My partner and I do a lot of camping and we tend to go to some pretty remote areas. I've always liked the idea of a camper van but most vans just don't have the clearance or the off-road capabilities that I felt we needed. Then one night, I was scrolling through used cars and had the idea to build a dedicated camping vehicle with 4x4.
Having decided that I would forego the usual camping vehicles, I began researching every SUV I could get for less than $10,000. I eventually found a nice older gentleman selling this gently used 2006 Chevrolet Tahoe with just over 130,000 miles for $5,500. I ended up getting it for $5,200 and it is mechanically perfect. 130,000 miles is a little high for what I was looking for but these Tahoe's are plentiful in my area and they are practically tanks. This one in particular has been very well taken care of and it even has the 5.3 liter V8, tow package, cruise control, and the front row bench seat.
The first thing I did, after changing the oil and air filter (everything else was mechanically in great shape), was take measurements of just about everything that I could. I wanted to have enough space above the bed that I could sit comfortably but still have room for storage underneath. I also wanted something solid and stable that wouldn't move too much when I found myself far off the paved road but could be removed easily when I wanted to use my Tahoe for non-camping things.
If you've never used SketchUp, it is hands down one of my favorite tools when it comes to any project. Once I had all of my measurements, I was able to concept some bed ideas in SketchUp and estimate how much wood and hardware I would need to build everything. I also feel like it helps me to visualize my ideas better and address any design flaws before I've spent any money. The basis for my design is drawn from this great REI blog post I found that is part of a series on building vans. Since I didn't have as much space to work with, I had to adapt some things to make it work but I used the sliding aspect of their bed to allow me to easily move and remove the bed as well as enabling folding up one of the back seats if I needed to.
In effort to keep things lightweight and minimal, I opted to build the main structure with pocket holes so I could use the smallest amount of wood. I also went with 2x3 instead of 2x4 for the same reason. I knew I was sacrificing some strength this way but I hoped that it wouldn't matter once the bed was squeezed into the space and couldn't move perpendicularly. Here is one side of the bed I completed and test fitted to make sure I had my measurements right. It's a perfect fit and now I just have to make 2 more per my SketchUp plans. Measure twice, cut once!
This is a few steps later but as you can see I've completed my two additional sides with my 2x3 and pocket hole jig. It's also worth noting that I added some wood glue to every pocket hole joint just incase the screws weren't enough to hold everything together. At this point, I also cut all of my 1x4 to make the bed slats which is in the top left of the picture. The longer slats are for the wider side and the shorter ones are for the smaller, slide out, part of the frame. I used SketchUp big time here to make sure I had my measurements right so when I slid open the bed it would be the exact width of my trunk space.
Here we are with all 3 core pieces done and the slats on the end screwed in to make sure I got my width right. The trunk and bed are just about 50 inches wide at the thinnest part which you'll see later is unfortunately just a few inches smaller than most full beds. That's okay though, my measurements were right on the money. You can also see in this picture that I added 3 pieces of 1x2 along the bottom of the main piece just to complete the box and add to the structural integrity a bit. I clamped my center piece then I screwed in the farthest slats, being careful to make sure I screw in the correct slats to the correct 2x3 that will allow the whole thing to collapse together.
Oh and I almost forgot, on the ends of the bigger box, I used some 1x3 instead of the 1x4 to try to reduce the difference in length between the two sides. In the REI version of the bed, this doesn't matter since they finish the whole thing with a folding piece of plywood on top that covers any gaps. In my version, I made the game time decision to forego the plywood in order to keep overall weight down. If anything, I can just make my shorter partner sleep on that side.
Finally, after a lot of measuring, cutting, and concepting, I had the rest of the slats how I wanted them. I also discovered by sheer chance that this bin happens to perfectly fit into the space underneath the smaller side of the bed. Oh yeah, that will do nicely.
Everything is all screwed together and the folding works like a dream! The only thing I didn't anticipate is that the smaller side tips inward when it's folded in (hence the C clamps in this picture). Oh well, maybe I will address that in future builds? Now, all that is left to do is to throw it in the Tahoe and test it out!
I came across this indoor/outdoor carpet at Costco for about $10 that just so happened to match my interior perfectly. I decided to lay it in the back to protect the original carpet and the middle seat backs from any stains and grime I was sure to encounter on my adventures. It almost fit perfectly but I cut out the sides just a bit to make fit around the back and lay flat. It also covered up all of the hardware from the removable third row seats which was nice. Did I mention my Tahoe can seat 9?
The bed is in and I honestly had to take a moment to admire my own handy work. It fit like Chevrolet had built it to be an optional part! My last modification was to put a couple of 4 inch bolts with washers and nuts through the front and back of the middle 2x3s. It just closed the small gap. seen here and ensures that bed stays open and stable no matter what.
Eager to test things out, I threw this Ikea futon mattress in the back. As I mentioned earlier, the back area is just a few inches thinner than a full size mattress so this bed is pretty squished in there. If it weren't squished, it would be totally flat on that right side instead of wavy looking. This isn't a major problem because I plan to get a 4 inch foam mattress and cut it to fit perfectly so I won't ruin my futon. At this stage, I also tested out putting my Metolius crashpad in the back and a 6 gallon water jug I plan to take when I head out on climbing trips. It's a perfect fit!
The last and most important certification I needed, the pup approval!
The final addition was this Thule Motion XT XL roof box I got from a friend of mine. I hadn't planned on having a cargo box like this in my original plans which is why I created space underneath the bed for storage but with this I'm thinking I will be able to take even longer expeditions. I also can fit quite a few snowboards up there in the winter or any amount of climbing gear in the summer. Should make for some good adventures!
At this point, I am excited to take her out on her first voyage and test out my custom sleeping quarters. Personally, I don't think I will need much more than this for the long weekend trips to the crag or multi-day road-trips that I plan on taking this year. I never intended to build something like a Sprinter van to live in for months at a time but I did want something I could sleep in comfortably while traveling and exploring and I think this fits the bill. Even though I just finished the main project, I am already dreaming of some upgrades and changes I want to make for the future which I will definitely continue to share on here. Thanks for reading!