Yellow Pine upgrade, Part Two: The bed

  • The Epic Van bed as it came from the manufacturer, a convertible couch that went up and down, with a push of an electric switch. We slept parallel to the long side of the van, our feet on seat cushions that met the couch when it was flat.

We bought our Roadtrek RS Adventurous in 2014 and it was perfect. I loved every square inch of it, every cabinet, every drawer, the four rotating captain’s seats, the combo bathroom and shower, the tiny kitchen with its dorm fridge, two-burner propane stove and little sink with collapsible faucet, the awning on the side, the solar panel on the roof, the back doors that swung open all the way to the sides so you could zip a screen into the back, the television and VCR installed on the wall, the pump and macerator that sucked all the stuff out of the waste tanks, making dumping a breeze, and the convertible couch/bed in the back.

I marveled at the years of design and thought that created this perfect vehicle, so perfect that Tom and I could sell our house and live in it. I couldn’t imagine anything I would do differently.

I loved it so much, I agonized when a cabinet latch broke, or one of the covers for the LED lights fell off. My heart broke when Tom backed over a log at a backcountry camping spot, taking out a chunk of the fiberglass skirt that hid all the valves for the tanks and propane.

And I didn’t want to change ANYTHING, in case SOMETHING HAPPENED – one of us got sick, the stock market crashed, camping was outlawed – and we needed to sell it. I wanted it to be in pristine condition, just as it came from the factory.

Fast-forward into our sixth year in the van. It has matured and so have I.

Our first alteration we did ourselves, a few years ago. We decided that we would like more storage and that we didn’t really use the fourth captain’s seat. We used the third for our son, or my mom, but almost never used the fourth. We looked closely at the base and found that it was attached to the vehicle by four bolts. Off came the nuts and we lifted the seat out. At the container store, we found modular shelving that fit the space, decided to use the metal basket version, rather than the metal shelves, and realized that, with extra-larger washers, we could screw it to the floor with the same bolts and nuts that the seat had used. It fit perfectly and we decided we were geniuses.

We did, however, hang onto the seat, putting it in our storage unit, just in case we needed to reverse the “upgrade,” you know, if SOMETHING HAPPENED.

We thought The Epic Van was perfect-plus.

Then SOMETHING HAPPENED, but it wasn’t any of the things I feared. What happened was that we lived happily in the van for year after year and decided that, even when we owned a sticks and bricks place again, we would never part with our rolling home. It became ours, not just a financial investment. And I started to think about how we really used it.

The biggest thing I thought about changing was the convertible bed/couch. The couch in the back of the van electronically slides flat, lining up with seats on each side of the aisle to create the bed. There is a board that can be placed in the opening between the two seats to fill in the U-shape and create a king-sized bed. We leave the board out to make it easier to get in and out of the bed without scooting forward on our buts, especially frustrating for nighttime potty trips.

When we first started living in The Epic Van, I would fold up the bedding and stow it each morning, move the bed back into the couch position, and reverse the process each night. It’s a good idea if you’re camping for a week, and/or using the van for tailgate parties, or commuting to work. But if you’re living in it, it’s cumbersome and tiring.

And we didn’t really sit on the couch, or use the portable tables you could set up by the couch, or by the rotating captain’s chairs. We always sat outside with our camp chairs and folding camp table.

When we were inside, we were more comfortable sitting on our “beds,” using them like daybeds, with our pillows propped against the back door, or opening the back doors and sitting on the beds sideways, with a view out the back.

So, we really had no need for the convertible bed/couch. And, the mechanism that operated it consumed a large part of the back storage area. I dreamed of a spot for a folding kayak, or our folding bikes, or something else I had yet to think of.

For the last couple of years, when I would give people a tour of our perfect-plus van, and I give a LOT of tours, to anyone who expresses an interest, I would mention that we were considering changing out the bed.

But I wasn’t really sure where to start. Should I check with the manufacturer, find an independent van conversion guy, try to do it ourselves (YIKES)!

I mentioned it a few times to our friends Jeff and Ann, who we met camping in a Mercedes Sprinter the first month we were out in The Epic Van. Last year, Jeff got tired of hearing me explain how we were thinking of changing the bed and said, “Why don’t you bring it up to Yellow Pine, and I’ll do it for you.”

Sold. We planned to meet in their tiny town on the East Fork of the South Fork of the Salmon River in August this year. Then Covid hit, and we weren’t sure we would be able to do it. We weighed the odds, all four of us being Covid careful, and decided we could.

Jeff ordered and picked up metal to make a frame, and we stopped in Boise to get plywood and some foam camping mattresses to sleep on until we ordered a real mattress.

Jeff started by figuring out how the convertible bed/couch was attached to the vehicle. Luckily, only four bolts. He unscrewed them, and voila, out came the couch/bed.

Of course, like any permanent home redo, once the couch was out, I decided I wanted to remove the TV and VCR, and the speakers. We never use them. And the mounts for the portable tables. We never use them either. Jeff and Ann didn’t blink. Out they came. And Ann came up with a brilliant art piece using her woodworking skills and cool vintage metal pieces to cover the holes in the closet wall. All went well until she routed off the tip of her pinky finger, which you can read about in Yellow Pine upgrade, Part One.

Then, the hard part, how exactly to replace the bed.

Jeff looked, and measured, and we talked and drew pictures.

We decided we would build the frame onto flat metal pieces that would use the same holes and bolts from the bed/couch. Jeff would weld metal pieces out to the side of the long strips so the legs of the platform would be near the walls of the van, rather than out in the middle of the storage area. The legs would hold up a square frame with three crosspieces. The piece of 3/4-inch plywood would be screwed onto the frame. And Jeff was determined that there be no squeaking or rattling, something he abhors in his own Sprinter camper.

One issue: the wooden boxes, that held the portable tables we never used, also housed some of the van’s inner workings, like the water pump and electrical things for something in the kitchen we don’t understand. Anyway, any needed repairs would require access, so we couldn’t make the entire bed platform one piece. As we ruminated, I realized that, getting rid of one of the tables and rearranging the other table and piece of wood designed to fill in the U-shape between our feet, the boxes would be the exact height of the new platform. We could use them that way and just put plywood over the new metal frame. The new mattress, when we get it, will lay perfectly across both and still allow access when needed.

Jeff cut metal, drilled metal, welded metal, sanded metal, and then painted it all black. His well-stocked shop had everything, metal drills and saws, welding equipment, sanders, and other useful stuff.

Amazingly, the frame fit perfectly and looked like factory issue. It opened up the storage area, and I am already thinking of new ways to use it. It was exactly what I wanted.

Only afterward did Jeff tell us he had sleepless nights wondering if he could work out the design and make it fit, worrying that he would be working all night welding things together. He always seemed completely confident, and his work was impeccable. As we drove down the windy, bumpy dirt road leaving Yellow Pine, there was not a squeak or rattle.

And I’m completely confident in the changes we made. They aren’t the same that someone else might want, just as the stone tile I put in the bathrooms in my old house might not be everyone’s taste. But the changes are perfect for us, for our rolling home, and makes The Epic Van perfect-supreme.

When we get our permanent mattress, I’ll give you an update.

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