Introduction: Folding Bed for Car Camping

Picture of Folding Bed for Car Camping

My wife and I like car camping and road trips. We also have a dog, which can make road trips challenging (try finding a vacancy in a pet-friendly hotel during prime travel season). So a couple of years ago, we traded in our Fit for a Honda Element - what my stepmom calls a "Lego car." We love it - spacious, adaptable, etc. If their production hadn't been ended prematurely, I'm certain they'd be giving the Vanagon and Westphalia conversions a run for their money as the "go-to" travel vehicle when you want to go do stuff.

After failed experiments with an air mattress (they *always* deflate, and can be rather cold on the back), I started poking around the various Element owner communities, checking out different designs for car beds. Our first version stopped at the posts for the back door (similar to the current version); we supported the bottom (foot) half of the mattress on plastic tubs, which rested on the backs of the reclined front seats. It worked okay, but we could never seem to get the same "terrain" two nights in a row.

Thus, the Narwhale car bed was born.

Step 1: The Basic Design

Picture of The Basic Design

For those who haven't seen one, the rear seats of a Honda Element can be laid flat (forming a rudimentary bed), folded up (attaching to the upper hand grips with carabiners), or fully removed. Since we rarely carry passengers (besides Molly, our pup), we save weight and space by putting them in storage during travel/camping season.

My primary design goals were:

1. safety - principally, determining a means by which our camping gear or luggage wouldn't become projectiles or act as a "trash compactor" in the event of a collision

2. weight - less "dead" weight means less wasted gasoline. The Element (aka the "Toaster") is not known for its fuel economy.

3. simplicity - I wanted something with as few mounting points and moving parts as possible. KISS.

The stock seats clip into very solid metal brackets on either side, and in the floor. Since these are welded to the frame and are already designed to hold a human in comfort and safety, they seemed the best way to secure a bed, as well.

Working with 3/4" FSC-certified plywood (larch, I think - but it's been awhile), I cut eight blanks for the side braces. At four pieces per side assembly, this meant the braces would 3" thick - fairly robust.

To ensure that everything lined up well, I stacked and clamped each side assembly, drilling three 1" holes along the length of each. Into these, I inserted 1" dowels with 1" slots cut into each end. Wood screws drilled into the center of these slots meant that I could work with each assembly without glue until everything was properly fitted.

I cut the 2" holes with a Forstner bit. These are centered over the metal side brackets for the seats. The braces are designed to attach with 5/16" hook bolts (for simplicity, I used 5/16" hardware throughout the project). The "hook" portion rests in the space created by the 2" hole (opened up to allow for other material surrounding the side brackets), and is tightened with a rachet from 0.75" holes drilled into the top surface of the side braces.

Step 2: Cutting Tops for the Braces

Picture of Cutting Tops for the Braces

If I were to do this again, I think I'd rather use 0.25" aluminum for the tops, as this would obviate the need for extra material in the tails, and provide far stronger support for the cot arms (more on this later).

The technique here is simple - take cardboard and scissors, and trim until you have a perfect fit to the back of the car (it tapers slightly). I used 0.25" wooden dowels to pin the top in place, and then trimmed the brace assemblies to fit with a bandsaw. Easy-peasy.

Step 3: Hidden Hardware

Picture of Hidden Hardware

I'm a firm believer in over-engineering. Since the side braces would ultimately bear the weight of two people - plus the lever-augmented force of the cot portion (more on this in a moment), I wanted to be absolutely sure that the braces would be up to the task. So I added two-foot sections of c-channel to the back (hidden) side of each brace, inset into the brace with shallow cuts made on a table saw. These are attached with 5/16" bolts, flat washers, lock washers, and lock nuts. They ain't goin' nowhere.

Similarly, I was concerned that the j-hooks which attach the braces to the seat brackets would be bearing a lot of weight and leverage. To keep these from "pulling through" the plywood, I used a Forstner bit to countersink a 0.25" stack of 1.5" fender washers underneath the brace tops. Again, I found that a 3/4" hole through the tops was just sufficient to allow a 0.5" socket head (which fits the nuts for the 5/16" j-hooks). Once the braces and tops were pinned and glued, none of the metal hardware was readily visible.

Step 4: Gluing and Initial Fitting

Picture of Gluing and Initial Fitting

I <3 speed clamps. So easy to use.

