Multiuse spaces and features are the name of the game when it comes to van life. An easy way to maximize space and functionality in your van is with the seats, table, and bed. That’s why we’re talking about all three in one post! For example, the dining area also serves as a place to relax or work. But it can also turn into a place to sleep. Or you can use the front seats as seating for dining, relaxing and working.
Depending on your van life goals and needs, some of the options below might work better than others. But don’t worry, we’ll cover all that!
On a side note, please forgive my child-like drawings. Finding non-copyrighted images isn’t easy. And I got lazy and didn’t feel like emailing or calling folks to ask for permission to use their images. In addition, when we left for Wisconsin, I forgot to pack the digital pen for my laptop/tablet. I used my finger for half the drawings. Then I remembered my cheap, janky pen tablet and busted that out for the other half of the drawings.
- Seat, table and/or bed combos
- Dedicated bed
- Table options
Seat, table and/or bed combos
Combining two or more of these features helps make the most of the limited space in your van. As a result, you don’t have a bed only used for sleeping taking up half the van. Using a bench seat or seats is an easy way to turn seating into a bed. In addition, the bench seats are great for storage. And there are two ways to do this. One, a dinette bed that turns two bench seats and a table into a bed. Two, a bench seat that turns into a bed.
These setups are good if you want:
- to entertain and need extra seating/space for guests
- a large, comfortable workspace
- to live in the entire van throughout day
- easy access to all the storage space from inside the van
But there are some downsides. Unless traveling solo and sleeping on a bench seat as is, you must convert the space each night to sleep. This includes not only going from bench mode to bed mode, but also making the bed each night (sheets and blankets). Additionally, the seat back(s) and cushion(s) are the “mattress.” These cushions can only be so thick to be practical for seating purposes. So, it limits the mattress thickness. Also, pushing cushions together leaves a gap. This isn’t always comfortable for sleeping. Lastly, these setups give you a less storage than a platform bed.
Another option is a sofa seat-bed. They don’t offer near as much storage as a setup with bench seats. But a sofa seat bed still gives you many of the other advantages listed above. However, they have their own unique advantage that we’ll talk about below.
This setup gives you the most space for entertaining as it can accommodate four people. The dinette consists of facing bench seats with a table between them. The table sits on a telescoping leg, which lowers to the same height as the benches when it’s time for bed mode. The benches offer ample storage provided you don’t have large items to store (e.g. bicycle). In addition, a dinette bed is a not-so-difficult build.
Love this idea but need more storage than the benches alone can offer? Don’t worry, you have two options to increase storage! One, raise the dinette platform to create extra storage underneath. Standing up when leaving the table is nice, but sometimes sacrifices are necessary. Two, build overhead cabinets or cubbies above the bench seats. But make sure to watch your head when getting up from your seat!
Bench seat bed
A bench seat bed has a platform that either pulls or folds out to turn it into a bed. It’s also the most versatile in terms of layout. You can have a single bench if you don’t need a lot of seating or a large bed. On the other hand, if you plan to entertain or want a larger bed, an L-shaped bench, or a U-shaped bench might work better. Like the dinette bed, the bench offers a good amount of storage. However, unlike a dinette bed, a table isn’t part of the setup. But we’ll get into table here in a bit.
Most pull-out bench seat beds use slats for the bench/bed platform. In bench mode all the slats are under the seat cushion. Then to convert to bed mode a sliding frame with half the slats pulls out. My super simple drawing should give you an idea of how it works. It’s quick to convert between the two, and this design is easy to DIY.
The folding bench seat is unique. As you can see in my drawing, the hinged top folds down to convert to a bed. This is a very sturdy design, but the additional materials add more weight than a slat bed. Additionally, it requires a little more work converting to mode. You must remove the cushions to convert and put them back. In the grand scheme of things, this isn’t a big deal.
For those of you who need additional legal, passenger seats in your van, this is a great option. However, there are two keys to keeping it legal. First, buy a sofa seat-bed made for passengers. Second, have it professionally installed. Doing it this way you get a three-in-one. One, the kids (or anyone else) have a safe place to sit while traveling. Two, even while not traveling, you have a place to sit. Duh. Three, at night, it turns into a bed. Pretty sweet deal! But like the bench seat bed, a table is still needed since it’s not part of the setup.
When shopping for a sofa seat-bed that provides passenger seating, look for one that complies with FMVSS (Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards). However, keeping it legal means sacrificing storage. Some still have space underneath for a little storage. But it’s a lot more limited because of the robust frame needed for safe seating. Also, van sofa seat-beds are not cheap. Starting price will likely run you around $1,000.
If you don’t need to transport extra passengers, consider building your own sofa seat-bed. You’ll save money and gain storage space! Or you can even buy a futon and anchor it in the van. Another option is to look for sofa seat-beds in junk yards. The cushions will likely need replacing, but you get the most expensive part – the frame.
*Disclaimer – Determining the safety and legality of using a sofa seat-bed for passengers is ultimately your responsibility. Don’t just take my word for it. Do your research, ask questions, and stay safe!
A disadvantage of having a dedicated bed is you still need to find room in your van layout for seating and a table. But as we get into the two different dedicated types, you’ll see they have their advantages as well.
The number one advantage of a platform bed is storage underneath. Van lifers refer to this storage space as the “garage.” If you have large items to stow, like a mountain bike or golf clubs, a platform bed gives you the space you need. However, depending on how you set up the bed, not all that space is accessible from inside the van. For instance, in Mark, almost everything under the bed is only accessible from the back. As a result, if we need something out of the garage while it’s raining, us and our stuff gets wet. Another disadvantage of a platform bed is it takes away a lot of floorspace. But for us, the large storage space is well worth the disadvantages.
