Bed. It must be your favourite place in the world or else we think you’ve got your priorities all wrong. It definitely is ours and just because we choose to sleep in a van doesn’t mean we can’t have the same level of comfort we would enjoy from any other bed, with a little planning and a little preparation….
Our living space is about 70% bed. And the percentage of time we spend in, on or near that bed can be even higher, depending on our moods and more frequently dictated by the foulness of the Irish weather. Personally, I’m a night owl and prefer to sleep until 10 or 11am, especially when there is no special coffee-at-dawn planned or no forseeable reason to rise early. William is slowly recovering from a lifetime of the antisocial hours of a baker. In the van, our habits, patterns and routines change with the season and we fine-tune our Circadian rhythm and begin waking up with the rising sun every morning. Or we just wake up late and decide to spend the whole day in bed. Having nowhere important to be is good for that!
Dixies bed waits width ways across the back of the van and makes a comfortable queen sized nest, long enough for us to stretch out (William is 6ft 1′) or snuggle together. The colder months we sleep (or hibernate) curled up, sharing three hot water bottles and every possible pulse of body heat between us. The frame is fabricated blue steel and it is sturdy, it is solid, nothing is going to break this thing. Trust me, William has a habit of obliterating ordinary housebeds and reducing wooden mattress boxes to piles of splinters, but thats not what this blog is about. Not yet anyway 😉
A little door now folds out (thanks to five minutes with an angle grinder) to take the setup from two bench seats into a rarely-used but cosy and cushiony couch configuration…
…and once more into the nice big bed.
Bolted to the floor and sturdy as an iron gate, what the chunk of metal takes from us in payload (the frame must weigh heavy), it returns in sheer strength. No need to oil the rollers like some modern styles of camper beds, nor to mend or replace sagging, bent or broken slats on a wooden model. Wooden beds are much more lightweight and super-customizable but wood absorbs moisture, it does get chipped and it warps with time and with use. Proper ventilation is so important in a van to prevent mould, especially around the bedding, and wooden beds are often pierced with holes in the baseboard for increased airflow. This works, but by all accounts it might not for long, as the board loses strength and sturdiness. In our experience, camperbeds get more abuse than use and in the last 16 months we’ve kicked the blue paint off both the beds exposed legs. Occasionally things roll around under there accidentally too, heavy things, nevermind the two humans rolling heavily around on top 😉 I bet any kind of wooden bedframe would bear the scars of consequence a lot more visibly by now.
The back of a Fiat Ducato makes for a very small house and all space considered, we only have around 48 square foot to play with. That seems massive when the sun is shining, with all the doors and windows thrown open and the whole world as our back garden, but not so much when we’re hunkered down, waiting out a storm, being battered on all sides by the fierce wind and rain. It can sometimes feel stuffy and a little confined in here. If you travel as a couple, you’ll understand how much smaller that already tiny space can feel if there exists some unspoken tension in the air. In a normal house you can walk away, sit for a while in a different room and take time to cool down. Not so in a van. Loud body language like slamming doors or stropping off becomes impossible, there actually are no doors to slam (except of course the whoosh-bang slider door) and usually we don’t know entirely where we are to storm away from. Even the acoustics of slightly raised voices are exaggerated in a van, with the roof hanging so low and the walls so close and if you’re the type of person who likes to run to the couch and hide when relationship emotions are high, you can forget about it, the couch IS the bed and unfortunately, vice versa. There is no escape. Better off, we have learned, venting a little, going for a walk and eventually laughing whatever it was it off and reminding each other there is little room in here for actual baggage, nevermind the emotional kind.
A month into our vanlife we parked up overnight on a beautiful beach called Pensarn on the Welsh coast. A huge motorhome proceeded to join us, the spot was pretty tight and the vehicles pretty snug which wasn’t a problem until much later when our neighbours next door started to get pretty… boisterous. We felt as if we’d been invited right into their drunken argument, petty pointless insults flying from their flyscreened windows, doors made of thin plastic banging and flapping as one or the other stormed outside into the starry night to gather more insults to hurl in the next round. It was our first introduction to this phenomenon, lying in bed listening to strangers airing their secrets loudly outside while we try our best not to laugh. It could (and it did in that instance in Wales) go on for hours, overnight even, emotional outbursts from strangers happening right outside and us, shaking silently, choking back tears of laughter inside.
