Introduction: SUV MicroCamper - Fat Berta 3.0
This is a modular SUV/station wagon based camper setup, that sleeps two in luxury, has ample storage space and costs almost nothing. Additionally, I'll show you how to make a trunk tent, magnetic mosquito screens, thermal flaps and much more.
For those of you who are new to Fat Berta, in 2013 I built a MicroCamper on the base of a Renault Kangoo. She was lovely and provided us with the opportunity for many unforgettable holidays until she was destroyed in a car accident. We got a new car, a Skoda Yeti 1.6 TDI and started a new camper setup immediately. The whole structure is completely new and redesigned. However, some things stayed similar and you might profit by checking out the other build as well. Both setups are not limited to these two car models but can be adapted for many other cars and SUVs.
We learned some lessons with the earlier version, especially while traveling through rainy countries. The possibility to hang around in the car comfortably while it rains outside is paramount. To achieve this in a car that is even less tall than the last one, we had to build the structure much lower. And to still have enough storage space, we ditched the whole sofa design and made one narrow platform that covers the whole backseat area and gives you ample storage space underneath. We also ditched the inner tent and made mosquito screens for the side windows and the trunk door.
The whole setup is non-destructive and can be taken out and replaced with the backseats whenever you want 5 seats and don't need a bed. And since you basically need only some plywood and a foam mattress, it will cost you close to nothing.
For those of you with safety concerns:
- Carrying a load in a car is always a safety risk. I built the structure in a way that in case of an accident, the setup can slide together and prevent injuries to the driver and passenger. The bed and bed-frame are connected to the car floor with straps, securing them tightly in place.
She's nowhere near finished, since I always will add things to try and improve her still. But believe me when I say she's close to perfect. We love her. We had tons of fun traveling through France and hopefully will enjoy her in adventures to come.
So, we're ready to start. Open a beer and lean back. I must admit that this instructable became a bit of a monster. That's mainly because it is several instructables compressed into one. I didn't want to split it into several projects but chose to present you with one nice package that will give you all information to transform your car into your own MicroCamper. I honestly hope you'll enjoy the reading.
[ Should you find yourself dancing around your room because you just got an idea that will bring you tons of fun in the years to come and you feel like you want to give something back in return, there is the Fat Berta Charity Fund. We are supporting a couple in South Africa that is very dear to us. We got the inspiration to build our Berta while using their 4x4 in Africa in the first place. Unfortunately they got robbed three times in as many weeks, seriously injured and lost everything they had. With this charity fund we will try to help them as best we can. Any donations, however small they may be, are very very welcome! ->Donate via Paypal ]
Step 1: Why?
Why would you choose to sleep in an admittedly rather small car. You can choose to buy a much bigger car, or motorhome, or trailer.
Small means less comfort, no shower, no toilet. But it also means that you can park basically everywhere. And few people will suspect that there are people sleeping inside. It means you can travel fast and light and still have a nice little home waiting for you when the sun goes down. It also means paying less for gas and coming further without stopping at each and every petrol station. And we don't need an extra car for the vacation. We can just use the one we use daily in the city. Just pack some food and you're ready to go.
You don't have to buy a Skoda Yeti. There are plenty of similar options out there. For us it is a perfect mixture of not too big, not too small and partially off-road worthy.
Step 2: Planning and Measuring
After the first Berta got totaled I had a short mourning period of approximately 2.5h and then started thinking and googling how the new Berta should look like. I stumbled upon a german guy that built something similar into his Skoda Yeti and sells the building plans online. From the pictures on his website I got a pretty good idea of how his setup worked. Some of his ideas (low profile, side plank supports) I adapted and altered to my specific needs. In case you like his more basic structure better, you can buy his plans here.
Warning: All the dimensions and proportions in the nicely colored schematics are NOTto scale.
As in the first Berta, there is a stand-alone kitchen box in the trunk that can be used even if the back seats are installed. It features two top panels. The one on the left side has a nifty parallel hinge that lets it slide out of the trunk as a cooking table. The other one can be flipped open and stays open by means of a cupboard spring hinge.
The middle section has one top panel, again mounted with two cupboard spring hinges to the side panels. I used nuts and bolts for the connections to make it easy to take apart and reduce the storage volume when not in use.