During gluing, I replaced the drilled split-dowels I'd used to keep the brace assemblies together during the earliest stages with freshly split dowels into which I inserted wood wedges. The result was aesthetically pleasing, but also required no additional hardware.

The braces fit perfectly, first try.

As you'll recall, my primary concern is safety. Although the side braces are very solidly bolted to the metal seat brackets along each side, I also wanted to secure the entire bed assembly to the metal floor mounts. Since I had a length of sturdy 1.5" aluminum pipe around (I believe it was salvaged from a concert stage), I used it as a cross-brace, attaching it to the floor mounts with a 1" nylon strap (tightened via ratchet). This was later replaced with a much stronger strap and ratchet. Plastic traction pads inserted between the strap forms a functional bulwark between the cargo and passenger areas.

Step 5: Assembling the Folding Cot Assembly

Picture of Assembling the Folding Cot Assembly

When I used to backpack more, I was especially concerned about the weight I had to carry. One of the tricks I learned early on was to get a 1/2 length sleeping pad - since our legs bear very little of our weight when we sleep. Based partly on this understanding, and partly on the old aluminum and canvas folding cots from family camping when I was younger, I designed a folding "cot" assembly that could cantilever over the reclined front seats (or behind them, if they were pushed all the way forward), and fold back under the bed when not in use.

The principle is simple: create a pivot point on either side, far enough back that when folded, the cot arms just fit side-to-side between the side braces, and accommodate a full-length mattress when deployed.

I used 3/8" clevis pins (inserting a small bolt into the hole in the base, to secure the pin in place). Because it was possible that this pivot would face a lot of force (think "human body on the end of a pair of levers"), I added an additional top brace cut from 0.25" steel. If I were to redesign the bed today, I'd either countersink the top of the pivot bolt into the metal top brace, or preferably, replace the entire plywood top to each side brace assembly with a matching piece of 0.25" aluminum plate (==bombproof).

Step 6: Second Fitting and Cot Testing

Picture of Second Fitting and Cot Testing

Once the cot assemblies were completed, I re-installed the braces in the car to double-check whether the cot arms would clear the seats in both reclined and full-forward position.

You may notice a few things in these photos.

First, because we travel with our dog, I wanted her to be secure in case of an accident, while still allowing her to move around a bit. If you look at the cross brace (which also has a black canvas seat cover attached), you'll notice I've attached a zip line and pulley, to which we attach Molly's chest harness. I added a short bungee section at one end, so that she wouldn't come to a cold stop, were we ever in an accident.

Second, the cot is permanently attached along the passenger's side, and then temporarily attached to the driver's side each time it is deployed. To keep the cot arm on the passenger side from pulling towards the center as the driver's side is attached, I added an eye bolt and a short length of bungee (here, only a temporary for the fitting).

Third, after cutting and fitting, I was still somewhat concerned about the ability of the 1" steel tubing to bear our weight. To "beef up" the cot arms, I bolted 1" iron angle iron along each. You could do chinups on them now.

Step 7: Cot Attached, Final Fitting

Picture of Cot Attached, Final Fitting

By attaching the cot material (1000 denier cordura) permanently to the passenger's side cot arm (using grommets and bolts with lock-nuts), we are able to secure both cot arms in place when the bed is stowed, by wrapping both folded cot arms with the cot material. Here, we held it in place with a bungee, but when we finished the cot, we sewed 1.5" one-wrap (double-sided hook-and-loop) between the grommets on the driver's side edge of the cot material. That thing ain't going nowhere in an accident.

I suppose I should have explained earlier - the reason why we didn't need a solid surface to support the bed is because we are using sprung plywood slats (from everyone's favorite Swedish supply store) instead. They are far lighter and far more comfortable than a solid chunk of plywood, and offer more than sufficient support. They are also rather easy to store during the off-season.

After laying out the slats to estimate spacing, I drilled holes into each end, and laced them together with paracord, using fairly thin PVC tubing for spacers. The three "additional" slats fit under the cot canvas, held in place by tension. They are quite sufficient to support our legs - my wife has even sat on the front of the cot (saying goodnight to our pup, who sleeps on the passenger seat at night). The bed is solid - not a single squeak.

Step 8: Sanding, Painting, and Final Installation

Picture of Sanding, Painting, and Final Installation

Once everything had been fitted, I tore the bed assembly down again for routing (smoothing the edges), sanding and painting. This was by far the biggest hassle of the entire project, as we have no space that's truly appropriate for painting - the shop doesn't allow painting or varnishing.