Our steel arrangement works three ways but we learned quickly that during the winter months, life is at its easiest with the bed made up permenantly. No more moving bulky foam mattresses about, no folding and unfolding blankets or tucking away the bedding, hiding an extra large duvet in such a tiny space every day is no mean feat. As the days get shorter so does our time spent outdoors, the fixed bed reduces hassle and we have learned how to keep it warm all day, just waiting for us to return.
A campervan bed is so much more than a bed. It is an office, a couch, a counter top and a kitchen table too. We eat, sleep and live on it. A lightweight table with telescopic legs was a fine purchase, sitting like a hopital tray over our laps or shared between us and in the absense of our old permanent table, it works. (A fixed table is a requirement for campervan certification here in Ireland and Dixie once had a large wooden board bolted to the back door. We found it too clumsy and virtually unusable and it came off quickly) This bed is subjected to all kinds of things you would never consider doing to a housebed. Who pours steaming hot custard desserts right over their duvet? Vanners like us do.
The best form of heat retention and regulation on your body is to use a number of layers and the same is true of the make up of the campervan bed. Layering eases the blanket burden during the warm months because as it gets gradually colder we can take one from under and add on top and repeat until we can barely breathe under the weight. Two huge yellow wool blankets cover the bed base first, then two single foam mattresses. We tested every material we own for the base layer here, even foam sleeping mats and the wool works best, it breathes, it never gets cold and no sign of any mould yet. Thus the nest building begins.
Almost all of our stuff lives under the bed in plastic totes and bags. Plastic boxes are excellent for fabric storage as damp won’t penetrate the box, your clothes wont stink of campfire smoke or any other van-smell and no mould will get to grow in there either. We don’t need overhead lockers taking up space on the walls (although there are some sleek storage ideas and cool, clever cupboards that glide open like an overhead locker on an airplane) because we don’t own enough things, besides, the space and the incredible view, completely unblocked by waredrobes, shelves or a bunch of stuff on hooks is ultimately more important to us. In the space verses storage game, space wins every time.
People always ask how we live in such close quarters without constant argument. “Don’t you want to kill each other?” We hear that question frequently. The truth is, no. We don’t want to kill each other, even after 16 months spent together in here. In vanlife we have almost nothing to fight about, we live quietly and peacefully and besides, neither of us is really the murdering kind.
Thats not to say that we don’t have our bad days just like everybody else, days when for some reason communication is poor or stunted and everything seems… kinda messy.
People also ask us, quite shamelessly to be honest, and so I thought it is time to address it, how on Earth do you ever get used to doing ‘bed-stuff’ in the back of a van, isn’t it cold, awkward, don’t you feel exposed? Do you really do ‘it’ in carparks, in forests, up mountains, on promenades by the sea? What about doggers, do you encounter them? Aren’t you afraid? Wow, thats a lot of weird questions you would never ask a houseperson. Our answer? Love (and other indoor sports) is an essential part of relationship life, whether you live in a house, a shed, a van or a rocketship. It is best enjoyed comfortably, best served at room temperature and best transacted safely (those bedframes I mentioned earlier didn’t smash themselves). Stick up some cheap LED strips for mood lighting (never light candles in a vehicle, ever!), play some romantic music and you might almost forget you’re in a van at all, if it wasn’t for the herd of boy-racers and their thumping drum and bass handbrake turns screeching up the tarmac nearby. Big birds bouncing on the roof, unseen and unidentifiable wildlife ruminating loudly, ducks, trucks, trains, rains… one cloudless night on the Norfolk Coast a man sat on the low wall right outside our window, whistling a weird repetitious half-tune. He stayed there whistling eerily for more than four hours before I eventually fell asleep and who knows how long after and I tripped through some creepy Twin Peaks nightmares thanks to the Whistling Man of Kings Lynn. These are the facts of vanlife we can’t control, the external forces, the sudden noises that make me jump almost out of my skin and that can put a definite damper on the mood. Doggers (Google if you need to) are humans too and we have crossed paths in some very isolated parkups, there are certain codes they employ to communicate through, flashing their lights in secret sequence although dogging is consensual, and legal, I don’t believe they are after any trouble. You can pinpoint their more populous stomping grounds online, to anxiously avoid or to enthusiastically attend, whatever you like, it is none of our business. Suffice to say, in relation to our overall safety in the van after dark, someone once banged on our wall at night. Once. In 16 months. Once.