The front section has two top panels. The sleeping extension is connected to the cross support with normal hinges so that it can be flipped back all the way and laid on top of the second panel while driving. The second panel is connected in the same way as the green panel. The connection between the orange and the green side support is done with two long holes per side. This is a safety feature that will be explained later. With the seats folded to the steering wheel and the sleeping extension in place, you get an effective sleeping space of 180cm by 140cm (torso) / 100cm (feet) [imperial: 70.7" x 55.1" / 39.4"]. If you open the trunk door a bit (for example with this device) even a taller person can sleep comfortably.
I made all the connections with bars of hardwood, t-nuts and bolts. However I would suggest that you just use big brackets instead. This is much easier and possibly even sturdier (see picture 4 and 5). Be aware that you have to assemble the sections inside the car. If you connect all the panels outside, it will be too big to get through the trunk door.
After several requests for some main dimensions I finally motivated myself to get my (metric) ruler and brave the cold weather. I added a rather ugly sketch with most of the important dimensions. Keep in mind that some of the corners are rounded and be prepared to alter some distances. The car has plastic parts and not all the cars are exactly the same. I sincerely hope I measured everything correctly. However, try and add the distances together to check if you reach a length that resembles a bed. All units are in metric millimetres and the font is my handwriting, not chinese.
As pointed out by member sylfest.muldal there is an error in the blueprint. The length of the middle section side panels ought to be 550+ mm instead of the 500 mm. An updated version of the blueprint is now online. Should there be any reports of other measurements that don't add up I will update it here. So be sure to always use the latest version.
Step 3: Making the Kitchenbox
The kitchen box is a quite simple design with two compartments. After finishing, I decided to add two spacer bars to the trunk end. This enables you to still have access to the accident breakdown triangle. You can build it the same way I did, or you can make your life easier and make the side panels a bit "overhanging". Everywhere where the panels aren't resting on the side panels, I attached some hardwood bars to give them more support.
The left top panel can slide out and provide you with a nice area to cook on that is covered by the trunk door, should it be raining. As you can see in the pictures, one corner is slightly rounded. Depending on the height of the sub-structure this is needed so the panel can slide out and not get caught on the trunk side. The parallel hinge is constructed with bars of hardwood. You can just as well use aluminum or steel bars to accomplish this.
The right-side panel is mounted with cupboard hinges. Details on how to mount them are provided in the next step.
Use some hardwood bars with t-nuts or (easier) use metal brackets to attach the side panels of the middle section.
I drilled two big holes into the top panels as handles to make the opening process easier.
Step 4: Middle Panel
The middle panel is connected to the side support with two cupboard hinges. I got mine over ebay for a few dollars. The cross support is level with the top panel. This is not necessary and you can rest the top panel on the cross support without the need of the hardwood bars as support. You have to be careful though how you mount the cupboard hinges (Picture 5). Depending on the type you are using, they won't open if the top panel is mounted too close to the next panel/cross support.
The side support is connected to the front side support with two bolts/washers/t-nuts. This is part of the safety feature shown in step 6.
Step 5: Sleeping Extension / Front Panel
The front panel is mounted in the same way as the middle panel. The side supports have two beams that reach into the foot section of the passenger seats and provide stability for the sleeping extension. The beams have a hole in the foot where a t-nut rests. A bolt that is screwed into this t-nut acts as a level adjuster.
The sleeping extension is connected to the cross support by two heavy duty hinges connected with bolts and t-nuts. Make sure that you mount the hinges in a way that allows you to fold the sleeping extension all the way back and lay it onto the front panel. The sleeping extension has two hardwood rods glued and screwed to it to make it more stiff. The cut-out section comes to rest on the drivers arm rest and gives another point of support (that depends a bit on how high your structure is...). Since the plywood is rather thin, I added two bookshelf brackets (white plastic / IKEA) to make it even more stable.
Depending on the position of the driver seats, the sleeping extension becomes a back rest for a sofa style sitting option. When it's raining outside and you're reading a book, it's priceless.
Step 6: Attaching It to the Car and Safety Feature
This depends entirely on the mounting points of your car. I used the connectors for the back-seats and the tie-down points on the side and in the trunk. I drilled several holes into the side and cross supports and laced luggage straps through these and the tie-down points.
- Kitchen box: Connected to the tie-down points in the side of the trunk.
- Front/Middle structure: Strapped to the tie-down points on the side/middle of the car and the attachment for the back-seats.
These straps try to pull the structure to the trunk side. Should you have an accident where your trunk section gets squashed in, the sliding connection ensures that the structure folds together and doesn't press into the driver seats. As seen in picture 6, the front top panel is slightly beveled, enforcing it to glide over the middle panel if compressed.
