[Edit after writing this: it’s long-ish. Sorry not sorry.]
We’d been planning for a long time to start this trip in South America or Southeast Asia, but with this lovely 2020 pandemic that didn’t look feasible (at least to start our trip). Instead, we decided we’d travel in the US to start until we knew where we could go safely, and that we’d be allowed to cross the border.
To that end, our budget was not built for North America (let alone the US) so we had to get creative. After talking with some friends who decided to travel the states and work remotely this summer out of their car (also a RAV coincidentally, thanks for the idea goes to Ian and Brittany [and Pepper, elegantly pictured on their platform below]!) we thought this might be a solution for us.
At that point, we immediately jumped into online research mode to figure out where to start. Some examples that we saw had the platform low to the ground with minimal storage underneath, but we knew that wouldn’t work for us. Some had the platform as single piece (of plywood), whereas others had the platform built in sections. Some had the frame supports running front-to-back, others had them running laterally.
After much online research about building out SUVs with sleeping platforms (mostly YouTube videos), and over-analyzing the amount of space we needed (including the exact dimensions of the cooler we planned to buy so, you know, we could leave enough clearance underneath) we settled on a design. Our platform would include (3) sections with a single central section that was fixed to a frame and (2) sections attached via piano hinge. The back section would typically stay down but on a hinge and not fixed to the frame (to allow easier access to storage below), and the front section would typically stay folded back onto the top of the middle section, but fold out to full length with the front seats slid forward to sleep.
With a relatively loose plan in mind, we moved forward to the build phase during our week of remote work in Emily’s hometown of Binghamton, NY.
Joe (Emily’s dad) has just about every tool you could imagine, and a truck large enough to transport a full sheet of plywood, so it was a no brainer. Not to mention our basement apartment in DC doesn’t necessarily lend itself to a build like this.
We took some measurements of the car (with the back seats completely removed) to determine just how much clear space the RAV’s interior really offered; all tolled we can just about squeeze a full mattress in. From there, we headed to the hardware store to get our material. A key decision for our build was to use 2x3s for the frame in lieu of a typical 2×4. We felt this would give us an extra inch of space without sacrificing too much structure. For the platform we settled on 3/4” plywood, which would provide added support with only negligible added weight (as compared to 1/2”).
As you can see, Emily’s initial sketch for the platform itself had our plywood “notched” around the wheel wells in the back. This would have taken away some valuable space for us and created a less-than-flat platform for the mattress (4” foam, thanks Sanzi). Once we factored in the clear space we wanted beneath the plywood (15.5”, to accommodate a 15” tall cooler), however, we realized that the bottom of our frame would actually be above the wheel wells. This allowed us to use a full 48” sheet of plywood without cutting it or notching it at all.
The frame itself was sized based on the clear space available when the front seats are in the “driving” position; driver seat all the way back with seat reclined just barely, for when I’m driving, and passenger seat nearly-but-not-all-the-way back with slightly more incline, for a more comfortable position for the co-pilot.
Anyway, the next step was to actually start building; we began with the rear frame. This section was sized primarily to fit the cooler which had to be accessible via the hinged rear hatch. Part of the equation here was to make sure the hatch could open enough to remove the cooler (and/or open the cooler lid). We also wanted to maximize space here since it would be easy to access with the trunk open.
We built the frame with the 2x3s stood on end (rather than flat, like we saw in some videos) with the legs attached beneath the frame, which we felt still gave us plenty of clear space for storage. Everything felt stable so we were able to forgo a central leg to further maximum free storage space underneath.
Next came the central, stationary portion of the frame. This is the only portion of the frame where the plywood platform is actually fastened down to the frame. We doubled up the 2x3s on end (front and back) of the center portion, to provide some extra stability for each piano hinge (more on that later). The storage space beneath this section is accessible when opening the rear doors.
Oh yeah the photo above reminded me that we replaced the original head unit, a sweet 2005 model radio setup complete with with CD player and cassette deck. The cassette-to-aux converter that we had rarely worked and kicked back some terrible feedback, so we figured it was time.
Back to the frame. One other item worth noting is that we added some small “L” brackets where each leg met the frame, for a bit of added stability.
With the central and back frames built, we were able to put the plywood on top of the frame. We started with the stationary central section, and then installed the piano hinge and back section. It worked like a dream.
Also shown in the video above is the front-most section, also on a piano hinge. This portion stays folded back on top of the central section, and can only open with the front seats are pushed all the way forward (and leaned forward). There are some 2x3s installed on the underside of the plywood, to provide some added rigidity. This section actually sits on a loose frame, which is placed just behind the seats and is secured in place with a small drop pin down through the top, into the frame.
With the frame and plywood installed, we covered the plywood with outdoor carpet to get a nice finished look and a little extra cushion. The finished product works exactly how we had hoped, and there’s actually a decent amount of room in there. Once we add a foam mattress, some sheets, and pillows, it’ll be just like home.
One other finishing touch – we added two tie-downs on the rear legs that anchor the frame down to hooks in the floor of the trunk. This was a safety feature we borrowed from another YouTube video. Although the frame fits pretty snug in the car, if we ever get in an accident these seemed like a good idea to keep the frame from flying up.
And so that’s it, that’s the sleeping platform. We’re currently sourcing all the things we need (double sleeping bag, camping stove, portable clothes washing tub, etc. etc. etc.).
We’ll post again soon, maybe.