As the bed is such a great multi-purpose surface, it also doubles as a great daytime dumping ground. If we don’t address the everyday mess on the bed as it happens, it can gather incredible momentum and suddenly the van is an absolute disaster. Unlike a room in a house we can’t just close the door and ignore it. Once, in a forest park in Wicklow, a little girl and her dad approached us as we sat on Dixies step drinking coffee. The girl, about 9, was completely amazed at our setup and fascinated at the idea of sleeping in a vehicle and she stared, wide-eyed and silent as we showed them around but our house was very untidy at the time, dinner had just been consumed and everything was messy, cluttered and dirty and I was so embarrassed, madly apologetic to the pair. Since then, we always make an effort to clean up before throwing open the doors and inviting the world inside. Sometimes our neighbours are of the aquatic variety and they sneak up behind us, gliding past silently, waving emphatically like old friends, spying on us through binoculars from their impossibly shiny white decks. They don’t need to see our disorganised mess either.
Storage is a huge factor to be considered in building a campervan bed and every persons needs are bound to be different. If we could change one thing about our setup it would be to raise the bed a few inches and give a little more height to the storage room below. We’ve seen some amazing home-built beds with little garages underneath for bikes and outdoor gear and sometimes, even clever cosy travelling kennels for dogs, but we would not build anything in a van any higher than the bottom of the back window, again the available light and that always incredible view are too important to block out.
Some campervan beds have drawers accessible only from outside the van. A boot jump style kitchen for use in good weather is a great thing but the reality of vanlife (in Ireland anyway) is you will need to access most of your stuff from inside the house during any inclement weather, especially the stove. Probably not the mountain bikes and rock climbing equipment you might carry but other than our few basic tools, we can’t think of anything else we could store in a less-than-accessible place. Aside from the BBQ, we don’t own anything that we don’t use regularly. Purposely.
Dixies basic bed frame allows us to empty her out and load her up with anything else we might require very easily. We’ve helped many people move house and carried everything from furniture and dishes to turf and washing machines. Dixie is the only vehicle we own. Why take up space with any fixed bed situation that constricts the vans future use?
Extreme patience is required when you live as a couple in a van, as is reliability, consistency and constant communication. Like a chef in a busy kitchen we must loudly announce our movements before they happen to avoid any physical accidents. William can’t get up without scrambling over me and when one of us is cooking in here the other is confined to a seating position. We have learned to pre-empt each others actions, to be much more careful but also to laugh about the inevitable spills, smashes and crashes. I have poured whole pots of coffee into my own lap and watched helplessly as just-served supper sandwiches slid slowly and sadly off their slanted plate and onto the scruffy lino. We have caused and witnessed so many water related mistakes, missteps and mishaps and once, the floor met a whole pint of milk, travelling at lightning liquid speed. No point crying over that, but the sickly sour smell lived on for weeks.
Back to the nest building. After a layer of memory foam, we dress the mattresses in a big sheet and add the luxurious services of a thick fleece blanket and an extra large duvet, the highest tog rating we could afford. Great big pillows are essential on any bed and we have one too many which doubles up as somewhere to hide our warmest pjs during the day (speaking of pjs, nothing says sexy like a thermal onesie, complete with balaclava. Try to achieve a comfortable temperature in your bed without resorting to full-on mumification) On the bleakest, shortest days of winter, when forced to move on, we stash a new hot water bottle in the pillow and strategically place it in the bed to keep everything toasty in our brief absence.
