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Converting an Astro Mini-Van

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I’m doing a series of posts on living and traveling in vans and other tiny places, and an Astro mini-van qualifies as a tiny space! As small as it is, it has a higher roof than most mini-vans which gives you a lot of potential vertical space. This is a bed and shelf-unit I built for a dear friend of mine name Katie to use that space. It turned out so well, I’m going to give you directions here on how to replicate it. This basic unit would work on nearly every van–you would simply change the lengths and heights to fit your van.

First I built the bed and the tall shelf unit filled the rest of the space between the bed and the drivers seat.

Because every van is different I can’t give you dimensions. I built the bed first and the tall shelf unit filled the rest of the space between the bed and the drivers seat. You can do the same with any van whatever it’s length.

There are two parts of the unit. Directly behind the driver’s seat is a shelf unit that reaches all the way up to the ceiling. We spaced the shelves to fit the exact items she wanted to put in them. Behind the shelves is a bed that is 72 inches long and 26 inches wide. She liked everything about it, but after living with the bed for a while, she decided it needed to be wider. I personally think 30 inches is the minimum width for a bed. I built the bed the size she wanted, and then put that in the van and closed the door. When I was sure that the bed cleared all obstructions I measured the space between the bed and driver’s seat and built the shelves to fit there. If your van is longer, you will have bigger shelves. A possibility that didn’t work in the Astro, but would in a bigger van, was to build a second shelf unit at the foot of the bed and run a shelf  below the roof between the two shelf units like an overhead cabinet. If you do that, you’ll want to use 3/4 inch plywood for strength.
I added plywood gussets to the legs that went against the wall. I didn’t add them to the front and back or they would have interfered with getting things in-and-out from under the bed. We measured the height of the tallest thing she wanted to put under the bed and made the legs that high, 19 inches, so she could get the maximum amount under the bed. That was a mistake because the bed was so tall she hit her head every time she sat up in it! She had to change that later by cutting the legs down.
Making the bed couldn’t be any easier. Cut two 2X4’s to 72 inches long. Then cut 6 2X4’s that are 19 inches long (adjust this for your siting height and the height of your van)  for the legs. Using 3 inch screws, attach the legs to each end and in the middle. Cut and attach the gussets out of 5/8 plywood. We cut the 72 by 26 inch bed top out of 5/8 plywood. When we put the bed frame in the van we found that the wheel well wouldn’t allow the legs to go back flush against the wall, so the plywood overhangs the back legs by a few inches. Once I was sure how everything fit, I screwed down the bed top. All the plywood was attached with 1 5/8 inch screws. The bed is extremely strong, it will never fail.
The front legs are attached to the plywood shelf unit, so it is very strong. To add strength to the back legs, I cut out an upside-down U shaped gasket and screwed that into the end legs, making sure the drawers would fit under it, seen in the above picture. Notice that the bed is in the middle of the van and actually hanging out over the end of the van. Once the bed was finished, we pushed it out there and built the shelf unit right on the front end of the bed. That gave us room to work all around the shelf unit.  Once it was done, we slid it into its permanent home.
Wotput some additional support, the legs could bend under the bed, the gussets keep them straight up and down.

Without some additional support, the legs could bend under the bed, the gussets keep them straight up and down.

