A few friends of mine have bed platforms and other forms of mobile living setups. This will be the third summer I have spent traveling, and I knew I wanted a better setup this time around. I started watching YouTube videos to see what others had done, and when I saw Kennedy Carey’s setup, I knew that was what I wanted. I was attracted to the speed, agility and gas mileage of an SUV, but with a bed and a pull out kitchen.
Here I’ll share my journey so far - where I started, and how my setup has evolved over the summer.
My first step was to purchase a vehicle. The Rav4 and CR-V have very similar stats, so at first I was open to getting either one. Then while shopping I discovered that the Rav4 had a V6 model from 2009-2012 which increases the horsepower from 180 to 260. That was a clear win for me. The sport model also has a tighter suspension for good on-road performance. Well, I regret a little bit now not having a 4WD or AWD model, but you can’t have everything. I saw a 2009 V6 pop up on offer up, and it was from a dealer. The last private seller had flaked out on me, so I figured at least a dealer would be quick to respond. I test drove the car, everything felt right about it, so I made the purchase. Finding a bank that was open in order to get the cashier’s check was more difficult, because 3/4 of the locations were closed down due to Covid.
Once I got the vehicle home, I started planning my bed platform. I took the seats out, and I propped up a 2x4 with some books to make sure I was level, and visually test the desired level of the bed platform. The determining factor was the pull out drawer. Because the spare tire is on the back of this model of Rav4, there is an open storage space in the rear of the vehicle. I figured I could put my cooler on one side, and wondered if a propane tank would fit underneath the pull out stove drawer. I found the manchester 12.5" propane tank which would fit upright, and allow for a 7" drawer which was enough space for my stove and cooking pans. The drawer ended up being 34" long, and I ordered some drawer runners off Amazon to mount it.
So with my desired height measured, I bought 2x4s and a sheet of plywood. I had the plywood cut to length and width at the store, so it fit inside for the haul home. At home I cut the 2x4s and assembled them with carriage bolts. For this first pass, I did a static length - no headboard extension. The seats could go back enough to allow for driving, but it was a balance between that and bed length. No drawer yet, either. Having completed this frame, I took the car on a weekend trip, testing the platform. The bed space felt usable, and I liked the amount of under-bed storage, so it seemed like a “yes”. A few weeks later I headed out with everything packed that I would need for summer, not intending to come back to Scottsdale until September.
After visiting a friend in San Rafael, then traveling up the coast, I came to Boise where my dad lives and has a good size shop that he had offered to let me use. This is where I would finish the build out. By the time I got to Boise the 2x4 construction was bowing and nearly falling apart, so it was about time to commit to something more serious. My dad and I sketched out a couple of options, in wood and in metal. We talked about joint construction, dimensions, materials, fasteners. I ended up deciding to build the frame out of steel. My primary considerations were minimizing the weight and bulkiness of the supporting structure - I didn’t have a lot of leeway if I wanted to fit the drawer, my cooler, and my storage bins. Also I’m more confident working with steel than with wood, and knew I could complete most of the construction unsupervised.
I came up with a design in steel that was modular, and minimized construction complexity. The platform would bolt into the frame of the car, so it should be very stable. The first component that I built was the box that would hold the drawer. This was most critical to get right - once the dimensions of the drawer were in place it would be impossible to adjust, but the rest of the support structure was less complicated and easier to adapt. As it turned out, not much adaptation was necessary. The final product was pretty close to my initial measurements. One thing I did end up changing was to simplify the front legs - once I had built the back portion and saw how stable it was, I opted for a large cut of plywood in the center which would have legs and a cross beam just at the front. Having this stable center piece bolted into the car makes the bed feel really nice to be on.
When I had completed the metal box to house the drawer, my dad helped out building the drawer out of wood. This required finger joints, and he has more experience with that kind of wood working.
With this phase of construction complete, I went on the road for a few more weeks to test it out. Coming back to Boise, I completed the cooking setup by building a platform for the stove, notching out the side of the drawer so the stove could open, and cutting an opening in the back of the drawer for the propane hose. A piece of cardboard also was inserted to act as a guide for the hose, so it slides seemlessly over the top of the tank as the drawer opens and closes.
A few notes on propane safety. It was important to buy a tank that could be set upright, as the safety vent is on the top of the tank and if it ever does vent you don’t want it to shoot out liquid. Having a tank in an enclosed space like this will not be condoned by any dealer. Please don’t do this unless you are willing to take full responsibility for your safety. I did this for convenience and to avoid wasting lots of disposable propane tanks, but I’m aware I’m running a risk. I bought a propane sensor which I keep at the foot of the tank and plugged into a dedicated battery bank. My contingency plan if a leak were ever detected is to put the tank in my overhead cargo container until I can dispose of it and get a new one. The tank is also in the coolest place in the car, so a venting scenario seems unlikely.