All the way under and over the support structure (and tied to the attachment of the back seats in the middle) and the mattress rests another luggage strap that is only closed while driving. This strap stops the panels from opening during an accident and keeps the mattress firmly on top of the panels (image shows the strap without the mattress. It's winter here and the mattress is in the cellar...).
Step 7: Painting the Support Structure and Finishing Touches
If everything works and the structure is complete, take the time and give it a layer of paint. It makes it look much nicer and protects it from dirt and water damage. We chose a light beige color. If you are searching for something when it's dark, the inside of the boxes are dark enough as they are.
Buy a big batch of adhesive felt patches. We used them everywhere where it could potentially clatter while driving or turning in your sleep. If you use enough of these (in the pictures in the other steps you can see that I used many) the whole setup stays completely silent. Since the side panels are bolted together (wood on wood) they can creak if you turn in your sleep. A few strips of duct tape between the panels where they touch will prevent this very effectively. What did humanity just do when there was no duct tape yet...
Since the flat tire kit is stored in a compartment underneath the kitchen box, always carry a toolkit that is compatible with the bolts you used, so you can detach the kitchen box should the need arise. In fact, I always carry an emergency kit of tools in my car:
- Small screwdriver bits and nuts set
- Duct tape
- Zip ties (small and big ones / I once stitched the torn composite skidplate with those...)
- hot glue stick and bic lighter (yes, thats a hot glue gun too)
- Steel wire
- and much much more...
Step 8: Cutting the Mattress
We bought a cheap IKEA foam mattress (140cm x 200cm). Ditch the cover and cut the foam with a box cutter as seen in the picture. Since the drivers arm rest is higher than the panel, cut out a bit of the foam so it rests flat again. Between the sleeping extension and the front panel we cut the foam halfway through. You won't notice it while sleeping but it folds very nicely when in reading position or when you want to open the panels.
We used one large bed cover to make the mattress covers. We sewed them in a way that the bottom stays open. It's nice to be able to wash them after extended use. It's a bit tricky to sew it nicely, but then again you won't see it too often from the underside.
Step 9: Destroying an Old Tent
I had an old tunnel tent with broken beams laying around. Surprisingly it had the perfect dimensions to be used as a part donator. You can get old tunnel tents for a few bucks at most thrift shops.
I cut it into three parts. The apsis and side entry will become the trunk tent. The other end is bound to be the privacy screen. And finally the middle part gives you a rectangular piece of fabric that becomes the mosquito trunk screen. If there is some mosquito mesh, use that for the mosquito screen. If your tent has some additional useful hardware, keep that too. I used the duffle coat buttons to roll up the mosquito screen flap, the stakes for the trunk tent and the bag to store everything in it.
I left most of the seams untreated since the tent fabric doesn't fray that much. You can use a lighter to secure the edges, but be aware that this stuff is highly flammable. Same goes for the mesh.
Step 10: Privacy Front Screen
In my case this piece needed no modification whatsoever. If it doesn't fit, trim it and attach three to five attachment points (sew on a piece of string or strap).
I used some copper wire to make a makeshift hook. These attach to the side hooks and to the rear mirror (optionally the exit handles too...). Since the tent fabric is extremely thin and light, it's easy to store it in a side compartment while driving. Be sure to push the lower edge over the extended driver-seats. This gives you enough head room to sleep and no one can look inside from the outside.
Step 11: Mosquito Trunk Screen
This one is a bit harder. The Skoda Yeti has trunk seal with a groove that runs all around the backside. Put your tent cloth around it and secure it temporarily with a string to give you an idea of how much fabric you need. I made the lower section much broader and not secured to the trunk. This enables you to get the cooking table out and to reach inside to grab something. Keep in mind that you will have to sew a tunnel seam around the top and side edges. This needs some excess fabric. Through the tunnel seam you can put an elastic cord (tape it to a wooden stick to pull it through the tunnel). When drawn tight, this will hold the mosquito screen around the trunk lip.
The lower edge gets stuffed between the trunk end and the kitchen box while sleeping. Sew on a piece of mosquito mesh to the outside of the fabric. Don't cut the flap first. Sew it on first, trust me, both fabrics are extremely slippery. After the mesh is in place take some scissors and gently cut a flap inside of the mesh seam (on the inside of the fabric). Take care not to cut the mesh! On top of the flap sew on two attachment points (I used the duffle coat buttons and some elastic cord). Now you can roll up the flap and watch the rain from the inside.