The following picture shows how I had to cut the sides of the shelf unit to fit the curve of the van’s roof. I measured the height of roof in the front, middle, and back wall of the shelf unit and cut it to conform to curve of the wall. I didn’t have a jigsaw so it’s not round.
Katie didn’t want it to interfere with her ability to get into the back of the van from the front seats, so we sized it the width of the front seat. We used 5/8 plywood for the shelf unit but if I had to do it over again I would use 3/4 inch plywood. The shelves rest on strips of 5/8 plywood. Just like the legs of the bed,  Katie decided what she wanted to put on the shelves and we sized them to fit. Eventually she will get rid of the bottom shelf. Above it is a slide-out shelf her butane stove sits on (see picture below).  I made a mistake here and the bottom shelf support has to go all the way out to the end of the plywood to support the slide-out. Above the slide out sits Katie’s insulated water container which is tall so it is a high shelf. The shelves are 14 inches wide and 16 inches deep. Of course you will fit them to your van.
Katie wanted easy access to her butane stove, so we built this slide-out. If she had a propane stove the shelf would have needed to be taller to allow room for the arm that holds the green propane bottle. She reports she loves it and uses her stove more. In fact her whole life as a vandweller was revolutionized by the organization the unit provided because the shelves gave her a place to put things. Before she had them, she had to shuffle things around every morning and night but now she’s able to organize and put things away where they belong.
In the photo below you can see the finished unit. It gives her a huge amount of storage space and organization. After she lived with the unit for a while, she discovered a problem. The bed was too high, she hit her head every time she got in and out of bed. So she cut the legs down and used a wider piece of plywood so the bed would be both wider and lower. To keep things from sliding around on the shelves, she laid down red drawer liners on the shelves. For double security, just in case, she also placed bungie cords across the shelves to make sure that nothing will go flying. The Sterilite drawers under the bed was an especially good idea, giving her lots of organization.

An important lesson we learned was to make sure the bed is wide enough to sleep comfortably and low enough so you don’t hit your head all the time!!

This is really a very inexpensive build. We bought two sheets of 5/8 plywood, 1/2 pound of 3 inch screws, and 1/2 pound of 1 5/8 inch screws, and four 2X4s. I used my Ryobi cordless 18 volt power tools from Home Depot for this and many other projects. Very highly recommended!
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  1. Calvin R (still waiting in Ohio)

    Thoughtful and inspiring. I noticed that you learned from the experience without getting too upset.

    • Bob

      Calvin, I’ve made so many mistakes I learned long ago to take them into stride!!

  2. Linda Sand

    Now I’m thinking about how I measure my own height when sitting up. It would be easier if I could sit on the floor up against a wall. Maybe not; may be easier to sit in a chair and measure from the seat up? Hmmm.

    • Lucy

      Bob, what is the average roof-high for vans ?

      • Bob

        Lucy, they are all so different I couldn’t even begin to make a guess. My 2001 Chevy Express is about 54 inches so I’d guess that’s typical of full-size vans. Mini-vans vary much more and will all be shorter.

    • Bob

      Linda, I would think that siting in a natural position would give you a more accurate measurement. Be sure to take into account the size of your mattress as well!

  3. Ming

    nice build! I do like that about doing your own, it’s easy to change it to fit better, and you don’t feel like you can’t touch the thing for fear of breaking something. Downside is the amount of work and time it takes.

    • Bob

      Ming, yeah it does mean you have to have some basic skills and tools, plus the time. This took me a morning and an afternoon after we got the supplies.

      • Ming

        yes, when I was learning to build things, my mantra was ‘nothing is ever easy’, as things took sooo long to get right.
        Now it’s ‘that’s good enough for now’, because you will want to adjust things after using them anyways. 🙂

        • Bob

          Ming, you and I think exactly alike!

  4. tommy helms

    I always liked this setup

    • Bob

      Tommy, you must have noticed this is a repeat of a post from 3 years ago. You are a long time reader–and have a good memory!

  5. Pat

    I like this alot but am wondering if the photo is showing the bed before or after it had to be lowered because if before, then those double drawers underneath probably had to be replaced.

    • Bob

      Pat, yes, the photos were before so they had to be replaced. She switched to milk crates that just slide in and out.

  6. Rob

    Great write up Bob, as close to detailed instructions as one could hope for in a world where everyone’s van is different.
    About the propane stove & the metal tube that attaches to the bottle.
    I’ve seen (at flea markets) older stoves with a rubber hose instead of the metal tube, has anyone converted the metal tube to a rubber hose? The flexability of a hose over a tube would be a great help.
    When I remember I’ll have to go into a propane ‘shop’ and ask if they could do it.