For charging my laptop and other devices I bought a Rockpals 500W battery. My laptop charger has a 220W input requirement, and I wanted something with a pure sine wave. I didn’t have confidence that a car inverter or the Dewalt line of power stations wouldn’t fry my laptop. I found out there are a lot of options to choose from! I ended up selecting the Rockpal for its builtin MPPT controller, and I bought a 100W Rich Solar panel after watching these reviews. One thing to note about the Rockpals 500W - unlike the 300W it does not support pass through charging. I assumed from watching the review of the 300W that the 500W would only have more features and be better all around. I didn’t find this out until I had the device in my hands and tried to charge my laptop while receiving solar input. No bueno. I thought this was going to be a major issue for me. In practice, 1) my laptop battery is pretty good to coast while the Rockpal is charging, 2) my laptop charges really fast, maybe 20 min to 80% so it’s not a long disruption from taking solar, 3) the Rockpal also charges from the alternator, 4) the Rockpal has a good size energy bank, usually enough to make it through to the next charge cycle. So in practice I’ve found this setup workable for me. One other note - I recommend buying a cigarette lighter extension cable (yes these exist) as the car charge cable for the Rockpal is only 2 feet long.
Another addition to the setup was a shade structure. This is really crucial in many locations - if you’re not able to pull up right under some trees then you’ll need to provide your own shade. I also considered buying a Nemo 9x9 structure which would have the additional advantage of a bug net, but the simple shade structure seemed more versatile. Sun and rain are the two major conditions that warrant this. In either case, you’re going to have a miserable time cooking and eating without a structure. Eating a Cliff Bar in my front seat as I watched the rain pour down instilled this bit of wisdom in me. One disadvantage to the structure is 15 minutes or so setup time. It just takes this to get it out, pound the stakes and set the lines. I’m also disadvantaged by not having a hatchback - this would be immediate sheltered cooking. Keep this in mind as you’re buying your vehicle.
I bought a Sears Sport 20-SV cargo bin for the top of the car. This was absolutely essential. I took way too much crap with me, and once I bought this I just threw it all up there and got back on the road. I spent two weeks looking for a cargo carrier. None of the stores carry them in stock, and I wasn’t staying anywhere long enough to have one shipped. Finally found one on craigslist for $85 and picked it up that day. Win.
Other miscelaneous items… A hatchet helps dig latrine, pound tent stakes, and split firewood. And I feel a little bit less afraid of foxes and coyotes. Those little solar yard lamps add a nice touch on dark nights, and again give you a little more awareness if there are critters skulking about. Plastic bins can be stacked to make a table. I use a laptop stand like this one as a free standing table, which I can use in tandem with a camp chair. It’s not bad for typing blog posts in the forest. I was sleeping at first with a blanket and some sheets - I found that these take up a lot of space and don’t provide as much warmth as a sleeping bag. I brought too many pillows on this trip. I thought I would lay on them, sit on them… they’re just taking up space.
Water - if you camp by a creek, and you have a filter, you have an infinite supply of water. I carry extra bottles so I can stock up, and if I end up staying in a place without water available then I can last a few days. Tea - I bought a JetBoil. They have all these different models that cost more. I just got the basic one which seemed the best value. This means I have to carry separate fuel for it… but it boils water so dang fast! And it gives me a separate pipeline - I can do that while my stove is occupied. And I suppose it is a backup system just in case.
Drawbacks - There’s definitely some sacrifice involved with an SUV versus a camper van. This is a one person setup. If I had a travel companion I’d want a van. Even with one person, energy goes into setup/teardown for: 1) the shade structure, 2) moving the bed out of the way for cooking prep space, 3) washing dishes, 4) moving the seats forward for the headboard extension for sleeping. I’m finding if I’m just pulling off the road to take a nap, maybe the headboard isn’t worth it. And I’m looking out for a way to get more table space while preparing meals.
Overall I’m happy, and I love my setup both on the road and camped out somewhere. It’s been a huge learning experience living this way. It makes me much more aware of the footprint of my living requirements. One begins to understand why the ascetic monk will eliminate any unncessary baggage. What you thought would be providing you service, ends up being one more thing that you have to maintain and be mindful of. Charge the [phone, laptop, battery bank]. Move the solar panel. Setup. Teardown. Cook, eat, wash, brush your teeth. Dig a hole and poop in it. Everything takes more energy when you’re nomadic. Really makes me appreciate what a house allows for - giving so much time back and letting us focus our energy outward.