However, after hacking together a rudimentary paint booth from two boxes from our local bicycle store, and a couple weeks of "paint and wait ... and wait, and wait," it was finally finished.

I had wanted the bed to be basically invisible from the outside of the vehicle (we have limo tinting on the rear windows), so I went with flat black. Concerned about rattling, etc. while we were driving, I used plastidip - which I like for its appearance, but not necessarily its durability. Were I to improve this project, I would definitely re-think the painting.

One exception to this are the plywood slats. These, I painted completely with a standard flat black paint, and then applied black plastidip to the top surface only. This keeps the mattress from moving during the night, as we get in or out of bed, and works marvelously.

Step 9: Finished, With Demo

Picture of Finished, With Demo

So here it is, fully deployed. After more than twenty nights (in all sorts of conditions), I can say that it is by far the most comfortable vehicle-based bed I have ever slept in. That includes bullis (VW busses), pop-up campers, 5th-wheel campers, and crashing in the driver's seat.

I've included a video, in which I ramble on about the bed's details, while setting it up.

Enjoy!

Parts list:

  • 8'x4' 3/4" plywood - I only just over half a sheet
  • IKEA SULTAN LURÖY slatted bed base, full
  • 1.5" fender washers (x10)
  • 5/16" clothesline hooks (x4)
  • 1.5" aluminum pipe, salvage
  • 1" square steel tubing (4' x2)
  • 2"x1/4" c-channel (2 x3')
  • 1" angle iron (3' x2)
  • 5/16" clevis pins (x2)
  • 1/8" aluminum bar (~2 ft - used as base/pivot for cot arms)
  • 1/4" steel plate (1' total)
  • 1.25" steel eye hooks (x2 - for clipping slats to front edge)
  • Paracord (20' x 2)
  • Plastic tubing, for spacing slats (4')
  • U-bolts (x4)
  • nuts, bolts, washers, glue, etc.
  • Mattress (my wife insisted on the SULTAN FIDJETUN, but there are cheaper options)

Step 10: Step 10: Loaded and Fully Disassembled

Picture of Step 10: Loaded and Fully Disassembled

It occurred to me that it might be useful to see how we pack for trips, so as I was removing the bed for storage (we've reached the rainy season here in the PNW), I took a few snaps of the cargo area.

The cooler is 36-qt. It holds enough for two of us for three or more days, and keeps ice nicely.

By chance (more than design, I must admit), two of these "3-bin modular haulers" fit perfectly alongside the gear sling, and behind the cooler. It's greatly simplified packing for trips, and managing our gear when we're on the road.

The final photo shows the entirety of the bed and platform, disassembled for storage. I forgot to bring a scale down to weigh these parts for comparison against the stock seats, but I am quite certain that the bed and platform are significantly lighter than the seats. In fact, I'll bet they're closer to the weight of just one stock seat. The gear kinda blows out any weight savings, of course.

Anyway, it disassembles very quickly - something like 10 minutes, soup to nuts. Reassembly takes a bit longer, but not by much. I can't wait until next Spring!

Apologies for the craptacular photos.

Step 11: Weight Comparison: OEM Vs. Bed

I reinstalled the bad last night, in preparation for the upcoming camping season. This time, I remembered to bring the scale down to the garage, so I could compare the weight of the OEM seats vs. the bed system.

OEM seat: 45# (x2) = 90#

Bed - side braces 16# (x2) = 32#

Bed - slats = 16#

Bed - mattress = 20#

Bed - crossbar = 12#

Bed total = 90#

So no weight savings over the stock seats (though we could shave a few pounds with a thinner mattress). But we gain a secure cargo area, zip line for the pup, and a super-comfy bed. We're quite happy with that tradeoff.

Comments

Brewage101 (author)2014-10-13

I had to make an account on here just to say WOW!! I've been losing my mind on how I could make something as functional as this, ever since I bought my Element. I think you have just shown me what my winter project will be. Lol. Beautiful work!!

Glad to be of help, Brew. Let me know if you have any question or ideas on your version. As I mentioned a couple of times, there are things I would do differently next time.

Thank you! I'm sure I will have some questions. It may be a while, but I'll share as soon as I get the ball rolling.

steveastrouk (author)2014-10-07

Superb workmanship, and a great result, well done.