No matter what else you do in your bed besides sleep, everybody needs a bedside drawer or shelf to stow those essentials to keep yourself comfortable. Our setup currently (and infuriatingly) allows absolutely nothing for the unfortunate door-side sleeper (William) to keep his glasses and phone (and other miscellaneous man-stuff, I don’t know what nor do I want to) in so he uses a hanging fabric peg bag. Cheap, cheerful, washable and it works. We have a few of these pouches now, holding many items around the van for easy access, our flipflops and headlamps hang in one by the door, my bedside one holds my essentials too, a notebook and pen, tissues, Sudocreme, tools, condoms, all the usual top drawer stuff 😉
Now that the bed is ready, there are a few other things that help keep us comfortable at night. A warm rug underfoot and some comically fluffy socks ease the shock of ice cold lino in the morning. Very recently we picked up some free carpet and William cut a rough floor template, including strips for under the bed. Much warmer! Blackout blinds on the windows and door panes keep us stealthy and it is most important to keep a torch (or better yet, wire a lightswitch) very nearby in case of an emergency in the dead of night (’emergency’ here includes but is not limited to: routine trips to the toilet, having a policeman or security person visit unexpectedly or being gently reminded at 1am by the waves suddenly crashing off the back of the van to park further away from the sea immediately) If you like to sleep nude, may I suggest you invest in a good dressing gown, preferably long enough to cover your obscenities, and keep it hanging by the van door. The nice Gardaí on the Inishowen Peninsula (and the bemused copper outside London, and the self-important reservoir ranger in Lancashire and the angry night-time security guard at ASDA) are just being friendly and curious when they knock on your door, they don’t need to know everything about you.
Once in Ely, Cambridgeshire, long after pub closing time, two friends stopped and leaned on the van for over an hour, smoking cigarettes and chatting loudly and drunkenly while we listened on. Seems he was upset his ex girlfrend had been out that night, spreading rumours and blackening his name all around town. After listening to his story for about an hour, (can that be considered eavesdropping? We were in bed!) it took all the strength I had not to open the porthole window, lean out and give him some heartfelt advice. “Listen mate, it sounds to us like Katie still has some pretty strong feelings about you. You should talk to her, one on one and tell her its over and she needs to back off. Now, its four in the morning, why don’t you move along home so we can all get some sleep?”
As we like to park up in the most isolated of places, on rocky strips above empty beaches, on dead-end country laneways and random off-road locations, sometimes the camber (and the angles inside) are a little thrown off. This can be good for romance as gravity rolls us on top of each other suggestively, but its considerably bad for a decent nights sleep and more than once I have woken up sideways, clinging to the cold bedframe, the pillows and duvet in a soft pile below. Sometimes its too late when we notice the slight slant and sleep is already descending. We carry no levelers, chocks or blocks, preferring the occassional nocturnal negotiation with gravity to giving ourselves away so easily.
When building a camperbed, don’t underestimate the amount of time you will spend in there. If your vehicle is small, try to allow at least enough space to sit up comfortably. You don’t need to design and build a big bespoke wooden masterpiece of a sleeping surface in your van and you don’t need to spend a fortune installing some fancy branded pre-built system (handy of course if you carry passengers or need wrangle your offspring around safely, thankfully we don’t have that problem, contraception is much cheaper and easier to transport). A bed is just a sturdy shelf to rest yourself on. Some vanners sleep in hammocks, some on futons, some on blow up beds on the floor. The important thing is you are comfortable, whatever that looks like to you. And safe.
Boy racers usually have to give their mum her car back by midnight and so they generally clear off by 11:55pm. Doggers come and go, quite literally, and they leave us alone. By 2am, even on a weekend, most of our park ups are deserted but for Dixie, stealthing in some shadowy spot. Sometimes another van or motorhome will overnight nearby and occasionally we choose to stay at a more crowded place, joining a long neat row of vehicles facing the sea. These are without a doubt the liveliest of all parkups, we’re almost guaranteed to hear some interesting street theatre outside.
I have said enough about campervan beds (and far too much about sex) for now, but I will leave you with one last thought. I mentioned the acoustic amplification of an argument in a van earlier. If you are (or your relationship is) of the loud-and-shouty variety, and you like to park on sites or in convoy with other vans, you might consider investing in some quality interior soundproofing to maintain your privacy and save your innocent neighbours from the embarrassment of knowing every detail of your tiff. On the other hand, if everything is going great and romance is in the air, the doggers and boy racers long gone home, the lights low and the bed warm (and structurally sound of course), the balaclavas flung to the floor…well, try to keep it down, nobody needs to hear that racket either 😆💕