There are two types of platform beds: fixed or adjustable. A fixed platform bed is easy to build. But make sure to build it high enough to accommodate the largest items you plan on storing. For example, we wanted to use our Hefty bins to organize our stuff in the garage. We measured the height of two bins stacked together and built our bed platform tall enough to fit them.
Adjustable platform beds are a fantastic option for part timers or weekend warriors. Taking out the dirt bike? Raise the bed high to accommodate it. Only going skiing for the weekend? Lower the bed and give yourself more room to relax after hitting the slopes. However, adjustable platform beds are harder to DIY because vans are curvy. Therefore, the width of the bed changes depending on the height. There are two ways to work around this. One, the platform width needs to be adjustable as well. Two, the platform must only be as wide as the narrowest width. I hope that second one makes sense…
A simple but pricey solution is to buy an adjustable platform bed system. Adventure Wagon makes the MOAB (mother of all beds) for Sprinter vans. Brackets and tracks are installed on the van walls. Then the light and sturdy bed mounts on the tracks at whatever height your heart desires. And best of all, the width of the bed is adjustable as well. If you looking for a swankier and more versatile option, check out HappiJac Power Bed Lifts.
A folding bed is exactly what it sounds like – a bed that folds up when not in use. During the day you have extra space in the van to move around or relax. At night you fold down the bed and voila! However, this is the only van bed design that doesn’t give you any storage. Whaa whaa. The best ones are like a deep shelf to stow the mattress and bedding in place when folding up the bed. Additionally, most feature straps anchored to the wall to help support the bed when in use.
If you decide to go with a dedicated bed, you still need seating. But sitting on the bed or floor might work for you!
Swivel front seats
An easy way to save space with your build is to utilize the seats that come with the van. The front seats of RVs, also called captain chairs, are on a swivel. As a result, the chairs can turn around to face the living area. Cargo vans don’t come with captain chairs like an RV, but aftermarket swivel seat bases are available.
From what I’ve read, installing a swivel seat base on the passenger side is not difficult at all. But the driver side gets tricky because of the e-brake. Most driver side kits come with everything you need to move the e-brake though.
I know this is a master of the obvious statement, but I’m saying it anyway… If your van layout includes a wall between the cab and the back of the van, using the front seats is likely out of the question. Therefore, you need seating in the back, which brings us to our next consideration…
Bench vs facing seats
As I mentioned in the Van Layout and Design guide, seat orientation is an important thing to consider. Benches are great even if you don’t use them for bed as well. They give you extra storage and allow you to snuggle close with a loved one. Or you can sit sideways by yourself and stretch out your legs. Seats facing each other also provide the same storage benefits. But they have their own advantages as well.
First, seats facing each other give you more elbow room. Second, I find them better if you like to games, which Jeremy and I do a lot. Third, they are more accessible. Most bench seats I’ve seen in camper vans have one end up against something else, like a wall or bed. As a result, if the inside person needs to get up, both people need to get up. I know it’s not a dealbreaker, but it’s something to consider.
Unless you decide to go with the dinette bed, you still need a table. Some folks might think a table isn’t necessary, and they’re right. You don’t need a table to eat, work on your laptop or play games. Jeremy and I never have a table when we go backpacking, and we manage fine. But a table is one of those creature comforts that’s nice to have in your van.
A pull-out table is typically on slides, like a drawer. It’s a convenient way to keep the van living area open when a table isn’t needed. However, this option doesn’t work well in all van layouts. It is most practical if you have a fixed platform bed with the seat(s) forward of the bed. The garage gives you plenty of space for stowing a pull-out table when not in use. But it does take away storage space in the garage.
Like the pull-out table, a folding table stays out of your way while not in use. The table can fold up or down depending on what works best for your van layout. There are sturdy fold-down brackets that alone support the tabletop when folded out. But you can also go with something less robust and add a folding table leg for added support.
The one potential downside of a folding table is it takes up vertical space. This means you can’t put anything else on the wall where the table is stowed. Depending on your van layout and the table location, this might not matter. But it’s something to keep in mind.
The most versatile van table option is a swivel table. Unlike the other two tables, a swivel table allows you to change the orientation of the tabletop. In addition, many swivel table legs are adjustable. This means you can change the table height. Also, the tabletop is removable, allowing you to stow it when not in use.
We have a swivel table in Mark and love it. If we need extra counterspace while preparing a meal we raise it up to counter height. While I’m working it’s oriented lengthwise to make room for my laptop and mouse pad. When we’re eating it’s oriented crosswise, giving us enough room for two plates. If the table isn’t needed, it’s stowed behind the passenger seat. Above all, it’s the only table option that worked well with our van layout!
Yet another option is a removable table. The table leg and tabletop are both separate and removable. A base affixed to or in the van floor holds the table leg. Like the other tables, you can tuck the table away when it’s not needed. It’s also a great option if you do front swivel seats. However, the base sticks up above the floor a bit. If you’re clumsy like me, this is less than ideal. But that’s me. This table setup works well for many people.
What works best for you?
Which bed design meets your van life goals and needs? Do you prefer to sit next to your partner or across from them? What table option works best in your van layout? Let us know in the comments!
Need help with your van layout? Check out our Camper Van Layout and Design guide!