Thank you. You're very kind.

seamster (author)2014-10-03

This is an excellent project.

ahem... https://www.instructables.com/contest/glovebox/

pescabicicleta (author)seamster2014-10-05

Thanks! I had not considered contests. Just sent it to the moderator for Glovebox.

Seriago (author)pescabicicleta2014-10-06

You got my vote!

pescabicicleta (author)Seriago2014-10-07

Thanks much!

JHLD (author)2014-09-28

This. Is awesome. i love my Element and never want to let it go. I have a little sleeping set up for long trips, but this. Wow.

Nobelcat (author)2015-10-24

You pointed it out in the video, but I didn't see a discussion of how the paracord held the two halves of the mattress together. I'm not even sure what part of the entire thing you'd even be able to sew the mesh to. Is it simply acting as a hinge on the top part of the mattress? In that case why would it need to be removable.

pescabicicleta (author)Nobelcat2017-02-26

Ah, sorry. Imagine two pieces of foam held together along one edge with a fabric "hinge." I sewed three pieces of tubular webbing to the outer-most edges of those foam blocks, staggering them bottom-top-bottom, such that when the mattress is unfolded, they line up to allow a length of stiff plastic tubing to pass through them in sequence (thus attaching the foam blocks both top - the hinge - and bottom). I used a longer length of paracord to allow the blocks to be refolded along the hinge, while making it much easier to pull the plastic tubing through the webbing when the bed is unfolded.

I hope that makes more sense.

ToddS50 (author)2017-02-24

First off, this is a great design. Simply inspirational.

Second, are the dimensions available for the braces? The plan is to have this made and in use by the end of Spring. Thank you for sharing.

pescabicicleta (author)ToddS502017-02-26

I used a board braced against the rear door openings to measure straight back to the gate - at one point, I had the actual measurements, but recycled them once I'd finished. Unfortunately, I sold both the E and the bed (separately) a year ago.

If I recall correctly, the maximum height of the side braces was five or six inches on the front-most and outward facing edges (the front "lip" with the curved notches that allow access to the mounting points). The inner layers are 1 or 1.5 inches less. I realize this is likely a bit confusing, but the picture with the upside down brace sitting on my kitchen counter is a fairly clear depiction of what I mean.

For the back, I used a piece of cardboard and trimmed to match the car's curves.

If I were to do this again, one thing I'd change is the way the fold-out cot arms are attached to the side braces. Rather than bother with a cotter pin and all that, I'd use a router to cut a groove so that I could flush-mount a 0.25 inch piece of flat aluminum stock over the cot arms, with counter-sunk screws along the back edge and side for strength. This would be stronger, and provide a more stable surface for the wood slats. Live and learn.

I'm sorry I can't be more specific. This project was about 90 percent thinking, and 10 percent cut-and-fit. I probably thought about the design for six months or so before I bought any material.

Great good luck!

madbee123 (author)2015-11-22

phew! looks like hard work making it . but it also looks worth the effort

Terranan (author)2015-08-23

You enjoy your element for camping, my friends enjoy mine for moving. :p

milesduggan (author)2015-07-16

Totally gonna do something similar to my 4Runner. My back seats fold flat but sleeping 2 people isn't that comfortable with gear packed in the car with us. With this I can store things underneath and have all of the glorious comfort my girlfriend requires. lol Shhhh don't tell her I said that. ;)

Kurt E. Clothier (author)2014-10-07

This is really nicely done. My wife and I do a lot of camping, and we have been forced to sleep (uncomfortably) in our vehicle more than once. We have talked about getting some sort of crossover or other wagon that would fit us better, but there is always the issue of our gear. We have been in bear country and bad weather quite a bit, and wouldn't trust any of our equipment or food outside. Of course, we could string food up in a tree, but that's not easily done when you show up to your campsite in the middle of a down pour.

I was pleasantly surprised to find a 36-qt ice chest (Coleman Extreme) that fits perfectly in the back with the rest of our gear while we're driving, and under the bed when we're camping. If I can remember to, I'll try to post a couple of photos of the car fully loaded - everything gets tucked away safely.

Sorry this took so long - you caught us towards the end of our camping season. We've started again, so I thought I'd post a few pics of the cargo area, fully loaded.

We found that the 3-bin MountainSmith cargo haulers fit perfectly, allowing space for both the pole sling (on the left) and the Coleman cooler (which stashes away under the cot at night).