    • Bob

      Rob, I’ve seen stoves that came with a hose instead of the metal arm, but I’ve been looking for one and not been able to find it. If you do, let me know!

  7. Rob

    Another stove question… At the RTR someone had a butane cartridge stove that was dual fuel. It had a hose that fit the stove & the other end hooked up to the butane can or a propane can.
    The stove is great but butane is very spendy some places, I saw $5 for an 8oz can at one place.
    Anyway I don’t recall the name of the stove & have had zero luck finding the dual fuel hose.
    Has anyone ever seen the dual fuel hose?

    • Bob

      Rob, it wasn’t the hose, it was the whole stove, and it was made my Coleman. Unfortunately, they have stopped making them so I don’t think it’s an option anymore.

    • Ming

      it may depend on what kind of butane stove you are talking about. If your stove uses backpacking type fuel bottles, you can buy something called the Kovea lp adapter connector, it lets you connect the stove to a propane bottle. I found the website ‘Adventures in Stoving’ very useful for info on this.
      My current stove is the MSR Universal, which burns Coleman fuel or camping butane canisters. I bought connectors online that allow me to connect the stove to the cheap Asian butane bottles or propane bottles.
      For an extra burner or to cook in the truck canopy, I use a home made alcohol burning stove. Come hell or high water, I will be able to find fuel for hot food!

      • Bob

        Ming, that sounds like the perfect setup!


    For any stove, I would surely get an adapter to run it from a refillable tank. Our one-gallon tank costs $2.00 to fill and will last as long as twenty(!) of those little goofy one-pound tanks which are four and five bucks apiece! The “disposable” tanks can also be DIY re-filled (there are YouTube videos of the process) but seems to me more trouble than it’s worth. I know it’s “illegal” to carry any propane tank inside a vehicle except the “disposable” ones and yet one can legally carry any number (20?) of the one-pound tanks — makes no sense to me . . . would be a risk I’d be willing to take. We haul our little one-gallon tank (used for our Wave 6 Catalytic Safety Heater) inside our little house all the time = no problems. If one is a legal beagal beyond reform, I’m sure a small bracket could be found (or fabricated) to haul it outside on the rear bumper.

    • Bob

      Jim, actually he has a 1 gallon tank and a hose to run his Little Buddy. Just cooking burns so little propane he uses the green bottles for it. I use my stove for both cooking and heating so I have mine connected to a 2 1/2 gallon bottle.
      I don’t think it’s illegal to carry the refillable 20 pound bottle inside the vehicle, I think it’s only illegal to have it hooked up and turned on while driving. Otherwise, how would anybody take the bottle from their barbecue to get it refilled?

  9. richard smith

    Linda Sand, try the Helinox backpack chair. There was a pictures of one in a post or two back. I also have one it works very well. Wish everyone safe travels.

    • Bob

      I agree Richard, the Helinox is a great choice.

    • Erik Boxell

      I bought that model chair and it lasted about one month with everyday use. Very disappointed. $100.00. I felt like a chump.

      • Bob

        Erik, they look super cool, but fragile. I think they are intended for infrequent use.

        • Ming

          YMMV, I bough a similar chair called the Monarch when it first came out years ago and use it often. It’s starting to get a little worn on the fabric and I cracked a strut once when I sat on it without connecting the pole properly, but that was easily fixed with a replacement tent pole. Then again, I’m pretty small and light so I put only modest demands on it.

          • Bob

            Glad to hear it’s working so well for you Ming.

  10. Steve

    Once again, some great information and easy to do directions. Pretty amazing all of that fit in a smaller area of the Astro van.

    • Bob

      Steve it was a great setup, I’d recommend it.

  11. Eddie

    Thank you Bob for putting this info up. Have enjoyed the read. I like to tinker and build and found the info engaging. Sadly, health circumstances will prevent me from joining you out on the road but I did want you to know that I still enjoyed this.

    • Bob

      Eddie since you can’t join us, I’m glad you can travel along with us vicariously! The internet really is a godsend for a lot of people.

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