When you don't need it, you can just rip the screen off the trunk. Installing it again only takes a second.
Step 12: Trunk Tent
While this is not entirely necessary, it's very nice to have. It gives you some privacy when on a camp site, shelters you from the rain and keeps your stove out of the wind. Depending on the tent you just killed this will need few to no modification. The apsis just gets pulled over the open trunk door and secured with strings to the car and with stakes to the ground.
If you leave a tent site and want to return, just use two stones to mark the position of the rear wheels and let the tent connected to the ground. After returning just position your car in the same spot, pull up the tent and open the trunk door. And voilà, your trunk tent is in place again.
Step 13: Mosquito Side Screens
Let me say this first: Use gloves and an excessive amount of cling film / plastic wrap. It's worth it!
These screens are brilliant. However, I can't take credit for it. I found the idea on this site. While they use the screens on the outside of the car and apply the silicone a bit differently, the idea is pretty much the same.
I had some left over material from a mosquito sliding door. This is not the mesh they use in tents but a heavier version, similar to a tiny plastic fence. It's flexible but a bit stiff. Mesh will also work but it's easier with a stiffer material.
I bought a roll of magnetic adhesive strips. You can cut it easily with scissors. This will be the connection to the window frame (make sure your frame is metal and not covered in a plastic shell).
Now, cover the passenger door with a liberal amount of cling film / plastic wrap. Press the plastic wrap to the window, don't stretch it over the frame. Cut the magnet strip into 3 pieces that go left, right and on the top edge and snap them on the window frame on top of the plastic wrap. Peel off the protection strip and expose the adhesive. The adhesive has to face you and not stick to the plastic wrap! Now gently place the mesh to the upper edge. Press the mesh to the window and rub it onto the magnet strip. This connection is temporary since the adhesive is not strong enough. Cut the piece of mesh roughly into shape like shown in the pictures. leave some excess fabric in case you made a mistake.
Tuck in the lower edge into the window slot. Try and make the mesh hug the form of the window slot/ beginning of magnetic strip as tightly as possible.
Now, use the gloves and apply a line of flexible construction glue (flexible silicone adhesive) on top of the mesh and the magnetic strip. Use a gloved finger to smear the glue into the mesh fabric and onto the magnetic strip. Remove any accidental drops of glue as they really stick well to almost everything.
Let it dry over night, remove the plastic wrap and trim the edges to the magnetic strip.
They are really easy to install and take off and in combination with the rain/wind deflectors let you get some fresh and bug-free air during the night. Ours are permanently in place, since they don't interfere with driving.
Step 14: Rain Deflectors
Not much to say about these. They are really handy to prevent rain from entering the car during the night. You can get them over the internet and should be made for your specific car. We bought two pieces for the passenger side doors because that's where your head will be during the night.
Installation is product specific but usually very simple. Peel off a protective strip, press them into the window slot and let it rest for some time to cure.
Step 15: Thermal Window Screens
These are very similar to the ones we used in the old Berta. There are two versions for the different windows:
- Stick-in with cardboard where magnets don't work
- Magnetic flaps, where it is possible
We made two for the passenger windows (magnetic) and two smaller ones for the trunk side windows (cardboard).
We used the thermal foil you can buy in every petrol station to prevent your front window from freezing over night. Cut them to the size of the window.
Cover the seam with duct-tape to prevent it from disintegrating. Use 4 strips of duct-tape to attach 4 small magnets to the screen.
Use duct-tape to attach two strips of cardboard to the foil. Don't use too thick material since it has to go between the window and the plastic cover.
You can also use a combination of these two techniques (magnets on top and cardboard on the bottom.
They really help to keep the temperature in the desired range and also give you some privacy.
Step 16: Handling the Cooler
Since the cooler is no longer integrated into the structure you will have to move it around. While driving it rests against the backside of the driver seat and is secured with an elastic spider web. While sleeping you can place it on the passenger seat to have it out of the way.
Ours is a Waeco Tropicool (peltier type). It's working nicely for our climate. Should you travel through the death valley, a compressor cooler might be a better (albeit expensive) choice.
Step 17: Home Sweet Home
What can I say. If you managed to get to this step you will know by now that we love her. She's light and fast. Easy to handle too. With a bit of work and a very moderate amount of money you get a camper that will bring you to your destination and give you a good night's sleep. It's simple as that.