Awesome, that sounds good.

nancy.patino.5 (author)2014-12-02

How much did this cost you? If you don't mind my asking

Hi Nancy. I didn't keep a running tally, but I estimate it was $150-200, plus the mattress. I salvaged some parts (difficult to price), and could have lowered costs by salvaging other common items. The highest cost "parts" were the bed slats (purchased new) and the plywood. I'll bet the slats could be found on Craigslist, and cheaper plywood would likely work just as well.

I hope this helps.

justin.silver (author)2014-10-16

Very sweet setup. We put an Ikea foam pad + slats in our camper and it turned out to not just be comfortable, be one of the most comfortable beds I've slept on. A bit easier for us since we didn't have the same space constraints. Congrats again, awesome job.

Thanks!

myke2020 (author)2014-10-08

You need to change the title. That is not for a car. It is very missleading.

iwanaleya (author)myke20202014-10-11

I disagree, while you are correct with the Element being a crossover. This is still applicable to someone who may own a hatchback which can take many of these ideas and apply them. Not to mention "car camping" is a general term used for people who camp out of any kind of motorized vehicle (excluding RV's obviously).

pescabicicleta (author)myke20202014-10-08

??

The Honda Element is a car. What do you call it?

myke2020 (author)pescabicicleta2014-10-09

Wikipedia may not be the best source, but I would suggest it is generally regarded as an SUV and not a car:

The Honda Element was a compact crossover SUV based on a modified CR-V platform, manufactured in East Liberty, Ohio and offered in front-wheel and all-wheel drive formats in the United States and Canada from model years 2003 through 2011. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Honda_Element

I was expecting an instructable on some magical way to camp with a car. Ie. a coupe or sedan. That is why I was surprised to see an SUV in the photos.

Your solution is genius for camping in an SUV and solves the problems of having a level comfortable bed.

dorybob (author)2014-10-07

very well done.

pescabicicleta (author)dorybob2014-10-08

Thank you.

geniuslrg (author)2014-10-07

Wow! Genius!

As a Honda Element "early adopter" I've long extolled the virtues of the design but never found the best way to use it as a sleeper. Tried the air mattress - didn't love it. But now I'm ready to consider trying it again with your design. It looks a little above my skillset but no guts, no glory.

pescabicicleta (author)geniuslrg2014-10-07

Before I attempted the first version of this project, I hadn't been in a wood shop since high school - that's over 30 years ago. I doubt I spent more than 20 hours on that first version, so this is easily doable with relatively little experience.

Painting aside, I probably spent twice that amount of time on this version, spread out over a month of weekends.

"Measure twice, cut once."

geniuslrg (author)pescabicicleta2014-10-07

Thanks for the encouragement! Twenty hours when you're renovating a midcentury modern flattop seems like a heap o' time but I did print out your Instructable and placed it front and center on my "To Do" clipboard. House first, car next.

pescabicicleta (author)2014-10-07

BTW, if anyone is interested in collaborating on a third version of this design, I'm open to the idea. The main improvements I have in mind are:

1) Replacing the "top piece" and "chevron brace" pieces with a single brace that would double as the top piece. At the very least a larger brace, covering the entire span from pivot to the front edge - this would be both easier to cut, and provide additional support for the pivot and cot arm.

2) Replacing the current 1-in square tubing (with 1-in angle iron for bracing) with 1.5-in tubing (more than sufficient support), with a powdercoat finish (rather than paint).

3) A cotter-pin (or clip) to keep the cot arms from moving when they are stowed; wrapping and unwrapping the cot from the cot arms is the most time-intensive part of deploying or stowing the bed.

TizianaZ (author)2014-10-04

WOW this a luxurious camping bed!! Excellent idea and implementation!

pescabicicleta (author)TizianaZ2014-10-05

Thanks much. Yes, it's finally made my "camping on the ground averse" wife truly look forward to sleeping in the woods. Our favorite, of course, is boondocking.

Here we are above Big Sur:

pescabicicleta (author)2014-09-29

Thanks, folks. Yes, it's super-comfy. We attach a "car tent" over the hatch and tailgate for camping. With screens on the front windows and a sunblocker across the windshield, we've got a comfortable place to sleep at night, and a private place to change clothes. Not to mention, our own mobile "pet-friendly" hotel.

MsSweetSatisfaction (author)2014-09-29

Very handy! Not to mention fairly comfy looking! Thanks for sharing!

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