Great Minivan Conversion for Camping and Shuttle Car

Updated: Sep 21, 2020

How to make a good shuttle car even better. Adding comfort, convenience, safety and performance.

Jim Olver‎, May 18, 2018, Here is our canoe and gear for the 7 day paddle on the Green River from Mineral Bottom to the Confluence with the Colorado River. We packed 120 litres of fresh water.

We all have a vision of the perfect shuttle and camping car, but reality often gets in the way. We make compromises, giving up one feature to enable a second more important feature. Foregoing 4-wheel drive to gain lower start up cost and better gas mileage, for example.

For many of us, the first compromise we make is with our spouse and kids and the needs of our family lifestyle. My need for a shuttle care is secondary to our need for commuting and family hauling. The winner in that category is the minivan. With a few improvements, the family minivan can become an almost ideal shuttle and camping car.

There are half a dozen manufacturers producing fine minivans, but there are some things to watch out for. First, get a minivan with second and third row seats that fold into the floor to create an open cargo space. Next, make sure you can install roof racks on the minivan, and a trailer hitch, if you ever envision pulling a canoe/kayak trailer, or even towing a small camper trailer.

When its just the two of us we can carry all our gear in the back, along with a folding cot for two, a porta potty and a camp stove. We can go for overnighters or weekenders, even in foul weather that would make tent or hammock camping uncomfortable.

My choice is the Dodge Grand Caravan with Sto ´n Go seats. Other options are Chrysler Pacifica, Kia Sedona, Toyota Sienna and Honda Odyssey. Just be sure the seats disappear completely into the floor without leaving framing or tracks to interfere with your camping set up.

I've had some memorable trips in my Dodge Caravan shuttle car. One time I remember a snug camp alongside the James River near Buchanan, Virginia in a pouring rain, thankful I didn't have to set up my tent. Another fun trip was to the Canoecopia weekend, the world's largest paddlesports show, produced by Rutabaga Paddlesports at the Alliant Energy Center in Madison, Wisconsin. I spent the weekend happily camping in the parking lot a hundred yards from the front door while my friends were paying top dollar for hotel rooms and commuting half an hour away across town.

The first thing I think about when converting a minivan to a mini-camper is sleeping. I am addicted to comfortable sleep. Its very easy to make a bed in the back of a van. Just buy a quality sheet of 4x8x1/4 plywood and cut it to about 46¨ x 76¨. Then cut it in half crossways, and install a piano hinge to join the two pieces together. Folded in half it is very easy to take it out of the car and store it in the garage. Round the corners and smooth the edges so they don't abrade the air mattress.

Buy 6 plastic bins, (milk crates work fine, but sealable clear plastic bins are better) that are about 22.5 x 16 x 12.75. Place one at each corner and two in the middle for the bed foundation, then lay the plywood on top to form the bed platform. When you need a bin just lift up the bed a little bit and slide the bin out.

These bins are clear so you can see what is inside, and have seals to keep out air and moisture. They are stackable for storing in the garage.

Typical van bed layout from

When I am traveling alone I just use my Big Agnes insulated air core ultra air mattress and Fish Hawk 30º down sleeping bag. When we travel together we use a double air mattress measuring 79¨x47¨x3¨ and either individual sleeping bags that join together to make a double, or our Big Agnes Dream Island Double. Very comfortable for the two of us.

This platform is high enough we can sit on it while dressing, and high enough to slide the cook stove and porta potty and 2-gallon water jugs underneath when not in use.

When we have passengers we can fold back the front half of the platform to make room to raise the two center seats into position. Hold everything in place with bungee cords to the floor tracks.

A shuttle car needs roof racks. Be sure your minivan has the tracks installed so you can add the Yakima roof racks and any of the attachments you need for Hully Rollers, Canoe and kayak loading bars, kayak saddles, and whatever else you need. Yakima makes a complete line of canoe and kayak hauling racks and attachments.

A lot of our shuttles and car camping adventures take us far into the backcountry where its not easy to get help with a flat tire or dead battery. An ingenious power supply can solve the problem.

Not much bigger than a typical car battery the power supply can inflate a tire, jump start your battery, charge your USB electronics and power 12 volt appliances such as fan or mini-fridge. Rather than run down your car battery when you are boon docking you can use the power supply, then recharge it the next day from your car battery while you are driving, or recharge it later at home or in a campground with 120 volt electricity.

If you are planning on pulling a canoe and kayak trailer you will need to add a heavy duty trailer hitch and brake controller kit. This trailer hitch has a towing capacity of 3500 pounds to match the towing capacity of the Dodge Grand Caravan. With the addition of the trailer brake controller kit you can tow a kayak or cargo trailer or a lightweight travel trailer that is equipped with electric brakes.

A very useful addition to the minivan mini-camper is an awning that can fit either over the rear door or the side door.

The panel on left can be used to block rain or sun and offer privacy

The awning offers sun and rain protection for outdoor cooking, eating and lounging.

Adding window screens and privacy shades, portable heater or fan, and other refinements can turn your minivan into a comfortable, safe, efficient mini-camper for overnights and weekends. There are many adventurous souls actually living full time or part time in minivans, and dozens of videos on You Tube can give you even more ideas on how to live the good life on a budget.

For mud, snow and ice seasons add a tow strap

and the strap on trac-grabbers that fit on your wheels and help you get un-stuck.

Andy Lee is the author of Five Hundred Miles to the Sea, Adventure Canoe and Kayak Camping Book 1 and administrator of the Facebook group Adventure Canoe and Kayak Camping.

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