During our time in New Hampshire over Christmas, Rebecca and I went back and forth quite a few times about how we wanted to travel this year. We had originally been planning on taking the camper, but during our Appalachian Adventure we discovered that regular camper towing was just not always super fun, and decided to give extended #vanlife a shot.
I began researching a number of different vehicles, everything from Chevy Astros (gotta love that AWD!) to 12 and 15 passenger vans (after truck camping, they seemed so spacious!). We even looked at some really cool little Toyota RVs that were only about 20 feet long. However, everything in each category was either A) too expensive, B) rusted out (thanks, New England winters!), or C) more of a project than we were looking to take on.
So eventually, we decided to use our trusty Tahoe for 2017 — and I decided to reconfigure our entire camping system. In January ’16, I had built our first camping platform in the back of the truck, and it worked GREAT. We camped all over Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and Oklahoma, and then used it over the summer in Virginia and West Virginia.
It was great — it let us use our rears seats when we needed, it stored a ton of our camping gear, had special areas for our camp chairs and food, and it even boasted a slide-out table! We loved it and used it to death.
However, as we traveled, we realized that as organized as we felt, there were still a number of things that we still didn’t have a dedicated place for — things that were constantly rolling around on the floor and being generally annoying. So when we decided to go for a full 9-10 months camping in the truck in 2017, I realized we’d really want some increased functionality and storage. My motto on this new build quickly became “a place for everything, and everything in its place.”
To accomplish that, I needed to free up every inch of available space. So after I finished giving Franklin the Tahoe his well-deserved makeover of cleaning, repairs, and improvements, I pulled out the middle seats. Already there was a ton more space!
I was trying to be as resourceful and thrifty as possible, so my brother-in-law Jay (who helped me every step of the way as we got the truck ready for 2017) and I pulled apart the first build, and were able to reuse almost all of both the lumber and the hardware.
Just like last year, I drew up pretty extensive plans, and we started to rebuild based on them. Since I didn’t have the living space of a van, I decided to try to make the interior of the truck as multi-functional as possible this time around. For this build, that meant designing a modular couch/bed platform with storage underneath the entire thing. I had grand visions of us parked out in the desert, platform in couch mode, working away on our computers in home-like comfort, sipping lemonade and occasionally looking deep into each other’s eyes with that peaceful, we’ve-finally-arrived way that Hollywood keeps promising me if I follow my heart and just believe ;-D
The platform actually came together pretty quickly, and my experience building the first version really helped as I hinged and mounted and supported and braced everything together.
And pretty soon we were ready for a dry-fit! I basically designed it to be 78 inches long (a 6 inch increase over the last build), divided into 3 26-inch panels. The front one would be removable to make legroom when in couch mode, and the back two I hinged to access the storage beneath them.
I took the indoor/outdoor carpet we’d removed from the top of the previous build, and put it underneath the new build to protect the floor underneath. It also seemed to be an easier way to clean–I can pull out the carpet and shake it out whenever I need to, no vacuum necessary!
The front part of the front panel sits on top of two supports behind the front seats, and the rear of the panel sits on on the front of the platform, held in place by several dowels that it nestles down onto.
When it’s all laid out, it’s very spacious!
I gave it the weight test, and was very happy with the results.
Confident that it fit, we pulled it out, sanded it, and got to painting. I had spent a ton of time applying multiple coats of stain and poly to the first build, but this time, it was 15 degrees out, and I was cold and impatient. So instead of all that loving care, the Mach II got 2 coats of Rustoleum spray paint. It looks just fine, and matches the interior of the truck nearly perfectly.
Couch mode activated!
Another change we had decided to make after using the first build was that we wanted to upgrade from backpacking air mattresses (though we love our Thermarests!) to a sturdy foam mattress. We had been fine during 4-6 week trips with the air mattresses, but since we are going to be travelling consistently over such a long period of time, we wanted to be as comfortable as possible. The foam we’d gotten for the couch in our camper has been very comfortable and worn very well, so we went back to The Foam Factory and got a queen-size cut of 4-inch thick foam.
I measured it all out (protip: it is NOT perfectly square when it arrives), and cut it down to size using an electric bread knife. If you ever do this, make sure you get one as well — I’d tried previously with both a razor blade and a circular saw, and those were both utter hack jobs. This time, however, it came out rather nicely.
We really wanted the truck to be adventurous looking, and bright and vibrant, and we spent a lot of time both in Joann Fabrics and Hobby Lobby trying to find the perfect fabric for our cushions. Finally we found a crazy, loud, Aztec-style fabric that we both loved, and Rebecca put her secret seamstress skills to work upholstering our new bed cushions!
The other thing we wanted to do differently this time was to cut more Reflectix for the front windshield and front side windows. On the last few trips, we’d hung curtains right behind the front seats, and while we still have that option, we wanted to have easier access to the front seat at night, and also for the whole space to feel roomier. By getting rid of the curtains, and covering the window, it feels significantly more open when we’re inside at night.
We also wanted the Reflectix to look a little nicer from the inside — if you woke up in the night in the truck and turned on a flashlight, the inside lit up like noonday. So, we bought some inexpensive felt, and I used a heavy duty 3M adhesive spray to attach the felt to the Reflectix. So far, it’s held great, and the inside of the truck is much darker and cozier when we set up at night!
Finally, with all those projects done (and a few more I’ll be writing about soon), we were able to assemble everything! And let me tell you — we LOVE the final product.
As you can see, our cushions came out great, and are super fun to look at! They also happen to be a perfect mixture of firm and comfortable, so we’re very happy with them. I’ll show the shelves more in detail soon, but for now, I’ll just tell you that we really needed a space for our books, glasses, and other nighttime loose items, and these have been the perfect solution.
We also have the option to switch to couch mode! The rear panel swivels up, the supports pop into place, and we have a very comfortable place to read, work, eat, or even watch a movie! We’re excited to discover all the different ways we use our couch this year all over North America.
When the platform is in couch mode, there is a tremendous amount of legroom, adding to the comfort level. I’m 6 foot, and when I’m sitting on the couch, I can’t even touch the front seats with my feet. To protect the floorspace there, I covered the carpet with two trimmable cargo floor mats from Walmart. They make cleaning that floor area super easy — you can sweep it or wipe it with paper towels, no vacuum needed!
And obviously, this platform was created for storage — and there’s a ton of it. When the platform is in bed mode, the entire floor area underneath the front panel is wide open for storage: lately, that’s where we’ve been keeping our duffel bags and extra shoes so they’re nice and handy as we jump from house to house, visiting our way south.
The back two platform panels are hinged, and open to display a tremendous amount of storage space under them.
In the very back, the couch back supports also serve to keep the panel from falling on you when you’re digging out fresh pants! 😀
Below, you can get a better view of how I bolted the couch supports in place, ready to swivel up and brace the couch back when needed. There’s also another hinge at the bottom right of the picture that shows where that part of the 2×6 frame can be swung in toward the middle of the truck to allow access to the jack panel. As we found out in Big Bend last year, that jack can come in handy!
All in all, we are very, very happy with how the new platform came together, and very excited to use it this year as we explore the western US all the way up to Alaska! We love our adventure rig — here’s to getting another 100K miles out of Franklin the Tahoe, and sleeping comfortably the whole way!