to raise your bed up to the ceiling when you aren’t using it so you can have all that extra space? Cam and Emmeline McLean, two van-lifers in Queensland, Australia, have a motorized bed platform in their camper van that does just that.
The lift, from HappiJac, easily converts the rear of their van from a dining room into a bedroom and back again with the flip of a switch.
Rather than build a custom frame themselves, the McLeans repurposed an Ikea bed frame by cutting off the headboard and legs. They then lined the underside of the bed with wood paneling to help the bed fade seamlessly into the ceiling when it’s raised. During the day, the bed area converts into a seating area. Two couches face each other with a table in the middle. If the couple has guests staying in the van, these couches also convert to a king-size guest bed, with the motorized bed stacking on top of the converted couch, bunk-bed style.
To keep their master bed cozy, the McLeans rely on organic cotton sheets, which they say feel extra nice against their skin. Throw pillows fill any gaps between the bed and the wall, and an electric blanket keeps them toasty on cold nights.
The Bunk Beds
Kelly and Trae Drose and their three kids journey in a converted short school bus known as The Big Gulp. The family intentionally chose a short bus rather than a full-size one for increased maneuverability, lower costs, and easier parking. Creating a sanctuary for their family of five inside a small bus required some innovative thinking and lots of time with a tape measure.
The bus has four bunks — two lower beds and two upper beds. Kelly and Trae sleep in one of the lower bunks that’s outfitted with a queen-size bed. Each of the kids has a twin-size bunk. The couch also converts to a bed, so the bus can technically sleep six.
The bunks are built with framing lumber and faced with grey-washed pallet wood. The bottom bunks and the couch all have 6-inch foam mattresses. To gain a few inches of headroom on the top bunks, those beds were given thinner 3-inch memory foam mattresses.
Life on the road with five people gets messy fast, so the family uses white cotton sheets so that everything can be bleached.
And they intentionally avoided custom-made mattresses, in case any bedding needs to be replaced while they’re on the road.
Whether you’re hitting the road full-time, renting a van, or taking a vacation in your mind, we hope these five gorgeous sleepscapes inspire you to build the camper van bed of your dreams.